Books read, July 2020
I am way behind on this, and yes, I know August and September are also over, but if I try to do everything at once it will be such a dauntingly huge post that I won’t write it. So let’s catch up on July first.
The Night Parade of a Hundred Demons As usual, I note my own work for posterity, but it doesn’t actually count.
Hue and Cry: The Story of Henry and John Fielding and Their Bow Street Runners, Patrick Pringle. This was a vastly more entertaining book than I expected. Pringle pulls absolutely zero punches in talking about how brutal eighteenth-century English “justice” was, and how little good it did in curbing crime — but at the same time he notes that we shouldn’t necessarily get on our high horses about being so much better. (This was written in the 1950s, so it isn’t commentary on our current times; that doesn’t mean it isn’t still relevant.) He also helps make it clear why it wasn’t totally stupid and illogical for Londoners to resist the formation and expansion of the Bow Street operation, even if in hindsight omgwtfbbq they needed it. I feel obliged to warn you that the book has a couple of brief and completely unnecessary sideswipes at homosexuality and welfare; if you can get past those, the rest of it is astonishingly engaging, to the point where I kept reading passages out loud to my husband and my sister.
An Import of Intrigue, Marshall Ryan Maresca. Second of the Maradaine Constabulary novels. I found this one more disorienting than the first, as it brings in about five different ethnic groups clashing in an immigrant district of the city; as with the Circle politics in the first book, I don’t know if that’s material that was previously introduced in the first trilogy, such that I wouldn’t have felt quite so much at sea with all these unfamiliar names and dynamics. It does, however, contain an absolutely hilarious scene that’s basically what happens when two lawful neutral characters have a verbal duel.
The Belles, Dhonielle Clayton. A secondary-world dystopia where society worships the concept of beauty and enthrones successive generations of young women who, as Belles, have the ability to shape other people to be more beautiful. This turns out to mean not only their bodies but their spirits — they can make an impatient person more patient, soften the edges of someone’s temper, and so forth. It is every bit as creepy as you think. Also, there are indications that something’s gone profoundly wrong with the whole system. The plot didn’t move quite as rapidly as I would have liked, which felt more explicable when I realized it’s the first book in a series; still, I think I would have liked to see a little more meat here, even if the placement of the break-point makes sense.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Kwame Mbalia. One of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, and boy howdy is this an example of how middle grade doesn’t have to mean fluffy and lightweight. The world Tristan falls into is divided between the islands of Midpass and Alke, the latter being full of African mythology, the former African-American — because yes, “Midpass” is clearly short for “Middle Passage.” Tristan fights animated slave chains, and the climactic confrontation takes place on a slave ship. Nothing about this is misery porn, but it is very clear about the suffering baked into its sources.
Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels, Gwen Hayes. No, I’m not intending to branch out into genre romance. 🙂 But I was given several thousand extra words to play with during revisions on Night Parade and a request from my editor to beef up the romantic strand of the plot, so I read through this to think about how I wanted to do that. One of the primary effects was to make me clearer on the fundamental differences between a story which Is Romance, and one which Contains Romance . . . but I would have liked Hayes to go into more detail, as many of the “chapters” in this are about one page long and basically just say, here is the point in the story where you should have X happen!
A Blade So Black, L.L. McKinney. An odd kind of urban fantasy loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, with a main character who gets selected to fight the nightmares that try to break through into our world. The pacing of this one didn’t quite click for me, either; I really enjoyed it at the start, but felt less momentum as I went along. I think part of it was the multiple iterations of the protagonist worrying about the fact that she kept having to lie to her mother — on the one hand I absolutely appreciate the story looking at how “my daughter came home late” is a bit different when your daughter is black and a black girl just like her got shot not that long ago, but on the other hand I felt like this went through repeated cycles of that without really changing anything. I also kept waiting for a reveal I assumed was coming, which turned out to be half-true but half-not, and sadly, the half that wasn’t was the half I was more invested in.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho. Novella, reviewed at the New York Journal of Books.
The Sword and the Spirits, Robert Denton III. One of the Legend of the Five Rings novellas, this one concerning the Phoenix Clan. I really liked the attention to detail on spiritual practices here — there were a lot of elements drawn from real-world sources that aren’t what I usually see in fantasy (e.g. catalpa bows to drive away spirits).