The Music Box Girl by K.A. Stewart
The gender-swapped steampunk Phantom of the Opera that you never knew you wanted! Stewart's story takes place in a shiny alt-history Detroit, complete with steam-powered robot servitors, mechanical glories and, of course, airships.
The Music Box Girl follows three point of view characters. Tony is our Christine - he's a young man from a (hand-wavey) other country, here to make his destiny as a singer. He gets a job as a stagehand at the prestigious Detroit Opera House, but his after hours crooning earns the attention of the Opera House's very own phantom. Bess is Raoul. She's also from (wherever) and is a childhood friend of Tony. But whilst Tony is carving out a living as a prop-duster, Bess is an international tomb raider. Tired of society and its conventions, she carries guns and buckles swashes and dashes and dives in and out of adventures. But, secretly, she might be craving something a little more... romantic.
And, of course, the titular Music Box Girl. Melody is our Phantom. A rogue automaton, she's haunted the Opera for years, giving unwanted advice, making certain editorial decisions, and, in general, protecting 'the music'. But as a wild robot, Melody needs to keep to the shadows. The world isn't kind to automata with minds of their own. Her discovery of Tony leads to a cataclysmic chain of events: Melody is keen to make him the star, whether he wants it or not, and she won't let anyone stand in her way - not the management, not Bess, not even Tony himself.
The Music Box Girl is certainly one of the most polished of the SPFBO finalists, and deserves a lot of credit for,... for lack of a better word... professionalism. It is well-presented, well-structured, attractive and just well-made. This sounds silly, but, as discussed in previous reviews, it is important for our self-published books to maintain the standards of traditionally-published ones, else they lose out at the first hurdle. Stewart's nailed it: this book looks like it fits right on the shelf at Waterstones.
All that aside, it is also an immensely solid book. Phantom is one of those delightfully timeless, easily-adaptable stories that can fit into any context, and Stewart's approach is easily read. It is just different enough to keep entertaining, but still familiar. The three key differences - the setting, the gender swapping, and Melody herself - all make for interesting decisions, worthy of further discussion.
Moving the story to steampunk Detroit is, for what is seemingly the easiest 'translation' of Phantom, also the most subtly complicated. Phantom is a claustrophobic story, set in a tiny, insular world. The Opera, notably, contains universes - that's one of its themes, of course - but it is also a small, enclosed world of its own. Once you leave its bounds, nothing has power: certainly not its Phantom, who can only rage at the outside world. In The Music Box Girl, there's much more of the outside world, and this is slightly to the story's detriment. The contrivance (Bess and Tony both winding up here) is forgivable, but there's never a sense that the two of them can't just... leave. There's no claustrophobia, and very little terror: the Opera itself is a location, not a world. Bess is an international jet-setter, only barely there to begin with. Similarly, Stewart introduces a fascinating steampunk setting, but it is largely a matter of convenience: robots do what they need to do, airships are there when they need to be... and all of this is explained as and when needed, rather than woven in throughout.
The gender-swapping is adorable, and a very nice touch. Both Bess and Tony are very nice, very friendly characters, that don't take a lot of missteps. Tony's a bit of a blank, and Bess is textbook feisty, but their archetypical nature serves the story well. And, more importantly, their slightly-usual characterisation makes room for the book's real star, Melody. Just as Erik is the undisputed star of the original story, Melody steals the stage in Stewart's retelling. She's adamant, but with glimpses of a strange, fleeting humanity. She's cruel, but also haunted. Her backstory is more interesting, and better teased, than either of her human counterparts. And her relationships with those around her - from the cat-and-mouse with a curious stagehand to the emotional manipulation of a broken-down manager - are, by far, the most compelling of the book. As her fixation on Tony turns from professional to personal, there's something empathetic about her obvious loneliness...
Melody is the book's strongest point, and, of course, the core story is a very fun one. There are a few false notes (sorry) - as noted, the setting somewhat undermines the story's core tension, and the two romantic leads lack chemistry. Their meet-cute takes place in the distant past, and hearing them regale one another with childhood stories makes a weak substitution for a connection we can witness first-hand. The characters are more interesting independently, Tony's hard work and Bess's 'outsider' social status make them more appealing as individuals than a couple.
Stewart does a strong job of adding new action, as well as a good interpretation of the Phantom him/herself. If the other two characters are merely along for the ride, well, they were never the fun parts anyway. This is not a experimental retelling nor a revisionist approach, rather, Stewart has created a solid adaptation of a classic story.
For fans of: Were it a little saucier, I'd recommend Eloisa James' fairy tale inspired regency romances. For more adventure/steampunk YA... Gail Carriger's Prudence, definitely. Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, maybe.
The land of Math is occupied by Fylking. The shapeshifting alien fae arrived centuries ago, and made the land their home, irregardless of its human inhabitants. Centuries later, their enemies arrived, and the war - with humans in the middle - shattered the land and its people. Now the Fylking and humans live in a sort of strange symbiosis, with human wardens keeping the Fylking happy, distracted, and (most importantly) away from the rest of humans.
But all good - or even 'palatable status quo' - things must come to an end. As Outpost unfolds, a series of strange attacks are taking place at the Fylking's towers. Wardens and Fylking both are falling in battle to a mysterious assailant. A handful of heroes - wrapped up in their own politics, love affairs, secret torments - must rise to the occasion. Something awful is coming (back)...
I don't have a ton to say about Outpost. I'm afraid this is a 'did not finish'. Despite my efforts, I only made it halfway through. I hasten to add, this is solely matter of taste. Outpost is an immensely convoluted epic fantasy, with an elaborate magic system, complex politics and a rich history that spans millennia. There's a touch of Norse influence, which is well-woven into the language, giving everything a bleak, cold feel - Fylkings and Niflsekt and bears, etc. It is also important not to underestimate the sense of scale - our alien/fae travel across star systems and drop in science-fictional references, whilst on Math, the conversation is about the weight of thousands upon thousands of years.
I note all these, not because they're bad things. There's a density of information that I simply found hard to penetrate. Despite many explanations and historical recaps and 'as you know, Bob' conversations, I had a hard time keeping track of everything in a reader-friendly way. As the Big Stuff was being reinforced, the bits I kept losing track of were the smaller, character-focused elements, and those are the parts I care about, and keep me going. This is a vast, sprawling, chilly book - both in atmosphere and in emotional connection.
The combination of genres, the immense history, the language, the complexity,... Outpost works very hard to create a unique, complex story. There's a lot of telling, a lot of exposition, and a lot of - for lack of a better phrase - verbal diagramming. I suspect there's payoff coming, and what I've read is merely the creation of the series' 'platform', and I simply didn't have the patience to wait until the 'story' began properly. I didn't quit Outpost because it was a 'bad' book, it simply wasn't for me.
For fans of: I want to say things like Garth Nix and Elspeth Cooper, but that's purely based on 'interesting magic systems in complex worlds'.
5/10 (Based on what I did read. I spoke to the SPFBO organiser, Mark Lawrence, and leaving a blank isn't an option - which makes sense. Please read other reviews of this book.)
Jackal is a Grey Bastard. He's a massive half-orc, towering above puny humans, and a member of one of the 'hoofs' that patrol the Lot Lands, protecting the desolate wastes from orc incursions. The last time the orcs came sweeping through in force, it took a lot of heroism to beat them back: with humans, elves, half-orcs and halflings uniting to throw off the invaders
Part of the solution: cavalry. Orcs are big and mean and disciplined, but they can't ride for shit. Half-orcs on their massive war pigs have all the big and mean, but also speed. Which is why the half-orcs, once slaves of the humans, have been left alone in the Lot Lands. They patrol, they shag, they fight, and they try to carve out a tiny role for themselves in the world.
Jackal, like all the other half-orcs, is an orphan - he's worked his way up the ranks of the Bastards, and is now a fully fledged member of the crew. But despite his life of merry mayhem, something doesn't sit right. His crew boss - the Claymaster - is acting oddly. His best friends have secrets. Their human 'allies' are scheming. And a new arrival - a half-orc wizard - has thrown everything into chaos. Jackal may be a bastard, but he's also a Bastard. If someone's going to fuck with the hoof, they'll have to go through him.
Let's get this out front: The Grey Bastards is filthy. In every way, really... from being coated to swamp mire to constant penis jokes. If there's a way to be earthy, or just plain dirty, Bastards will find it. And then roll around for a while. This is part of the book's steep learning curve: in the first few pages, we're thrown in the deep end, with politics, sex, action and naked women shooting crossbows. All told with no shortage of specialist vocabulary: military fantasy filtered through the fantasy vernacular of half orcs.
And it works. The book clicks quickly, and is cleverly paced. The first sections are episodic, allowing us to feel out Jackal and his friends, and get a grip on the language and the world. Jackal goes on a series of (seemingly) side-quests, allowing us to understand how he does his thing, who he does it with, and what the hell is up in this world. There's a major plot twist about halfway through, and things kick into high gear: Jackal's no longer just making time, scheming his tiny schemes - he's wrapped up in something much, much larger than himself. The scaling works beautifully, as Bastards gets us involved in Jackal's hopes and ambitions, and then pulls back, showing us the larger tapestry of events.
Bastards is also a very cheeky revisionist play on high fantasy. This isn't a book about the villains - an 'Orc's eye view'. Nor is it about the heroes - 'an outcast orc climbs the ranks of human society, an outsider hero, blah blah blah'. It is about the half-orcs: the nothings. They were slaves, then they were slave soldiers, then they were cannon fodder, then they were dumped in a wilderness and forgotten. This is a book about the statistics; the weapons; the used. When Bastards teases - narratively speaking - some of the tropes of the high fantasy, you know things are going to be different.
The action, as expected, is a hoot. There are sieges and charges, stealthy assaults, prison escapes, tower heists and (almost literal) dungeon crawls. What's unexpected is how well the characters work. Jackal and his friends have an amazing bond, revealed through in-jokes and anecdotes; silent support and graceful harmony in battle.
In order for Bastards to mean something - to achieve real conflict - the reader has to believe that Jackal cares, and is worthy of care. It does so through its characters and their thousands of tiny connections. Yes, these are fun monsters: big bullies that chomp through the bad guys and macho-smash the landscape like the crew of Predator, but they're also a crew of lonely orphans, desperately defending the only home they've known. Their lives kind of suck, but they are theirs; they are making the best of it and daring to dream for more.
Bastards is a good book when it is in motion. There's action and sex and swearing and quips and magic and mayhem. But when it is at rest, it brushes against greatness. Jackal's choices. The bonds between friends. The palpable love the half-orcs have for one another. Their language, code and rituals: all of which they've made for themselves, and cling to with a desperate ferocity. This is a filthy book, but it is a damn good one.
For fans of: Nicholl's Orcs, Gentle's Grunts, Cook's Black Company, of course. But also Abercrombie's First Law.
If this were a more discursive juried award, I'd be making cases - with various degrees of passion - for four books:
The Path of Flames and The Grey Bastards are both great. They're a blast to read, have a delightful depth to them, and are well-rounded, enjoyable books with a lot of virtues to them. (Literally, in Path's case, and yes, that was a really silly pun that won't make sense to anyone that hasn't read Path. Whatever.)
Larcout and The Moonlight War are also really interesting. After reading ten books - hell, 40 since the start of this process - these two are among those that I still keep mulling over. I could construct a coherent case around them, saying, 'yes, this was the best book' using some vaguely recognisable definition of 'best'. Moonlight, for example, might be the most entertaining, and Larcout has a wildness and creativity to it.
(In a perfect world, there are also three others from my first round that I'd also drag back as part of the discussion. This pretty much confirms my suspicion that I got a ridiculously good batch in round one.)
But... we're going with numbers - and there's already a surprising amount of variety in the responses, so let's see what happens!
It is all, of course, a matter of taste.
Congratulations to all the finalists - and all the entrants. Y'all wrote books, and that's damn impressive.