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.