Books read, March 2019

After February’s enormous binge, I read much less in March.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Cory Pietsch. You pretty much can’t be a gamer these days without having at least heard of The Adventure Zone, but I have no good space in my life for listening to podcasts. An episode here and there, sure, but not hundreds of them. So friends recommended I try the graphic novels they’ve started putting out, which also have the benefit of condensing the story — I know from my days studying RPGs in grad school just how diffuse and wandering things can be during actual play. I wasn’t impressed by the first half of this volume, which felt more or less like a typical D&D adventuring party (all male, though one of them is gay) doing the adventuring thing and failing to take anything seriously. It picked up more in the second half, though, and got interesting right at the end, when the characters get introduced to what looks like the real plot. (And, encouragingly, the improvement in the story coincides with female characters showing up.) I’m definitely willing to give the second volume a shot, as I understand the challenge of getting an episodic story moving properly in its first installment — especially one based on the hot mess that is most RPG narratives.

The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson. Read for review with the New York Journal of Books. I loved the setting of this one — at the tail end of the Reconquista, from the perspective of characters in the last Muslim state in Spain just as it falls to Ferdinand and Isabella — and the handling of religion, with multiple levels of piety from characters on both sides of that conflict and an antagonist who genuinely believes that it’s more compassionate to torture someone into converting than to let them burn in hell. The plot didn’t work as well for me, though. The central conceit of magical maps wound up being much less central than the cover copy led me to expect, and the whole business with the Bird King’s island felt to me like the kind of thing where either the elliptical approach is going to click for you and be amazing, or it’s going to fail to cohere much at all. For me it was the latter, especially when a threat reared up out of nowhere essentially saying “Remember me, from two hundred pages ago?” To which my answer was, “not really.” Not a bad book overall, but it didn’t hang together the way I was hoping.

Unraveling, Karen Lord. Also read for review with the New York Journal of Books. Speaking of things that are weird and elliptical . . . but in this case it worked for me. Several of the characters are not human (or at least mostly not) and don’t interact with time the way we do; much of the plot takes place in what amounts to a series of dreams or visions of what might happen. It’s a sequel to Redemption in Indigo, which I didn’t realize until after I was on a plane to Florida with Unraveling but not Redemption in Indigo in my bag; based on that, I can say that Unraveling works even without knowledge of the prior book, though it might read less weirdly with. And now I should go get Redemption in Indigo off my shelf, where it’s been sitting for far too long, waiting for me to read it.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: Stories, Kat Howard. Freebie book at ICFA, read on the plane home. As the title suggests, a large percentage of these stories riff off folklore in some fashion, and specifically off northern European folklore. The other running theme in them is Women Done Wrong By Men, which will probably speak deeply to some readers, but I am not one of them. The stories that wandered in a more New Weird/surrealist direction often didn’t click for me, but on the other hand I really enjoyed “Once, Future” (novelette at least, quite possibly novella-length), with a group of college students whose class assignment causes them to begin incarnating Arthurian legend, and also “The Calendar of Saints,” set in an alternate history where figures like Galileo are saints of the church, and following a female duelist who winds up at the center of a challenge to the holy Laws of Science.

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