Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

“Solomon Gursky” is an unexpectedly weird book, but one I would highly recommend to anyone with a taste for unique Franklin expedition fiction. As a novel, “Solomon Gursky” is part Franklin mystery, part Jewish family drama, and part critique of capitalist dynasty families. A lot of effort has been put into portraying the expedition accurately — Richler cites “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie as a primary influence — and a good number of the deviations (of which are many) don’t feel accidental, they feel intentional as part of building this alternate history where two Jewish conmen manage to finagle positions on the Franklin expedition.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky Was Here" reading, "There was another problem. Neither Ephraim Gursky nor Izzy Garber was listed in the muster books of the Erebus of the Terror (available at Admiralty Records, Public Records Office). The Snapchat caption reads, "Fucking fantastic." End ID.

The book is framed by a man named Moses Berger and his efforts to write a biography of the deceased Solomon Gursky, it’s something of an obsession, actually. This framing allows for the mysteries and secrets hidden by the Gursky family to unravel over the course of the book as we bounce between the points of view of various Gursky family members (there’s a helpful family tree in the front of the book); Moses himself; epistolary elements such as diaries and telegrams; and a variety of other important players. The same stories get told in different ways depending on who is doing the telling, which is very fun, and it’s done in such away that it never feels repetitive. Every time I got a detail that clarified a previous mystery or teased an answer I was vibrating with excitement. If you enjoy piecing together mysteries as you read you will find “Solomon Gursky” very satisfying.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'You shouldn't have lied at the trial' 'We owed Solomon everything.' 'You did it to save your own skin.' 'Why bring that up now, after all these years?' 'Find Bert Smith. Make it up to him. Promise me that.' 'I promise.'" The Snapchat caption reads, "There are so many moving pieces to this Solomon mystery and they're laid out so masterfully. I am yelling!!!" End ID.

While the Gursky family is Jewish and Judaism is important to the story, on the surface several characters could be read as anti-semitic stereotypes. For example, Ephraim Gursky is a notorious conman, and brothers Bernard, Solomon and Morrie establish themselves as capitalist alcohol barons who get their start selling bootleg alcohol during prohibition. Few of the characters in this book can be considered “good,” but from a Jewish author it becomes “these are complicated, difficult and sometimes awful people who are Jewish” rather than offensive stereotypes. A gentile author could not pull this book off, at all.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "Sammy 'Red' Levine, out of Toledo, was stricktly Orthodox: he was never without a yarmulke and didn't murder on the Sabbath." The Snapchat caption reads, "Because Shabbat is clearly the only time murder is unacceptable." End ID.

Anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia come up throughout the book, from various characters and in a range of opinions. However, not every instance of prejudice can be explained as only coming from the characters. Two of the biggest issues I had were the portrayal of the Inuit, which runs stereotypical more often than not, and the existence of Lieutenant Norton — replacing one of the Erebus lieutenants — a minor character who is portrayed as a crossdresser, which was almost interesting when it was first teased, with a penchant for violence. Some of his actions could have been chalked up to lead poisoning etc. but it didn’t really land in my opinion.

The one thing I will say about Richler creating Franklin expedition OCs is that it doesn’t drag the names of real historical people through the mud, which is more than can be said of “The Terror” author Dan Simmons. Frankly, I saw a surprising amount of similarities between certain aspects of “Solomon Gursky” and “The Terror,” which made me wonder if Dimmons hadn’t read “Solomon Gursky” at some point. Unfortunately, any influence, if it is there at all, is limited to the all of the worst bits with none of the redeeming qualities of Richler’s writing.

I went into “Solomon Gursky” utterly blind, I knew “Jew on the Franklin expedition” as a premise and that was it, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more too. Everything matters. “Solomon Gursky” is a big book with lots of characters and plots that are masterfully woven together. There are surprises around every corner, including the borderline magical realism presence of ravens as motif and harbinger, and a group of Jewish Inuit.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Does it haunt your dreams?' the interviewer asked. 'Molly?' 'Cannibalism.' 'Well, I'lll tell ya, it kind of puts you off your prime rib. Like, you know, it's so good and sweet. Hardly any gristle.'" The Snapchat caption is three Rolling on the Floor Laughing emojis. End ID.
And of course it wouldn’t be a book about the Franklin expedition without cannibalism.

Some final warnings: Sex scenes, which are occasionally detailed in a way that make you wonder if the author didn’t have a fetish; plenty of nudity, both male and female; and some mentions of rape and suicide, but nothing explicit.

As I stated before, “Solomon Gursky” reaches some very weird depths, and is not without its share of problems, but I enjoyed it immensely and now I need everyone else to go read it so that I have someone to talk to about this frankly beautiful piece of insanity. The book seems to be out of print, but can be found from most used booksellers.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Can you arrange for me to go through the Solomon Gursky file or not?' 'Yeah sure.' But the file had been stolen. The large manila envelope in the library was empty. And when Moses dragged out the old newspapers that dealt with the trials, he discovered that somebody had cut out the relevant stories with a razor blade. He was hooked." The Snapchat caption reads, "Hot damn, i'd be hooked too." End ID.

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Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver

Image ID: The cover of the novella Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver. It shows A young man and a young woman framed by an large house with  figures in several rooms. The art is in a very classically 1920s style. The snapchat caption reads, "Fucking look at that cover art." End ID

I knew I had to read “Uncommon Charm” the moment I saw it. For one, it’s a set in the 1920s, a fantastic era; two, there is a Jewish character; three, it was a gothic comedy that promised ghosts; and four, the cover art is by one of my all time favorite artists. I didn’t initially expect the magic to be, like, real magic, I’d assumed that “magician” meant stage magician, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Image ID: A snap of the text reading "'What did you see?' 'A woman,' Simon said, startled into answering. 'Not your mother, but tall and blonde. A bit, er, bony. And bleeding.' 'Oh, well. I should have expected you'd be a medium. Come along!' I bounded up the stairs. 'The ghosts will wait.'" The snapchat caption reads: So it IS real magic. End ID.

I absolutely adore the way the book treats magic. It’s delightfully mundane, which is admittedly, a weird thing to say, but it feels accurate. The drama isn’t necessarily magical in nature; magic is baked into the world, it’s part of the norm and treated as such, which I love as world building. The drama primarily comes from interpersonal relationships, both past and present, and is only enhanced, not driven, by magic. Our narrator, young socialite Julia, is grappling not only with her relationship with her mother, but with her relationships with the Koldunov family, and newcomer to the household, Simon. Simon is himself grappling with feeling out of place as the illegitimate son of the Koldunov patriarch in addition to his newfound magical ability. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'Have you consulted a rabbi about your magic?' 'A few,' Simon said. 'Their opinions differed.'" The snapchat captain reads: "Of course." End ID.

At 16 Julia’s curiosity and enthusiasm really is what drives the plot, as she is our main narrator. I love, so very much, the particular flavor of unreliable narrator that Julia is, in that she’s not so much completely unreliable, but rather, she is running through the world as a headstrong teenager who wants to believe that she’s on the right foot with everything. It’s a very classically teenager style of moving through the world, trying to find the answer to a mystery that isn’t quite the dramatic mystery that you thought. Her point of view is also perfect to keep the right balance between gothic and comic.

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I thought you wanted me otherwise occupied whilst you and Simon vexed divine powers we frail mortals wot not of. I didn't realize this was a—a conspiracy to teach me the importance of hard work and practice.' She offered me a cryptic smile. 'And no magic was necessary.' 'Muv!'" The snapchat caption reads, "That's parents for you" followed by the joy emoji. End ID

Something else I adored was the reorienting of the world that happens, both literally and metaphorically. On one side, we have the physical effects of Simon’s magic where he unintentional alters the world around him and Julia coming to terms with some heavy truths about the world and the people around her. On the other side, there is the wonderful development of Simon’s perspective on magical philosophy and how it blends with his Jewish beliefs. I will admit to feeling a touch nervous that his Jewishness would get lost behind Julia’s narration, but it very much didn’t, and I loved that by the end, Simon has invited both Julia and her mother to join him for Passover. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I've made a decision,' he said. 'I am looking forward to having you at our seder.' 'As you should, but Muv will ask all sorts of questions,' I warned. 'She's wise, you're wicked, the other two I don't know—it's a joke, Jules, I'll explain it tomorrow.'" The snapchat captain reads, "Yes yes yes yes," with the first "Yes" very drawn out. End ID.

Last, but not least, “Uncommon Charm” is decidedly and unashamedly queer. Julia explicitly notes herself to be queer and it is strongly implied for Simon as well as for a handful of other characters. The queerness is exists with a confidence in the way the characters interact with the world in relationships of all sorts, though the focus is on the friendly and familial more than the romantic. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "Our homosexual proclivities were one thing Jos and I had in common, at any rate, though he knew I wasn't necessarily opposed to boys." The snapchat caption reads, "Nice nice nice." End ID.

If a 1920s gothic comedy deeply influenced by Jewish and queer experience seems up your alley, then “Uncommon Charm” is the book for you. 

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The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

[Image ID: The cover of Janelle Monáe's "The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer" Janelle Monáe is front and center as Jane dressed as a Torch as she is in "Dirty Computer - An Emotion Picture." The Snapchat caption reads: "Fully forgot I preordered this XD" End ID]

“The Memory Librarian” is a fantastic dive back into the world of Janelle Monáe’s 2018 concept album “Dirty Computer.” In addition to giving us more of Jane, Zen and Ché, we get to see what the rest of the world is like, from impoverished children to the people at the very top who monitor society. If it’s been a while since you last watched “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture,” I highly recommend doing so before jumping in to read to refresh yourself on the world. Now let’s look at the stories:

The Memory Librarian feat. Alaya Dawn Johnson: This story introduces us to Seshet, the director librarian of Little Delta, who wanted to better the world through her work within the system of New Dawn, but not in the typical sense that New Dawn wants to better the world. A Black woman, with a number of opinions and feature that could  see her labeled a dirty computer, she keeps her eyes away from areas known to be congregating spaces for dirty computers as she monitors the memories of people in the city and this story sees her juggling her personal desires with the careful line she has to tread with her superiors. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted segment reads "Well, don't they fucking know? Is it possible that they haven't even realized? What has she done, wise Seshet, compassionate Seshet, even while precarious in power? She has not looked." The Snapchat captions reads: "The rebellion of not watching in a surveillance state" End ID]

This story introduces us to the system of New Dawn that is in place and digs into an idea introduced in “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture” of things that get caught up in memory collectors that aren’t memories, like dreams. 

Nevermind feat. Danny Lore: Here we meet Jane and Zen again and learn what they (and Ché) have been up to. Jane and Zen are living at the Pynk Hotel (as seen in “Pynk”) while also helping to rescue others from New Dawn. Jane shares the protagonist with a nonbinary individual named Neer, and we see, through the events of the story and an attack on the hotel, the importance of fighting for radical acceptance as well as showcasing, incredibly cleverly, how willing exclusionists are to get chummy with the oppressor, but also how important it is to show compassion to people who maybe are only reacting out of ignorance or lack of options. 

On that note, this story introduces us to blushounds, genetically augmented humans who can smell emotions. Used by New Dawn to track dissidents, they are themselves victims of New Dawn as we learned from one of them, Bat, who goes on to stay and heal at the Pynk Hotel. 

Save Changes feat. Yohanca Delgado: This story follows the daughters of Diana Morel, a woman who had rebelled and been caught alongside Jane, but had been caught and unable to escape the same way. Now she’s not fully there, canning Twinkies in Windex, and under the care of her daughters, because, apparently, something went wrong in her cleaning. Her daughters also have to deal with the stigma of being related to a noted rebel. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted portion reads: "...the promise of a fresh start at school had shriveled up on Amber's first day at City College, when one by one, each of her professors made her sit in the front row of each class and read a statement from New Dawn, informing her classmates who she was and warning them that any decision to fraternize with her was one they made at their own risk." The snapchat caption is a row of four grimace emojis. End ID]

This story also asks us, what if you had a single opportunity to change the past? While this is a sci-fi world overall, there are specific moments of magic throughout. It’s not explained it just is. In this story, it’s a stone that purports to be able to turn back time passed down to Amber by their father before he died. 

Timebox feat. Eve L. Ewing and Timbox Altar(ed) feat. Sheree Renée Thomas: I’ve put these two together, even though they aren’t next to each other in the book (they frame “Save Changes”) because they are similar in several ways, while they are opposites in others. 

 In “Timebox” a young couple getting their first apartment together find that time stops when they are in their pantry and a disagreement erupts about how to use it, which also brings to the surfaces differing opinions on activism and community aid based on the class differences they experienced growing up.  Between the disagreements and their own uses of the box, they fall apart and the story ends painfully unresolved with more questions than there are answers. I was genuinely startled when I hit the end and realized there wasn’t any more. 

“Timebox Altar(ed)” on the other hand, revolved around a group of children, living in an incredibly impoverished area, outside of a larger New Dawn-monitored city, mostly forgotten unless someone is flagged to be taken away for cleaning. Stumbling into an abandoned railroad crossing full of junk, they build an ark and, after a kind stranger instructs them on working with intention it turns out that when an individual sits inside the ark, they are transported somewhere that gives them a glimpse of a beautiful, hopeful future and “The Power of Yet.” As the last story in the collection, the message of a healed future ushered in by the youngest generations was a powerful note to end on. 

This is so much longer than I usually go, but I really wanted to talk a bit about each story, because they all have so much to offer, and are incredible as a whole. If you enjoy sci-fi, Afrofuturism and/or urban fantasy, this is definitely a book for you.

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Not a lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre

[Image ID: A Snapchat of the cover of "Not a lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough" by Kyle Tran Myhre with art by Casper Pham. The caption reads: Stories about stories, my favorite kind. End ID]

What can artists do in difficult times? That is the question this book grapples with. 

Dealing with challenging topics through allegory is a very hit or miss thing, with misses more likely than hits in my experience as a long time X-Men fan. Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre, on the other hand, hits and hits hard.

[Image ID: Snapchat of text, "How can I write about social justice issues via characters who do not move through the systems and structures that I move through, or that the people on my planet move through? How can that be done responsibly, in a way that doesn't sand the edges off of the issues that I normally write about?" The caption reads: Fuck, yes. what a mood! End ID.]

I actually don’t think I would want to read this book if the discussions within of authoritarianism, people who refuse to acknowledge trouble if it doesn’t impact them, or who willfully twist meaning, were just straight discussions of the world between 2018 and now. I, like so many, have lived through and been impacted by those things all too closely, but the distance created by the found fiction/quasi-epistolary sci-fi setting opens a door to exploring those topics in a way that feels cathartic rather than painful. 

[Image ID: Snapchat of the text: "Memo: What follows is a collection of poems, conversation transcripts, notebook entries, and sketches compiled by our team regarding the robot Gyre. Frustratingly, they are filtered through a secondary source, Gyre's traveling companion, a human Nar'ryzar "Nary" Crumbeaux. Whether Crumbeaux took extremely detailed notes during their travels across the moon, or Gyre's advanced memory capabilities are responsible for the existence of these writing, we do not know." The captain reads: Reconstructing history through fragmentary evidence my beloved. End ID]

The book opens with what is possibly my favorite framing device in existence: a faux-academic preface explaining what you are about to see: A collection of poems and transcripts that the robot Gyre and his human apprentice Nary, collected over their travels on the moon, which is home to a society that grew from a prison colony of political dissidents from a World that they can no longer remember. Now, generations later, they are struggling despite their founders’ best efforts to subvert what they could recall of their old world’s failings. 

So what are poets Gyre and Nary to do? They look for stories, they tell stories, they share and encourage others to share. Throughout the book I was reminded repeatedly of a line from “The Truth About Stories” by Thomas King, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

[Image ID: Snapchat of text: "1. Everyone has a story. No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has a story, and every story matters. If we're going to survive, it will be because we listen to each other's stories." The caption reads: The truth about stories is that's all we are. End ID]

Stories are important. They are important to connection, they are important to memory, they are important to making sense of the world. At one point, in a conversation between Gyre and Nary, Nary grapples with doubt about the impact that what they’re doing has, because things seem to keep getting worse. That piece, “Do You Think We Have Been Talking About PoetryThis Whole Time?” reads to me an awful lot like grappling with activism burnout. There’s so much that needs to be done, you can’t do all of it yourself, but at the same time, sometimes it feels like you’re never doing enough. 

[Image ID: Snapchat of text:
Nary: I'm tired.
Gyre: Drink more tea.
Nary: You know what I mean. It feels like everything is on fire, and we're still just writing poems, walking from one village to the next, going on and on about the importance of telling our stories and building community through art. And nothing changes. If anything, things are getting worse." The caption reads: That burn out feel, pensive emoji. End ID]

There is so much more to be said about this book, there is more than one theme, though stories are central. A few poems that stood out to me were “Blessing (Circles),” which deals in how stories are not always neat and tidy things and spoke to my experience dealing with purity culture surrounding media, and “Like We Live in a Bad Poem,” which digs into the world building and the repercussions of the original Exiles having had their memories wiped, eg. idioms remain, but their context is lost. It is a book worth taking your time with and revisiting. I am certain it will hit me differently six months from now. 

[Image ID: Snapchat of text: "Don't be angry at a story because it isn't a map." The caption reads: I wish more people understood this. End ID]

Additionally, there is some truly incredible art throughout the book, done by artist Casper Pham. My favorite piece is the one that has also been used for the cover art. 

[Image ID: Artwork of a robot leaning back against a pile of cable, it has a hand raised which appears to be damaged, some of the fingers are sparking and smoking. Below the image is the quote: "Just because you don't have the power to run outside and magically 'fix' everything, it doesn't mean that you don't have power." The Snapchat caption reads: The art in this book is stunning. End ID]

If you’re lucky, you might also still be able to get the limited edition postcard prints when you order the book. (The site says they’re for the pre-order, but I got them and didn’t pre-order, so I’m assuming it’s a “while supplies last” thing now.)

Anyway, go get yourselves a copy and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the very beginning of the book. “Please remember: This doesn’t end in a meaningful way. There’s no tidy conclusion waiting for you on the other side. Think of it more like a circle.”

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Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Telling me something is gay historical fantasy is like, the fastest way to get my attention when it comes to getting me to read a book. I am gay, I love historical fiction, I love fantasy and the supernatural. Which is to say, when the English translation of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation”—“Mo Dao Zu Shi” in the original Chinese—was announced last year, I could not slam the preorder button fast enough. Volume 1 arrived in December and I fell in love instantly. Well, not quite instantly, I didn’t have time to properly read it until January, but my point still stands. The book is fantastic.

From the plot structure to the characters themselves, there is nothing that didn’t draw me in and this is only volume one of five. There are two interconnected plots that you follow through the book: 1. main character Wei Wuxian’s death in the first chapter and the backstory of how that came to be and 2. his resurrection some years later on the cusp of some sinister supernatural happenings. Both plots are really cleverly woven together in that you learn what you need to know of the past when it becomes relevant to the present day, this is done variously through internal monologue, spoken dialogue or actual flashback sequences. It’s great! 

To the characters, it’s very difficult to dislike a single character in the book, even when they’re antagonists, because they’re just so well done. I am particularly in love with how character development is established so quickly between past and present. I think my favorite example of this development is Lan Wangji, who we see predominantly from Wei Wuxian’s point of view in this first volume. Wei Wuxian knew how Lan Wangji acted when they were younger and in the present seeks to get similar reactions from him, but this backfires because, in the intervening years, Lan Wangji has grown and changed. We don’t see Lan Wangji’s internal development (at least not in this volume), but it is  so clear that growth has happened regardless of whether or not we’ve seen it and it’s just presented in a really excellent and effective way. 

The book is also just, really fun. There’s a great balance of what is, in truth, a rather heavy plot and humor. The writing is very good at playing to your emotions and it just feels incredibly human. It’s messy and complicated and it makes for an incredible story. 

If you’re wondering “where is the discussion of the gay shit?” It’s interwoven throughout the plot is where it is. “Grandmaster of Demon Cultivation” is very much slow burn when it comes to romance. There were other things going on in the past and there are other things going on in the present. The romance is by no means secondary, but it takes its time, volume one deals very much in obliviousness and pining/yearning. While the most explicit discussion of queerness is the in world homophobia and Wei Wuxian’s attempts use of that to his favor, there is, in my professional experience as a homosexual, a very clear queer yearning as well, it just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is fitting given the character it comes from. 

One final thing of note is the excellent glossary and character guide at the end of the book. The character guide breaks down Chinese naming conventions and why the same character might be referred to in different ways by different people, and the glossary explains everything from pronunciations to genre terms (danmei, xianxia, wuxia) to various terms that are staples of those genres and might be unfamiliar to a Western audience. I found a decent amount to be discernible through context, but those appendices were still massively helpful. If you were worried about being confused by the names or cultural context, don’t be, the book has got you covered. 

Volume 1 of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” is available for purchase now and volumes 2 and 3 are currently available for preorder from a variety of sellers.

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The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

[Image ID: The cover of The Last Wish. A dragon is breathing fire in the background while Geralt of Rivia, a white haired man in leather armor, in the foreground, prepares to swing his sword at the dragon. Below in a red bar is the title The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher and the author's name Andrzej Sapkowski. The snapchat caption reads: Witcher time. End ID]

So, you’ve watched “The Witcher” on Netflix and are wondering if it’s worth getting into the books. In my humble opinion, yes, yes it is. Now, you shouldn’t go in expecting to read exactly what you watched. That sort of thinking makes no one happy. My recommendation, having only read “The Last Wish” thus far, would be to treat them as two separate, yet complimentary canons. 

“The Last Wish” is a short story collection that bounces between Geralt resting and healing at Melitele’s temple with Nenneke and a series of adventures that took place in the past. A framing you will recognize in how the first season of the Netflix show bounced back and forth in time. This first book also covers many of the stories used for the first season: Renfri’s story, Pavetta’s betrothal, meeting Filavandrel, the djinn. Each story is expanded considerably from what we see in the show, which makes sense give the constraints of a TV production, but I think they were very nicely adapted. The djinn storyline in particular I thought was condensed for the Netflix show particularly well without losing too much of the feeling of the original story. 

I am also glad that the show added Jaskier/Dandelion to the Pavetta betrothal/child surprise storyline, where he wasn’t in the original story. This change makes sense both in a “giving Jaskier more screen time because he’s an important character” sense, but also because of how they brought together the storyline of the show. In the book, Jaskier/Dandelion appears in several of the stories where Geralt is at the temple of Melitele with Nenneke, stories that aren’t reflected in the show, adding him somewhere else was a good call. All in all, a good change made for a good reason. 

[Image ID: A snapchat of text, the highlighted section reads, "'You've got a guest.' 'Again? Who's it this time? Duke Hereward himself?' 'No it's Dandelion this time, your fellow...'" The snapchat caption reads "My boy" drawn out and in all caps. End ID]

On the flip side, I think one of the most interesting things that got lost in translation from book to show was the consistent riffing on classic fairy tales. Renfri is Snow White, her stepmother conspires to get rid of her and then she spends time living with seven gnomes; the Law of Surprise is the miller’s daughter’s promise to Rumplestiltskin made a formal pact with Destiny; Stregobor notes that when he locked girls up in towers, princes would try to rescue them, a la Rapunzel; etc. etc. They’re just wonderful little details that didn’t quite make it into the show, though you can certainly see hints of them, and I greatly enjoyed them every time I came across one. 

[Image ID: Snapchat of a section of the text, which reads: "...who began the Queen of Metinna with the help of the gnome Rumplestelt, and in return promised her firstborn? Zivelenna didn't keep her promise when Rumplestelt came for his reward and, by using spells, she forced him to run away. Not long after that, both she and the child died of the plague. You do not dice with Destiny with impunity!" The caption reads: "Fuck how did I miss this connection to the Law of Surprise" "Fuck" is in all caps. End ID]

Not everyone is going to be happy with every change, but to me, “The Last Wish” feels like a particularly excellent example of how a TV/film adaptation of a book/series can make major deviations from the text, while remaining faithful to the story as a whole. Additionally, even without the show, the books are just good. If you’re looking for more of the world of the Witcher, because you liked what the show presented good news! The books are jam packed with all the great world building in the shows and more. They’re serious, they’re funny, Geralt says “What the heck” at one point and I lost it. I cannot emphasize how much you will like the books if you already enjoyed the show. 

[Image ID: A Snapchat of the text, the highlighted section reads: "Very well, Caldemeyn. What the heck, we'll risk a meeting with Master Irion. Shall we go?" The caption reads: "Coming from the show, the idea of Henry Cavill's Geralt saying 'what the heck' is obscenely funny." End ID]

Some notes:
Since the books are a combination of short story collections and novels, there has been some wondering about what order to read them in. This article, was my go to for sorting out my reading order.

The books are also selling rather fast at the moment due to the show’s popularity and are backordered in a number of places. I got mine used through independent sellers on Amazon, but I would recommend checking your preferred bookseller first, since these are widely available books. 

Even Penelope Faltered: Marriages, Monuments, and Metropoleis in Erika Behrisch Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square”

A simple beige cover with a circular date stamp reading "London W.C. Feb 9" on the upper middle left side by the spine.

In the upper right hand corner is a while banner that reads "Stonehouse Publishing Originals"

The title is in the very center in a handwriting script "Lady Franklin of Russell Square" and below this in blue block text is "A novel by Erika Behrisch Elce"

Review by Kathryn Stutz

Nearly three years ago, Snap Book Reviews published a review of the novel “The Terror,” by Dan Simmons. Lovely and scathing, this review pointed out that Simmons’s massive brick of a book, which covers the events of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845 in exhaustive detail, served as the source material for a far-superior 2018 television adaptation that manages to depict the same historical events with both greater accuracy and also far less racism and misogyny baked into the narrative.

The story of the ill-fated Captain Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic with two ships and over one hundred unfortunate British sailors, inevitably raises these questions of racism (against Inuit groups who were blamed in the British press for Franklin’s demise) and misogyny (against the numerous women impacted by the disaster, both bereaved female relations in England and Inuit women who were questioned by explorers searching for Franklin). Representing these Victorian bigotries in fiction has proven a difficult task—and Simmons failed to live up to this challenge.

In 2018, however, two new Franklin fictions offered audiences a different view of this historical disaster: the excellent television show mentioned above (AMC’s “The Terror,” produced by Soo Hugh and David Kajganich) and Erika Behrisch Elce’s epistolatory novel “Lady Franklin of Russell Square,” written in the form of letters to the absent Sir John Franklin from his wife, Jane.

In the very first line of the Afterword to her novel, Elce (herself a scholar of the Franklin expedition and editor of the historical Lady Franklin’s letters) lays out a guiding thematic principle for her literary offering: “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John,” Elce writes, “I disagree.”

The title “Afterward” is circled in green and the annotation “Lesson 1: Always Read the Afterward” is added above in glowing blue letters. The paragraph below begins with the underlined sentence “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John. I disagree,” after which the author continues: “though the historical record is imperfect in finding proof for either position. As most biographers acknowledge, Lady Franklin destroyed or altered so much of her personal correspondence and private writing that it remains largely a matter of speculation. Given her intense, prolonged, excruciating efforts to find Sir John after 1847, I choose to believe in her love for him.” Below this text, a pale blue annotation on a black background reads “Too often they forget love: I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.”

Those who have read other historical fictions about the Franklin Expedition, from Sten Nadolny’s idiosyncratic and introspective German novel “The Discovery of Slowness,” to Dominique Fortier’s (only loosely historical) found-footage French-Canadian collage “On the Proper Use of Stars,” may already have noticed that few fiction authors see Lady Franklin and her husband Sir John as soulmates. More often Lady Franklin seems, at best, indifferent to her husband (or, at worst, actively malevolent), and Sir John’s eyes stray from his lady wife to other women.

“Lady Franklin of Russell Square” begs to differ.

As written by Elce, Lady Franklin is misanthropic, judgmental, clever, passionate, and angry. She often seems to rage against the world, but she always, always loves her missing husband. The novel’s central themes, about Lady Franklin’s legacy, make it painfully clear that this protagonist knows she is being misunderstood: “Too often they forget love,” Lady Franklin writes. “I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.” It’s a compelling idea, and an innovative one.

Another mark of Elce’s great talent for showing historical research in her fiction is that the factual errors are often relatively minor. In contrast to other Franklin novels like “On the Proper Use of Stars,” where important names are misspelled or even invented whole-cloth, “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” pays very close attention to historical figures and the timelines of their lives, using real historical newspaper clippings to anchor the narrative.

Regrettably, one of the few mistakes calculated to disturb me in particular comes at the very beginning of the story, where an off-hand remark implies that Lady Franklin didn’t speak Latin or Greek, when in reality the classical world and its languages were a key part of her self-education, from when she began learning Latin at nineteen, to her travels through Greece as a newlywed in the 1830s.

Dark green and lavender underlining highlights the quotation, “France and Italy were much the same and still worth the effort, but America waggled its gilded fingers and beckoned to both me and Eleanor, with all its clanking, shiny progress and youthful vigour. In between its grand metropolises (metropoli?) It was, truly, ‘beautiful with spacious skies,’ but the cities were surprisingly dirty and cramped for such young places.” Above this quotation, black annotation on a white background reads, “So the word ‘metropolis’ is Greek, from the words mētro– (meaning ‘mother’) and polis (meaning ‘city’). In Greek, the plural of polis is ‘poleis,’ and when you transfer it over to Latin, it’s ‘poles.’ NEVER ‘poli.’” At the bottom of the image, white cursive text on a blue brush-stroke background reads, “Lady Franklin knew both Greek and Latin!”

Lady Franklin’s interest in the classical world is important to know, in this context, because of how several of the novel’s subplots twine together to form an intricate picture of Lady Franklin’s life in the 1840s and 1850s. One of my favorite narrative threads in “Russell Square” depicts Lady Franklin’s interaction with her nephew-by-marriage, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who offers Lady Franklin a copy of his 1842 poem “Ulysses.”

First, an annotation in purple on a white background prints a quotation from poetry, reading, “…this gray spirit yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Below this, the text on the page is underlined in lavender, reading, “I want to follow knowledge like a sinking star—but what is left for me? Only knowledge of my self—every other option is simply scandalous.” Finally, at the bottom, an annotation in white on a black background reads, “Quoting from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’ (written in 1833 and published in 1842) inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy.”

Tennyson would go on to compose a famous four-line epitaph for Sir John Franklin:

“Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou

            Heroic sailor soul,

Art passing on thine happier voyage now

            Toward no earthly pole.”

Tennyson’s earlier work, “Ulysses,” draws upon classical literature from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante to speak in the voice of the Greek mythic hero Odysseus, a captain who, like Sir John, spent many years lost at sea, after sailing to Troy to help recover Helen of Troy, the “face who launched a thousand ships.”

At the top of one page, pink glowing letters read “Complex Classical Questions.” Beneath, a white annotation on a black background reads “Is Sir John the Odysseus (Ulysses) to Lady Franklin’s Faithful Penelope?” and then the pink glowing letters resume, reading “OR,” beneath which pink letters ask, “Is he Helen of Troy to Lady Franklin’s Agamemnon?” The printed text on the page beneath this begins with the end of a paragraph, which reads, “—my siren song, you called it, that kept you from your heroic destiny, at home on our own little happy isle. Well, where are you know? Whose siren song fills your ears?” The paragraph breaks, and the next paragraph continues, “Third, I am no Penelope, because I know that you are not Ulysses—you are Helen, that saucy beauty whose passion for another launched a thousand ships.” One quotation, further down this second paragraph is underlined in lavender and circled in white, purple, and pink: “If you are Helen, I suppose I must be Agamemnon, the angry, jilted lover.”

Over the course of numerous fictive letters spread out over many years, Elce’s Lady Franklin engages richly with the myths of Odysseus, casting herself first as the hero’s ever-faithful wife Penelope, and then she begins to chafe at the notion of being “called ‘pious’ and ‘devoted,’” and recasts herself instead in other ancient roles—the vengeful Lord Agamemnon, hell-bent upon finding Helen, his brother’s wife; or even as Odysseus (Ulysses) himself. For a classicist like me, this is a wonderfully complex tapestry of meta-narrative and metaphor.

Despite one or two initial errors—and some rather antagonistic depiction of individuals whom Lady Franklin once considered her close friends, like the explorer Sir James Clark Ross (shown here as vainglorious and lacking in compassion) and Lady Franklin’s niece Sophia Cracroft (shown here as a devotee of pulp novels, which can’t help but seem like an overreaction against the radical Austenite Sophia of “On the Proper Use of Stars”)—Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” ultimately won me over. Unique among current Franklin fictions as a novel that truly considers the lived experience of a loving widow, it’s well worth a read.

Many thanks to Thomas for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts and impressions! If you’re interested in hearing me speak more about historical fiction and Lady Franklin, do come to the panel “Who Tells Your Story?: (Mis)representing the Past in Works of Historical Fiction” at the r/AskHistorians Digital Conference: [Deleted] & Missing History, from October 19th through October 21st.

The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles

The cover of The Route of Ice & Salt. Using varying shades of blue and white the background is the bow of a ship moving through water.

Over the boat is the author's and translator's name, José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles. Over the water is the title in larger font. The Route of Ice & Salt. 

The snapchat caption reads: Hot vamper summer, followed by a forward facing boat on water emoji.

(Not spoiler free)

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I was expecting this book to be less queer than it was, but I was expecting it to be more subtextual. I suppose that’s because I was thinking about the time period in which “Dracula” was originally was written, and how queer readings of “Dracula” all rely heavily on coding and subtext. Not that this is in anyway a bad thing, I loved every queer minute of it and I am so so very glad that we now have an English translation of this wonderful book.

Book quote: "I am the Captain. 
Impossible that I order one of my men to come to my cabin and ask him to undress, much less insist he stand still and permit me to clean him with my tongue, lightly biting his flesh, trembling with craving for his skin."

Snapchat caption: I was expecting the queer aspect to be more subtle than this, but who am i to complain about a book being MORE GAY than i expected.

“The Route of Ice & Salt,” as you may have already guessed, is explicitly queer and you never forget that for one moment. The whole novella is grappling with the overlapping acceptance, shame and guilt of one’s own identity and actions as well as society’s perception of queerness as monstrous. It opens with our narrator, the captain of the Demeter, musing on his mens’ bodies, expressing attraction, but also noting that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to act on that attraction, and it ends with the captain proclaiming as he faces the monster aboard his ship that he is not a monster for his desires. 

Book quote: "I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself, nor Hunger a stigma that must be erased by fire and blood.
Not even Sin.
It is what we are willing to do to feed an impulse that makes it dangerous."

Snapchat caption: Yes yes, this

Much like the original novel, “The Route of Ice & Salt” is epistolary, and made up of the captain’s log and his private diary. It is in the private diary that we learn about the captain’s inner life and how he navigates his sexuality. There is a fine balance between erotic and horror, particularly as the captain’s dreams become influenced by the vampire aboard the ship. 

It is in these dreams that we learn about the captain’s lover, Mikhail, who is rather at the center of the captain’s turmoil surrounding his sexuality. He blamed himself for Mikhail’s death, following his brutal murder at the hands of the townsfolk. It is also noteworthy that they treat Mikhail’s corpse as if he were a vampire, cementing the connection between the monstrous and the queer.

There is repeated connection too of vampire bites to the neck and the bruise sucked into the neck by a lover. In fact, when the captain sees such a mark on one of his crew, his mind goes to the later instead of the former. 

My absolute favorite thing about the book, however, was how brought up various different cultural ideas surrounding vampires, even before the captain knows there is something on board he would call a vampire. The vrykolakas of Greece, the strigoi and vrolocks of Romania, the rakshasa of India. It was an expansion of vampire lore, through the lens of these sailors’ own backgrounds as well as lore of the places where they had sailed, which I thought was just… so great and clever.

Book quote: "Is it not said that to kill the vrolocks, the vlkoslak, the bloodthirsty living dead in Romania, one needs only living water?"

Snapchat caption: Love how the vampire mythos of various cultures has come up throughout the book.

Some potential warnings to note, in addition to the aforementioned murder:

There are several mentions of age gaps between partners. The captain is noted to have been younger than his lover by some undisclosed number of years, and there are several mentions of ambiguously young sex workers.

Additionally, if you are familiar with “Dracula,” you will know that no one living survives the passage from Varna to Whitby. This is a queer erotic horror story that fleshes out a small piece of the original novel. There is a cathartic ending, but if you’re looking for a fluffy happy ending, this probably isn’t the book for you.

That said, I would highly recommend this book to fans of “Dracula” and anyone looking for queer horror or queer nautical fiction. 

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StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night by Leon Langford

The cover of StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night. Front and center is a young black man, Jordan Harris, with black hair with two blond stripes shaved into the sides. His fist is clenched in front of him and the back of his glove reads "be your own hero."

He, and the other four characters behind him are all wearing black superhero suits with gold shoulder and chest plates. Behind his left shoulder is a Black girl with long purple hair, Alicia Jackson, and her hand outstretched and to Jordan's right is a white girl with blue shoulder length hair, Sydney Asimov, who is grinning sharply with her hand under her chin.

Above Alicia is Reuben Alvarez, who has short red/black hair and his extended hand is black with red cracks, like magma breaking through cooled rock. Next to him is Cooper Greene, a white ginger boy mid stride with ears and the tail of a red panda. 

There is a white star in the center of the cover between all the figures over which the title "StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night" is placed. 

Caption: Greek mythology! Superheros! Get hype!

Fast paced and absolutely riveting, “StarLion” is the story of Jordan Harris, a young man with powers derived from the gods, who dreams of being a hero, but has been told to hide his powers and so resorts to vigilante activity in his spare time. The origin of superheroes as descended from the gods of various pantheons gives the book a unique twist that is very, very refreshing in the face of what feels like endless stream of superhero movies that seem to rehash the same plot elements and problems. It also creates a fascinating alternate history, where major historical figures, George Washington, Napoleon, etc. had superpowers, and makes for some really cool world building moments. 

Quote from the text reads: The halls of West Memorial High School were painted with various historical figures, running chronologically through history. From Zeus standing on Mount Olympus, to Julius Caesar glowing with light in Rome, to Napoleon on a winged horse, to George Washington hovering over Washington, D.C.

The caption reads: THIS is the kind of fictional history we love to see

Though the most lauded superheroes are called Olympians and the school Jordan attends (as an alternative to prison after he’s caught doing vigilante work) is called Fort Olympus, the Greek gods are not the only gods represented. My two favorite minor characters, who I really hope we see again in a sequel, are Tobe and Osin, who are descended from the African god, Ogun.

And the characters, oh boy, there’s so much to love. Everyone, villain and hero alike, is well-rounded and dynamic. Everyone has flaws, people have to work to get along, and sometimes they just don’t get along. Relationships are complex and characters’ inner conflicts are complex, and I really enjoyed the choice to have the main team be so large and so dynamic. Not one person is alike, though they all share some level of similarity, Jordan and Alicia and Sydney all have family who were or are professional superheroes, but well, let’s just say it takes bit for them to get along, and Cooper and Reuben, whose powers manifest as being creature-human hybrids, could not have more polar opposite personalities, though they share some level of struggle (with varying severity). 

Quote: "What?" Reuben shot back. "Are you telling me you all knew who his uncle was?" 
Alicia nodded. "Yeah, Jordan told me." 
Battalia nodded, too. "My dad told me." 
Cooper admitted bashfully, "He's buying my silence with toys." 

Caption: Poor Reuben, but the framing of this is hilarious.

Large casts like this can be very difficult to pull off, especially when you need to develop them all quickly, but through the use of third person omniscient narration, we get to learn quickly and effectively just where all the points of conflict between our leads comes from. This, in turn, allows for rapid movement forward as they all learn to work together and grow as friends and team mates.

While Jordan is the primary POV character, the dip in and out of other characters’ POVs also adds some really wonderful layers to the story and sets up some really great tension and suspense. This allows for a really great blend of both foreshadowing and learning information that our protagonists just don’t know. 

Quote: "I panicked. It was just the two of us and -- I was just 20-years-old, barely an adult. So I hid him. I told him to hide his powers. I - I thought about putting him in a hero school. I thought about telling him the truth. I thought about all these things, but god, it was just so much easier to hide. I told him to hide who he was. I - I hid myself and --." Khadija stopped. She was out of breath. She sunk back in her seat, a decade of lies weighing on her. "He's going to start asking questions, Darius. Questions about the Green night. Things I don't want to face." 

Caption: Oh I am intrigued [followed by three eye emojis]

Some other things I enjoyed:

1. The artwork. There is absolutely gorgeous, full-color artwork throughout the book, and the uniforms are completely unisex. There are also little character bios, which are really great. 

A picture of Jordan in his black and gold uniform punching the Red TItan in the face. A rainbow of light swirls behind him and is punctuated by pale blue and gold starbursts. The armor on the Red Titan's face is in the process of shattering. 

Caption: Oh wowza that's stunning.

2. A very diverse cast! There are multiple characters of color—Jordan and Alicia are Black and I believe Reuben is Latino—and multiple disabled characters too! Jordan’s best friend Nathan walks with crutches, and superhero Red Wing, who is Jordan’s squad leader is an accomplished hero who started his hero career already missing one arm. 

3. How very obviously their age the main five leads are. They’re teenagers and it shows, though again, in different ways for each character, no one has the same sort of background. 

There’s so much more. I could go on and on. “StarLion” is a wonderful and fun read.

The biggest warning I would give is for genre typical violence, and one description on page 362, first full paragraph on the page, of an open, compound fracture.

“StarLion: The Thieves of the Red Night” can be found in paperback here and as an ebook here. (The paperback is gorgeous and incredibly satisfying to hold.)

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The Rise of the Vampire by Erik Butler

Cover of "The Rise of the Vampire" by Erik Butler. An all black background with the title in white at the top and the author's name in red at the bottom. There is a drop of blood that drips down the cover emerging from the bottom of the V in vampire.

The snapchat caption reads: "VAMP TIME"

I really didn’t know what to expect from this book. Despite my longstanding love of vampires, I’ve read more vampire fiction and folklore than I have any academia on the subject. Having read it now, my ultimate assessment is that if you’re looking for an introduction to the history of vampires as they exist today this is a very good starting place.

“The Rise of the Vampire” is entertainingly written analysis of the rise of the vampire in folklore and fiction and how they have prospered in some areas and not in others, but remain fixed—yet ever evolving—in the cultural conscious. I also enjoyed the frank, though limited, discussion of the anti-Semitic, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tropes that pervade vampire fiction. 

Book quote: Visibility entails risk for the undead, but it can also mean peril for those who would track them. Vampires work by deception, after all. We should proceed with caution in this endeavour, lest we find ourselves entangled in a web of illusion that delivers us, helpless and exposed, into enemy hands." 

Snapchat caption: I'm living for the drama of the prose.

If I talked about everything I loved about the book my review would be as long as the book myself, so I’ll keep it to my absolutely favorite things. 

1. The origins of the vampire mythos in Eastern Europe as a way for the the native Serbian people of the region to assert some control during a time when their homeland was in the control of others. I found this fascinating, because I’ve only ever read about the origins and history from a perspective of “here are diseases that could have contributed to the vampire mythos.”

2. The utter evisceration of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight.” I don’t mean Butler was derogatory or dismissive toward the series or tore it apart in a negative way. He treats it as he treats any iteration of vampire fiction, one with good aspects and bad aspects, but he takes it apart incredibly thoroughly and in a way that exposes that darker and much creepier aspects of the books, which I appreciated a whole awful lot. I will say, the one issue I had during his assessment was is use of the term “redskins,” when describing Meyer’s racist depiction of the Quileute Indian Tribe. I understand that he was trying to make the point that Meyer had done a bad job, but using a slur felt unnecessary. 

3. Maybe Abraham Van Helsing and Quincy Morris in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” are actually vampires. This blew my mind, particularly with regard to Van Helsing. Butler’s break down of his reasoning is incredible and it makes so much sense. The vampire hunter is a vampire himself. This makes me think, in particular, of dhampir lore, which says that the child of a mortal and a vampire will be a born vampire hunter. 

Book quote: "Whereas all the other characters suffer in some manner or other from the Count's machinations, Van Helsing does not. Could it be that Van Helsing knows so much about Dracula because he is a vampire himself?"

Snapchat caption: I am LIVING for this theory.

4. Spike my beloved. Butler’s assessment of Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is so good. His analysis of Spike’s song (“Let Me Rest in Peace”) in the episode “Once More With Feeling” had me rolling. The line “The song teeters embarrassingly between sensitivity and machismo,” could honestly just be an assessment of Spike as a whole. There’s a big ass softie beneath that cold seeming exterior, which is exactly why he’s my favorite. 

Book quote: The whole song teeters embarrassingly between sensitivity and machismo. Abandoning his usual appearance of cool, Spike makes the melodramatic gestures of a Top 40 troubadour, clenching his fists, sweeping his arms and jumping onto a coffin to make a show of his feelings. When he bares his heart in this way, he can be wounded.

Instead of laying his torments to rest, Spike resurrects the bad poet who died. The vampire's potential for mystery and menace disappear utterly when he sings. Spike reveals a gooey, sentimental interior at odds with the image he otherwise projects."

Snapchat caption: Listen, this isn't a flaw, this is EXACTLY why Spike is so great. It's the layers.

One final quibble I will bring up is that this is a very European and American centric look at vampires. There are plenty of other cultures that have vampiric equivalents, even if “vampire” isn’t the word used for them. If this book can discuss non-vampire characters as vampiric in nature then, why not give a nod to some non-Western vampiric entities, say the obayifo of Ashanti folklore or the Malaysian penanggalan? Of course, there’s only so much room in the book and it already covers quite a large swath of time and location, but I would have appreciated at least some acknowledgment of vampire lore occurring in other cultures. 

All in all, this was a riveting and informational read and I would highly recommend to vampire lovers everywhere. 

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