Book read, August 2020

Continuing the process of catching up . . .

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, ed. Nisi Shawl. A short story collection from last year that ranges all over the SF/F map, providing all kinds of tasty variety. I think my favorite was “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations,” by Minsoo Kang; it’s not a very conventional short story, being more of a fictional historical commentary, but it’s a great look at the role of translators in diplomacy and how they can influence politics — which then closes out with an appended note wherein someone else chides the historian for neglecting the the perspective of the female character in that history.

Angel of the Crows, Katherine Addison. How you feel about this book will depend heavily on how overdosed you feel on Sherlock Holmes, because the author’s note at the end straight-up admits that the novel began as Sherlock wingfic — that is to say, fanfic where one of the characters has wings. But although the plot largely consists of bits of Holmes canon stapled together in sequence, there’s been real work done here on the worldbuilding, creating a nineteenth century with “angels” who are the spirits of public buildings. Crow, the Sherlock replacement, is an anomaly among his fellow angels: he has no habitation, yet he’s somehow avoided falling back into the ranks of the Nameless, the undifferentiated masses of angels with no home. There are other changes as well, some of them specifically doing what they can to file the racism off of the source material, but I found the most interesting part of it by far to be the new supernatural elements and the story built around those. I would happily have read a novel merely set in this alternate history with no Holmesiana to it at all.

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, Curtis Craddock. Second of the Risen Kingdoms trilogy, which I posted about before. I continue to really enjoy multiple aspects of this: the highly quotable lines that crop up from time to time, the rich worldbuilding (which begins exploring some of the other sorceries in this world, and also addresses the issue of bloodshadows seeming to be the most horrible form of sorcery by showing they can be used for something other than evil — it’s just that most of the nobility don’t bother), and the real complexity of the intrigue. I particularly appreciate the Grand Leon as an example of realpolitik: he’s genuinely reform-minded in some good ways, but that doesn’t make him nice. You know how some middle books of a trilogy feel like they’re either treading water or rehashing the first plot in a new form? This is definitely not one of those.

The Unstrung Harp, Edward Gorey. The traditional re-read, performed upon completion of a novel draft.

Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar. (Disclosure: the author is a friend.) Speaking of openly being inspired by something . . . what if you took Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and made it totally Indian? But while that may have been the starting point here, it isn’t where the story ends. Sheetal is the daughter of a star who lived with her family for many years before returning to the sky; since then Sheetal has been trying to hide her supernatural heritage. Of course that doesn’t work, and so much of the novel takes place in the realm of the stars, where she has to navigate the politics of the different astral houses and the question of how they should relate to the mortals they’re supposed to inspire. There’s one bit where a thing gets suggested which seems on the surface like it ought to be great . . . only when you look closer, it really isn’t. And I was very glad to see the story come back to that and say, “yeah, no, there are some serious problems with this.”

Scarlet Odyssey, C.T. Rwizi. African-derived fantasy that, unlike most such things I’ve read, very much draws its inspiration from South Africa. I enjoyed a lot about this, but found the pacing off: there’s a much bigger metaplot underlying the starting plot, and I either wanted that to come more meaningfully into play here, or to be held in reserve until much later. The cover copy focuses on how Salo’s queen sends him to a distant city to gather important information — but the book ends with him arriving in that city. In the meanwhile, you get a long segment of him before he leaves (which is fine, I enjoyed that part), a long journey to the city, and sections from other points of view, primarily a young woman in the city and one seemingly-disconnected thing whose connection I guessed at before it was revealed. Because of that, when I got to the end of the book, I didn’t really feel like anything in particular had been resolved or achieved; it had just been set up to do the real stuff later. So: not bad, and there was a lot I genuinely liked, but my feeling of momentum and anticipation faded as I got toward the end, rather than building.

Across the Burning Sands, Daniel Lovat Clark. One of the Legend of the Five Rings novellas, this one taking some Unicorn Clan characters out of their territory and into a neighboring land. Given how much Rokugan has usually been depicted as an ethnocentric and insular land, it’s honestly refreshing to see Rokugani characters in a place where everybody’s basically going, “Rokugan what? Yeah, not impressed.”

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, Melissa Bashardoust. This is probably one of the most engaging YA novels I’ve read in a while. It’s heavily inspired by Persian folklore, and it digs incredibly well into some difficult emotional issues. So many books shy back from letting there be serious bad consequences to their protagonists’ actions, or framing those actions as genuinely their fault; well, here the heroine knows she shouldn’t do a thing, and she does it anyway for bad reasons, and horrible shit happens as a result, and she has to figure out how to deal with that. (Also, if you’re looking for queer representation, this has that, too.)

Worlds Imagined: The Maps of Imaginary Places Collection. A very brief catalogue from an exhibition at Cushing Library at Texas A&M, sent to me by my archivist there. This isn’t just the usual suspects for fantasy maps (e.g. Middle-Earth), and I really enjoyed seeing the broad variety of types represented.

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