Books read, May 2021
Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan, Usman T. Malik. I met the author at, hmmmm, I think ICFA? The book is quite literally from Pakistan; at least when I placed my order, it wasn’t available in the U.S. Some of these verged in more horror-ish directions than is my cuppa, but I liked the collection overall. And I found it particularly interesting to see where the text doesn’t bother explaining stuff: a statue from Mohenjo-daro gets referenced as if the reader is assumed to be extremely familiar with its appearance, and one story hinges on the idea of stoves being a source of fear, without saying outright why. (In the former case, I searched online for the image; in the latter, I had a vague recollection which I then confirmed, which is that men who want to get rid of their current wives will burn them alive and then blame it on an explosion from a kerosene stove.)
The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden. An absolutely lovely historical fantasy novel set in Russia, the first of the Winternight Trilogy. It managed to make me feel sympathy for the “evil stepmother,” and I like the ambiguity around the romance — I’ll be interested to see how the tension of the latter plays out in the rest of the series.
Star Eater, Kerstin Hall. Disclosure: the author is a friend. The worldbuilding here strikes a balance where on the one hand, the things people are doing are deeply messed up, but on the other hand, you see why just deciding not to do those things isn’t a solution. (Example: if you stop your rituals, the floating island everybody lives on will literally fall out of the sky. Into a demon-haunted wilderness, for bonus points.) As a result, it comes with trigger warnings for things like cannibalism and a really twisted sexual scene. This book is a stand-alone — I don’t know if Hall intends more in this setting or with these characters, but the plot doesn’t demand it — but I’d be interested in more about the history behind everything we see here. You get bits of it in the last segment of this book, but my nerdy heart wanted more!
A Snake Lies Waiting, Jin Yong, trans. Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang. Third of the ongoing English translation of the book usually called Legends of the Condor Heroes. I distinctly enjoyed the portion of this that had to be more about problem-solving than just fighting your enemies — first with setting up a trap; then with getting someone out of it — and chef’s kiss to the bit where one of the bad guys screws up his attempted takeover of the Beggar Clan by trying to be too dignified. On the other hand, it’s deeply grating when one of the two strongest female martial artists in the whole story is described as being no match for a third-tier dude who’s literally had the entire lower half of his body crushed with a boulder.
A Radical Act of Free Magic, H.G. Parry. Second half of the duology that began with A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. Robespierre is dead; Napoleon is on the rise; Haiti is in the process of becoming a free country; England is having problems. The pacing that results from a duology structure means I spent the first chunk of this book having a sad that Pitt and Wilberforce basically weren’t talking to each other, but fortunately that didn’t last. The ending is also interesting because of how closely this hews to the shape of real history, while providing different reasons for events: the invented threat gets thoroughly taken out, but other bits are left somewhat dangling because history says they won’t be dealt with for another few years or decades. I didn’t find it unsatisfying, but it definitely isn’t as tidy as we usually expect from novels.
The Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer, ed. Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans. I swear to god that someone whose blog I read regularly had a review of this book, but I’ve checked all the usual suspects and not found it, so either I missed it in my search or I’m imagining things. And yet, if I didn’t see a review, then where did I find out about it? Anyway, this runs the full gamut from the basics of craft to some philosophical things about life as a writer. Unsurprisingly, I found the latter more useful than the former, but this could still be a good book to recommend to a newer writer.
City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett. Second of the Divine Cities trilogy, and it’s been years since I read the first one, but that didn’t materially hamper my enjoyment. I continue to be be fascinated by the type of worldbuilding I see here and in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, where it’s a secondary world with magic but the general feel is modern rather than historical. (Who else does that?)
Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien. Second of a middle-grade series about martial arts figure skating. For much of this book I was enjoying it but also a little frustrated with Peasprout’s blind spots, because I keep wanting her to be more diplomatic and aware of others (while fully recognizing that the whole point is that failure to do so is a flaw she’s having to grow past; this is more about me not being the target audience than anything else). Then I got to the end of the book and OMGWTFBBQ PLEASE TELL ME THERE WILL BE A THIRD BOOK BECAUSE I NEED ANSWERS. O_O
The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner. This is a series I’ve heard recommended many times over the years, and I finally got around to picking up the first book. Having done so, I’ve gotta ask . . . does it get better? Because I was seriously not impressed. Something like a fifth of the book is the characters traveling while having the same repetitive interactions and facing no particular challenges. Then they’re still traveling, but at least there are some challenges and the interactions have gotten less repetitive. I semi-guessed where the story was going, but when I found out I was right, my main reaction was to be irritated by how unreliable the narration had to be in order to pull that off — not least because it left Gen a fairly colorless character along the way. I’ll keep reading if people tell me the later books are stronger, but if this is one of those cases where a person’s reaction to the first installment is diagnostic of the whole, I may not bother.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Revised & Expanded), Jeff Vandermeer. So, I feel like how you react to this book will depend greatly on how well you vibe with Vandermeer’s preferred aesthetic, which very much tilts toward the surreal and grotesque. I . . . don’t, so from my perspective, the illustrations that pack this book mostly just make it longer and heavier. Even the ones that are diagrams intended to demonstrate some point or another about narrative add basically nothing for me. The text was mostly fine, but for me the greatest value by far comes from the mini-essays sprinkled throughout from other writers, just because I think it’s good for one’s writing advice to come from multiple sources. I have a harder time imagining when I might recommend this book than I do with The Pocket Workshop, unless I knew the recommendee really digs the aesthetic.