Books read, April 2022

Man — I got through an average of one book for every two days in April. That’s kind of astonishing to realize.

Black Water Sister, Zen Cho, narr. Catherine Ho. I really liked listening to this in audiobook because it gave me much more the cadence of the Malaysian English spoken by some of the characters — though admittedly less opportunity to stop and look terms up, which is what I did when I read Cho’s short fiction collection. The story itself did a good job of altering my perception of how sympathetic or unsympathetic certain characters were, sometimes more than once, and it presents some interesting angles on the human relationship with the divine.

You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, Katharine Harmon. My interest in cartography has flared up something fierce, so I impulse-bought a stack of map-related books that have been on my wish list for a while. Of those, this is by far the most abstract and flexible in its approach to what it counts as a “map;” I felt it was perhaps too much so for my taste, but there’s value in challenging my ideas on that front. Mostly I would have really liked more text to accompany the maps/illustrations, to unpack what’s going on in them.

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, Frank Jacobs. Less abstract, and while some of its material constitutes “that’s an interesting approach to cartography,” a lot of it is more “here’s something geographically weird,” like when it unpacks the increasingly complex arrangements of enclaves and exclaves. The textual accompaniment here is what made me realize that was part of what I felt was lacking in You Are Here. (Which is one of the sources cited in this book, actually.)

The Monsters We Defy, Leslye Penelope. Advance copy read for blurbing purposes. While it would be wrong of me to say that I’m glad covid restricted Penelope’s ability to go to New York City for research, I’m actually delighted that it led her to set the story in Washington, D.C. instead, because that city gets much less love in fiction. I would also gladly read a NYC novel from her, because this is 1920s-set historical fantasy focusing on the Black community and the original vision was for it to incorporate the Harlem Renaissance, but that latter feels like the kind of idea that might resurface for a future book, whereas a D.C. novel might have needed this prod to happen.

As for the story, it’s not quite as heist-y as the cover copy led me to expect, but that’s okay: it’s more an investigation that builds up to an attempt to steal a valuable magical artifact, and the investigation was engaging. I was particularly interested in the way that the central spec concept was invented (humans make deals with spirits called Enigmas, receiving both a magical gift and a detrimental Trick in return) but didn’t crowd real-world beliefs like rootwork out of the narrative.

The Novice’s Tale, Ann Swinfen. Second of her Oxford Medieval Mystery series. This . . . wasn’t actually a mystery? The cover copy bills it as being about a disappearance, but since the woman who disappears gets point of view in every chapter and at no point is the reader unclear on what’s happened to her, I’d bill it as more a medieval drama. And a very pleasant one, reminding me a bit of Hild at a quarter the length: there’s lots of time spent on the social and physical details of medieval life, from arranging housing for a family in need to the details of candle-making. I also liked that the “disappeared” woman gets point of view; I hope that continues in future books.

Monkey Around, Jadie Jang. What do you call a book when it’s not set in the present day but is only about ten years in the past? Is that “historical”? Anyway, this is urban fantasy in the San Francisco Bay Area, set at the height of the Occupy movement in Oakland, with a lot of focus on immigrant populations. I don’t know if it’s meant to start a series, but it definitely could do so, with certain details being resolved on a plot front but not an emotional one.

Overall I liked it a lot, with only one thing that bugged the heck out of me: the cover copy tells you outright that the main character is a female version of the Monkey King, and right from the outset she exhibits some extremely characteristic traits, ranging from simple things like “can shapeshift into anything she likes, but a monkey feels the most comfortable” to “can ride clouds” and “can pull out individual hairs and turn them into things as needed.” And yet . . . she has no idea what kind of supernatural creature she is. Despite living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and interacting with people in SF’s Chinatown. Despite the fact that she and her ex-folklore professor friend have supposedly been attempting to figure out the answer to that question, with no success. You do get a reason in-story why the MC has never read Journey to the West, but the idea that she has never made the slightest progress in identifying her nature despite efforts to do so felt really implausible.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, Huw Lewis-Jones. Third and last of the map books (for now). This one is the most firmly conventional of the lot, but also, as the title suggests, the most fiction-focused. It contains many maps from different novels (plus the occasional TV show and such), with essays by different writers on their relationship with cartography or how the maps for their stories got made. Lovely stuff.

Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko, narr. Joniece Abbott-Pratt. The worldbuilding in this one is quite interesting, with a lineage of rulers who can be made all but immortal by bonding themselves to a council of hand-picked advisers. All the people involved become telepathically bonded to each other and get sick if they spend too much time apart. The novel starts off with with the protagonist and other characters as children, when the heir is picking his future council, but it eventually moves into YA territory as they grow up. I liked how this one handled its questions of imperialism and colonialism — it’s mostly not as Obvious Dystopia as a lot of YA, and when it makes moves in that direction, it’s clearly a reactionary response to problems cropping up rather than something evil people are doing because they’re evil. It’s the start of a series, and I’m interested in reading/listening to more.

Kingmaker: Blood for Blood, Neil Spicer. Fourth in the series of modules one of my gaming groups is playing through; now that we’ve finished the stuff in it, I’m allowed to read it. As with the third volume, I did not bother reading the fiction included in here, because previous installments had been sufficiently bad + offensive to put me off. The game material includes some howlingly stupid stuff (when the PCs are called on to defend a town from an invasion they somehow didn’t see coming despite being the rulers of their land, it says outright that “none of the locals think of using magic to defend Tatzlford” — even though there are multiple spellcasters in town), some unnecessary background sexism (all the boggard females are in one room making armor while the menfolk are out fighting your characters; Drelev’s followers are specifically referred to as “his men” and he readily hands over a bunch of young women to the threatening barbarians to use as hostages), and some REALLY unnecessary in-your-face sexism (has she glued her breasts into that top?). My usual experience of modules is that my GMs take the raw material and do something better with it, and that’s no different here.

Death’s Kiss, Josh Reynolds. Second of the Daidoji Shin L5R mysteries. This one takes Shin out of the city you see in the first book (which I expected would be the setting for the whole series) and into the lands of the Unicorn Clan. It’s sort of a murder investigation, but not really? A guy is dead, but everyone knows who did it and the proximate reason for why; the question is who engineered that situation in the first place. I liked the fact that this focused heavily on two vassal families (an aspect of the setting often neglected in the fiction and game materials), and it is probably the first instance I’ve seen of a non-stupid Kolat plotline.

Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, Elsa Sjunneson. Nonfiction by a writer I know distantly through professional circles. Very conversational and approachable, while pulling exactly no punches about the kinds of issues that non-disabled society presents disabled people with on a regular basis.

Probably the highest praise I can give this book is to say that I noticed it influencing my thinking on two separate occasions very soon afterward. The first was when I was following a discussion of the problems with the death penalty, which featured a couple of people saying that they consider life imprisonment without parole to be every bit as bad as capital punishment, or maybe even worse (in the sense that the individual who said that dreads life imprisonment more than the prospect of dying). Which really landed on the memory of Sjunneson talking about how often people say to her face “I would kill myself if your disability happened to me” — we really do have a pervasive tendency in our culture to consider a disabled life worse than dying, and you can view life imprisonment as a kind of socially-imposed disability. The other was reading All of an Instant (see below) and noticing that two of the main characters have conditions that affect them like a disability in some circumstances, which are then adaptive strengths for them in other situations.

A Thousand Li: The First Stop, Tao Wong. Second of this series. These books are extremely infodumpy, but in a weird way, that’s why I’m finding them useful to read: while I don’t expect that all cultivation fiction approaches the tropes in the same way, I’m at least getting an explicit unpacking of one particular variation on those tropes. Neither the prose nor the characterization are very impressive, and much of this particular book amounts to an extended training montage, but the plot that appears toward the end was genuinely engaging.

The Destruction of the Inn, Randy Lee Eickhoff. I have waffled repeatedly on whether I should shelve this among my fiction books or among the folklore/traditional narratives. This is a . . . retelling? adaptation? version of some kind? of the Old Irish narrative Togail Bruidne Dá Derga/The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel. Eickhoff says at the outset that it isn’t a direct translation, but on the other hand, it hasn’t been fully novelized, either; it still features a whole lengthy section where one villain asks another what he saw when he spied on the inn, the second villain describes a guy, everybody goes “oh, that’s so-and-so, who is impressive according to the following metaphors and will kill X many people when we attack,” the first villain wails that they’re all gonna die, and the second one tell him to shut up, rinse and repeat about thirty times. I ended up deciding it should go in the folklore section on the basis of Eickhoff including end-notes unpacking the linguistic etymology of certain names or including translations of short related texts. (He also starts the book with some material that isn’t properly part of the Togail Bruidne, but which is relevant background.)

I discovered that he’s done a whole series of these, and the covers are kind of pretty, so I promptly went and ordered all but one of them to fill out my surprisingly thin Old Irish library. (Surprising because I took a class on this stuff back in the day.) The only one I didn’t get is the Red Branch tales, since if I want that one in hardcover like the rest, it’s going to run me eighty dollars at the least.

Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao. Daaaaaaang, this book. I can see why people have been talking about it! Truly, it’s equal parts “wheeeee mecha/anime/wuxia tropes” and “BURN THE PATRIARCHY TO THE GROUND” — but less grindingly unpleasant on the latter front than I feared. I think it helps that while Wu Zetian is extremely angry at her society, she isn’t only angry; I have trouble engaging with stories where the only emotion the heroine seems to feel is prickly rage. (One-note protagonists of any stripe get tiresome.) I’m glad I was warned in advance that this is the start of a series, and also that the pacing goes off a cliff in the last third or so. There are several plot hurdles that get surmounted way too fast, with the setup being handwaved in the background, and then some plot bombs that get dropped at the end with no time for you to react; I would have liked the book to have another hundred pages or so in which to develop that material properly, the way it did with the elements at the start. But ultimately, my nutshell review of this is that I started reading it, then had to stop for several days because I had a project of my own I needed to finish, and I wasn’t going to get that done if I let Iron Widow eat my head like it wanted to.

Root Magic, Eden Royce, narr. Imani Parks. Historical fantasy by a Gullah Geechee author, set in a 1960s Gullah community. This struck a very delicate balance in terms of presenting things like police racism and brutality within a MG framework; it’s there but mostly not in the foreground until a confrontation at the end, and meanwhile the plot is about the main character and her twin brother learning rootwork from their uncle, adapting to changes at their school, and so forth. I really loved the relationship with the brother — it’s very close, while also leaving room for some very plausible sibling strife — and also how the relationship played out with the narrator’s friend Susie (sp? audiobook means I don’t know the spelling).

All of an Instant, Richard Garfinkle. This book starts with a twenty-four-page infodump and it has to. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to gracefully inclue the reader into a setting that starts off by telling you “Time is earth and water” and then presents a war waged from the watery side of time (the Instant) by people trying to make the earth/solid part of time (the Flux) into whatever their idea of utopian history is, but none of them agree and so they’re always overwriting each other’s changes, and there’s this whole thing about the “tail” of time they bring with them into the Instant when they escape the Flux, which . . . look, I don’t even know how to describe this book to you. I loved Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters, which is also weird, but much more comprehensibly so. This one was fascinating even if I’m not sure I understood half of it. That thing I said above, about disability? I’m not sure how to explain to you what I mean there, because it has to do with one character who has a one-minute tail and one who has a hundred-year tail, and what that means for their ability to perceive the nature of the Instant and survive within it, except to hand you this book. It’s kind of like “what if A Tale of Time City was 600% more abstract and trippy and one of the main characters was dedicated to making sure Mitochondrial Eve doesn’t get wiped out.” I enjoyed it even if I didn’t entirely understand it. Garfinkle has two other novels that appear to be small press or self-pubbed; I have put the first of them on my wish list.

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