The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Do not start here. Really really do not. One of the things about books that are serious about consequences is that it’s extremely hard to write them without reference to what’s come before–those two goals are incompatible–and this book is basically all consequences. The cover with the mask-face on fire? That is this book. It is the previous book, but on fire, and also plagues and drowning.

What a nice book! you may now be thinking, if you have not read The Traitor Baru Cormorant. So about that. Yah. Not a nice book. If you’re going to read these, buckle in, because the teddy bears are not having their picnic here, and someone would probably lobotomize them if they did. (There are…lots of lobotomies in this series. Lots. More lobotomies than acts of treachery? mmmmaybe. Someone should count.) (Mostly they are offstage lobotomies, though.)

There is one moment where loyalty appears, nobility of spirit, that sort of thing, and Baru says she wasn’t expecting it. And you may not be expecting it either. But it’s there. That’s the thing about this very not-nice series full of transmissible cancers and prisoners in the bilge of the ship and judicial murders: Dickinson understands that chiaroscuro requires light as well as darkness. So amidst all the unpleasantness…are desperate people doing their best. Keeping on. So I do too, with this series.

Please consider using our link to buy The Monster Baru Cormorant from Amazon. (Or if you are starting, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.)

Books read, early November

Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand. Megan Abbott is really good at writing thrillers. We now know that she’s really good at writing the research postdoc experience as well. Is a research postdoc thriller that isn’t focused on industrial/academic espionage but on the scientists as people your jam? It is mine, and here is one.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 17. Kindle. Another installation, the plot inches forward. I am really bad at reading serials, but I persevere.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few. I picked this up because I wanted a nice book, and it mostly is, but it starts with a disaster and doesn’t come together as quickly or at the same level as her previous two books. It does eventually, quietly, and I like the quietness of it.

Thomas Colchie, ed., A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin America. Colchie attempted to get a wide variety of stories for this: different countries, styles, genders, eras, etc. It suffers a little from that wide focus–this is an oldish book and I really feel that asking any one volume to recommend all of Latinx writing means that it will skimp on some things, or be weirdly put together. Still, some of these stories were delightful, and I’ll be looking further into the authors, and that’s what this kind of overview anthology is good for. (Also it cost a quarter.)

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. This is frothy fun midcentury fiction, except where it isn’t. The protagonist is a young American woman in Paris in the late 1950s, and she stays out late drinking and goes off to the countryside and has love affairs and all sorts of stuff. And also there is a rape attempt and a coercive pimp. I really hate the razorblades-in-cotton-candy nature of mid-twentieth century entertainment sometimes.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky. This is in some ways the opposite of razorblades-in-cotton-candy. Jemisin is a master of setting readerly expectations even in the first volume; by the time you get around to the conclusion of this trilogy, you know that some terrible things are going to happen and a lot of people are going to suffer. It’s built into the framework. And there are lots of loving things, too, lots of good things, lots of places where people are trying hard. And some really cool rock worldbuilding.

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War. This is brutally and beautifully done. It is not a nice book, but it is a quite good book, a fantasy whose Chinese roots are deep rather than cosmetic. I needed to brace myself for it and go read something soothing after, but I’m glad I did.

Mark Kurlansky, Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas. Yep, this is a history of the use of milk in human cultures. (Heh heh, cultures. Okay, I’ll see myself out.) It’s one of Kurlansky’s better ones, far-ranging and interesting. And. I mean. Milk! Not going to break your heart like fantasy novels!

Selma Lagerlöf, The Emperor of Portugallia. Kindle. So this is a lovely pastoral tale of a girl whose father adores her. And then she has to become a prostitute to save the family farm and he loses touch with reality! At the end he is dead but she’s okay because her dad loved her and believed in her until the end.  ….yes, this is a weird book, there is no pretending this is not a weird book, even for turn-of-the-last-century Swedish lit this is a weird book. I read it while exhausted on a plane and kept going, “What? WHAT???” I’m not sorry I did, but: WHAT???

Bethany Morrow, Mem. A short novel with a unique speculative conceit: your memories can be removed and exist, at least for a time, as their own entities, their own versions of you. The 1920s Montreal setting didn’t ever gel for me, but it didn’t really need to.

Emma Newman, Before Mars. This is a very well-executed version of a kind of book I don’t like. Specifically: I am a really hard sell on “what is even reality” books. In this one, a geologist-artist on Mars has reason to doubt everything that’s going on around her. Good reason, it turns out, and this is in a sense a prequel to some of Newman’s other work. I can’t imagine that she could have done better at this and made me like it more–it’s just not my shape of story. But if you’re looking for another in her SF universe, here it is.

Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, eds., Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Kindle. Most of this book was in the form of letters addressed to Butler herself. Some of them were analytical, some inspiring–some both!–and Nisi Shawl’s made me cry. A reminder that I do want to finish my Butler reread one of these days–she’s always, always, always relevant.

Andromeda Romano-Lax, Plum Rains. Elders and caregivers are so rarely the center of near-future SF novels. This one focuses on minority ethnicity people in Japan and their interactions with new robots who have various functions. That makes it sound dry, when in fact it’s very warm and…in places expresses a humane desperation.

Randal Roorda, Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing. This is almost a how-to in handling one’s own perspective not being universal in one’s topic, so kudos to Roorda on that. It goes to some very interesting places on the topics of solitude and escape–not quite into “our” escapism in the sff genre, but you can see the relevance through the trees from where Roorda is.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 25. Kindle. I have waited too long to write this book post and don’t remember which of the things in this issue were my favorites. I think Naomi Kritzer’s and Monica Valentinelli’s? It will be in my short story recommendation list. Anyway it was another good issue.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Kindle. Same travel as The Emperor of Portugallia, 900% more WHAT EVEN. This is what it says on the tin, except that Wollstonecraft was given to making random pronouncements, often without any evidence, just–pulled an idea out of an orifice. My favorite (and Twitter’s!) is still the theory that Swedish women are so pale because of overspiced food (I…I…what???), but there are several similar levels of insight in this book. And then there’s the bit where she’s being rowed around a fjord in the middle of the night looking for a particular inlet that the rower has no idea about…it was surreal, it was educational, it was entertaining, what is it even doing, I don’t know. (And I’m just going to note that I love Project Gutenberg for giving me access to this sort of thing so easily.)

Jane Yolen, Finding Baba Yaga and Merlin’s Booke (Kindle).  The former is a novel in verse. For me, at least, the impact of the verse built over the course of it–not so searing to begin with and really strong at the end. It’s a contemporary Baba Yaga story. The latter is a collection of short stories around one idea of Merlin, or possibly several. It’s from a similar era of Arthuriana to Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, if that helps you figure out whether you want it or not.

Present Writers: Sherwood Smith

It’s still November for several more hours! And here we are with November’s installment of Present Writers. For more context on this series, see the first post, Marta Randall, or subsequent posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, and Suzy McKee Charnas. Today we’re talking about the work of fabulous fabulist Sherwood Smith! (Disclaimer: Sherwood is a personal friend.)

I think one of the patterns that’s beginning to emerge is that many of the authors I want to write appreciations of for this series are writers who have left narrow pigeonholes and written in several different fields or sub-fields. Sherwood is no exception, with books ranging from secondary world fantasy to space opera, stopping off at various portals along the way. Sherwood has collaborated fruitfully with Rachel Manija Brown and with Dave Trowbridge in very different series. She was also a Nebula nominee for one of her (many, lovely) short stories. Also, she’s currently the Royal Historian of Oz! How cool is that.

While I’m really fond of several of Sherwood’s books, I think my favorite is the Inda quartet. The complexity of human relationships represented in it is beautiful and just what I want to see in fantasy. I remember there being a moment 40 or 50 pages in where everything just clicked for me, all the fantasy names and nicknames and social systems just…fell into place and I was immersed completely in this world that felt simultaneously very familiar and very alien.

One of the things that makes Sherwood such a gift to all the rest of us writers in this present time is her focus on learning. She teaches others both formally and informally, laying things out with no pretension or fuss, helping people to see their own and others’ work from different angles that make the lightbulbs go on over their heads. And she talks freely and cheerfully about her own learning process, not just as a thing that happened in the past but as an ongoing process, every year of her life. That’s something we can all aspire to. Whether you start with Wren to the Rescue or Inda or Stranger, Sherwood always has so much to teach us–and usually in the most fun, swashbuckling way.

Books read, late October

Robert Jackson Bennett, Foundryside. The tone of this was very different than I expected, far more adventurey fun and far less gritty grimness. Which is not to say that horrifying things don’t happen, because they totally do, but it’s generally a book where the characters can act to their own benefit, and make wisecracks along the way. It’s a very cinematic book–a lot of the action scenes feel like they would make even better filmed sequences–but with a solid grounding in the worldbuilding rather than just whatever.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. This is heartfelt and personal. Brown has a church background/association, so if you are allergic to all mentions of religion that aren’t thoroughly negative, you will want to read a different book–Brown talks a fair amount about her experiences in churches as one of her major community and work environments. But if you want a book that is simultaneously very fluidly written and easy to read and also firm and unflinching about her experiences of racism, this is a good one. (Excellent for well-meaning but not well-informed relatives, if you have any of those….)

Suzy McKee Charnas, The Bronze King. Reread. I adored prickly teenager Valentine when I was a grade school kid, and this book was part of why I wanted to even glance at Central Park the first time I visited New York as an adult. It’s a fascinating data point about which kinds of teen rebellion are allowed in which eras of YAs…but it’s also a fun book about magic and acquiring responsibility and stuff.

Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Cooper’s book is very personal, going into a lot of what it has felt like, very individually, to be the target of various racist acts and cultural norms. It’s short and snappy and vivid and individual.

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. I have some quibbles with some of Duffy’s conclusions–why do so many people want to believe that “making a fuss” wasn’t really necessary to get some of the social changes they approve of?–but his account of parish-level religious life in this era is fascinating. And he’s very clear that this should not be the only book you read on this topic, and indeed it has not been, so.

Randi Hutter Epstein, Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything. This…is not an evolutionary history of which hormones seem to have shown up when in various mammals. (I know, I was a fool to think so.) Instead it’s a history of what horrific things humans did in the process of figuring out how the whole hormone thing works. Sometimes fascinatingly horrific, but…aaaagh.

S.L. Huang, Zero Sum Game. Discussed elsewhere.

Tove Jansson, The Exploits of Moominpappa. This is one of the lesser Moomin books, where the current set of characters are somewhat rehashed by the adventures of their parents. Still, lesser Moomins are fun and whimsical and worth having too.

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Latchkey. Post-apocalyptic ghost mediation and community management. There are logistics in this book in the least tedious way possible. I was so happy to read this. (Also the one that came before it, Archivist Wasp.) Yay. Yay.

Ruth Rendell, Master of the Moor. Okay, so there is this thing that happens with Ruth Rendell novels a lot. She has a history of trying to be aware of and thoughtful about the range of human sexual expression, but she is also trying to write murder thrillers. And she started in the ’60s. This book from the ’80s has a terrible, terrible asexual character, and I can see what she was trying to do, and…there is no particular reason why you, a modern person, should particularly enjoy this example of her trying to do it. There are better Rendells to read.

Sofia Samatar and Del Samatar, Monster Portraits. This is the sort of side project I really want authors to do: unusual and short and biting. This is an illustrated collection of monsters with accounts of them that deal with the Samatar siblings’ immigrant experience in very sharp ways. Cool stuff.

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. This is a simply massive pile of analysis and evidence about how racism shaped Detroit and its problems from the middle of the twentieth century on. Compelling, convincing, depressing. If you are aware that loads of people in 1900 lived in tar paper shacks and hardly anybody in 2000 did, this also fills in a great deal of the hazy shape of that in detail: how we got there from here, with which sacrifices. More broadly applicable than just Detroit.

Meredith Wadman, The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease. This is a history of the rubella vaccine and all the tradeoffs and decisions involved in getting there. Harrowing in spots, well-constructed, worth having.

Rebecca West, The Birds Fall Down. A family novel, an atypical spy novel–about a young British woman whose grandparents are Russian exiles before WWI and the various machinations of the tsar’s agents and those rebelling against him. Really beautifully done, and why have I not read more Rebecca West. One of the small notable things: when one of the characters displays the kind of anti-Semitism that often shows up in this period of either setting or writing, another character calls it out; it is not endorsed by the text. That’s not a major point but sort of an indicator of who West was and what she was trying to do here.

Marguerite Yourcenar, A Coin in Nine Hands. A novel of Mussolini’s Rome, written at the time, which traces a 10-lira coin through the hands of nine people, one of whom is an anti-fascist assassin. I knew the structural conceit of this book, but not its politics, which turn out to be important. It’s not a bad time to read a book wherein people at least try to say no to the dictator.

Stories I’ve enjoyed in the last little while

The House on the Moon, William Alexander (Uncanny)

The Oracle and the Sea, Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Psychopomps of Central London, Julia August (The Dark)

Mountaineering, Leah Bobet (Strange Horizons)

By the Hand That Casts It, Stephanie Charette (Shimmer)

Odontogenesis, Nino Cipri (Fireside)

Octopus, Martha Darr (Fiyah)

Court of Birth, Court of Strength, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Stet, Sarah Gailey (Fireside)

A House by the Sea, P.H. Lee (Uncanny)

The Coin of Heart’s Desire, Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed)

The Foodie Federation’s Dinosaur Farm, Luo Longxiang (translated by Andy Dudak) (Clarkesworld)

Cerise Sky Memories, Wendy Nikel (Nature)

The Bodice, the Hem, the Woman, Death, Karen Osborne (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Court Magician, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)

Tamales in Space, and Other Phrases for the Beginning Speaker, Gabriela Santiago (Strange Horizons)

Spatiotemporal Discontinuity, Bogi Takács (Uncanny)

Abigail Dreams of Weather, Stu West (Uncanny)

Disconnect, Fran Wilde (Uncanny)

Ruby Singing, Fran Wilde (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

World Fantasy Convention schedule

This one is much simpler than some cons: one panel. Plans for ice cream and fountain pens and many other lovely things aside from formal programming! but for programming there’s this:

Strength Isn’t Just For the Strong

Time: Saturday – 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM 
Category: Panel
Track: Panel
Location: WaterTable BC
Panelists: Carole Cummings, David Anthony Durham, Rhiannon Held, Fonda Lee, Marissa Lingen (M)
Description: Fantasy stories w/ ordinary, non-magical people, both humans and others, as protagonists. #StrongCharacters

Present Writers: Suzy McKee Charnas

I missed a month when September happened to me, but we’re only looking back to remember where we were and what we were doing, not for regrets. What we’re doing: the Present Writers series is explained more fully with its first installment, about Marta Randall, with posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, and Jane Yolen following it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s anger lately, as I think many of us have–productive and otherwise. And there has been no writer more formative for me in how to write about anger in a respectful way–no writer who leaves me feeling understood and invigorated with her spiky depictions of female fury–than Suzy McKee Charnas.

Charnas’s work spans genres and decades. Like most of the people in this series, she is not easily pigeonholed, writing vampire fiction and post-apocalyptic SF with equal fluency. But there’s the matter of that voice, that quintessentially New Yorker take-no-prisoners done-with-your-shit Charnas voice. Most of the late-night pretentious writer conversations I’ve had about confident narrative voice confused an authoritarian voice for an authoritative one, but this is a mistake Charnas never makes.

I first read The Bronze King when it was new, when I was seven. I last read it this morning. Valentine, its cranky teenage protagonist, used to be a Big Kid in my perception, with all the baggage Big Kids have to deal with. Now 14 looks pretty darn young, and Charnas simultaneously doesn’t have illusions about what teenagers are dealing with (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll all get at least a mention in this book) and recognizes how new it all is. When Val gets berated by a male character who feels that he should have had the more heroic role that she performed because she was just a girl, it didn’t shock me that a boy might behave like that, because some already had. It shocked me that we didn’t have to pretend that there weren’t any boys like that. And that we didn’t have to take any lip from them when they showed up in our lives.

Later, when I was about Valentine’s age, I read the short story “Boobs.” I punched the air and yelled when I finished with it. Suzy McKee Charnas knew what was coming even back in 1989; she won a Hugo for it. There was a girl harassed for her body in this story. There was a girl triumphant. And the setting was not removed, not quasi-medieval, faux-historical; the contemporary setting meant that it spoke to me very, very directly. It gave me so much fierce magic. Almost a decade after I first read it, at my first WorldCon, I spotted a familiar name on a badge going the other direction on the escalator. “Oh my God Suzy McKee Charnas! I loved your ‘Boobs’!” I burst out and then wanted to sink through the escalator floor, but she just laughed happily. She knew what she had done, what it could mean to girls like me. To women like I grew up to become.

Since I started writing this post, I have felt more and more determined to go back and reread Charnas’s work. The Holdfast Chronicles are definitely worth another look, and there are short stories I’ve never gotten to. This is one of the best side effects of writing a series like this, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so immensely glad Charnas is present with us just when her work is most needed.

Broadens the mind, I hear

I recently sold my 150th story, which was a very nice feeling indeed and one I’ll explore more in my next newsletter. (I am trying to have somewhat non-overlapping content between my monthly newsletter and this blog. We’ll see how that goes.) But it was also a type of story I wanted to talk about more specifically here.

That is: it’s a story that was inspired by my trip to Finland and Sweden in 2016. It’s the fourth story in that category I’ve written and the fourth I’ve sold, and while it’s two years in the past, I’m pretty sure there are more coming. None of them are related to each other in any other way. Different speculative elements–different genres–different characters and settings. But I couldn’t have gotten to any of them from the same angle without traveling.

I didn’t plan any of them before we went. I just went and looked and listened and smelled and tasted and felt and thought and felt and thought and came home and read and felt and thought some more, and lo, there were some stories there.

I haven’t started on the stories inspired by the trip to Denmark and Iceland yet, but I know they’re there. (I even know the shape of at least two….)

People who don’t write, who are not frequently around writers except when I bring them around–people like my grandma–often think of travel for writing purposes as linear and planned. If I’m doing this trip for writing purposes, it must mean that I intend to set a book in one of the locations and am going to go give it a good hard squint and see what I get out of it. But…a few months ago I outlined a book inspired by these experiences, and it was just as unanticipated as the stories. And while I’m going to use the experience to revise an old book set in various parts of Finland, that’s not what I was there for–I didn’t know I’d ever get the right ideas to revise that book into something coherent.

It’s culturally much harder to say, “I’m going to write what I’m inspired to write.” We’re taught to look down on that kind of vague approach even within creative fields. Have a plan, be able to justify yourself, don’t just…be one of those irresponsible artists who flits around hoping for inspiration, ugh, what is that even. Well, I don’t hope for inspiration, I work for inspiration. I open doors and windows to inspiration, I leave out honey traps for inspiration, I sew gossamer nets to catch the very finest particles and smallest species of inspiration. And this only works if you’re not already convinced of where it isn’t.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that everyone has to travel to be open to new external input. Not everyone has the resources in whatever direction; sometimes I don’t have the resources. But I actually feel that making room for frivolity is essential. For books where you don’t know what chapter will help with your current project–or whether any chapters will help with any projects at all. For other people’s art, primarily as its own thing and only as a jumping-off point later if ever. For finding the road nearest your house that you’ve never been on and taking it and finding out whether there’s a bespoke foam merchant there, an antique shop, a greasy spoon, a park. For going to the free museum night to see an exhibit that has done the traveling for you. Not because you know how it’ll inspire you, but because you don’t.

I went to Montreal two weeks ago. I’ve been to Montreal many times. I love Montreal and have opinions about gelato available near different Metro stops. Vive Montreal. And even on this short trip, mostly full of conventions, I still discovered places I’ve never been, and I still looked at the places I have been and thought of them differently. Not in the “I must look into the Viau Metro and make sure I can put a story thing there” way. Just as: here I am, what else is here, who else. It makes me more able to do more of the same when I get home. I have no idea where it’ll end. And that’s an extremely good thing.

Next time I have a major trip–who knows when that will be–I will get asked whether I’m setting a book there, what book, why. I’m really happy that I don’t know.

Zero Sum Game, by S. L. Huang

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Math is nearly everything to Cas. It’s her solace when her mind is too loud, her means of making a living (albeit somewhat unconventionally), her identity, her core. The closer she can come to articulating axioms for individual people, the more comfortable she is dealing with them.

Which is good, because comfortable is in pretty short supply in this book otherwise.

Cas’s life is violently efficient retrieval services. She associates with people who have even more violence in their worlds–most notably Rio, a psychopath kept on the rails with a strong moral code external to his sense of self. But the situation she falls into at the beginning of Zero Sum Game is an even more dangerous one than she’s used to–not just in its violence but in its dangers to her own brain.

This is a fast-paced thriller with some clever twists and an uneasy resolution and a few math jokes along the way.

Please consider using our link to buy Zero Sum Game from Amazon.