Books read, August 2019
Dawning in the East, Future Affairs Administration. I wasn’t able to figure out who edited this; it’s a small anthology produced by an organization that promotes Chinese science fiction and the translation thereof, which FAA people were giving out at the San Jose Worldcon. The first story in it, “The Right to Be Invisible” by Han Song, is translated by Ken Liu, and based on this plus what I’ve heard about Cixin Liu’s work makes me fairly confident in saying that I don’t remotely share Ken’s taste in Chinese SF. It reads very much like the type of Golden Age work where the idea is king and characters are barely-sketched vehicles for conveying the idea to the reader in the most direct way possible. The second story, “Universal Cigarettes” by Teng Ye (translated by Yang Yuzhi), was similar, though with a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. Which altogether made me think that’s the general tone of Chinese SF right now in general — but as I read further, the anthology showcased some other styles, ranging from the nigh-impenetrably philosophical (“The Wall of Echoes” by Yuan Dip Terra, also translated by Yang Yuzhi) to the historical (“Furnace Transmutation” by Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu) to a piece with fascinating worldbuilding set in a universe that functions like an LC oscillating circuit (“Summer of the Spiral, Winter of the Poles” by Wang Teng, translated by Nick Stember, which made me wish I remembered my E&M from physics better). I quite liked that last one, which balances character nicely against the concept of the setting, as well as the “The Incomplete Truth” by Sung Wanglu (translated by Elizabeth Hanlon), which is also idea-driven but not in a way that neglects character. My two favorites were probably “The Eyes of Heaven” by Wan Xiang (no translator listed — not sure if he did it himself, or if it was originally written in English), which is on the borderline with fantasy with a character who can see where bombs are going to fall, and “Funeral” by Hao He (translated by R. Orion Martin). That last one confused me initially because it took a moment to realize that all of the scenes, which are written in first person, are all from the perspectives of different characters at the same event. Once I figured that out, though, I enjoyed the unfolding of different layers and their intrigues and counter-intrigues.
Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Manual, Philip Matyszak. Like the slaveholder’s manual I read last month but much less depressing, this is written as advice to a would-be legionnaire, using that as a framework to explain recruitment, training, equipment, tactics, retirement, and more. As a brief but detail-packed overview of the Roman military in the early imperial period, I recommend it. Comes complete with both sketches and photos of re-enactors to give you the visual element.
Uncanny, Issue #29 I’m in this, and in cases like that I generally don’t say much. But: Uncanny! Continues to be great!
Apparition, Issue #7: Retribution I got sent this for free, I think as an apology from the editors: I’d submitted a piece to them for this issue which ultimately got rejected, but the rejection came in the form of a long, gushing email about how much they’d liked my story, and if they could have bought even one more story, mine would have been it. I’ll say that for a theme like that, it’s a much less depressing issue than it might have been; they did a good job of assembling a variety of stories that put different spins on the concept of retribution.
The Seven Principles of Mastery: Part One of the Swordsman’s Quick Guide Series, Guy Windsor.
Choosing a Sword: Part Two of the Swordsman’s Quick Guide Series, Guy Windsor.
I’m grouping these together because when Windsor says “Quick Guide,” he means it; they’re both extremely brief. I can’t remember how I got on this guy’s mailing list, but he does YouTube videos and ebooks about historical swordsmanship, which is useful for research. The Seven Principles of Mastery is about dedicating yourself to your practice in a mindful way, and Choosing a Sword is a brief overview of different types of blade, including advice on where to buy things. Both are about the length of a short story, but he has other, longer ebooks as well, which I have not yet read.
The Moon and the Sun, Vonda McIntyre. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, and regret not having done so before Vonda passed away. It’s a beautifully written alternate history set in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, where the one significant change is that merpeople exist, and eating the right part of their flesh is supposed to grant immortality. The “sea monster” is fascinatingly alien, but in a way, not more so than the French court; Vonda absolutely nailed the hothouse atmosphere of a place like that, the significance attached to even tiny gestures or mistakes, and the way in which favors and gifts are the currency fueling the social and political economy of the court. Also the sexism, which rears its head in screamingly frustrating ways. The pacing of the ending felt slightly odd to me, but apart from that I loved this.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. I would not expect a novel about a modern Japanese-American woman finding the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl washed up on the shore of the island where she lives to remind me so much of a alternate-historical speculative fiction novel about a fifteenth-century female mercenary captain in Burgundy, but Mary Gentle’s Ash is about the only thing I can compare this to. It does fascinating things mashing up quantum physics with the Zen philosophy of the thirteenth-century Buddhist priest Dōgen. It also functions as a guided tour of many depressing things, from kamikaze pilots to 9/11 to the Tōhoku tsunami to school bullying of the sort that drives kids to suicide, but in the end it doesn’t crush your soul. And it features a Buddhist nun character who is truly excellent.
As a side note, I’m not sure where the line between autobiography and fiction lands in this book. One of the characters is named Ruth, and is a writer, and lives on a remote island in Canada, and has a husband named Oliver who works in environmental design, all of which is true of the author as well.
Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Read for review in the New York Journal of Books. Historical fantasy set in 1920s Mexico, with a young woman who inadvertently frees one of the gods of death after he was betrayed and imprisoned by his brother. Some things about it didn’t entirely work form me — foremost among them the omniscient pov, which gives Moreno-Garcia the freedom to fill in lots of historical information but also keeps you at arms-length from the characters on many occasions — but it pulled together very well in the end, and I love enough things about the concept and setting that overall I give it a thumbs-up.
The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, Frederick P. Hitz. This is adapted from a seminar the author teaches every year, where he juxtaposes real history about espionage against the fiction we’ve written about it. Early on he makes a very good point distinguishing espionage — using Kim Philby’s definition of the collection of “secret information from foreign countries by illegal means” — from covert action, and pointing out how problems arise when those two paradigms collide. He doesn’t go as much into depth as I might have liked (it’s a very short book), and the focus is very much on twentieth-century history, but the discussion of personalities and tactics and so forth is still a pretty decent overview. Hitz’ main takeaway is that fiction is honestly much less bizarre and inventive than real espionage, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. 😛
The Glass Town Game, Catherynne M. Valente. Historical fiction about the Brontë siblings and the fantasy world they invented when they were children, which they wind up entering. It reads like a mashup of Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making with Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy: much the same kind of whimsy as in the Fairyland series, including a far better class of punning mentality than you get in, say, Xanth, but layered with the problems of encountering a thing you thought you had invented that doesn’t behave in quite the way you meant for it to. Branwell, I should warn you, comes off as a near-total ass in this — but he’s a near-total ass in ways that feel very much like Toxic Masculinity, Victorian Edition. Also, Valente apologizes in the afterword for her treatment of Jane Austen, which I guess is rooted in Charlotte Brontë’s opinion on the matter.
Heart of Brass, Felicity Banks. This one went onto my to-read list because there’s shockingly little fantasy set in Australia, either modern or historical. It is thoroughly magical steampunk in genre; the heart of brass is literal, and is inside the heroine’s body. Unfortunately, while I’m happy to go along with that magical conceit (there’s some interesting stuff here about the personalities different kinds of metal have, and the benefits they confer on people who touch them), I omgwtfbbq did not go along with the fact that the heroine’s father put the mechanical heart in her when she was nine years old — not to save her life because her organic heart had some kind of defect, but just because the two of them thought it would be a cool experiment. Since there is massive prejudice against that kind of experimentation and the heroine repeatedly has to cope with either the social dangers of people finding out about it or the mechanical dangers of keeping her heart fueled and repaired (one of the first things that happens in the story is that a valve breaks and nearly kills her), it is really difficult for me to buy that as something you would do to a nine-year-old girl whose organic heart is working quite fine, thank you. Even if she wants you to, because cool experiment. I also had increasingly severe problems with the pacing as I went along; stuff happens much too quickly, over and over again, especially with regard to characters trusting each other or having changes of heart or declaring Eternal Vendetta Forever on the basis of very little provocation. And the end of the book turns out to involve a noteworthy event from Australian history — but from the novel, you would think it burst up out of nowhere, without any mention of the months of lead-up and all the organizational work that various people were doing. So in the end, I found it more frustrating than satisfying.