A Small Charred Face, by Kazuki Sakuraba

Review copy provided by Haikasoru Books.

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time. The Bamboo, the creatures in it, are described as vampires, but they’re really more grass monsters who eat human carrion. They’re described as scary, but I’m not particularly scared by them so much as baffled by their strange, secretive, hierarchical laws. (For me, this is a feature, not a bug.) And on basically every other page, I’m left saying, “What? What?” (Again, a feature, not a bug.)

There are three sections varying widely in time, with different protagonists. Even within the sections, the timeline swings wildly, spending pages on a conversation translated lovingly to attempt to show what level of formality the Japanese conversation used (oh, a losing battle) and then going over forty years in a single line. I would say that it’s full of plot twists, but that sounds very linear, very straightforward, as though things are following one upon another with logic–it is full of plot twists the way the dream you are trying to remember from two nights ago is full of plot twists. “And then you what? Why? Okay.”

And then the grass monster reached the end of their life and exploded into flowers. What? Okay. No, different section, they ate someone who they thought was abusing a prostitute. What? Okay. If that’s not okay with you, you should probably move along, because that’s what there is here, a whole lot of angst and monsters and randomness, and some of you are saying, gosh, no thanks, and some of you are saying, sign me on up.

Please consider using our link to buy A Small Charred Face from Amazon.

Books read, early September

Alex Alice, Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869. Discussed elsewhere.

Hassan Blasim, ed., Iraq+100 Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 7. Kindle. Plotty, moving forward, full of dust storms and schoolgirl antics, as one would expect for this project.

Marie Brennan, Maps to Nowhere. Discussed elsewhere.

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Kindle. And this is what happened to my early September. Middlemarch is surprising; it is delightful. It is one of the longest classics of English literature, and it is a joy to read. I kept thinking that I would want to leaven it with bits of something else, go off and take a break and read something in the middle of it. I didn’t. (I mean, I always have a book of short pieces going. But other than that.) While I was reading Middlemarch, I kept wanting to read Middlemarch, and when I was done reading it I wanted more of it. The only thing of its size that’s at all comparable in my attachment to it is John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, and that does not have the passionate following Middlemarch has–wherever I mentioned it I found that friends and strangers were ready to share my delight in this wandering intense chatty behemoth of a book. I’m discussing it with a friend who’s reading it with me. I’m not sure I have a lot to add for the general audience except to say, it’s funny, it’s intense, it’s gigantic emotionally as well as literally, it makes me want to read more George Eliot, it makes me want to read its giant self all over again. It is in some ways exactly what you would expect and in other ways nothing like what you’d expect. It is thoroughly itself. And oh, I love her, I love George Eliot so very much. I’m glad I read such a quotable thing when I was past the age of needing to strip-mine books for epigraphs. I can do that later. I’m glad I could just relax in and read this first time.

Masha Gessen, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. I enjoyed another of Gessen’s books and picked this up because the library had it, more or less on a whim. And it gave me a perspective on modern Russia that nothing else has, particularly on its criminal justice system. What the prison system is doing there, what trials are like, what sorts of things are prioritized, what and who counts, what and who does not. Enraging, illuminating. There are some things Gessen just takes for granted you will know about feminist art theory and punk, but I think it may still be interesting if you don’t? but even better if you do. Also, if you have a very strong high culture/low culture divide, read this book and have that nonsense knocked out of you. Not that I have an opinion about that.

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King. Discussed elsewhere.

Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. This is very much in the popular history category: short chapters, many things explained on a fairly straightforward level. Not a lot of delving deep into the obscure corners. However, Inskeep does a fairly good job of switching back and forth between the lens of the European settlers turned recent Americans and the lens of the cultures of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and especially Cherokee people in the region he was discussing. One of the things that this particularly underscored for me is how quickly the European/American settlers viewed the land as traditionally theirs in that part of the south: the beginning of the Cherokee Trail of Tears was twenty-three years before the US Civil War. Even the earliest of the resettlements was only thirty years before. So in some parts of the Deep South, there were indeed plantations that had been going for generations–but in large, large swaths of it, the land they were fighting so hard for was land they had just taken from its previous owners basically five minutes ago. References to traditional way of life in that context are basically like talking about GameBoys and other hand-held gaming devices as our traditional way of life: they are bullshit. I think the way we are taught this period of history in American schooling encourages us not to think of that. I will want to read much deeper works on Andrew Jackson’s presidency. In this case I will say: Inskeep is not trying to paint him as a great guy or not a racist…and I still think he ends up going too easy on him. But it’s a good starter work for this period, I think.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Language of the Night. Reread. The last time I read this was before I was keeping a book log, which means also before I was selling short stories regularly. I was a lot less prone to argue with assertions about fantasy not needing to compromise then. (Oh nonsense, of course it does.) But one of the things that makes Ursula LeGuin a great writer is that she argues with her past self, too. She evolves. She evolves in the course of this collection. And I think she’d be far happier with people thinking and arguing than uncritically absorbing anyway.

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch. So…I didn’t mean to go straight from Middlemarch to a book about it, but the other thing I had from the library, I bounced off, and…I wasn’t ready to be done. This is Mead’s memoir entangled with a bit of biography of Eliot. There are places where Mead is bafflingly obtuse (some areas of gender politics and the writing of sexuality, notably, but also the difference between a character who is fully human and a character who is generally sympathetic), but in general it is short and rattles along satisfyingly and tells me things I want to know about George Eliot without telling me too many things I actively didn’t want to know about Rebecca Mead.

A. Merc Rustad, So You Want to Be a Robot. This is a solid and heart-wrenching collection. It’s impossible to pick one true favorite because there are so many good choices. Definitely highly recommended, Merc hits it out of the park here. And they’re just getting started.

Gerald Vizenor, Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. This is when Vizenor was just getting started, and gosh I’m glad I didn’t get started with his early work, because…why, oh why, did so many men of the seventies–particularly men who wanted to claim they were ecologically minded without doing much about it–pick the same direction for their demonstrations of their own sexual daring? Well, Vizenor grew out of it. But it’s a one of those. The person who wrote the afterword was sure that objections to it would be because people thought Indians couldn’t be like that! and no, it’s that it’s trite, it’s exactly the kind of trite sexual objectification of women–especially Indian women–that you’d expect from “seventies dude trying to be sexually shocking.” He got better. I’m glad.

Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The cover describes this as, “The first anthology of science fiction to have emerged from Iraq,” but “emerged” seems insufficient to describe the work the editors did to make this project happen. Without an established science fiction community, editors definitely can’t just call for submissions and put their feet up. From what’s in the introduction, Hassan Blasim, with the help of Ra Page, approached writers from many regions of Iraq, generations, and writing styles, coaxing and cajoling them to approach the idea of Iraq a hundred years after invasion, doing with it whatever they saw fit. That’s not just emergence. That’s beyond even encouragement.

My favorite part of the stories themselves is the focus on Iraq as a future setting: this square or that city taking pride of place, this saying or that legend being the focus. I love fiction in translation for that reason: for the shift in perspective. I want more of it. And in order to get more of it, I’m willing to deal with stories that are not what I would ordinarily like best: stories with more sexual threat, stories that retread similar ground to previous work in other languages/cultures, stories that don’t seem to be able to find any thread of hope in the entire world. Which is not this entire volume, but it is some of this volume. If what I really want is works in translation from all over the world–and it is–I need to let the people actually from those places tell me what stories they want to tell, not tell them that their stories don’t fit my preconceptions of what they should want to tell. So while in some ways this was a bumpy reading experience for me, with some delights and some difficulties, I’m very glad to have the opportunity for the bumps.

Please consider using our link to buy Iraq+100 from Amazon.

Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869, by Alex Alice

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

When a person who mainly reads prose expands into reviewing graphic novels meant for children, suddenly the form factor of the book starts mattering a great deal more than it ever did before. This book is a large, slender hardbound, the sort of book I don’t see regularly outside picture books. Its production values are glossy and very high–but it’s not a picture book, it’s a watercolor graphic novel translated from the French.

The paintings are lovely. The layout is sometimes quite busy for my eye, having extra rows and columns of illustration compared to a “standard” size of graphic novel.

Seraphin’s mother is an explorer of the aether, a scientist in her hot air balloon. When she disappears on a dangerous flight, Seraphin and his father try to balance their own explorations with a desire to keep each other safe–and to find out what happened to her. They wind up in Bavaria, at the court of King Ludwig, whose swan-shaped aether-ship is promisingly bizarre.

The “book one” in the title is not merely an indication that this is a series: the story is not complete in this volume. What adventures will our young etc. and his daring friends etc. etc. I think comics readers are pretty used to that sort of thing, and there is plenty of adventure, excitement, swashing, and buckling. It’s a fairly old-fashioned sort of adventure–maximum of one girl character at a time, apparently, and the gratuitous startled-in-the-bath scene–but airships and 19th century science jokes do have their charm; I would definitely read further to see how this comes out.

Please consider using our link to buy Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869 from Amazon.

Blue Ribbon

Today’s reprint has particularly good timing! Lightspeed is running a story of mine that has never been available online before, Blue Ribbon. (It previously appeared in Analog and in Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction.) Why is this good timing?

Well, for non-Americans, it’s a story to enjoy on a Tuesday, okay, sure. For most Americans, it’ll be something to ease you back into your work week after the Labor Day holiday weekend. Who could argue with that kind of timing? I hope you enjoy it!

But for those of you who are missing your State Fair now that it’s over. For those of you who were 4H kids in particular. Yes, this is my story of 4H kids in space. It’s not the perky tale of “and then I won the prize, hurray!” that that thumbnail might suggest, but I’m pretty proud of it all the same. And the day after the State Fair seems like just the right time for it to be more broadly available for the first time.

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Ben Hatke is a favorite of mine, and I was excited to get this sequel to last year’s Mighty Jack. I darted through it–it’s definitely a page-turner, following the cliffhanger ending of the first volume into strange new spaces full of goblins and giants and creatures who live in pipes. Jack and his friend Lilly are out to save his mute little sister Maddy from who knows what fate–although we soon find out, and it’s pretty gruesome.

Along the way they get separated. Jack has to whack things with his sword, bravely and boldly. Lilly has to actually figure things out, stick up for herself, and also whack things with her sword. But Jack’s name is on the cover, so even the dragon tells Jack he has saved the day when Lilly does some A+ prime grade day-saving.

Also Maddy speaks a crucial word at a crucial moment. I feel like having a mute character who did cool stuff was entirely fine, and having a character who speaks for plot convenience when the author feels it’s RULLY IMPORTANT is really less fine. Maddy goes from opinionated and nonverbal to rescue-bait. I know that Jack is going to be protective of his little sister, but I am considerably less thrilled with how much the disabled girl (intersectionally here; both elements) has basically one moment of agency in a plot where she’s the object.

It’s not the worst example of this stuff out there. It just could have been better. There’s room for more here, and I hope Hatke takes the opportunities to do more with these characters, particularly with the girls, rather than taking the path of least resistance.

Please consider using our link to buy Mighty Jack and the Goblin King from Amazon.

Maps to Nowhere, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author, who is also a personal friend. Also the title is a Fire and Hemlock reference, which, come on, how can that not bias a reviewer.

If you’ve read any of Brennan’s work before, there are through-lines to it: anthropology, history/quasi-history, and adventure fantasy. These are clearly visible in this short story collection, although the adventure fantasy is the smallest strain in this bunch. I think it’s in some ways hardest to write something that feels like adventure fantasy and still has plot at this length. In any case, if you haven’t read Brennan’s work before, that’s the place where this collection is least representative of the spread of what she’s doing.

Other than that, there is quite a lot of what Brennan does. There are bits with faeries and bits with odd artifacts, stories of self-discovery and stories of community relationship. There are funny bits and deathly serious bits. There’s a lot of range here.

What there is not–and this was important for me the day I read this book, and it may well be important for you–is a lot of gratuitously depressing or cruel material. The characters are not all sweetness and light–some of them are basically no sweetness and light–but what this collection is unlikely to do is leave you numbed and helpless in the face of an uncaring world. I feel like when I ask for things that are not staggeringly depressing, people think I want books in which the teddy bears have their picnic, and this is not one of those. This is just…balanced. Sometimes we can use some balance.

Please consider using our link to buy Maps to Nowhere from Amazon.

Books read, late August

Susann Cokal, The Kingdom of Little Wounds. The author of this book apparently described it to people as “a fairy tale of syphilis,” and this is pretty accurate. It’s also about mercury poisoning, madness, and abuse (both sexual and non-sexual). And a Ruritanian Scandinavian/Nordic kingdom. It’s really well-written. It’s really grueling and horrible. I recommend it. I recommend it very, very selectively. If you’re not going to be put off by something like 500 pages of the above, with very little relief from any other topic whatsoever, then rock on with this book.

Curtis Craddock, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. Discussed elsewhere.

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I was not hitting good luck with the cheerful books this August. Demick did a lot of interviews with people who had escaped, a lot of stuff about everyday life, personal experiences, some stuff about starvation and terror but in the context of just getting by, school uniforms and trying to cook what you have and trying to have a job you don’t totally hate and…human things. Utterly, utterly human things. It’s worthwhile not to look away from this kind of reporting…for some of us, some of the time. It’s okay for you to choose whether this is going to be one of the horrible bits of knowledge you’re going to endure right away, right now.

Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth. An alternate history novella with hippos in the lower Mississippi. Diverse on the axes of gender and race. Hippos are hippos, not anthropomorphized, and while they have been domesticated, they are not notably sweet. Nor are they notably mean-spirited in all cases. They’re, well, hippos. Sometimes bad things happen to characters, but it’s not a crapsack world where nobody cares about anybody. I had fun with this.

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. This is an essay collection whose jacket copy talked up the author’s job as an actress teaching med students patient empathy. Only the first of the essays touched on that, and it only in very shallow terms. The rest of the essays were much more random-essay-collection fare about her travels to various places and what she hopes to have learned from their inhabitants, what she is thinking about herself and society and the world. Given the title I feel that I am failing a bit when I say: this did not strike me as an outstanding collection of its type. It was fine. I am not sorry I read it; I cannot particularly commend it to you as more insightful than another randomly selected set of essays that managed best when focused on their own author.

N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. The worldbuilding in this is just outstanding. There is so much geology. I don’t know when I’ve seen so much passionate geology in worldbuilding. I think never. I can see why this series is winning so many awards, because it has both physical and social ramifications. It is just plain impeccable. The social ramifications are substantially on the front of “fractal implications of the structures of oppression,” which means that it can be a horrifying thing to read over and over again. The characters’ interpersonal relationships have only small positive moments punctuating long stretches of grief, despair–not horror as a genre, but horror in how humans treat other humans. Brilliantly done–but another one to time very carefully.

Simo Laakkonen, Richard Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War. This is an academic volume of essays, of the sort where each chapter takes a different focus and is by a different author or authors. So there will be a bit about Hawaii and the Pacific, a bit about the Arctic, and so on. I found that a few too many of the chapters equated ecology a bit too strongly with managed environment for my tastes–farms and managed forests are important but are not by any means the only systems to consider–but on the other hand I do want them considered, I want the impact on them considered. And most of the contributors appeared to be Finnish and Canadian, giving the overall authorial voice a cool tone outside the superpower assumptions that was beautiful, great, well-done.

Leena Likitalo, The Five Daughters of the Moon. Exquisitely done worldbuilding, based on the last days of the tsar. I’m not sure I understand the decision to make this into a novella duology with a cliffhanger in the middle instead of, y’know, a novel. But I was invested enough in some of the characters (and all of the worldbuilding, amber and machinery and all) to pick up the next when it comes out.

Josh MacIvor-Andersen, ed., Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. The pieces vary quite a lot here, from things I would classify as prose poems to more standard essays. Also in length. Not a lot of it was directly about trees either scientifically or more poetically. It was mostly about people in tree-adjacent ways. That surprised me, but it was still interesting. There was a bunch of stuff about religion, a bunch about families and relationships, a little bit about math…it was quite an interesting mix. (And I was only half-joking with a friend about doing a Best New Arboreal Fiction. That would actually be more than tree-adjacent, I would hope.)

Anton Treuer, Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe. This was actually really very positive for a people who have been through quite a lot. And the structural trick for writing an uplifting book about a nation of people who have had a lot of oppressive crap dumped on them without whitewashing the oppressive crap appears to be focusing on positive community leadership. Not every book can be like that, but this book is like that, and I think it’s quite good for it to be like that. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad it exists. Recommended if you have even a little interest in this topic.

Phoebe Wagner and Bronte Christopher Wieland, eds., Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. Mismatch of writer and reader expectations is a well-known phenomenon, and it’s generally a good idea not to write a bad review of a book that is not bad but merely not what was expected. I do want to flag, though, this specific thing: for me there is a difference between something that’s labeled optimistic and something that’s labeled optimistic ecological science fiction. When almost none of the SF chosen is SF that connects in a solid speculative way to the present–when it’s not anywhere we can see a path to get from here–the optimism feels less optimistic to me in a way that it wouldn’t if the stories had not been labeled ecological SF or eco-speculation or even solarpunk. It actually ends up feeling pessimistic: as though to get an optimistic emotional tone we have to have a complete departure from this reality, which I don’t think is the case, and I don’t think is at all the position of the editors or the authors. And it’s the sort of thing that an anthology can fall into without clear intent, if solicited authors deliver stories with a particular bent. So: setting that consideration aside, I felt that A.C. Wise’s story was a clear stand-out, and I also felt that Lavie Tidhar executed very well. I also particularly enjoyed poems by Chloe N. Clark (both!), Sara Norja, and Brandon O’Brien.

Caroline Yoachim, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World. This collection has both breadth and depth, in both ideas and tone. Seriously one of the best collections I’ve read in years. I can’t call out favorite stories because there are just too many of them. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s fantasy, it’s science fiction, it’s got everything. You really want this collection. Highly recommended.