A fantasy novel creates an engrossing, original world, even if the story about a powerful wanderer veers off course in its...


Water Music

A talented outcast with the ability to speak to animals leaves his simple, close-knit society to explore other lands, meet unfamiliar civilizations, and engage new ideas about love, reality, and death.

The Traeppedelfere are a cave-dwelling, mountain race, smithies and hunters with no concept of family but an intense need to be with others of their kind, lest they fall into a fatal trance known as drygeslaep. Immune to this condition is the hunter Monwyrt, gifted with an ability to call the beasts he hunts to him, at times even compelling them to obey his commands. In the forest he meets a Waeccelang, a legendary being that transcends space itself, whose own people once unlocked the full power of this ability to disastrous results. As an act of redemption, it now teaches new inheritors how to awaken and wield the skills of thought-reading, perception control, and immediate mastery of any language. While still exploring and developing his new powers, Monwyrt gives into the wanderlust that sets him apart from other Traeppedelfere, departing on a journey recalling Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, full of animals and societies both odd and alien in nature. Botkin’s (The Curious Incident of the Gooneybird, 2016) novel is split into two distinct sections, each written over 20 years apart, a fact easily apparent in their difference in tone. The first is a master class in fantasy worldbuilding, showcasing not just new races and creatures, but also creating entire cultures, complete with customs, laws, unique words, and quirks of language. These details allow even minor characters to shine, while further emphasizing the power Monwyrt wields in navigating languages. Much of this, regrettably, falls into the background in the second half—as Monwyrt’s travels end and he discovers the concept of family, the tale’s focus turns to his children’s developing powers and other gifted Traeppedelferes, along with the wonders and threats they foreshadow. There’s a pronounced eroticism and a greater presence of sex in this section as well, which feels particularly discordant with the first. But an unexpected and often dark sense of humor is present throughout, and there’s a real joy present in the book’s wordplay, from a delightfully simple invented swear word to whip-smart dialogue.

A fantasy novel creates an engrossing, original world, even if the story about a powerful wanderer veers off course in its second half.

Pub Date: Dec. 16, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4943-8168-4

Page Count: 578

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2016

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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A charming and persuasive entry that will leave readers impatiently awaiting the concluding volume.


Book 2 of Hearne's latest fantasy trilogy, The Seven Kennings (A Plague of Giants, 2017), set in a multiracial world thrust into turmoil by an invasion of peculiar giants.

In this world, most races have their own particular magical endowment, or “kenning,” though there are downsides to trying to gain the magic (an excellent chance of being killed instead) and using it (rapid aging and death). Most recently discovered is the sixth kenning, whose beneficiaries can talk to and command animals. The story canters along, although with multiple first-person narrators, it's confusing at times. Some characters are familiar, others are new, most of them with their own problems to solve, all somehow caught up in the grand design. To escape her overbearing father and the unreasoning violence his kind represents, fire-giant Olet Kanek leads her followers into the far north, hoping to found a new city where the races and kennings can peacefully coexist. Joining Olet are young Abhinava Khose, discoverer of the sixth kenning, and, later, Koesha Gansu (kenning: air), captain of an all-female crew shipwrecked by deep-sea monsters. Elsewhere, Hanima, who commands hive insects, struggles to free her city from the iron grip of wealthy, callous merchant monarchists. Other threads focus on the Bone Giants, relentless invaders seeking the still-unknown seventh kenning, whose confidence that this can defeat the other six is deeply disturbing. Under Hearne's light touch, these elements mesh perfectly, presenting an inventive, eye-filling panorama; satisfying (and, where appropriate, well-resolved) plotlines; and tensions between the races and their kennings to supply much of the drama.

A charming and persuasive entry that will leave readers impatiently awaiting the concluding volume.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-345-54857-3

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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