Mishell Baker, Borderline. Do you ever do the thing where you get in your head that a book is something utterly different than what it was? For some reason I thought this was going to be near-future SF. There is no good reason for this; none of the jacket copy says so, because it isn’t. What it is, is urban fantasy, quite good urban fantasy in a number of ways. First, it doesn’t do the mushy thing that urban fantasy does where it’s “urban” but has no features of any actual city. This book is set in really for sure Los Angeles. It is very specifically LA, and a very specific part and experience of LA at that. Second, Baker uses borderline personality disorder to examine and refract some tropes of the genre in ways that delight me. The scene where the heroine has a big deal of telling everyone what she thinks of them: that has causes, and it has consequences, it is not the kind of wish fulfillment that that scene so often is. There is carefully followed worldbuilding here, there is a main character who is a person, not a diagnosis, but whose diagnosis informs her character intimately…there’s a lot to like, and I’m eager for the sequel. (What a relief, since I like Mishell, but that’s never a guarantee of anything.)
Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Mission. Kindle. Pen and his demon continue to wander around the world of The Curse of Chalion, using lifetimes worth of knowledge to improve matters for the people around them–and sometimes, crucially, themself. Themselves. Whichever applies when one entity is entirely housed in another. These are fun, and this is a fun one of these. It’s not what I’d choose to introduce people to Lois’s work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value.
Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets. I had just been reading about the Congress of Vienna, and up pops this fantasy novel set there. It is a fantasy that crosses over quite a lot with its romance genre–there are some misunderstandings and relationship developments that are squarely inspired by that genre–but for many of you that’s a happy thing. The Congress of Vienna is the sort of thing that takes a great deal of work to make sense of, so the addition of magic actually doesn’t make things any more confusing and possibly less so.
Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Justin Howe, Homeless Moon: Imaginary Places. A chapbook put out ages ago by five friends, of whom I now know three. Far-ranging weirdness. Good fun in different directions. Cool thing to do. (And available as a free PDF. -ed)
Anatole France, Bee: The Princess of the Dwarfs. Kindle. I have been thinking about how the late 19th century and early 20th century constructed their version of fantasy, and this was another data point for that. It feels to me like a lot of pre-Tolkien, pre-Mirrlees, pre-Dunsany writers were more interested in lush description of fantastical scenes than in characters that, well, did much of anything. Some of this is that many of them are consciously–self-consciously–telling a children’s story, but what that means for the era can get pretty precious. None of the characters who would seem to be primary characters learn or accomplish anything of note. But gosh, they were pretty. Okay then.
Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 1. Kindle. What a great way to start off a magazine. Malon Edwards’s story “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber,” in particular, as an opener: whew, wow. The insight of old ladies as a science fictional exposition device, with attention to the cultural norms between them and their individual personalities: yes please, more of this.
Bela K. Kiraly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism. If you’ve ever wondered about the Hungarian noble system, wow, here you go. Complicated, bizarre way of running a society, and Kiraly lays it out for you in detail, with charts: what percentage of people were this kind of aristocrat, what percent had that kind of education. It’s a solid place to put your feet when you’re looking at the Habsburgs and going, “What? What?”
Richard Manning, Grassland. Focused specifically on the grasslands of North America as natural habitats and human usage detracting from same. Manning has lots of interesting stuff to cover here but occasionally veers into habitat exceptionalism regarding grasslands as opposed to forests, deserts, etc. and overstates points that could have been made reasonably. Still, if you’re interested in wilderness environments, having a bit of analysis about grasslands and how great they are is no bad thing.
Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. Retold fairy tales are by now a genre standard, and this book is a clear indication of why. There’s a rich vein still to be mined here, and a fresh editorial team is sometimes a great way to get the best out of authors who have touched on this sort of thing before–or who haven’t and need a nudge in the right direction. My favorites were Genevieve Valentine’s “Familiaris,” Theodora Goss’s “The Other Thea,” Sofia Samatar’s “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” and Kat Howard’s “Reflected,” but really there’s quite a lot to dig into here.
Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Stone Forest. A book on the line between graphic novel and long picture book–or perhaps it’s just a graphic novel that’s aimed at a youngish audience. Hilda continues to have wild adventures with the secret magical creatures near her home. This time her mom gets involved–not entirely voluntarily–and their relationship is beautifully done. It would work as a starting point, but there are more before this, and they’re also lovely.
Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman, The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered. This is about a very particular blue dye that is religiously significant to some groups of Jewish people. If you’re interested in history of dyes and pigments or history of religion, this is one of the places where they overlap. Human beings are pretty odd ducks. If you read this book and don’t say, “What? What?” at several points, you’re more jaded than I.
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. This is wrenching and great. It follows the arc of a young woman’s life from slavery in the Deep South onward, and it does not romanticize social relationships in any particular. It’s beautifully written. I’m so glad I read it. I’m also so glad I’m not permanently reading it, because it’s a lot to take in.
Walter Jon Williams, Impersonations. The latest Praxis story, following the consequences of the earlier trilogy. I think you could pick up everything you need to know, but the emotional weight of why you should care feels like it’s dependent on Dread Empire’s Fall etc., so you might as well start there if you have the chance.