So I didn't blog my Hugo reading (novellas) last week as intended. So y'all get to read the writeups this week.
The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is a magical alternate history where New Orleans in the late 19th century is a free city, the U.S. Civil War is still going on, and a very successful slaves' rebellion has resulted in a nation called the Free Isles in the Caribbean. This rebellion was aided by a fearsome magical weapon called the Black God's Drums. Street urchin Creeper roams the streets of New Orleans, picking pockets and performing other minor criminal acts. She is also occasionally possessed by the goddess Oya, an occurrence that is apparently not all that rare. On her rounds, she overhears some very useful information about an attempt to coerce a Haitian scientist to give up the secret of the Black God's Drums. When Creeper passes the information on to interested parties, she becomes involved in a spooky caper out in the swamps, involving Confederate soldiers and a swashbuckling Free Isles airship captain, Ann-Marie. Told in Creeper's lively accented New Orleans dialect, this is a rich and thrilling tale that I enjoyed a lot.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard has been described by some reviewers as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with the Holmes character an abrasive detective name Long Chau and the Watson expy a mindship, a traumatized former military transport called The Shadow's Child. The ship was trapped in the Deep Spaces with her dead and dying crew and is now unable to take the long-distance journeys for which she was created. She makes a thin living as a brewer of drugs that ease space travel for humans and allow them to function more effectively in those conditions. Long Chau comes to her for aid in retrieving a dead body from Deep Space for study, but when the detective discovers that foul play was involved in the corpse's death, she and The Shadow's Child become embroiled in a mystery. This is beautifully written, like all of de Bodard's work that I've read so far, but I felt there was a barrier between me and the characters that kept me from becoming as emotionally involved as I might.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson is on one level the tale of an ecological restoration engineer, Minh, who becomes involved in a time travel project with an organization, TERN, that she doesn't trust at all. Minh, one of the "plague babies" who were born in the underground cities in which humanity partially escaped complete ecological disaster, uses a set of six tentacle-like lower appendages in the place of the legs she never had. Although she is to some extent allowed to assemble her own team for traveling back to ancient Mesopotamia, they have to take along a member of TERN's staff who has experience in time travel. But there's another half of the story, the tale of an ancient king whose people are encountering strange omens. The two stories come together in a messy and unhappy ending, saved from complete disaster for Minh and her team only by the actions of their most inexperienced team member. It's a good story and well written, but it's not a cheerful one.
ANYWAY: this week I have been mainlining T. Kingfisher's Clocktaur War duology, The Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine. "T Kingfisher" is the pseudonym of Hugo-award winning cartoonist (for Digger) Ursula Vernon. I have been enjoying her novels but have previously found them rather slight. She takes several steps forward here, with a dark-ish fantasy of a team of criminals sent on a suicide mission to discover more about (and if possible, eliminate) the menace of the age, the Clockwork Boys, huge, unstoppable clockwork monsters who are destroying entire villages and towns.
The crew is led by Slate, a woman on the brink of middle age (she is 30) who is a skilled forger and burglar. She is accompanied by her former lover, an assassin named Brenner; a paladin who killed a number of nuns while possessed by a demon; and an extremely naive young scholar-priest whose order does not believe in the authority of women. Slate is snarky, very much aware of the paladin's handsomeness and innate decency, and has a surprisingly nuanced relationship with her ex, Brenner. There are scenes of genuine menace and beautifully described magic, and although the expedition is ultimately successful, it is not without cost.
I did find myself ahead of the characters in determining the nature of the Clockwork Boys during the second book, but I was enjoying things so much that it hardly mattered. Highly recommended.