Books read, March 2021

Reading comic books makes it feel like I have read All the Things this month!

Lost in the Taiga, Vasily Peskov, trans. Marian Schwartz. Nonfiction about the Lykov family, who spent about fifty years living completely isolated in the Russian wilderness (having fled religious persecution in the 1930s). On the one hand this book was a little frustrating, because I wanted it to dig deeper into the psychological aspects — things like internal conflicts (the family patriarch was apparently worried about the prospect of his older son being in charge after his death) and the culture shock of coming into contact with the outside world. On the other hand, that would have required Peskov to study the family rather than just being their friend, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that he chose the latter. It becomes apparent toward the end just how much effort he put into the friendship, including organizing the donations that funded all his trips to the taiga and the supplies he brought with him, the airlift for Agafia Lykov when she got sick, etc. I haven’t yet looked to see what became of Agafia in the long run, after the rest of her family had died; this book leaves off with her still choosing to live alone in the wilderness, but the life she has at that point is no longer self-sufficient, and it’s unclear how she’ll fare when circumstances mean she can’t get support from the outside. Given that it’s been nearly thirty years since then, I have to imagine the answer is “she died out there” — but if so, it’s a death she very much chose for herself, on her own terms.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Zelda Knight and Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald. The tone of this ranges all over the place, from horror to a kind of magical-science-fictional story that felt sort of Zelaznian. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but that’s to be expected in something with this kind of range, and it’s a good showcase for its topic.

The Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold. Secondary world urban fantasy of the noir detective variety — but with a very interesting setting premise: up until recently, there was a source of magic that supported a world full of different kinds of supernatural creatures. Then Humans, the one non-magical species, wrecked it for everybody else. The immediate mystery wound up being less interesting to me than the longer-term story of people coping (or not) in this new environment, but the latter is engaging, the narrative voice is vivid, and I really like that while the Human protagonist Fetch Phillips is clearly carrying around a big ol’ whack of pain, the story is Very Very Clear that his pain is nothing next to that of all the people who lost the magic that made them what they are.

Digger, Volume 3, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 4, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 5, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 6, Ursula Vernon. When I picked up Volume 4, I had a moment where I thought, “Oh no! I am already halfway through Digger — soon there will be no more of it for me to read!” Which didn’t stop me from inhaling Volumes 4-6 in a single evening. Everybody who told me this is good was right, and while there is no more Digger for me to read, the good news is that I have the books on my shelf and can revisit them whenever I want. (It’s also online, of course, but I pefer curling up with a book.) It probably says something about the type of person I am that I was delighted by the funerary cannibalism, but that’s because I honestly can’t think of another instance of that in fiction — cannibalism where it’s a respectful rite of mourning, not a cheap way of depicting savagery.

Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 3, Wendy and Richard Pini.
Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 4, Wendy and Richard Pini. I didn’t realize, until I read the various afterwords on the final volume, that this really had been the planned ending for a very long time — that it was not, as I’d assumed, a story which went on for a while and eventually they decided to wrap it up. I think I should re-read the series as a whole, because this definitely suffered unfairly from me constantly trying to remember who some of the newer characters were. Some parts are deliberately not 100% resolved (because it being the end of one story doesn’t mean all other stories end with it); a few others felt to me like a resolution happened, but I didn’t feel it the way I wanted to. And fundamentally there’s the problem that I have never cared about all the Djun conflict that kept recurring in the later volumes, and which forms the big climax here. But on the other hand, it brings in some really cool stuff (the Rootless Ones!), and I don’t regret reading through to the end.

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield. Nonfiction in one of my favorite genres, which is a look at daily life in some place and time. This one’s unusual because it covers a big swath of the Silk Road over a period of 250 years; since that’s obviously a huge topic, it breaks it up by having each chapter follow a particular individual in a particular place and time (some of them fictional, others based on real figures supplemented by general evidence). Four of the ten are women, too, which I appreciated. Given ten characters and a not very large book, it’s all still pretty brief, but it does a great job of looking at Eurasia from a point in the middle instead of one side or another, which is a thing I could use more of.

Elfquest: Stargazer’s Hunt, Volume 1, Wendy and Richard Pini and Sonny Strait. Speaking of not all the stories being resolved! The Pinis are still narratively involved at this point, but the art here is all done by Wendy’s long-time colorist Sonny Strait. I’m glad to have this story (with the second half coming out next year, I think), because yeah, this is a corner of the narrative that needs its own resolution still.

The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna. I wasn’t super-engaged at the start of this novel, because I’ve read enough YA fantasies of this type that I thought I could see where it was going. Then it didn’t do what I expected, and I got interested. I think parts of it could be stronger (the entire conduct of the war seems not well thought-out), and I honestly recommend not even looking at the map because nothing about the geography depicted there makes sense vis-a-vis what the text says — but I liked it overall. And it also seems to be a stand-alone, which I was not expecting and was glad to see.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Another from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but this one gets much further away than most from the general mission statement of “world mythology” — Sal’s ability to poke holes through into other universes and bring things through for a while is talked about in terms of calamity physics, not Cuban folklore. (I seem to have a preference for the books from this imprint that don’t follow the Riordan model of “protagonist discovers they are the child of a god.”) I really enjoyed it! Sal and Gabi are both great characters, mature for their age without seeming like they’re teenagers or adults in kids’ bodies, and the whole mood of this one is very good-hearted.

2 Responses to “Books read, March 2021”

  1. Deborah Burros

    Stranger in a Strange Land–didn’t that have some funerary cannibalism? (It has been a long time since I read it, or any other Heinlein.)

    • swantower

      Someone suggested that in the comments to the DW mirror of this post, so you’re probably right!

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