Books read, early October

Stephanie Burgis, Masks and Shadows. This is a fun fantasy about Habsburgs and opera singers and alchemy. There are masked balls and banquets and all sorts of court intrigue of the sorts that I think a lot of my friends find fun to read about, and yet I don’t remember hearing this book talked about when it came out–I only saw that there was another in the world with Congress of Secrets when I looked at Stephanie’s webpage to see when a couple of other things were coming out. And I’m glad I did.

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Links. Kindle. This is an early Poirot mystery, and when I was sick it was a fine light read. I think she was still realizing how much it was going to be a series at that point, with the second volume, but it was fun, and some of the things that bother me about the TV series were completely the opposite in this book (though it would be a spoiler to say what, so if you want to talk about what, email me).

Aliette de Bodard, The House of Binding Thorns. This is the second in its series, and it’s full of ramification and implication, so I recommend reading the first one first. Angels and dragons and Paris! Illness and childbirth and addiction and trickery! So much skillfully interwoven here.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss. Kindle. Knowing what I do about George Eliot (Maryann Evans) and her actual life, this was a beautiful and heartbreaking book and I wanted to travel back in time and kick her brother in the shins and hug her and invite her and her partner and stepsons to Christmas dinner. This is a passionate story of a nerdy, unconventional young woman and how much she loves her rules-driven brother and craves his approval, and how she basically can never, ever have it. And the ending made me cry, and yet also I think that trying to give it to high school students who don’t have a really strong basis in Victorian cultural mores and this author in specific is futile and likely to make them hate her. But when it’s on your own hook, with the right background…oh, I loved reading this.

Elizabeth Hand, Errantry: Strange Stories. These are, indeed, strange stories; they are slightly off to the side of the main thrust of genre structure and expectation, often with less of a linear plot focus than a lot of genre-central manuscripts and more focus on mood evocation.

Laurence M. Hauptmann, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State. I was a bit disappointed on how much this focused on the white people who dispossessed the Iroquois, but on the whole it was an interesting additional set of data about the Erie Canal, the power elite of New York State, and the various ways that the Iroquoian people found to remain a force for their own culture and self-determination in the face of overwhelming odds.

Rose Macaulay, Potterism. Kindle. This is a novel about how easy it is to fall into the ruts of the conventional even when your life is dedicated to opposing them. It does not, itself, generally fall into those ruts as often as one might fear; there were several points in its short length at which I blinked and said, “Well, I didn’t see that coming.” Some of it is frothy and witty, some of it portrays staggering amounts of anti-Semitism directed at one of its most wholly positive characters, and while it is not approving of that anti-Semitism, you can’t really brace and say, okay, we’re done with that bit now, no more anti-Semitic slurs will pop up here. Similarly sexism: Macaulay is quietly, bitterly, wittily furious at some of the sexism she has encountered and uses it as fuel for this novel, but there it is, if you don’t want to read about it today, don’t read this book today. Aside from that, though: she doesn’t turn conventional pieties in a mirror by insisting that the conventionally pious will get their comeuppances instead of the conventionally impious–she understands the world differently than that, and that was…good but also frustrating but generally quite good.

Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, eds., Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. These were mostly quite short and, like the Hand above but in a completely different direction, very focused on evocative mood and language. I’m glad these stories were translated and compiled, as I found them very much worth reading and will probably return to this anthology for a reread.

Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick, The Witch Who Came In From the Cold (Season 1). This is a compilation of a serial, so it has the pacing of a serial, which is to say, sometimes rather slow. The thing it’s doing where Soviet vs. US and the two kinds of magic don’t map to each other made me very happy, though, and if you’re also a sucker for spy stories, you won’t want to miss it.

Three stories while I was gone

Publishing moves at its own pace, and sometimes things happen all at once. Sometimes they happen all at once while a person is recovering from influenza and traveling around the continent. Just, like a hypothetical person. You know. In theory.

So! I have three stories out recently. The one you can immediately read online is Purposeful, out in Daily Science Fiction. This is a flash piece I wrote in my dad’s ICU room and is directly related to that experience. It may be a hard read for those reasons, but I’m glad that I wrote it, and I think Dad would be glad too.

Next up: I have a story about lichen and finding a new path when the one you were on closes, in the Nov/Dec issue of Analog, “Filaments of Hope.” This should be available on newsstands, and also you can order a copy here.

Finally, and I do mean finally: one of the stories that has had the longest wait is finally out! “In the Ancestor’s New House” appears in Spirits Unwrapped, edited by Daniel Braum and published by Lethe Press. This is one you can ask a bookstore to order for you, or you can get it on Indiebound or Amazon or wherever you like really. This is an anthology of mummy stories, so it is not at all my usual sort of thing…except that I read loads of books about Inca mummy societies and how they were affected by the Spanish conquest, so it’s not not like me either….

Books read, late September

I spent late September having influenza! Boy was that…about as much fun as you’ve heard influenza is! And much of what I could do in that time was read. So read I did! Yay reading! Note: this is a particularly bad time to make comments about how you wish you had that much time for reading, as I had to cancel several other things I was excited about in order to lie in bed, feel terrible, and read. Still yay reading! But…not really to be envied. Even though some of these books are great.

Roma Agrawal, Built: The Hidden Structures Behind Our Structures. This is definitely a “pop structural engineering” level book; for all Agrawal outs herself as a nerd, she’s aiming at the general audience. But if you’re looking for little nuggets of trivia and interest about materials and building, from the most basic structures up to the most modern skyscrapers, this is your jam.

Gavin Chappell, translator, Sagas of Ancient Kings; Sorli’s Yarn: The Saga of Hedin and Hogni; The Saga of Asmund, Bane of Champions; The Saga of Fridthjof the Bold; The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek; The Saga of Hrolf Kraki and His Champions; The Saga of Hromund Gripsson; The Saga of Thorstein Vikingsson; The Sagas of Ketil Trout and Grim Hairy-cheek. Kindle. Oh so many legendary sagas. Oh so many. So many people turning into wolves, swans, and who knows what else. They’re actually pretty perfect to read in bulk with a fever because fever logic and saga logic live next door to each other: and then he ate live coals and turned into a troll, sure, yes, why not.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus. Discussed elsewhere.

Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven. This novella is darker than my usual fare, but sure-handed and beautifully done. The classes and regions of the worldbuilding, the individual relationships in the magic, the decay and the illness and the murder murder murder….

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack and Zita the Space Girl. This is a team-up capstone to these two series, and I think it works best if you’ve read the books in both, because a lot of it involves revisiting characters and places from previous episodes in a dash to the finish.

Kat Howard, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. There are some truly beautiful stories in here, including a college Arthurian that is just exactly my jam. Highly, highly recommended.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Peculiar Ground. This book was mis-shelved by a used bookstore that thought it was fantasy; its speculative content is extremely minimal. Mostly it is a literary novel about walls and boundaries, ranging from the Restoration to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I enjoyed the experience of reading it but once I’ve had a chance to think it over, some of the thematic implications are kind of gross, but not gross enough to ruin the entire thing–especially not gross enough to ruin the rare chance at Restoration garden design fiction.

Kelly Jones, Sauerkraut. This is a really fun kids’ book about a haunted fermenting crock and a kid who likes to make stuff! and his family and their various interests! it is great! it is by the chicken book person! I am basically made of exclamation marks when I talk about this book!

Margaret Killjoy, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion. Kindle. A novella that does not outstay its welcome: it gets in, tells its story of magic in a small town commune of squatters and punks, and gets out again. This is what the pacing of novellas is supposed to do. Its characterization is precise and clear, its plotting doesn’t linger purposelessly, and its details are very well drawn.

Karen Lord, Unraveling. Karen Lord is always doing something different from anybody else, and this is no exception. It’s a labyrinthine fantasy of solving a serial murder related to immortals and their influence on humans, and it pays attention to that influence in ways that don’t fall apart when you keep thinking.

Rose Macaulay, Mystery at Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings. Kindle. Alas, I was bound to come upon one of Macaulay’s works that didn’t hold up for me, and this was it: this is a satire of the Leage of Nations in ways that just feel off and nasty now, some of them racist, some of them merely crass. The central plot feels cheap and shabby, with the resolution an unsatisfying echo of some of the things she manages in better works. Not recommended unless you, like me, have become passionately dedicated to Macaulay and want to be able to talk knowledgeably about what she wrote in all its available details.

Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching Through Scotland for a Border Collie. I cannot fathom the reviewer on the cover of this who thinks it will make you want a border collie. I love border collies, but it is very clear about them as working dogs, and you almost certainly do not want one. But if you want to read about nice dogs and the very weird people who have them, doing trials and things, this is a good book about that, it doesn’t last too long, the dog the writer has at the beginning is still around getting pettins at the end and also there is a new dog, so it is not one of those And Then My Dog Died horrors. Dogs! Sometimes one wants a book, and this is one.

Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. This was a fast, fun read that described a lot of things that you have probably experienced, or else will be interested to learn about and catch up on, if you like language and its fluidity. I DMed Gretchen excitedly about a particular example in the middle. If you don’t know Gretchen even in the internet way that I do, you probably shouldn’t do that, but you may well have the urge, because it’s that kind of book.

Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs. This is a lovely and loving book about attempting to establish a group based on love and trust in the face of a totalitarian regime. In this case it happens to be an early Christian group in Rome in the reign of Nero, and they fare about as well as you’d expect, but Mitchison wrote it in the late ’30s and was thinking rather more historically broadly than just Nero.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts. Roanhorse continues to be some of the most thriller-paced fantasy I have ever encountered. Her worldbuilding is unlike any other going on right now in the genre, a radically altered future with drastically changed magic. The new characters in this volume made it fun and a fast read for me, and I enjoyed zipping right through.

Karl Schroeder, Stealing Worlds. It took me a little bit to get into the characters on this one, but I’m very sympathetic to what Karl was doing with the ending, and it’s worth getting there, I think, even if you’re a hard-sell on blockchain fiction, which I am.

Vivian Shaw, Grave Importance. Now okay, yes, I did read this with influenza, so that might have made me more likely to cry, but the ending made me cry in such a good way. It is taking urban fantasy and monster tropes and making them into such a work of hope and love. All the times when people say that genre gives you structure to make your art work within: this is what they mean. This. This capped the series so beautifully and so movingly, and it works best with the full weight of the series behind it, so go, go read, I loved this.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, For Love of Distant Shores. I am so pleased that this is what Tchaikovsky has decided to do with his vast and sweeping fantasy setting. So not only did he write a ten-book series that had a beginning, a middle, and–get this–an ending–when he was done, he did not go do another just like it again to try to get the same result. No! Instead he is using this canvas he’s made to tell different kinds of stories! My analogy for this book is that if the big giant fantasy series is like the description of WWII, this set of novelette-ish length things is like the Indiana Jones stories, if Short Round got to be the protagonist. They’re fun, they’re a completely different tone, they’re exploring corners of the world in ways that Tchaikovsky is good at. Do approve.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 and Uncanny Magazine Issue 30. At least that’s how my Kindle metadata lists it! But! We know that Uncanny Magazine Issue 30 was actually Disabled People Destroy Fantasy and that it was actually edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Katharine Duckett, and Lisa M. Bradley, according to the cover. It was a varied and lovely issue, with my favorite part coming with A. T. Greenblatt’s essay about disabled protagonists, but I also found solidarity with Karlo Yeager Rodríguez’s “This Is Not My Adventure,” a story of grief that went some places I needed to go. I realized, looking at my Kindle, that for some reason Issue 6 was the only issue I’d missed in the past, though I’d read a lot of the individual stories, and while it’s not that long ago in real terms, in short fiction terms it feels like the magazine and the field has built a lot on what was going on then, on this issue and others around it, so it was interesting to look back as things grow and build so quickly.

Valerie Valdes, Chilling Effect. Discussed elsewhere.

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. What a difficult and compassionate book. I knew I would be in good hands when van der Kolk related learning from a mentor whom he asked, would you call this patient schizophrenic or schizoaffective? and got told gently: I would call this patient [name]. While he’s willing to talk about diagnoses and use them where appropriate, his focus is always on human experience, and it’s a stronger book thereby.

Greg van Eekhout, Cog. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Yolen, Dragonfield, and Other Stories. Kindle. The first of these stories is the same story as the graphic novel of Jane’s I read at the beginning of September, so that was disorienting. And then there were a couple of stories that were among the best short fiction I’ve ever read of hers, so…yeah, worth the price of admission, I should say, even with the different angle/same narrative at the beginning.

Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Nicky Drayden is one of the most creative writers working in speculative fiction at this time. One of the ones with the most pleasant, happiest work…I can’t say that, really. But creative, oh Lord yes, and this is no exception. Escaping Exodus takes a generation ship saga and moves those ships inside massive gigantic space beasts. Y’know, just another one of those.

So if you are thinking, human parasitism inside the organs of a truly epic-sized space herd, wow, cool, yes, you are correct, and if you are thinking, that has the potential to have some really gross bits with sphincters and bodily fluids, you are also very correct. Drayden does not wimp out on including pus and goo here. Our characters carve bone, but also they deal with organs galore.

It’s all in the service of real, flawed human relationships and science fictional conceit that goes beyond “ooh lookit,” though: the lives of the giant beasts are tied intimately to the lives of our protagonists in ways that go beyond the understanding their culture has evolved. They have to come up with new and better ways to manage their own lives–which they can barely do under the current cultural norms–and the beast’s life and life in space, if anyone is to survive. If you’re thinking about the interdependence of life and fragile ecosystems–which, ahem, please do–or if you’re thinking about the way people who love each other manage to hurt each other anyway, you probably want this book. Pus and all.

Cog, by Greg van Eekhout

Review copy provided by the author.

I am writing this review several months ahead of posting it for its release, and honestly it is going to KILL ME to spend the entire late spring, summer, and early fall without people to talk to about this book. But hey! Thanks to the miracle of [checks notes] saving things and posting them later, you now exist in a world where you can go get Cog for yourself.

Much better world.

This is the story of a young robot boy who doesn’t want to be a human, he wants to be his own best robotty self. He is full of curiosity and loyalty and conviction and also a determination to learn from his mistakes. Possibly by making as many of them as possible.

He also has a weaponized sister, a robot dog, and a couple of other companions I will leave as the glorious surprises they are. And also maybe some unexpected special powers.

He is great.

He has a very satisfying plot arc, but truly I would just be happy to hang out with Cog while he shops for cheese and figures out the world. His voice is lovable and satisfying and fun. The themes of the story are the sorts of things that you probably already know–even if you’re part of its child audience–but never fully internalize. This book is a delight. Self-actualizing robots forever.

Where to find me: the Montreal and New York edition

Like many other totally normal non-mutant human beings, I often choose to be in one place at one time, a superpower known as unilocation. In October I’ll be unilocating in various places in Montreal and New York! Here’s a guide to that.

At 7 p.m. on October 10, I will be doing a reading with several other authors at Argo Bookstore on 1915 Ste. Catherine St. W. in Montreal. It should be a lovely time and followed by a trip to Juliette et Chocolat for the eponymous chocolat. Mmm.

The weekend immediately following that I will be appearing on the panels and events at Scintillation convention in Montreal. Here are the four things for which I’m on program for that, Saturday October 12 and Sunday October 13.

Saturday 13:00, The Reading Room: Marissa Lingen and Tim Boerger Reading. I will read something different at this from what I will read at the Argo reading. What will it be? You’ll have to see it to believe it. Wait, no, I mean: you’ll have to be there to find out. (Or, I suppose, ask me nicely the day before.)

Sunday 11:15, The Big Room: Friends and Family in the Future: Ada Palmer, Marissa Lingen (M), Rosemary Kirstein, Karl Schroeder, Naomi Kritzer. We’re still going to have them, but the patterns will change. How might they change, and why don’t we see more of this?

Sunday 15:15, The Reading Room: Sherwood Smith and Marissa Lingen in Conversation.

Sunday 16:30, The Big Room: Futures Worth Having: Maria Farrell, Ada Palmer (M), Karl Schroeder, Ruthanna Emrys, William Alexander, Marissa Lingen. What kind of future do we want to live in?

Then I will get on a plane to New York! Because life is full of complication and interest. The NYRSF sponsors a reading at the Brooklyn Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, at 6:45 on Monday October 14. It will also appear on Hour of the Wolf on 99.5 FM, hosted by Jim Freund. This reading is authors from Reckoning magazine, hosted by editor Michael J. DeLuca, featuring myself and several others.

I have not listed the full complement of authors for either non-convention reading because I’m not sure whether everyone who’s doing it has been arranged, and I don’t want to leave anybody out. But there are lovely awesome people, not just me, and it will be a good time.

Short stories I’ve liked recently

Elizabeth Bear, Erase, Erase, Erase (F&SF)

M. E. Bronstein, Elegy of a Lanthornist (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Deborah Coates, Girls Who Never Stood a Chance (F&SF)

Ruthanna Emrys, Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups (Strange Horizons

Amanda Hollander, Madness Afoot (F&SF)

Jon Mayo, A House With a Home (Anathema)

Aimee Picchi, Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11 (Daily Science Fiction)

Rachel Swirsky & P.H. Lee, Compassionate Simulation (Uncanny)

Greg van Eekhout, Big Box (Uncanny)

Nghi Vo, Boiled Bones and Black Eggs (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a Twitter buddy.

Eva Innocente and her crew may not be rich, but at least they’re honest–mostly honest–welllll, more honest than Eva’s family. So when Eva’s even-more-honest sister is kidnapped and threatened by a galactic crime syndicate called The Fridge, Eva has to save her–even if some of the decisions she makes along the way are not technically what would be known as wise or sensible or OH MY GOD EVA WHAT ARE YOU DOING. There are spaceship maneuvers, low-gravity cats, brain parasites, human-alien relations…in more senses of the word than one…fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love…actually I’m not remembering the fencing very well. But this is in fact a kissing book, and also there are true friends who stick with the heroine.

Also she expresses herself in emphatic Spanish from time to time, so if that’s a thing you need–and for some of you it definitely is a personal positive, I know–and the rest of you can pick up what you need to from context, trust me. No, you can. Suck it up, buttercups, you can do Klingon, the Spanish is great.

Here’s my caveat, though, having read it but also seen the marketing and some other reviews: there is a purple upbeat Julie Dillon cover, and the first chapter features the cats, and the word “fun” is getting used a lot for this book in discussions I’ve heard. How much you parse it as a pure fun adventure is likely to depend on how you read a book where one of the main engines of plot is (and this happens very early, so I don’t feel like it’s a major spoiler) the threat of sexual violence against the heroine. Because there is a very persistent sexual violence threat against the heroine. It is, in fact, one of two or three central things that drives the plot. If you don’t find that fun or relaxing–and I don’t–you might still find this book interesting and well done for the things it is doing–and I did–but your “fluffy fun yay!” quotient is going to vary considerably. One of the things it is not doing is providing a place where people who find the threat of sexual violence stressful can relax and read about space battles and cats and aliens and spaceships. Not every book has to do that, but be forewarned that this one is not. Well-written, yes; fluffy, no.

(I’ve also seen some assumptions that this must be YA based on the cover and–let’s be real here–the fact that the author is a woman of color. Don’t do that. This is adult space opera, go read it as adult space opera. Or not, if you were looking for YA! But be clear that Valerie never once claimed this was YA, not even a little. Know what you’re getting.)

Books read, early September

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. This is a charming novella of extrasolar planetary exploration. The crew works well together while having clear and distinct personalities, the planets are very different and spark different human psychological reactions, it’s all very classic SF while at the same time being very contemporary…there is hardly anything that is for everybody, but among SF fans I should think this will come pretty close.

Gavin Chappell, trans., The Saga of Half and Half’s Champions and The Saga of Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches and the Yarn of Ragnar’s Sons. Kindle. Two more legendary sagas, full of random mythical beasts and great weirdness. I live-tweeted one of them, because the depths of weirdness were inspiring. Hypothetically I am reading legendary sagas as preparation for a project I might be doing (read: will be doing, but when, who knows), but in reality let’s all admit that I just love them a lot. Also, as I clarified on Twitter, the first one is the saga of Half’s champions, and also of Half himself, not the saga of the champions of a thing you can put in your coffee. Oh, phrasing and punctuation.

Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide. There are certain kinds of books that get translated first, I am noticing, because I tend to read a lot in translation. Maybe this is unfair of me. I enjoyed Waste Tide for what it is, but…I also notice that in the wave of Chinese SF that is getting translated first, the stuff that is fairly traditionally structured and extremely male-focused to the point of being somewhat sexist is getting translated first. So this is interesting in its ideas about waste disposal and intercultural assumptions both inside and outside China, and also there is fridging and minimal use of women’s perspectives, and it is basically exactly what you’d expect would get translated early. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have interesting points, just…I’ll be glad when there’s more variety of what’s written in Chinese SF available in English.

Amanda Downum, Still So Strange. This is a collection of Amanda’s short mostly-urban dark fantasy, and I had been missing her work, and now here’s a bunch of it all at once. Yessss.

Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten, A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals. This is a beautiful compendium of extinct animals, each with a description and a painting. Some of them are heartbreaking, and it’s hard to predict which.

Sarah Gailey, Magic for Liars. If you’ve been missing books that center a non-romantic relationship, this one is all about, all about sisters. There is noir detective work around a magic school, and either of those things may push some of your buttons, but for me it was the sister relationship that centered the book’s appeal.

Theodora Goss, Snow White Learns Witchcraft. This is substantially fairy tale retellings, but for me the poems were the best part, crystallizations in a few pages of fairy tale extensions and extenuations.

Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Discussed elsewhere.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Brightfall. Discussed elsewhere.

Malka Older, State Tectonics. The conclusion to a science fiction series about microdemocracies in a high-information society. Basically I would not recommend reading it without the first two, but as a series conclusion I found it thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Sarah Pinsker, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. This is a beautiful and varied collection. Highly recommended. Spans length, genre, theme, mood. Yay.

Sherwood Smith, Inda. Reread. I think what stuck out to me on this reread was how much this book was a study in leadership in its different modalities, how to inculcate leadership in people who didn’t have it naturally, how to use it for your own ends, all sorts of themes and variations around education toward leadership. I should probably restrain myself from just plowing through the rest of the series.

Pauline Stafford, Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. This is a fascinating look at England over the period of the Norman Conquest with an eye to the commonality of culture more than its disruption. Extremely useful if you’re doing a thing.

Jane Yolen, A Plague of Unicorns. This is one of those children’s books where the adults will have seen the twist a million times, but the crucial difference is in how it’s handled–in this case not just deftly but kindly, deeply kindly. And also with lots of apples and cider.