Books read, August 2014

Surgery meant lots of time on the couch. Lots of time on the couch meant lots of reading. (Also lots of photo-editing. And movie-watching. And passing out so I wouldn’t be awake to hate the boot.)

Fly by Night, Frances Hardinge.
Paging Mrissa; Mrissa to the red courtesy phone.

Secondary-world fantasy with revolutionaries! And coffeehouses for the revolutionaries to sit and argue in! And weird religious schisms! It took a while for this one to kick in for me; the beginning was engaging, but there was a moderate stretch where the tone was no longer enough to carry the whole thing, and the plot hadn’t actually founds its feet yet. It eventually picked up, though.

The Apocalypse Codex, Charles Stross.
In which Our Hero and His Bureaucratic Organization tackle an American evangelical preacher who’s actually serving the cause of nameless monstrosities from beyond reality, rather than Jesus Christ. I found myself very much wanting a book about Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish. It probably won’t ever happen — among other things, they’re much more conventionally James Bond in tone than the Laundry Files are intended to be — but I liked their dynamic, and they both have intriguing backstories.

The Winner’s Curse, Marie Rutkoski.
Secondary-world YA fantasy, about a sort of Roman-style empire occupying a nearby land, and the efforts of the conquered people to rebel. The two pov characters here are on opposite sides of that schism, and I have no idea whether Rutkoski intends them to get a HEA eventually, but if she does, she’s constructed an impressively large mountain for herself to climb, because wow. Yeah. There are certain kinds of obstacles you can’t just waltz past.

The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, trans. David Lewis.
I didn’t actually finish this, but I got far enough and spent enough hours reading it that I’m going to count it, okay? This is the saint’s own autobiography, written at the behest of higher-ups in the Church, with digressions into mystical theology, and basically I don’t recommend it unless you’re writing a short story about that kind of thing. Which I was. But now the story has been sold, so I’m done reading this.

Yendi, Steven Brust.
Takes place before Jhereg, and involves, among other things, how Vlad met Cawti. I’m interested in more about the whole backstory that gets touched on here, with the politics that preceded the Interregnum and the characters caught up in that knot of stuff; I’m guessing that’s a plot that will get developed more during later books.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman.
Continuing my effort to read all the other WFA-nominated novels.

This one struck me as remarkably Diana Wynne Jones-ish. She would have written a different book off the idea, I think, but Ursula Monkton and the whole mood surrounding her reminded of Monigan in The Time of the Ghost. I liked the Hempstocks a great deal, and the matter-of-fact approach to their numinous qualities.

Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.
This kind of thing makes for fascinating reading if you’re me, because it’s written by the wife of an anthropologist, who is not, herself, an anthropologist — which means it includes a lot of tasty ethnographic detail but pretty much none of the more rarified analysis an academic work would get into. The gist is that her husband was conducting fieldwork for his dissertation in a rural Iraqi village in the ’50s, and she went to live with him. For two years. Immediately after their wedding.

Apart from marveling at the fact that their marriage survived that kind of strain right out of the gate, I enjoyed the personalized nature of this book. It also raised a lot of questions, though, that Fernea either didn’t see or didn’t choose to discuss: for example, the friendships she formed with the local women. I have no doubt that she genuinely came to like some of them. But in the other direction? Fundamentally, that friendship was built on a lie, because Fernea reflects in several places how many things about herself she hid or suppressed while in that village, which would have caused the local people to look at her with disapproval, even disgust. There’s a memorable incident where some (male) American friends come to visit, and she’s looking forward to hanging out with them for a relaxing evening . . . until suddenly her Iraqi friends show up at the kitchen door, to “save” her from an evening sitting alone. And she doesn’t — in a sense, can’t — tell them that she doesn’t want them there, that she was planning on sitting with the men, kicking back and having a beer. She doesn’t tell anybody that yes, she and her husband go dancing in public places when they’re at home; she doesn’t even speak up when someone assumes that any woman who does that is clearly a prostitute. So there’s a lot of ethical issues bound up in the whole thing, and it makes for thinky thoughts.

The Land Across, Gene Wolfe.
Another WFA nominee.

“Ruritanian” is the best descriptor for this one, but kind of in the opposite direction I usually mean that: instead of taking place in a setting with no magic (a la Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books), it takes place in an imaginary Eastern European country, where there definitely is magic. The protagonist decides to go there to write a travel book, and runs afoul of border guards, local bureaucracy, animated severed hands — you know, the usual.

Random observation: Wolfe does an excellent job of depicting what it sounds like when someone isn’t fluent in a language, without resorting to eye dialect. He’s got odd circumlocutions, the definite article where it doesn’t belong, and verb tenses all over the place — in other words, very much the kind of thing that comes out of my mouth when I try to speak Japanese or whatever. It’s a minor thing, but quite pleasing to see it done well.

Teckla, Steven Brust.
I see why the opening note to the omnibus I was reading these things recommends not starting the series with Teckla. This is the one where Vlad Grows a Conscience, or maybe it would be better to say starts being called out on lack of same by the people around him. It goes some way toward mitigating one of the things that bothered me about Jhereg, which was the sort of standard-fantasy attitude toward having an assassin as your main character. It also digs into the politics of Easterners/humans vs. Dragaerans, which I would like to see more of. I wanted to hit both Vlad and Cawti with the Common Sense bat, but they mostly figured out by the end that they were being idiots, so that’s good.

Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente.
I was engaged with this from the beginning, with the lovely fairy-tale rendition of how Marya Morevna’s sisters were married, but really, she had me at the Stalinist house elves. This is a retelling of “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” during revolutionary Russian history, and the komityet of domovoi adapting to and embracing the new communist future was just fabulous. I feel like toward the end of the book it went around a symbolic curve I didn’t quite follow, so the conclusion wasn’t quite as compelling as what had gone before — but it wasn’t bad, and the rest of the book is absolutely worth it.

Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan. Page proofs don’t count.

Comments are closed.