Critical Point, by S.L. Huang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the third in the Cas Russell series. Cas remains, as she has been throughout, a computational genius with no past, who shoots people a lot. Her hazy past keeps catching up with her in pieces, and holding it at bay is taking a lot of her time and energy.

What’s worse, her friends have histories of their own, less hazy and more immediate–and substantially undisclosed to Cas. So when a teenage girl turns up saying that her parent is in trouble–and Cas didn’t even know that friend was a parent–there’s an extra level of adventure to the psychic manipulation/blowing things up that is Cas’s daily life.

What’s worse, she’s finding it hard to keep track of all the ways in which she’s being manipulated by different parties. There’s someone she’s supposed to remember–someone overwhelmingly terrifying–but who was he? Who was responsible for all the explosions? Who is impersonating whom here, and why?

I’m trying to be careful about spoilers for this thriller, because watching it unfold is a large part of the fun, but there are even more players with even more games than in previous volumes. I think this one stands alone somewhat better than Null Set, but I’d still recommend starting the ride at the beginning, with Zero Sum Game, for maximum impact.

Present Writers: Karen Joy Fowler

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, and Rosemary Kirstein.

Karen Joy Fowler’s speculative genre credentials are impeccable, and her mimetic genre credentials are also impeccable. It’s easy to immerse in her writing, knowing that when she applies a trope from one genre set or another, it’s on purpose, it’s all deliberate. Her work is as speculative as a particular piece needs it to be, no more and no less, but the range on that is huge, from the entirely mimetic Jane Austen Book Club to the first contact novel Sarah Canary.

Fowler has won bunches of awards, the World Fantasy, the Nebula, the PEN/Faulkner. But she also was one of the founders of another, the Otherwise Award which was formerly named the Tiptree. (It’s kind of a big deal.) That kind of appreciation of others shines through in her fiction and makes it more insightful and bigger-hearted. I’m never sure what I’m going to get in a Karen Joy Fowler story, but that’s actually the appeal–it is literally never “oh, this again,” it’s always a different balance and a different angle.

Null State, by S.L. Huang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cas Russell is a calculation savant with no past who shoots a lot of people. She fights crime.

No, really, crime as a whole, the entire gestalt of crime. That’s what she’s decided to take on in this book: not that dude’s crime, but Crime. And in the middle of doing that, her past-that-isn’t catches up with her.

Or tries to. Or tries not to. Cas is not supposed to remember what happened to her, and those blocks are breaking down in ways that are dangerous for her and for those around her. This book–a sequel to Zero Sum Game–pays attention to a lot of the ways that having psychics who can mess around in people’s heads could get very complicated, and very dangerous, very quickly.

This is a fast-paced science fiction thriller about someone whose friendships are utterly crucial to her, even when she’s not sure quite who she is. If that appeals to you, it might be time to catch up on this series; the third volume comes out soon.

The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author a bit socially.

This is the third full-length book in the Lady Astronauts series. There’s a change of protagonists–this one is from the perspective of Nicole Wargin, an astronaut who is also a politician’s wife–but the events of the previous volumes are important to this one. I’d recommend reading the others first rather than diving in with this as your entry point.

The astronauts and colonists have gotten settled enough into a moon colony that there can be such a thing as routine, but back at home the Earth Firsters still think they have a chance to derail the entire project. So Nicole Wargin not only finds herself separated from her beloved husband by thousands of miles just when he’s trying to run a presidential campaign–she’s also dealing with a saboteur on the moon. And, oh, by the way, a polio outbreak. And trying to help Earth with its problems from a distance, with satellite service not as reliable as it should be.

She’s dealing with a lot of shit here, to paraphrase Bull Durham. But for as long as this book is, it never drags; I was always in “just one more chapter” mode while I read it. And I have never been so happy about a scene where someone eats applesauce in my life. Despite the quarantine aspects being far more relevant than I expect Mary ever would have wished, this was still a fun read, and I’m glad I had an alternate universe worth of problems to contemplate for a few hours.

Driftwood, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author has been a friend of mine for Quite Some Time Now.

This is what used to be called a fix-up: where an author has published multiple stories in a setting, with one or more characters in continuity, and they go and write material that goes between the stories and make a book out of it. Driftwood is a really fertile setting for the fix-up that bears its name, because it features a potentially infinite number of worlds colliding, annihilating in slow-motion and leaving scraps of people and customs as they go. A Driftwood story could feature nearly any ideas, brought in from another wave of worlds.

The continuity in this book is provided by the character Last, undying, wandering from world to world. The other characters aren’t quite sure what to make of Last–Last is not always sure what to make of himself–but sometimes having a guide is enough, even if you’re not sure what he’s doing until the end of the section–or after. The nature of Driftwood gives a chance for others to serve as foils for Last in different directions–almost in a Doctor Who style, where part of the Doctor’s differences are due to his Companions at the time. But Driftwood steers clear of our history, its cults and cultures its own, its fate its own–and Last is shaping his own fate too.

I had a good time with this even though I’d read some of the stories already. Having them in a different context illuminates them differently–and, of course, you may not have read any of them at all. It works perfectly well as an introduction to this setting, no preparation required. Just dive in…perhaps a tiny bit carefully. There are kind people here, but it’s not a place of sweetness and light.

Books read, early April

Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. This biography is nearly 1200 pages, and it took up a lot of my time and attention in early April. I picked it up hoping for interesting anecdotes that were not related to the current situation, for conversational diversions of the sort that start, “Did you know….” Unfortunately what I got was almost all of the format “did you know that Robert Moses was a jerk in the following way:” and after the first 200 pages or so, my near and dear had something of a rough outline if not all the details. I still feel that it was a really well done biography and worth reading if you’re interested in city planning and/or (metaphorical) trainwrecks. Caro managed to keep his eyes on the people Moses victimized and not get caught up in the perspective of his subject to the point of giving him a pass for terrible behavior–an accomplishment many biographers do not manage. But still, it was nearly 1200 pages of Oh Robert Moses No. So that’s…quite a thing.

K. Chess, Famous Men Who Never Lived. This is really good and I recommend it a lot. It’s a parallel universe story where a group of refugees from one parallel universe into another actually is treated like refugees, they have the problems with resettlement that real refugees have, in very interesting ways, including wanting to maintain their previous culture and not having good internal agreement on what the important facets of that culture are. This book features a fictional Golden Age science fiction novel that people have a very plausible range of emotional reactions to, from completely imprinting on it to finding it boring and pointless, and it works really well as the core of this book. It’s not at all like Susan Palwick’s The Necessary Beggar, but it also is a bit–they’re doing very different kinds of parallel universe–and I’m interested to have someone else pick up these themes and have a very different take on them that’s still so good.

Aliette de Bodard, The Dragon That Flew Out of the Sun. Kindle. Some of Aliette’s delightful short stories, collected previously for a Hugo packet and now sent to her mailing list. Such fun.

K. A. Doore, The Unconquered City. Discussed elsewhere.

Karen Joy Fowler, Black Glass. Reread. A short story collection ranging through Fowler’s many and varied strengths–literary forms, pop culture remix, definite genre influences, all present and accounted for beautifully.

Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban. This novella prefigures the Monster Boyfriend trend and does it far more literarily than some. The sex is inexorable but mild, and the aforementioned frog monster boyfriend is appealing as a conversationalist who actually bothers with the protagonist as a person. Unlike her husband. Then it all unravels in a spectacularly genre-literary kind of melodrama. Mid-century American Women’s Fiction, now with frog monsters, okay, yes. Good thing I had avocados in the house while reading this, there are a lot of avocados in the text, be forewarned. (Not in a gross way. They just eat avocados.)

R.B. Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves. Discussed elsewhere.

Rose Macaulay, The Lee Shore. Kindle. Another of her early novels that isn’t quite like anything else. It’s full of familial loyalty and aesthetic longing and all sorts of other interesting things, and the place where it ends is profoundly unconvincing to me but feels like probably the best she could do with what experience she had; it is yet another book I enjoyed while reading it that made me want to use a time machine to kidnap Rose Macaulay and bring her to live among civilized people.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and Brandon O’Brien, eds., Fiyah Issue 14. Kindle. This felt like one of the more even issues–one where I had trouble picking one story as standing out from the others for me–but I do continue to enjoy reading it regularly.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson. This was the other large (not nearly so large) biography that took up a bunch of my time this fortnight, and I was frankly disappointed in it. Wolff decided after Dickinson’s mid-twenties that she didn’t want to do a biography, she wanted to do thematic criticism with some biographical elements. As a result, there are huge chunks of Dickinson’s life that are traceable but not traced by this book. There’s no coherence about which relationships overlapped in importance and influence. I’m not sure Wolff fully understands that there is such a thing as an intense friendship carried on substantially through text; as someone who finds those crucial, I had hoped to read a biography of someone else who clearly found those crucial, and instead I got a mishmash of thematic thoughts. So I guess I’ll be looking for another Dickinson bio.

The Unconquered City, by K. A. Doore

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend and shares an agent with me.

This is the triumphant conclusion of the Chronicles of Ghadid. Previous protagonists make appearances for more than cameos–they have substantial roles, they have been allowed to grow in their lives, and it’s so much fun to see how. But this book belongs to Illi.

Illi is a braid-wearing, truculent cousin who has been serving as Heru’s research assistant as well as training as an assassin and guul-slayer. She has already lost so much in the first two books of this trilogy, but Illi puts her head down, sets her chin, and keeps going.

Until now. Now Illi is caught between powerful forces–including Heru–who are not treating her like a person, and there’s a sajaami at stake. Powerful, manipulative, ready to eat souls at a moment’s notice. Including, if necessary, Illi’s. The people she can trust are all people she wants to protect–the people with enough power to help her? She can’t trust. And between Ghadid, only now beginning to rebuild, and strange, sea-side Hathage, the answer has to be somewhere. Illi has the skills she learned from both magical research and assassin training, but she needs more. She needs her cousins. She needs Canthem, the intriguing caravan guard. She needs…missing pieces from centuries ago. And she needs it all last week.

Resplendent, definitive, and recommended.

Post Apocalyptic

After the apocalypse we stopped thinking

Clean water was something poor people just might not have

And spilling oil into the aquifers was part of the cost of doing business.

The cost of doing business came up a lot less,

After the apocalypse; instead we said balance,

We said nurture

And when we said growth, we meant plants, animals, each other.

After the apocalypse we stopped saying “thank God that’s over”

About every year, every month

Every day.

After the apocalypse, we learned to count again:

Your voice, your voice, your voice, one two three all

And not shut up shut up oh God shut up

And not three two one where did they go.

We stopped telling the kids not to ask about that.

After the apocalypse we remembered a lot of old songs

Wrote new ones

Thought we’d cry less but cried more for awhile

Made up a really good recipe for bean soup

That our brother-in-law doesn’t like and that’s okay.

It’s not–

It didn’t turn out to be–

The end of the world

After all.

COVID Spring: Underlying

These people, he says in the paper

They give him a place to say:

Most of these people have underlying causes.

These people

Are the underlying causes of

Acres of code and planted trees

Orthopedic nursing

Educational advocacy

Mathematical proofs

Child care, eldercare, everyone care

Grocery bagging, plumbing

Teaching fairy tales

Stories, paintings, sculpture, songs

Road work, landscape photography

Perfectly roasted chickens

Laughter, laughter, more laughter

Conversations about Doctor Who

And Godzilla and snapdragons

And what games we played at our Gran’s

And how the street cars used to be

Before you were born,

Before everything changed

As it is always changing.

These people

Turn out to underlie everything.


The Four Profound Weaves, by R. B. Lemberg

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author online.

Hope cannot be given away to you, or to anyone. Hope is the song which arises from silence where all our voices had been; all those locked away against their will one day will surge again, come forth with great exuberance, sweep the world in a reverberation of rainbow….

Do you need a book that has the concept of hope seriously woven through every thread of it right now? I bet you do. I bet you did even in January.

And here it is, The Four Profound Weaves, centering on transformation, expectation, and hope. This is a story in Lemberg’s Birdverse, a place we’ve started to learn from short stories–and characters we’ve seen in those stories as well. All the things that I have loved about the stories, the magic of weaving air and sand and more, are developed, pondered, iterated here. The desert and the city beyond it, the people who don’t quite fit in one culture or another and have to find their own path, they are all here with space to breathe, to learn to breathe, to care for each other in imperfect human ways and to find their own paths out of the human difficulties before–and behind–them.

I picked up The Four Profound Weaves after reading a long book about horrible people, and it was incredibly restorative. It was fun and gripping and a very fast read, and the book design was beautiful. But along with all those things it was refreshing at a time when my heart needed to be refreshed. Highly recommended.