Books read, November 2022

In November 2020, I randomly decided that I would try to prioritize reading Native American authors that month. This year, seeing the number of books by such authors that had piled up on my shelf and on my wishlists, I decided to go ahead and fully devote the month to that focus.

Now, there are flaws in this approach, and I know it. Why, for example, should I cordon such authors off in a specific month? The answer to that is (of course) not to cordon; this year I did actively choose to hold off on a couple of the books because I knew I was going to approach November this way, but in the future I’m not likely to do that. There are also merits to the approach, though: by taking in such fiction and non-fiction in a concentrated dose, I see patterns and themes and gaps in ways that would elude me if the material were more spread out. Case in point, I noticed that I have quite a lot of Anishinaabe authors here, with smaller clusters elsewhere, but there are whole swaths (like the Plains) that are relatively untouched.

So my verdict on the experiment as a whole is that I think it was interesting to do, but I don’t think I’d try to repeat it on a yearly basis. Unless, maybe, I wind up with such a backlog again that another focused push makes sense. 🙂

On to the books themselves!

The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). Momaday has written many books of various kinds, but this is one of his most respected — in fact, what I obtained is the 50th anniversary edition — so I decided to start here. It’s a brief and lovely book, arranged in facing pages where each pair relates a bit of traditional narrative, a bit of historical context, and a bit of personal anecdote. I loved seeing the temporal layers juxtaposed like that, and the writing is poetic without being overwrought. I will definitely seek out more.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi). Ohhh, this was gorgeous. It went onto my wishlist because I’m on an intermittent and perpetual quest to learn to write about nature better; it didn’t necessarily further the specific vision I have of what I’d like to be able to do (I’m not sure any book can quite give me what I want), but it made for beautiful and often quite moving reading.

Kimmerer is very much writing from a perspective that doesn’t separate “society” from “nature;” the plants and animals around us, and also the rocks and the waters and so forth, are part of our society whether we want to acknowledge their presence and needs or not. Her scientific background as a botanist is only occasionally set against her feelings as a Potawatomi woman, usually in the context of official scientific and educational systems insisting the two are supposed to be separate — I was particularly struck by the committee that didn’t want to approve a project investigating the effects of traditional sweetgrass harvesting on the health and abundance of the plant, because we already know that harvesting is destructive, right? Turns out that, actually, traditional harvesting methods make clumps of sweetgrass grow stronger and healthier than they were before.

This is the kind of nonfiction that’s as much about the personal as it is about the subject at hand, but here the effect is to nudge you gently and say, what if you thought this way, too? What would it mean for your life if you adopted some of these ideas and mentalities? It left me wanting to be that kind of person, and wondering what changes I could make to help bring that about in my immediate environment.

Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo). I could swear I read an excerpt from this in one of my grad school classes, but I can’t find a record of it, nor did anything in here ring a recognizable bell. So possibly I’m imagining that.

Anyway, this is a bit outside my usual in that it’s more of a literary novel than genre, though it skirts spiritual terrain that resonates in certain ways with fantasy. It reminded me a bit of The Dead Go to Seattle, which I read back in 2020, in its slippery relationship with time, shifting back and forth without much concern for signposting between various temporal strands of the narrative, how Tayo went to fight in World War II and what happened to him there and how he is coping, or rather not coping, with it afterward. Parts of it make for very uncomfortable reading, though I appreciated the one brief line that helped make it clear Tayo’s anger and prejudice toward the Japanese was the perspective of a character who’d been their prisoner of war, not the perspective of the author. Given how much Tayo is struggling through the morass of alcoholism and war trauma, I was worried it would end on a horrifyingly bleak note, but it sidesteps that very gently, while still refusing to give you anything like a straightforwardly heroic resolution at the end. Overall the effect was more lovely than not.

The Peacekeeper, B.L. Blanchard (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa). I had very mixed feelings about this book.

The premise of it, I unequivocally love. It’s an alternate history setting in which the Americas never got colonized by Europe; I’m not sure how rigorously the underpinnings of that are set up, but I don’t need a doctoral thesis laying out the process by which this all happened; I’m more here for the result. Genre-wise, the plot is actually a straight-up mystery, with this being SF only via the convention that says alternate history falls under that umbrella (and not fantasy at all; I kept reflexively looking for that just because it’s 90% of the fiction I read, but it isn’t there). Just seeing the setting alone was neat, since it’s an uncolonized indigenous society with modern technology, with lots of room to explore what shape that might take..

When it comes to the plot, though . . . I’m going to err on the side of caution and put this all behind the spoiler wall of rot-13. Go here if you want to decode it, understanding that the early bits are not spoilers, but by the end I’m going to wreck the whole mystery plot.

Evtug sebz gur fgneg, gur qrcvpgvba bs Nfujvlnn — be engure, gur qrcvpgvba bs ure eryngvbafuvc jvgu Puvoranfuv — znqr zr hapbzsbegnoyr. Fur pnzr npebff nf qrcerffrq, nakvbhf, naq cbffvoyl nhgvfgvp, naq Puvoranfuv gnxvat pner bs ure sryg yvxr vg jnf obea 100% bs thvyg naq boyvtngvba. Gurer jnf arire nal zbzrag bs jnezgu jurer jr trg gb frr ubj gur gjb bs gurz ybir rnpu bgure, jurer lbh srry yvxr Nfujvlnn’f cerfrapr va Puvoranfuv’f yvsr vf nalguvat bgure guna n oheqra ur npprcgf bhg bs qhgl, jvgu ure sernxvat bhg vs ur’f tbar sbe nal ernfba ng nyy, rgp. Vg nyfb orpnzr boivbhf gb zr irel rneyl ba gung gurve sngure qvqa’g xvyy gurve zbgure. Fb vs ur pbasrffrq, ur zhfg unir qbar fb gb cebgrpg fbzrbar, naq gur boivbhf nafjre jnf “bar bs gurve xvqf.” V jnf npghnyyl ebbgvat sbe vg gb or Puvoranfuv, orpnhfr gur nygreangvir jnf gung gur zragnyyl vyy fvfgre jnf gur bar erfcbafvoyr, naq gung qvq abg fvg jryy ng nyy jvgu zr.

Jryy, gheaf bhg vg jnf vaqrrq gur zragnyyl vyy fvfgre . . . ohg ab, fur’f abg qrcerffrq be nakvbhf be nhgvfgvp ng nyy. Fur’f n Ubyyljbbq-fglyr fbpvbcngu jubfr pb-qrcraqrag orunivbe jnf ragveryl gb znavchyngr ure oebgure vagb univat ab yvsr bhgfvqr gnxvat pner bs ure — naq qrfcvgr uvz yvivat purrx ol wbjy jvgu ure sbe nyy guvegl-gjb lrnef bs ure yvsr, ur unf arire ng nal cbvag cvpxrq hc gur snvagrfg pyhr fur’f abg npghnyyl n sentvyr sybjre, fur’f n pbyq-oybbqrq zheqrere jub xvyyrq ure bja zbgure orpnhfr ure cneragf gevrq gb qb fbzrguvat nobhg ure fbpvbcngul, naq jub guerngrarq gb zheqre ure oebgure, gbb, vs gurve sngure qvqa’g pbasrff gb gur svefg pevzr.

V qvqa’g svaq vg ng nyy pbaivapvat, abe qvq V svaq vg pbaivapvat jura ng gur raq Puvoranfuv fnvq ur fgvyy ybirq ure naq ernyyl whfg jnagrq jung jnf orfg sbe ure — va cneg orpnhfr V arire sryg ybir sebz uvz ng nyy, whfg gur nsberzragvbarq frafr bs boyvtngvba naq thvyg. V’q rkcrpg n uryy bs n ybg zber fubpx naq orgenlny naq jerfgyvat jvgu guvf fhqqra genafsbezngvba va uvf ivfvba bs uvf fvfgre orsber ur tbg gb gung cbvag, ohg ur whfg xvaq bs ncngurgvpnyyl pehvfrq nybat ba gur fnzr genpx ur’q nyjnlf orra ba.

So, yeah. There’s a lot to like in the setting; I especially appreciated how it explored the way that even a system of restorative rather than retributive justice can fail the people it’s supposed to be helping (since it would be super easy to go utopian with that and act as if we could solve all our woes by changing how our own justice system works). But in the end, I don’t think I liked the book itself. Which leaves me in the odd position of not recommending it, while simultaneously really looking forward to more in this setting from this author — because I’d love to read a different story!

Coyote & Crow, Connor Alexander (Cherokee) et al. This is an RPG I backed on Kickstarter some time ago. I didn’t read the whole book cover to cover (I rarely do with gaming books, because reading mechanics for their own sake isn’t very interesting to me), but I read a high enough percentage to count this as a “book read” for the purposes of logging.

The premise here is akin to that of The Peacekeeper insofar as it depicts an uncolonized North America. The underpinnings are very different, though; a kind of apocalypse happened centuries ago, and now society is recovering in a form that incorporates both science fictional technology and, arguably, magic — depending on how one views the effect of injecting oneself with weird material derived from affected animals and thereby taking on some of their characteristics. I’d say it’s a bit like Shadowrun in its happy willingness to chuck both science fiction and fantasy into the same setting without worrying too much about the differences between them.

All of the key people involved in this game (maybe all the people, period; I think so, but I’m not one hundred percent sure) are Native, and it’s interesting to see how the tensions around identity get navigated here. The city presented as the focus of the setting uses the name of Cahokia, but the society is explicitly flavored with a bunch of different tribal influences without attempting to represent any single one in its entirety. Sidebars encourage players of Native heritage to make use of their own traditions and language if they want to, while explicitly telling players not of that background not to work such things into their game. (Not in the book, but I also remember an update from the Kickstarter campaign where Alexander mentioned seeing people say that non-Native gamers shouldn’t play Coyote and Crow at all, and being saddened by that reaction: he actively wants people of different backgrounds to engage with the game, just not to appropriate specific traditions they don’t have a personal connection to.)

I’m very much looking forward to the other products they’ll be putting out, especially Stories of the Free Lands, an anthology of playable adventures in the setting. Since I can’t possibly play every game I own, I’m really here for the setting material and seeing what kind of world a team of Native creators makes; adventures are much better for that than a core rulebook.

Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong, Linda LeGarde Grover (Bois Forte Ojibwe). As a matter of personal preference, this was less the book I was envisioning than I’d been hoping. There’s a certain amount of traditional narrative here, but a lot of it is also just anecdotes of personal and familial history, or history of the city of Duluth. (Have I ever been to Duluth? I’m pretty sure I have or had relatives living there, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if any of our trips to Minnesota actually went there.) In terms of intermixing different types of material, this reminds me of The Way to Rainy Mountain, but the overall balance tipped more modern and personal than would be my preference — not for any reasons relating to Native Americans, just to be clear, but simply because I’m me and always prefer pre-modern history, folklore, and so forth. 🙂

A Snake Falls to Earth, Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache). I adored Little Badger’s first novel, Elatsoe, but it’s been long enough since I read it that I can’t say for sure if they’re meant to take place in the same setting, i.e. the same contemporary fantasy version of our world, where supernatural things are known to exist. I don’t think so; the key here is the idea that the spirit and human worlds used to be joined up, but became separated some time ago. Animal people can still appear in our world, but they’re in danger when they do, because of an offstage villain referred to as the Nightmare King, whose minions try to hunt them down and murder them. That doesn’t ring a bell from Elatsoe, but I could be mis-remembering.

Anyway, I would have loved some kind of accompanying afterword for this book, because the cover copy says it makes use of traditional Lipan Apache storytelling structures, which immediately made me want to know what those are. Without that for context, I’ll say that it did feel a bit structurally odd: the narrative strands for the two main characters didn’t connect until about midway through, and even once they did, there was less of a sense of “ah, this is the central thread of the story” than I kept expecting. Some elements that were very important to the finale got introduced or made relevant quite late, like Thou Own Dave, or not explored in as much detail as I would have liked given their importance, like the Nightmare King, while other things that seemed important early on ended up being less central than expected. The result felt more fragmented than I was anticipating. The individual pieces were great, but the whole didn’t quite pull together like I was hoping.

A Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars, Katherena Vermette (Métis). First in a series of graphic novels. This is very slender (44 pages), and honestly, I think it could have used its limited space better: one montage of Echo’s daily life was enough to tell me she’s isolated at school and probably depressed, and the subsequent two repetitions of that montage took up pages that could have been spent on giving me some idea of what’s up with Echo’s mother, or having her family appear in more than just a few panels. By the end I had seen very little not already described in the cover copy. So while I think I’m still interested in reading what exists of the rest of the series (I don’t know if it’s complete or got cut off by the vagaries of publishing), right now the most interesting part of this to me was the back matter that just straightforwardly gives you information on history and a recipe for pemmican.

Fevered Star, Rebecca Roanhorse (Black and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo). Sequel to Black Sun. I know a few authors have started to put a 1-2 page recap of previous book(s) at the front for readers who need a reminder (Alyc and I have done it, but we’re not the only ones); I really could have used that here. And/or a glossary at the back to refresh me on . . . basically everything I’d forgotten about the setting in the two years since the first book came out.

I suspect that forgetfulness contributed to me being less into this volume — hard to feel invested when you’re trying to remember who everyone is — but I don’t think that’s all of it. This felt distinctly middle book-y, with lots of pieces being moved around on the board in setup for what’s going to happen next, and in several cases, the characters who have strong emotional bonds with each other were separated for the whole book, meaning you don’t get any interaction between them. I very much like how one key confrontation played out in here, because it subverted the more standard-issue approach, but the rest of it left me feeling kind of underwhelmed.

Lightfinder, Aaron Paquette (Métis, Cree and Cayuse). First in a series, but I’m not sure the rest has ever been published or ever will be, as the author appears to also be a local politician and very busy with that work. 😛

This is again a fairly thin book, only 242 pages, and since it evenly divides that between two viewpoint characters on separate trajectories through the plot, there’s not a lot of room to develop anything. In particular, the love triangle attempted with Aisling is fairly unconvincing. Eric’s side of the plot, however, was a good deal more compelling: he winds up with someone you rapidly figure out is on the side of the bad guys, and watching the tension there ratchet up worked quite well for me. The ending fell into the zone where I’m not sure the moment itself worked super well for me, but I’m intrigued to know what its effects would be; it’s a pity that I’m not sure we’ll ever get the rest of the series.

As an aside: although mostly I care about reviewing the content of a book, in this case I feel obliged to also mention the production, and . . . not positively. The book was not well copy-edited, and the formatting is bizarre: there’s a blank line between every paragraph, and whether they’re indented or not appears to depend on whether they begin with dialogue/an italicized thought or not. I was able to get past that into the story, but it was significantly distracting at first, and looked very thoroughly unprofessional.

Nahual, Miguel Ángel Espinoza et al. Another RPG book from a Kickstarter I backed. I should note that after I started reading it, I realized that while it engages with indigenous Mexican traditions, I can’t say for sure whether Espinoza or Edgar Clément, the man whose works the setting is based on, are themselves Native at all. They’re both Mexican; I decided that attempting to dig for details beyond that was a level of policing I really didn’t want to do.

As for the book itself, it’s a Powered by the Apocalypse open urban fantasy, where angels 1) exist and 2) are kind of just monsters. Fairly mindless ones, in the case of the lower-level angels, which is why you have an entire economy built around hunting them and butchering them for parts. The PCs are all running an angelero business — which could be a taco truck, a cantina, or other options — trying to balance the risks of angel-hunting against the need to stay afloat. The dynamic is one, I think, that I would not actually want to play; it’s a bit too gritty for my taste, with economic pressures and the psychological wear and tear of butchering something that looks human repeatedly emphasized. But since the PbtA “playbooks” here are based around having various animals as your nahual and learning to embody its power, I did like reading through it for setting information.

I’ll also note — because it illustrates the diversity of opinion that can exist between and within different communities — that like Coyote and Crow, Nahual addresses the question of people from outside the community playing the game. Espinoza’s answer, however, is very different: “Don’t be afraid that you might misappropriate or misrepresent Mexicans and Mexican culture when you make your character […] I’d rather have you play a ‘wrong’ Mexican character, than not play one at all.”

Trickster Drift, Eden Robinson (Haisla/Heiltsuk). Sequel to Son of a Trickster, which I read back in 2020. Because the narrative here is less multi-stranded, and because this book involves Jared leaving his hometown and moving to Vancouver (though not severing ties with many of the characters from before), I had much less trouble re-orienting myself in this series. Early on I was reminded of why I almost didn’t persist with Son of a Trickster; Jared’s social world is kind of wall-to-wall fucked-up people, from his mother on outward, and watching him try to assemble a life of sobriety and purpose when everybody else is determined to destroy him and themselves in whatever order they can manage veers quite close to the line beyond which I wouldn’t enjoy reading. But Jared himself has a good heart, and while the social world he joins here is not without its tensions and dysfunction, on the whole it’s a better one.

The other thing that makes me border on checking out of these books is that their overall vibe is much more literary, in the sense that they are not very plot-driven. The title here is apt: you’re kind of just drifting along with Jared as he goes to AA meetings and cooks things and talks to ghosts and so forth, and every so often the plot goes HI THERE. It tends to be shockingly effective when it does that, though. And this book ends on enough of a cliffhanger that I immediately went and bought the third one — which was annoyingly difficult to get; I had a choice of “order from Amazon or order from Canada” — and will not wait two years to read it.

Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, ed. Grace L. Dillon. This was, alas, not what I was hoping for. It’s more an academic reader than an anthology — there are endnotes, and analytical introductions to each selection — and of the nineteen pieces in here, thirteen are excerpts from novels rather than short stories, which tends not to work very well for me because I’m lacking the context of the rest of the narrative. It’s also science fiction in the specific sense rather than the umbrella “speculative fiction” one, and it starts off with a quartet of slipstream pieces of the sort I find the least compelling. (Three of the authors in that quartet get two selections apiece, too.) So in the end, I found this mostly useful as a source to mine for other books I might want to read, largely of the non-fiction variety, since my taste trends more toward fantasy than SF.

The Way of Thorn and Thunder, Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee). This was originally published as a trilogy, but this book isn’t just an omnibus; Justice apparently revise the whole shebang to make it one large novel instead.

Even though it’s almost 600 pages, I . . . kind of wanted it to be longer? The balance here felt slightly askew; the first third or so moves at an almost leisurely pace in establishing its characters and its world, then picks up to a faster clip of plot around the middle as the conflict moves to the foreground. But the war, once it begins, happens incredibly fast — not just in terms of page time, but in terms of elapsed story-time as well — and then in the final third quite a few new characters, locations, and even metaphysical details get introduced, and I really wanted them to get more exploration. Since the story has quite a few viewpoint characters from the start, I think there could have been room for that.

As for the story itself, this is a sweeping epic fantasy inspired by North America circa the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and it is a splendid illustration of how it can matter who the author is: I would so very much not recommend that a White author do what Justice does here, which is to represent Europeans as Humans and all the indigenous people of North America as various species of fantasy creature. But it reads as distinctly less Othering when the author is coming from the side he’s representing as not human, and it brings in a lot of interesting worldbuilding around the relationship of those groups with their natural environment.

The story itself is hard going in some places, since this is not the kind of alternate history I read earlier this month, where colonization gets tossed out the window. The various peoples of the Everland are an embattled enclave in the aftermath of their world getting Melded into that of the Humans, and especially since the author is Cherokee, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the Trail of Tears gets reflected partway through the book. There were several turns the narrative took during and after that stage, though, which I genuinely loved — things to do with the sharing of a spiritual gift rather than it being kept to one person, and a form of redemption for characters who could have been wholly demonized, and especially the epiphany that forms the crux of the climax. I don’t know if Justice intends to write more fiction, but I hope he does.

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi). How much did I love Braiding Sweetgrass? Enough so that when I realized I was going to run out of suitable fiction before I ran out of month, one of the additional books I bought was Kimmerer’s other, earlier title. This one is more focused on the scientific side than Braiding Sweetgrass, delving into specifics of how different kinds of mosses work, but it isn’t only about mosses; the cultural side is in there, along with discussions of ecology more broadly, especially where the micro scale recapitulates processes and structures seen on the macro scale as well. I didn’t love it quite as much, but I did enjoy it.

2 Responses to “Books read, November 2022”

  1. Jeremy Brett

    I had the same feelings about The Peacekeeper. I really liked the general concept and wanted it to be better.

    • swantower

      I’m glad it wasn’t just me! The story’s handling of mental health really just made me uncomfortable.

      And yet, I will keep an eye out for the author’s next work.

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