Books read, November 2021-January 2022

The mad rush to finish the draft of the third Rook and Rose book and then revise it (along with other unexpected crunch times on certain fronts) pushed many less critical things by the wayside. So you get three months’ worth of books at once!

The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, Guido Majno. This was recced to me by Yoon Ha Lee, and it is fantastic. For starters, Majno is not using “the ancient world” as shorthand for Greece and Rome and maybe Egypt; he starts with Mesopotamia, and devotes chapters to India and China as well. (There is less of China than I might have liked, but that’s owing to the temporal boundaries he set for himself: he’s looking at the foundational text of that system, and the edifice built atop it is mostly from subsequent centuries.) The discussion ranges from linguistic analyses of the words used in ancient medical texts to modern experiments conducted on ancient prescriptions, often with surprisingly good results — though not always, hoo boy, definitely not. Majno is ready and willing both to praise good developments and clever techniques, and to condemn in no uncertain terms the things that killed patients who maybe didn’t have to die. And he’s the first author who’s really made me understand why some of those erroneous theories (like the “pus is good!” school of thought, or bleeding as a solution for everything) formed and were clung to for so long. My only real complaint about this book is its weird form factor: it’s significantly taller than most trade paperbacks, and it’s quite heavy, which made it awkward to hold.

The Embroidered Book, Kate Heartfield. Disclosure: the author is a friend. Historical fantasy novel following two of the children of Empress Maria Theresa, one of whom (Charlotte) became the Queen of Naples, and the other of whom I probably would have recognized faster if I knew the late eighteenth century better, but I don’t, so it took me a bit to twig to the fact that Maria Antonia was the future Marie Antoinette. You can take from that some sense of where the story is going — nowhere good, generally speaking — but the book itself is very good. (And it has a gorgeous cover.)

Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune, Mary Jo Ignoffo. Loaned to me by a friend. This is a biography of the woman behind the so-called Winchester Mystery House, and basically the takeaway is that 98% of what they tell you at the Winchester Mystery House is b.s. The house is weird because a) Sarah was an amateur architect who happily pottered away with additions and alterations and b) chunks of it were destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and never rebuilt, so those staircases that go nowhere in fact used to go somewhere. Construction was not, in fact, nonstop. She had no belief whatsoever that she needed to placate the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifles. I might have liked the book to dig slightly more into the development of those myths after her death, but on the whole I was glad to learn about the actual woman, not the complete fabrication that surrounds her.

She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan. Ooof, this book. I don’t know if the sequel is going to put the protagonist on a better trajectory or not; where the first volume ends is, um, rather worrisome, and given that the premise is that the historical Zhu Yuanzhang died and his sister took on his identity, and Zhu Yuanzhang wound up doing some really unpleasant things after he became the first emperor of the Ming dynasty . . . how alternate history are we going, here? I don’t know. But this book is also really good, and it makes me reflect on the ownvoices thing, because there are ways in which I think Parker-Chan can be more ruthless in her critique of the sexism and ableism of the period than a white writer could get away with. (Also: Heh. The second time in one month that I didn’t know the history at hand well enough to realize who I was reading about at first. My piecemeal study of Chinese history has thus far missed the Yuan-Ming transition.)

Torn, Rowenna Miller. Political fantasy with a seamstress main character (and another really good cover). This takes much of its inspiration from the French Revolution, but — especially since I’d read The Embroidered Book shortly before — it is a much nicer version thereof, with royalty and nobility who are mostly good people.

The Writer’s Book of Doubt, Aidan Doyle. Collection of essays about the writing life. For me the most valuable ones, unsurprisingly, were the ones at the end, which look at the doubts which arise in the long haul rather than the ones you face when you’re just getting started.

The Lies of the Ajungo, Moses Ose Utomi. Upcoming novella sent to me for blurbing. I happily gave a quote because this was fantastic — a folkloric tale that, for a change, felt perfectly sized as a novella. I frequently feel that the novellas I read are too much plot to fit in that sack, or sometimes not enough, or both a different points, but this was Goldilocks-level just right.

The Obsidian Tower, Melissa Caruso. I have not read the previous series in this world, but you don’t have to have done so. This one takes place in a part of the setting where the people with magic powers rule everything, and that’s . . . yeah, not always a good thing. Even within the protagonist’s family, some of them are better at being benevolent dictators than others. The main character has a non-functional magic gift — in a family whose power involves control over living things, she kills everything and everyone she touches — and when her grandmother (the ruling lord) goes missing and the protections around the thing they’ve been guarding for literal thousands of years start to fail, things get complicated very very fast.

Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World, Vicky Leon. This is the author of the “Uppity Women of History” series, so as you might expect, it has that breezy, pop-culture tone. But actually, orgy planners and funeral clowns are just the clickbait; most of the jobs described here are the kinds of practical things that genuinely kept society functioning. And I give Leon kudos for starting right off with the tasks slaves usually performed: she shoves your face straight into the fact that Rome relied heavily on slaves for many things.

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons, Ben Riggs. Sent to me for blurbing. This is really more a secret history of TSR, though I see why it’s titled the way it is (and there’s a suggestion of a possible follow-up, as this volume ends with the sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast). It’s very inside baseball, but interestingly so: TSR went from the basement invention of a handful of nerds to a HUGELY profitable company attempting to dip its toes into all kinds of waters, cratering once along the way and then again, more catastrophically, at the end. I wish Lorraine Williams had agreed to talk to Riggs, since she’s the one who fished it out of the first crater and then drove it into the second. But I’m not surprised she didn’t, since it seems unquestionable that she bears quite a lot of blame for the end of TSR and highly likely that she’s historically received more of that blame than she deserves. (The combination of “not really a gamer” plus “female executive” created some really hostile attitudes toward her, as Riggs acknowledges.) But it’s a pity we don’t get her perspective on why she made certain decisions.

The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, Edward Gorey. The traditional re-read after finishing a novel draft. It’s short and very true.

Spirits Abroad, Zen Cho. Short story collection in three sections: tales set in Malaysia, tales concerning Malaysians in other parts of the world, and tales that go entirely off into the realms of folklore and fantasy. These made a very pleasant diversion while I was biking, and my favorite was probably “Monkey King, Faerie Queen,” where two very different parts of the world collide.

The Winter of the Witch, Katherine Arden. Last of the Winternight trilogy. I’ll admit I stalled out for a couple of months halfway through this one: it was starting to feel like the characters’ lives would remain bleak and painful forever, and also the conclusion of one of the conflicts felt really disappointing. Fortunately it turns out that the latter wasn’t the conclusion — other characters called Vasya out on her unsatisfactory solution to that problem — and while the ending is not sunshine and puppies, it wasn’t as dark as I feared.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, trans. unknown. I was annoyed at first that my copy, which has been on my shelves since the film with Jim Caviezel came out, doesn’t name the translator. Turns out that’s because nobody knows who it was: someone on my Discord did a bit of sleuthing and helped me discover that this is what’s known as the Standard Abridged Edition, created in the nineteenth century by some unknown author and republished a lot because it’s public domain. I guess I should have known this was abridged, because it’s only five hundred pages long? Mostly the cuts weren’t obvious, but there are a couple of places where it creates howling discontinuities. Someday I should read the whole thing.

Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, trans. Freydoon Rassouli, adapted by Jordan Mechner. I felt less self-conscious about the fact that I’ve never heard of this historical epic when I learned that it was thought lost for centuries, and only published for the first time in Iran in the 1960s. I’m not sure if it’s been in English at all before. You could get seriously hammered by drinking every time Princess Mahpari changes hands, every time somebody breaks into or out of a place that’s supposed to be impregnable (empty your glass if the text says “even birds don’t dare fly over it”), and every time someone cross-dresses. For a change of pace, men dress up as women more often than the reverse, though both definitely happen. Be aware that this is only the first volume of a prospective five, and, uhhh, it does not end at a place of conclusion. But if you want swashbuckling Persian ninja doing their thing, here ya go!

(By the way, regarding that “adapted by” thing: Mechner’s introduction talks about how the manuscript is clearly recorded from oral storytelling, meaning that the different episodes begin and end with lots of prefatory prayers or encouragement to click the like button and subscribe pay the storyteller, plus there are shrieking continuity errors where characters act like they’ve never met before, etc. So it’s not purely a translation, though that’s the text Mechner was smoothing out into something more like a novel-shaped piece of fiction.)

The Bookseller’s Tale, Ann Swinfen. First of the Oxford Medieval Mysteries. I started out as a mystery reader and still enjoy the occasional dip into that genre; this one isn’t especially impressive for its twisty plot, but the historical setting lends it some freshness of material. It sat on my shelf for two years because I wasn’t ready to read a book set a few years after the Black Death, but now I am, and I liked this enough to pick up the next in the series.

The Medieval Underworld, Andrew McCall. “Underworld” here in the sense of crime, though it’s appropriate to the medieval period that this very much bleeds over into the various fringes of society, such that there are chapters on heretics, prostitutes (who weren’t actually criminalized), and Jews — and also that chunks of it are more about nobles and clergy behaving badly. On the other hand, although this book apparently was published in 1979, I would have believed 1879 on the basis of comma usage alone. It was kind of an odd read.

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