Books read, January 2021

Transgressions of Power, Juliette Wade. Second in the Broken Trust series, and not that I expect anybody to notice this, but the first book (Mazes of Power) has not appeared in my logs. There’s a story there, heh.

Juliette is a friend, and the only reason I hadn’t read Mazes of Power immediately after acquiring it last year was that I had zero cope for a dystopian story like this one in 2020. But then I was asked to blurb the second book, so I thought, self, let’s just go ahead and read them both. Except I started running out of time, and I didn’t want to let that hurdle mean I let Juliette down, so . . . I just dove in and started reading Transgressions. Which I do not generally recommend! The setting is beautifully complex, and if you skip the introduction as I did, you will be madly dog-paddling in an attempt to stay afloat! But as I said to Juliet, the fact that the story sucked me right in even though I had no idea who any of these people were and was busy doing the aforementioned dog-paddling is a testament to how good it is. The plot is a slow build, but boy is it satisfying when it lands (and I have never seen the signing of a bureaucratic form look as heroic as it does in this book). The caste-structured society of this world has some impressively creepy aspects — the people who serve as bodyguards are always referred to as a possession of their masters, e.g. “Nekantor’s Dexelin” or “my Dexelin” — and also some very cool cultural differences in the various layers.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini. Paolini is, of course, the guy known for the Inheritance Cycle, beginning with Eragon. This? Is a very different type of book, being interstellar science fiction that starts out wearing its homage to Alien on its sleeve, then takes that opening in entirely new directions. Directions I liked quite a lot, once I got past the body horror of the beginning (a horror which includes being a woman dealing with a doctor who refuses to listen to anything you have to say or respect your bodily autonomy — that got me so much harder than the alien stuff because it happens all the time). I read it in ebook, so I can’t quite measure how massive of a brick the book is, but let’s just say it’s huge and that didn’t stop me from hoovering it up in the space of a few days. It’s also a stand-alone volume, though with a setting that’s open to telling lots of other stories.

Tangleroot Palace, Marjorie Liu. Read for blurbing purposes (this has been a lot of my reading lately, you might notice). A small short story collection from Tachyon, ranging through fairy tales to superheroes to a post-apocalyptic setting, often with queer content. I saw the twist coming a mile off in the title story, but not in a way that wrecked its appeal; I think most kinds of story can survive that, as long as they’re well-written.

Wench, Maxine Kaplan. MG or YA book (I’m not quite sure of its categorization), read for review. Full reaction here; short form is that I found it disappointing. Its tone never quite settled, and the most interesting bits got tossed in at the end, when there was no time left to develop them.

Witherward, Hannah Mathewson. Also read for blurbing purposes. The obvious comparison here is to V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, with an alternate London existing alongside the real (Victorian-era) one. That London, the Witherward, is divided up among factions of magical people all existing in a peace so tenuous it barely deserves the name. The main character, Ilsa, has been living in Victorian London using her magic to get by, without realizing she’s originally from the Witherward; when she gets pulled across the boundary, she finds herself eyeball-deep in the politics there, with a great many people around her having secrets and conflicting agendas.

The Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg. Another Tachyon publication, but one that came out a while ago. This is either a novella or a short novel (not sure which) set in Lemberg’s Birdverse. It is intensely queer — both protagonists are trans, one from a culture where it’s entirely normal to use magic to adjust your body to fit your identity, one from a culture where that is not the case — and it’s very poetically written. There’s a lot of suffering here, a lot of loving people who maybe don’t love you back the way they should, because they’re afraid of change (a recurrent theme) or focused on the wrong things, but ultimately it’s a hopeful story, not a bleak one.

Three Twins at the Crater School, Chaz Brenchley. Also read for blurbing purposes! Chaz is also a friend, and he’s been writing the Crater School stories through his Patreon for a while now, but they’re going to be coming out from Wizard’s Tower, hence looking for blurbs. I have never read the Chalet School series this is openly inspired by (classic British girls’ boarding school stories); what I know of that genre comes via the descriptions of the Lowood House novels Millie reads in The Lives of Christopher Chant. I am given to understand they do not usually take place on Mars? 🙂 This is a delightful little book, and very unlike most of what I read these days. Although there are a couple of plots centering on the new arrivals to the school, they aren’t the kind of plots that drive the whole book. Nor are there any real villains apart from some offstage parents — no cruel teachers that make the students’ lives a misery. Mostly you’re spending time with the girls of the Crater School as they deal with each other and their prefects and the teachers and the weird aliens in the lake, and then every so often there’s a problem with the Russian spies up on Phobos or whatever. If you need a story where generally people are good-hearted despite their flaws, where strictness from authority is happening for understandable reasons even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that fact, where somebody can invoke the importance of upholding the image of “a Crater School girl” and that’s a meaningful force on the characters, this is a very good place to find that.

Machinehood, S.B. Divya. Outside my usual reading, being near-future SF focused on AI and body modification and so forth, but Divya is a friend from the Codex Writers’ Group, and I’m making a significant effort to focus on new and upcoming releases right now (this one’s hitting the shelves March 2nd) due to concerns about books being lost in the pandemic chaos. And like Paolini’s book, this made for a diverting change of pace! It is definitely hella dystopian, with weak AI and bots having supplanted enough of the human workforce that the latter subsists on a lot of meaningless crappy gig jobs, constantly scrabbling for enough work to stay afloat — and downing all manner of pills to help them do those jobs, which in some cases has some pretty bad effects — though the most dystopian part of it for me might have been the sort of influencer/up-vote side of things, where even being a bodyguard is a performance art for the ubiquitous cameras, and at one point a woman about to have sex with her partner thinks about how they didn’t put on makeup or dress up for foreplay and so they won’t get a lot of tips. But what I really liked here is that most chapters begin with a quote from the manifesto of the Machinehood, the group attacking everybody . . . and that manifesto makes a lot of good points. Divya does a very good job of counterpoising their ideology against their actions, so that it doesn’t sort into a clear-cut situation of “these people are bad, the end.”

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