Jenni has been reading Dolly Pleasance by C.W. Lovatt
Step out of the wings and strike a pose with C.W. Lovatt’s indominable Delores “Dolly” Pleasance, a 19th century actress born to take the London stage by storm in this spin-off of Lovatt’s long-running Charlie Smithers Adventures series. Don’t let the words “spin-off” put you off, while Smithers plays an integral, emotional part to her tale, Dolly’s story is all her own and boy what a story it is.
Sold to the theater by her failed-actor father when she was just a child, Dolly grows up wild backstage, just waiting to take her first steps into the spotlights, and when she finally does, the entire world glows. Follow her career across the decades as Dolly (Did you know Delores is Spanish for sad?) rises, falls, and rises again from the lowliest of stage-scrubbers, to a woman of artistry, and is recognized as such.
Lovingly researched, Lovatt has a true talent for weaving real people and events organically into Dolly’s life. Dolly’s frequent interactions with, and references to, the playwrights of her day and their work is sure to be fun for anyone with a passing knowledge of Victorian literature.
A play is only as good as its players, and Dolly Pleasance is no exception, the titular Dolly is a delight, but she is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Standout is her consummate supporting lady, Fanny Bonham, Dolly’s longtime friend and lover. Fanny, however, is not alone in supporting our heroine as there’s also the gruff Ben Webster, the incorrigibly French Madame Celeste, and the stalwart Peter Collins, among many others. Entrances and exits abound across the course of Dolly’s life, and keeping track of her massive, evolving circle of friends and fans is a full-time job.
All is not spotlights and roses though, there is peril stalking Dolly in the murky London streets, and when a gypsy’s premonition comes true there’s really only question to ask: will Dolly rise above, or be dragged down by those who would destroy her?
Written with wit and warmth, and a firm historical grasp on some of the darker aspects of being among the most vulnerable in 19th century England, Dolly Pleasance is sure to delight fans of the theater, fans of history, and fans of powerful leading ladies all at once.
Come, meet the actress, Dolly Pleasance. Born into a life of poverty and abuse in the midst of 19th Century London, Dolly’s only salvation is her passion for the theatre. Follow her career, from rags to riches, over a span of twenty years.
Rejoice as she captures the hearts of thousands, fret as she attempts to avoid the clutches of a murderous madman, and weep over the impossible love she has for one Charlie Smithers.
There is a pantheon of special secret agents who save the world by being special secret agents, and to that illustrious company of Bonds, Bournes and their descendants, Barney Burrell’s debut novel adds Graham “Jenks” Jenkins and frankly, it’s pretty awesome. Perhaps it’s because I just finished a ferociously mediocre novel that fits into roughly the same genre that makes Burrell’s Jenks look so good, but I don’t think that’s the case here.
I think that Burrell has created a genuinely enjoyable thriller.
There’s something compelling to Burrell’s titular character, from his bewitching turquoise eyes (so bright he hides them with colored contact lenses most of the time) to his extreme competence under even the most dire of straits, yes Jenks is an übermensch, but he’s not annoying about it. Perhaps it’s the way he’s introduced to us (inspecting a marble fireplace surround to install in the ongoing renovation project that is his home), or the way he interacts with the barista at his local café, or the delightful twist on an old trope that he uses to get to his target… whatever the reason, Jenks is a keeper of a character.
Add to that a tense, tightly paced, transcontinental story of tradecraft and international information gathering at the highest level, compelling side characters, and some unexpected turns in logic and problem solving, and you’re looking at a seriously fun read. Someone has stolen the kinds of secrets that cause wars and there’s only one man qualified to save the day, it’s a cliché of a setup, but I’m a firm believer that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and this is one plot that’s far from broken.
This would not be an honest review if I didn’t warn you that Jenks does portray graphic violence, including a prisoner interrogation that is particularly upsetting and has a disturbing conclusion. Trigger warnings abound here, for those of us who like trigger warnings on our literature.
I don’t know if Burrell will take a page out of Flemming and Ludlum’s books and spark an entire series following the further adventures of Jenks (spoilers, the protagonist does survive the end of the novel), or if this is a stand-alone offering, but regardless – this is one deliciously self-indulgent spy thriller you don’t want to miss.
Ruthless freelance professional assassin Jenks is hired by an ultra-top secret government agency – responsible for the dirtiest of work – to kill a rogue CIA analyst and prevent a super Wikileaks-like dissemination of catastrophic above Top Secret explosive revelations, capable of overturning the world order. Using the most ingenious of spycraft, the chameleon like Jenks has no option but to let the crime play out until the very end. With the action taking place simultaneously between Soho, London and Virginia, USA, Jenks hurtles towards the ultimate confrontation and sacrifice – his pedal to the metal race to uncover the truth will leave you gasping.
Jenni has been reading Harvest Nights by Ahmed Alameen
Buckle in for a deliciously bloody book-snack from a man with a distinct appreciation for the Lovecraftian, and a taste for the more macabre Native American myths with Ahmed Alameen’s Harvest Nights.
Set in a world of perpetual night, adjacent to our own and populated by the kinds of monsters that only stir in the depths of our darkest dreams, Harvest Nights follows Chua, a young boy and the last survivor of his tribe in this nightmare realm. Together, Chua and a handful of allies he meets by chance must survive both the monsters who thrive in the night, and the other humans who have found themselves on the dark side of moon.
Tactile in detail and continuously creative with its carnage, Harvest Nights impressed me on several levels, but primarily with the way it plays with perception. Told almost entirely from Chua’s perspective, there is a fun linguistic dynamic that Alameen plays with, where Chua does not always understand his companions because within the world of the text they are speaking a different language. The reader sees English, and therefore knows everything from every exchange, but the characters themselves aren’t always so lucky. These language barriers lead to some sticky situations and fun reveals as the story twists and the shade only deepens across the world of HarvestNights.
Dance with the damned and revel in the dark with Alameen as he blends familiar Lovecraftian themes in a tale alive and crawling with fresh mythology from the first inhabitants of the American continent. Well aware of the dark side of colonialism (and I would dare say poking H.P. Lovecraft’s racist corpse with a nice, sharp, stake), the way these two sets of stories snare and snarl with each other is fascinating for appreciators of both, and wholly unique to Alameen. Harvest Nights is a fast, grisly novella perfect for someone looking to devour an entire book’s worth of only slightly over-the-top gore in one sitting.
“A Lovecraftian horror tale inspired by Native American Myths and colonial times”
Harvest Nights is a story told through a young boy named Chua (Snake), who narrates the story of how the days were gone and replaced by nights when a strange shooting star appeared in the sky in 1811 Colonial America (Great Comet of 1811). During those dreadful nights, Chua, and later three other people, will have to survive the other worldly creatures that will stop at nothing to eat. A Lovecraftian horror story featuring famous historical figures and creatures inspired by Native American myths.
AmazonUK | AmazonUS (Expected publication is January 2022)
Jenni has been reading Cromby’s Axiom by Gary J Kirchner
There’s an incredible purity to Gary J. Kirchner’s Cromby’sAxiom – a return to some of the staples of the great science fictions of the 20th century that you just don’t see written right very often anymore. There’s something of Orwell’s 1984, hints of Lang’s Metropolis, Cameron’s original Terminator, even sneaking comparisons to Ellison’s seminal “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” if you are looking for them. Kirchner is building on and adapting from all of these greats with one, phenomenal difference, none of these creators could have dreamed of how interconnected mankind would become in future.
Where all of them dabbled in the dangers of an oppressive, strictly maintained regime, or the hubris of creating true artificial intelligence, these men hadn’t a clue what the 21st century digital landscape would look like. Kirchner, however, does and dials that landscape up to 11 in this new take on so many classic ideas.
Every person on earth is connected through the Hive, a many tentacled neural network designed to allow everyone on earth access to each other’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences at any given instant. Tommy “TeePee” Antikagamac, a professional football player and one of the most watched minds on earth, is training alone in the wilderness of what was once central Europe when, inexplicably, his mental connection to the Hive, and thus the rest of the world, is severed, leaving him adrift mentally, and physically isolated, for the first time in his life.
What follows is harrowing as Tommy struggles to become, and adapt to, being a mind alone, rather than one voice in a thousand-thread mental conversation happening simultaneously every second of every day. With Tommy in this isolation are the Ketchen, rebels who refuse and run from the Hive and her operatives, seeking to destroy this system that Tommy wants so desperately to return to.
Having come of age in the era of the YA dystopia, one of the things that I most appreciate about Kirchner’s work is how seriously he takes his audience. Yes, exposition is given, but at natural intervals, without the exhausting “here’s everything you need to know about the setting to understand this story” first chapter that so many authors resort to. Names, slang, and places that do not exist in today’s vernacular crop up organically, and the audience is expected to figure out their importance through context clues rather than explicit definition, and as a reasonably intelligent reader, I appreciate that.
Cromby’s Axiom reads like the classic science of last century, with all the awareness that living today can bring. Sharp, twisty, and clever in unexpected ways, Kirchner has brought to life a brave new world of possibilities with this novel, and the results are a modern masterpiece sure to delight longtime fans of the genre, and newcomers alike.
Before we were all connected, before we were The Hive, there was individualism, privacy, ‘personal space’ . . . so quaint, so unnecessary . . . so dangerous . . .
TOMMY PIERRE ANTIKAGAMAC, a star quarterback, is the most followed player in the world’s most popular sport: American football. While off-season training in the unpopulated European Fallowlands, he abruptly finds himself detached from the Hive. Agonizingly alone in his head for the first time in his life, he panics, becomes hopelessly lost, and then is captured by a fringe group of anti-Hive saboteurs. The Freemen, as they call themselves, have concocted an audacious plan to “cataclysmically disrupt the brain of the Hive,” and Tommy may just be the key they need to make it successful.
But Tommy’s arrival among the Freemen is not as serendipitous as it may appear. Neither he nor his captors suspect that it is not the terrorists, but Tommy, who is the threat to the Hive. And the Hive has ways of protecting itself….
The final review from our shared short story project with review team member Jenni and her first year English students at University College Cork. You can catch up with the first two posts about this here and here.
Three authors kindly offered their short story collections to the students to help with this project. The books were:
The Shivering Ground is a collection of 11 independent short stories by author Sara Barkat. Reading the collection feels like drinking a nice cup of hot chocolate in front of the fireplace, while the heavy rain of a winter night is rapping against the window. Throughout every one of the short stories, Barkat dissects complex human feelings such as the part of childhood when imagination meshes with reality, the intricate relationship between siblings, and never-to-be lovers. The stories follow varied settings: from a little girl exploring her house to post-war prison filled with uneasiness and tragedy. Conditions takes the reader to the house of a scientist who revives animals by electric shocks of energy, The Mannequin is set in a dystopic society where pain can be nullified by surgery. Noticing is set in a place where time and space do not matter anymore and mysterious entities named “the watchers” take notes of every invention ever made by humankind.
The Shivering Ground is simply splendidly written and reflects through metaphors on the condition of being human and the conflicts in life, and the meaning of feeling and being alive in any society. Reading The Shivering Ground can transport you to a different cosmos, meeting incredible, memorable characters. Barkat’s writing is like combining prose and poetry; she’s a strong new provocative voice and has the power, through this collection of short stories, to make you think and reflect. The collection is a must-read.
Jenni has been reading Kill Karma by Kelly L. Marsh
There is a fabulous energy to Kelly L. Marsh’s debut novel, Kill Karma. Yes, it very much reads like a first novel: the plot is a little messy, the mythology could stand a little more explaining in the early portions, and the characters don’t always quite act like the teenagers that they are supposed to be, but all of that can be laid aside because Kill Karma is pretty darn fun.
Pepper Bell is a teenager with a penchant for getting into and out of tight spots, Karma is a goddess Pepper doesn’t know exists yet, and someone out there wants to make a whole heap trouble for Pepper, her hometown, and the world. Along for the ride are a colorful cast of sometimes-trustworthy characters and expect a cliffhanger because you can bet your behind this is the first in a series.
If I started explaining the plot more than that, we’d end up in either spoiler or confusion territory— like I said, there are some story threads that could be a little tighter— so I won’t go further with the specifics. Like I also said, this is a debut novel. This is Marsh’s first novel, and the first in a series. She has plenty of time to practice plotlines in later installments. The important thing is that she’s nailed the tone of her characters and the feel of her world, and that the vim and vigor she brings to this first installment is more than enough to get the ball rolling.
Written with an undeniably infectious energy, Kill Karma is not flawless, but is definitely fun enough to keep a reader hooked from the stakeout that opens the story, to the boat chase that closes it. Kelly Marsh has created a new YA heroine with spunk and a world with style, and this reader can’t wait to see what happens next!
When Pepper turned seventeen, she expected to be released from probation and maybe even have a party. So, trekking through the pits of Hell, joining a squadron of assassins, and fighting demons was never part of the plan…
Pepper Li Bell has a high aptitude and talent that, in the past, she used exclusively to get into trouble. Despite the terms of her probation, she decided to use that knowledge and prowess to become an entrepreneur of sorts, beginning a karma-for-hire business. Pepper can’t stand to see karma go unserved, so when oppressors dodge justice, she’s ready to uncover their dirty little secrets—for a fee, of course.
But on her latest job, when she uncovers an insidious plot that’s been brewing for a decade, and now, it’s on the verge of fruition, Pepper is in way over her head. Demons have set up shop in her small Florida town, peddling soul contracts and possessing her neighbors. They await orders set for doomsday—All Hallows’ Eve—when the nefarious Syndicate will be unleashed from Hell, turning the forces of darkness loose and declaring war on Earth. The only thing standing in their way is goddess Karma, who wields the Scales of Justice, ensuring balance throughout the realms, and her assassins.
After unearthing secrets from her past, Pepper realizes she just might hold the key to bringing the demonic regime to its knees and saving everyone she knows and loves. The fate of Karma, every magical being, and all of humanity rest on her young shoulders…but can she rise to the challenge in time?
Armageddon is brewing, and Pepper is in the eye of the storm.
Yesterday I introduced a short story project which we have been helping with. You can read the first post here, which review team member Jenni and her English students at University College Cork have been completing.
Three authors kindly offered their short story collections to the students to help with this project. The books were:
‘The Shivering Ground and Other Stories’ was a hypnotic read. A step away from existential horror, it veers into an otherworldly realm far away from whimsical fantasy. These stories span historical to futuristic, the points of view of a child to a mad scientist, first person to second person to third person. Sara Barkat has a multiplicity of writing instruments at her disposal, and she commits to use them all. Her ability to do so as artfully as she does is an impressive feat for a debut collection.
These stories first and foremost focus on people. Barkat uses myriad characters to voice her stories. Her skill in bringing life and purpose to such contrasting characters is impressive. In each story these characters and their relationships stay central, yet we see the edges of the elaborate worldbuilding Barkat has constructed. The hinting at the world surrounding these stories rather than lengthy exposition was something I particularly enjoyed about this collection. Barkat only brings in information when it is relevant and natural to do so. She manages to create a holistic experience where these sometimes implausible, worlds seem as real as the one we are living in. Throughout the collection there is an apocalyptic sense of doom woven into each world. This eerie sense of inevitability echoes hauntingly in each story. It is impossible to escape it no matter which of the wide variety of stories you jump into. The halting, off-kilter rhythm forces the reader to face the horror right in front of them, yet even with the pessimistic outcome of the world around them, these characters continue to exist, and their stories continue to be told. Barkat places importance on the strength and continuity of humanity. She picks up the threads of humanity and shows the reader how true empathy can remain even in violent and desolate landscapes.
The titular story, ‘The Shivering Ground,’ is exemplar of what to expect from Barkat’s other work. It is set in a fantastical universe devastated by war and violence. The focus is on a character weighed down by loneliness and the meaninglessness of their life. Differences between characters are overcome by an inherent human preference for empathy. Even in hopeless situations, human connection forms.
This collection is quiet in its writing. Everything is subdued, but not to the point of disappearing. Each story had a mysterious element, designed to provoke a perhaps unanswerable question. The vast majority of this collection delivers on that. However, in the occasional story, there was a point where the mystery faded into fogginess, where the fog became more disorientating than thought-provoking. Nonetheless, Sara Barkat’s descriptions are immersive to a point past vividness. The descriptions almost evoke synaesthesia at some points. Each sentence was a joy to read in its elaborate and artful construction. Overall, this collection was a delightful and eye-opening read.
I recommend this collection for those who want to experience a deep dive into otherworldly narratives focused on human nature. I can say for definite that I have not been able to stop thinking about this collection. Its haunting nature is one that sticks with you long after you close the book.
Rating: 4/5 By Grace K.
One of the flat out coolest short story collections I’ve read in a long time, Terry Tyler’s Patient Zero lives somewhere in the cracks between novels, and yet doesn’t feel reliant on them. I’ve read short story one-offs, epilogues, and continuations of novels before, and more frequently than not, those stories are entirely reliant on the parent work. You cannot read those shorter forays into whichever world they live in without also being intimately familiar with the novels they surround, otherwise the reader ends up lost entirely.
Not so with Patient Zero. In a six sentence Introduction, Tyler sets up everything a reader needs to know about her Project Renova series, and then sends them forth to read Patient Zero’s short stories, unfettered by the weight of the novels. And it’s great!
Would the experience be heightened by actually reading the Project Renova novels? Probably. But is it necessary to understand and enjoy the stories of Patient Zero? Nope, not at all. An unstoppable virus is killing people by the truckload and here is a selection of people from all over England and all walks of life, and how they dealt with said virus – get on board and enjoy the ride.
Occasionally triumphant, sometimes ironic, always written with a voice entirely unique to the character narrating that particular story, Tyler’s Patient Zero spans the breadth of human experience in a desperate situation. From the moral dilemma of one of the lucky few vaccinated, to a woman’s search for redemption following a painful confession to a child’s take of apocalypse and a doomsday prepper’s vindication, it’s all here in sharp, fast little bites of stories.
Evocative throughout, though maybe a little closer to home than some people really want in the Year of Our Lord 2021, look out especially for the opening story “Jared: The Spare Vial”, the wit of “Aaron: #NewWorldProblems”, and the distinct, if drifting, voice of “Meg: The Prison Guard’s Wife”.
Here on Rosie Amber’s book blog, I like to encourage reading and reviewing, so when review team member Jenni approached me about a short story project for her first year English students at University College Cork, I was eager to help.
Jenni’s students were asked to put together a mock-up of a new short story literary magazine, and then “pitch” their magazine to a panel of judges. One of the sections that they could include was a review of a collection of short stories.
Three authors kindly offered their short story collections to the students to help with this project. The books were:
Sara Barkat’s whirlwind of magnetic short stories in her latest collection The Shivering Ground & Other Stories introduces the reader to tales of past and future, unearthly events, and abnormalities. Written in a short-story format, Barkat intertwines alienated aspects of a futuristic world with reality, awakening feelings of hope and hopelessness, gloom, and purity. The independent short stories pose questions of what can or could be done, the majority poised at the edge of the end of the world.
Each short story is set apart, different from the other, they all meet in the centre of complex human relationships and emotions. The tales are not as straightforward, and one would often be met with confusion and questions at the end. Often the stories are quite melancholic, mind-bending, and nostalgic, which associates nicely with the surreal feel of the collection. Barkat builds unique worlds and situations in which the characters find themselves in. Aspects which seem fictitious to us in today’s world, such as hearts kept safe in a mannequin or aliens evading earth, are brought to life in this collection. Though disturbing, Barkat inserts human emotions into her tales and links the two worlds together. The contrasting settings mix with varying narratives unite the reader with the characters of the stories, whether it be by putting them in the shoes of the character, or shoes of their own.
Brianna is one of the eleven stories of the collection: it follows a sleeping maiden and her prince, Peter. However, Brianna is entrapped by roses and its thorns, and no prince has been able to cross the enchantments that protect her. There is a sense of danger and gloom that surrounds the sleeping maiden, and yet the prince of our story refuses to wander away from his supposed love. He gives her a kiss on the lips, and she wakes. The same sense of gloom continues as the now awaken maiden desperately apologises to the prince, assuring him that he would soon regret that he had woken her up in the first place. His parents try dragging him away from Brianna, claiming that it is not safe to be around her. Just like the other stories in the collection, Barkat encourages the reader the think of the possible messages and morals of the tale. Brianna can be compared to The Sleeping Beauty in some sense, but with a darker perspective. One may also compare it to hopeless relationships, where one person is overtaken by depression, and yet the love interest is convinced that they can take the person out of the pitch-black pit, unaware of the dangers that it might bring to them.
If you wish to analyse these short stories on your own, I encourage you to do so! This is only one example of Sara Barkat’s new short story collection, The Shivering Ground & Other Stories, and there is plenty more that she has to offer! (4/5 stars)
Written by: Nika K
Words be quick
Words resemble walking sticks
Plant them they will grow
Watch them waver so
I’ll always be a word man
Better than a bird man
– Jim Morrison, “Curses, Invocations”
Per his end of collection “Author’s Note” Leonard “believe[s] a story, even a short one, deserves some sort of prelude. Something to ease the reader into what will hopefully be a memorable and enjoyable experience.” Taking my lead from him, this review (short as it is) gets a snippet of Morrison, a personal favourite when it comes to poetry and performance, and a soul that might just be twisted enough to mesh with Leonard’s personal brand of irony and horror. Of course, the above-mentioned author’s note is itself just the prelude to one final entry into The Dead Boxes Archive, one last story about deals struck, promises made, and promises kept in the most perverse ways possible.
I have a feeling Morrison might have appreciated that too, but let’s not make this a complete digression into dead rockers and the hauntings they left behind.
John Leonard’s The Dead Boxes Archive is a series of loosely connected stories, most centring on a “dead box”, objects of eldritch power that give and takes with a set of unbalanced scales. Whether the box is stadium shaped, a township that sits just off kilter from our dimension, or a pen that is indeed mightier than the sword, Leonard’s boxes haunt both the owners who hold them and the readers who watch this unfold. Each story is a realm unto itself, but those looking for connective tissue beyond the general theme of cursed objects acting like cursed objects, will find a deeper plot echoing across the background of Leonard’s tormented landscape. Are the end times nigh? Haunted cults and beings from another realm afoot? Or merely a presence from the past lingering well into the here and now? Bate your breath and batten down the hatches, a phone with no guts is ringing and a pen with no ink is writing this story— The Dead Boxes Archive awaits you.
It seems that I have accidentally read M.L. Farb’s Hearth and Bard Tales novels from back to front – and so we arrive at the third reviewed, and the first in the series, and what a glorious first it is. Intrinsically different from its sister-tales, but filled with the same wonder and beauty, Vasilisa follows (fittingly) a girl named Vasilisa in Ruska, or Russia of old. Born in the forest and raised as a serf, Vasilisa lives her life as an outcast because of her supernatural strength and the secret of her father’s heritage, a secret assiduously kept by her mother. Vasilisa’s only friend is Staver, the son of her master, and her only wish is to return to the serenity of the forest from whence she came.
As with all her other Hearth and Bard Tales, Farb weaves multiple threads from old fairy tale and myth to create the fabric of this novel. Likewise, as with the others, there is care and craft shown on every page. Vasilisa was not Farb’s first novel, but it is her first in this series, and even here, her skill in turning old threads into new tapestries shows. Where less practiced novelists might still be working out the kinks in their new series, the style of the Hearth and Bard Tales is already set and strong in Vasilisa.
As different from Fourth Sister and Heartless Hette as they are from each other, Vasilisa’s Ruska is a landscape all its own, full of forest groves, brutal winters, and wide plains. The balalaikas sing sweetly, the otters play freely, and the Tsar is (refreshingly, given the reality of Russian history) not so bad a guy. It is a fairytale version of a world, but certainly not without risk – bears and ogres lurk in the forest, a cruel mistress waits in the manor house, and far worse threatens beyond Ruska’s borders. This is a story about courage, and tests, and acceptance, even when revelations from the past threaten long-held convictions. It takes more than brute strength to win these battles, and more than pure wit to outsmart these enemies. Lucky then that we have a courageous heroin, as determined and strong as she is tricksy, to walk us through this first, spectacular entry into Farb’s Hearth and Bard Tales.
“Forest born! Ogre child! You’re nothing but a demon wild!”
Vasilisa has always been strong. She’s strong enough to break the arm of the bully that daily taunts her. She won’t because she and her mother are servants at the Orlov manor, and her mother would be punished for her retaliation. Instead Vasilisa bides her time until she is sixteen and can return to the forest.
Only Staver, the master’s son, shows her kindness. His friendship pulls as strong as the forest, but their classes are divided forever by law. She is a forest born, fatherless servant and her future at the manor holds mockery filled drudgery.
War threatens. The forest calls. Will she stay to protect the one who can never be more than a friend, or flee to the peace that the forest offers?
Jenni has been reading The Fourth Sister by M.L. Farb
Return to the magical world of the Hearth and Bard Tales for M.L. Farb’s second entry in the series with Fourth Sister. Set in Nihon, or a Japan of myth and mystery, Fourth Sister is a completely different creature from the Russian fable of Farb’s first Hearth and Bard novel, or the Germanic fairytale of her third.
Fourth Sister follows Shisei, the titular fourth sister of a family of seven, as she struggles to come to terms with the curse and fox that have stalked her throughout her life. Over the course of the novel Shisei leaves home, returns home, learns a trade, practices her poetry, and learns to accept herself because of her unique gifts, rather than in spite of them.
Unlike other fairytale-esque novels, probably the most refreshing thing about Fourth Sister is that this isn’t a romantic story. There is no quest for a prince or hunger for a husband here. If anything, the closest thing to a handsome prince we have in Fourth Sister is the antagonist, far from the romantic ideal. Yet, this is a love story, very much so. A familial love story. A sisterly story.
This is a novel about sacrifice and cleverness and the lengths a family of sisters will go to save one of their own, and the way Shisei, with seemingly nothing but bad luck and a curse, can offer her siblings. This is also a novel about misconceptions, fears, and the strength that comes with understanding—and what incredible things can be accomplished through it.
Delicately rendered with stunning details and the kind of attention that comes with love and care, Farb’s Nihon never feels like a caricature of Japanese history or culture. As with her other HearthandBardTales, copious research obviously went into this novel, and I suspect consultations with a cultural expert, and that shows in every page.
Engaging, heartbreaking, and delightfully ticklish in places, this is a story for fans of shojo manga and fairy-tale alike. Farb is a born tale-spinner and with her HearthandBardTales has given herself the latitude to explore a world of inspiration. Fourth Sister stands a testament to her talent, her ingenuity, and her heart for the worlds she creates.
Shi, shi, fourth and death. Fourth sister and twin to death. Brother born silent.
Blamed for her twin brother’s death, Shisei, the outcast fourth of seven sisters, apprentices herself to a mask maker; but when the local Kazoku accuses the youngest sister of killing his son, Shisei must lead her sisters in a deception that will either save the youngest or condemn them all.
Fourth Sister is a Japanese fairy tale retelling with sparse poetry and gold-mended brokenness. A Studio Ghibli type story which invokes reflection.