Welcome to Smugglivus 2015! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2015, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2016, and more.
Who: Michal Wojcik, whose short fiction has appeared in On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic and Daily Science Fiction. He also wrote one of Book Smugglers Publishing’s short stories, Mrs Yaga. And make sure to check his web serial: Zeppelins are What Dreams are Made of is a series of three steampunk-ish novellas featuring the dimension-hopping assassin Jennifer Asten.
Please give a warm welcome to Michal, everyone!
Smugglivus: Five Canadian Fantasies
What kind of fantasies do people write in the Great White North? There’s a focus in more academic discussions of Canadian literature, and even less academic ones like our bizarre annual radio reality show Canada Reads, on defining our work by vast open spaces and the theme of survival in an unforgiving wilderness. Yet when I survey the Canadian fantasy scene (or any genre here, really), the focus is less on the specific weighty question of Canadian identity and our relationship with our geography than an incredibly broad spectrum of settings and ideas. Here’s a sampling of some fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed coming out of Canada that range from historical romps to narratives about tightly-packed urban spaces, instead of folks huddling beneath black spruce trees slowly loosing limbs to frostbite.
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay’s preferred mode since the 1990s has been historical fantasy taking place in worlds once removed from Earth that still hew closer and closer to our history with each new book. River of Stars is firmly grounded in the real-world events of twelfth-century China: the rise of the Jurchen Jin and the fall of Kaifeng, mainly seen through the eyes of two characters, Ren Daiyan (based on the General Yu Fei) and Lin Shan (based on the poet Li Qingzhao). They never crossed paths in their own lives on Earth, but in Kay’s novel, where all is recognizable but under different names, they have their chance. Kay’s great accomplishment here is framing the sweep of historical events on such a broad canvas with the deeply personal stories of these two very different but inherently remarkable figures, delving into the idea of how legends are formed and why.
Salamander by Thomas Wharton
This is, in a time-honoured tradition, a book about books, or more specifically, a book about a book that encompasses all other books. An infinite book, in fact.
We begin in Quebec in 1759, when a mysterious young woman begins to share a tale with a colonel in General Wolfe’s army about how, exactly, she ended up there. That story begins in Slovakia many, many years earlier, when her father, the English printer Nicholas Flood, comes to the clockwork of castle of Count Ostrov on a commission to undertake the most complex and intricate printing job the world has ever seen. That initial task leads to obsession and tragedy, encounters with automata and pirates, and a journey that takes Flood from central Europe to Egypt to China and beyond. It’s an excursion into all aspects of eighteenth century fantastic literature with an anchor in the printing press, an object imbued here with the vast potential for infinite imaginative reproduction.
Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson takes us out of the deep past and into the future: Toronto post-economic collapse, when the centre has fallen out of the city. The affluent have moved out to the suburbs and barricaded themselves there, leaving only immigrants, the poor and other marginalized groups to fend for themselves while organ-harvesters roam the streets. It’s a science fiction premise with a wink at cyberpunk, but as the story develops, we’re launched firmly into a fantasy heavily informed by Caribbean folklore. An evil sorcerer has taken up residence in the CN Tower and Ti-Jeanne will have to master the power inherent in her family to survive his malevolent influence, with the help of her grandmother and a few gods along the way. Brown Girl in the Ring is almost unequalled in terms of inventiveness and sheer narrative drive, and reading it quickly made Nalo Hopkinson one of my favourite Canadian writers.
The gods return in Sister Mine, this time in a very different, contemporary Toronto. Makeda’s entire extended family consists of gods and demigods, with all the troubles that might entail. But she has a bigger problem: out of her family, she’s the only one without any magical talent. Moving out to her own apartment isn’t going to let her escape that issue, either.
Sister Mine, as the tile implies, focuses in on the complicated sibling relationship between Makeda and her twin sister Abby, and on Makeda’s slow path towards self-actualization and discovering her mojo. There are sea monster, magic carpets, and even more magical music, making for an all-round intoxicating experience.
Jack the Giant-Killer by Charles de Lint
Jacky Rowan is a homebody who would much rather spend her time cuddling on the couch than having a night out, but when the wild hunt appears on the streets of Ottawa riding motorbikes and chasing down fair folk, she has to overcome her fears to save the city from the Unseelie Court. Because dwelling just underneath Canada’s capital is another world that runs on the power of the moon, filled with hobs, giants, bogans, and magic.
I have a rule with Charles de Lint—stick to the specifically Canadian stuff. I was never able to get into his Newford stories except for The Blue Girl, but for some reason I’ve liked everything he’s written set in Ottawa and the valley. He’s had a huge output, but Jack the Giant-Killer will always hold a special place in my heart for having the perfect combination of fairy tale, whimsy, and modern sensibility. This is the sort of urban fantasy I enjoy the most.