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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.

New Worlds: Vassalage and Suzerainty

This week the New Worlds Patreon is not talking about feudalism, because that’s an imprecise term for a confluence of concepts that’s falling out of use among historians anyway. It is, however, talking about part of what people usually think of when they hear the word “feudal,” which is the vassal relationship that structured a good deal of the upper class in medieval European society — comment over there!

Two fundraisers

One of these is a (mostly) happy thing, the other not at all.

The happier one first: Oghenechovwe Epeki is the first African editor to be nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and there’s a GoFundMe campaign underway to help get him to the con. (The slightly ungood aspect is that part of the fundraiser is to cover the unexpected costs incurred by visa and flight fuckery when he came to WorldCon for his Hugo Award nominations; more details at that link.) Jason Sanford, who’s running this campaign, has raised over three-quarters of the goal, but there’s still a bit to go!

The other, much less cheerful one is being run by Jim Hines on behalf of Lynne and Michael Thomas, the brilliant and much-lauded editors of Uncanny Magazine. Their daughter Caitlin suffers from Aicardi Syndrome, and she’s reached a point where there’s nothing doctors can really do but ease her passing. The campaign was set up to cover funeral expenses and to make it so that Lynne and Michael don’t have to worry about money in the final days of their daughter’s life or in the immediate aftermath; it has already blown enormously past its goal, a testament to the love and respect the SF/F community has for the Thomases, Caitlin included. But you can still contribute if you wish: money can’t ease their loss, but it can ease the burdens around it.

The Waking of Angantyr!

You may have noticed that I have no novels coming out this year. That is because 2021 was, through an accident of scheduling, the Year of Three Books . . . or rather I should say a Year of Three Books, because in 2023, I’m doing it again.

Yep, folks: in addition to Labyrinth’s Heart and The Game of 100 Candles, next year will also see the publication of the bastard child of my college thesis, a standalone Viking revenge epic called The Waking of Angantyr. Long-time readers may recall that I wrote a short story by the same name; the story is based on a very cool Old Norse poem, and the novel is based on me being terribly disappointed by the saga the poem is found in. 😛

I’ll post more about that later. For now, the thing to know is that the book will be coming out on October 10th of next year from Titan Books in the UK — I’ll also post more when I know for sure what the U.S. situation will be (that’s currently up in the air).

It’s going to be a busy year!

Books read, September 2022

The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1, Neil Gaiman. This volume covers the material contained in the Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country collections, i.e. what was in the first season of the TV show (plus some bits that weren’t, like the issues “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Façade”). I re-read it after watching the show, and I have to say, my overall reaction is that not only is the adaptation fairly good, I genuinely think it improves on the comic in places (particularly by connecting the Corinthian to Rose’s plot, and also what it did with Gault). But I was, admittedly, never a die-hard fan of The Sandman; I came to it late, never liked a lot of the art, and vastly preferred the parts of it that weren’t quite so ’90s horror-flavored.

Hand of the Trickster, Mike Reeves-McMillan. A novella bundled with some short fiction to make for a more substantial book. The novella is a fantasy heist with a protagonist who serves a trickster god; the worldbuilding around how the various deities work and fit together was quite interesting.

The Game of 100 Candles My own work doesn’t count. But hey, now I can finally talk about it publicly, instead of being coy!

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig. I think I would have loved a less sorrow-focused version of this, with invented words for a broader range of emotions; not everything in here is about sadness, but a decent percentage is various forms of anxiety or existential angst. As it stands, I wound up mostly reading this in small doses, between other books — I think it’s better-suited to that approach than to mainlining the whole thing in one go.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty, narr. by the author. The author is an American mortician who has a lot of problems with how the U.S. funeral industry has changed the way we handle death. The bulk of the book involves her traveling to other parts of the world, or to places in the U.S. with unusual setups (like open-air pyres or human composting), to see how they deal with both the body and the bereaved, reflecting on the huge variety of responses and what needs they serve — or don’t serve. It cemented my feeling that I don’t want anybody spending thousands of dollars on a coffin for me and showed me some of the issues around cremation, too; I honestly like the idea of a natural burial or even composting, if that’s a viable option by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil. (California, where I live, just legalized the practice.) The book is — naturally — a little gross here and there, because decay is a gross process, but it’s also deeply compassionate and also funny, and Doughty narrated the audiobook well.

The Airship: Its Design, History, Operation, and Future, Christopher Sprigg. It is sometimes hilarious to read old books about technology. This one is from 1931, and it is chock full of fantastic and accessible details about how airships work and the kinds of problems they can run into, and then it closes with a discussion of the future of airships that basically boils down to 1) pressure airships will soon be extinct (Reader, “pressure airship” = “blimp” and they are still around), 2) rigid airships will totally be the long-distance air transport of the future (this was six years before the Hindenburg disaster), and 3) literally nine pages laying out the logic for why airplanes almost certainly can’t ever be viable for transoceanic commercial travel. (Among other things, he mocks the predictions that because airplane speed has been improving rapidly as of 1931, by 1950 a plane will be able to go 700 mph. Reader, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier — 767 mph — in 1947.) Obviously none of us are great at anticipating unforeseen developments in technology, by dint of them being unforeseen, but . . . still. His certainty is breathtaking to behold.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, narr. Adam Sims. I was a bit leery of this book at the outset, because I think there’s a lot of value in challenging the idea that the best thing we can possibly do is become more productive, i.e. better little hamsters running on the wheel of capitalism. Fortunately, it turns out that Pang is far more concerned with “work” in the sense of “doing things that give our lives meaning,” and deeply critical of the way capitalism often actively hinders that, by valorizing busy-ness and overwork instead of giving us the time we need to reflect and deepen our understanding of the world. He discusses the value of things like shorter periods of work, daily naps, exercise (especially challenging exercise), hobbies (especially challenging hobbies), vacations, sabbaticals, and more; my one real gripe is that he really beats the drum of “it is best to wake up super-early and do your work right away!” That idea isn’t without merit — I readily grant that my late-night habits mean I don’t get the mental benefits of doing my work and then relaxing in ways that give my brain a chance to mull over what I just did — but he lumps that in with “deadline-motivated binges” and “waiting for inspiration to strike” in ways I somewhat resented, because that is not actually me. Apart from that, I slightly wish I’d read this in print instead of listening in audiobook only because in places I felt like he was bludgeoning me with more examples of his point than I really needed, but the audiobook was still good.

The Spirit Thief, Rachel Aaron. First of the Eli Monpress series. I’ve seen this talked about as a heist novel, but while it starts out with a bit of that, the main plot is really something quite different. The magic here led to some great narrative moments: literally everything has a spirit in it, there are different ways of getting them to work with you (e.g. forcible enslavement vs. voluntary contracts), and Eli works magic by . . . basically just making friends with everything in his surroundings, much to the bafflement of wizards who are busy going “but — but — you can’t just — you’re telling me the door/tree/rock/whatever just decided to do you a favor?” There are clear indications of a deeper plot, and since I read this as part of a three-book omnibus, I will have plenty of opportunity to find out more.

Eastern Heretics: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore, ed. Amanda Lee Koe and Ng Yi-Sheng. After having enjoyed Ng’s collection Lion City, I hunted out this anthology — the title should make it obvious as to why! Alas, it was somewhat less congenial to me, as many of the stories were quite short and a lot of them were more literary in tone than I prefer. But I appreciated that it ranges all across Asia, including the western parts thereof, and there were some stories I very much enjoyed, chief among them Jason Erik Lundberg’s “Always a Risk,” which closes out the volume. That one retells the Chinese legend of the White Snake in a setting that’s . . . I dunno how to even describe it. Some kind of magical post-apocalyptic something or other that was very vivid and engaging.

If you do track down this anthology (which may be hard, depending on where you live; I had to order my copy from Singapore), be warned that the first story is kind of Trigger Warnings Ahoy, with the main character dreaming about the sexual assault of her children literally in the second sentence of the story. Me, I would not have had that be the first piece presented to the reader — not when the rest of the table of contents isn’t all of a similar tone — but here we are.

Eric, Terry Pratchett. Someone on my Discord mentioned Pratchett and thereby reminded me that there is still quite a lot of Discworld I haven’t read. This is not the best example thereof; having originally been an illustrated book, it’s very short, and there’s less meat on the bone than in some other installments. Still entertaining, though.