Books read, July-August 2021

I am behind!

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden. Second of the Winternight Trilogy, and hard going in some places. The idea that Vasya’s gifts are viewed with suspicion and fear, that people might not react well to her . . . that isn’t something Arden just pays lip service to and then breezes past to get on with the adventure.

The Hand of the Sun King, J.T. Greathouse. (Disclaimer: the author is a friend.) Epic fantasy, and one that reminded me significantly of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant and Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant, inasmuch as it involves someone from a conquered/colonized people becoming complicit in the power structure of the colonizers, then eventually turning revolutionary. The latter takes some time, but this is also the first book of a series, so there’s plenty of room for action later on.

The Memory Collectors, Kim Neville. I started out unsure of this book and then got sucked right in. The two main characters share the ability to read emotions and memories off of objects; they are polar opposites in how they deal with the psychological strain that puts on them, and the novel does a lovely job of showing how neither woman’s coping method is healthy — how both of them need to learn something from the other in order to function and survive. Very much more on the literary end of fantasy, and beautifully done.

Each of Us a Desert, Mark Oshiro. Post-apocalyptic fantasy in a setting very reminiscent of the American Southwest, though it’s never explicitly identified as our world. The main character, Xochitl, is a cuentista; she has the magical gift of relieving people’s emotional burdens by taking the stories they tell — literally taking them; the teller doesn’t remember it afterward — and giving it to Sol, the sun they worship. Like the previous book, this is not entirely a functional setup, and pretty soon Xochitl runs away from it, without quite being able to escape. This is a YA novel, though, which means that a lot of the emotional focus is on Xochitl wanting to feel seen. I’ll confess I didn’t entirely follow some of the ending, and also there were places where the text shifted into a one-sentence-per-paragraph mode long enough to feel really choppy, but overall this was engaging.

my own work doesn’t count

Hard in Hightown, Varric Tethras and Mary Kirby. This was sadly disappointing. It’s basically a Dragon Age in-joke — which I’m fine with — around the fact that one of the characters in the game, Varric Tethras, had written a hard-boiled detective novel called Hard in Hightown. Except this turned out to be more like a novelette, maybe a very short novella, than an actual novel, and also it played its concept way too straight. I wanted it to be, like, twelve hundred percent more over the top. Alas.

Over the Woodward Wall, A. Deborah Baker. Yet another pen name for Seanan McGuire, this one invented because her novel Middlegame quotes extensively from a fictional children’s book by A. Deborah Baker, and of course being Seanan, she went and wrote the whole damn book. Tonally this is in the general ballpark of things like The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and while I liked it well enough, I have to admit it felt way more compelling when I was only seeing snippets of it through the epigraphs in Middlegame. I’m likely to give it to my nephew, and I’ll be curious to see what he thinks; I can’t tell how much this will appeal to actual children, as opposed to being sort of a “DVD extra” for Seanan’s adult readers.

Icelandic Magic: Aims, Tools and Techniques of the Icelandic Sorcerers, Christopher Alan Smith. This sits at an odd boundary between academic work that goes into detail about the surviving historical texts which tell us about the making and use of rune-staves, and New Age work that makes suggestions for how to use this magic in your own life. Its focus is early modern Icelandic magic, not the period of the sagas, but it still has some interesting insights into the lines along which the ideas did and did not run: much less importance assigned to the materials used, for example, but a great deal assigned to intent.

Comeuppance Served Cold, Marion Deeds. (Disclaimer: the author is a friend, and this was sent to me for blurbing.) Jazz Age novella in an open urban fantasy version of our history, out in Seattle where a leading politician is cracking down on unlicensed magic users — which tends to include marginalized people of various sorts. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because this is built somewhat around unveiling certain details as it goes, but it was definitely a fun read.

The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China: A Social History of Examinations, John W. Chaffee. Holy crap was this dry, yo (and you’ll see more of that to come, because I’m trying to research the Chinese examination system, and as a friend put it, that entire genre is apparently dry AF). Useful if you need to know the topic for some reason? But not something I’d recommend for casual reading.

A Heart Divided, Jin Yong, trans. Gigi Chang and Shelly Bryant. Fourth and final of the Legends of the Condor Heroes; full review here.

Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley. This is the translation that famously takes the opening word, Hwaet — often translated with words like “Lo!” or “Listen!” or “Hark!” — and renders it as “Bro!” Headley is very interested in unpacking the belligerent masculinity of this poem, though she doesn’t neglect to also pay attention to the women: as she points out, an influential glossary of Old English translates aglaec-wif as “wretch, or monster, of a woman,” while the masculine form aglaeca is “monster, demon, fiend” when talking about Grendel, but “hero” when talking about Beowulf, and hmmm, maybe there’s a different meaning underlying that which could be more coherent and also more charitable to Grendel’s mother. (She suggests “formidable.”) Anyway, the whole way through this, my subconscious kept wondering when Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to make a musical of it, which gives you a pretty good sense of its general mood.

The Class of 1761: Examinations, State, and Elites in Eighteenth-Century China, Iona D. Man-Cheong. More incredibly dry research reading on the Chinese examination system! This time in the Qing Dynasty instead! Basically, same as above, except this time with pinyin instead of Wade-Giles. (I think I’m going to get linguistic whiplash from the way the books I’m reading flip-flop between the two systems of romanization.)

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