Books read lately
I didn’t have a lot of time for reading during March and April because I was so busy finishing the draft of Night Parade. But my household placed several large orders with various bookstores, and since May began, I’ve been plowing through things at a good clip. So here’s a big catch-up post.
Beauty Like the Night, Joanna Bourne. I was delighted to see a new book in this series (the one romance series I’ve ever really gotten attached to). Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me; I’d put it down with the second book as very much the weak installments in the series. It says something that at this point, a couple of months on, I can’t even tell you what didn’t work about it for me — the whole thing basically faded out of my head the moment I was done with it.
The Fires Beneath the Sea, Lydia Millet. Hey, do you like Madeleine L’Engle? Lydia Millet clearly does. Which isn’t a bad thing, and points to her for real creepiness with the Pouring Man . . . but yeah, it reads a lot like L’Engle, so if that’s not what you’re looking for, this probably isn’t the book you want.
Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, Jacques Gernet. The English translation of this book was published in 1962, so . . . it’s a little dated. (Dear M. Gernet: I suppose sweeping positive generalizations about The Character of the Chinese People are better than sweeping negative ones, but still, not so great.) However, I very much appreciate that Gernet goes out of his way to situate his details in their historical period: he will not only say “this is how they did it in Song times,” but also “this is how that’s different from what they did in Tang times.” For somebody like me, who’s still working on getting a good sense of the change between one historical period and the next, that’s valuable.
Ancient Magic: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome, Philip Matyszak. The tone of this book is very breezy and pop-culture, but on the other hand its citations are all from primary sources, so it isn’t the kind of book that’s just rehashing warmed-over New Age interpretations of the past. And serious props to Matyszak for pointing out that a certain class of “love magic” is identical in form and intent to cursing, and if it had worked, would be straight-up magical roofies. It’s one thing to pray to a god that you hope so-and-so might notice you and smile, but quite another to ask the god to make it so that person has no choice but to crawl to your feet and submit.
Lent, Jo Walton. I made the mistake of glancing at the Afterword when I was only partway through the book, whereupon I chanced to see a line that spoiled the big reveal of this book. That didn’t ruin it by any means — Walton’s too good of an author to have her books ruined because you know where they’re going — but I do wish I’d hit that reveal fresh. Anyway, historical fantasy about Savonarola, very steeped in Catholic theology and the politics of its time period. I quite enjoyed it.
A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark. Read for blurbing, and not coming out until (I think) 2021, so it was sent well in advance of publication and I don’t even think you can pre-order it yet. But it riffs off Clark’s short fiction set in an alternate history fantastical Cairo, with interesting worldbuilding around how supernatural creatures fit into everything, and plenty of attention to the diversity of religion and culture within Cairo itself. There came a point where I saw the answer to the mystery, well in advance of the characters figuring it out, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ride there.
By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends, Emilie Demant Hatt, trans. Barbara Sjoholm. Recommended ages ago by Marissa Lingen. Stories collected in the early part of the twentieth century by a woman whose methods anticipated a lot of the advancements in anthropological fieldwork that wouldn’t become widespread for some decades afterward — though still not perfect in some ways, as it was the decision of the translator to include the names of the individual storytellers where known, drawn from Demant Hatt’s notes. (Demant Hatt herself mostly only named off the region of collection in the original publications.) These of course read very much like folktales rather than modern short stories, but if you like that kind of thing, this is a good one.
The Unkindness of Ravens, Abra Staffin-Wiebe. Epic fantasy novella in a setting with some distinctly African-derived elements. I’m not sure if it’s me as a reader, the genre collectively as writers, or a bit of both, but I keep feeling with novellas like their pacing is frequently off? That length is having a resurgence right now, but it seems like that means in part that we’re having to re-invent the best ways to structure them. I liked the ending of this one, but the beginning felt to me more like it was paced for a novel, and then when it got rolling faster it went a little too fast. This is the first in a series, so there’s more to come, but the shape of this installment felt a little lopsided.
Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg. Supernatural noir from the seventies that was made into a film whose voodoo elements eventually inspired Jane Jenson to create Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. I enjoyed some of the prose quite a bit, and it did a decent job of making its non-white characters meaningful agents in the plot — Epiphany in particular, who is both quick-thinking and much better educated than the protagonist — though the visual descriptions of them fell into many of the usual traps (and the protagonist definitely objectifies women’s bodies in some uncomfortable ways). When all’s said and done, though, the ending is bleak, which is not really my thing.
Chaucer’s People, Liza Picard. I recently discovered that there is one nonfiction author for whom I’m enough of a fan that I will squeal in delight, “oooh, she’s got a new book out!” Picard was an invaluable resource for me when I was writing the Onyx Court, because she has books about daily life in London during every century from the sixteenth through the nineteenth; well, now she’s added the late fourteenth century. This one is a little different because she uses the characters of The Canterbury Tales to structure it, grouping them into “Country Life,” “City Life,” “Religious Life,” and “The Armed Services,” and discussing topics that would be relevant to each character — so that, for example, the Wife of Bath’s chapter talks about both the wool trade and religious pilgrimages (because the Wife of Bath has been on many). In a few instances this leads to some unfortunate repetition, e.g. the Merchant’s chapter repeats the previous information on the wool trade, and you get reminded something like four times that the Black Death had recently decimated Europe’s population. It’s also less strictly focused on London, and more on English life in general. But I still love Picard’s books and find them incredibly useful as well as entertaining. (I wonder if I could bribe her to write one on Roman London?)
Whispers of Shadow and Steel, Mari Murdock. Legend of the Five Rings clan novella, focusing on the Scorpion, i.e. the clan that specializes in secrets and blackmail and so forth. The main character of this, Yojiro, is referred to as “the Honest Scorpion,” because unlike everybody around him he really wants to be honorable, and since he’s investigating a mystery, this is very much the kind of setup where you have the honorable detective working within a corrupt system. I found some of the corruption to be over the top, but the way it all fell out was pretty satisfying — I’m used to thinking of Aramoro as basically just an asshole in the other L5R fictions, and while that’s not wrong, I liked seeing him be kind of a good Scorpion here. (Which is not the same thing as an honest one.)
The Fire Opal Mechanism, Fran Wilde. Second novella in a series where I haven’t read the first, but the plots are separate; they just share a setting. The beginning of this felt very Jo Walton-y to me, with a librarian trying to save books from the destructive movement sweeping the land. Some of the descriptions felt to me like they were operating on a different wavelength than my brain, though, which meant I had difficulty in places following quite what was going on.
Daily Life of the Aztecs, Jacques Soustelle. I’ve had this on my shelf for ages and thought I’d read it before; I picked it up now because I needed to refresh my memory on this time period and culture. But it shed little bits of excess paper from the binding as I read, in a way that strongly implied I’d never so much as opened it before, so . . . ? Like the Gernet above, this is an older book, but fairly well-done despite its dated aspects. Soustelle gets very specific about the history of the Triple Alliance and its leaders, which is good because I know more about the culture than about the actual events and people. And he does a really nice job of showing how the mismatch between Mexican and Spanish ideas of war meant that, despite being a highly militaristic society, the Aztecs were wildly unprepared for the war they wound up fighting.
A Bond Undone, Jin Yong, trans. Gigi Chang. Second book of the quartet that Legends of the Condor Heroes is being broken into for translation, read for review. The beginning was a bit of a slog, since nearly the first hundred of its five hundred pages are taken up with a rolling series of battles all in the space of the same twenty-four-hour period as the end of the first volume. But after that it picked up and started doing some richer things with the characters and their history — along with a notable amount of humor.
A Murder of Mages, Marshall Ryan Maresca. Set in a world the author has written in before, but it’s the first in a new series. Mostly that worked, though I felt like I was missing some context regarding Circle mages — what they’re for and how they operate — that might have been in the other books. That aside, this is a fun fantasy murder mystery, with a team-up between two characters I really liked (and no, not just because “fantasy cop” and “con artist” rang some Mask of Mirrors bells in my head). In particular, I appreciated that both of them had families who are important to the story: in Satrine’s case, a badly disabled husband and two teenaged daughters, and in Minox’s case, a giant clan of relatives who are all mostly in one branch of the police/military/etc. or another. Also, if you’re tired of inevitable romances between the two leads, there isn’t one here. Satrine is married, and there are indications that Minox might be gay, though it’s underplayed enough in the first volume that I’m not sure.
The Perfect Assassin, K.A. Doore. Epic fantasy with a Middle Eastern-inspired setting whose economy and politics are heavily based around water. The most frustrating thing about this book was that on page 68 the main character hears someone say a thing which is very relevant to the plot . . . and then proceeds to not remember that he heard that. Even when he’s trying to find the answer to a question for which that thing he heard is the answer. Even when he’s trying to figure out how two people could be connected and that thing he heard would explain it. 166 pages later, somebody repeats to him that thing he heard, and even then, he doesn’t remember it. I know this happens in real life, but when it happens in a book, with a character who is not forgetful or scatterbrained but rather highly intelligent and trained to be observant, it grates really badly — all the more so because I think the author could have cut that bit where the thing got said without any harm to the story whatsoever, and a great deal of benefit. I spent most of my time reading this being annoyed that the obvious answer was sitting right there, rather than enjoying the story as much as I might have otherwise.