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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Books read, March 2021

Reading comic books makes it feel like I have read All the Things this month!

Lost in the Taiga, Vasily Peskov, trans. Marian Schwartz. Nonfiction about the Lykov family, who spent about fifty years living completely isolated in the Russian wilderness (having fled religious persecution in the 1930s). On the one hand this book was a little frustrating, because I wanted it to dig deeper into the psychological aspects — things like internal conflicts (the family patriarch was apparently worried about the prospect of his older son being in charge after his death) and the culture shock of coming into contact with the outside world. On the other hand, that would have required Peskov to study the family rather than just being their friend, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that he chose the latter. It becomes apparent toward the end just how much effort he put into the friendship, including organizing the donations that funded all his trips to the taiga and the supplies he brought with him, the airlift for Agafia Lykov when she got sick, etc. I haven’t yet looked to see what became of Agafia in the long run, after the rest of her family had died; this book leaves off with her still choosing to live alone in the wilderness, but the life she has at that point is no longer self-sufficient, and it’s unclear how she’ll fare when circumstances mean she can’t get support from the outside. Given that it’s been nearly thirty years since then, I have to imagine the answer is “she died out there” — but if so, it’s a death she very much chose for herself, on her own terms.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Zelda Knight and Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald. The tone of this ranges all over the place, from horror to a kind of magical-science-fictional story that felt sort of Zelaznian. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but that’s to be expected in something with this kind of range, and it’s a good showcase for its topic.

The Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold. Secondary world urban fantasy of the noir detective variety — but with a very interesting setting premise: up until recently, there was a source of magic that supported a world full of different kinds of supernatural creatures. Then Humans, the one non-magical species, wrecked it for everybody else. The immediate mystery wound up being less interesting to me than the longer-term story of people coping (or not) in this new environment, but the latter is engaging, the narrative voice is vivid, and I really like that while the Human protagonist Fetch Phillips is clearly carrying around a big ol’ whack of pain, the story is Very Very Clear that his pain is nothing next to that of all the people who lost the magic that made them what they are.

Digger, Volume 3, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 4, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 5, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 6, Ursula Vernon. When I picked up Volume 4, I had a moment where I thought, “Oh no! I am already halfway through Digger — soon there will be no more of it for me to read!” Which didn’t stop me from inhaling Volumes 4-6 in a single evening. Everybody who told me this is good was right, and while there is no more Digger for me to read, the good news is that I have the books on my shelf and can revisit them whenever I want. (It’s also online, of course, but I pefer curling up with a book.) It probably says something about the type of person I am that I was delighted by the funerary cannibalism, but that’s because I honestly can’t think of another instance of that in fiction — cannibalism where it’s a respectful rite of mourning, not a cheap way of depicting savagery.

Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 3, Wendy and Richard Pini.
Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 4, Wendy and Richard Pini. I didn’t realize, until I read the various afterwords on the final volume, that this really had been the planned ending for a very long time — that it was not, as I’d assumed, a story which went on for a while and eventually they decided to wrap it up. I think I should re-read the series as a whole, because this definitely suffered unfairly from me constantly trying to remember who some of the newer characters were. Some parts are deliberately not 100% resolved (because it being the end of one story doesn’t mean all other stories end with it); a few others felt to me like a resolution happened, but I didn’t feel it the way I wanted to. And fundamentally there’s the problem that I have never cared about all the Djun conflict that kept recurring in the later volumes, and which forms the big climax here. But on the other hand, it brings in some really cool stuff (the Rootless Ones!), and I don’t regret reading through to the end.

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield. Nonfiction in one of my favorite genres, which is a look at daily life in some place and time. This one’s unusual because it covers a big swath of the Silk Road over a period of 250 years; since that’s obviously a huge topic, it breaks it up by having each chapter follow a particular individual in a particular place and time (some of them fictional, others based on real figures supplemented by general evidence). Four of the ten are women, too, which I appreciated. Given ten characters and a not very large book, it’s all still pretty brief, but it does a great job of looking at Eurasia from a point in the middle instead of one side or another, which is a thing I could use more of.

Elfquest: Stargazer’s Hunt, Volume 1, Wendy and Richard Pini and Sonny Strait. Speaking of not all the stories being resolved! The Pinis are still narratively involved at this point, but the art here is all done by Wendy’s long-time colorist Sonny Strait. I’m glad to have this story (with the second half coming out next year, I think), because yeah, this is a corner of the narrative that needs its own resolution still.

The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna. I wasn’t super-engaged at the start of this novel, because I’ve read enough YA fantasies of this type that I thought I could see where it was going. Then it didn’t do what I expected, and I got interested. I think parts of it could be stronger (the entire conduct of the war seems not well thought-out), and I honestly recommend not even looking at the map because nothing about the geography depicted there makes sense vis-a-vis what the text says — but I liked it overall. And it also seems to be a stand-alone, which I was not expecting and was glad to see.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Another from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but this one gets much further away than most from the general mission statement of “world mythology” — Sal’s ability to poke holes through into other universes and bring things through for a while is talked about in terms of calamity physics, not Cuban folklore. (I seem to have a preference for the books from this imprint that don’t follow the Riordan model of “protagonist discovers they are the child of a god.”) I really enjoyed it! Sal and Gabi are both great characters, mature for their age without seeming like they’re teenagers or adults in kids’ bodies, and the whole mood of this one is very good-hearted.

Books read, February 2021

Son of a Trickster, Eden Robinson. I can’t remember where I saw this recommended, but it’s got an excellent strapline in its cover copy: “A compelling coming-of-age novel in which everyday teen existence crashes up against indigenous beliefs, crazy family dynamics and cannibalistic river otters . . .” Having said that, man did it take its time getting to the cannibalistic river otters. For a very large percentage of this book, it’s just about the main character trying to stay afloat amid a giant pile of incredibly dysfunctional people, struggling with his own alcoholism, and so forth, while a lot of those dysfunctional people take advantage of him. Once the magic stuff really came to the fore, though, I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on its way to me.

Digger, Volume 1, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 2, Ursula Vernon. (Not actually read back-to-back, but I might as well write them up that way.) Wow am I late to this particular party — but it is so worth showing up for. I also understand why, although multiple people I know had raved about Digger, it’s hard to pitch in a way that explains why you ought to read it; anything with starts that “so the main character is a wombat” is already in eyebrow-raising territory. But the wombat is awesome! So is the hyena! And the shadowling thingy that might or might not be a demon! I have confirmed that not only am I not the first person to think Digger is a lot like a friend of mine, said friend has decided that’s one of the nicest compliments she’s ever received. Digger’s pragmatism and face-palming (face-pawing?) are great. I read the first volume, liked it enough to order the second, read the second, and promptly ordered the remainder of the series. Expect that to show up in a future booklog, and not very long from now, either.

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn. Third of an urban fantasy series about Asian-American superheroines in San Francisco. I have to take these in smallish doses, because part of the brand here involves the characters screwing up for a long time before they sort themselves out, which can be frustrating to me even if I know they will sort it out eventually. And I was particularly uninclined to be patient with Bea’s kind of screwing up, which features her trying to prove how mature she is in some pretty immature ways. But I am glad to report that the story, in the long run, does not agree with her opinion that the ways she’s using her mind-control powers are totally fine — my tolerance for that sort of thing has declined sharply over time. It also made me tear up with some of the stuff about grief and the ways Bea and her sister Evie have or have not been dealing with the loss of their mother. (Not a spoiler; their mother is gone before the series begins.)

Stepsister, Jennifer Donnelly. I’ve read enough fairy-tale-based things now that I’m rather jaded about them; it takes something significant to make me invest in a new one now. This? Succeeds in spades. Partly because Donnelly clearly knows that it isn’t enough to say “I’ve got a new spin on this story” — because honey, at this point I’m not sure there are new spins. You’ve got to bring something else. In this case, that’s a contest between the personification of Chance and the eldest personification of Fate, about whether he’ll manage to change the fate of one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, post-tale. That plus a somewhat creepy faerie queen breathes some much-needed life into a story I’ve seen done dozens of ways, and makes good room for some meditations on what one’s “heart” might be (hint: it isn’t always charity, kindness, and goodness). And the narration is strong, too. If you like fairy-tale stories but seem to be tired of all of them these days, this one might jar you out of that rut.

The Never-Tilting World, Rin Chupeco. Does anybody remember a . . . miniseries, I think it was, or maybe just a special, on TV something like twenty-plus years ago, about a world where it was always daylight on one side and always night on the other? I remember nothing else about it beyond that, but the memory made me interested in this book, which has a similar premise. Do not look for solid worldbuilding here, not of the practical sort: there’s a nod toward it being hard to survive in the seventeen years since a mysterious cataclysm caused the world to stop turning, whether you’re on the day side or the night side, but somehow there are still cities (two of them, one per side) that manage to stay fed and produce things like books even though the world outside their walls seems to consist entirely of monster-haunted wilderness and some nomads straight out of Mad Max. On the other hand, I really liked the Avatar-esque spin on magic, where you get different variants depending on what element you channel and what type of gate you channel it through (so that a Starmaker, for example, channels air patterns through a fire gate to make light). And there’s some intriguing mythological worldbuilding verrrrrry vaguely based on Inanna’s descent into the underworld, with twin goddesses and some kind of ritual whose failure caused that cataclysm. I wound up feeling odd about the pacing and characterization, which somehow seemed to spend a lot of words without developing the things I wanted to see developed, but I’m also still intrigued by the unanswered questions about what went wrong. There’s a sequel (and I think this is intended to be a duology), which I . . . may read? We’ll see if this sticks with me well enough to prompt that. The book also has a central f/f relationship, for those of you looking for that kind of thing.

Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 1, Wendy and Richard Pini.
Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 2, Wendy and Richard Pini. I’m finally catching up on this arc, very late. I’ve read Volume 1 before — possibly twice — and I couldn’t remember anything about it; re-reading it now, I can see part of the reason why. A big focus of this part of the story is on how there are so many different groups of elves in so many different places, and the question of how (if at all) their various ways can be reconciled . . . but the result is that the first half of Volume 1 hops around a lot, making it feel rather unfocused. Even once it starts to gain more momentum, I think it’s choppier than Pini’s storytelling of yore — though admittedly my ability to follow through isn’t helped by the fact that I never knew the later material as well, so I’m constantly going “whose kid is that? Where did they find that guy? How did they get over there, again?”

The story finds its footing much better in Volume 2, where it starts to focus on that big question of ways of life. I’m honestly interested to see how the story addresses that, since as presented, it’s kind of unanswerable: it’s fine to say that people can choose Way A or Way B as they please, but that starts to unravel when, say, two people who have been married for centuries are leaning in different directions, and it’s pulling them apart. You can’t just say, well, he should accept that she’s changed, when what she wants is making him miserable, what he wants is making her miserable, and they both love each other too much to just shake hands and go their separate ways. I don’t know how that’s going to be resolved.

I also don’t know what’s going to happen with the odd strand that started to crop up toward the end of the second volume, with some characters expressing views that I . . . suspect I’m meant to find sketchy. There was a particular bit with one character revealing something big to another, in a context where I was sitting there thinking, “I assume I’m supposed to find this cool, but it’s actually, uh, kind of weird, and I’m not sure I’m very on board with it.” Then I got to the end of that scene, and the character getting that revelation responded by running screaming into the hills. Like, literally. So now I’m pretty sure I am in fact meant to be dubious of some of the stuff going on here. As with Digger, the remaining volumes are on their way to me!

Books read, January 2021

Transgressions of Power, Juliette Wade. Second in the Broken Trust series, and not that I expect anybody to notice this, but the first book (Mazes of Power) has not appeared in my logs. There’s a story there, heh.

Juliette is a friend, and the only reason I hadn’t read Mazes of Power immediately after acquiring it last year was that I had zero cope for a dystopian story like this one in 2020. But then I was asked to blurb the second book, so I thought, self, let’s just go ahead and read them both. Except I started running out of time, and I didn’t want to let that hurdle mean I let Juliette down, so . . . I just dove in and started reading Transgressions. Which I do not generally recommend! The setting is beautifully complex, and if you skip the introduction as I did, you will be madly dog-paddling in an attempt to stay afloat! But as I said to Juliet, the fact that the story sucked me right in even though I had no idea who any of these people were and was busy doing the aforementioned dog-paddling is a testament to how good it is. The plot is a slow build, but boy is it satisfying when it lands (and I have never seen the signing of a bureaucratic form look as heroic as it does in this book). The caste-structured society of this world has some impressively creepy aspects — the people who serve as bodyguards are always referred to as a possession of their masters, e.g. “Nekantor’s Dexelin” or “my Dexelin” — and also some very cool cultural differences in the various layers.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini. Paolini is, of course, the guy known for the Inheritance Cycle, beginning with Eragon. This? Is a very different type of book, being interstellar science fiction that starts out wearing its homage to Alien on its sleeve, then takes that opening in entirely new directions. Directions I liked quite a lot, once I got past the body horror of the beginning (a horror which includes being a woman dealing with a doctor who refuses to listen to anything you have to say or respect your bodily autonomy — that got me so much harder than the alien stuff because it happens all the time). I read it in ebook, so I can’t quite measure how massive of a brick the book is, but let’s just say it’s huge and that didn’t stop me from hoovering it up in the space of a few days. It’s also a stand-alone volume, though with a setting that’s open to telling lots of other stories.

Tangleroot Palace, Marjorie Liu. Read for blurbing purposes (this has been a lot of my reading lately, you might notice). A small short story collection from Tachyon, ranging through fairy tales to superheroes to a post-apocalyptic setting, often with queer content. I saw the twist coming a mile off in the title story, but not in a way that wrecked its appeal; I think most kinds of story can survive that, as long as they’re well-written.

Wench, Maxine Kaplan. MG or YA book (I’m not quite sure of its categorization), read for review. Full reaction here; short form is that I found it disappointing. Its tone never quite settled, and the most interesting bits got tossed in at the end, when there was no time left to develop them.

Witherward, Hannah Mathewson. Also read for blurbing purposes. The obvious comparison here is to V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, with an alternate London existing alongside the real (Victorian-era) one. That London, the Witherward, is divided up among factions of magical people all existing in a peace so tenuous it barely deserves the name. The main character, Ilsa, has been living in Victorian London using her magic to get by, without realizing she’s originally from the Witherward; when she gets pulled across the boundary, she finds herself eyeball-deep in the politics there, with a great many people around her having secrets and conflicting agendas.

The Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg. Another Tachyon publication, but one that came out a while ago. This is either a novella or a short novel (not sure which) set in Lemberg’s Birdverse. It is intensely queer — both protagonists are trans, one from a culture where it’s entirely normal to use magic to adjust your body to fit your identity, one from a culture where that is not the case — and it’s very poetically written. There’s a lot of suffering here, a lot of loving people who maybe don’t love you back the way they should, because they’re afraid of change (a recurrent theme) or focused on the wrong things, but ultimately it’s a hopeful story, not a bleak one.

Three Twins at the Crater School, Chaz Brenchley. Also read for blurbing purposes! Chaz is also a friend, and he’s been writing the Crater School stories through his Patreon for a while now, but they’re going to be coming out from Wizard’s Tower, hence looking for blurbs. I have never read the Chalet School series this is openly inspired by (classic British girls’ boarding school stories); what I know of that genre comes via the descriptions of the Lowood House novels Millie reads in The Lives of Christopher Chant. I am given to understand they do not usually take place on Mars? 🙂 This is a delightful little book, and very unlike most of what I read these days. Although there are a couple of plots centering on the new arrivals to the school, they aren’t the kind of plots that drive the whole book. Nor are there any real villains apart from some offstage parents — no cruel teachers that make the students’ lives a misery. Mostly you’re spending time with the girls of the Crater School as they deal with each other and their prefects and the teachers and the weird aliens in the lake, and then every so often there’s a problem with the Russian spies up on Phobos or whatever. If you need a story where generally people are good-hearted despite their flaws, where strictness from authority is happening for understandable reasons even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that fact, where somebody can invoke the importance of upholding the image of “a Crater School girl” and that’s a meaningful force on the characters, this is a very good place to find that.

Machinehood, S.B. Divya. Outside my usual reading, being near-future SF focused on AI and body modification and so forth, but Divya is a friend from the Codex Writers’ Group, and I’m making a significant effort to focus on new and upcoming releases right now (this one’s hitting the shelves March 2nd) due to concerns about books being lost in the pandemic chaos. And like Paolini’s book, this made for a diverting change of pace! It is definitely hella dystopian, with weak AI and bots having supplanted enough of the human workforce that the latter subsists on a lot of meaningless crappy gig jobs, constantly scrabbling for enough work to stay afloat — and downing all manner of pills to help them do those jobs, which in some cases has some pretty bad effects — though the most dystopian part of it for me might have been the sort of influencer/up-vote side of things, where even being a bodyguard is a performance art for the ubiquitous cameras, and at one point a woman about to have sex with her partner thinks about how they didn’t put on makeup or dress up for foreplay and so they won’t get a lot of tips. But what I really liked here is that most chapters begin with a quote from the manifesto of the Machinehood, the group attacking everybody . . . and that manifesto makes a lot of good points. Divya does a very good job of counterpoising their ideology against their actions, so that it doesn’t sort into a clear-cut situation of “these people are bad, the end.”

Books read, December 2020

I am behind again! But at least I’m posting about December before January is over.

Kingdom of Copper, S.A. Chakraborty. Second of the Daevabad trilogy. I’m enjoying these well enough, but there was a moment in here that made me realize what’s generally lacking: a sense of humor. It’s got a scene where some characters wind up shoved together with all the awful conflicts between them coming out with teeth bared, and then in the middle of that one of them says they need to get out of there before somebody realizes they’re plotting conspiracy in a janitorial closet, and I thought, yes. I want more of that. It doesn’t negate the pain they’re all feeling and inflicting; in fact, that kind of thing usually makes the dramatic stuff hit harder for me. When it’s nothing but tension and bleakness and bad things happening without anybody managing to find a note of levity, I just don’t engage as deeply.

RWBY: Fairy Tales of Remnant, E.C. Myers, illus. Violet Tobacco. I know nothing about RWBY, but I saw this mentioned and the folklorist in me was intrigued. It’s a pretty little book, and the material in it ranges across a couple of folkloric genres, some more successfully than others; it can actually be very hard to write realistic folklore, because that stuff just doesn’t operate like modern fiction. (It’s entirely possible that “realistic folklore” is neither the target Myers was trying to hit, nor a desirable target to aim for in the first place.) It didn’t quite scratch that itch for me, though, and since I know nothing about RWBY, I’m not inclined to hold onto this.

These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong. This reminds me of Angel of the Crows in one specific respect: I think I would have liked it even better if it had let go of its source material and just focused on the original stuff it was doing. In this case the source material is Romeo and Juliet, but only very distantly; Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai met years ago, had a relationship and fell out and now consider themselves bitter enemies, and so their names and Benedikt and Marshall Seo and Rosalind Lang and Juliette having a nurse who died years ago were mostly just distractions in a story about a weird monster and a war between Chinese and Russian gangs in 1920s Shanghai. The one place where it felt like the Shakespeare plot really played a role, I got pulled out of the story by thinking “ah, here we have a piece of actual Shakespeare plot!” Without that . . . I liked the historical setting, the complex politics of a city being carved up by various European interests and the rise of Chinese Communism and the ambiguous role of gangs, and I cared a lot more about that than I did about the minor Shakespearean elements. I could have done with more meaningful progress on the plot, which involves a strange magical effect causing people to tear their own throats out, as that felt like it was treading water for long stretches of the book. And Juliette was a little too persistently angry at everybody around her and determined to prove she was hard and heartless; more dynamics there would have been welcome. So overall, a mixed bag.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes (with Joe Layden). This was a Christmas present that’s been on my list for years, and having finally received it, I found myself apprehensive to open it. This movie was so formative for me and I love it so much, any “behind the scenes” account risked poking my heart in some very vulnerable spots. But the book is an utter delight, y’all. For starters, the people involved genuinely loved what they were doing and got along amazingly well: although the bulk of this is written from Elwes’ perspective (who knows how much of it is his words, vs. being ghostwritten by Layden), there are sidebars from a bunch of other people, and they consistently praise each other and talk about what a great experience filming this movie was. Not that nothing ever went wrong — Wallace Shawn was so convinced that Rob Reiner regretted casting him and was about to fire him that he apparently fretted himself into hives, and Elwes is 100% frank about how he was a twenty-three-year-old idiot who broke his toe goofing around on set and nearly screwed over the entire production — but the love truly shines through. And my household can attest that various bits had me cracking up throughout.

The Light of the Midnight Stars, Rena Rossner. Sent to me for blurbing purposes. Gorgeous and melancholy historical fantasy about three Jewish sisters in fourteenth-century Eastern Europe, blending some historical personages with folktales. This is not a cheerful story in any respect, but it’s beautifully written and notably queer, both of which I know are aspects that would be of interest to several people who read my blog.

Books read, November 2020

Hall of Smoke, H.M. Long. (Disclosure: I was sent this book for blurbing purposes, though I didn’t manage to read it in time for that.) This is a single-volume epic fantasy that does some interesting things on the level of its cosmological worldbuilding, with layers of “what constitutes a god” and so forth that I can’t talk much about without spoiling things. I really enjoyed that aspect, but it took me a while to get into the story itself, simply for a structural reason: the plot setup means that for a very large chunk of the book, the only character you get real continuity with is the protagonist, and in a more distant sense, her goddess. Later on some of the characters you met in the early part come back, but there was a long stretch where there weren’t really any ongoing relationships (in any sense, not just the romantic) being explored and developed. It turns out that’s a major part of how I attach to a story, so it was a little frustrating that every time I started to get invested in a particular place and set of people, they went away and got replaced by other places and other people. The momentum very much picked up for me once that changed.

Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger. I made an effort to tilt my reading in the direction of indigenous North American authors for November, aided and abetted by two recent releases I was really looking forward to. This is the first, from a Lipan Apache author, and IT’S SET IN TEXAS, Y’ALL. Admittedly in fictional towns, so that there wasn’t any specific recognition of place for me, but still! Texas! Ahem. More broadly, this is set in a world where magic is known, and there are some really well-done answers to how different kinds of supernatural stuff collide: European stories are talked about like an invasive species, with the indigenous monsters of the plains being driven out by monotonous fields of corn with haunted scarecrows in them. (And I loved a certain moment about vampires and what it means for them to enter someone’s home. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean.) The antagonist setup was interestingly creepy, too. Very much recommended.

Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse. And this is the second of those releases. Epic fantasy, but first in a series, in a setting that draws on both Mesoamerica and the Tewa, from an author who’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and Black. I found one of the protagonists a little frustrating because she is an amazingly bad leader — seriously, she tries to implement some major changes to her organization with no discernible base of political support, and then seems surprised when that goes poorly — and I wish one of the characters had been introduced sooner and developed more, because he appears to be much more central to the story than his page time would suggest. But I very much like the setting, both in its source material and its inventions, and I like the other main characters, so I will definitely read on when the next volume arrives.

The Dead Go to Seattle, Vivian Faith Prescott. Recommended to me online when I said I was looking for fantasy from indigenous authors. This is a collection of short stories centered on the community of Wrangell, which is a mix of Tlingit, Scandinavian, and other groups. The overall tone is more literary than my usual fare (let’s face it, I tend more toward things like Black Sun), but I liked the way it slid between different modes of storytelling and also different time periods — it is very much wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff in places.

The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk. Secondary-world Regency-styled fantasy with a premise that is very standard, which Polk then proceeds to execute in a much more interesting fashion. We’ve seen many stories with a setup where the heroine has to choose between marrying well to support her family, and chasing her true desire . . . but Polk skews that by giving her a potential husband who is handsome, accomplished, intelligent, wealthy, respectful of the heroine, and in love with her. So what’s on the other side of that stacked deck? What the heroine wants is magic, and the worldbuilding here is very deliberately crafted such that even a respectful husband who supports her dreams would mean she can’t achieve the goal she’s been aiming for her whole life. There was one spot where it started to feel to me like the magic system was a little too precisely machined so as to block off possible avenues of cake having + eating, but that didn’t stop this from being the first book in quite a while to make me stay up past even my egregiously late bedtime because I didn’t want to put it down. In the end, I think my only real complaint is that the grimoires wound up almost being macguffins. I half-expected there to be important answers and solutions hidden within their pages, but all the characters really used them for was that one ritual they wanted to carry out, and then the actual resolution of the “how do you have your cake and eat it, too?” question got resolved very much offstage. If this book had explored that aspect of things as thoroughly as the other elements, it would have been an absolute knockout.

The Radiant Lives of Animals, Linda Hogan. Nonfiction and poetry from a Chickasaw author, very much focused on nature and our relationship with it — which, hey, is a thing I’ve been trying to improve in my own writing! So this was quite relevant to my interests. It’s short and beautifully written, and illustrated with lovely stylized pen-and-ink imagery throughout.

Race to the Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse. I’ve gotten behind on the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, so this seemed like a good time to pick up a different Roanhorse title. This one explores Navajo mythology, and I really liked the communal aspect of it: not just the fact that the heroine goes on her adventure with several other people in tow, but that the Monsterslayer thing is part of a distinct tradition that plays a major role in how the story unfolds. I don’t know if there will be more, but I would gladly read a sequel.

Books read, October 2020

If I manage to post about November in a timely fashion, I will finally be caught up! (For now.)

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope, ed. Patrice Caldwell. Caldwell says in her introduction that “Though some of these stories contain sorrow, they ultimately are full of hope;” I found the balance to be tipped a bit more toward darkness than that led me to expect. Not a bad thing; just an observation. My favorite here was probably “Tender-Headed,” by Danny Lore, which is all about hairdressing — a very political crux, but that’s left implied, while the focus of the narrative is very much on the personal. And I’m a sucker for stories that connect magic with the everyday mundane in this kind of fashion.

The Silence of Bones, June Hur. YA historical fiction (no fantasy) set in Joseon Korea. The main character is a damo, a “police servant” responsible for examining the dead bodies of female victims and other tasks her male Confucian superiors can’t perform. She’s looking for her missing older brother, and all of this is paired with the persecution of Christians in that time period. The ending could be a setup for further adventures, which I would happily read, but the book appears to be a stand-alone (and works just fine that way). I definitely want to look for more of Hur’s work, though, since it looks like her novels are all set in different periods of Korean history.

Paris, 1200, John W. Baldwin. This was not as much of a “daily life” book as I was hoping for. Baldwin says up front that it can’t be, because we have very little evidence about what the life of an average person was like in that period, compared with a century or so later . . . but when your windows into French life at the turn of that century are the King of France and a very influential churchman, you’re really not getting anywhere near most people’s lived experience. I found the book dry in places, but if you want a better understanding of the church and state of the period — especially things like the transition from a peripatetic kingship with very little governmental structure to something more settled and bureaucratic — it’s useful for that.

Harukor: An Ainu Woman’s Tale, Honda Katsuichi, trans. Kyoko Selden. I’ve had this book on my shelf for years and only just now got around to reading it. It’s fascinating! The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan, ethnically and linguistically distinct from their southern neighbors. This book is layered: the core of it is a historical fiction narrative about an Ainu woman a few centuries ago, followed by a brief narrative of her son during a period of turmoil (meant to be continued in a second book; I don’t know what the publication status of that one is), and prefaced by an ethnographic section by Honda giving both ethnographic and archaeological information on traditional Ainu life. Then Selden’s introduction puts Honda’s work in context, explaining for Anglophone audiences the oppression of the Ainu by mainland Japanese and how Honda is deliberately focusing on the celebration of Ainu culture as a way of awakening support for them among his own people. The thing I found most interesting is that Ainu oral tales are traditionally recited in the first person, which is why the fictional narrative that makes up the bulk of this book is likewise first-person (otherwise I would have found that an odd stylistic choice for someone who is not Ainu himself).

Persian Myths, Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. An extremely short and broad overview of everything from the titular myths to more recent epics and legends. I noticed it on the shelf, thought, “I don’t believe I’ve ever actually read that,” and polished it off in a night. Not remotely in-depth, but there are worse Cliff Notes out there, even if this book is fairly old.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, trans. N.J. Dawood. My immediate reasons for reading this lie at the beginning of a long and winding road involving a short story collection and me having slight OCD tendencies, but it’s also good to get myself past the baseline familiarity bestowed by cultural osmosis and into some more specific tales. Even though this is just a selection of the tales, boy howdy can you see some patterns emerging. That’s generally how folklore works, though.

Burning Roses, S.L. Huang. Novella that pairs up Little Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi, both of them middle-aged and the latter as a woman, and makes them both deal with the pasts they’ve left behind. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that I was very pleased to see the narrative swerve at the very end rather than stopping with the trajectory it was on — that made for a lovely surprise.

Night Parade of 100 Demons my own work doesn’t count.

Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods, But Verify, Rose Mary Sheldon. The subtitle isn’t just a funny line; the author makes the point that augury was an early form of intelligence work, trying to get information on what might happen. Her focus here lands largely though not entirely on military intelligence (in part because she’s a colonel and a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, but also because that’s what we have the most evidence of). My main takeaway from this book is omgwtfbbq how did the Roman Republic manage to accomplish anything with that lack of organization — and there are some points on which the Empire wasn’t a lot better. Like, they were shockingly content to rely on other people to tell them when an invading force was headed their way. Sheldon also isn’t afraid to throw shade where it’s deserved; during her discussion of Caesar’s howling failures of intelligence-gathering during his lackluster attempts at Britain, she says that “more than half of his own campaigns were consumed in extricating himself from the results of his own mistakes. To spend over half a war extricating oneself from difficulties created by the enemy may or may not be good generalship; but to have to do so as a consequence of one’s own mistakes is incontestably bad generalship, even when the extrications are brilliant.” It got a bit too far into the weeds at the end, when it looked at the topic of signaling; I got the point about how defensive installations like Hadrian’s Wall were set up more to monitor and pass information on approaching forces than to stop them outright, and didn’t really need the in-depth analysis of why X fort on the limes in Germany was put in this particular location because it made for a better transmission chain. But it was interesting reading apart from that, and has led to an unexpected draft of a short story inspired by the clades Variana.

Trail of Shadows, D.G. Laderoute. Another Legend of the Five Rings clan novella, this one focusing on the Crab. I usually find the Crab relatively uninteresting, because their schtick is holding the line against the monsters of the Shsadowlands, but this one engaged me more . . . in part because the main character makes some excellent points about how his clan maybe valorizes holding the line too much. There’s a strong hint here of “adapt or die.” The narrative also goes into the Shinomen Mori instead of the Shadowlands, and I find weird mystical forests much more intriguing than a straight monster war. I particularly liked how the central conflict got resolved.

Books read, September 2020

Still catching up (or at least trying not to fall more behind) . . . short list for this month because a large chunk of it was taken up by revisions on the second Rook and Rose book.

the second Rook and Rose book Doesn’t really count, even though I read through the whole thing. 🙂

A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman. This was an interesting but uneven book for me, and one that never quite fit into any particular category in my head. Ackerman is sometimes writing interesting explanations of how our brains process sensory information, and sometimes writing scattershot surveys of our culture around the different senses, and sometimes doing deep dives into random sub-topics of that, and there were places where I knew enough on the subject to say she was wrong about a particular thing, which made me give more of a side-eye to some of her other claims. But it’s also very lushly sensuous, in the strict sense of that term, so useful reading in some ways from a craft perspective.

The Last Uncharted Sky, Curtis Craddock. Third of the Risen Kingdoms trilogy. I went into this with slightly wrong expectations: the characters are sent off in search of a major craton (sky continent) that’s uninhabited — not a New World analogue; that one’s already been found and mentioned as part of the ongoing political game — more like finding Atlantis, in that it’s thought to be the location of something that might or might not be mythical. From that premise, I expected some amount of time spent getting there and then a fair bit spent exploring the place and looking for the possibly-mythical thing. Instead the book is 95% “getting to the craton” and 5% “dealing with stuff on the craton.” Which doesn’t make it bad; it just meant it didn’t scratch my itch for fun exploration. On the other hand, some fascinating exploration of how a few of the sorceries work, Seelenjager and Fenice most particularly. This might be the end of this series, but I would totally read more in this setting.

A Parliament of Bodies, Marshall Ryan Maresca. Also third of its trilogy, and also a book I went into with the wrong expectations. I knew Maresca had written or was writing other series in this setting, and it was clear from early on in this novel that there was overlap between them; Welling makes passing reference to some recent events I hadn’t seen happen which involved a character I recognized as being the protagonist of (I think) the first Maradaine trilogy, and I had a feeling two newly-introduced people were being set up for/had been ported in from one of the other trilogies. But it turns out Maresca is actually doing something more akin to an MCU-scale undertaking: this novel does not resolve its plot, nor the underlying metaplot, because all four series are coming together in a grand showdown in a different book. It’s an impressive narrative feat, but I have to admit it was somewhat jarring when I didn’t know it was coming.

Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain, Nadine Akkerman. You know how sometimes people talk about women being “written out of history”? Akkerman demonstrates that more literally than I would have thought possible. The general point of this book is that women were up to their eyeballs in spying during the English Civil War, on both the Parlimentarian and Royalist sides . . . and in the former case, you can look at the draft versions of the council minutes where they record X sum being paid to Mrs. So-and-so for intelligence work, then compare it against the finished copy of those minutes and see that same woman being paid for “nursing.” Not as a way of protecting their assets against the enemy, either; it had more to do with women’s information being seen as less reliable than men’s, and Thurloe (the Parlimentarian spymaster) protecting his credibility by concealing those sources. There’s also a lot of class bound up in it, too: Royalists were more willing to credit their women, but their women also tended to be ladies of quality, while Parlimentarian spies were more often common-born. So anyway, this is a fascinating survey of specific women and what they did, the dynamics of espionage and credibility in the seventeenth-century, and some specific techniques for how stuff got done.

(Irritatingly, I now realize I committed some historical errors in my references to the Sealed Knot and Lady Dysart’s involvement with same during Part III of In Ashes Lie. I can be forgiven the ones that I couldn’t have known about because the relevant information wasn’t published until a decade after I wrote the book, but for crying out loud, I should have noticed that Lady Dysart’s father was dead by then. Grumble mutter hrmph.)

Book read, August 2020

Continuing the process of catching up . . .

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, ed. Nisi Shawl. A short story collection from last year that ranges all over the SF/F map, providing all kinds of tasty variety. I think my favorite was “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations,” by Minsoo Kang; it’s not a very conventional short story, being more of a fictional historical commentary, but it’s a great look at the role of translators in diplomacy and how they can influence politics — which then closes out with an appended note wherein someone else chides the historian for neglecting the the perspective of the female character in that history.

Angel of the Crows, Katherine Addison. How you feel about this book will depend heavily on how overdosed you feel on Sherlock Holmes, because the author’s note at the end straight-up admits that the novel began as Sherlock wingfic — that is to say, fanfic where one of the characters has wings. But although the plot largely consists of bits of Holmes canon stapled together in sequence, there’s been real work done here on the worldbuilding, creating a nineteenth century with “angels” who are the spirits of public buildings. Crow, the Sherlock replacement, is an anomaly among his fellow angels: he has no habitation, yet he’s somehow avoided falling back into the ranks of the Nameless, the undifferentiated masses of angels with no home. There are other changes as well, some of them specifically doing what they can to file the racism off of the source material, but I found the most interesting part of it by far to be the new supernatural elements and the story built around those. I would happily have read a novel merely set in this alternate history with no Holmesiana to it at all.

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, Curtis Craddock. Second of the Risen Kingdoms trilogy, which I posted about before. I continue to really enjoy multiple aspects of this: the highly quotable lines that crop up from time to time, the rich worldbuilding (which begins exploring some of the other sorceries in this world, and also addresses the issue of bloodshadows seeming to be the most horrible form of sorcery by showing they can be used for something other than evil — it’s just that most of the nobility don’t bother), and the real complexity of the intrigue. I particularly appreciate the Grand Leon as an example of realpolitik: he’s genuinely reform-minded in some good ways, but that doesn’t make him nice. You know how some middle books of a trilogy feel like they’re either treading water or rehashing the first plot in a new form? This is definitely not one of those.

The Unstrung Harp, Edward Gorey. The traditional re-read, performed upon completion of a novel draft.

Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar. (Disclosure: the author is a friend.) Speaking of openly being inspired by something . . . what if you took Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and made it totally Indian? But while that may have been the starting point here, it isn’t where the story ends. Sheetal is the daughter of a star who lived with her family for many years before returning to the sky; since then Sheetal has been trying to hide her supernatural heritage. Of course that doesn’t work, and so much of the novel takes place in the realm of the stars, where she has to navigate the politics of the different astral houses and the question of how they should relate to the mortals they’re supposed to inspire. There’s one bit where a thing gets suggested which seems on the surface like it ought to be great . . . only when you look closer, it really isn’t. And I was very glad to see the story come back to that and say, “yeah, no, there are some serious problems with this.”

Scarlet Odyssey, C.T. Rwizi. African-derived fantasy that, unlike most such things I’ve read, very much draws its inspiration from South Africa. I enjoyed a lot about this, but found the pacing off: there’s a much bigger metaplot underlying the starting plot, and I either wanted that to come more meaningfully into play here, or to be held in reserve until much later. The cover copy focuses on how Salo’s queen sends him to a distant city to gather important information — but the book ends with him arriving in that city. In the meanwhile, you get a long segment of him before he leaves (which is fine, I enjoyed that part), a long journey to the city, and sections from other points of view, primarily a young woman in the city and one seemingly-disconnected thing whose connection I guessed at before it was revealed. Because of that, when I got to the end of the book, I didn’t really feel like anything in particular had been resolved or achieved; it had just been set up to do the real stuff later. So: not bad, and there was a lot I genuinely liked, but my feeling of momentum and anticipation faded as I got toward the end, rather than building.

Across the Burning Sands, Daniel Lovat Clark. One of the Legend of the Five Rings novellas, this one taking some Unicorn Clan characters out of their territory and into a neighboring land. Given how much Rokugan has usually been depicted as an ethnocentric and insular land, it’s honestly refreshing to see Rokugani characters in a place where everybody’s basically going, “Rokugan what? Yeah, not impressed.”

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, Melissa Bashardoust. This is probably one of the most engaging YA novels I’ve read in a while. It’s heavily inspired by Persian folklore, and it digs incredibly well into some difficult emotional issues. So many books shy back from letting there be serious bad consequences to their protagonists’ actions, or framing those actions as genuinely their fault; well, here the heroine knows she shouldn’t do a thing, and she does it anyway for bad reasons, and horrible shit happens as a result, and she has to figure out how to deal with that. (Also, if you’re looking for queer representation, this has that, too.)

Worlds Imagined: The Maps of Imaginary Places Collection. A very brief catalogue from an exhibition at Cushing Library at Texas A&M, sent to me by my archivist there. This isn’t just the usual suspects for fantasy maps (e.g. Middle-Earth), and I really enjoyed seeing the broad variety of types represented.

Books read, July 2020

I am way behind on this, and yes, I know August and September are also over, but if I try to do everything at once it will be such a dauntingly huge post that I won’t write it. So let’s catch up on July first.

(more…)

Books read, June 2020

(And also one I missed in my writeup from May.)

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword, Henry Lien. Middle-grade fantasy novel about a girl whose life dream is to become a champion of wulin, i.e. martial arts figure skating. This has great details about skating; because it’s done on a surface called “pearl” (whose creation is a closely guarded secret) rather than on ice, and the entire city that houses the wulin academy is built of pearl, basically everything Peasprout does is about skating. There was a fair bit of me wanting to smack her for being obtuse and arrogant — she sees practically everybody else around her as either irrelevant or The Competition — but she’s generally obtuse and arrogant in a way that’s believable for her age, even if I was a little annoyed at how she latched onto a certain explanation for something and basically paid no attention to the utter lack of evidence to support that explanation. And this dug surprisingly deep into the international politics of Peasprout’s country versus the one she’s in, as well as some gender identity stuff. Highly recommended, want the next book now.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock. Look, it’s got masks (well, masques) and mirrors in the title, plus it takes place in a sky world. As one of the authors of both The Mask of Mirrors and Born to the Blade, this naturally caught my eye. 🙂 It’s a very engaging secondary-world political fantasy with a bit of the feel of eighteenth-century Europe — there are musketeers — but some creepy as hell worldbuilding around how the various nations have ruling bloodlines descended from ancient saints, each of them possessing a particular type of magic (which they, uh, very rarely use for anything good). The main character does not carry the magic of her bloodline, plus she was born with a deformed hand, so she’s an outcast who winds up being thrust into the middle of some very complex intrigue. I’m looking forward to reading the second one of this series, too.

The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty. Technically this is historical fantasy, as it starts in Cairo (which made me think of Clark’s upcoming A Master of Djinn), but the bulk of it is set within djinn society, so it reads more like a secondary-world fantasy. What’s interesting to me here is that . . . all the factions kind of seem like assholes? There’s no clear setup as to who you’re supposed to be cheering on. The shafit lead the pack, because they’re the oppressed underclass of djinn/human hybrids, but they are not simplistically good and pure. This is not a story where I can see what the desired ending looks like — which, in a running theme here, means I’m eager to read the next one.

David Mogo, Godhunter, Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in Nigeria (and by a Nigerian writer). Here’s what you should know, that I didn’t know going into this: it’s really three novellas. Connected ones, to be sure, but a third of the way into the book I was thinking, “man, this reads a lot like a climactic confrontation — what is the rest of this book going to look like?” The answer was that it was going to have new plots and new enemies to fight. In fairness, the book does signal the divisions with splash pages; however, since the first novella is titled “Godhunter” and the book is David Mogo, Godhunter, the significance of that didn’t register on me until I turned a page and saw another splash page saying “Firebringer.”

Anyway, regarding the story itself: the West African gods have fallen to earth and really screwed over things in Nigeria (unclear what’s happening in the rest of the world; the story is understandably not concerned with that). The half-divine main character makes a very marginal living dealing with some of the resulting problems, and gets drawn into the bigger struggle behind the whole situation. It reads a lot like Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series in terms of its breakneck pace and the general feeling that people are just barely hanging in there. For reasons of personal taste, I think the thing I’m most interested in reading is what happens after this novel; certain things change, and the consequences of that are the sort of thing I really dig. I’m not sure if Okungbowa is planning a sequel, though.

(As a side note, I appreciate that he seems to have genderflipped a couple of deities along with leaning into the gender ambiguity of another one. There are women in this story, and while I would have liked to see more done with them, that’s true of all characters in a book with this kind of pacing.)

Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar, Robert Lebling. Nonfiction book, recommended by Ali A. Olomi, a professor who’s posted some really fascinating threads about jinn and other aspects of Muslim folklore (a term I use in the academic sense of “traditional beliefs and practices”). It’s as sweepingly comprehensive as the title implies; by far the longest chapter in here goes through a series of different countries or regions and talks about what jinn belief looks like here as opposed to there. Because of the other things I’ve read, what was fascinating was seeing the places where it echoed European faerie beliefs, or Japanese yokai beliefs, etc., without being quite the same as any other thing. I’d love to find comparable books about other regions and traditions.

Everyday Life in Early Imperial China During the Han Period 202 BC-AD 220, Michael Loewe. Continuing my tour through different periods of China’s history. This is a very slender book — barely two hundred pages — and dates back to the sixties, so it’s not nearly as in-depth or up-to-date as I would like, but after reading books about the Tang and Southern Song Dynasties, it’s still useful to go back and look at the roots of a lot of things that grew and flowered in later eras.

Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets: The Mad, the Bad, and the Dangerous, Catherine M. Andronik. I went into this having read an Amazon review that pointed out a number of factual inaccuracies, so I don’t necessarily recommend it. Having said that, it did what I needed it to do, which was to give me enough of a sense of the social connections and relationships between the major Romantic poets that I could write a short story which depends on the premise of “the major Romantic poets all knew about X thing whose dissemination ultimately traces back to Wordsworth.” It also did what I wasn’t looking for it to do, which was to convince me that what I needed to do to turn my concept into an actual story was to pick one of the women around the Romantic poets to be the central character. For that I will forgive it the breezy tone, which was occasionally a little much, and also the factual inaccuracies. (Don’t worry, I’ve been checking my actual concrete facts against the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.)

The Raven’s Tale, Cat Winters. YA fantasy novel about the young Edgar Allan Poe. The cover copy does not adequately advertise that this is very minorly an alternate history; it took me a while to realize that when the characters talked about muses, they all recognized and accepted that one’s muse is an actual supernatural creature, which can be fostered and led to evolve or stifled or outright killed. The novel is about Poe’s struggle with the fact that his muse is a morbid, Gothic creature he (of course) names Lenore, which he fears will drive other people away and make it impossible to succeed in life. It’s scrupulously researched — the author dug down to the level of reading old bills from Poe’s life — and I put up with and even sometimes enjoyed the absolutely over-the-top melodrama of Lenore and her interactions with Poe, because frankly, if you’re not being melodramatic and over-the-top with this topic, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Fiyah #13
Fiyah #14 I haven’t read nearly as much in electronic format since my tablet died; my phone is much less congenial for such things. Which means I’ve gotten behind on this magazine — but, uh, it exists specifically to publish black writers, and hey, that’s a thing I want to be reading more of now. One of the stories in #13 (“The Transition of Osoosi” by Ozzie M. Gartrell) was painfully on-topic, with police brutality and a trans character running into trouble because of their gender identity, plus an overall setting where True Americans and Citizen Americans are groups with markedly different legal rights. I enjoyed it despite the flinch of “look, I’m reading in part to escape current events;” I also enjoyed “Roots on Ya” by L.H. Moore, historical fiction with a really engaging voice.