Books read, February-March 2022

I got through a rather startling number of books the last two months. Cut for significant length.

Diné bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story, Paul G. Zolbrod. The introductory material here is kind of fascinating, because Zolbrod does everything but outright call himself an idiot. He came in from a literary background with an attitude of “I will learn about Native American poetry!” and promptly got whacked over the head with the fact that even properly learning about one tradition would take him a lifetime and also a lot of anthropology. This edition of the creation story is not a single performer’s telling, but rather a version assembled out of variant texts; it has extensive end-notes unpacking other versions, associated cultural information, and so forth. Of particular note: I don’t know for sure if this falls under the “Coyote stories are told only in the winter months” restriction (Coyote shows up here, but it isn’t all about him), but I read it in February because that was the last month that counts as winter for such purposes.

Agon, John Harper. This is an indie RPG I picked up about fifteen years ago, intended for doing mythic Greek adventure; I re-read it because I was going to play in a one-shot of Agon, only to discover that what we were playing was a new edition of the game I didn’t know existed. I honestly prefer the newer edition, which is a little bit less self-consciously gritty, and had a blast playing the one-shot. If you want a game which is designed around the idea of each session being a self-contained adventure, and which can accommodate PCs coming and going, it’s ideally suited for that.

The Library of the Dead, T.L. Huchu. Urban fantasy which appears to be set in a near-future slow apocalypse; I don’t think Edinburgh’s energy and ecological woes are as bad as they’re depicted here. The main character, who makes her living talking to ghosts for people, accidentally gets indebted to the titular Library, which is an organization of people practicing much more high-falutin’ magic. The Library itself plays a relatively minor role here (I’ll admit I was hoping for more), but this is the start of a series, and presumably there will be more about it later on.

Haunted Heroine, Sarah Kuhn. More in her series about Asian-American superheroines, and back to Evie as the main character, as she returns to her former grad school and faces a lot of unfinished business there. As tends to be usual for this series, I got frustrated by some of the characters massively failing to communicate, but then it turned around and punched me in the feels.

Japanese Tales from Times Past: Stories of Fantasy and Folklore from the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen. Picked this up randomly at Kinokuniya one day. It’s not the whole Konjaku Monogatari, just selections therefrom; even so, you do see a certain amount of structural repetition between the tales. But I like reading folklore, so.

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 2: Sea of Wind, Fuyumi Ono. Yeah, so, I don’t know where this book came from and it’s been on my shelf for years, and only when I picked it up to finally read did I notice it’s book two. But a quick glance online showed me it’s about different characters than book one, and furthermore I suspect I found its plot more congenial than I would have with the first volume. The main character is a shapeshifting kirin who was accidentally raised on Earth, so when he comes back to the fantasy world he has no idea how to do the things a kirin is supposed to do — which includes picking the One True Destined Person he’s supposed to bond with, who will henceforth rule one of the kingdoms. Don’t screw up! I really like the tangles of how that decision ended up playing out.

How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard, Penn Jillette and Mickey D. Lynn. Ugh, this book. I read it for research purposes, and I honestly can’t tell you whether Dickie Richard is actually a real person, or whether that’s all a conceit invented by Jillette and Lynn. I don’t especially care. It does contain some useful information on how to cheat at cards (both techniques for controlling the deck, and tips for how to manipulate other players), and I appreciate that it’s up-front about the fact that people who do this are assholes. Dickie Richard, whether a real person or a fictional conceit, is an asshole. But he is also a sexist, racist, homophobic asshole, and that fact became more and more apparent the further I read, until it was a contest to see whether I would reach the end of the book before my patience snapped for good.

Kwaidan: Tales of Ghostly Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, ed. Timothy Walters Kleinert. Reading the bits from the Konjaku Monogatari reminded me that I own this, which was published as a supplement to Kleinert’s RPG The Mountain Witch. The formatting was a little annoying, but it’s a quick read, and of course Lafcadio Hearn’s work is extremely well-known in the field of Japanese folklore.

Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, William E. Deal. If a “daily life” book and an encyclopedia had a baby, it would look like this. I . . . don’t quite get who the audience is supposed to be? I skipped parts of an early chapter, where it started giving gazetteer-style information on the land area of Japan’s largest islands, the height of its tallest mountains, the length of its longest rivers, and so forth. Toward the end of the book, its spends four paragraphs of the topic of death in its entirety (by which I mean one paragraph on suicide, one on funerals, and so on), but earlier it spent eighteen paragraphs on describing different pottery styles. The balance in here is utterly bizarre. Not without utility, but, uh, don’t make this your starting point for the subject.

The Shadow Book of Ji Yun, Imperial Librarian and Investigator of the Strange, ed. and trans. Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum. Ji Yun was an eighteenth-century Chinese writer whose stories have inspired all kinds of imitators and adaptations — including a few where progressive attitudes towards things like gender peek through. The tone ranges from horror to brief anecdotes of “huh, this thing happened; weird, innit?” Definitely reminded me in some ways of Pu Songling’s work, but a little further along in history.

The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning, Kelly M. Foreman. Academic book that can be summed up as GEISHA ARE ARTISTS, DAMMIT, NOT PROSTITUTES. Foreman focuses on their musical training and performances (rather than, say, their dancing) because that’s the side she’s equipped for, but one of her central points is that geisha are cross-disciplinary performers, which puts them outside the accepted frameworks for traditional Japanese arts — with all the difficulty that brings.

(FYI, Foreman does not come out and say it, but: the image most of us have of “geisha” totally does exist; it’s just not an image of geisha. Instead it’s an image of oiran, high-class courtesans who also did artistic performance. The term’s connotations slipped, even in Japanese popular imagination, when the government tried to outlaw prostitution; because geisha were already forbidden by law from selling sexual services, a crap-ton of Japanese hookers billed themselves as geisha instead. But they were never actually members of that tradition.)

The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels, India Holton, narr. Elizabeth Knowelden. My first audiobook! Because I’ve been doing more driving lately, and also I’ve switched to a rowing machine instead of a stationary bike for exercise purposes (much less conducive to holding a physical book . . .), I’ve started listening to audiobooks. Do not look to this novel for accurate historical detail or even much in the way of coherence on the part of the worldbuilding; you are either here or not for lady pirates who fly their houses around and steal things (but really only from rich people), make a pastime of trying to assassinate each other (you haven’t really arrived until someone tries to kill you), and have a governing body literally named the Tea-Table. Which I was . . . but by the end, I’ll admit I felt rather disappointed. The main character is much less skilled and effective than she thinks she is, and I kept waiting for the arc of her story to result into her coming into her own — but it doesn’t. In fact, the narrative hangs a lampshade on this fact by having her say outright, “I did nothing to advance the plot.” This could be an interesting tactic, but a book about lady pirates flying their houses around was not the place I expected to find it — nor, in the end, was it the place I wanted it.

The Keeper of Night, Kylie Lee Baker. Victorian-era fantasy focused on supernatural creatures whose job it is to harvest the souls of the dead. The protagonist is half-Japanese Shinigami, half-British Reaper; she flees London early in the novel and travels to Japan in the hopes of finding her mother and her place, but of course it isn’t that easy. I would have liked this to lean much harder into the cultural and period details on both sides of the planet than it did; there were some bits of flavor in that regard, but not as many as I craved.

The Forest of Stolen Girls, June Hur, narr. Sue Jean Kim. Another audiobook, and I wish I’d remembered that you can play those at faster-than-recorded speeds, because the narrator was a touch too slow for me (especially in the pauses between dialogue and its following tag). I liked Hur’s The Silence of Bones; this is another non-fantastical historical Korean mystery, about the protagonist going in search of her missing father and dealing with the sister she left behind many years ago. The character drama was good, but I found it slightly less compelling overall than The Silence of Bones.

“Rinconete y Cortadillo”, Miguel Cervantes. Normally I don’t list short stories, but I went on a hunt for this one while working on my Patreon essay about thieves’ guilds, and I was charmed to see that this might really be the first instance of the classic, fantasy-style thieves’ guild in fiction. (There are resemblances in older works, especially in the Middle East, but this one really fits the profile.)

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, H.G. Parry. This was Parry’s first novel, and after loving the Shadow Histories duology, I back-tracked to it. There are some structural similarities in the character setup (one brilliant and driven character; one more balanced character who tries to keep that one from flaming out; a deep relationship between the two that manages to survive a very justified falling-out), but since I like that setup, I didn’t mind. The plot premise can be summed up as “what if Inkheart, but with literary criticism?” One of the main characters can read things out of books and into reality, and in fact keeps doing so accidentally — but it matters how he reads it, because you get different results depending on whether he’s thinking of the character as e.g. an expression of class divisions in Victorian England or as a shadow-self representation of the author or whatever. He winds up with the Hound of the Baskervilles as a pet, and it’s kind of adorable.

Poison River, Josh Reynolds. I haven’t been keeping up with reading all the L5R novels published by Aconyte, but this is the first of a mystery series that looks kind of appealing. I especially appreciated the fact that it’s not a murder mystery: although some people get killed along the way, the driving force is that someone poisoned a shipment of rice, and since this happened in a city that’s a flash-point for conflict between several clans, it’s important to track down who committed the sabotage and why, before it starts a war.

A Song Below Water, Bethany C. Morrow, narr. Andrea Lang and Jennifer Haralson. Another audiobook, this one with two narrators because it alternates viewpoint between two main characters — both of whom are teenaged girls and written in the first person, so it might get confusing without the voice change. Open urban fantasy, and very much not the sort where prejudice against certain types of supernatural creature stands in for prejudice against ethnic or religious groups; instead it’s explicitly intersectional, as sirens — who are feared and persecuted for their ability to influence people’s minds — are pretty much only found among Black women these days. This is not the “dystopia with a love triangle” sort of YA fantasy; it’s much quieter and more literary in feel, with the climax coming more via self-discovery and self-acceptance than any kind of confrontation with a villain. I almost wish I’d read it in print instead, because I do find my attention wanders a bit more with audiobooks, and this one was really good. But the audiobooks are contributing to me getting through more books in general, so.

A Thousand Li: The First Step, Tao Wong. Self-published cultivation fantasy I saw recommended . . . somewhere? Characterization is not its strongest suit, but prior to this most of my exposure to cultivation stories was through TV, which is not a medium that lends itself to exposition. So it’s nice to read a book that unpacks more detail on how exactly all the cultivation tropes work.

Heaven Official’s Blessing, Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. I watched the first season of the donghua show with friends, which maps pretty precisely to this book, so there were no plot surprises here. It’s one of three series by MXTX currently being published in English, most (all?) of them being cleaned-up editions of pre-existing fan translations. I’ll admit the major barrier to me reading cultivation/xianxia/etc. novels has been that I have a hard time these days getting past awkward prose and bad copy-editing, so I’ve bounced off the fan translations I’ve attempted to read; I’m glad to have some more officially edited volumes become available (especially since that can help boost the market for such things in general!). The second volume is already on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the plot goes.

Simhāsana Dvātrimśikā: Thirty-Two Tales of the Throne of Vikramaditya, trans. A.N.D. Haksar. I’ve bought several volumes recently of Indian folklore/literature, and read this one first because it was really short. 😛 As the introduction admits, it does get repetitive. The framework is that every time a certain king tries to climb the stairs to the throne, the figures carved into its sides challenge him and tell a story about how awesome Vikramaditya was, saying nobody else can sit on the throne if they aren’t as great as him. A ton of the stories involve Vikramaditya doing a thing, getting some amazing reward, and then encountering somebody who just happens to need precisely that thing to alleviate their woes. So of course, being so magnanimous, he gives it away. Nothing wrong with that plot, but the seventeenth time you read it . . . yeah. On the other hand, I find the overall concept of this book cool, and last night my brain handed me an opening to a poem inspired by it, so.

The Incas, Terence N. D’Altroy. Nonfiction piecing together what we know about life in the Inca Empire before colonialism and how we know it — the latter being important because you have to work to disentangle the various sources. (Not just for reasons of colonial bias: one of the major sources was recorded by a Spaniard from accounts given by nobles who had reasons to be incredibly partial to the Inca royal line. Unsurprisingly, their take on things is rather different from that given by people who hated their Inca overlords.) The success of the empire was truly astonishing and also astonishingly short-lived; in a world without Spanish contact, it would have been interesting to see if the Inca elites managed to create enough institutional stability for an ongoing state, or if they would have careened onward to collapse within another generation or two.

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