Perfect City, by Joe Berridge

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Not every science fiction writer can be Malka Older or Arkady Martine–in fact, statistically, hardly any of us can. The rest of us who are writing science fiction could use an assist in thinking about cities, and that’s where Joe Berridge comes in. (I think he did not think of being a resource to science fiction writers when he wrote this, but I am what I am, and this is what I do.)

Perfect City surveys a handful of cities in depth, with glancing mention of more, based on Berridge’s experience in urban planning and design. He talks about what’s working in Toronto, what makes Singapore vital, what problems Belfast has overcome and how. This is a general-audiences book, not a technical manual for fellow urban planners. Berridge wants to think about where you can get good dumplings as well as what kind of developments encourage the positive cycle of cultural opportunities (including good food), public appreciation, and widespread support.

Berridge’s cities are not my cities. He’s mostly concerned with the largest of the large, and there were times when I felt he slipped into valuing population size and economic output at the expense of other urban values. (Montreal does not wish it was Melbourne. It just…doesn’t.) He doesn’t spend a lot of time on some of the technical details I think are most interesting (environmental impact of infrastructure: how do we do this well–just for example). But he’s attempting to balance lessons from Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and figure out how to apply them in a future setting, and that alone is valuable. He sees thriving immigrant communities as a positive in ways that we are going to need to cultivate in an era of climate refugees.

Also it’s charming to have someone talking earnestly about home-ownership rates and methods, housing density, etc., suddenly lapse into rhapsodies about where you can get good food. That’s the kind of thinking about cities that makes sense to me, human and entirely mingled.

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, by Jane Yolen

Review copy provided by the publisher. I also have the privilege to know the author a bit socially.

We’ve now had several decades–all of my lifetime, in fact–with fairy tale variations, reconceptions, recreations as a major subgenre. So the question about a collection like this can sometimes be: is there anything new to say here? Is it possible to fracture a fairy tale in a way that is not in itself a predictable part of canon at this point?

Happily the answer here is not just yes, but “yes and I will even show you a little of how it’s done behind the scenes.” I was pleasantly surprised to reach the end of the collection and find not only notes on each story but a poem to go with each–sometimes very directly, sometimes with glancing notes on the same theme. Many of these stories are from previous decades, and Yolen takes time in the notes to talk about how she thought of them then–particularly interesting when they span a cultural shift of awareness around who gets to retell tales from whom.

I’d come upon some of these stories before in other collections of Jane’s, but I’m never sorry to see “Granny Rumple” reprinted–it changed my world when I first read it, and I think it can do the same for writers and readers who encounter it for the first time now. Jane’s warmth and humor permeate these tales, and breaking familiar stories like Snow White and Cinderella in more than one way in one collection gives us even more perspective on what these tales can still do.

Amnesty, by Lara Elena Donnelly

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the last in a trilogy, and it is all about consequences. Regular readers know what a sucker I am for consequences.

Years have passed since the events of Amberlough and Armistice. The world is not perfect–there are still war zones–but people have started to get through the very basics of rationing and rebuilding and into questions of who should be honored and who demonized in their recent turbulent history. For teenagers like Lillian and Jinadh’s son Stephen, the war and occupation are increasingly dim and distant memories, an obsession of adults. For the adults, it’s still all too close and all too real–especially when parts of the past don’t stay hidden in the jungle where they previously were.

Frankly, most of these characters are exhausted. Their old coping mechanisms are imperfectly adjusted to their new circumstances, which keep shifting anyway. None of them seem to have had even five minutes to put their feet up, breathe, and look at some nice trees or a sunset or something. Their world is relentless. That makes Amnesty a completely appropriate book for right now–and also sometimes a difficult one. There’s solace here, but it’s circumscribed, constrained; there are ways forward, but none of them without cost. There is hope, but not for the things the characters used to hope for. And there are people trying to do better. Always, always, amidst rubble and chaos and machination, there are people trying to do better.

Books read, early April

Claire Eliza Bartlett, We Rule the Night. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls. Reread. It was interesting to revisit this middle-aged coming-of-age tale after it’s had more than a decade to influence the rest of the field. I still love the worldbuilding and the characters, but it was important to keep in mind how much of an influence it’s been–that it looks a little less groundbreaking in retrospect than it actually is because other people have used that soil. Such a fun book, such a good book–and I’m so glad we’ve been thinking and writing about it since.

Pamela Dean, The Dubious Hills. Reread. One of my favorite books ever, and basically I will use any excuse to reread it. The way the worldbuilding and the characterization intertwine always makes me think…and then I always get pulled into the story. Go read this book. Go read this book again.

Emilie Demant Hatt, By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends. Discussed elsewhere.

Nicola Griffith, Hild. Reread. This is so immersive for me and so lovely and all the details and…it’s just so easy to slide into this cultural mindset. I hope that Griffith meant it that she’s writing more of St. Hilda’s story because I want that so much.

Barbara Hambly, Cold Bayou. The latest Benjamin January mystery. This is a perfectly serviceable entry in the series but not one of the standouts, and it’s a terrible place to start because it relies so much on you already knowing and caring about the characters. There’s not even a murder until halfway through the book, so if you don’t already want to spend time with these characters, go a bit further back in the series and try there. If you do–it further elaborates on some key relationships, particularly with January’s mother.

Larry Hammer, trans., Ice Melts in the Wind: The Seasonal Poems of the Kokinshu. Discussed elsewhere.

Beth Hilgartner, A Murder for Her Majesty. Reread. After so many years. My friend Ginger happened to mention this in passing, and I almost certainly lit up visibly, because I loved it as a child and did not remember the title. (My booklog only goes back to age 23 or 24 reliably. This is a source of sorrow sometimes.) There is a girl who disguises herself as a boy to run from murderers and does not do the sword fighting! No! She sings in a cathedral choir! There is Elizabethan roughhousing! There are Latin mottos iced onto cookies! There is music theory! I loved this book so much, and now I know which one it is, hurrah. Also…it is pretty anachronistic, now that I have somewhat more extensive knowledge of the Elizabethan era than I did when I was 8. So one must be braced. Still. Eeeee.

Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower. Extensive thoughts about what it’s like to be a god in a rock! Cholera or dysentery or similar disease! Despite being based on a very famous story whose parallels become very obvious as you read, this is not like anything else. I’m thrilled to see Ann doing something completely different and can’t wait to see what she does next, but in the meantime I sure enjoyed this.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems. This is very much a late-life collection, with thoughts about aging and death coming to the fore. I found it touching and valuable.

James E. Montgomery, Loss Sings. A slim chapbook about grief and translation. I would have liked for him to connect a few dots about different kinds of translation–to have some thoughts about translating for people who have or have not had a personal experience, or between those two groups–but what he had was interesting and did not outstay its welcome.

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Volume One. I wish there was a Collected Works out, but right now I’m approximating as best I can with this. I just keep having the urge to immerse myself. I know I’m going to return to several of these poems at important life moments, and also at random, just because.

Suzanne Palmer, Finder. Discussed elsewhere.

Kate Quinn, The Alice Network. This is a female-centered spy novel that spans two world wars and an important bit thereafter. The things it’s doing and saying about spying illuminate other works in the genre by contrast. I found it interesting, exciting, worthwhile. Will definitely look for more of Quinn’s work.

Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Issue 27. Kindle. I had an essay in this, and I don’t review work I’m in.

Jo Walton, Lifelode. Reread. This is still one of my favorite domestic fantasies, and I love the worldbuilding that is interwoven with everything and yet not…centered in a traditionally questy fantasy novel way. I love that the shape of this book is a character shape and yet the worldbuilding is not neglected.

Fran Wilde, Riverland. Oh good heavens this book. I picked it up one Sunday afternoon and basically did not put it down until it’s gone. It has so many things I love, glass and rivers and family relationships, and it is breathtaking in its handling of incredibly difficult things happening to its young protagonists. The way that the heroine both internalizes and fights the bad things that are happening in her life is so human and so real and cuts like broken glass. Highly recommended, but with care to pick your day so that you can handle the intensity of this book.

By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends, by Emilie Demant Hatt

Translated by Barbara Sjoholm. Review copy obtained through a long chain too strange to get into.

This is the translation of a 1922 work by a Danish woman who traveled extensively in the Norden collecting stories. She also made some woodcuts related to the stories, which are reproduced here–one of the places where black-and-white reproduction absolutely does a great job for the material.

It matters that Demant Hatt was a woman in this field. It matters a lot. Because the people she had access to hear stories from, the stories she got to hear, were much more evenly balanced between men and women both as tellers and as characters. Compared to other compilations of Saami [both spellings are used, this is the one I favor, both are fine though] tales, this is a far more accurate representation of range.

And it’s got so many great things. It’s got girls with agency to spare; it’s got feisty old ladies; it’s got reindeer and murder and weird northern birds. It’s got origin stories. It’s got “we don’t know anyone from OUR band who would do this but we HEARD of a girl who did this” stories. I was so excited when I heard this book existed, and it did not in any way disappoint. If you’re interested in Arctic peoples, or even if you just like folklore, this is a must-have.

Present Writers: Patricia C. Wrede

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 , and Caroline Stevermer.

I swear I’m not going to shift to making this series all about people I’m personally friends with…but neither am I going to neglect people whose work fits the series concept just because they happen to be good company for lunch.

The size and variety of Pat’s oeuvre gives lots of room for variety, and obviously some works will stand out as more favorite than others. My obscure faves are the stories in the shared Liavek worlds, handled deftly and now available in Points of Departure along with Pamela Dean’s stories in the same world. The handling of wry humor, family dynamics, and worldbuilding in these stories charmed me from the first one I encountered, but they’re even better as a set.

I recently reread a better-known favorite, Dealing With Dragons, which reminded me of some of the things I love about Pat’s work–the wry tone, as above, perhaps obviously. But also the way that women have a wide variety of relationships with each other. The first page made me think, oh, I don’t remember this very well, is it going to be one of those books where golden-haired girls who like embroidery are Bad and you have to be Not Like Them to protag? And I should have remembered that it was Pat, she was not going to do that, and sure enough there’s room for a wide range of skills and interests–and for a wide range of reactions to and interactions with each other. This was ground-breaking for so many “why don’t you ever see a heroine who” conversations, and it holds up so very well.

Just rereading one made me want to go back and reread the entire series. And also Sorcery and Cecelia. And also Snow White and Rose Red. It’s like quicksand. But in a good way. It’s like very complimentary quicksand that knows how to play the beats on a widely varied set of tropes…so percussionist quicksand…look, this is a good thing, I promise, let’s get back to the dragons.

Ice Melts in the Wind: The Seasonal Poems of the Kokinshu, translated by Larry Hammer

Review copy provided by the author, who has been a friend on this here internet for many years.

This is the longest of the three volumes of translation I’ve read from Larry lately, but it follows roughly the same format: each poem has its translation and its original provided, with notes on context and any translation difficulties below. I find this format extremely congenial–and I had to laugh at one poem, where I was thinking, hmm, kinda clunky, and then Larry’s note was about the awkwardness of the original. The joys of translation!

This is, again, the kind of book of poetry that both uses and is the source of heavily used tropes and even cliches in its genre. Cherry blossoms abound, but also particular birds, wisteria, chrysanthemums, falling leaves. The signifiers of the seasons are clearly determined–the question is what each individual poet does with them, and I really enjoyed having the examples that failed to distinguish themselves as well as the ones that succeeded, just on the grounds of context.

Finder, by Suzanne Palmer

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is an online friend.

This is a debut novel of a kind of science fiction loads of my friends are constantly (no, CONSTANTLY) telling me they do not see enough. It’s planets-and-aliens science fiction! It’s got space stations and settlements and lots of divergence/diversity of human culture and a very big universe and spaceships that think and people disagreeing about who counts as people! Adventure! Excitement! We may know that a Jedi craves not these things, but that doesn’t seem to stop the majority of my social circle.

Well, here you go, friends, here’s a one of these, and it is fun and satisfying and has an ending that leaves a lot of room without being maddeningly open. This is a book, not a chunk of story approximately book-shaped. Fergus Ferguson (under various aliases) and his allies (maybe friends? They’re working on that?) unravel mysteries, fight bad guys, and come up with plans so zany they just might work.

Or not, but then something else needs to, and that’s okay too.

I don’t want to spoil too many elements of Finder, because turning a corner and finding I was not quite where I expected to be was part of the fun of this book. I will say that there are a lot of elements that I’m used to having set up for two, three, five books later, and while there is plenty of room in this universe for interesting stories, Palmer is not hoarding her ideas. She’s giving us a fireworks-filled book. Or sometimes a tennis-ball-filled book. Um. Just go read it, okay? You’ll find out.

We Rule the Night, by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Full disclosure: we are friends who are represented by the same agent, and I got this review copy from passing it around among our agentsibs.

However.

I am entirely sure that I would love this book anyway, even if I’d never heard of Claire Eliza Bartlett before, because it is so full of things I love. The setting is a fantasy world version of WWII-era Russia, which is something I don’t see nearly enough of–and then to make things even better, Claire draws on the real history of the Night Witches to create a group of girl witches–pilots, navigators, and engineers using this setting’s magic to fly missions against the enemy.

Revna is the daughter of a supposed traitor to the Union, a man whose main crime is stealing waste scraps of “living metal” to fashion prosthetic legs for Revna herself. LinnĂ© is the general’s daughter, spending years hiding in a regular regiment as a boy until she gets caught, dedicated to the Union. They find themselves in very different precarious situations within their very different worldviews, that lead to the same flight training, the same missions, the same perils.

It’s as good as it sounds. It’s better. It’s full of varied and complicated relationships with a morally compromised homeland under siege. Friendships form in all permutations in a war zone: the shallow ones, the easy ones that find their own depth, the treacherous ones, the difficult ones that almost don’t happen at all. Trust, friendship, and making your way through a situation with no clear answers are the heart of this book, and I love it.