Books read lately

I keep falling out of the habit of recording what I read, much less posting about it — the last such post covered my reading from August of last year. But I remember some of the things I’ve been reading, and an incomplete booklog is better than nothing, so.

A Golden Fury, Samantha Cohoe. Sent to me for blurbing purposes. Historical fantasy focused on alchemy, with a very interesting spin on the Philosopher’s Stone and what it really means. The beginning was fine, and then the story hit a point where it really took off for me — I inhaled quite a bit of it in the space of about a day. Ultimately I was left with a few questions about how the logic of it all hung together (there was an instance of someone being uber-selective about a thing for unclear reasons, to seemingly counterproductive result), but I enjoyed the overall tale a fair bit.

A Hero Born, Jin Yong. Read for review in the New York Journal of Books. This is the first in a projected four volumes translating the Chinese wuxia novel commonly known in English as Legend of the Condor Heroes, which I think might be compared to The Lord of the Rings in terms of both the author’s erudition and the popularity of the work. Reading it is kind of a fascinating experience, because I’m very accustomed to seeing the visual manifestation of these ideas, but have read relatively little of them in prose format. It is also not remotely paced like a modern Western fantasy novel — for example, one hundred and six pages into the story, one of the two main characters is finally born. A lot of page count is devoted to describing the characters’ various battles, which means the amount of actual incident is fairly small for the length of the book. But I’m very glad to get this translation, and hope to review the future volumes, too.

China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty, Charles Benn. I love this kind of book. Benn is no Liza Picard, but then again few people are, and as overviews of a specific (albeit long) period go, this one is both specific and comprehensive. It’s clear he’s drawing from a lot of primary sources, because there are all kinds of incredibly random details about various incidents that happened in various locations, of a sort you would only cite if you read something that said, yep, this definitely happened.

Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. Second book of her series about Asian-American superheroines in San Francisco, this time focusing on the character of Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang — and I put the names in that order on purpose, because much of Aveda’s problem is that she really, really would like to forget that she’s normal human Annie Chang underneath it all. It’s frustrating to watch her spending most of the book doubling down on her errors (hint: the way to repair your relationships with the people around you is not to recommit to pretending you have no squishy vulnerabilities and in fact have never even met such a thing), but it’s clearly in service to her eventually getting past that mistake.

Crown Duel, Sherwood Smith.
Court Duel, Sherwood Smith. Listing these two together because I read them in the Book View Cafe edition (which is also the Definitive Edition). I can see why it is both a duology and a unified story; although ultimately there’s a single struggle going on, the first half of that struggle is carried out in a very different fashion (more warfare-oriented) than the second half (more politics-oriented). Which is, among other things, a nice antidote to the idea that all you need is a good climactic battle to settle things: here that’s just the midpoint of the process of achieving change.

Order of the Stick: Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: No Cure for the Paladin Blues, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: War and XPs, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Don’t Split the Party, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Blood Runs in the Family, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: The Origin of PCs, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Snips, Snails, and Dragon Tails, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Good Deeds Gone Unpunished, Rich Burlew. Re-reads for all but the final title listed here. I spent much of late November and early December mainlining the collections of The Order of the Stick for my Yuletide story, but it also served as a good refresher before Burlew launches into the final arc of the series. I, uh, had pretty much forgotten Blood Runs in the Family. Like, to the scale of “they went to the desert? For a whole book? Ohhhhhh, right — yeah, the stuff with Gerard Draketooth.” Not because it wasn’t memorable, but because it was so long ago that I read it. Given the incredible gut-punch that volume delivers to one of the characters, I’m a little embarrassed that is slipped my mind.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, H.G. Parry. Read for blurbing purposes. This is the first half of a historical fantasy duology set in the late eighteenth century, and it manages to pack both the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution in, while also covering what was happening in Britain at the same time, because those things are very interconnected. I felt like the Haitian end got a little short-changed here, maybe in part because of viewpoint choices: the British and French ends follow some very famous individuals like Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, and Robespierre, but the Haitian end doesn’t follow (say) Toussaint L’Ouverture. Instead our viewpoint there is a female character who is, so far as my research has been able to turn up, invented for the story — and while she interacts with Toussaint et alii, it makes for a different, and more distant, angle on the events. But I also have the feeling we’ll see more of Haiti in the second half of the duology. Meanwhile, Parry does an excellent job of making the historical figures feel like real people rather than animated wax models. And it’s no small achievement, packing fifteen years of history into a single novel.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. Re-read for research purposes, because I’m noodling around with an idea that would have some of the “trapped on a dangerous island and there’s a ticking clock for getting to safety” feel to it. I last read this when it came out, soooo, like thirty years ago? Criminy. The concept remains an excellent one, but the book version spends much more time on build-up than I remembered, with lots of one-off looks at the situation through the eyes of various minor characters. I had also (mercifully) forgotten how badly it did by its female characters: Ellie Sattler’s face-off with the velociraptors is good, but I could have done without every male character ogling or commenting on her legs, and Lexie basically does nothing but cause problems or make existing ones worse. Dennis Nedry is also pretty much the walking stereotype of the fat, greedy, computer nerd slob — and unfortunately, while I remember the film doing better by the women, I don’t believe they changed him at all.

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat. Speaking of not being Liza Picard . . . it took me ages to get through this book, even though I love daily-life stuff, and at first I thought it was because Nemet-Nejat’s writing is very dry and factual, with little to no authorial personality coloring anything (apart from mentioning one artistic motif being repeated “ad nauseam”). Then I thought it was because it’s covering such a huge span of time. But while both of those things are part of it, ultimately I think the problem is that nothing here flows: a paragraph will start off with a line about X, but then the rest of the paragraph has to do with Q instead, and then the next paragraph is about V. So all the information in it winds up feeling disjointed, which makes it hard to maintain momentum while reading it.

Kingdom of Souls, Rena Barron. I liked the setting and concept of this one (which are based heavily on African inspirations, and I think specifically West African), especially the part where it avoids simplistically saying “Group A good, Group B bad.” But I had flow issues here, too — things like certain bits of exposition feeling like they arrived in the wrong place, or revelations at the end being insufficiently set up, or the narrative spending lots of time on interstitial bits and then very little on climactic moments. I also realized three-quarters of the way through that the protagonist had accomplished almost nothing meaningful: most of the things she attempts to do fail, and the ones that succeed rarely seem to have any significant effect on the trajectory of the plot. It’s possible to write a story that specifically explores helplessness or constraints on agency, but it didn’t feel to me like this was trying to be that story; it just felt like the gears never quite meshed.

Emerald Empire. This is the fifth-edition setting book for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. Most of its content is already familiar to me (through my familiarity with fourth ed), but I decided I should read it properly to familiarize myself more thoroughly with the places where the new owner of the game has changed things. Most of those places have to do with the spiritual and religious side of Rokugan — toning it down from the “everything is Tainted and shugenja are basically wizards” feeling AEG fell into and instead making things more nuanced, subtle, and integrated with the rest of daily life. Which I appreciate.

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