Books read, May 2022
Quite a lot of reading. There will be less for June, because 1) book revisions and 2) I am playing video games more for relaxation, rather than reading (for reasons, see Point 1).
An Irish Blessing: A Photographic Interpretation, Cyril B. Reilly and Renée Travis Reilly. This barely counts, being a souvenir book of photos with the text of the well-known “Irish blessing” interspersed. It had somehow wound up among my possessions at my childhood home, so when my parents finally moved out it got handed back to me; I read it (in about three minutes) and put it among the books to be donated to the library.
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Saad Z. Hossain. A really well-done novella I’ve been meaning to read for ages, indiscriminately blending SF and fantasy with the tale of a god waking up in a post-apocalyptic future. His relationship with the human he encounters is not what you might expect — not a tale of a poor, under-powered mortal trying to survive a god’s whims — and I found the whole thing delightful.
The Raid, Randy Lee Eickhoff. After finally reading The Destruction of the Inn, I decided to go pick up the rest of Eickhoff’s translation-retelling-interpretation-whatevers. (Well, all except the one that’s like eighty bucks for a used copy.) Interestingly, and counter to his later approach with the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, he didn’t interpolate the various bits of non-Táin narrative about Cú Chulainn; I may want to track down a book that does that. Mostly this is very readable, but Eickhoff’s efforts with the poetry are . . . not good.
The Huntsman’s Tale, Ann Swinfen. Contra the previous book in the Oxford Medieval Mysteries series, this one is a mystery, with a guy getting murdered during a formal hunt. The culprit is rather screamingly obvious, but if you’re reading this series it’s probably for the loving exploration of medieval life, not for the intricate mystery plots. I especially appreciated the clear attention to the way that both custom and law constrained noble power; lots of fantasy and historical novels alike seem to think neither of those really mattered, but here you get a lawyer opining about how the dead man’s widow shouldn’t be able to arrest the huntsman until her rights of thus-and-such are affirmed following the some term I have never seen before and I have read some actual, non-pop-culture nonfiction about medieval England. (I would quote it, but I passed the book off to my mother.) It’s delightfully chewy stuff, embedded in a story that pays equal attention to the importance of getting the harvest in before the autumn weather turns.
An Extraordinary Union, Alyssa Cole. I asked on Twitter about working-class historical romances (as opposed to historicals about elites, or contemporaries about ordinary people), less because I’m in the market for any — I don’t read much genre romance of any stripe — but more because I was curious. Somebody recommended Cole’s Loyal League series, and I got interested: they’re espionage romances set during the U.S. Civil War, with at least one lead character (in the third novel, both) being Black.
As is usual for me (and the reason I don’t read much genre romance), I wanted more spying, less “we have the hots for each other thirty seconds after we met,” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this! Both the leads are working undercover, the hero as a Confederate soldier, the heroine as a slave in the household she’s spying on, so yeah, that’s kind of my jam. 😀 (Especially on the hero’s side, because I have a morbid fascination with the sort of undercover work that requires you to put up a facade of behavior you consider fundamentally reprehensible.) I think I wanted the resolution of the romance to take longer, and there was also one decision the characters made which was straight-up dumb of them (which naturally caused problems later), but it was still a good read. Especially loved the historical character who appeared toward the end!
Notorious Sorcerer, Davinia Evans. Read for blurbing. Alchemical fantasy in a Turkish-inspired setting, with conflicts between the elites and the lower classes of the sort where the elites are allowed to get away with things the lower classes get arrested for. I don’t know if Evans intends more in this series or this world, but it’s definitely a setting that could support more!
Pennyblade, J.L. Worrad. There were so many points at which I almost stopped reading this book, not because it was bad, but because it’s the kind of full-bore gritty grimdark I have very little interest in. But the commrach, of which the main character is one, have some really interesting worldbuilding around their culture, even if it’s worldbuilding of the aforementioned full-bore gritty grimdark sort. (Are you up for reading about eugenicist elven supremacy? I . . . am not. But I guess I sort of am.) This is another where I wonder if a series is intended: there’s room for one, but on the other hand, bringing a much-needed revolution to the commrach might be more cheerful and heroic than this is going for.
Remarkable Trees, Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham. One of my periodic “I know SO LITTLE about nature; I should try to fix that” acquisitions. I didn’t like this one quite as much as Around the World in 80 Trees, but it was still a pleasant read.
City of the Plague God, Sarwat Chadda, narr. Vikas Adam. Poor Chadda. This book came out in early 2021, when a great many people did not want to read a book with that title, one where an unknown illness sweeps New York City and everybody is panicked about its spread. I was one of those great many people, but in May of this year I decided I was finally ready for it.
It’s not as bleak as you might expect, because this is from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, which means it’s a mythological middle grade fantasy. The protagonist is an Iraqi-American kid who finds himself swept up in Mesopotamian mythology, trying to stop Nergal from acquiring a treasure whose nature I guessed early on, but that didn’t spoil the fun. Gilgamesh shows up. Gilgamesh is not like you might expect him to be. Gilgamesh is great.
I liked the narrator overall, but a little less so on his female voices. The affected feel of it was fine for Ishtar, but Belet rubbed me a bit the wrong way — even though I think Belet was meant to rub me a bit the wrong way. Still, it was a good listen. I’m finding I enjoy audiobooks the most when the story is one where accent/dialect and foreign words play a significant role, because then they bring some real added value in letting me hear the music of those things.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman. I saw this recommended ages ago, randomly put a hold on the ebook in the library, and promptly forgot because something like eighty other people also had it on hold. Last month it popped up out of nowhere and I questioned whether I really cared . . . but I figured I’d give it a shot, and also it was really short.
I loved it! Burkeman’s central thesis — as a recovering productivity geek — is that “time management” (in the way it gets marketed to the world) is b.s. There is no system or set of rules that, if you just follow them, will magically make it so you can do everything you want to do with your life. We all have limited time, and the things we want to do will inevitably expand to exceed that time, so his focus is more philosophical: how to come to terms with that limitation and use it to guide the decisions you make on what you do with the time you’ve got. There’s some practical advice at the end, but most of the book is more about patterns of thought and what we find meaningful.
(I will note in passing that I think he is so very wrong in some of the things he says about pre-modern life. That people did not live lives as regulated by clocks as ours, and therefore probably had a different relationship with time in general: yes. That a farmer hundreds of years ago never felt the pressure to “get everything done”: hahahaha, no. Remember what I said above about The Huntsman’s Tale and the need to get the harvest in before weather could ruin the crops? That’s a modern novel, obviously, but I 100% believe what it’s depicting there. Fortunately, Burkeman’s comments on that sort of thing are a tiny percentage of his overall book, and not a load-bearing support for his overall point.)
A Hope Divided, Alyssa Cole. Second of her Loyal League romance series, focusing on characters of color during the U.S. Civil War. I really like Cole’s willingness and ability to explore the core premise from different directions; this time the heroine is the illegitimate daughter of a Southern white man, taken in by that man’s family after they freed their slaves. But that situation isn’t as good or welcoming as it wants to believe it is, and the complications there are really interesting. I also liked — because I’m mostly not a genre romance reader — that the setup of the plot, with the hero captive in a Confederate prison camp, meant that we got substantial development of both leads separately before they spent enough time around each other for the romance mode to really kick in. Something in the resolution of their plot didn’t quite click for me, but in a subtle, “I think I wanted a little more of some particular angle but I don’t know exactly what it was” kind of way; on the whole, I enjoyed this a lot.
Note that for this one, I got something of a neuroatypical vibe off the hero, though I can’t say anything about how well or poorly it was handled. Whatever label best fits his mind, it leads him into a role where his superiors use him to torture Confederates for information, and so a chunk of his inner struggle here involves the tension between believing that’s useful and that he’s good at it, and not wanting to do it. I would have loved more exploration of that, but, well: once again, we’re up against the limits of what genre romance is here to do, and also how long the books are going to be.
The Seventh Sun, Lani Forbes. YA fantasy in a Mesoamerican-inspired setting. I reeeeeeally wanted this one to be less YA-conventional in its overall structure. The premise is that the city-states making up a sort of federated empire each send one marriageable young woman as a prospective bride for the new emperor; all the ones he doesn’t pick will be sacrificed to the gods. Cue a series of challenges for them to compete in, with all the requisite tropes you’d expect. It got more interesting to me when it pivoted in a more mythological direction at the end, even if I raise an eyebrow a bit at one of the underlying principles there. Not sure if I’ll read on; I do love Mesoamerican-based stuff, but the predictable YA feel made this much less engaging than I’d hoped.
Spear, Nicola Griffith. Queer Arthurian novella that mostly takes a more grounded approach to the characters’ lives and what Camelot looks like, which isn’t remotely surprising given what else Griffith writes. Not entirely grounded, though, given the big ol’ river of Irish mythology running through it (yes, Irish, not Welsh; there’s a solid justification for that in the text). I liked it but didn’t love it.
An Unconditional Freedom, Alyssa Cole. Third and (so far) last of the Loyal League books; I don’t know if there will be more. Hoo boy does this one run straight at the “really, it was complicated” side of things: the heroine is again mixed-race, but this time her father is still a slave-owner (in Cuba), and she’s grown up swallowing hook, line, and sinker all the lies used to support that system. She’s not like the other Black people! They’re better off for being enslaved, and most of them are happy with their lives, except for a few malcontents! The Union is a bunch of meanie mean-faces who just want to take away the wealth of the South, which totally has nothing to do with slavery! The heroine literally starts out spying for the Confederacy. Naturally this state of affairs doesn’t last, but even starting there is pretty eye-opening. Meanwhile, the hero is the childhood sweetheart of the female lead from An Extraordinary Union, here working to get over both that failed relationship and the trauma left by the time he got kidnapped out of the North and sold into slavery. Which means that from his side, you’re seeing all the wrong-headed assumptions about What Slaves Ought to Do, slamming very hard into the reality of what consequences would hit them if they did. It doesn’t make for the most comfortable read, but it was a very good one.
A Thousand Li: The First War, Tao Wong. Third of this series and end of the first arc, and it’s hard to know what to say. The prose and characterization continue to be pretty flat, and it’s the type of thing where you go “ah, now it’s time for this book’s scene of the character going shopping for magic items.” But it remains a very useful tour of the genre and its tropes, precisely because of how much it stops to explain them to you, so I keep reading.
The Panćatantra, Visnu Śarma, trans. Chandra Rajan. Classic collection of Sanskrit fables and folktales, very much couched in a moral framework; many of the tales are nested within one another, and get launched by one character saying, “As it is said, [chunk of poetry],” and someone else (not infrequently, the person trying to kill them) asking politely for them to explain. With lots of other poetry interspersed throughout, laying down various ethical or practical maxims. The part where it keeps listing women as something you can’t rely upon is, I will grant, partially mitigated by the part where kings are usually in that list, too. 😛
third Rook and Rose book My own work doesn’t count — but revisions have begun!