The gorgeously hallucinogenic cover art is highly appropriate for this story – a vivid nightmare of a tale in which the world of the living and the world of the dead begin to bleed at the edges, merging into one but only for those who seek out the blurred lines. The titular bureau is a place inhabited by the dead, who appear to be nothing more than mindless automatons acting at the behest of their de-facto leader, Yarker, the kind of gleeful bastard villain Stephen King might have dreamed up. A few days ago on Facebook I described The Bureau Of Them as ‘bloody marvellous, a skin-crawlingly claustrophobic nightmare put to paper, but with a real vulnerability at its heart which grounds the reader in the here and now’ – and I think that’s pretty accurate summary. The main character’s fragility is sketched with deft hands, her sorrow and hurt and anger all terribly vivid and believable. It’s as much a tale of loss and the struggle to find closure as it is a ghost story. I feel like Cate Gardner is one of the most quietly talented writers in the genre right now, and I hope this gets the recognition it deserves because it’s really very good indeed.
Another of my favourite writers in the genre, this is the first ‘longer’ story of Priya’s that I’ve read, and it’s every bit as good as any of her short stories. Better, actually, if only because Priya excels at weaving together the past and the present in intricate, clever ways (as in ‘The Absent Shade’)
It’s about female friendship and female strength as much as anything else, the bonds women form and the necessity of those bonds. A literal and metaphorical story of transformation set across two timelines, intersecting two very different periods of the main character’s life. The contrast here is fascinating and very effective. The secrecy of Lola’s childhood years, and the quiet cruelties visited upon her by those she was supposed to be able to trust serve as a brilliant emotional counterpoint to everything that comes afterwards.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
SF and fantasy are genres which sometimes struggle with real-world diversity. Who Fears Death is set in a world resembling very much a post-apocalyptic Africa, inhabited by the dark-skinned Okeke people, the light-skinned Nuru and the Ewu – the mixed-race children of Okeke and Nuru, feared and reviled as being the product of violence and rape. It’s written in the Great Book of the Okeke that they were born to be the slaves of the Nuru. The analogy here is so obvious I don’t need to explain it, but it’s plenty powerful all the same, especially seen through the eyes of Onyesonwu – a name which translates as ‘Who Fears Death’. Onyesonwu has vivid nightmares of her Nuru father, a powerful sorceror whose talents have been passed down to his daughter. The story is fairly typical quest-type stuff, but the worldbuilding is rich and imaginative, the characters well crafted and full of conflict, and it’s so refreshing to read a fantasy tale that isn’t set in a thinly-veiled fictional Europe for once.