Books read, November-December 2018

The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon. Read for blurbing purposes, and my copy was provided by the editor; it’ll be out in February. This is epic fantasy; if I attempted to summarize its plot it would sound dreadfully cliche. (An ancient evil dragon called the Nameless One is breaking free after a thousand years of imprisonment, and people must band together to defeat it.) But when you look at the actual story, it doesn’t read like that at all — for reasons that have a great deal to do with the worldbuilding, which I adored. The two main locations are clearly based on England and Japan circa what in Europe was the Renaissance and in Japan was the Tokugawa Era (closed-country policy and all), but there’s more going on with Inys and Seiiki than a mere name swap; among other things, Shannon does a brilliant job of coming up with a religion for Inys and its neighbors that feels believably European without being any form of Christianity. She also does something I love, which is create a situation where lots of people think they have the truth of what happened in the past, and none of them are entirely right — or entirely wrong. I felt the second half rushed a bit, losing the fine attention to detail that I’d been admiring so much in the first half, but it’s still excellent reading. A review will be going up at the New York Journal of Books closer to the pub date.

The Queen of Swords, R.S. Belcher. Read for the NYJB; full review is here, since I was reviewing for the paperback publication date, and the hardcover came out a while ago. I didn’t actually realize, when I requested this one from the queue, that it was the third in a series; I haven’t read the first two, which almost certainly colored my reactions here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard. A very, very loose novella-length retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in a post-apocalyptic world where the Beast is a female dragon — of the Asian rather than European variety. The worldbuilding here is incredibly dense, enough so that I actually wound up disoriented from time to time; the Vanishers and their relationship to the world, and the nature of what they left behind when they vanished, is complicated enough that I could have used a lot more time to explore it.

The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit. I can’t remember anymore where this title came up, but it made me think “huh, I’ve never read that much Nesbit,” so I picked it up in Gutenberg ebook. Reasonably enjoyable, but I’m honestly a bad audience for a story in which kids screw things up constantly because they’re kids and don’t realize how terrible their ideas are; I wind up getting frustrated at them. Some amount of that, I can cope with, but this book is basically a series of that happening over and over again, which meant that I went “argh!” a lot. But Nesbit’s writing is charming nonetheless.

The Storm Runner, J. C. Cervantes. Second book from the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which is basically “Rick Riordan uses his name to help promote authors of color telling stories like the ones he tells, about their own mythologies.” I was very much looking forward to this one because Mesoamerica is one of my random nerderies, and I loved when it got past the kind of standard-issue Rick Riordan “kid finds out he’s half-divine” setup and into the guts of Maya myth. (White Sparkstriker: not high on the list of mythological figures you hear about if you haven’t gone diving into the Popol Vuh.) But overall, it’s a bit like the Nesbit above; I’m not the best audience for a middle-grade book, and occasionally found myself impatient with the middle-grade-ness of it. I had the same feeling about Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book from the imprint. On the other hand, the list of upcoming titles is essentially a giant pile of catnip for me, so middle-grade-ness notwithstanding, I’m likely to go on reading these.

Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Even when half the book in question was written by Alyc.

The A.I. War, Daniel Keys Moran. I may very well write a whole blog post about these books later, because reading this reminded me how much I enjoy the series, despite its unfinished and pretty much guaranteed never to be finished state. This one came out in (I think) 2011, and I bought the ebook at the time, started reading it, and . . . I don’t know. Got interrupted somehow, and I’m not sure why it took me this many years to get back to it, because once I picked it up again I devoured it in a couple of days. Moran reminds me somewhat of Neal Stephenson in that I could not in good conscience recommend that any writing student of mine imitate some of his techniques, but they work, even though they shouldn’t. And I really appreciate that Trent goes out of his way to save the lives even of the people who are trying really hard to kill him, and that he keeps his sense of humor no matter what’s going on.

Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters, ed. N.X. Sharps and Alana Abbott. My own work doesn’t count, but that’s only one story in this volume. Kaiju! Smashing things! Or sometimes not! Unsurprisingly, my favorite stories in this one were the ones that got the furthest away from the mode of “giant monsters are destroying things and people must defeat them.” But all of them have giant monsters of one sort or another, because that’s the point.

The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas O. Höllmann, trans. Karen Margolis. File this one firmly under the header “very broad overview of the history of Chinese cuisine” — it’s only about a hundred and fifty pages long. But overviews have their place, and I found this one extremely useful for research purposes, as it covered everything from ingredients to implements to cooking techniques to restaurants. The one place where I felt like the overview-ness became a bug rather than a feature was when it came to the twentieth century; the upheavals from both technological and political change are huge enough that they really can’t be lumped in with the previous two thousand years, and trying to do so means the text skips like a rock off of some things that even I, with my extremely marginal knowledge of modern Chinese history, can tell needed way more unpacking than that. Everywhere else the summary nature felt like a good orientation, but not there.

It Happened at the Ball, ed. Sherwood Smith. Ditto above re: having story in here, except replace “kaiju” with “dancing.” (Er. Not that dancing is destroying things and people must defeat it. You know what I mean.) Lots of historical fiction in here, because the theme of the anthology is balls or other events that feature dancing, but not all of it is historical, and some of the dancing is more alluded to than shown. Which is good, because I tend to glaze over at anthologies where the theme is so narrow, and/or authors observe it so narrowly, that every story winds up feeling the same.

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