Books read, October 2020

If I manage to post about November in a timely fashion, I will finally be caught up! (For now.)

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope, ed. Patrice Caldwell. Caldwell says in her introduction that “Though some of these stories contain sorrow, they ultimately are full of hope;” I found the balance to be tipped a bit more toward darkness than that led me to expect. Not a bad thing; just an observation. My favorite here was probably “Tender-Headed,” by Danny Lore, which is all about hairdressing — a very political crux, but that’s left implied, while the focus of the narrative is very much on the personal. And I’m a sucker for stories that connect magic with the everyday mundane in this kind of fashion.

The Silence of Bones, June Hur. YA historical fiction (no fantasy) set in Joseon Korea. The main character is a damo, a “police servant” responsible for examining the dead bodies of female victims and other tasks her male Confucian superiors can’t perform. She’s looking for her missing older brother, and all of this is paired with the persecution of Christians in that time period. The ending could be a setup for further adventures, which I would happily read, but the book appears to be a stand-alone (and works just fine that way). I definitely want to look for more of Hur’s work, though, since it looks like her novels are all set in different periods of Korean history.

Paris, 1200, John W. Baldwin. This was not as much of a “daily life” book as I was hoping for. Baldwin says up front that it can’t be, because we have very little evidence about what the life of an average person was like in that period, compared with a century or so later . . . but when your windows into French life at the turn of that century are the King of France and a very influential churchman, you’re really not getting anywhere near most people’s lived experience. I found the book dry in places, but if you want a better understanding of the church and state of the period — especially things like the transition from a peripatetic kingship with very little governmental structure to something more settled and bureaucratic — it’s useful for that.

Harukor: An Ainu Woman’s Tale, Honda Katsuichi, trans. Kyoko Selden. I’ve had this book on my shelf for years and only just now got around to reading it. It’s fascinating! The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan, ethnically and linguistically distinct from their southern neighbors. This book is layered: the core of it is a historical fiction narrative about an Ainu woman a few centuries ago, followed by a brief narrative of her son during a period of turmoil (meant to be continued in a second book; I don’t know what the publication status of that one is), and prefaced by an ethnographic section by Honda giving both ethnographic and archaeological information on traditional Ainu life. Then Selden’s introduction puts Honda’s work in context, explaining for Anglophone audiences the oppression of the Ainu by mainland Japanese and how Honda is deliberately focusing on the celebration of Ainu culture as a way of awakening support for them among his own people. The thing I found most interesting is that Ainu oral tales are traditionally recited in the first person, which is why the fictional narrative that makes up the bulk of this book is likewise first-person (otherwise I would have found that an odd stylistic choice for someone who is not Ainu himself).

Persian Myths, Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. An extremely short and broad overview of everything from the titular myths to more recent epics and legends. I noticed it on the shelf, thought, “I don’t believe I’ve ever actually read that,” and polished it off in a night. Not remotely in-depth, but there are worse Cliff Notes out there, even if this book is fairly old.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, trans. N.J. Dawood. My immediate reasons for reading this lie at the beginning of a long and winding road involving a short story collection and me having slight OCD tendencies, but it’s also good to get myself past the baseline familiarity bestowed by cultural osmosis and into some more specific tales. Even though this is just a selection of the tales, boy howdy can you see some patterns emerging. That’s generally how folklore works, though.

Burning Roses, S.L. Huang. Novella that pairs up Little Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi, both of them middle-aged and the latter as a woman, and makes them both deal with the pasts they’ve left behind. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that I was very pleased to see the narrative swerve at the very end rather than stopping with the trajectory it was on — that made for a lovely surprise.

Night Parade of 100 Demons my own work doesn’t count.

Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods, But Verify, Rose Mary Sheldon. The subtitle isn’t just a funny line; the author makes the point that augury was an early form of intelligence work, trying to get information on what might happen. Her focus here lands largely though not entirely on military intelligence (in part because she’s a colonel and a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, but also because that’s what we have the most evidence of). My main takeaway from this book is omgwtfbbq how did the Roman Republic manage to accomplish anything with that lack of organization — and there are some points on which the Empire wasn’t a lot better. Like, they were shockingly content to rely on other people to tell them when an invading force was headed their way. Sheldon also isn’t afraid to throw shade where it’s deserved; during her discussion of Caesar’s howling failures of intelligence-gathering during his lackluster attempts at Britain, she says that “more than half of his own campaigns were consumed in extricating himself from the results of his own mistakes. To spend over half a war extricating oneself from difficulties created by the enemy may or may not be good generalship; but to have to do so as a consequence of one’s own mistakes is incontestably bad generalship, even when the extrications are brilliant.” It got a bit too far into the weeds at the end, when it looked at the topic of signaling; I got the point about how defensive installations like Hadrian’s Wall were set up more to monitor and pass information on approaching forces than to stop them outright, and didn’t really need the in-depth analysis of why X fort on the limes in Germany was put in this particular location because it made for a better transmission chain. But it was interesting reading apart from that, and has led to an unexpected draft of a short story inspired by the clades Variana.

Trail of Shadows, D.G. Laderoute. Another Legend of the Five Rings clan novella, this one focusing on the Crab. I usually find the Crab relatively uninteresting, because their schtick is holding the line against the monsters of the Shsadowlands, but this one engaged me more . . . in part because the main character makes some excellent points about how his clan maybe valorizes holding the line too much. There’s a strong hint here of “adapt or die.” The narrative also goes into the Shinomen Mori instead of the Shadowlands, and I find weird mystical forests much more intriguing than a straight monster war. I particularly liked how the central conflict got resolved.

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