Books read, October 2022
This list looks way more impressive than it really is; many of the things I read this month were novella-length or shorter. But still, it feels gratifying!
Half World, Hiromi Goto. The premise of this one is pretty standard: a teenage girl who suffers from isolation at school discovers her mother and unknown father actually come from a magical realm — in this case, Half World, midway between the realms of Flesh and Spirit — and she is destined to save it. The execution of that premise, however, very much lifts it out of the stereotypes of its own plot. Half World used to be part of a cycle between the realms that kept the worlds in balance, but since that cycle was broken, the people there are trapped in reliving the nightmares of their own deaths. The way Melanie resolves that issue is very well-done, as are the characters who help her along the way — often in their own ways, not the ones Melanie expects or wants.
A Thousand Li: The Second Sect, Tao Wong. Fifth book in this cultivation series, with the protagonist struggling to recover from the metaphysical wounds he took in the previous volume. That aspect of the story pinged hard on the disability radar for me: on the one hand this is a cure narrative, since Wu Ying does succeed in fully recovering, but on the other hand, the way he gets there strongly resembles the “radical acceptance” mentality I’ve seen advocated by many disability activists. I quite liked that element and how it was handled here.
As the Tide Came Flowing In, Sonya Taaffe. Disclosure: the author is a friend. I said to her, and will repeat here, that I’m not sure I will ever know and love any single thing as deeply as she knows and loves the sea. That’s the thematic thread binding together the poetic and fictional contents of this tiny little collection, and it’s lovely.
The Best Thing You Can Steal, Simon R. Green. Novella or short novel, urban fantasy heist. It was . . . okay, I guess? I was a little disappointed because the cover copy promised that the protagonist “specializes in stealing the kind of things that can’t normally be stolen. Like a ghost’s clothes, or a photo from a country that never existed. He even stole his current identity.” But what he aims to steal here is a magical artifact, which — magical-ness aside — is a perfectly ordinary target.
The Dybbuk in Love, Sonya Taaffe. Disclosure: the author is still a friend. 😛 This is an older piece, maybe novelette in length?, that looks at the usual kind of dybbuk story from a different angle. Lovely again, just not about the sea this time.
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah Rose. I knew this was a thing, but this book made it clear in a way I’d never quite grokked just how Big Business tea was in the nineteenth century, and why it was worth a massive effort to steal tea seeds, living tea plants, and (not steal but hire, albeit for shit wages) people who knew what to do with them. I appreciate that Rose did her absolute best, within the confines of the historical record we have, to take into account the perspectives and motivations of the Chinese people Robert Fortune was dealing with; what Fortune saw as betrayal by men he’d hired to assist him was probably just them pursuing their own interests in a perfectly rational way.
The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, narr. Jim Meskimen. It took me a surprisingly long time for me to get my brain to accept what it was listening to, i.e. just what it says on the tin: a history. So much of what I read these days is more narrowly topic-focused that I kept expecting a more central thread than this book really has. To the extent that there is such a thing, it’s that the so-called Dark Ages were “brighter” than popular narrative would have you believe, but I have to admit, the authors’ attempt to rebrand that period as “the Bright Ages” kept inducing a “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” reaction in me. (Especially whenever they swung from “the period was bright because there was so much diversity and curiosity!” to “but uh sometimes the brightness was from the fires of sacked cities!”) I did, however, very much appreciate their determined persistence in paying attention to the presence and experiences of women and minorities, and in calling out oppressive structures like slavery wherever they appear.
The Holver Alley Crew, Marshall Ryan Maresca. Another in Maresca’s Maradaine mega-series, which is akin to the MCU in having multiple narrative strands that sometimes run independently and sometimes bounce off each other. This one follows a group of criminals who seek money and justice, in variable order, after someone arranges for their street to burn down. I really like the older woman who operates as one of the bigger local crime bosses — she’s just the right amounts of ruthless and sympathetic.
The Feast, Randy Lee Eickhoff. Another in his set (I have two more to go) of Old Irish literature translation/retelling/whatevers, this one of Fled Bricriu. Oh my god the unwillingness of the central characters to accept as valid the results of any contest that doesn’t result in them winning — over and over and OVER again. That part’s on the ancient Irish storytellers, not Eickhoff; the part that is on him is a style of writing that I’ve seen Rachel Manija Brown mock as “she breasted boobily down the stairs.” I get that he’s trying to represent the earthiness of Old Irish literature, but my dude, this is not the way to do it: I have never once in my life seen a woman’s breasts twitch in indignation.
The Spirit Rebellion, Rachel Aaron. Second of the Eli Monpress series (I have the first three in an omnibus, but I’m counting them separately for tracking and blogging purposes). The metaphysics that give basically everything a spirit do raise some unanswered questions about how food, clothing, housing, and so forth work in this society, but you know, I’m willing to let that go in exchange for sentences about how a dangerous spirit leaves in its wake “the terrified silence of traumatized crates.” And the personification of objects pays off delightfully at the climax.
Tiger Honor, Yoon Ha Lee. Second of his Thousand Worlds MG space fantasy series; it doesn’t require reading the first book, since this one has a different protagonist, but it probably carries more impact if you’ve seen what’s treated as backstory here play out in full. I loved watching Sebin struggle with the tension between family obligation, organizational duty, and their own sense of what’s right. This series remains, along with Hernandez’ Sal and Gabi books, my favorite stuff by far from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint.
Heaven Official’s Blessing, Vol. 3, Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. I really wish the company putting these out went more for “narrative shape” in choosing where to put the boundaries between volumes, rather than “more or less consistent page count.” This one opens up in the middle of a flashback I’d forgotten was underway, and you spend like half the book there before flashing back to the present day. I did, however, really like the Blessing Festival and the lantern contest. And although I usually find the modern, colloquial tone often used in the translation rather jarring, it paid off entertainingly when it mentioned the plays about Hua Cheng usually being titled things like “The Red Demon Torched the Temples of Thirty-Three Gods and the Heavens Could Do Fuck-All About It, or Crimson Rain Sought Flower Strung Up the Martial and Civil Gods and Slapped Them Around With But One Hand.”
The Fox’s Wedding, Matthew Meyer This is the guy behind yokai.com, who periodically puts out collections of yōkai folklore complete with his own woodblock-style art. I backed this fourth collection through Kickstarter, but it’s also available for purchase, and I highly recommend his books if you’re interested in the topic.
Mazirian the Magician, Jack Vance. A.K.A. the book more commonly known as The Dying Earth. I don’t know why Mazirian the Magician was apparently Vance’s preferred title; that’s the name of one of the stories in here, but Mazirian is not an ongoing character or anything. Anyway, this is a classic that famously inspired the “prepared spellcasting” approach seen in Dungeons & Dragons; with that context, it’s kind of hilarious to see how a supremely powerful wizard might be able to prepare as many as FIVE SPELLS. Gasp! Awe! (But their spells appear to be significantly more flexible than D&D examples, and also of course Vance could arrange for them to memorize ones that would actually be useful in the plot.)
What I found particularly interesting here was the female characters. They’re . . . not great by modern standards, but they’re significantly better than I expected them to be? I particularly noted, and enjoyed, the multiple instances where a male character gets the hots for a female one, pursues her in a kind of rapey way, and then gets straight-up murdered by or at least via the actions of his ostensible target. So their behavior, while not great, is also clearly not rewarded. (Really, almost nobody here is a good person. But there’s plenty of room for me to at least imagine some good interiority and agency for most of the women.)
Where Dreams Descend, Janella Angeles, narr. Imani Jade Powers and Steve West. I didn’t finish this one, but it’s not a DNF in the sense the internet tends to use that term; I would have gone to the end if I hadn’t been forced to return the audiobook to the library. However, I don’t think I care quite enough to check it out again later. Since I got more than three-quarters of the way through, though, I decided to go ahead and include it in this post. (Most of the time, the books I don’t finish get dropped very early on, and I don’t blog about those.)
There was a lot of really intriguing material in this one. Unfortunately — and this is why I’m not going to check it out again — by the three-quarters mark, it was very clear that much of that material wasn’t really going to go anywhere until the second book of the duology. The maybe-curse on Glorian, the city’s history with its four founding houses, the possibility of secret magic there, Hellfire House and what it’s doing out in the forest, Demarco’s ostensible purpose in having come to Glorian (a purpose he seems to largely neglect), Jack’s true nature, the Conquering Circus, the sealing of the city gates, even whatever it is that’s vanishing or striking down Kallia’s competitors . . . all of that would flicker up periodically to remind me it was there, but in the meanwhile the book spent vastly more time and attention on the relationship between Kallia and Demarco, the intermittent appearances of Jack, and the playing-out of the competition, complete with a lot of instances of the judges being sexist asshats. None of which was badly done, I’d say — the competition managed to avoid the “Hunger Games clone” feel a lot of contest-focused YA novels give off, and right before my stopping point the book suddenly introduced the possibility that there’s an active conspiracy or curse against female magicians — but I got tired of waiting for all those other things to get the attention I felt they deserved. Even if they surge into prominence in the last quarter, rather than waiting for book two, it would feel like too little, too late. Which is a pity, because they did seem interesting! (If anybody has read this and/or its sequel, I am not averse to spoilers in the comments; I’d love to know what other people thought.)
The narration of the audiobook was good, though; Powers did an excellent job of differentiating the characters. West only narrates a few very brief sections about Jack, which were fine.