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Books read, January 2017

I’ve fallen comprehensively off the wagon of recording what I read and posting about it, but I’d like to get back to that. So, without any attempt to catch up on the year or so that I missed, here’s the log from January.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Charlotte Gordon. The premise of this dual biography is that Wollstonecraft and Shelley influenced each other, even though Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to Shelley. The mother-to-daughter influence is easy to see; the daughter-to-mother influence is much more heavily inferred, based on the idea that Wollstonecraft was concerned with the future and with the lives of women, ergo with the life her daughter would have. I’m not quite sure I buy that half of the premise as much as the introduction made me expect, but that in no way stops this from being an excellent book that vastly expanded my understanding of both women. I had no idea how many other books both of them had written, nor the degree of respect Wollstonecraft had during her lifetime. (A respect that vanished almost immediately after she died, thanks to her husband’s misguided attempt to “rehabilitate” her image to the way he wanted to see her. She went from “respected intellectual” to “whore;” her daughter, who likewise got revised by her daughter-in-law, went from “whore” to “respectable Victorian wife.”)

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee. [Disclosure: the author is a friend.] The opening battle scene was gruesome enough, thanks to the exotic technology used, that I wasn’t sure what I would think of the book overall. Once I got past that, though, I was thoroughly sucked in (and the rest of the book is much less gory). The genre is space opera, but because the functioning of exotics is based on the enforcement of a calendrical system and heretical deviations from that system can make the tech stop working, it reads to me like fantasy poured through a mathematical framework. The worldbuilding reminds me of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, not in any of its specifics, but in the sheer wealth of detail, much of it the sort of thing I don’t usually encounter in science fiction. And despite the fact that I am thoroughly sick of the “asshole genius who makes everybody dance to his tune because he’s so damn brilliant” trope, Jedao was my favorite character in the whole novel. There are ways to make that trope work, and this is one of them.

Women in Practical Armor, ed. Ed Greenwood and Gabrielle Harbowy. Anthology I backed on Kickstarter, themed around female warriors. Most of what’s in here is very much classic D&D/sword-and-sorcery fantasy. My favorite story was probably the one that took the antho title most literally: “Pride and Joy” by Eric Landreneau, wherein the hazards of boob-plate armor get hammered home.

The Just City, Jo Walton. First of the Thessaly series. Athena gathers together people from throughout history to found the city described in Plato’s The Republic and see how it works out. By dint of its subject matter, I mentally classify this with utopian SF, but from the start it’s clear that while the Just City is an attempt to create a utopian society, it is deeply flawed in multiple ways. (As Apollo says at one point, what Plato knew about love and relationships would fit on a fingernail paring.) If, like me, you are the sort of person who bounces in glee at the prospect of seeing Athena and Socrates square off in a public debate, this is the book for you.

Elfquest: Fire and Flight, Wendy and Richard Pini. Re-read. I love this series so much. For more detail, see the re-read posts (but beware spoilers).

Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, Susan B. Hanley. “Premodern” here specifically means the Tokugawa period, with some attention to what came before and after for context. Hanley’s main thesis is that, contrary to how Victorian travelers portrayed things, the quality of life improved massively in the Tokugawa period, in large part due to technological advancements that came out of the Sengoku/Warring States period immediately prior. What I found the most interesting was the discussion of how many aspects of what we now think of as traditional Japanese culture were Tokugawa-era responses to limited resources: with the country closed to outside influences, they had to make do with what they had in their islands, and this influenced everything from food to architecture to clothing to sanitation. (When you don’t have enough arable land to waste much of it on livestock, you don’t have animal manure to use as fertilizer, so human waste becomes a valuable enough resource that you not only put in place systems for removing it to agricultural areas, you start having problems with people stealing it.)

The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, Samuel Noah Kramer. I must have bought this back in high school or early college, because the price sticker on it is from Half-Price Books, which I used to frequent in Dallas. The book itself is a mildly interesting read, but I would love to compare it against something more recent, because I imagine the state of Sumerology has come on a bit in the fifty years since this one was published. I welcome any recommendations from the commentariat.

May I call to your attention . . . .

First of all, my friend Mike Underwood’s Genrenauts Kickstarter campaign is already nearly funded, because I’ve been crazy busy in the last week and a half (house-buying drama; turned out okay, thank god), but you’ve still got eighteen days left to back it. This is the “Season One” collection of Genrenauts, comprising six novellas (two already published, four to come), plus a bunch of extras. If you’re not familiar with the series, it involves a group of highly-trained agents parachuting into alternate realities governed by the laws of different genres, seeking to right imbalances that threaten the stability of our own world. Basically, catnip for anybody who likes thinking about and playing around with the tropes of narrative — which of course is why Mike started writing them, and why you all should read them!

Second, I’ve put up two items for auction via Con or Bust, a nonprofit that helps fans of color attend conventions they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The first is a signed hardcover of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and the second is a 9-CD edition of the audiobook for A Natural History of Dragons, narrated by the amazing Kate Reading. It’s for a good cause, so please, bid high!

Tales of Enchantment!

(I play too much Dragon Age. The word “enchantment” always comes out in Sandal’s voice in my head.)

I’m very pleased to announce “Tales of Enchantment,” a giveaway of more than 40 historical fantasy romances, plus a Kindle Fire to read them on. It’s organized by Patricia “Pooks” Burroughs, a fellow member of Book View Cafe, and features various other familiar BVC faces, like Irene Radford, Patricia Rice, and Sherwood Smith.

My own contribution to the bundle is an ebook of Midnight Never Come. Some titles swing the emphasis more toward “history,” some toward “fantasy,” and some toward “romance;” with more than forty books in the pile, there’s plenty to match all kinds of tastes.

The giveaway ends in seven days, so get your name in now! And note that if you share it and somebody else signs up from your share, you get extra chances to win. So spread the word!

PB-Giveaway-Brennan-Marie

#5DaysOfFiction: Day Four

One day left until the release of In the Labyrinth of Drakes! And so we move into the fourth of Five Days of Fiction, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of my first novel being published.

Today we turn our thoughts to the worlds in which the stories take place. Your question, should you choose to answer it, is: which fictional world would you most want to live in? With the stipulation that you get to choose what type of person you’ll be in that world; you won’t be J. Random Starving Peasant. (Because let’s face it, most fictional worlds would really suck if we were J. Random Starving Peasant there.)

This might not make the top of my actual list of Fantasy Retirement Destinations, but I have a very deep fondness for the World of Two Moons, aka Abode, which is the setting for the Elfquest graphic novels. Being an elf there doesn’t guarantee you a happy life — you only get to live forever if nothing kills you first, and since the time period for the main story is pretty much the Neolithic, there are quite a lot of hazards that might get you — but even a nasty, brutish, and short life as an elf tends to be at least a century long, and in the meanwhile, you’re my favorite type of elf in pretty much any story, anywhere. I love the different tribes, their different perspectives on the world . . . all of it.

Which is why one lucky respondent will receive a copy of the first Elfquest graphic novel! Let us know your favorite world in the comments, and in the meanwhile, here’s the guest answers!

***

~ I want to live in Iain M. Banks’ Culture. A space-faring utopian society that actually works? Bring it on! — Jaine Fenn, author of the Hidden Empire series

~ Iain Banks’ Culture, because no one is a starving peasant there, unless they want to be. — Sean Williams, author of Hollowgirl

[editorial note: okay, we’ve got a little theme here . . .]

~ That’s a tough one. Overall, I think it’ll have to be the Discworld. — Juliet McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass

~ The Discworld. I’d live in Ankh-Morpork. Daughter of a minor merchant, teaching herself witchcraft and sometimes making a muddle, which she would then need to clean up while attracting as little attention as possible. — Alex Gordon, author of Jericho (coming out tomorrow!)

[editorial note: aaaaaaaand another theme . . .]

~ Middle Earth, if I could be an Elf. Amber, if I could be one of Oberon’s children. — Alma Alexander, author of Empress

~ Well, damn. Struggle as I might, I can’t find anywhere I’d rather live than Middle Earth. I am a cliche, apparently. — Chaz Brenchley, author of Bitter Waters

[editorial note: theme number three!]

~ I’m going with the standard boring answer of the Star Trek universe, because it’s basically a post-scarcity paradise for writer slackers like me. I wouldn’t be one of those high-achieving Starfleet assholes, either. I’d write books (or holodeck adventures or whatever) during the day, and replicate myself some world cuisine at night, and live easy. — Harry Connolly, author of The Great Way

~ Also impossible to answer, but let me pick Cat Valente’s Fairyland for the moment. — Pamela Dean, author of Owlswater (due out later this month!)

~ Pern. But only if I can impress a dragon and completely overhaul the rampant sexism. Which I will do. With my dragon.

Seriously, though. There are many worlds I might want to visit, but the idea of having a psychic link with another sentient being such that I would always have that shared, unconditional love? Yeah. Sign me up. — Alyc Helms, author of The Dragons of Heaven

~ Does any writer not name their own world? Probably a few. But I would take a manor overlooking Veridon any day of the week. — Tim Akers, author of The Pagan Night

~ I think it would give me great joy to live in one of Patricia McKillip’s nested worlds, the ones that are full of music and riddles, secret libraries and ancient manuscripts, ink-stains and books, books, books. — Leah Bobet, author of An Inheritance of Ashes

~ Harry Potter, as long as I could be a wizard. — John Pitts, author of Night Terrors (due out on April 11th!)

#5DaysOfFiction: Day Three

Day three of the Five Days of Fiction! We’re halfway through the celebration of ten years since the publication of my first novel. And In the Labyrinth of Drakes comes out in just two days!

Today’s question is: what’s a favorite book or series of yours? Note that I say a favorite, not the favorite; I couldn’t single out one above all others if you paid me. So just pick whichever one you most feel like squeeing about right now. 🙂

Me, I’ll go with Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and especially the first book, The Game of Kings. (Not to be confused with A Game of Thrones.) It’s brilliant historical fantasy with amazing characters and complex plotting and holy crap her prose and THAT DUEL and I could keep raving but I won’t.

Instead, I will give away a copy! Tell me a favorite book or series of yours, and you may be the lucky respondent who wins a lovely trade paperback of The Game of Kings.

Let’s see what our guest bloggers had to say . . . .

***

~ Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. They’re beautifully realised, fun, and witty. — Jaine Fenn, author of the Hidden Empire series

~ The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Its impact reminded me of what fiction can be. Many authors say they are inspired by a bad book to think “I could do better than that.” The Sparrow gives me something to aspire to instead. — E. C. Ambrose, author of Elisha Barber

~ The Discworld books. If I had to pick, I’d go with the Watch books. But it’s a difficult choice. I love the Witches and Death books almost as much. — Alex Gordon, author of Jericho (coming out on Tuesday!)

~ God, so many, but if I have to pick just one, I would say that Tanith Lee’s The Silver-Metal Lover is perhaps one of my ‘just about perfect’ books. It hits pretty much everything I love: an unconventional romance, philosophical complexity presented in a stunningly clear and simple way, gorgeous prose, an ending that is ‘right’ for the story being told. Just… unf. I love that book. It destroys me every time I read it.

A close runner up would be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Everyone focuses on the gender pronoun thing, which is an interesting bit of culture-building, and yet that completely overlooks what I think of as the meaty brilliance of that book, which gives the reader the experience of a multi-perspective non-human consciousness in a way that the reader can still relate with and connect to. Fucking genius. She manages to balance multiple high-concept themes – colonialism/post-colonialsm, diffused consciousness, artificial consciousness, gender identity, sub-altern identity – without skimping on any of them, and unlike a lot of high concept books that can be plodding, she does it via a ripping action tale with some really fun ‘tagonists. — Alyc Helms, author of The Dragons of Heaven

~ The Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham — Tim Akers, author of The Pagan Night

~ That’s tough, but I have to go with Lord of the Rings, which changed my life when I was 10. It shifted my brain in ways I had never imagined. — John Pitts, author of Night Terrors (due out on April 11th!)

~ Ah, the impossible question. Sorry, I can never come up with an answer to that. I can offer you two excellent recent reads – Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, and Down Station by Simon Morden. Both offer me things that I’ve loved in books ever since I started reading – vivid, believable characters and compelling narrative with twists and surprises. — Juliet McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass

~ There’s a level on which that changes from month to month, but the book that is my soul, the book that’s woven into my bones, is Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. I read it the first time when I was exceptionally young, and reread it about once a year; every time I open it, it feels like a wild, beautiful, terrible wind blowing in. — Leah Bobet, author of An Inheritance of Ashes

~ I’m not one for picking a single favorite above all others, but The Chronicles of Prydain and Red Harvest were pretty influential for me. — Harry Connolly, author of The Great Way

~ This is utterly impossible to answer, but I will just randomly say Jo Walton’s Thessaly books, because Plato’s Republic meets the real world is just such a rich concept and she does it with so much style, grace, humor, and pure weirdness. — Pamela Dean, author of Owlswater (due out later this month!)

~ *rolls mental dice* A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, another fave from my youth. — Sean Williams, author of Hollowgirl

~ How about the whole Tolkien oeuvre? The Amber series? The Lyonesse series by Vance? And how about something like Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” which is not part of a series but which tears my heart out and gives it back into my hands still trembling like a bird?… — Alma Alexander, author of Empress

~ If “favourite” means “read most often over a lifetime”, that would be Tolkien again, LotR: how predictable is that? But actually now my favourite series for revisiting is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, which I can read on a yearly basis. — Chaz Brenchley, author of Bitter Waters

#5DaysOfFiction: Day Two

It’s day two of the Five Days of Fiction, my celebration of ten years since the publication of my first novel! The winner of yesterday’s giveaway is @lauracwhitney on Twitter, with her lonely cloud being befriended by a unicorn. 🙂

With only three days left to the release of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, my next question is: what writer would you say has had the biggest influence on your life?

This one’s a no-brainer for me: Diana Wynne Jones. Specifically, her book Fire and Hemlock, because I distinctly remember putting it down and thinking, “I want to be a writer.” I’d made up stories before then (see yesterday’s post), but that was the first time I really thought about telling stories for other people to read. My career rests on that foundation; it’s hard to imagine a bigger influence than that.

As you might expect, the winner for this giveaway will receive a copy of Fire and Hemlock; I’m going to try to track down the library edition I read when I was nine or ten, but no promises. You may wind up with a different cover.

On to the guest responses! (I specifically asked my guests who influenced them as a writer, but for the purposes of the giveaway, any kind of influence is fair game.)

***

(more…)

Books read, February 2016

The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 1: The Faust Act, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 2: Fandemonium, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 3: Commercial Suicide, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).

(I’m listing them all together for the sake of convenience, but they were interspersed with other things.)

This is a comic book series set in a slightly alternate version of our world, where every 90 years there is a “Recurrence”: twelve gods manifest in twelve mortal hosts (not the same gods every time). They become instant rock stars, or period equivalent, with people falling at their feet in ecstasy; within two years all twelve are dead.

The storytelling here is a little bit disjointed — especially in the third volume, which is basically a collection of one-off issues that go into more detail on a selection of this particular Recurrence’s pantheon. But even when the story is moving forward, it often does so in a fashion that’s a little hard for me to follow; what I thought was the through-line turned out very much not to be. Despite that, I’m enjoying the series. I like the variety of gods: at the start of the series, not all twelve have manifested yet, but you’ve got Amaterasu, Baphomet, Minerva, Lucifer, the Morrigan (and Badb and “Gentle Annie” — she switches between aspects), Inanna, Woden, one of the Baals, and a Tara nobody’s quite sure of — there are several different Taras she could be. The gods appear to be no respecters of detail; Lucifer is a woman, Inanna is a man, and there’s discussion of what it means that Amaterasu showed up in the body of a white Englishwoman.

The main thing I will say — and I don’t think this is a spoiler — is that I don’t trust a single word that comes out of Ananke’s mouth. She is (in some theogonies) the Greek personification of Necessity, and she seems to be some kind of mentor figure to the pantheon each time around. She is also a highly dubious character, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s really up with her and the whole Recurrence thing.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho. A fun romp, though ultimately it didn’t hang together as much as I wanted it to. You’ve got the decline of magic resource in England, the challenges to Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, the troubles on Janda Baik, and Prunella’s mysterious legacy — but because all the Janda Baik stuff was offstage, being reported second-hand by characters who mostly didn’t stick around long enough to make much of an impression, it felt more tacked-on than I would have liked. And Prunella’s backstory wound up being wholly unrelated, except insofar as she happened to be involved with the rest of it. Certainly it’s possible to go too far with linking things, tying every narrative strand up in such a neat little bow that it comes across as entirely contrived. But this didn’t link them enough for my taste (a Big Revelation doesn’t mean much if the facts revealed are entirely without context), and the resolution of some of the problems felt much too convenient — all the stuff at the seaside, basically. But I very much liked the complexity of the relationships between the two protagonists and their surrogate parent figures, and the fact that Prunella keeps one very practical eye on the necessity of securing her future by ordinary means.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate, Richard Parks. Set in the same continuity as his Lord Yamada stories. I mentioned after reading the collection that the last piece felt much less like a short story and much more like setup for the novel; well, it turns out that it’s literally the beginning of the novel. It works much better in that context. Overall, though, I prefer the short stories — not necessarily because there’s anything wrong with this book, but just because I like what the stories are doing better. Each one of them tends to be a bite-sized look at some aspect of Japanese folklore, with Lord Yamada investigating and solving the mystery, then resolving the spiritual problem; here the same thing is generally true, but the additional wordage is almost entirely filled with politics instead of additional supernatural things, and that’s not really what engages me with this series. Plus, I do think Parks leaned overly hard on the “my protagonist and narrator has figured out what’s going on, but you the reader must remain in the dark” trick — which I know is a trope of a certain kind of mystery fiction, but it works better for me in third-person stories, or at shorter lengths. It made the Lady Snow stuff fall kind of flat in the end. Still, I’ll go on to read The War God’s Son at some point.

The Dragon Round, Stephen S. Power. Read for blurbing purposes. This was pitched to me as “the Count of Monte Cristo, with dragons” — which, yes, thank you, I’ll take that. As it turns out, it was less Monte Cristo-ish than I anticipated; it lacks the element of “mysterious and fabulously wealthy nobleman” which I think of as being the defining characteristic of that story type. But it’s a revenge tale, and one with certain kinds of complexity I very much like: for starters, when Jeryon is dumped into a boat by his mutinous crew and set adrift, he’s not alone. There’s an apothecary with him, a woman who refused to go along with the mutiny. And it turns out that the whole survival at sea/on a deserted island narrative feels 300% fresher when it isn’t just a tale of Rugged, Manly Individualism; Jeryon and the poth (as she mostly gets called, though she does have a name) have complementary skills that are both necessary, and along with struggling to survive, they have to figure out how not to kill each other during the lengthy period of time when they’re the only two human beings around.

As for the rest of the story — it doesn’t go the way you expect it to, and knowing not to expect the usual is probably helpful. I didn’t actually realize while I was reading this that it’s the start of a series, and the series is not about Jeryon getting his revenge. According to Power’s website, it’s about changes in the way humans and dragons interrelate — and Jeryon’s quest for revenge is more of an inciting incident than the spine of the tale. So if “revenge story” is not your cuppa, this may still be interesting to you.

Books read, uh, recently

Over the last few months I seriously fell off the horse when it came to keeping track of my reading. So this covers December and January, but only the things I can recall reading — which isn’t very much.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu. I know this one ate quite a lot of December, because BRICK.

I . . . really, really wanted to like it. Epic fantasy, drawing on Chinese epic tradition! Sign me up. I was totally there for the worldbuilding and the character archetypes and the nature of the plot. And, courtesy of comments I’d seen elsewhere on the internet, I was prepared for (though not pleased by) the fact that the first half of the book has virtually no women playing significant roles, because I knew that there would be more showing up in the remaining pages. As indeed there are! But anybody without that advance warning would be justified in thinking that the only women in the story would be helpful wives, distant goddesses, or deeply problematic seductresses, so I can’t really say the second half justifies the first.

But the real problem for me was the style. It read a lot like an old epic — too much so. I fundamentally did not care about any of the characters, because the text never let me get close enough to any of them to form an emotional attachment. The style is incredibly distant, telling instead of showing, often spending more time narrating to you what is happening than letting you experience it. Let me give an example — it’ll be a spoiler, but (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) not much of one. If you’d prefer to avoid it, though, just skip the next paragraph.

So there’s a plot thread involving one of the few early female characters, who has been blackmailed by an enemy general into working for him. We don’t see her arrive in the lands of the rebels — that part I’m okay with, since it isn’t as important as what she does when she gets there. Once established among the rebels, she manipulates two men into falling in love with her: an uncle and a nephew, who have been inseparable for the nephew’s entire life. (These are major characters in the book; the nephew is essentially co-protagonist with another guy.) Once both of them are besotted with her, she plays off their jealousy, using it to create a rift between them, until they become wholly estranged and the uncle sends the nephew away at a critical moment when he needed to be present. Then she murders the uncle and commits suicide.

From beginning to end, this entire thing takes about sixteen pages.

Fully a quarter of which is spent on that last sentence, actually; the rest gets crammed into twelve pages, where it shares space with other things going on in the plot. We the readers are told that both of these guys have fallen in love with her. We’re told that they’re jealous. We get little snippets of actual interaction, a few paragraphs here and there, which present us with emotion (love! jealousy! anger!) the narrative hasn’t actually earned. I don’t consider this to be a spoiler because I don’t feel like there’s an experience to spoil; it feels more like me giving away the ending to a historical account of the Duke of Buckingham’s assassination. I majored in folklore; I’ve read a great many epics from different parts of the world, and can deal with that kind of arm’s-length approach. It is not, however, what I’m looking for in a novel. The sweeping scope of The Grace of Kings is impressive, but it only fits into one book because so many of the elements of modern fiction have been squeezed out. The result is that I found myself pronouncing the Eight Fatal Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.” I finished the book, but have no motivation to pick up the sequel. Which is a pity, because I was so excited for the first one.

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones. I don’t remember where I heard of this one; it’s an ebook that’s been sitting on my tablet for ages. Normally when I call something “Ruritanian fantasy,” what I mean is that it’s set in a secondary world, but has no magic (e.g. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books). In this case, however, I mean that it’s set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, but has magic. I suspect that Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword are among its literary ancestors, as one of the two protagonists, Barbara, is a woman trained as an armin (bodyguard) and duelist for an eccentric Baron. The other heroine, Margerit, unexpectedly inherits the Baron’s estate upon his demise — including Barbara, who was his property. The plot is moderately complex, involving the question of why he named his goddaughter his heir and why he failed to free Barbara as he promised (and why he owned her and trained her in the first place), running alongside a strand wherein Margerit begins to study the “mysteries” (sacred magic) and investigate why they no longer work the way they should. Overall it came together in a reasonably satisfying way, and Jones has a pleasingly solid grasp of the social politics of a nineteenth-century-type world: Margerit can’t just go “la, who cares” and blow off her obligations without consequence, however much she may want to. Plus, lesbian romance, which I know would be a selling point for many of my blog readers. 🙂

Phoenix, Stephen Brust. Still working my way slowly through these. I liked Vlad’s interactions with the Empress: they struck a nice balance between the formal ceremony that accompanies such a role, and showing the Empress as a human being (well, for the contested values of “human” that apply in this setting). I’m also pleased, though not surprised, to see Brust follow through on what he began in an earlier book, with Vlad questioning his role in the Jhereg and his chosen livelihood of murdering people for money. I have no idea whether that was planned from the start, or whether Brust got a couple of books in, looked at his assassin hero, and reconsidered how good of an idea that really was, but either way it’s nice to watch the change percolate through the narrative. Where it goes in the long run . . . well, that will be interesting to see. “Phoenix stone” felt like a bit of handwavium to me, but I’d love to see more exploration of what pre-Empire sorcery was like, and how the Interregnum changed the way sorcery worked.

Books read, November 2015

This was one of those months that ends with me in the middle of reading a bunch of things, but not done with any of them. 😛

The Drowning Eyes, Emily Foster. Provided to me by the editor, Lee Harris. This is one of the upcoming novellas from Tor.com, a story set in a world where Windspeakers can control the weather — but for them to do so safely, they have to undergo a ritual which replaces their “wet eyes” with spheres of stone. Shina is still wet-eyed, but after invaders start killing Windspeakers and steal a priceless relic, she’s the only one left who can get it back. I very much liked the concepts behind this; my quibble (and it will be interesting to see whether this is a frequent reaction for me with novellas) is that I wanted more. The invaders never get explored in detail, and the story only begins to touch on the complexity of the Windspeaker thing. So it’s enjoyable, but I think I’ll enjoy it even more if this turns out to be the jumping-off point for a novel or series of novellas.

Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone. Third book of the Craft Sequence, after Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise (c’mon, Max, why couldn’t you take pity on us and number them in order). It’s a pretty slow burn compared to its predecessors; it starts off with a bang when Kai nearly gets herself killed trying to save a goddess whose investments have gone sour, but getting from there to the underlying issues takes a while. In the meantime, this is where this starts to look like a series: not only are there references to Alt Coulumb and Dresediel Lex, but characters from the previous books show up and play a fairly vital role. And as usual, Gladstone is also exploring social issues — in this case, the question of how a small island nation (clearly influenced by the Polynesian cultural sphere) can survive as an independent state in the face of much larger powers, and what constitutes the preservation of traditional culture vs. its commercialization for tourist purposes, and when it’s okay for a culture to change. The Penitents were super-creepy; they were probably the best part of the book for me, along with the pool in which the priests of Kavekana make and keep their idols. (The story of how Kai remade her body in the pool was excellent.)

Mountaineering Women: Stories by Early Climbers, ed. David Mazel. More research. It took me a surprisingly long time to get through this, given how thin of a book it is, but that happens sometimes when a book is a collection of smaller texts. (See also why it takes me forever to read an anthology.) The bulk of the content consists of excerpts from accounts written by female mountaineers from the nineteenth century up through the mid-twentieth, with brief introductions by Mazel to give context. It’s interesting to watch mountaineering techniques and jargon develop through the decades, and also to see feminism become an explicit issue, especially around the time when women started trying to mount expeditions without any male assistance at all.

Books read, October 2015

Somewhat delayed on account of World Fantasy.

The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly. This book can basically be summarized as “Jurassic Park, with DRAGONS!” Which, y’know. Kind of put it squarely in my field of interest. And it was a moderately entertaining read — but I kept being thrown out of the story by the fact that the author seemed to be watching the movie he hopes they’ll make of his book, and writing it as if it were that movie. This means a pov that wanders around aimlessly between close third and a camera-eye omniscient (complete with lines like “if they could have seen the vehicle from the outside, they would have seen X”), and choppy little not-even-scenes that are the textual equivalent of rapid camera cuts. See our heroine clinging to the outside of the truck! See the driver of the truck stomp on the brakes in a three-line “scene”! Cut back to our heroine barely holding on as the truck skids to a halt! That kind of thing works in audiovisual media; in text, it just keeps yanking me away from any engagement with the characters. I appreciated the fact that the heroine is a facially scarred herpetologist who basically saves the day with her knowledge of crocodiles, but she never really came alive for me. Also, while I’m fine with the idea that Chinese bureaucrats and soldiers might do all kinds of underhanded shit in pursuit of building an enormous dragon zoo with which to impress the world, the story really could have used more in the way of sympathetic and competent Chinese characters to counterbalance the bureaucrats and soldiers. (Not to mention the fact that the dragons are apparently all Western-style, even though the story gives a relatively clever explanation for why dragons are a real worldwide phenomenon.) Overall, I’d say give this one a miss, unless you are absolutely dying to read Jurassic Park with dragons.

The Last Airbender: Zuko’s Story, Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus, art by Nina Matsumoto. Picked this one up because I met Alison Wilgus last World Fantasy and really enjoyed talking to her, and also because I’ve been reading various Avatar tie-in comics. This one feels thinner than the others simply because it’s filling in a minor hole from the show, rather than exploring new territory; it’s the tale of what happened with Zuko between the agni kai against his father and Aang turning up. So, while it’s well done, I didn’t engage with it quite as much as with the sequel comics. I should note, though, that it also includes a section at the back which compares the comic script to the rough sketches. If you’re interested in what a script looks like, and how the vision can change from the script to the roughs to the final version, it’s quite useful.

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers. Still working my way slowly through the Wimsey novels. I came up with a much more convoluted answer to this one than turned out to be the reality, reading too much significance into a particular detail. Wimsey undercover was pretty cute, though I feel I might have done with just a bit less exploration of the advertising industry; his interactions with Dian Momerie were . . . interesting. Not entirely sure what I think of them, though once again, it gave me a chance to see just how big an influence Sayers must have been on Dunnett.

Violence: A Writer’s Guide, Second Edition, Rory Miller. Yoon Ha Lee recommended this one, and I second the rec. When I put together Writing Fight Scenes (which is part of the 2015 NaNoWriMo StoryBundle right now, plug plug), I was very aware that I don’t actually have any personal experience with being in a real fight. Miller won’t tell you anything about how to put a fight on the page, but he has personal experience in spades, and says a great many interesting things about what being in a fight is like, what kinds of violence people engage in, and how people experienced with violence tend to behave. The book does have its flaws: it could use better organization (especially since he repeats himself occasionally) and it’s mostly concerned with violence in a modern society like ours, making it less than 100% applicable to premodern fantasy societies. In fact, I feel Miller is at his weakest when he tries to talk about historical situations; at one point he basically declares that before about 1800, the only possible responses to a violent crime were to a) go get revenge with your own two hands or b) suck it up and go on being a victim. Uh, the rule of law may have been imperfect in the past, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and that legal remedies were never available. Furthermore, at one point he says “unless you can not only write things like the mass slaughter at Halabja, but write from a point of view where slaughtering Kurdish men, women and children to test chemical weapons just made sense, your fiction will always be missing something. It will always be two-dimensional,” which I feel is overstating his point with a vengeance. Having said that, he’s got a really fascinating perspective on sex differences, focusing not just on the socialization regarding violence but the less-obvious consequences of that socialization, and also on biological differences in how adrenaline gets processed. I’m very curious to know whether that latter point is in fact true, because if so, it’s really helpful information.

Yak Butter and Black Tea: A Journey into Tibet, Wade Brackenbury. Dear lord, this book. I’ll say for starters that I read it for the first-person account of what it’s like to tramp around at high altitude across rugged terrain, and on that front, it delivered admirably. But it’s also the story of a couple of guys who decided they wanted to go to the Drung valley, in territory the Chinese government had put off-limits to foreigners, for no better reason than because no westerner had ever been there. They weren’t anthropologists; they weren’t journalists; they weren’t serving any higher cause whose worthiness and importance we could debate. They just got a wild hair up their asses and decided to do it. At one point Brackenbury finally arrives at sufficient self-awareness to think that, hey, maybe he and his traveling companion were really screwing over the people they dealt with while sneaking around trying to get to the valley: those officials they lied to or got into arguments with might have been terrified of losing their jobs, those people who were reluctant to sell them food might not have had much to spare, etc. But on the whole, they seemed to feel that “we want to go” was sufficient justification for them to break the law right, left, and center. So if you want to read about people tramping around at high altitude across rugged terrain, this book may be useful to you — but don’t pick it up unless you’re prepared to deal with some amazingly self-centered assholes.