The Fortress, by S.A. Jones

Review copy provided by Erewhon Books.

This is the first book I’ve gotten to review from Erewhon, I believe the first book they’re putting out at all. It’s an interesting choice to set the tone for their new imprint–very much a book both of the current moment and of science fiction’s past.

Jonathon Bridge is a man at odds with himself. He’s not even sure he understands everything that has upset his wife–the details unfold over the course of the book–but one of the conditions for staying in their marriage and co-parenting their child is that he spend a year in The Fortress. The Fortress is a woman-run city-state which men only enter under certain extremely narrow conditions–basically a gender serfdom.

This feels like a book from the ’70s. It has all the “and then it’s a fortress OF WOMEN” and “let’s learn about gender in a very encounter-y sort of way” elements that…there were LOADS of those, some of you read fourteen of them the year you were fourteen, I know I did. And I feel like S.A. Jones was maybe one of us and wanted to read one of them and realized how INCREDIBLY PROBLEMATIC all of those ’70s gender encounter books are in retrospect and said, huh, let’s do one in the present moment that people can read right now without screaming. There is a lot more emphasis on consent, on structural problems, on being part of structural problems even if you are not the worst of them. On empathy and understanding other people’s viewpoints. So if you grew up with those ’70s gender encounter books and feel like you’d like another that’s more up-to-date, this is definitely for you–and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, this might also be for you.

I do wonder whether this will age any better than the previous iterations did. I wonder whether the things that it is saying about learning what it feels like to be helpless, to consent and then feel uncertain about the free value of that consent, the context of that consent, all of those things…will feel retrograde and gross. But that’s how we get there. We don’t get there by never talking about it, by never going off and thinking about what someone else said. We get there by doing another round of them and then saying, okay, but, but this thing, it doesn’t take into account this other thing, and then this, and also that. That’s how conversation works, that’s how discourse works.

There’s a lot about sex and gender and consent in here, and I feel like Erewhon’s opening statement was: we know what this field is, and we want to move the discourse forward, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable.

Well, okay. Thanks. I’ll look forward to that.

Decameron Project

I’m very excited about a new project I’m involved with: the Decameron Project! Maya Chhabra, Lauren Schiller, and Jo Walton put this together, and it’s an effort of many writers to have new fiction content daily while we’re going through this socially distanced time.

All the content will be free, but you can make a free-will donation to support the writers, like myself, who are offering this work–it’s the only way we get paid. I’m working on a brand-new short story that will be unique to this project (genetically engineered goats!), and I’m so heartened by the prospect of coming together, even at a distance, to make beauty and joy in hard times. I hope you enjoy the Decameron Project.

Revision: what and when

The other major question(s) my friend had about revision was: how do you know what needs to be done? And how do you know when you’re done?

Okay, so: what you’re doing, in general, as a writer, is: you’re cultivating taste. You’re cultivating your taste. I don’t mean that you’re shaping your taste to an external standard of The Canon, although you can do that if you like. I mean you’re figuring out what it is that you like and how it’s achieved in practice.

You can skew your taste a particular direction–Hugo nominees, say, or stories published in a particular magazine. But you pay attention to what you’re reading, what you like about it, what you notice about it and don’t notice. You look at sentences, paragraphs, chapters, sections, books, series; poems, short stories, novels, travelogues, articles, all of it. You see what grates on you, what makes you wander off, what compels you. What do you like. And how does it go.

So then when you’re looking at your own manuscript, where are the things where it doesn’t. The things that you don’t like, the things that make you go: ugh that is the third time that one word in this paragraph and not for comic effect, or: wait, have we heard that that’s the case? is this a good time for that reveal or is it catching us off guard in a bad way? or…dozens of other things. Larger things too, things that are more particular to you, revelations you wanted the reader to have that didn’t come through, elements that you wanted to include that fizzled and need to come out. Ways that the thing you wanted to write and the thing that you wrote have not lined up. Ways that you have changed your plan since you started and the traces of the old plan are still there. Ways that you have learned to see what is good and this is not it yet.

You can make lists if you want, if you feel like that will help. Other people have certainly made them for you, around the internet, things that are good to look for in a manuscript. If you like particular elements–if those are things you want to do–but you only notice them about stuff you’ve read later, in conversation when a friend points them out, those might be good to check for on a conscious level rather than expecting to notice them in your own work as you read. But they also might be good to just…have a friend who notices those things read for. It’s totally okay to have someone else flag things in a revision for you. You don’t have to be good at finding everything to revise yourself.

You also don’t have to do everything a friend flags for you. Right now I’m having a long, involved conversation with a friend about their manuscript, and the result may well be that they leave the major element we’re talking about exactly as-is. They may do acres of rewriting. I don’t know. I don’t even have to know. Because being a first reader, beta reader, even a sensitivity reader, whatever terminology you use…it’s not about my ego, it’s not about seeing my vision realized, it’s about helping my friend with their revisions in their project. Which is, we have both noticed, not my project.

So: how do I know when I’m done? When I’ve done the stuff that needs doing. That sounds circular, but for me, setting a limit on each round is a good thing. You can always find something more to change–always. Ideally you will keep growing as a person and as a writer. The goal is not to be perpetually revising the same manuscript for the next fifty years. The goal is to make this manuscript as good as you can make it right now, for some value of now.

So for me, I do multiple rounds of “right now.” I write the thing, I let it sit a minute. Then I read it through and revise it into coherence and send it off to first reader(s). Then I think about what they said and do those revisions. Then I either send it to editors if it’s short or to my agent if it’s long.

For long pieces, my agent has revisions, and we talk those through and think about them and I do them, sometimes in multiple drafts, until it’s ready to go out. And then we rejoin the same stream as with short pieces: editors have it, they ideally want to publish it, they ask for revisions, I revise it, it gets published, I see all the things my current self could do better.

But I cannot do them better. Because “published” and “public” are from the same place. Published means that it is no longer mine, it is also partly yours. Published means that I am still responsible for the work but free of the burden of improvement. Published means that anything that is wrong with it aside from the part on page 7 where the protagonist’s name is misspelled is going to stay wrong with it, and I might say, “I would not do it that way now, I don’t think that now,” but that is what that story says, even if it is not what I say, now, today. I do not say “Dramma,” either, I say, “Grandma,” even though 40 years ago I was saying “Dramma.” People keep growing. You have to let yourself keep growing. You have to say, yes, that is what I said then, I did the best I could with what I had then, now I am doing something different.

Revision is a writer’s best friend. It allows us to be better than our first impulse, and yet to retain that first impulse when it’s the best thing available. But like any best friend, it’s a better friendship when there are clear boundaries. That doesn’t have to be my particular process. It may end up with several through passes I haven’t listed for the sake of streamlining, in my own case–“I revise it into coherence” may mean “I have to read it through again to make sure that x element got woven through and then again for this or that other thing.” The first chapter is going to get rewritten at least twice, I guarantee it, not because I feel like that ought to happen, but because it always seems to need it. But the question can never be “if I read through it again, would I find commas to rearrange,” because the answer will be yes, you will, you always will. And when you’re at the point of rearranging the deck chairs, er, the commas, onward, onward, go write something else.

Revision: some first thoughts

One of my friends has heard me mentioning that I’m revising various things, over the last year, and asked me to talk about my process a little more here. So I’m going to do that, probably in more than one blog post. Here’s where I want to start:

This is not advice. This is talking about what I do. Most advice is actually that anyway; most advice is just talking about finding your own characteristic problems and how to fix them. So if you read advice that says, “make a list of your overused words and do a search on them before you turn in the final draft,” what that’s actually saying is, “I, this particular author, find that I overuse certain words and don’t tend to catch them other ways, so here’s one way I’ve found to do it.”

I do that. I absolutely do that. I keep a list of bland and overused words, and I add to it when I notice a new one. One of the words on my list? “thing.” Because “something,” “nothing,” “anything,” and “thing” can often all be replaced by more vivid ways of saying that…uh…thing.

But the other thing people are doing when they give advice–on revision or on whatever else–is working around their own characteristic aversions. So when you see advice that says, “Print out your manuscript and highlight each sentence in a color that says what it’s doing: pink for setting, yellow for dialog…,” what you know is: that author has not burned their manuscript, fled screaming, and stopped along the way to file paperwork changing their name and pasting on a false mustache (or possibly shaving off their previous true mustache) on the way to leaving the state.

Which I would, I absolutely would. If I need to change the balance of elements in scenes, I need to do it in some other way than that, because highlighting scenes in that way will make me hate the entire story and also just plain not do it. Anything that makes you not do the work is the wrong tool, even if it helps someone else do the work beautifully. There is no objectively universally right tool, there is just something that gets the work done, or else not.

Lists are great for me. Other people do not work well with lists. I know this from observation. I can’t explain it, but I accept it, because insisting that other people’s brains work like my brain is silly. So. Lists. What kind of lists. I mentioned the overused words one.

Well, here’s where the project notebook comes in: when I know that a chapter needs something revised into it, I will put that further down the page in a different color of ink than the plot notes for that chapter, with a checkbox next to it, to be checked off when I get it done. Do the ink colors have meaning? Not for me, no; they mean “I can see that this is a different thing than the thing above it.” So if I happened to outline the book in L’Amant, which is a deep and lovely purple, revision notes can be in any shade of red or green or blue I happen to have on hand. (I mostly don’t work in orange or yellow.) Because then I can spot them as “not done yet.” And subsequent revision notes should probably go in another color–if the first round was Ink of Naotora (spoiler: it was), that’s a deep red, and the next round should be something else so it jumps out on the page and I can flip through the pages and quickly check which chapters have a revision note on them that hasn’t been checked off.

Then there’s the list at the end of the notebook of things that I know I want to do but I don’t know where yet, or things that need to be threaded throughout. These things, like “bring up more botanical mentions” or “protag defensiveness about town size” are going to take longer to check off the list, and the way that I do those revisions will be structured differently than adding a particular plot mention in Chapter 7. But either way, I have the lists, I can look at the lists, I don’t have to keep track of it all because there are lists and I know where the lists are. I have the lists, and I have the actual scribbled on line-edit pages. So that’s what I have for keeping track of revisions. Will that work for you? I don’t know, my friend might have meant to ask what will work for her but she actually asked what I do, and that’s what I actually know.

And I do have more to say on how I do revisions, and lo, I was right, that’ll be another post!

Books read, late February

John W. Baldwin, Paris, 1200. This is a very convenient title that will help me to find this book for reference on the shelf. It does just what it says on the tin: talks about Paris and what was going on there in 1200 or thereabouts, what guilds were there, what taxes, what nobles, what clergy. Extremely useful reference for a fantasy writer who wanted to not just do quasi-Medieval whosits that were copies of copies of copies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer. I was really interested in what Coates would do with his first novel, and I was not disappointed. I think he’s much stronger as a writer of historical fiction than as a fabulist, but the fantastical element of this novel was handled with a light touch anyway, the strongest focus being on the characterization and setting.

Paul Cornell, The Lights Go Out in Lychford. Most recent Lychford novella, and as you can expect from the title, big changes in Lychford. The small modern British village relationships continue to be beautifully done and absolutely meaningful to the fantastical element.

S.B. Divya, Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Possible Situations. I had read a bunch of these stories already, but I was glad to have permanent copies of them, and glad to encounter the new stories in this volume. Divya is the kind of SF I’m always wishing I had more of.

Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God. This was incredible, searing, amazing. It’s an apocalyptic story of environmental disruption and family and pregnancy and dystopic response, here in Minnesota. The author and the main character are both Anishinaabe, and it matters deeply to the story. This is one of the best apocalyptic novels I’ve ever read, and if you like that sub-genre of SF, you entirely may have missed it, because I did not see it discussed as SF at all when it was published a few years ago, I only saw it discussed as Native fiction/Minnesota fiction. Go find the cool stuff structural bias may be hiding from you, namely this.

Lisa Goldstein, Ivory Apples. This is another in the sub-genre I’ve noticed lately, books about relatives of famous fictional authors. I’m bemused by this sub-genre, I still blame the fate of Christopher Robin Milne for it but also I think it is just less interesting to be related to us than other writers want to think. (“Oh my God it’s so cool your aunt is a writer,” someone will probably say to a niece of mine at some point, and they will be like, “Yeah!” and then we will go on with our lives, because…welp.) Anyway Goldstein at the very least leans into her premise. The family in question doesn’t just suffer a little, they fall apart completely, there is major trauma, there is more than one bit of magic and more than one adult making bad choices for children, and generally it is all a disaster that is only slightly mitigated by the magic of artistic creation. So she’s got a better handle on it than the rest of them I guess.

Barbara Hambly, Lady of Perdition. The latest Benjamin January mystery, and when I looked at the cover copy I howled, “oh nooooo don’t go to the Republic of Texas,” but they went to the Republic of Texas anyway, because characters in books hardly ever do what you tell them to even when you’re writing them, much less when they’ve already been written and published by someone else. Still: don’t start here, this is very much a late entry in this series, but a reasonably satisfying one. (Noooo! Don’t go to the Republic of Texas!)

Diana Henry, Plenty. Cookbook focused on simple things, I flipped through it from the library, found it reasonable but a lot of what she advises is stuff I already know how to do, so–if you don’t, probably a reasonable choice. (I may be picking up more library cookbooks with roughly this result. I don’t expect a lot more, but if I look at one or two recipes and say, oh hey, I could do something like that but completely different, that’s really all I want out of a cookbook from the library.)

Isabel Ibañez, Woven in Moonlight. This is Bolivian-inspired fantasy by a Bolivian-American author, and it is charming and lovely, and the weaving element in the title is literal. That was all I needed to want to read this book immediately, and I wasn’t disappointed, but you may want to know that there’s also a dispute about whose revolution has the moral right and awwww yes I am so very there.

Tove Jansson, Fair Play and The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. The first: a novella in a series of vignettes about two women artists, amazing, amazing. They are very Finnish, but they travel, they make art, they argue but not upsettingly so, I love them so much, I love this entire thing. And the second: a collection of short stories that periodically made me gasp out loud and pound the desk with my fist. I love her so much.

Nicholas Jubber, Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe. A ramble about the continent and also England, exploring the commonalities of theme and story in six different European epics, with digressions into various thoughts he’d had along the way, charming and fun especially if you like thinking about epics, which yes, I definitely do.

Janet Kagan, The Collected Kagan. Kindle. I’m afraid I was disappointed in this one. I really love Mirabile and Hellspark and was hoping for more of the same here, but I found most of these stories gimmicky and flat. A few of them were quite good, but nothing up to the level of those two volumes, alas, and there were random things collected that…really could have been left uncollected. (Her introduction to James Schmitz’s work, for example, was not such a piece of stand-alone literary criticism that it needed to be reprinted in this context. Sometimes completism can go too far.)

Lydia Millet, The Shimmers in the Night. I continue to be amazed at how much Millet has committed to attempting to replicate the virtues and flaws of a Madeleine L’Engle book in a contemporary version–in this case there are serious Wind in the Door resonances as well as the more general L’Engliness. It was a fun fast read once you accept that the kids’ slang resembles no kids’ slang ever and some of the plot makes no sense, and I do want to know where the series is going–especially because the end of this series is a much harder structural pattern to follow.

Ralph O’Connor, Icelandic Histories and Romances. This is, of course, romances in the older sense, not in the sense of people falling in love. O’Connor has a bunch of theory about these genres and then translates a bunch of them, and they’re weird, though not as weird as the legendary sagas. Probably more a volume for completists than for casual medieval tale readers.

Daniel José Older, The Book of Lost Saints. A ghost story about family and the Cuban Revolution and what came after, forgiveness and love and…so very much family. So very much, and this is my jam and I think those of you who like the family element in my fiction will love this.

Malka Older, …And Other Disasters. An interesting very short set of short speculative stories, in some ways very much a departure from her novels.

Mary Oliver, Felicity. Love and nature poetry, rather breathless, not where I would start with her work but I was perfectly glad to read it.

Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood and Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. I really like how Tatar is happy to talk about children as people with agency, and particularly how children’s interpretations of story and adult intention of story are not always the same thing. Yes good, more of this.

The Winter Duke, by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend and represented by the same agent as me.

One of the things I often talk about most enthusiastically in my blog series about long-established older writers is their breadth of ideas. My favorite writers often have a scope that makes me happy, ideas where one book will be wildly different from another. This is only Claire’s second book, but already she’s displaying the kind of range that I praise in authors with decades-long careers.

Claire’s first book, We Rule the Night, was a breathless adventure in magical airplanes, inspired by the Soviet Union’s Night Witches, all fire and fight. The Winter Duke is like the ice roses that pervade its castle: chilly and perfectly formed, ready to melt at a touch.

Ekata is one of the many middle children in the ducal family of Kylma Above. One of her siblings will be the heir, but she has always known that it would not be her. She would go off to university to study the natural world and be far, far from her murderously squabbling family. The only thing she expected to miss about Kylma Above was its proximity to Kylma Below–the realm below the frozen lake that is the source of the magic harvest, a fascination to Ekata’s keenly curious mind.

And then disaster strikes. Just as her brother is about to choose a spouse, Ekata’s entire family is struck down by an unprecedented–and apparently magical–plague. She is the only one left conscious. She must take the reins of political power–and with them the reins of magical power above the lake’s surface, in the air-breathing human realms–before someone takes them from her.

Someone like her extremely gross foster brother Sigis.

And when you ask, “You and what army?”, Sigis is like, “Oh, this army right here that I brought with me,” and I hate him and would like to throw him off a cliff.

On the other hand, there is Ekata’s newest ally…her temporary bride, Inkar. Inkar is fierce, Inkar is determined, and Inkar is incredibly confused by the culture she’s dealing with here. Basically half of Inkar’s dialog can be paraphrased as “YOU WHAT BUT WHY.” And since she is dealing with a very icy region…look, we get this a lot, okay? So Inkar is very relatable, not for me, but for…basically everyone who visits me. Inkar is how people are.

And then the magic, the magic under the frozen lake, oh, oh that is so…so very right. It fits, it works, it is so much fun but not in a…fluffy ponies on a picnic way. This is magic red in tooth and claw, this is the kind of magic that spawns the kind of duchy we see above it. This is a world with room to improve, and characters fighting to improve it. And themselves. Which is very like We Rule the Night, but also completely different.

Well done, Claire. Highly recommended.

Important tools

One of the things I often think about advice is that it usually reflects the advice-giver’s needs rather than being some kind of universal law. “Don’t smack yourself in the face with a frying pan,” okay, sure, but once you leave that realm, you’ll run into “definitely write every day because you need the momentum” and “definitely don’t write every day because you need to take breaks,” and…those two things are advice designed for different people who have opposite problems. And the milder versions, “momentum is valuable” and “rest is valuable” are both true.

So I’ve been thinking about another pair of aphorisms in tension. And they are “it’s a poor crafter who blames their tools” and “get the right tool for the job.” I think this is a case where both are true and it’s a matter of finding the balance and figuring out where you are on the spectrum of “how true is this at the moment, how much does this apply to me right now.”

Example: for Christmas in 2018 I got a traveler’s notebook. And that has been astonishingly helpful for my productivity. I was productive before, no one who lives outside my skull could deny it. And yet this: this is staggeringly useful. This is a thing that helps me be both more productive and more relaxed about it. What is this magic. It is an amazing tool for me. It is objectively much, much better than its absence. Was it worth spending the money? Oh God yes. (It was not my money, it was a gift. But if it had been? STILL YES.

Now: if my productivity device had been an extremely fancy laptop instead of a traveler’s notebook, this math would be somewhat different. Or if I was finding productivity leaps from a different system every month. Because then you start asking: are these genuine productivity leaps? But I think we’re culturally skewed toward Puritanism in some ways. We’re skewed toward sit down, shut up, you can’t possibly benefit from the thing, do not ask for anything.

Except…hammering with a hammer is better and more efficient and safer than hammering with the handle of a screwdriver. You can hurt yourself doing that. There’s a reason professionals use a hammer. No one is going to hurt themselves trying to write in a spiral notebook from Walgreen’s instead of a nice traveler’s notebook, but it’s entirely 100% possible that they might not get as much written. I myself have written on basically anything, computer, paper, whatever. The back of junk mail. Just to prove to myself that I can, that I don’t need a special system, that if I’m in a random location with scrap paper I can still write. I still do that now, so that I don’t get too precious about having to have things exactly right. Buuuut having things that I like is actually great and it is totally okay if you want things that you like too.

And the difference between, for example, really good artist-grade colored pencils and the bottom of the barrel cheapest colored pencils is staggering. You literally can make immensely better art with the good pencils. That’s not being “precious,” that’s not being spoiled or demanding or a snob, that’s…there is a difference in the quality of what comes out.

I suspect that nobody reading this has infinite choice. I suspect that I have not attracted any billionaires to be regular blog readers. (If so, hi! I have a whole list of artists you could patronize, billionaire reader!) So it’s a matter of balance, balance, balance, as in so many things. I just…feel like there’s a certain amount of cultural default that if you purchase organizational tools to make things easier, you’re being self-indulgent and you don’t really need them, and I want to push back on that. Sometimes the right tool that fits your hand is amazing, and you can do better work with it. Hurray for finding those moments. Let’s celebrate them when we can. Even when they seem random and weird from the outside.

The exact right thing

Today it’s been over three weeks since the three-day flooring project began. It will not end today. I hope it ends this week but who knows. I have learned to just…go with whatever is, to not rely on this uncertain world and so on. And so for basically a month we’ve been living with the uproar of not being able to have things on the main floor of the house, because we had to have it cleared out in advance. This has been…not great. We’ve coped. We’ve done quite a lot of coping.

But it’s given me insight, I think, into what people want of minimalism. Right now there are rooms in my house that are the purest minimalism. They have nothing in them. It’s hard to get more minimalist than that, and yet: that is not what minimalism wants. Other rooms are stuffed with more than what they’re supposed to have, they’re impossible to use or merely annoying and difficult, because the things that are quite usable in their usual space are overwhelming when crammed in. So–and I know this is not unique to me–I feel like minimalism is a fantasy of having the exact right stuff.

It’s about knowing exactly what you’re going to need and having only that. Not the stuff you thought you might need, or the stuff you thought looked cool when you were twenty and now you’re forty-one and you’re less sure. Not the stuff someone else thought you might need. And especially not the stuff someone else thought looked cool and it was never really quite right for you but also not wrong enough to get rid of. Just exactly the right stuff, exactly where you can get to it.

Living life inevitably comes with baggage–emotional baggage as well as physical. If you’re a person who reaches forty without things and people in your life, that itself is emotional baggage, that itself is a story. Even if you’re happy that way, it’s a set of things that have happened to you and ways you’ve reacted. When we were packing up wedding presents into a U-Haul to move to California when I was 21, my uncle sighed and said, “When I was 21, I could just…throw my guitar in the backseat and drive off into the sunset,” and I said, “Uncle Pete, I’m a pianist.” Which is symbolically as well as literally true; I was never going to be someone who had a guitar and a kit bag for her entire life.

I do understand wanting to have the right things, though. Not too much and not too little. Not so much of the things that seemed right but weren’t that you can’t get to the things that are actually delightful, or even just functional. Enough of the backups that you don’t have a crisis when something is no longer working, but not so many that you drown in them. Balance, balance, balance.

Right now having things cleared out is making me look at all of it very carefully. Do I really want this, no, really, no, really. When everything goes back in those rooms, should it. I have already realized that I am probably not going to play my flute again, that the future in which I have more time for music doesn’t probably mean a future in which I devote it to the flute. So someone else can enjoy that, rather than having it gather dust in the corner of the music room, between the pianos that we do still want. Nobody with two pianos can reasonably be called a minimalist. But still: the right things, the things we do want, and not the things we don’t, sure, yes, I see that.

Right now that includes my oven, I want my oven back….

Books read, early February

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. I had not read this fairly famous set of essays, and now I have. It was horrifying and instructive, as of course you would expect it to be. I think that in some ways the fact that it is a few generations ago and it is his cri de coeur about his experience of racism, direct and unfiltered, makes it not my first recommendation of Baldwin or of this kind of essay. I feel like his fiction and the contemporary equivalent of these essays are the things I’d hand to people if they’re going to read only one thing by him or only one of this type of essay, because the historical nature of it makes it easier for people to take the message as an historical message rather than one with contemporary relevance, and I feel like that’s less true of his plays/novels. But it’s still very much worth reading as long as you’re going to think carefully about it.

Bob Cary, Born to Pull: The Glory of Sled Dogs. I read very little middle grade nonfiction, but this was recommended for all ages of people who are interested in sled dogs. Not complicated but beautifully done.

Paul Cornell, A Long Day in Lychford. This is the third novella in its series, and in a lot of ways it’s a series of novellas that’s more of a serialization of a longer piece of fiction, so there are parts of the relationships, characterization, and setting that will be hard to pick up at this point. It doesn’t really stand alone. What it does do well: take on Brexit head on with a fantasy conceit. Oh my goodness, it had been a minute since I read the previous one in the series, and I had not braced myself for how much Cornell was just going to square up and do that. Wow. Wow.

Fernando Flores, Tears of the Truffle-Pig. This was a little bit influenced by SF about genetic engineering of animal species and a lot influenced by Latinx fabulism, and it’s US/Mexico border SF/F that isn’t entirely like anything else.

Lisa Goldstein, Travellers in Magic. Reread. Kindle. I had read these before and didn’t remember much about them, and I’m afraid I didn’t find them very memorable this time around either. Neither were they bad or offensive, they were generally pretty readable, just not her best work, in my opinion.

Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons. Actually more a history of the Anglo-Saxon (/early English) kings, but that’s fine, that’s useful in its own way as long as you’re clear on what you’re doing and willing to look further for the rest of things, which I am.

Nalo Hopkinson, Dominike Stanton, and John Rauch, House of Whispers Volume One: The Power Divided. This is in the Sandman universe, but with Caribbean gods and loa and a mostly new set of characters from this author. It is the kind of graphic novel collection that is not at all required to be a complete story arc, so there will be more of this story to come.

Tove Jansson, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. These stories were amazing. The first one was so good that I had to set the book down and make noises about it. The characterization is just incredibly spot-on beautifully done, and I love it, I love this collection so much, I am so happy with it, oh gosh, so good.

A.K. Larkwood, The Unspoken Name. Discussed elsewhere.

Long Litt Woon, The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning. This is a memoir of a woman who lost her husband very suddenly and unexpectedly in middle age and took up mushroom hunting as part of figuring out what to do with herself in the aftermath of his passing. She was born in Malaysia but had moved to Norway as an exchange student and stayed there when she met her husband, so part of this story is how she determined that she was going to stay there even once he was gone, how she made the Norwegian forest landscape more her own. It’s not very long, and I liked it.

Maria Mitsora, On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave, White Roses Have Already Bloomed. Short stories in translation, a very slim volume, a little surrealist and a little puzzling, but fine.

Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World. Another in the sub-genre of “people deal with their proximity to a fictional famous author,” in this case one mostly offstage, and also there’s the eccentric family of an immigrant scholar, and also a young woman making her way in the world of the 1930s. If you like that sort of thing.

C.L. Polk, Stormsong. Even when I say that a sequel deals with consequences, usually there is at least a little glossing over of the awkward bits. But this sequel to the excellent and (!!!) award-winning Witchmark does not spare its characters the social or moral implications of what they’ve done. They have to figure out how to handle it, exactly how to handle it–there’s no “oh I’m sure there’s some way to”–nope, who gets arrested, who has to say something upsetting to which powerful person’s face, exactly how does speaking really horrible truth to really powerful power play out here. It’s amazingly done, it’s really powerful, and I recommend it highly.

Danez Smith, Homie. These poems are soft and hard and particular and beautiful and ugly and just what I needed. There is one in particular that makes me cry every time I read it, “I’m Going Back To Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” but the others that are in some way the opposite, the others that are not my own perspective whatsoever, are enlightening in their own way too. Highly recommended.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: Ghost Cabin. This is another of the middle grade novels in the same setting/with the same characters as the Lumberjanes comics. This one sets the group on a path to encounter some of the Lumberjanes who went before, and to help them to figure out where they want to be now that they’ve…gone beyond. Friendship to the max, even beyond the grave. So much fun.

Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. It is very strange to read a history book that happened not only during my lifetime, not only during my adult lifetime, but mostly during the most recent part of my adult lifetime. It’s extremely useful, because the stuff that Thant is talking about here was drastically underreported in the news media I was reading. If you don’t know what the situation is in Burma in any great detail, this is a good place to go.

Jesmyn Ward, ed., The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. As should be clear from the title, this is an essay collection inspired by James Baldwin’s famous essays, above. Ward asked a bunch of people to write on a very broad interpretation of this topic, and most of what she got is really interesting, some of it even brilliant. There are two essays that relate to what I would broadly describe as the historical Black experience in New England that were just mind-blowing. One essay for some reason needed to footnote its cis-essentialist viewpoint for reasons I still don’t understand, and I want to flag that, because otherwise this is great and what is that footnote even doing, and I wouldn’t want someone to come upon it unprepared and think I thought that part was great too. But there is so much else worth reading in this collection.

Jane Yolen, Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After. This is harrowing and well done and I cried in several spots. If you are the sort of person who grieves communally through literature, this may well be for you; if you know such a person, this may well be for them. If you are the sort of person who does not want your grief highlighted by that kind of commonality, steer well clear of this book.

The Unspoken Name, by A.K. Larkwood

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend since we’re repped by the same agent and all.

Which is not to say that you should discount my squee, because: squeeee this is so much fun. I tore right through it and then have had to wait months to share this review with you lot through the wonder of ARCs. I love books that ask, “But then what next?” And this is very much that kind of book. There is a child priestess who is to be sacrificed, who is ready to die. She is saved from death. Yes: but then what next?

What next is learning so much. What next is searching not one world but many, for ancient relics, barely remembered but powerful beyond describing. What next is being handed team members you don’t want, don’t like, and would actually like to throw into any convenient abyss. What next is loyalty to the point of agony–loyalty beyond imagining–and then.

And then discoveries of someone new who can earn your loyalty too.

This is not a short fantasy, but not a page is wasted. I tore through it at a scorching pace, with each section bringing new personal developments for both Csorwe and her worlds. The shape of Csorwe’s story is hers, and for all the fantasy I read, I never yawned, oh, this again. I wanted to be with her for every moment of it. Highly recommended.