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.