Books read, late September

I spent late September having influenza! Boy was that…about as much fun as you’ve heard influenza is! And much of what I could do in that time was read. So read I did! Yay reading! Note: this is a particularly bad time to make comments about how you wish you had that much time for reading, as I had to cancel several other things I was excited about in order to lie in bed, feel terrible, and read. Still yay reading! But…not really to be envied. Even though some of these books are great.

Roma Agrawal, Built: The Hidden Structures Behind Our Structures. This is definitely a “pop structural engineering” level book; for all Agrawal outs herself as a nerd, she’s aiming at the general audience. But if you’re looking for little nuggets of trivia and interest about materials and building, from the most basic structures up to the most modern skyscrapers, this is your jam.

Gavin Chappell, translator, Sagas of Ancient Kings; Sorli’s Yarn: The Saga of Hedin and Hogni; The Saga of Asmund, Bane of Champions; The Saga of Fridthjof the Bold; The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek; The Saga of Hrolf Kraki and His Champions; The Saga of Hromund Gripsson; The Saga of Thorstein Vikingsson; The Sagas of Ketil Trout and Grim Hairy-cheek. Kindle. Oh so many legendary sagas. Oh so many. So many people turning into wolves, swans, and who knows what else. They’re actually pretty perfect to read in bulk with a fever because fever logic and saga logic live next door to each other: and then he ate live coals and turned into a troll, sure, yes, why not.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus. Discussed elsewhere.

Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven. This novella is darker than my usual fare, but sure-handed and beautifully done. The classes and regions of the worldbuilding, the individual relationships in the magic, the decay and the illness and the murder murder murder….

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack and Zita the Space Girl. This is a team-up capstone to these two series, and I think it works best if you’ve read the books in both, because a lot of it involves revisiting characters and places from previous episodes in a dash to the finish.

Kat Howard, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. There are some truly beautiful stories in here, including a college Arthurian that is just exactly my jam. Highly, highly recommended.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Peculiar Ground. This book was mis-shelved by a used bookstore that thought it was fantasy; its speculative content is extremely minimal. Mostly it is a literary novel about walls and boundaries, ranging from the Restoration to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I enjoyed the experience of reading it but once I’ve had a chance to think it over, some of the thematic implications are kind of gross, but not gross enough to ruin the entire thing–especially not gross enough to ruin the rare chance at Restoration garden design fiction.

Kelly Jones, Sauerkraut. This is a really fun kids’ book about a haunted fermenting crock and a kid who likes to make stuff! and his family and their various interests! it is great! it is by the chicken book person! I am basically made of exclamation marks when I talk about this book!

Margaret Killjoy, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion. Kindle. A novella that does not outstay its welcome: it gets in, tells its story of magic in a small town commune of squatters and punks, and gets out again. This is what the pacing of novellas is supposed to do. Its characterization is precise and clear, its plotting doesn’t linger purposelessly, and its details are very well drawn.

Karen Lord, Unraveling. Karen Lord is always doing something different from anybody else, and this is no exception. It’s a labyrinthine fantasy of solving a serial murder related to immortals and their influence on humans, and it pays attention to that influence in ways that don’t fall apart when you keep thinking.

Rose Macaulay, Mystery at Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings. Kindle. Alas, I was bound to come upon one of Macaulay’s works that didn’t hold up for me, and this was it: this is a satire of the Leage of Nations in ways that just feel off and nasty now, some of them racist, some of them merely crass. The central plot feels cheap and shabby, with the resolution an unsatisfying echo of some of the things she manages in better works. Not recommended unless you, like me, have become passionately dedicated to Macaulay and want to be able to talk knowledgeably about what she wrote in all its available details.

Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching Through Scotland for a Border Collie. I cannot fathom the reviewer on the cover of this who thinks it will make you want a border collie. I love border collies, but it is very clear about them as working dogs, and you almost certainly do not want one. But if you want to read about nice dogs and the very weird people who have them, doing trials and things, this is a good book about that, it doesn’t last too long, the dog the writer has at the beginning is still around getting pettins at the end and also there is a new dog, so it is not one of those And Then My Dog Died horrors. Dogs! Sometimes one wants a book, and this is one.

Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. This was a fast, fun read that described a lot of things that you have probably experienced, or else will be interested to learn about and catch up on, if you like language and its fluidity. I DMed Gretchen excitedly about a particular example in the middle. If you don’t know Gretchen even in the internet way that I do, you probably shouldn’t do that, but you may well have the urge, because it’s that kind of book.

Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs. This is a lovely and loving book about attempting to establish a group based on love and trust in the face of a totalitarian regime. In this case it happens to be an early Christian group in Rome in the reign of Nero, and they fare about as well as you’d expect, but Mitchison wrote it in the late ’30s and was thinking rather more historically broadly than just Nero.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts. Roanhorse continues to be some of the most thriller-paced fantasy I have ever encountered. Her worldbuilding is unlike any other going on right now in the genre, a radically altered future with drastically changed magic. The new characters in this volume made it fun and a fast read for me, and I enjoyed zipping right through.

Karl Schroeder, Stealing Worlds. It took me a little bit to get into the characters on this one, but I’m very sympathetic to what Karl was doing with the ending, and it’s worth getting there, I think, even if you’re a hard-sell on blockchain fiction, which I am.

Vivian Shaw, Grave Importance. Now okay, yes, I did read this with influenza, so that might have made me more likely to cry, but the ending made me cry in such a good way. It is taking urban fantasy and monster tropes and making them into such a work of hope and love. All the times when people say that genre gives you structure to make your art work within: this is what they mean. This. This capped the series so beautifully and so movingly, and it works best with the full weight of the series behind it, so go, go read, I loved this.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, For Love of Distant Shores. I am so pleased that this is what Tchaikovsky has decided to do with his vast and sweeping fantasy setting. So not only did he write a ten-book series that had a beginning, a middle, and–get this–an ending–when he was done, he did not go do another just like it again to try to get the same result. No! Instead he is using this canvas he’s made to tell different kinds of stories! My analogy for this book is that if the big giant fantasy series is like the description of WWII, this set of novelette-ish length things is like the Indiana Jones stories, if Short Round got to be the protagonist. They’re fun, they’re a completely different tone, they’re exploring corners of the world in ways that Tchaikovsky is good at. Do approve.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 and Uncanny Magazine Issue 30. At least that’s how my Kindle metadata lists it! But! We know that Uncanny Magazine Issue 30 was actually Disabled People Destroy Fantasy and that it was actually edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Katharine Duckett, and Lisa M. Bradley, according to the cover. It was a varied and lovely issue, with my favorite part coming with A. T. Greenblatt’s essay about disabled protagonists, but I also found solidarity with Karlo Yeager Rodríguez’s “This Is Not My Adventure,” a story of grief that went some places I needed to go. I realized, looking at my Kindle, that for some reason Issue 6 was the only issue I’d missed in the past, though I’d read a lot of the individual stories, and while it’s not that long ago in real terms, in short fiction terms it feels like the magazine and the field has built a lot on what was going on then, on this issue and others around it, so it was interesting to look back as things grow and build so quickly.

Valerie Valdes, Chilling Effect. Discussed elsewhere.

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. What a difficult and compassionate book. I knew I would be in good hands when van der Kolk related learning from a mentor whom he asked, would you call this patient schizophrenic or schizoaffective? and got told gently: I would call this patient [name]. While he’s willing to talk about diagnoses and use them where appropriate, his focus is always on human experience, and it’s a stronger book thereby.

Greg van Eekhout, Cog. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Yolen, Dragonfield, and Other Stories. Kindle. The first of these stories is the same story as the graphic novel of Jane’s I read at the beginning of September, so that was disorienting. And then there were a couple of stories that were among the best short fiction I’ve ever read of hers, so…yeah, worth the price of admission, I should say, even with the different angle/same narrative at the beginning.

Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Nicky Drayden is one of the most creative writers working in speculative fiction at this time. One of the ones with the most pleasant, happiest work…I can’t say that, really. But creative, oh Lord yes, and this is no exception. Escaping Exodus takes a generation ship saga and moves those ships inside massive gigantic space beasts. Y’know, just another one of those.

So if you are thinking, human parasitism inside the organs of a truly epic-sized space herd, wow, cool, yes, you are correct, and if you are thinking, that has the potential to have some really gross bits with sphincters and bodily fluids, you are also very correct. Drayden does not wimp out on including pus and goo here. Our characters carve bone, but also they deal with organs galore.

It’s all in the service of real, flawed human relationships and science fictional conceit that goes beyond “ooh lookit,” though: the lives of the giant beasts are tied intimately to the lives of our protagonists in ways that go beyond the understanding their culture has evolved. They have to come up with new and better ways to manage their own lives–which they can barely do under the current cultural norms–and the beast’s life and life in space, if anyone is to survive. If you’re thinking about the interdependence of life and fragile ecosystems–which, ahem, please do–or if you’re thinking about the way people who love each other manage to hurt each other anyway, you probably want this book. Pus and all.

Cog, by Greg van Eekhout

Review copy provided by the author.

I am writing this review several months ahead of posting it for its release, and honestly it is going to KILL ME to spend the entire late spring, summer, and early fall without people to talk to about this book. But hey! Thanks to the miracle of [checks notes] saving things and posting them later, you now exist in a world where you can go get Cog for yourself.

Much better world.

This is the story of a young robot boy who doesn’t want to be a human, he wants to be his own best robotty self. He is full of curiosity and loyalty and conviction and also a determination to learn from his mistakes. Possibly by making as many of them as possible.

He also has a weaponized sister, a robot dog, and a couple of other companions I will leave as the glorious surprises they are. And also maybe some unexpected special powers.

He is great.

He has a very satisfying plot arc, but truly I would just be happy to hang out with Cog while he shops for cheese and figures out the world. His voice is lovable and satisfying and fun. The themes of the story are the sorts of things that you probably already know–even if you’re part of its child audience–but never fully internalize. This book is a delight. Self-actualizing robots forever.

Where to find me: the Montreal and New York edition

Like many other totally normal non-mutant human beings, I often choose to be in one place at one time, a superpower known as unilocation. In October I’ll be unilocating in various places in Montreal and New York! Here’s a guide to that.

At 7 p.m. on October 10, I will be doing a reading with several other authors at Argo Bookstore on 1915 Ste. Catherine St. W. in Montreal. It should be a lovely time and followed by a trip to Juliette et Chocolat for the eponymous chocolat. Mmm.

The weekend immediately following that I will be appearing on the panels and events at Scintillation convention in Montreal. Here are the four things for which I’m on program for that, Saturday October 12 and Sunday October 13.

Saturday 13:00, The Reading Room: Marissa Lingen and Tim Boerger Reading. I will read something different at this from what I will read at the Argo reading. What will it be? You’ll have to see it to believe it. Wait, no, I mean: you’ll have to be there to find out. (Or, I suppose, ask me nicely the day before.)

Sunday 11:15, The Big Room: Friends and Family in the Future: Ada Palmer, Marissa Lingen (M), Rosemary Kirstein, Karl Schroeder, Naomi Kritzer. We’re still going to have them, but the patterns will change. How might they change, and why don’t we see more of this?

Sunday 15:15, The Reading Room: Sherwood Smith and Marissa Lingen in Conversation.

Sunday 16:30, The Big Room: Futures Worth Having: Maria Farrell, Ada Palmer (M), Karl Schroeder, Ruthanna Emrys, William Alexander, Marissa Lingen. What kind of future do we want to live in?

Then I will get on a plane to New York! Because life is full of complication and interest. The NYRSF sponsors a reading at the Brooklyn Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, at 6:45 on Monday October 14. It will also appear on Hour of the Wolf on 99.5 FM, hosted by Jim Freund. This reading is authors from Reckoning magazine, hosted by editor Michael J. DeLuca, featuring myself and several others.

I have not listed the full complement of authors for either non-convention reading because I’m not sure whether everyone who’s doing it has been arranged, and I don’t want to leave anybody out. But there are lovely awesome people, not just me, and it will be a good time.

Short stories I’ve liked recently

Elizabeth Bear, Erase, Erase, Erase (F&SF)

M. E. Bronstein, Elegy of a Lanthornist (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Deborah Coates, Girls Who Never Stood a Chance (F&SF)

Ruthanna Emrys, Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups (Strange Horizons

Amanda Hollander, Madness Afoot (F&SF)

Jon Mayo, A House With a Home (Anathema)

Aimee Picchi, Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11 (Daily Science Fiction)

Rachel Swirsky & P.H. Lee, Compassionate Simulation (Uncanny)

Greg van Eekhout, Big Box (Uncanny)

Nghi Vo, Boiled Bones and Black Eggs (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a Twitter buddy.

Eva Innocente and her crew may not be rich, but at least they’re honest–mostly honest–welllll, more honest than Eva’s family. So when Eva’s even-more-honest sister is kidnapped and threatened by a galactic crime syndicate called The Fridge, Eva has to save her–even if some of the decisions she makes along the way are not technically what would be known as wise or sensible or OH MY GOD EVA WHAT ARE YOU DOING. There are spaceship maneuvers, low-gravity cats, brain parasites, human-alien relations…in more senses of the word than one…fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love…actually I’m not remembering the fencing very well. But this is in fact a kissing book, and also there are true friends who stick with the heroine.

Also she expresses herself in emphatic Spanish from time to time, so if that’s a thing you need–and for some of you it definitely is a personal positive, I know–and the rest of you can pick up what you need to from context, trust me. No, you can. Suck it up, buttercups, you can do Klingon, the Spanish is great.

Here’s my caveat, though, having read it but also seen the marketing and some other reviews: there is a purple upbeat Julie Dillon cover, and the first chapter features the cats, and the word “fun” is getting used a lot for this book in discussions I’ve heard. How much you parse it as a pure fun adventure is likely to depend on how you read a book where one of the main engines of plot is (and this happens very early, so I don’t feel like it’s a major spoiler) the threat of sexual violence against the heroine. Because there is a very persistent sexual violence threat against the heroine. It is, in fact, one of two or three central things that drives the plot. If you don’t find that fun or relaxing–and I don’t–you might still find this book interesting and well done for the things it is doing–and I did–but your “fluffy fun yay!” quotient is going to vary considerably. One of the things it is not doing is providing a place where people who find the threat of sexual violence stressful can relax and read about space battles and cats and aliens and spaceships. Not every book has to do that, but be forewarned that this one is not. Well-written, yes; fluffy, no.

(I’ve also seen some assumptions that this must be YA based on the cover and–let’s be real here–the fact that the author is a woman of color. Don’t do that. This is adult space opera, go read it as adult space opera. Or not, if you were looking for YA! But be clear that Valerie never once claimed this was YA, not even a little. Know what you’re getting.)

Books read, early September

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. This is a charming novella of extrasolar planetary exploration. The crew works well together while having clear and distinct personalities, the planets are very different and spark different human psychological reactions, it’s all very classic SF while at the same time being very contemporary…there is hardly anything that is for everybody, but among SF fans I should think this will come pretty close.

Gavin Chappell, trans., The Saga of Half and Half’s Champions and The Saga of Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches and the Yarn of Ragnar’s Sons. Kindle. Two more legendary sagas, full of random mythical beasts and great weirdness. I live-tweeted one of them, because the depths of weirdness were inspiring. Hypothetically I am reading legendary sagas as preparation for a project I might be doing (read: will be doing, but when, who knows), but in reality let’s all admit that I just love them a lot. Also, as I clarified on Twitter, the first one is the saga of Half’s champions, and also of Half himself, not the saga of the champions of a thing you can put in your coffee. Oh, phrasing and punctuation.

Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide. There are certain kinds of books that get translated first, I am noticing, because I tend to read a lot in translation. Maybe this is unfair of me. I enjoyed Waste Tide for what it is, but…I also notice that in the wave of Chinese SF that is getting translated first, the stuff that is fairly traditionally structured and extremely male-focused to the point of being somewhat sexist is getting translated first. So this is interesting in its ideas about waste disposal and intercultural assumptions both inside and outside China, and also there is fridging and minimal use of women’s perspectives, and it is basically exactly what you’d expect would get translated early. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have interesting points, just…I’ll be glad when there’s more variety of what’s written in Chinese SF available in English.

Amanda Downum, Still So Strange. This is a collection of Amanda’s short mostly-urban dark fantasy, and I had been missing her work, and now here’s a bunch of it all at once. Yessss.

Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten, A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals. This is a beautiful compendium of extinct animals, each with a description and a painting. Some of them are heartbreaking, and it’s hard to predict which.

Sarah Gailey, Magic for Liars. If you’ve been missing books that center a non-romantic relationship, this one is all about, all about sisters. There is noir detective work around a magic school, and either of those things may push some of your buttons, but for me it was the sister relationship that centered the book’s appeal.

Theodora Goss, Snow White Learns Witchcraft. This is substantially fairy tale retellings, but for me the poems were the best part, crystallizations in a few pages of fairy tale extensions and extenuations.

Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Discussed elsewhere.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Brightfall. Discussed elsewhere.

Malka Older, State Tectonics. The conclusion to a science fiction series about microdemocracies in a high-information society. Basically I would not recommend reading it without the first two, but as a series conclusion I found it thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Sarah Pinsker, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. This is a beautiful and varied collection. Highly recommended. Spans length, genre, theme, mood. Yay.

Sherwood Smith, Inda. Reread. I think what stuck out to me on this reread was how much this book was a study in leadership in its different modalities, how to inculcate leadership in people who didn’t have it naturally, how to use it for your own ends, all sorts of themes and variations around education toward leadership. I should probably restrain myself from just plowing through the rest of the series.

Pauline Stafford, Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. This is a fascinating look at England over the period of the Norman Conquest with an eye to the commonality of culture more than its disruption. Extremely useful if you’re doing a thing.

Jane Yolen, A Plague of Unicorns. This is one of those children’s books where the adults will have seen the twist a million times, but the crucial difference is in how it’s handled–in this case not just deftly but kindly, deeply kindly. And also with lots of apples and cider.

Present Writers: Candas Jane Dorsey

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, and Diane Duane.

My first exposure to Candas Jane Dorsey’s work was the singular Black Wine, which did more with themes of servitude and slavery than the vast majority of science fiction prior to its publication. From there I went on to A Paradigm of Earth, the kind of near-future SF that was present-SF by the time I read it, one where aliens were trying to figure out humans and gender, and friends, couldn’t we really use some confused aliens going “wait but what but wait” on this one because it’s not like we’ve got a good fix on it ourselves, and poking at it with an alien is not a bad plan at all, nor is it in the book in question.

Most lately, though, and the one that made me think of writing a Present Writers post about Dorsey, was Ice and Other Stories. Because it is such a far-ranging collection in tone and mood and time and genre. It is doing so many things, it is reaching for so many things and then actually achieving them, that it was a sudden reminder: oh! Oh yes, she’s been doing this a minute! She’s gotten quite good at this! (And that, if you recall, is what this series is for.)

But when I looked up her bio, it turns out that Dorsey, like so many of the writers in this series, had done so much more than what I’d already realized. Television and stage scripts, arts journalism and arts advocacy…it makes me want to send her a fruit basket and a comfy place to sit down for a moment. But that’s what these posts are for: to say, we see you, well done, keep doing it, here is your internet fruit basket for continuing to do the thing.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

Review copy provided by the publisher.

For a long time you couldn’t get a portal fantasy for love nor money, most particularly not for money, as I’m pretty sure the fanfic ones were out there for love. But for several years, portal fantasies were out of fashion for adults. They seem to have come back in the last few years, but in a self-aware, self-examining iteration.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is one instantiation of that. It is full of portals–the title is no exaggeration–but almost all the action takes place in this world, or a version of it. January Scaller has spent her entire childhood puzzling over various mysteries of her existence–when her father will make one of his brief returns from his assorted travels, for example, or what happened with the mysterious and magical door she found in Tennessee as a child, what the coin she picked up beyond it meant. The other people she meets are her guardian’s house are varied in age, race, expertise, but none of them seems ready to answer her questions.

And then as January comes closer to coming of age, everything seems to happen all at once. Her guardian tells her that her father is dead, that she must adjust to a new role in the world–and all of the things that she has hoped and known about her guardian shift out from under her. The world opens up new possibilities, many of them terrifying–many of them worlds themselves. And her own power and control are simultaneously beyond what she dreamed and woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

So it’s a good thing she’s made some loyal friends along the way.