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Top 5 Wednesday: SFF Books on my TBR

To say writing this post was difficult would be a ludicrous understatement. 95% of what I read consists of SFF, both adult and YA, so my TBR for these genres is gargantuan. Narrowing it down to just five books felt like an impossibility, but I managed to do it (sort of – I’ve got two honorable mentions). However, I definitely did not go through each of the literal hundreds of books on my TBR, so these books simply represent the ones that stood out to me for whatever reason, not necessarily the books I think will be the best or that I will like the most.  (Which I guess makes perfect sense for the prompt!)

All summaries in italics are from Goodreads!

7564251Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker: Cafad Scratha, a powerful desert lord with a persecution complex, believes everyone is lying to him. When his obsession collides with the king’s efforts to rebuild the shattered realm, the orphaned street-thief Idisio and the king’s emissary Alyea become pawns in their multilayered game. The secret world into which Idisio and Alyea are drawn will not only change their lives: it will change them.

I’ve had this on my TBR list forever, but I’ve struggled in finding it, so it’s remained unread for now. As sick and tired as I am of white people co-opting Middle Eastern cultures for their stories, the setting is so beloved to me that I seek it out anyway. With a mad ruler and a young noblewoman caught up in political intrigue, it seems to have everything I need for an enjoyable read. It’s also got that classic epic fantasy feel, which I love.

55399Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson: The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting, and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins. For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze. But it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand….

When we talk about the greats of epic fantasy, it’s impossible not to hear Steven Erickson’s name. The Malazan series is typical classic fantasy, with a huge cast of characters, but it is also an in-depth look at how reality works; that is, Erickson doesn’t shy away from the details of things like how an army gets fed or how trade in a small village works. His work also comes highly recommended by Daniel Jose Older, which is a plus. I’ve been putting it off because it’s a gargantuan series; reading this book is truly a commitment that I’m just not ready for yet, but soon I will be!

18952341The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

I’ve been hesitating to read The Grace of Kings because reviews have told me that the female characters in this novel are lacking in both quantity and quality. Normally, a book like that gets an automatic NO from me, but I’ve read and enjoyed Liu’s other work, and this book has received heaps of praise in fantasy circles. Liu has been credited with creating the genre of “silkpunk” and I’m curious to see just what that is!

26114337Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley: Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, makes a living repairing the chimneys, towers, and spires of Bar-Selehm. Dramatically different communities live and work alongside one another. The white Feldish command the nation’s higher echelons of society; the native Mahweni are divided between city life and the savannah. And then there’s Ang, part of the Lani community who immigrated there generations ago and now mostly live in poverty on Bar-Selehm’s edges. When Ang is supposed to meet her new apprentice, Berrit, she finds him dead. That same night the Beacon, an invaluable historical icon, is stolen. The Beacon’s theft commands the headlines, yet no one seems to care about Berrit’s murder—except for Josiah Willinghouse, an enigmatic young politician. When he offers Ang a job investigating the death, she plunges headlong into new and unexpected dangers. Meanwhile, crowds gather in protests over the city’s mounting troubles. Rumors surrounding the Beacon’s theft grow. More suspicious deaths occur. With no one to help Ang except Josiah’s haughty younger sister, a savvy newspaper girl, and a kindhearted herder, Ang must rely on her intellect and strength to resolve the mysterious link between Berrit and the missing Beacon before the city descends into chaos.

I haven’t heard much about this book, but what I have heard tells me that this book is diverse, creative, and different. It seems to be an intriguing combination of steampunk, fantasy, and science fiction, with a fantastic female protagonist. I look forward to exploring the worldbuilding here!

448873The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner:  The king’s scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king’s prison. The magus is interested only in the thief’s abilities. What Gen is interested in is anyone’s guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.

This is quite an old book compared to the others on this list, having been published in 2005, but it’s one of those classics that you hear about in YA circles. At a recent writing retreat I heard many good things about Turner’s characterization and worldbuilding, and it was suggested to me as an example to emulate. Plus, as I understand it this series is simply one of the “greats” of YA.

Honorable (unpublished) Mentions:

Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser: (from goodreads) Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. For generations, her family has been called by the river god, who has guided their wherries on countless voyages throughout the Riverlands. At seventeen, Caro has spent years listening to the water, ready to meet her fate. But the river god hasn’t spoken her name yet—and if he hasn’t by now, there’s a chance he never will. Caro decides to take her future into her own hands when her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate. By agreeing to deliver it in exchange for his release, Caro finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies, with dangerous pirates after the cargo—an arrogant courier with a secret—and without the river god to help her. With so much at stake, Caro must choose between the life she always wanted and the one she never could have imagined for herself.

In many ways this sounds like a very generic YA fantasy novel, but it comes highly recommended by one of my favorite reviewers. Plus I love any stories that have to do with the sea, sea voyages, or gods.

When We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor May Mejia: (from goodreads) This debut novel is at the Medio School for Girls, where young women are trained to become one of two wives assigned to high society men. With revolution brewing in the streets, star student Dani Vargas fights to protect a destructive secret, sending her into the arms of the most dangerous person possible – the second wife of her husband-to-be.

A promising debut from a promising debut author whose insight on Twitter I value very much, When We Set the Dark on Fire looks to be an intriguing story with two female protagonists who fall in love (I’m guessing). Plus, give me a magical boarding school and I’m already sold.

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Stage Corner: Hadestown, a Folk Opera

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Hadestown first saw the light of day as a concept album put together by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2010. Even then, it was advertised as a folk opera, though it hadn’t been staged in an official capacity. I listened to the album when it first came out, and it was love at first listen. For six years I listened and envisioned how the musical narrative might look if it came to life on stage. Finally, yesterday, I no longer had to imagine.

The New York Theatre Workshop has put together a production of Hadestown running until July 31st. Yesterday, I sat in the front row, with the audience surrounding the circular stage, like a gargantuan conversation pit. The unorthodox set-up provided the actors with the freedom to move through the rows of audience members as we twisted and turned to watch them. This lent the performance an intimacy and physicality that would not have been achieved with a traditional stage.

Smoke billowed from the ceiling, catching on the rays of light that strategically shone on various actors. The faint scent of lavender and herbs wafted through the air throughout the entire performance. The best way to describe the setting of the production would be a cross between a magical garden and seedy 1920s jazz club (or speakeasy with live entertainment). It felt like a historical performance, a phantasmagorical performance, a steampunk performance.

This, of course, was more than suitable for Hadestown. The folk opera, to my mind, takes place in an alternate universe Depression-era US town. Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, but times are hard for all, and Eurydice grows hungry. She is soon seduced by Hades, King of Hadestown. It’s the only place in town that has jobs – but it’s a one-way ticket to Hadestown. As they sing, “Once you go, you don’t come back!” Orpheus follows to rescue her, and…well, I don’t need to tell you what happens next. And as they sing, “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.”

In addition’s to Anais Mitchell’s impressive bevy of songs, the play added several new ones to tie the narrative together more cohesively. Along with Hermes’ narration guiding us along, the story becomes deeper, more meaningful. Small details that I hadn’t noticed before emerged, such as that Hades and Persephone’s love is starting to sour (but sweetens again, thankfully, by the end of the play), or that Hades is genuinely conflicted about whether to let Orpheus go or not. Some of the new numbers are less impressive than others (and most less impressive than the original album) but everything is strung together in such a way that structures the story nicely.

A surprising standout performance of the night was Chris Sullivan’s Hermes. I didn’t expect much from the Hermes character going in, as he has nothing more than a bit part in the original concept album, but here his role has been expanded to a much more integral part that includes narration. Sullivan’s Hermes, with his four-piece suit, bowler hat, painted nails, and suit chain, plays Hermes with soul and roguish charm. He embodies his character with every twirl, every step, every twitch of his eyebrow. He’s alluring and magnetic and strange, a lovable rascal, everything you want in your Depression-era bohemian Hermes.

The other standout performance of the night was Nabiyah Be’s Eurydice. Short, tiny, and girlish, with a cloud of curly dark hair, Be’s Eurydice exudes an innocent charm characteristic of an ingenue. She twirls her yellow skirt with gusto and dances with an adorable exuberance. The way she stands up on her tiny tiptoes to speak to Orpheus is as endearing as it gets. When she smiles, you smile too, and then you fall in love with her. Her radiant beauty makes Orpheus’s immediate fall for her completely believable. And her voice is beautiful; a surprising strength emerging from such a small person! To be honest, if I had one complaint about the original album, it would be Anais Mitchell’s voice, which is too high-pitched and nasally for my liking, so having someone else in the part of Eurydice only made it better.

Amber Gray’s Persephone and Patrick Page’s Hades were…surprises. They grew on me by the end of the night, but when I first saw them I couldn’t help being a little disappointed. Aesthetically, they weren’t what I had always pictured. Persephone was older than I had always envisioned her, and Page’s Hades was less a King of the Underworld than a Texas lawman, complete with shiny belt buckle and cowboy boots. He’s also much older than I pictured, and he comes across as both suave and sleazy (and more than a little ominous). However, his deep, chalky baritone was perfect. In the original album, Greg Brown does an chillingly menacing Hades, and Patrick Page does not disappoint in that aspect. As for Amber Gray, she does a wonderfully lively Persephone, though her interpretation of the character is wildly different than my own.

Both actors grew on me by the end of the night, and my initial disappointment with them was certainly not their fault. They both gave incredible performances. But I have been enamored of Hades and Persephone since I was a little girl, and I therefore had highly specific images of them in my head. If I set this inherent bias aside, however, I can say without a doubt that Gray and Page were a fantastic Persephone and Hades.

The Fates, played by Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub, began the night’s performance, and they set the mood by marching onstage with three antique lamps swinging from their hands. Their harmony, the way they pick up on and join in on each other’s singing, is seamless. The three manage to paint the Fates as, alternately, both menacing and benevolent.

And now, for the only performance of the night that was slightly disappointing: Damon Daunno’s Orpheus. I know, I know, it’s hard to live up to Justin Vernon’s Orpheus. But here’s the thing: Orpheus is supposed to be so good, his singing so beautiful, that he sways even the cold Hades’ heart. Duanno just couldn’t convey that. First of all, he looked like a cross between a hipster and a frat boy rather than the carefree poet he’s supposed to be. Second, his voice is…unimpressive at best. He just can’t carry a tune as well as he should, and given that some of the most beautiful, powerful songs on the album are sung by Orpheus, it’s definitely noticeable. He has his moments, and there are some lines that he manages to make lovely, but they are few and far between. All the other performances had me nearly in tears; Damon Daunno just left me ambivalent. Perhaps when I see him again he’ll do a better job.

And yes, that is me admitting that I have already purchased tickets to see this again. I came home yesterday at half past midnight, and the first thing I did was go on the website to purchase tickets for July 1st. Even before the show was over I knew I couldn’t let it be a once in a lifetime experience. And after July 1st, I’m going to hope and wish with all my heart that Hadestown is staged again, perhaps this time on a bigger stage (hear me, Oh Gods of Broadway)!

Hadestown was not everything I had ever dreamed it would be: it was more. It was different. It defied my expectations. It improved upon them. I was awed the entire time; I literally could not stop smiling.  At the end I clapped so long and so hard my arms hurt. I nearly cried several times because the performances were so raw, so genuine, so beautiful. And these were actors performing songs that I had been in love with for six years! It was an entirely emotional experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget.