A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

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

Arkady Martine has a lot to say about empires. Luckily for the reader, she’s very clear on the difference between an academic monograph–that’s her alter ego’s job–and a space opera. A Memory Called Empire is full of bombs, spaceships, intrigue, poisons, and neurological devices. It is also full of thoughts about empire and its periphery, of how systems eat people and how those people can resist–before death, and beyond it with their influence.

It’s fun. It’s thoughtful and action-packed and well-balanced, and there are friendships (with more than one outcome and more than one focus!) as well as a flirtation. The main character, Mahit Dzmare, is poised at exactly the line between knowledgeable and lost that’s so much fun to read as she navigates a tense and dangerous diplomatic situation that’s fascinating not only to her but to me. I easily tuned out hours of airport with this book. I love its barbarians and am fascinated by its empire.

And it’s doing the thing that science fiction claims to do but often does not: examining fundamental questions from new angles. More than one person, more than one culture, has a particular answer to the idea of where the self begins and ends, and they’re all vital to this book, with its explosions and catastrophes. I can’t wait to see what the next one brings. Highly recommended.

One Hundred People, One Poem Each, edited by Fujiwara no Teika, translated by Larry Hammer

Review copy provided by the translator, who is a friend on this here internet for many years.

This is a famous and formative collection of Japanese poetry, first compiled in the 13th century and referenced often in the centuries since. There are names in this volume that have remained famous in the time since–there’s a Sei Shonagon poem in here, and one by Murasaki Shikibu, and several emperors–but also there are names that are less famous even to someone who’s studied Japanese literature. Looking at how that kind of compilation can end up assorted is fascinating.

The themes here are the expected ones because this volume did a great deal to set those expectations–so when there are lots of lovers crying into their sleeves, seasonal references, meeting in dreams, it’s interesting to watch them develop. The layout is similar to the previous translation volume I read from Larry, where the original and the translation are both given, and also contextual translation notes that point out where something is wordplay in the original, what significance a location had, the sort of thing that’s sometimes crucial and always set apart so it doesn’t nag at the poem itself. The poems are all five line formal ones, all very brief, so this is not a long read but a very rewarding one all the same.

The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore

Review copy provided by our mutual agent. Also we’re friends.

Every system, every society, every government, has its drawbacks. People differ on what those are and how to address them–in the real world. In too much fantasy, this disagreement gets flattened out into pure antagonism: this is the obvious problem, and if you’re not at least sort of aligned with me on the solution, you are The Baddie.

The Perfect Assassin doesn’t do that. Even in a system that features, well, secret assassins. And I enjoy that a lot.

Amastan is an historian by day, assassin by night. He and the others of his age group have been training for years, learning the rules that keep them in check as well as the skills that will be the difference between life and death for them and others. But someone else isn’t following those rules. Amastan and his friends discover not only a corpse, but one whose jaani (spirit, more or less, sort of) has not been properly laid to rest. This unexpected danger spurs him to find out more about the people around him, and about the past he is supposed to be studying.

Amastan is a beautifully cautious protagonist. He thinks things through, he tries his best–and he still gets himself into heaps of trouble. You will never have the “UGH THINK THINGS THROUGH” problem here, because ‘Stan does think things through–and the results are beautifully, humanly messy anyway. I was nearly late for a lunch meeting when I picked up this book, and it remained fun, exciting, and especially compelling throughout–for me, substantially because its protagonist is so well-drawn. Definitely recommended.

Books read, early March

Elizabeth Bear, Ancestral Night. I read this space opera in draft and loved it then. I love it now. And not just for the Mantis Cop! Although: Mantis Cop. Seriously there is fun with space travel, there is fun with alien species, there is, most importantly, fun with the human brain! How do we become civilized people, what alters free will and what is a means of asserting it…there are some huge questions in this book, and also loving chosen family, and also quite a lot of vacuum along the way. Highly recommended.

Mary Beard, How Do We Look and Women and Power: A Manifesto. Both of these books are Beard’s generalist side, turning her extensive knowledge of history to wider questions. They’re not going to revolutionize ideas about art and gaze or about women, but they’re solid works, the sort of thing that helps bolster reasonable views. She has the lovely skill–not all that common in a Classicist or Classical historian in my experience–of being able to write without assuming that Rome is the world’s eternal center, which makes things 1000% more readable for me. I’d previously read her book about Pompeii but will pursue more.

H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants. This book was a bit disappointing for me. It did what it said on the tin, sort of; the epic part was lacking. But I felt that there was less of the zany context of the era than I was really hoping and more focus on these three dudes, most of whom should have been kicked sharply in the shins. There are better books about the early Republic out there.

Zen Cho, The True Queen. Light and frothy and fun. Some of the plot twists are visible from space, and yet it’s experiencing the specific way that Cho writes them that provides the joy. Recognizes that pre-20th century England was the center of a global empire and not an ethnic monoculture, and used that fact as the basis for a glorious romp.

Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House. Children’s historical novel about a young Ojibwa girl. It is mostly bright and suffused with light, but there are moments where history makes the shadows in this child’s life very deep indeed.

Meg Frank and Julia Rios, eds., Hope in This Timeline. This is a beautiful collection of hopeful stories from Fireside. I had read them already, but having a copy to shelve makes me very happy.

Tessa Gratton, The Strange Maid. This is the second book in a deeply weird series about Norse gods. It is the right kind of deeply weird; I am so fond and so pleased and I cannot wait to get the third one. Also it’s the kind of series that doesn’t just do more of the same but goes into different ideas and places and perspectives. Yay for this Valkyrie book.

Larry Hammer, These Things Called Dreams: The Poems of Ono no Komachi. Discussed elsewhere.

Kate Heartfield, Alice Payne Rides. Discussed elsewhere.

Carlos Hernandez, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe. What a lovely way to spend a snow day. I bounced around full of joy at the adventures of Sal and Gabi. Which are not always joyful adventures! There’s some deep stuff going on here! But it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s serious, it’s full of parallel universes, and the protags and their families and friends are immensely charming. I loved Carlos’s collection of short work for adults. This MG novel won my heart in a totally different–and very much similar–way. Highly recommended.

Kelly Jones, Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? This is the sequel to the previous chicken superpower book, and I love them so much, they make me so happy, I am all in on whatever Kelly Jones wants to do next, because: yay super chickens.

T. Kingfisher, Swordheart. This was funny and adventurous and very sharp about problems with our world while also taking on genre tropes. I laughed and gasped and enjoyed the heck out of this. More.

Sonya Taaffe, Forget the Sleepless Shores. These stories remind me of a certain era of Elizabeth Hand stories in their beautiful prose, but with somewhat different roots. The ones that drew on Jewish sources were my favorite, but honestly there’s not a badly-written piece in here.

Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work. Poems about everyday life, mostly not in the poet’s immediate present but in her past, through photos of her family and thoughts about what that past has meant. Also some beautiful poems on the line between domestic and nature poetry. I’m very glad I read these.

Anne Ursu, The Lost Girl. A book about sisterhood, about making space for other people and finding what you want to do with your own space, about friends and stubbornness and saving each other. What a fierce book this is. Yay.

These Things Called Dreams: The Poems of Ono no Komachi, translated by Larry Hammer

Review copy provided by the author, who has been a friend on this here internet for…gosh. A minute.

This is a selection of 9th century Japanese poems, with translation notes and images of their author from various sources. The images are very high quality reproductions and add to the sense of what was going on with Ono no Komachi, whose life is more speculated about than firmly documented.

The poems themselves are short and evocative–mostly in one genre of love poetry or another, with room for playfulness. Larry’s chosen layout does a good job of letting the reader appreciate the translated poem as a poem, just as it is, and only then transition to the translation notes, which are easy to understand even without a strong grasp of Japanese and give cultural as well as linguistic context for each poem. Where there is wordplay that’s impossible to translate, that’s noted–but not in the middle of the poem where it would distract from writing that is on one layer still easy to enjoy on its own terms over a millennium later and in a different language. This volume is short but rewarding.

Alice Payne Rides, by Kate Heartfield

Review copy provided by the author’s agent, who is a personal friend.

This is the sequel to another novella, Alice Payne Arrives, and really you should not read it as a stand-alone when the first one is so readily available. The relationships, the technology, the consequences, are all spelled out much more thoroughly in the first volume. This one assumes you’ve already gotten all that and are ready to ride on.

And it does ride on, right away, with all the things happening at once–and since this is a time travel novel, I really do mean that they are all happening at once. The future and the past are here and neither one is letting up for a minute–except that they keep shifting out from under each other.

There are a few things that strike me as somewhat off in the timelines–specifically, I feel like the late 18th century is being treated like the late 19th century when it is way more decadent and scandalous–but it’s not enough to stop the full-on time travel fun. And steampunk swashbuckling. It’s an alternate history! It’s a time travel book! It’s a steampunk adventure! Friends, it’s all of that.

Books read, late February

Ben Barres, Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. This is a very brief and to-the-point volume–although some of its points are kind of sideways from most people’s points, which is delightful. I could attribute this to the fact that Barres wrote it very quickly when he knew he was dying. But honestly it seems like that’s just how Barres was. He wanted to describe some fairly rare experiences he’d had and talk about how they extrapolate more broadly…but even more than that he wanted to give credit to junior scientists in his lab and talk about glial cells. Which I found charming and relatable.

Gwenda Bond, Girl on a Wire. Disclosure: I am not a sucker for circus stories. If anything, the opposite. I know some people find a tightrope walker main character to be an automatic yes, but I’m not in their number. However, the subtle magic and family dynamics of this book won me over fairly early. I found it to be a fun read even though balance is definitely not my forte.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister the Serial Killer. This is another brief fun read, although it’s very dark. The perspective character is a long-suffering elder sister who feels roped into her younger sister’s bad habit of killing her boyfriends. The characterization and the setting and basically the whole thing are vividly handled, but it’s not something you’re likely to find uplifting, if that’s what you’re looking for today.

Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschil, Becky Cloonan, Adam Archer, and Msassyk, Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 2: The Ballad of Olive Silverlock. Frankly I’m glad they got this out of the way, because it’s a part of the story they were fairly clearly angling to tell for quite some time, and it was pretty cliched. There were a few fun moments, but basically I’m glad they got it out of their systems.

N.K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month. Controversial opinion time: I think this is the best N.K. Jemisin book. It has emotional and tonal range, it has strong worldbuilding in tight quarters, and almost all of the stories are satisfying arcs in themselves, even when they take place in the same world as novels. The settings and themes vary widely and deftly. Unless someone absolutely hates short stories, this is such a great place to start someone on reading Jemisin’s work. Or to continue, if that’s where you are!

Kelly Jones, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. This is so charming. What a delight. Highly, highly recommended. My goddaughter has been talking about this book for years (which in her young life is a pretty high percentage of how long she’s been on the planet!), and I finally got a copy and it is so much fun. The chickens have superpowers. None of the superpowers are being human, though–they don’t talk, they don’t act like humans, they act like chickens. And the human girl who is raising them has to figure out what to do and how. She is amazing and I love her and I am getting the sequel stat.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits. And speaking of middle-grade delight, this is the second one in a series. I would recommend reading the first one first, because there’s a lot of implication and ramification here, but that’s no hardship, since the first one is also delightful. A family of young Latina sisters doing baking magic! So much family! So much deliciousness! So much magic! This is exactly the sort of thing I like.

Gregory Rabassa, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents: A Memoir. (I still do not know why he spelled discontents with a y.) He talks a bit about life as a translator and then goes into detailing his many projects and how they went, which is fairly interesting considering how much of magic realism he translated. This is very much a curmudgeon of 25 years ago, though, and I rolled my eyes a lot–at the bit where he claims there has to be a better word for a particular situation than homophobic but does not indicate the direction of his objection (YOU ARE THE TRANSLATOR SIR BETTER WORDS ARE YOUR JOB), the passage where he flags that where he says “he” you should think “he or she”…and then promptly uses “she” as the generic for copy editing because that is a girl job. Not cool, Rabassa. So really I recommend this if you’re particularly interested in translation or if you’re particularly interested in twentieth century writing in Spanish and Portuguese and how it got into English.

Susan Hand Shetterly, Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge. This is a lot more about the human use and cultivation of seaweed than I was expecting/hoping, but it’s still a gentle, interesting book, and it’s not so long that you can really get tired of kelp. At least I couldn’t.

Erin Thompson, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present. I often describe nonfiction as doing what it says on the tin. This does considerably less than it says on the tin. It is extremely narrowly focused on collecting antiquities from Greece and Italy that were from the Greek and Roman Classical periods. There is a whole lot of interesting material about the psychology and history of collection that is immediately ruled out there. I think Thompson does a better job with this focus than she would if she was following a fairly common pattern of actually talking about this focus and then handwaving vaguely in the direction of Chinese or Mayan antiquities–much less modern “collectibles”–but it does make for a book that’s somewhat less interesting for me than if it had had a broader scope.

Cool short stories by other people: early 2019

As always, I make no claims of having read comprehensively in this amazing field, so if there are other stories you want to recommend, please feel free!

Morgan Al-Moor, The Beast Weeps With One Eye (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Elizabeth Bear, Deriving Life (Tor.com)

John Chu, Beyond the El (Tor.com)

A. T. Greenblatt, Give the Family my Love (Clarkesworld)

Alex E. Harrow, Do Not Look Back, My Lion (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Mimi Mondal, His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light (Tor.com)

A. Merc Rustad, With Teeth Unmake the Sun (Lightspeed)

Lavie Tidhar, Venus in Bloom (Clarkesworld)

Eugenia Triantafyllou, We Are Here to Be Held (Strange Horizons)

Ginger Weil, The Day Our Ships Came In (Daily SF)

Fran Wilde, A Catalog of Storms (Uncanny)

John Wiswell, The Tentacle and You (Nature Futures)

Thornbound, by Stephanie Burgis

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

This is the sequel to Snowspelled, which I found utterly charming and full of snow, but I repeat myself. (I know, I know: not everyone finds snow as charming as I do.) (But! So much snow!) The seemingly natural force at work against Cassandra Harwood this time is fast-growing ivy–and it’s threatening her new school for magic, the first such to educate girls.

The interpersonal conflicts keep this story humming in the best possible way: with the characters motivated mostly by care so that the few who are motivated by animosity sticking out as unusual. The social webs in which all the characters exist are fascinating and believable, and their determination to strike out on new paths is inspiring as well as fun. I’m looking forward to the third in this series.

We’re getting the band back together!

Arkady Martine, Django Wexler, John Chu, and I had so much fun teaching the workshop at 4th St. Fantasy convention last year that we’re doing it again this year…but with a twist! This year’s theme is “Getting Unstuck.” Participants in the workshop should submit pieces they’re stuck on–not outlines but some prose written–and we’ll use tactics both usual and zany to get through the block. We’ll work on identifying patterns that contribute to getting stuck as well as ways out.

The deadline for signing up for the workshop is May 20, but it’s first-come first-served–AND convention membership rates go up on March 1–so now is a great time to sign up!