India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth. Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah. In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery. They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own. They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah. This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah. Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah. When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy. When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible. This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in. It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.
This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens. It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump. The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful. Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities. May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand. The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society. She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.
The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it. Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice. A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story. In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.
The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional. The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented. I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character. She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia. I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her. She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society. However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp. I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering. I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.
Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile. Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one. Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list. The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging. Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)
In the future, the universe exists in a peace-loving era that allows many alien races and humans to co-exist. People are expected to act within the confines of acceptability and are offered various humane treatment options to help if their nature or nurture sends them the wrong way. But some people don’t want to conform and would rather live in the wild, warrior-like days of old. When a scientist discovers time travel but only to the pliocene era, these people think they have found their solution. There’s only one catch. The time travel only works to the past. For decades the misfits step into the time travel vortex, not knowing what is on the other side. The government approves the solution, since it seems kind and no time paradoxes have occurred. When the newest group steps through, they will discover just what really waits on the other side of exile.
I became aware of this book thanks to a review by fellow book blogger, Resistance Is Futile. Imagine my surprise when going through my wishlist to check for audiobooks, I discovered a brand-new audiobook production of it featuring the audiobook superstar Bernadette Dunne. This is a creative, action-packed book that truly encompasses both scifi and fantasy in a beautiful way.
Since this is the first book of the series, it takes a bit to set the plot up and get to know the characters. People are sent through the time travel portal in groups, so we get to know everyone in one group prior to going through the time portal so we can follow them all after they go through it. May spends the perfect amount of time familiarizing the reader with the future world, as well as the people who are choosing to leave it. Some readers might be sad to see the imaginative future world left behind for the pliocene era, but it quickly becomes evident that the pliocene is just as richly imagined, albeit different. The pliocene era is not as straight-forward as the exiles believed, and new problems quickly arise for them. It’s not the lawless paradise they were envisioning, and while dealing with the realities of it in an action-packed manner, they also must deal with themselves. Now that they realize there is no true escape to solitude or an imagined perfect past, they must address those aspects of themselves that led them to exile in the first place. These deeper emotional issues are the perfect balance to the other, action-oriented plot. I did feel that the book ends a bit abruptly. However, it is part of a series and clearly the cliff-hanger is intentional. I prefer series entries that tell one complete smaller story within the larger, overarching plot, but this is still a well-done cliff-hanger.
The characters offer up a wide variety of experiences and ethnic and sexual backgrounds, representative of all of humanity fairly well. One of the lead characters is a butch lesbian, another is an elderly Polish-American male expert in the pliocene era, another a nun, another a frat boy style space captain. This high level of diversity doesn’t seem pushed or false due to the nature of the self-selection of exiles. It makes sense a wide variety of humans would choose to go, although the statistics presented in the book establish that more whites and Asians than Africans and more men than women choose to go. Some of the characters get more time to develop and be presented in a three-dimensional nature than others but enough characters are three-dimensional that the reader is able to become emotionally invested in the situation. My one complaint was in prominently featuring a nun in a futuristic scifi, yet again. Statistics show that less and less people are choosing to become nuns or priests. Given that this is set so far in the future with such a different culture, a religious leader of a new or currently rising religion would feel much more thoughtfully predictive of the future.
Most engaging to me is how the book mixes scifi and fantasy. Without giving too much away, the book offers a plausible scientific explanation for human myths of supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, and shapeshifters. The presence of the inspirations for these myths give a delightful, old world fantastical feel to the story, even while May offers up scientific explanations for all of it. This is not a mix I have seen in much scifi or fantasy, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
Overall, this is a delightful new take on time-travel that incorporates some fantasy elements into the scifi. Readers looking just for futuristic hard scifi might be disappointed at how much of the book takes place in the ancient past, but those who enjoy scifi and fantasy will delight at the mixing of the two.
4 out of 5 stars
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books. It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole. These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another. Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.
Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in the rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and she has a secret. She’s a telepath, and it’s ostracized her from most of the people in her town. But when vampires come out of the coffin, Sookie discovers that she can’t read their minds. Mind reading made her dating life non-existent, for obvious reasons, but with vampires, Sookie can feel somewhat normal. She soon starts to get pulled into their supernatural world, which contains more than they’re letting on to the mainstream public.
I first want to make it very clear that this series review is talking exclusively about the books and not the tv show inspired by them, True Blood. There will be no spoilers for the show and no comparisons between the books and the show. The show diverged very quickly from the books, so I think it’s fair to keep discussion of the two separate. Moving right along!
This series takes the mystery series whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie and drenches it in the supernatural and the American south, utilizing it to tell the overarching story of one woman choosing who she wants to be. Perhaps because of the presence of some handsome leading men and the occasional sex scene, some mistake the series for a romance one. But this series is truly not a romance. Sookie’s romantic life (and sex life) is really secondary to the mysteries she solves and her slow discovery of who she is and who she wants to be.
The whodunit plots are generally murder mysteries. The violence is moderate. If you can handle a vampire biting someone or knowing someone is being beheaded without actually getting the gore described to you, you can handle the violence in this series. The whodunit plots start out engaging but gradually become more repetitive and ho-hum, almost as if the author was running out of ideas for situations to place Sookie in. Similarly, Sookie gets kidnapped and has to get saved by her supernatural friends kind of a lot.
The setting of a supernatural American south is well imagined and evoked. Both small town, rural lives and larger southern cities like Dallas and New Orleans are touched upon. The American north is visited once, however, Sookie has a strong aversion to northern women that sours the representation of the north in the book.
The characters can sometimes feel like overwrought caricatures. While some characters are given depth, most are not. This is odd, since Sookie can read minds. one would assume that she, as the first person narrator, would have a very three-dimensional view of those around her. And yet she doesn’t. Sookie likes to say that she’s for equality and seeing the good in everyone but she actually judges people very harshly. For instance, she thinks it’s a shame that women who are not virgins wear white wedding dresses.
Sookie’s character does develop, albeit minimally, over the course of the books. Characters should grow and change, particularly over the course of 13 books, but unfortunately Sookie’s character changes to become less and less likable. This is extra frustrating when the book is told from her perspective. Instead of becoming more powerful and strong (emotionally, mentally) over the course of the series, Sookie becomes less and less able to handle the things going on around her. She also continues to act shocked and appalled at the wars and violence she doesn’t just see, but participates in, in spite of it now being a normal part of her life. Perhaps if she was just repeatedly a victim this mentality would make sense, but Sookie enacts violence on those around her and then acts disgusted at what the vampires/werewolves/etc… do, which comes off as hypocritical. Either own your own actions and validate their necessity or stop doing them. Don’t do certain violent actions then deny your involvement while simultaneously judging others for doing precisely what you just did. The fact that Sookie slowly becomes this hypocritical person makes her less and less likable. Similarly, she starts out the books with a firm belief in social justice and equality for supes but over the course of the series clearly comes to believe that humans are better than supes. I don’t blame her for wanting a quiet life or for wanting to stay human or wanting to have babies but she could have done all of those things without coming to view supes as inferior. It is frustrating for the reader to have a main character in an almost cozy style mystery series gradually change into someone it is difficult to empathize with.
There is a consistent presence of GLBTQ characters, albeit mostly in secondary roles, throughout the series. Homophobia is depicted in an extremely negative light since only the bad guys ever exhibit it. Unfortunately, there is an instance of bi erasure in the book. One of the characters is identified as gay but everyone also acknowledges that he periodically sleeps with women. Even the character himself calls himself gay, so this isn’t just a case of the author writing a realistic amount of the realities of bi erasure into the book.
The sex in the book is not well-written. It is just awkward, cringe-inducing, and laughable most of the time. But the sex scenes aren’t very often, and they do fit in with the rest of the book. Just don’t go to this series looking to get really turned on.
This sounds like a lot of criticism for the series but some of these things, such as the campy, two-dimensional characters, are part of what makes the series enjoyable. It’s kitschy, not to be taken too seriously. It’s a series to come to and read precisely to laugh and roll your eyes. To be utterly bemused at the sheer number of supernatural creatures and the ridiculousness of how they organize themselves. To sigh in frustration at Sookie as she gets kidnapped yet again or is oblivious yet again to who the murderer is. It’s a series that’s candy for those who enjoy camp and not too much violence with a touch of the supernatural in their mysteries.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review
Dead Ever After, review