And now we go full-on fantasy. It’s been a while since I’ve found some really great fantasy novels to top my list of books read in a given year. What’s so great about these next two books is that they took me completely be surprise, with one being an author I had never heard of before, and another being an author whose debut I had read and liked well enough, but her new novel blew me away.
Those who know me, know I am fascinated by bees, and this eye-catching book cover and title could hardly fail to catch my eye despite it’s 2012 publication date. What an extraordinary find. This collection of mysterious and magical stories captivated me quickly and did not let go. I am thrilled to have discovered this new author and hope to read many more works form her pen.
From the first couple of paragraphs of “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” I knew this collection of short stories by Kij Johnson was going to be something special. Johnson’s stories explore the lives of animals, and their relationship with humans, but also explore realms of science fiction — alternate earths, or alien lifeforms. While every story is enjoyable, the standouts for me revolve around the inner lives of every day animals. The monkeys in the aforementioned tale are delightful and mysterious. The protagonist of “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is as heroic as any literary protagonist as she makes her way from Japan’s capitol city to The North. And the mysteries of the swarm in the title story includes a benevolent queen whose kindness will break your heart.
There are some dark stories as well, including the horrific “Spar”, the devastating yet hopeful “The Horse Raiders,” and a shockingly brutal take on the entire “My Little Pony” phenomenon as told in “Ponies.” Johnson’s longer tales, including the title story, the afore-mentioned “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles,” and the powerful science fiction story, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” could easily be spun into full novels. I look forward to reading her novel, The Fox Woman, which surely emerged from her story included here, “Fox Magic.” Kij Johnson plays with language as deftly as she plays with ideas and preconceived notions. This is a magical collection for anyone who enjoys a little imagination in their stories.
What an extraordinary surprise, and what was so lovely, was that even after just a couple of chapters, I knew I was going to love this book. I did. Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish novelist , who writes in both her native language and English. She impressed me with her debut novel a couple of years ago, The Memory of Water, which boasted strong, lyrical writing, and in intriguing story, but fell short of really reaching greatness. Itäranta writes in the acknowledgements of The Weaver, how difficult it is to write that second novel. Well, it may have been difficult, but the hard work paid off. I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Weaver near the top of my books read for 2016.
The world Itäranta has created is mythic, complex, intriguing, mystical, harsh and fascinating. Eliana is a young woman living on the island, a weaver in the House of Webs. When during her night-watch, she finds another young woman who has been brutally attacked and left to die, her life is suddenly altered with the discovery of her name tattooed in invisible ink on this woman’s palm. This discovery leads to a journey so unexpected, so imaginative, and so compelling that I didn’t want it to end.
The characters are rich with nuance, from the mysterious young woman Valeria, to The Spinner, monstrous, wise and ancient. Alva, the healer at the House of Webs, and Weaver, who runs the house and retains her own council. The intricate society revealed in The Weaver is as fascinating as Frank Herbert’s Dune, (and fully realized in half as many pages!) I can only hope Itäranta revisits it again someday.