A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies – Alix E. Harrow

Apex Magazine Issue 105, February 2018

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies is a 2019 Hugo Awards finalist in the Best Short Story category.

He reached towards the book and the book reached back towards him, because books need to be read quite as much as we need to read them

I first read this short story three months ago and loved it. When I was about to begin my reread I realised that it was written by Alix E. Harrow. I have been fortunate enough to secure an advanced copy of their debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. While it hasn’t reached the top of my to be read pile yet I’ve had a sneak peek and it definitely looks like my kind of book. After rereading this short story I now can’t wait to read it.

Anyone could see that kid needed to run and keep running until he shed his own skin, until he clawed out of the choking darkness and unfurled his wings, precious and prisming in the light of some other world.

I love magic portals, libraries and witches, so this story hit one of my literary trifectas. Books can be life changing and the right one can even save your life.

This is a story about a librarian who connects readers with books by “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine”, a foster child and one of those books.

You can read this short story online here.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide and depression.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Abbott – Saladin Ahmed

Illustrations – Sami Kivelä

Colours – Jason Wordie

Spoilers Ahead!

Abbott is a 2019 Hugo Awards finalist in the Best Graphic Story category.

I’m not sure how to talk about this graphic novel without providing some information about the plot, so … Warning: potential spoilers ahead!

This is Elena Abbott.

She’s a reporter for the Detroit Daily and as a black woman in 1972, she’s practically surrounded by racist and misogynistic white men. The newspaper board members and most of the police force aren’t exactly thrilled about her reporting the truth, particularly when it involves police brutality.

Having barely begun her new investigation into some eerily similar and grisly murders, Abbott discovers the perpetrators aren’t the usual suspects (hint: the police force’s usual suspects aren’t white). Instead, Abbott is soon face to face with a supernatural blast from the past.

Abbott tries to tell James, both a police sergeant and her ex-husband, about the shadows she sees on the second body.

They’re the same shadows that she saw on her husband, Samir, when he died. He called them the Umbra. Abbott seeks help from Sebastian, who tells her to stop running from her calling.

“Whether you accept it or not, Elena Abbott, you were born to wield the light. But there are those born to wield the shadow. Where your paths cross, blood will spill.”

Abbott is a chain smoker who enjoys her daily two glasses of brandy and drives a 1966 V8 Mustang. I got the feeling she’s not typically a huge believer in the whole ‘calling’ thing.

Later, Abbott has a conversation with Amelia, who has a message of her own. One that involves a gun. Amelia also happens to be romantically involved with Abbott but Abbott’s keeping this under wraps right now.

I was hit with so much information in the beginning of this graphic novel. I didn’t know how it would all fit together and I wasn’t sure I would care when it did. Then I met my first shadow monster and it was all over for me from that moment on; I needed to keep reading.

Much like Saga, which I’ve recently binged for my Hugo readathon, it seems like it’s not a good idea to become emotionally involved with any of the characters in Abbott. My two favourite characters didn’t survive this graphic novel but, although I’m preparing to harden my heart as we speak, I hadn’t grown to love them yet.

I’m giving this graphic novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ instead of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ for two reasons: it took a while for the story to get its hooks into me and I don’t desperately need a sequel, even though I’m left with some unanswered questions and loose ends. Overall though, this was a very entertaining read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

While investigating police brutality and corruption in 1970s Detroit, journalist Elena Abbott uncovers supernatural forces being controlled by a secret society of the city’s elite.

In the uncertain social and political climate of 1972 Detroit, hard-nosed, chain-smoking tabloid reporter Elena Abbott investigates a series of grisly crimes that the police have ignored. Crimes she knows to be the work of dark occult forces. Forces that took her husband from her. Forces she has sworn to destroy.

Hugo Award-nominated novelist Saladin Ahmed (Star Wars: Canto Bight, Black Bolt) and artist Sami Kivelä (Beautiful Canvas) present one woman’s search for the truth that destroyed her family amidst an exploration of the systemic societal constructs that haunt our country to this day.

Collects Abbott 1-5.

Saga Volume 9 – Brian K. Vaughan

Illustrations – Fiona Staples

Saga Volume 9 is a 2019 Hugo Awards finalist in the Best Graphic Story category and my (slow but steady) Hugo readathon is the reason why I started binge reading the series last week.

In the process I’ve met new friends, lost a lot of new friends and fallen in love with a galaxy I didn’t even know existed until recently.

Huh. Well, that sounds ominous.

The Will and Ianthe [hiss!] have arrived on the planet where we last saw Alana, Marko, Hazel, Friendo, Petrichor, Ghüs, Sir Robot, Squire, Upsher and Doff, who are all together aboard the treehouse rocketship. Hazel and Squire now act like they’re siblings, Petrichor and Sir Robot now act like … something else, Upsher and Doff are still trying to secure the story of their lives, and Ghüs is playing babysitter, remaining cute no matter what he does.

See? What did I tell you?! Cutie pie!

The treehouse rocketship lands on Jetsam, home of our tenacious tabloid reporter and photographer. Upsher and Doff have offered our favourite family a deal that seems too good to be true but they’re not the only ones who may be considering it.

Sir Robot reminded me why I don’t completely trust him and elsewhere, Agent Gale resurfaces; both men have their own agendas. So many competing agendas in this series! Most of which aim to harm my our favourite family!

The past catches up with a few of the characters and it’s Saga, so not everyone is going to come out of it alive and those that are left to pick up the pieces are changed. So am I.

Anyone can kill you, but it takes someone you know to really HURT you. It takes someone you love to break your heart.

The details in the illustrations keep delighting me. Squire’s ducky baby sling has now been converted into a backpack! It was a nice thing to notice in between all of the times my heart was shattered.

Anticipation and dread aren’t opposites, just different versions of the same game.

This is the first cliffhanger I’ve been involved in where I don’t have the luxury of immediately picking up the next Volume and I chose one hell of a time to be stuck on this damn cliff wanting to curl up in the foetal position.

Seriously, I think the author and illustrator of this series are going to need to start paying my therapy bills! I know we’re at war here but you’re only allowed to kill off people I don’t like from now on, okay?

So, until I get the opportunity to continue this series I’m going to pretend I wasn’t traumatised by this Volume. Instead I’m going to remember this brief respite from danger, when fun existed and even those in whatever galaxy this is knew how to reference Jaws.

Maybe in the next Volume Gwendolyn, Sophie and Lying Cat (who were physically absent during this Volume) will find a way to make everything miraculously okay again? Hey, a girl can hope!

Content warnings include continued graphic sexual content and violence, physical abuse and mention of death by suicide (although I suspect it was more likely to have been murder).

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Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The multiple Eisner Award-winning series returns with a spacefaring adventure about fake news and genuine terror. Get ready for the most shocking, most impactful Saga storyline yet.

Collects Saga #49-54.

Grey Land #2: The Invasion – Peadar Ó Guilín

The Invasion is a 2019 Hugo Awards finalist in the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book category.

In The Call we were introduced to Nessa and Anto. Despite incredible odds they both survived their Calls, so this should be the story of their happily ever after, right? Yeah, maybe not. Your first clue is the book’s title, The Invasion. Any happiness is fleeting and we’re at war here, people! There may not even be an ever after!

Three minutes and four seconds. That’s how long the Called are missing. Then they come back, living or dead; twisted into hideous shapes or bewildered and whole. But return they always do. Or at least they used to.

This sequel introduces plenty of new characters but also continues the story of some we’ve already spent time with. I was looking forward to the continuation of Nessa and Anto’s story. I was surprised that Aoife’s role increased as she didn’t make a huge impression on me in the first book. I was eager to see what the consequences of Melanie’s actions in the first book would be.

We made the Sídhe into monsters, now they make monsters of us.

I found I either loved or hated the women in this book. I loved Karim and Taaft, who commanded respect with their strength, leadership, determination and bravery. Although they were badasses in battle, they weren’t one dimensional; they cared about the people they fought alongside and had stories that extended beyond their job descriptions.

The professor intrigued me and I wished for more time to get to know them. They did not get anywhere near the page time that I had hoped they would. I wanted more time with Melanie as well (although the resolution of her story satisfied me) and I wanted to find out what happened after we saw Angela last. I had high hopes for Liz Sweeney but her contribution to the story fell flat for me.

When characters refer to themselves in the third person I find it infuriating so Annie quickly became the character I most wanted the Sídhe to play with – “But Annie has seen it all, so she has.”, “Annie feels”, “Annie doesn’t like”. Ugh! She’s right here, Sídhe! Come and get her!

Most of the people who died in this book were simply names to me. I didn’t know much, if anything, about them so their deaths didn’t even make me pause. The one death that I thought should have had an emotional impact didn’t.

Although I didn’t come away with any substantial emotional connections I loved being able to revisit the Grey Land and enjoyed the introduction of some of its landscape and creatures I wasn’t previously aware of. Like piranha bats! And sniffers!

I had no idea what was going to happen next during The Call, other than the certainty that most of the characters I met would not survive, of course. Unfortunately I found The Invasion quite predictable. This may be because I already knew some of the rules at play in the Many-Coloured and Grey Lands but I found myself highlighting key sentences, knowing they were important before the characters did and more often than not I knew what those sentences foretold. I even figured out who the Big Bad was as soon as I met them and found them underwhelming.

Despite this I was satisfied by the ending, with key characters behaving how I hoped they would when faced with horrors. I’m caught between wishing The Call had been a standalone and glad I read the sequel.

Although this book does provide enough answers for the story to be “Called” complete, other potential worlds were mentioned briefly but not explored. I love the Sídhe so much and would joyfully read on if their world ever collided with another.

Once Upon a Nitpick or Two: The first time something was likened to a cartoon or a cartoon character I enjoyed the visual. I was over it by the fourth time it happened. There were also more typos remaining in the Kindle version I purchased than I would have liked.

Content warnings include ableism, death by suicide, suicidal ideation, physical assaults and torture, and mental health, specifically the impacts of trauma.

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

After so much danger, Nessa and Anto can finally dream of a happy life. But the terrible attack on their school has created a witch-hunt for traitors – boys and girls who survived the Call only by making deals with the enemy. To the authorities, Nessa’s guilt is obvious. Her punishment is to be sent back to the nightmare of the Grey Land for the rest of her life. The Sídhe are waiting, and they have a very special fate planned for her.

Meanwhile, with the help of a real traitor, the enemy come pouring into Ireland at the head of a terrifying army. Every human they capture becomes a weapon. Anto and the last students of his old school must find a way to strike a blow at the invaders before they lose their lives, or even worse, their minds. But with every moment Anto is confronted with more evidence of Nessa’s guilt.

For Nessa, the thought of seeing Anto again is the only thing keeping her alive. But if she escapes, and if she can find him, surely he is duty-bound to kill her …

Wayward Children #4: In an Absent Dream – Seanan McGuire

BE SURE.

I’m convinced the Wayward Children series are fairy tales for adults whose door never opened for them as children, who are holding out hope against hope that some day their door will finally appear.

Alas, that this is not a fairy tale.

Okay, Seanan, I hear you. So it’s not a fairy tale, but it’s a cautionary tale, right?

this is Lundy’s story, Lundy’s cautionary tale

This cautionary tale’s doorway leads to the Goblin Market which, despite the fact that I would never make it a day there, still made me yearn for my own doorway to appear. It also made me want to reread Every Heart a Doorway to revisit Lundy’s journey after the conclusion of this book.

Lundy is this tale’s Wayward and she’s a reader!

Everything was a story, if studied in the right fashion.

She won my heart before I knew anything else about this precious soul. Lundy is also a strict keeper of rules, which is exactly why her doorway would never even consider me a possibility.

Following the rules didn’t make you a good person, just like breaking them didn’t make you a bad one, but it could make you an invisible person, and invisible people got to do as they liked.

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This is a book of friendship and loyalty, of being torn between what you want and what you need, and of pies. Oh, the pies! I need to eat all of the pies.

I adored the Archivist, had a soft spot for Moon and wish I had gotten to know Mockery. I loved learning about how the Goblin Market’s rules work and especially loved the idea, foreign in our own, that unfair things always come with consequences.

I’m also entirely in love with that cover artwork and the gorgeous illustrations. I need a print of that doorway in the tree that’s large enough to span an entire wall so I can gaze at it all day, waiting for it to magically transform into the doorway to my world.

I was disappointed that some of the most exciting scenes happened off the page. I wanted to witness firsthand the battles that had been fought and won by characters when I wasn’t looking, and to be told of their conclusion rather than being shown them was frustrating for me.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking but I keep hoping there will be a Wayward Children book that explores the world I should be living in and that the simple act of opening the pages will open its doorway for me.

“It is a place where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming. Doors lead here. Perhaps you found one.”

How am I supposed to wait an entire year for Come Tumbling Down?!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.

When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

Wayward Children #3: Beneath the Sugar Sky – Seanan McGuire

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a 2019 Hugo Awards finalist in the Best Novella category.

This will always be the Wayward Children Road Trip book to me. As soon as this disparate bunch of kids piled into the school minivan and set off on their journey I rejoiced, and their adventure just kept getting better and better, venturing through different worlds on their quest to help Rini, who fell from the sky near the beginning of the book.

This book took me an embarrassingly loooong time to read and I take full responsibility because I loved it! It unfortunately became one of those reads where life happened in between. I only wanted to read it whenever I could fully appreciate the brilliance that is Seanan McGuire, and let’s just say that 2018 sucked for me.

Recharged by the impending release of In an Absent Dream 💜 I knew I had to finish this one and, even after months of not having read a single page, I slipped straight back into the story. I hope to do a review that does some sort of justice to this book after a reread but for now please enjoy a sample of my favourite quotes:

“It’s never a good idea to eat the ground,” she said blithely, cake between her teeth and frosting on her lips. “People walk on it.”

Chandeliers of sugar crystals hung from the vaulted, painted chocolate ceiling. Stained sugar glass windows filtered and shattered the light, turning everything into an explosion of rainbows.

“It’s going to be okay. You’ll see. Just hang on. This would be a stupid way to die.”

“Sometimes that’s all you can do. Just keep getting through until you don’t have to do it anymore, however much time that takes, however difficult it is.”

“Every world gets to make its own rules. Sometimes those rules are going to be impossible. That doesn’t make them any less enforceable.”

Everyone who wound up at Eleanor West’s School – everyone who found a door – understood what it was to spend a lifetime waiting for something that other people wouldn’t necessarily understand. Not because they were better than other people and not because they were worse, but because they had a need trapped somewhere in their bones, gnawing constantly, trying to get out.

There is kindness in the world, if we know how to look for it. If we never start denying it the door.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When Rini lands with a literal splash in the pond behind Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, the last thing she expects to find is that her mother, Sumi, died years before Rini was even conceived. But Rini can’t let Reality get in the way of her quest – not when she has an entire world to save! (Much more common than one would suppose.)

If she can’t find a way to restore her mother, Rini will have more than a world to save: she will never have been born in the first place. And in a world without magic, she doesn’t have long before Reality notices her existence and washes her away. Good thing the student body is well-acquainted with quests …

A tale of friendship, baking, and derring-do.

Warning: May contain nuts.