Books read, November 2020

Hall of Smoke, H.M. Long. (Disclosure: I was sent this book for blurbing purposes, though I didn’t manage to read it in time for that.) This is a single-volume epic fantasy that does some interesting things on the level of its cosmological worldbuilding, with layers of “what constitutes a god” and so forth that I can’t talk much about without spoiling things. I really enjoyed that aspect, but it took me a while to get into the story itself, simply for a structural reason: the plot setup means that for a very large chunk of the book, the only character you get real continuity with is the protagonist, and in a more distant sense, her goddess. Later on some of the characters you met in the early part come back, but there was a long stretch where there weren’t really any ongoing relationships (in any sense, not just the romantic) being explored and developed. It turns out that’s a major part of how I attach to a story, so it was a little frustrating that every time I started to get invested in a particular place and set of people, they went away and got replaced by other places and other people. The momentum very much picked up for me once that changed.

Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger. I made an effort to tilt my reading in the direction of indigenous North American authors for November, aided and abetted by two recent releases I was really looking forward to. This is the first, from a Lipan Apache author, and IT’S SET IN TEXAS, Y’ALL. Admittedly in fictional towns, so that there wasn’t any specific recognition of place for me, but still! Texas! Ahem. More broadly, this is set in a world where magic is known, and there are some really well-done answers to how different kinds of supernatural stuff collide: European stories are talked about like an invasive species, with the indigenous monsters of the plains being driven out by monotonous fields of corn with haunted scarecrows in them. (And I loved a certain moment about vampires and what it means for them to enter someone’s home. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean.) The antagonist setup was interestingly creepy, too. Very much recommended.

Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse. And this is the second of those releases. Epic fantasy, but first in a series, in a setting that draws on both Mesoamerica and the Tewa, from an author who’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and Black. I found one of the protagonists a little frustrating because she is an amazingly bad leader — seriously, she tries to implement some major changes to her organization with no discernible base of political support, and then seems surprised when that goes poorly — and I wish one of the characters had been introduced sooner and developed more, because he appears to be much more central to the story than his page time would suggest. But I very much like the setting, both in its source material and its inventions, and I like the other main characters, so I will definitely read on when the next volume arrives.

The Dead Go to Seattle, Vivian Faith Prescott. Recommended to me online when I said I was looking for fantasy from indigenous authors. This is a collection of short stories centered on the community of Wrangell, which is a mix of Tlingit, Scandinavian, and other groups. The overall tone is more literary than my usual fare (let’s face it, I tend more toward things like Black Sun), but I liked the way it slid between different modes of storytelling and also different time periods — it is very much wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff in places.

The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk. Secondary-world Regency-styled fantasy with a premise that is very standard, which Polk then proceeds to execute in a much more interesting fashion. We’ve seen many stories with a setup where the heroine has to choose between marrying well to support her family, and chasing her true desire . . . but Polk skews that by giving her a potential husband who is handsome, accomplished, intelligent, wealthy, respectful of the heroine, and in love with her. So what’s on the other side of that stacked deck? What the heroine wants is magic, and the worldbuilding here is very deliberately crafted such that even a respectful husband who supports her dreams would mean she can’t achieve the goal she’s been aiming for her whole life. There was one spot where it started to feel to me like the magic system was a little too precisely machined so as to block off possible avenues of cake having + eating, but that didn’t stop this from being the first book in quite a while to make me stay up past even my egregiously late bedtime because I didn’t want to put it down. In the end, I think my only real complaint is that the grimoires wound up almost being macguffins. I half-expected there to be important answers and solutions hidden within their pages, but all the characters really used them for was that one ritual they wanted to carry out, and then the actual resolution of the “how do you have your cake and eat it, too?” question got resolved very much offstage. If this book had explored that aspect of things as thoroughly as the other elements, it would have been an absolute knockout.

The Radiant Lives of Animals, Linda Hogan. Nonfiction and poetry from a Chickasaw author, very much focused on nature and our relationship with it — which, hey, is a thing I’ve been trying to improve in my own writing! So this was quite relevant to my interests. It’s short and beautifully written, and illustrated with lovely stylized pen-and-ink imagery throughout.

Race to the Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse. I’ve gotten behind on the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, so this seemed like a good time to pick up a different Roanhorse title. This one explores Navajo mythology, and I really liked the communal aspect of it: not just the fact that the heroine goes on her adventure with several other people in tow, but that the Monsterslayer thing is part of a distinct tradition that plays a major role in how the story unfolds. I don’t know if there will be more, but I would gladly read a sequel.

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