Books read, June 2020
(And also one I missed in my writeup from May.)
Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword, Henry Lien. Middle-grade fantasy novel about a girl whose life dream is to become a champion of wulin, i.e. martial arts figure skating. This has great details about skating; because it’s done on a surface called “pearl” (whose creation is a closely guarded secret) rather than on ice, and the entire city that houses the wulin academy is built of pearl, basically everything Peasprout does is about skating. There was a fair bit of me wanting to smack her for being obtuse and arrogant — she sees practically everybody else around her as either irrelevant or The Competition — but she’s generally obtuse and arrogant in a way that’s believable for her age, even if I was a little annoyed at how she latched onto a certain explanation for something and basically paid no attention to the utter lack of evidence to support that explanation. And this dug surprisingly deep into the international politics of Peasprout’s country versus the one she’s in, as well as some gender identity stuff. Highly recommended, want the next book now.
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock. Look, it’s got masks (well, masques) and mirrors in the title, plus it takes place in a sky world. As one of the authors of both The Mask of Mirrors and Born to the Blade, this naturally caught my eye. 🙂 It’s a very engaging secondary-world political fantasy with a bit of the feel of eighteenth-century Europe — there are musketeers — but some creepy as hell worldbuilding around how the various nations have ruling bloodlines descended from ancient saints, each of them possessing a particular type of magic (which they, uh, very rarely use for anything good). The main character does not carry the magic of her bloodline, plus she was born with a deformed hand, so she’s an outcast who winds up being thrust into the middle of some very complex intrigue. I’m looking forward to reading the second one of this series, too.
The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty. Technically this is historical fantasy, as it starts in Cairo (which made me think of Clark’s upcoming A Master of Djinn), but the bulk of it is set within djinn society, so it reads more like a secondary-world fantasy. What’s interesting to me here is that . . . all the factions kind of seem like assholes? There’s no clear setup as to who you’re supposed to be cheering on. The shafit lead the pack, because they’re the oppressed underclass of djinn/human hybrids, but they are not simplistically good and pure. This is not a story where I can see what the desired ending looks like — which, in a running theme here, means I’m eager to read the next one.
David Mogo, Godhunter, Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in Nigeria (and by a Nigerian writer). Here’s what you should know, that I didn’t know going into this: it’s really three novellas. Connected ones, to be sure, but a third of the way into the book I was thinking, “man, this reads a lot like a climactic confrontation — what is the rest of this book going to look like?” The answer was that it was going to have new plots and new enemies to fight. In fairness, the book does signal the divisions with splash pages; however, since the first novella is titled “Godhunter” and the book is David Mogo, Godhunter, the significance of that didn’t register on me until I turned a page and saw another splash page saying “Firebringer.”
Anyway, regarding the story itself: the West African gods have fallen to earth and really screwed over things in Nigeria (unclear what’s happening in the rest of the world; the story is understandably not concerned with that). The half-divine main character makes a very marginal living dealing with some of the resulting problems, and gets drawn into the bigger struggle behind the whole situation. It reads a lot like Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series in terms of its breakneck pace and the general feeling that people are just barely hanging in there. For reasons of personal taste, I think the thing I’m most interested in reading is what happens after this novel; certain things change, and the consequences of that are the sort of thing I really dig. I’m not sure if Okungbowa is planning a sequel, though.
(As a side note, I appreciate that he seems to have genderflipped a couple of deities along with leaning into the gender ambiguity of another one. There are women in this story, and while I would have liked to see more done with them, that’s true of all characters in a book with this kind of pacing.)
Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar, Robert Lebling. Nonfiction book, recommended by Ali A. Olomi, a professor who’s posted some really fascinating threads about jinn and other aspects of Muslim folklore (a term I use in the academic sense of “traditional beliefs and practices”). It’s as sweepingly comprehensive as the title implies; by far the longest chapter in here goes through a series of different countries or regions and talks about what jinn belief looks like here as opposed to there. Because of the other things I’ve read, what was fascinating was seeing the places where it echoed European faerie beliefs, or Japanese yokai beliefs, etc., without being quite the same as any other thing. I’d love to find comparable books about other regions and traditions.
Everyday Life in Early Imperial China During the Han Period 202 BC-AD 220, Michael Loewe. Continuing my tour through different periods of China’s history. This is a very slender book — barely two hundred pages — and dates back to the sixties, so it’s not nearly as in-depth or up-to-date as I would like, but after reading books about the Tang and Southern Song Dynasties, it’s still useful to go back and look at the roots of a lot of things that grew and flowered in later eras.
Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets: The Mad, the Bad, and the Dangerous, Catherine M. Andronik. I went into this having read an Amazon review that pointed out a number of factual inaccuracies, so I don’t necessarily recommend it. Having said that, it did what I needed it to do, which was to give me enough of a sense of the social connections and relationships between the major Romantic poets that I could write a short story which depends on the premise of “the major Romantic poets all knew about X thing whose dissemination ultimately traces back to Wordsworth.” It also did what I wasn’t looking for it to do, which was to convince me that what I needed to do to turn my concept into an actual story was to pick one of the women around the Romantic poets to be the central character. For that I will forgive it the breezy tone, which was occasionally a little much, and also the factual inaccuracies. (Don’t worry, I’ve been checking my actual concrete facts against the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.)
The Raven’s Tale, Cat Winters. YA fantasy novel about the young Edgar Allan Poe. The cover copy does not adequately advertise that this is very minorly an alternate history; it took me a while to realize that when the characters talked about muses, they all recognized and accepted that one’s muse is an actual supernatural creature, which can be fostered and led to evolve or stifled or outright killed. The novel is about Poe’s struggle with the fact that his muse is a morbid, Gothic creature he (of course) names Lenore, which he fears will drive other people away and make it impossible to succeed in life. It’s scrupulously researched — the author dug down to the level of reading old bills from Poe’s life — and I put up with and even sometimes enjoyed the absolutely over-the-top melodrama of Lenore and her interactions with Poe, because frankly, if you’re not being melodramatic and over-the-top with this topic, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Fiyah #14 I haven’t read nearly as much in electronic format since my tablet died; my phone is much less congenial for such things. Which means I’ve gotten behind on this magazine — but, uh, it exists specifically to publish black writers, and hey, that’s a thing I want to be reading more of now. One of the stories in #13 (“The Transition of Osoosi” by Ozzie M. Gartrell) was painfully on-topic, with police brutality and a trans character running into trouble because of their gender identity, plus an overall setting where True Americans and Citizen Americans are groups with markedly different legal rights. I enjoyed it despite the flinch of “look, I’m reading in part to escape current events;” I also enjoyed “Roots on Ya” by L.H. Moore, historical fiction with a really engaging voice.