Books read, April 2023

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, Daniel James Brown, narr. Michael Prichard. This is a splendid book about a dreadful topic — and by that, I don’t even just mean what happened to the Donner Party after they got trapped in the Sierra Nevada. Forty percent of this book elapses before you get there, and that forty percent establishes very clearly just how awful an experience the western migration was even when it went well. Brown says at the outset that part of his goal here is to humanize the settlers who went to Oregon and California, getting past the stoic photographs and sanitized depictions, and I think he succeeds excellently.

At the political along with the personal. Like, I knew Hastings was basically a liar, promoting his “cutoff” that turned out to be vastly worse than the established route, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen that put into context of the growing conflicts between the U.S. and Mexico, with Polk wanting a war and Hastings wanting to funnel white settlers to California instead of Oregon so they could take it over. Brown is also excellent about scrupulously noting the presence and actions of people of color, whether that’s not letting you forget that there were enslaved Blacks at work in the background at certain trail stops, laying out cold hard numbers for the number of white travelers killed by Indian war parties vs. vastly higher the number of Indians slaughtered by xenophobic white travelers, or doing his best (given the absence of their perspective in the record) to acknowledge the cultural background and possible thoughts of Luis and Salvador, the two Miwoks who got caught up in the disaster. He’s also very attentive to the lives of the pioneer women, including a frank and detailed discussion of the methods of contraception and abortion used on the trail.

That level of detail is a hallmark of the book as a whole. As part of his research, Brown (in a car) followed the route of the Donner Party so he could experience the landscape first-hand, which means you don’t just get an abstract journey; you get the environmental specifics, from the weather to the views to the flora and fauna. He also delves into the biological processes of starvation, hypothermia, snow blindness, and more. By the time the members of the Forlorn Hope are hiking out of the mountains, it’s a grim and excruciating litany that does an amazing job of conveying just what a feat of endurance their survival was . . . for those who survived, of course.

If there’s one place the book begins to flag, it’s at the end, after everyone who’s still alive is out of the mountains. The narrative shifts much closer to summary there — of necessity, given that some of those people continued to live for decades — and it loses the close specificity that made it so compelling before. On the topic of that specificity, btw, I’ll note that there’s a different edition of this book that just says “The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party,” but the “Bride” part in the version I listened to is important: although Brown is telling the story of the whole disaster, the thread he’s following is specifically Sarah Graves, all the way back to the days in Illinois where she wrestled with the question of whether to stay there, marry her fiance, and likely never see her family again, or break off the engagement. They ended up getting married and both going with her family westward, a decision you want to scream at them not to make.

As for the audiobook, Prichard sounds remarkably like a mid-century newscaster to me. I think the matter-of-fact tone he uses, though, is preferable to a narrator who might have tried to infuse more drama into their performance of the various disasters and tragedies — they’ve got enough of that on their own.

A Thousand Li: The Second Storm, Tao Wong. Sixth in the self-published cultivation fantasy series I’ve been reading for a while. This wasn’t one of the strongest entries: while it had some good philosophical moments (an unexpected strong point the series has developed over time), the less than stellar treatment of female characters was hard to overlook here. The characterization has always been weak and the characterization of women even more so, but here we add to it a plot based on the idea that the evil sect who have been antagonists for a while now have kidnapped a number of powerful female cultivators in order to steal their power through a “dual cultivation” ritual — i.e. rape, though the book daintily refrains from ever saying that outright. The named characters get rescued before that can happen, and the prisoners who have been there for longer (and subjected to various kinds of torture) include men, but still, it didn’t feel well-handled: if you’re not actually going to address the idea at the heart of your plot, maybe don’t build your plot around it in the first place.

And with that being the centerpiece of the story, it primed me to notice all the other bits of irritation scattered throughout. The greater likelihood of random female cultivators in the background being frivolous or lazy. The passing reference to a woman whose path to immortality is that of “refined beauty” — which gets dismissed as meaning “makeup,” without being given the respect otherwise shown to the idea that every cultivator has to find their own path, however peculiar, and letting your preconceived notions push you into pursuing the wrong one is a recipe for failure. The main character has for several books now been developing his ability to sense things through a heightened sense of smell, and it’s made clear here that this means he can tell when the women around him are having their periods: did it never cross the author’s mind that maybe, among the myriad of stupendous bodily and spiritual techniques practiced by cultivators, the suppression of menstruation might be among them? (In a cosmology where that undoubtedly equates to a loss of vital energy?)

None of it was awful, and I’m still getting enough value out of this series that I’m not going to quit reading on these grounds. There are even a few female characters I like, though they don’t get enough page time for me to really enjoy their presence; in this particular book, the “Mad Formation Mistress” (who’s basically a cackling mad scientist doing all kinds of off-label things with mystical arrays) and the scarred woman from the uber-violent dao-wielding sect both pleased me as being a departure from the usual standards of 1) willowy beauty drooled over by the men and 2) grumpy old elder. I wish we had more of that.

Hearts of Wulin, Joyce Ch*ng and Lowell Francis. RPG backed on Kickstarter, which (like Nahual, reviewed back in November) is a culture-focused game using the Powered by the Apocalypse family of systems. This one appeals to me more than Nahual on the genre front, as it’s designed to model wuxia narratives or, with some modifications, xianxia cultivation stories. Stuff like this makes very valuable reading even if I never run or play in a campaign, because the process of building a game designed to help you tell X kind of stories means laying out lots of structures and examples for what X stories tend to do — essentially boiling down a bunch of individual media sources to a set of core principles.

Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners, Travis Elborough. Small nonfiction book on, basically, random places around the world that Elborough finds interesting. They weren’t as engaging to me as I might have hoped, I think in part because his interests skew decidedly modern: you’re more likely to hear about nineteenth- and twentieth-century settlements and construction politics than anywhere earlier (though there are a few exceptions). Each only gets 2-3 pages anyway, part of which is taken up by a black-and-white photo, so the material to chew on is relatively brief. I don’t regret reading it, but I’m not going to keep it, either.

The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior, Joe Navarro. This was an excellent read. Navarro is the type of guy who started keeping notes on non-verbal behavior as a kid, at first because he was an immigrant from Cuba without much English who needed to be able to read the moods of the people around him, then just because he found it fascinating; he later parlayed this into years of work as a behavior analyst at the FBI. It’s worth noting that this book is almost a companion to an earlier work, What Every BODY Is Saying; my impression is that the latter takes a more mood-focused approach, discussing what behaviors signal certain states, while this one is explicitly an anatomical breakdown of what behaviors you’ll see in different parts of the body and what those might mean.

As for the meaning . . . for starters, I appreciate Navarro debunking a lot of the misinformation out there, like “if somebody looks to the side while answering a question, it means they’re lying.” No, it mostly means they’re thinking, which might or might not be because they’re lying. I particularly appreciate his repeated attention to cultural differences, gender differences, age differences, and the vital context of what the subject’s normal behavior looks like: a stress signal for one person might just be a habitual gesture for another, and as such, often the most important thing to notice is a sudden change in behavior, rather than any given movement in isolation. He also notes that certain behaviors might indicate intoxication, medical conditions, neurodivergence, and so forth, and particularly in the case of those latter two, often reminds you not to be an asshole by staring or calling the behavior out. I was fascinated to learn that some actions are so hard-wired into us that they’re exhibited by congenitally blind people who have never seen those actions performed by others, such as covering the eyes. He delves a little bit into the instinct behind some behaviors, e.g. the impulse to protect vulnerable areas like the neck or the belly when we feel threatened, but he doesn’t generally try to chase that too far into the wilds of evo-psych.

Probably the best review I can give of this book is that after I finished reading it in ebook from the library, I promptly ordered a print copy, along with one of What Every BODY Is Saying. I could stand to improve my descriptive repertoire for body language, and this looks like a good way to do it. (I actually wish I’d read this in time for working on Rook & Rose, so I could have integrated some more specifics into Ren’s awareness of other people.)

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, Cordelia Fine. This is a comprehensive takedown of a whole daisy chain of stereotypical ideas around sex and gender.

The substratum of these ideas is that biologically speaking, we as a species are hard-wired for risk-taking males who compete with other males for the chance to spread their sperm as widely as possible, and cautious females who select for the highest-status male to produce their much smaller number of children. That idea dies in the opening two chapters, the first of which points out that the more we study animal biology the more we find this model isn’t true — including revisiting the original fruit fly experiment behind the idea and discovering that 1) the methodology available in the 1940s led to inaccurate data, 2) the researcher for some unexplained reason charted his first four runs in one graph and his latter two in a separate (more commonly cited) one, and had he combined them, his results would have looked very different, and 3) his math doesn’t even compute, since he credits the male fruit flies with siring a higher total of offspring than were actually produced by the female fruit flies. And although you regularly hear people trotting out statements like “a man could sire 100 children in the time it takes a woman to bear one,” if you crunch the numbers, the actual odds of a man succeeding in this task back in our primitive days were about — forgive me for getting the number of digits wrong; I can’t copy out of my ebook — 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000363%. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s not a winning strategy.

But that’s only the substratum. The stereotypical daisy chain concludes that since biology favors these distinct difference of reproductive behavior between men and women, then there must be distinct differences of brain and behavior overall between men and women, and (per the title) that since testosterone is the hormone that triggers male characteristics in pre-natal development and adolescence, all of these things must boil down to testosterone, which it’s the reason why men are naturally more successful in (pick your field here) than women and there’s no point in trying to “fight nature.” So Fine picks apart that chain one link at a time, showing again and again how our assumptions of “because A, then B” fail for both A and B, and in turn for C, and so forth. Our brains are way weirder than we think; our hormones are as likely to respond to events as to drive them; the supposed differences between the sexes are frequently smaller than advertised, highly situational (e.g. the risk-taking behavior of women when being observed vs. when alone), and sometimes go the opposite direction from how they’re “supposed” to.

Toward the end I started getting a little tired, because there’s a certain amount of overload involved in going through the research done on this topic and showing what it actually says. I’ll also note that, while Fine talks about intersex people and I have zero doubt she is aware of and supportive of trans people given her attitudes as shown in this book, she doesn’t mention the trans-ness at all here. But in general, this is an absolute evisceration of the supposed “scientific” arguments for innate differences of behavior based on biological sex.

A Thousand Li: The Third Kingdom, Tao Wong.

Continuing on with this series . . . I liked this book much better than the previous, in part because the female characters come off a good deal better here. There are more of them, with more varied personalities, and more relevance to the plot. This installment also sees the protagonist temporarily banished from his sect, and after a span of wandering that gets largely skimmed over he winds up in another kingdom, where the social politics around cultivation are handled very differently. Being me, I liked getting that contrasting view, and the alternate cultural dynamics it produces. This book also happens to be a murder mystery, which is a new mode for the series and a nice breath of fresh air.

(As an aside, though, Wong really either needs to hire a copy-editor, or fire the one he has. There aren’t many outright typos, but “glutinous” and “gluttonous” mean rather different things, as do “delegation” and “dedication,” and one does not “deign fit” to do things.)

The True Confessions of a London Spy, Katherine Cowley. Second in the Austen-fanfic series that has Mary Bennet getting recruited into the world of Regency espionage.

Parts of this felt a little too much like a tour of historical events and political movements in London during January-February 1814, but I’m the sort of nerd who doesn’t really mind. I liked having Mary interact more with her sisters, specifically Elizabeth and Kitty; I think it was good for them to be largely offstage presences in the first volume, so that the narrative could develop its own identity, but having done that, it’s nice to deepen Mary’s interactions with her family and a few other canon characters.

What made this installment particularly interesting to me is the attention it pays to the obstacles in the way of a gentlewoman spy. Mary isn’t free to go haring off down whatever investigative paths she chooses; not only could her presence in some situations cause all kinds of trouble, but first she has to get out of the house. For an unmarried young woman staying with her sister and brother-in-law, that’s no small challenge. I like that Cowley doesn’t simply wave that difficulty away: Mary is constantly having to find different ways around it. And even the methods that work pretty well, like having the woman who “rescued” her from an earlier disaster — actually a fellow spy in disguise — invite her out for the day run into problems of their own, as Elizabeth worries about Mary spending too much time with a woman below her own social station. Leaning into those aspects gives the story some unusual twists.

The Winter Prince, Elizabeth Wein. An Arthurian tale, with Artos ruling in a post-Roman Britain and some very messed-up family dynamics around the trio of him, Medraut (the narrator and protagonist), and Morgause. But this Artos also has two children, a son named Lleu and a daughter named Goewin, and the portion of the narrative that’s not driven by Medraut’s deeply dysfunctional, abusive, incestuous relationship with Morgause is driven by his love-hate-envy-despise relationship with Lleu.

The style of it . . . I can’t really anatomize how and why this happens, but there’s a certain kind of beautiful writing where I can tell it’s very emotionally intense and also the emotion is on the other side of a pane of glass from me. I can see it, but I mostly don’t feel it. There were a few moments in this book that did get to me, but overall I simply did not click with it, and I’m not at all tempted to continue the series. Yet I can’t say that’s due to any particular flaw; I am simply not the right audience for this.

Fractal Noise, Christopher Paolini. ARC of a book coming out in May, that’s a standalone prequel to the Fractalverse novel To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It is vastly shorter than its sequel, and it basically has to be: I don’t think its mood could be sustained for much longer than its 256 pages, nor be very endurable if it were.

Partly this is a Big Dumb Object novel, i.e. in the vein of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, where a group of people are sent to investigate some mysterious alien object. (“Dumb” in the sense of “mute,” I think, as these objects are traditionally unaccompanied by entities capable of communication.) Here the object is actually an enormous hole in the ground of a recently-catalogued planet, which every 10.6 seconds emits an EMP of such shattering force that even getting anywhere near the hole to investigate it is a challenge. That points at the novel’s other and I think more significant intellectual ancestor, which the kind of exploration narrative wherein you watch a small group of people break down mentally and physically en route to their goal — a goal which may end up being of more symbolic significance than practical, but they keep going anyway.

I found the beginning a touch rocky, simply because it’s always challenging to deal with an apathetic protagonist. His grief and guilt prod him to volunteer for the expedition, though, and the backstory of why he’s so deeply sunk into depression + his change of state along the way provide the emotional spine for his journey. I wound up reading the entire book in an evening, partly because it’s short, but also because it creates a sufficiently tense atmosphere that I didn’t want to step away before finding out how it would all end.

The Waking of Angantyr Copy-editing my own work doesn’t count.

Daughters of Izdihar, Hadeer Elsbai, narr. Priya Ayyar and Nikki Massoud. Nineteenth century-style feminism and suffragism in a setting based on Egyptian history, with a magic system that’s basically 100% Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I had a hard time with Nehal, one of the two protagonists in this novel. Some parts of her story I quite liked; after an opening chapter in which she basically stamps her foot about wanting to run off to magic academy and the new female unit in the army instead of the arranged marriage her family needs to stabilize their finances, she actually does an admirable job of negotiating an agreement with her husband which will (in theory) let them both get what they want, and I really appreciated her cordial interactions with the woman her husband loves but can’t marry. Most of the time, though, Nehal exhibits a Diplomacy score of -12 and a Politics score of -27. She exhibits no respect for or even understanding of soft power and social dynamics; she goes at every problem with force, as if insisting on something enough times will make everyone suddenly agree with her and the obstacles in her path vanish — when she’s not physically attacking people or thinking about physically attacking them.

Now, I do think the narrative understands the problems with this. There’s one point where Nehal recognizes that she sometimes mistakes prudence for cowardice, and a sympathetic character attempts to call her out for counter-productive aggression. The other protagonist, Giorgina, is far more cautious — sometimes excessively so — and makes a good contrast with Nehal. And of course there are also times where force is called for, where the soft approach won’t work or will take too long to produce change, so it’s not like Nehal’s approach has no merit. But she was so bull-headed and willfully oblivious to the consequences of her actions, I honest-to-god started shouting at the audiobook in frustration. (Spoilery example: Vg arire bpphef gb ure gung oybbq-oraqvat gb chccrg naq gbegher n thl va beqre gb ryvpvg n pbreprq pbasrffvba jvyy qb nalguvat ohg cebqhpr vafgnag whfgvpr . . . naq jura vg snvyf gb qb fb, fur qbrfa’g haqrefgnaq jul fur qvq nalguvat jebat naq crbcyr ner fb hcfrg.) This is the first part of a duology, and we see Giorgina becoming more active and outspoken as the story goes along, so presumably Nehal will learn something other than blunt-force tactics — but toward the end I found her behavior so aggravatingly and persistently obtuse that it made me less enthusiastic about continuing with the story than I would have been otherwise.

(I really wanted it to come out that Nehal’s mother or some other upper-class woman of her acquaintance was using the world of elite socialization to further the political goals of the Daughter of Izdihar, and Nehal had no idea because she just assumed all that stuff was a waste of time. Alas, no.)

Regarding the audiobook specifically, I’m not entirely a fan of the decision to give Nehal and Giorgina different narrators. Nikki Massoud was great (and I’m not just saying that because she’s the narrator we picked for the Rook and Rose books), but I found Priya Ayyar less compelling, and the differences in pronunciation from chapter to chapter were jarring to me.

Orun, Misha Bushyager, Jerry D. Grayson, Eloy Lasanta. Last of the RPGs I backed a few years ago, this one subtitling itself as “post-apotheosis, Afro-centric space opera.” The post-apotheosis and space opera parts are honestly not so much my jam, but I was interested to see the worldbuilding for the setting. I think the best way to sum it up is to say I think it scratches much the same itch as Star Wars: it presents eleven different species you can play as (which often are genuinely alien, not just funny-looking humans) and twenty different planets, the main characters can develop all kinds of semi-mystical powers, etc. I won’t attempt to review the system because I’m not likely to get a chance to play it — and, as per usual for me when I include RPGs on my list of books read, I didn’t actually read this one cover to cover — but if space opera is your jam, this looks like a fun one to check out.

The Ruin of Angels, Max Gladstone. Sixth book of the Craft Sequence, and while the previous five can be ready pretty much in any order, hoo boy do not start here. Bad enough that I read Full Fathom Five, whose protagonist is one of the central characters in this one, uhhhhh in 2015 I think? And last read a Craft Sequence novel in 2017. It took a while for me to find my bearings again, and also either he’s upped the body horror quotient since the last installment, or I’ve gotten more sensitive to it in the last seven years.

Once I did, though, I had no regrets. This very much scratches the itch of a lot of disparate people coming together to, for their own and varied reasons, work together on something no single heroine could accomplish on her own. And the climatic last fifth or so had so many things I loved: the “bag of knives” story. The angels of Alikand taking to the sky. “That is practically what a Knight is for.” The story may start off in territory I find personally uninteresting (financial wheelings and dealings are so very much not my thing), but by the end it’s about healing and stories and polyvocality, and I’m glad I stuck with it past all the investment pitch meetings Kai had to sit through.

(As a side note, “Rectification Authority” -> “Wreckers” is up there with Daniel Keys Moran’s “Peacekeeping Force” -> “Peaceforcers” for great nicknames given to unpleasant police-type organizations.)

Kamusari Tales Told at Night, Shion Miura, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter. Second of Miura’s Forest Series; I don’t know if it’s the last. This is the sort of situation where it might be or it might not, since the whole story is just the gentle growth of the main character into the life he got unwillingly shipped off to at the beginning of the first book, and growth doesn’t necessarily reach a neat conclusion. Here there’s less focus on the forestry trade he’s learning, much more on the narratives of the village (hence the title), plus his growing relationship with the young woman he’s got a crush on. Even that latter doesn’t really have a neat dramatic arc, just a series of up-and-down stutters and starts as he gets to know her better and makes mistakes and then recovers from them and so forth. The supernatural, always an ephemeral element, is a more deniable presence here than in the first book, but at the same time, Yuki becomes more comfortable with the beliefs held in Kamusari. I will happily read more if there is more, but if this is the whole series, then it ends in a nice place: not some grand dramatic resolution, but a very realistic and optimistic look forward.

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