Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by the author, who is a dear friend.

This is in the same universe as Ancestral Night, and some of the major characters of the are minor characters here. I actually howled, “Mantis COOOOOOOOP!” at one crucial point. (Mantis cop. Mantis cop.) But also there’s a whole slate of new characters to enjoy including Mantis cop’s timid compatriot omg this species okay I am fine now. I’m fine.

But really though: I have not had enough fun science fiction where humans and aliens have established friendships and working relationships, lately. It is a subgenre I like so much, and I basically never have enough of it. And this one has hospital drama! And faster-than-light travel drama! And people doing their best to get their heads together!

There is also some serious consideration of community, and of how to handle breaches of trust, both individual and community. The questions of how to be a functioning adult that come up in Ancestral Night are foundational, but this one expands on them further. With multiple-atmosphere hospital drama and mantis cop. I really really like this, okay? You’re going to want one. It’s a prime example of Bear continuing to grow as a writer–and I liked the stuff she started with.

Books read, late May

Einat Admony and Janna Gur, Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking. I leafed through this. It looks reasonably good about spice blends and techniques, especially if you’re new to cooking with Middle Eastern flavors.

Chaz Brenchley, The Bone Mask Boys, Chapters 1-3. Kindle. The beginning of a new serial, set on the same canal-laced Mars as his Crater School stories but with a very different tone and plot type, much darker and more procedural.

Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. I wish this had been more “history and traditions of Caucasus people” and less “how Caucasus people have been screwed over by Russians, repeatedly,” and yet one sees, in context, how the latter is important. I feel like the ethnic composition of this region is fractally interesting; the more I learn about it, the more I think, oh, but this has just scratched the surface really.

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Kindle. This was a frothy romance novella that I picked up because I like Cho’s other things, and it was great fun and allowed the titular Jade to have fun and not be punished for it.

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Kindle. I picked this up expecting it not to demand much of me, and lo, that’s what I got. I was a little surprised at how sketched in things were, how little detail–it’s a very bare bones style. Anyway, Poirot is here, Hastings is here, random startling prejudice for no plot-related reason is here–mostly fun if you are braced for that last category, over quickly, but not something I would say anyone simply must read.

Sarah Churchwell, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby. I was grateful that Churchwell was very careful to say that the murder trial she was writing about, in parallel with writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald in this book, was not meant to be an exact copy or direct source of The Great Gatsby, that she was very very clear on not overstating her claims. At the same time I felt like it left the book a little disjointed, here are two things sort of nearish each other, and it didn’t come together wonderfully, it just sort of sat next to each other. Fine but not thrilling.

Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. Discussed elsewhere.

Katharine Duckett, Miranda in Milan. This is the aftermath of The Tempest, Miranda’s return to a society she never knew as an adult and all the politics and magic that follow thereby. A charming novella.

Carlos Hernandez, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe. I was so excited for this book and it did not disappoint. My favorite parallel-universe-wrangling Miami duo are back, with just as many wisecracks and tugs on the heartstrings as before. If you haven’t read Sal and Gabi Break the Universe yet, go back and start there, it’s a treat. But so is this. Universes are so much trouble!

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing. Beautiful essays about place. I went and put everything else she’s written on my list after I read this. So satisfying.

Sim Kern, Depart, Depart! Discussed elsewhere.

Steven Koblik, Sweden’s Development from Poverty to Affluence, 1750-1970. If you don’t want what it says on the tin, don’t read this book, because it is not doing anything else. If you’re interested in the Hats vs. the Caps (if in fact you know what the heck that means), this may be a book for you. It was clearly published very shortly after the period covered, so it’s not that anything magical happened in 1970.

Don Kulick, A Death in a Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. Kulick goes into a great deal of detail about his interactions with a village that had a unique language when he first came into contact with them. He’s very interesting about process–about literally how, as a procedure, people shift from using their own language with their friends, their families, their children, to…not. To using their larger language’s common tongue even without enforced mandates that they do so. He is much clearer than most white anthropologists about his own humanity, talking about when and how he left the village on various occasions, what he and the villagers give each other, etc. rather than positioning himself as a great objective authority. A lot to think about here.

Rose Macaulay, Noncombatants and Others. Kindle. I am astonished that she managed to get something this complex and thoughtful and non-jingoist published about the Great War in the middle of the Great War. The characters are thrashing around trying to make art and often failing and trying to cope with major social upheaval and quite often failing at that too and it’s amazing. There are a few offhanded prejudiced remarks/idioms but nothing plot-critical that I recall, so it’s more a “this is a novel written in 1916” warning than a “this author is deeply invested in this toxicity” warning–and at least to my way of thinking (your mileage, of course, will vary), it is very much worth enduring them, because the things Macaulay is invested in doing are phenomenal and not much seen elsewhere. Even now.

Susan Palwick, All Worlds Are Real. A thoughtful and big-hearted short story collection. As I would expect from Palwick.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Mythic Dream. This volume of myth retellings is a generally good read with several exceptional standouts. My favorite stories were by Arkady Martine, Carlos Hernandez, Indrapramit Das, and Amal El-Mohtar.

Jonathan Rosenberg, Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold Wars. Well, this was depressing. It’s about the politics of who can get jobs and who can get played in terms of the two World Wars and also the Cold War. It’s really useful to know this stuff but not, shall we say, an uplifting experience.

Veronica Roth, Chosen Ones. I am particularly fond of books about ramification. Okay, so you’re the chosen ones and you defeated the Dark Lord: what next? This book is entirely made of What Next. Its superheroes are struggling, and the things they discover in the process of sorting their own issues get pretty intense.

Patrick Samphire, Shadow of a Dead God. Discussed elsewhere.

William Shakespeare, Richard III. Kindle. Reread. This was specifically for a novella I’m contemplating, so it was the kind of reread that comes with eccentric note-taking.

Lynne and Michael Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 34. Kindle. Favorites from another strong issue include “High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma Törzs and “A Being Together Amongst Strangers” by Arkady Martine.

Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. I particularly liked the questioning, probing structure of this fantasy novella as it unfolded, a blossom structure as understanding grew.

COVID Spring: The Longest Drive

Two points determine a line
But today there’s only one plane
Landing at the airport; hawks wheel
Over the green river valley. I took this road home
From the hospital, every day, a year ago
Until that last grey morning.
On the Mendota Bridge
A funeral procession: a hearse
And one car, headlights in the sun
Lighting that last road home.

Shadow of a Dead God, by Patrick Samphire

Review copy provided by the author, who is the husband of my friend.

If you’re an adult who reads fantasy, you probably read some fantasies in this sub-genre when you were a teenager. Depending on how old you are, you may have read loads of them. I know I did. Mennik Thorn is a disreputable, down-on-his luck mage who is barely scraping by. He has scruffy friends from his impoverished early childhood who lead him into ill-conceived and sometimes illegal activities–but he’s loyal, and he loves them, and hey, wisecracks will ease your way through a lot of hardship in life.

Yep, it’s one of those, with a couple differences. One is a cool worldbuilding twist–magic comes from the remains of dead gods, whoa, awesome, okay, let’s keep going with that and see where it takes us. (Don’t worry, Samphire will.) The other is that Shadow of a Dead God, unlike a lot of the parts of this subgenre I read as a teenager, is refreshingly not chock full of sexism and racism. Basically, if you like a fantasy like this, it’s the thing you like! but without the bits that horrify you when you think about them a minute! All the fun, none of the “wait he had his protagonist say what?”

Present Writers: Susan Cooper

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, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Rosemary Kirstein, and Karen Joy Fowler.

Some poetry you memorize on purpose, because you want to keep it with you always. Some poetry you memorize accidentally, because you read it enough times, over and over again, that your brain automatically knows that the verse says wood bronze iron fire water stone and not the order in which those elements appear in the book. That’s where I am with the prophecy poems in the Dark Is Rising series: I read them so many times that there are entire passages, not just the poems, that will be with me always. If that series was all Susan Cooper had ever written, it would be worth appreciating her for just that.

But, of course, it’s not. There’s the Boggart trilogy, a very different take on the same region’s myths. There’s the dreamlike Seaward; there are historical and time travel books. Cooper has also written picture books and screenplays. Her breadth is startling–many people who adored Greenwitch or Over Sea, Under Stone have no idea what a variety of other things Cooper has done. She keeps turning her hand to new things, and we’re so lucky that she does.

Short Stories I’ve Enjoyed (Pandemic Spring Edition)

Eleanna Castroianni, Who Goes Against a Waste of Waters (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

L. Chan, Sonata (Metaphorosis) — Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Rjurik Davidson, Benjamin 2037 (Tor.com)

Claire Humphrey, We Are the Flower (Podcastle)

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Getaway (Uncanny)

R. B. Lemberg, To Balance the Weight of Khalem (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Arkady Martine, A Being Together Amongst Strangers (Uncanny)

Devin Miller, Fox Red, Life Red, Teeth Like Snow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Aimee Ogden, Never a Butterfly, Nor a Moth With Moon-Painted Wings (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Emery Robin, Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter (Reckoning)

Allison Thai, Caring for Dragons and Growing a Flower (Podcastle)

Emma Törzs, High in the Clean Blue Air (Uncanny)

Fran Wilde, An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands (Tor.com)

John Wiswell, Alien Invader or Assistive Device? (Robot Dinosaur Fiction)

John Wiswell, Gender and Other Faulty Software (Fireside)

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a novella about a trans guy whose Houston home floods and about his life with a dybbuk in a shelter in Dallas. If you read that sentence and thought, “ooh, that might be for me if it’s done well!”, congratulations, you are correct, this is definitely for you.

Noah’s experiences in the emergency shelter are about as much sunshine and lollipops as you’d expect, but there are some rainbows to be found in the community that he both builds and finds there. It’s perfectly drawn of imperfect humans–Kern has noticed that even excellent allies don’t always share the same priorities, and negotiating those with kindness and patience in the face of deteriorating conditions can be hard, sometimes feeling impossible. Kern draws these relationships so very well.

The shape of the ending is particularly wonderful at a time like this: a turning toward kindness and toward community in a world that would make it easier to shut others out. The speculative element ties in excellently with the real world strengths of this novella. I’ll be looking for more by Kern.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the third in its series, and you absolutely should not read it without having read the first two. There’s enough to keep track of here if you have a fighting chance of knowing what’s going on from having actually read it; having to guess and fill in why people care about Tain Hu and who Aminata is anyway and…look, there is an entire thread of magic/social connection that’s based on how people relate to each other, you’re going to want to know what the heck is going on before you dive in here.

If you have read the other two books, here’s what you need to know here: this book does not ease up on disgust or treachery. If anything it doubles down. And…there’s a plague that is made much worse by people behaving foolishly. Actually there are several plagues. The plague element is not lessened here. At all. For some of you, that will feel comforting, like the thing you’re living through is being validated by the book; but if you’re otherwise interested in this series and think, oh God, not that, not now, then I advise you to get your copy and hold off a bit on reading it, because there is no dodging a certain contagion-related theme here.

Does it stick the landing, though. I would say yes, yes it does. People behave like themselves, actions continue to accrue consequences at an alarming rate until the very end. Could there be more told in this universe? absolutely. Is this particular story left unfulfilled with pieces hanging? not at all. The empire and its denizens and outliers are all going somewhere in this book, not just wandering indefinitely. The title character has several quite large revelations about herself and her world, she is proven right about some things but not everything, so if you’re a person who hates it when series just ramble on indefinitely, fear not, this is not one of those.

Books read, early May

Gavin Chappell, translator, The Saga of the Volsungs and Other Stories. More legendary saga weirdness. So much to work with here.

Nino Cipri, Finna. This novella about evil wormhole Ikeas is…maybe not the most relaxing thing to read when you’re dealing with home improvement woes? But compelling and fun and recommended and grandmaful.

P. Djeli Clark, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. This is a fast-paced, fun novella in the same world as some of Clark’s previous work. The world is clearly delineated quickly so you can dive into the story. Beautifully done.

Zoraida Cordova, Incendiary. Toward the very beginning of this book, I said to a friend that it was mainly good for its world-building because its plot was very YA-fantasy-standard, and ten pages later something happened that entirely turned that on its head. There was a turn for the more expected toward the very end, but in general this is not doing exactly the same thing as you might expect, and also the worldbuilding is fun.

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World. This is a terrible title. Epstein is not opposite to specialization in this book, he’s opposed to trying to get people to specialize exclusively or at extremely young ages. And he has a lot of data about how trying to make your two-year-old into the prodigy of your choice is not going to work particularly well, with side trips extolling the virtues of intellectual freedom on an interpersonal/emotional level. The ending sort of wandered, and I think I am not the target audience for this book, as I have long been a proponent of Letting Kids (And Also Adults) Mess Around Trying Stuff. But if you are also such a proponent and want bolstering for your arguments, here it is.

Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. This is exactly what it says on the tin, no more and no less. If you want to sort out more of what was going on in the Balkans when, this is a very straightforward version of that. If you’re looking for the quirky weird corners of history, this is not the book, but if you want a basis for putting the quirky weird corners of history into context when you find them later, this is a reasonable place to start.

Micaiah Johnson, The Space Between Worlds. Discussed elsewhere.

Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays On Artists and Writers. The titular essay was particularly engaging here, but there was a lot of varied material that interested me, in the “oh, and here’s another thing” way of good essay collections.

John Pollack, The Pun Also Rises. A new acquaintance at ConFusion talked about this book, which was written by a competitive pun champion. Which is apparently a thing! And this book gives examples of how that works! But also he goes into the history of puns and their function and reception. It’s short and, well, punny. I got a copy for me and a copy for a dear friend so that we would both have this experience, like it or not.

Kate Quinn, The Serpent and the Pearl. If you thought, okay, I want some Borgias, but their actual history is not melodramatic enough, what if an historical fiction writer made them more melodramatic, this is the book for you. I kept reading it for the cook, and eventually the cook also got swept into melodrama. This is also not so much a story as the first chunk of story with a completely unresolved ending. The sequels are out, so at least you can go on with them if you like–and I know that this will sound great to some people, it would sound great to me in some moods and I read the whole thing. But the last bit went far enough over the top that I don’t know that I’ll be reading the sequel right away.

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Charm and Hunger. Also a cliffhanger ending, but more resolved and satisfying, for me at least. This is the third in its series, and you’ll get things out of it if you’ve read the first two–there was a moment of “oh no oh no [character] run away” that came specifically because I have read the first one. But I do think it would work reasonably if you didn’t want the first ones and just started here, because each book is set in a different era with different central characters. This one brings the diabolists up to WWII.

Martha Wells, Network Effect. It’s Murderbot! In a full-length novel! It is what Murderbot in a full-length novel should be. While this is the first full-length Murderbot novel, it’s not the first Murderbot book, so go read the others and then wallow in this. Wallow.

F. C. Yee, The Iron Will of Genie Lo. This is also a sequel, a YA inspired by Journey to the West. It is so. Much. Fun. I love Genie and Yunie and all the other characters. I tore through this on a very stressful day and it was just the perfect thing, and you might need it if you ever have a stressful day too.

Jane Yolen, Curse of the Thirteenth Fey. This is the fairy backstory to Sleeping Beauty, with fairy family and fairy culture and fairy politics. You know where it’s going, but it’s still fun getting there.