Reviewer/indie publisher of science fiction, fantasy, speculative and historical fiction. Indie writers, request free, independent, unbiased reviews through Palantir Press. Palantir Press exists to publish, profit, partner and play in the indie book movement.
All Our Wrong Todays
Author Elan Mastai
$12.99 on Kindle, $26.00 hardcover. To be published February 7, 2017 by Dutton/Penguin
Canadian screenwriter Elan Mastai’s debut novel is a time travel tale with all the psychological insight and skillful wordsmithing of a literary novel. Or a literary novel with time travel, alternate time streams, romance and adventure. But don’t waste time quibbling over what it is. Just read it. It’s good. You’re going to want to read more from this guy.
First, let’s get some reviewer bias admissions out of the way. I quit reading the latest literary fiction releases a few years back when my book clubs kept picking well-reviewed literary fiction blockbusters about self-pitying, self-indulgent protagonists who whine about their parents a lot while floating around in books where nothing ever happens for long pages of beautifully written prose. I like my protagonists more capable and competent, with less self-pity, more like the dude in Andrew Weir’s “The Martian.” Seeking more action and adventure, I threw myself into the more exciting world of speculative fiction, where lots happens but--let’s be honest here--the writing in too many science fiction and fantasy books can be as painful as Sunday dinner with your [insert your most despised political party]-favoring in-laws right before the election.
I hunger for good writing craft plus a cracking good story. “All Our Wrong Todays” delivers both by the truckload.
I don’t want to frighten off the core time travel fans by praising the writing. All the stuff you love is here too! If you enjoy “Terminator: Genisys” or “Time Travel Hot Tub 2,” to name some recent time-travel movies, you’ll find plenty of action, humor, romance and adventure in “All Our Wrong Tomorrows,” plus thoughtful consideration of the usual time travel paradoxes and constraints. Mastai comes up with two separate time travel mechanisms, and a flock of vividly imagined alternate time streams. He just does it subversively, intelligently, humorously, gently rollicking along on the rails of well-traveled time travel tropes until ZHWOING!!!! Mastai hurls you, gentle reader, off into a whole new ballgame, time and time and time and time again. I don’t want to spoil the reader’s journey by any plot hints, except to promise that the moment you think you have it figured out, Mastai will find a way to turn you and the story inside out. He knows the time travel tropes; he uses them in fresh and fun ways.
I’m sure the literary fiction fans are already terrified. Time travel? Egad! But please give this a chance. The writing is great, with rhythm you’ll want to read aloud, an approachable but richly detailed style and an unerring sense for the image and dialogue that captures a moment. The work is a bit of a memoir, multi-faceted, multi-time-stream memoir, one that even starts with my most-hated-protagonist-type, the loser who whines about his parents a lot. Thankfully he does not remain so, nor do we spend hundreds of pages doing nothing. I persisted, even given my disdain for whiny protagonists (see above), because the writing and the world-building were superb, and the intelligence and wit behind the story and the character so evident. I decided to trust the author and he delivered.
For the more literary-minded reader, you’ll get thoughtful and insightful meditations on a range of unexpected topics. What is the good life? What do I value and why? Who is my family? What is reality? What would I do for love? What am I responsible for, accountable for, and what must I do to right a wrong even if it wasn’t my fault? When must I quit blaming others for my life and start owning my choices? What is forgiveness, and how do I learn to forgive? What does the greater good, and my own self-interest, even mean? (And some badass ideas on the logistics of time travel and the heuristics of technological innovation, but if that’s not your thing, you can glide right over those bits.)
Recommendation: for time travel fans, of course, but for anyone who enjoys well-written fiction seasoned with equal parts wit, intelligence and adventure. Strongly recommend, with five stars.
Disclosure: I received a free pre-publication version of this story from Netgalley and the opportunity but not the obligation to write a review.
Historical romance novelist Jeannie Lin’s foray into steampunk, “Gunpowder Alchemy,” offers readers a rich cultural and historical feast along with adventure, restrained romance, dragon airships, pirates, rebels, imperial princes, revolutions and old-school conflicts over loyalty, duty and honor. Lin’s tale is intelligent, innovative, culturally authentic, engaging and well told.
First, a word about genre. “Gunpowder Alchemy” is steampunk, but not your usual steampunk fare set in England or the U.S. Wild West with feisty Victorian ladies running around in corsets pursuing adventures in dirigibles with their clockwork mechanical friends and their Babbage computers.
Instead, our story is set in 1850 China, during the turmoil of the Opium Wars, and our heroine is a fallen Manchurian aristocrat, living hidden in the middle of nowhere after her father, the Chief Engineer to the Son of Heaven, was executed for failing to fight off the overwhelming military forces of the West. Our heroine, to feed her little brother and opium-addicted mother, must venture into the big city to sell the disgraced family’s last possession of any value. Adventure ensues, set against a historically accurate portrayal of the times, a turbulent and violent chapter in China’s history as that sophisticated empire collided with the brash and militarily superior Western powers.
Some critics have complained that Lin’s story is not steampunk enough, to which I can only reply that they are missing the point of steampunk. The heart of steampunk--and here I refer to steampunk beyond its manifestation as literature or steampunk as a science fiction genre to the wider cultural steampunk movement of the last few years--revolves around its fascination with technology, whether it be in the steampunk Do-It-Yourself/Maker movement or the re-imagining of a better past seen in more mainstream steampunk stories. The whole story grapples with the moment in history when China had an existential need for the technology to fight off the foreign invaders, and deals with characters who for various motivations and in different ways, struggle with that overwhelming challenge using every skill of engineering and science at their disposal. Lin’s story is MORE than merely steampunk, in that it also offers an engaging and authentic experience of a culture and a time period unfamiliar to many Western readers. So to steampunk, add “historical fiction,” ‘historical fantasy,” “alternate history” and yes, Lin’s forte, “historical romance,“ to the other genres that could also be used to describe elements of this novel.
Lin’s characters are a product of her chosen period, geography and their class and station in a rigidly status-conscious culture, not modern yellow-faced white Anglo adventurers marching through historical sets. Lin’s grasp of the history and culture of that period in Chinese history is confident and authentic, and provides much of the pleasure in reading this tale. The romance thread is beautifully and delicately portrayed, with all the constraints of that time pressing down on the growing attraction between the lovers. To our coarser modern tastes, the lovers’ restraint may seem quaint or sweet, but I found it moving and real in its context. The devastation opium wrought on the Chinese people of that time is vividly portrayed in the opium-addicted mother of the heroine, as well as the ravaged and violent victims of a mysterious form of amped-up tainted opium (somewhat reminiscent of Cherie Priest’s zombie army, formed in a different way, so take that, steampunk-genre-doubters!) The cultural meaning, pride and suffering associated with the custom of foot-binding is touched upon as well, with a marvelous steampunk solution woven into an important plot point.
The world-building is meticulous, whether in its descriptions of a rural village or the bustling urban centers, both the Chinese and the foreign quarters. Technology is of the time, augmented occasionally with delightful steampunk inventions blended with, for example, traditional Chinese medicine methods. I’m a round-eyed pale waiguoren, but one armed with a degree in East Asian Studies and a smattering of Mandarin, and I truly enjoyed experiencing the history and culture Lin depicted so masterfully. Where she made linguistic or historical simplifications in support of drama and pacing (always the right choice!), she did so with intelligence while preserving the essential truth of the culture and history.
Finally, the writing and craft are smooth and well done. Lin’s writing is clean and spare, not ornate, with just enough detail to keep things concrete without slowing pacing. I have an old-fashioned preference for stories told in the third person point of view, but I found myself adapting quickly to the protagonist’s first person point of view as Lin unobtrusively engaged me in her story. I found myself questioning my own preferences as I enjoyed the immediacy of her first person POV.
Recommendation: for historical fiction fans interested in China, for sweet historical romance fans, and yes, for open-minded steampunk adventure fans willing to try something other than same-old Anglophile steampunk. Each of you will find a tale well-crafted, full of unique and interesting characters set in an unfamiliar and vividly real world. I've already downloaded the next book in the series, to see where Lin and her characters go next!