Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a novella about a trans guy whose Houston home floods and about his life with a dybbuk in a shelter in Dallas. If you read that sentence and thought, “ooh, that might be for me if it’s done well!”, congratulations, you are correct, this is definitely for you.

Noah’s experiences in the emergency shelter are about as much sunshine and lollipops as you’d expect, but there are some rainbows to be found in the community that he both builds and finds there. It’s perfectly drawn of imperfect humans–Kern has noticed that even excellent allies don’t always share the same priorities, and negotiating those with kindness and patience in the face of deteriorating conditions can be hard, sometimes feeling impossible. Kern draws these relationships so very well.

The shape of the ending is particularly wonderful at a time like this: a turning toward kindness and toward community in a world that would make it easier to shut others out. The speculative element ties in excellently with the real world strengths of this novella. I’ll be looking for more by Kern.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is the third in its series, and you absolutely should not read it without having read the first two. There’s enough to keep track of here if you have a fighting chance of knowing what’s going on from having actually read it; having to guess and fill in why people care about Tain Hu and who Aminata is anyway and…look, there is an entire thread of magic/social connection that’s based on how people relate to each other, you’re going to want to know what the heck is going on before you dive in here.

If you have read the other two books, here’s what you need to know here: this book does not ease up on disgust or treachery. If anything it doubles down. And…there’s a plague that is made much worse by people behaving foolishly. Actually there are several plagues. The plague element is not lessened here. At all. For some of you, that will feel comforting, like the thing you’re living through is being validated by the book; but if you’re otherwise interested in this series and think, oh God, not that, not now, then I advise you to get your copy and hold off a bit on reading it, because there is no dodging a certain contagion-related theme here.

Does it stick the landing, though. I would say yes, yes it does. People behave like themselves, actions continue to accrue consequences at an alarming rate until the very end. Could there be more told in this universe? absolutely. Is this particular story left unfulfilled with pieces hanging? not at all. The empire and its denizens and outliers are all going somewhere in this book, not just wandering indefinitely. The title character has several quite large revelations about herself and her world, she is proven right about some things but not everything, so if you’re a person who hates it when series just ramble on indefinitely, fear not, this is not one of those.

Books read, early May

Gavin Chappell, translator, The Saga of the Volsungs and Other Stories. More legendary saga weirdness. So much to work with here.

Nino Cipri, Finna. This novella about evil wormhole Ikeas is…maybe not the most relaxing thing to read when you’re dealing with home improvement woes? But compelling and fun and recommended and grandmaful.

P. Djeli Clark, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. This is a fast-paced, fun novella in the same world as some of Clark’s previous work. The world is clearly delineated quickly so you can dive into the story. Beautifully done.

Zoraida Cordova, Incendiary. Toward the very beginning of this book, I said to a friend that it was mainly good for its world-building because its plot was very YA-fantasy-standard, and ten pages later something happened that entirely turned that on its head. There was a turn for the more expected toward the very end, but in general this is not doing exactly the same thing as you might expect, and also the worldbuilding is fun.

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World. This is a terrible title. Epstein is not opposite to specialization in this book, he’s opposed to trying to get people to specialize exclusively or at extremely young ages. And he has a lot of data about how trying to make your two-year-old into the prodigy of your choice is not going to work particularly well, with side trips extolling the virtues of intellectual freedom on an interpersonal/emotional level. The ending sort of wandered, and I think I am not the target audience for this book, as I have long been a proponent of Letting Kids (And Also Adults) Mess Around Trying Stuff. But if you are also such a proponent and want bolstering for your arguments, here it is.

Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. This is exactly what it says on the tin, no more and no less. If you want to sort out more of what was going on in the Balkans when, this is a very straightforward version of that. If you’re looking for the quirky weird corners of history, this is not the book, but if you want a basis for putting the quirky weird corners of history into context when you find them later, this is a reasonable place to start.

Micaiah Johnson, The Space Between Worlds. Discussed elsewhere.

Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays On Artists and Writers. The titular essay was particularly engaging here, but there was a lot of varied material that interested me, in the “oh, and here’s another thing” way of good essay collections.

John Pollack, The Pun Also Rises. A new acquaintance at ConFusion talked about this book, which was written by a competitive pun champion. Which is apparently a thing! And this book gives examples of how that works! But also he goes into the history of puns and their function and reception. It’s short and, well, punny. I got a copy for me and a copy for a dear friend so that we would both have this experience, like it or not.

Kate Quinn, The Serpent and the Pearl. If you thought, okay, I want some Borgias, but their actual history is not melodramatic enough, what if an historical fiction writer made them more melodramatic, this is the book for you. I kept reading it for the cook, and eventually the cook also got swept into melodrama. This is also not so much a story as the first chunk of story with a completely unresolved ending. The sequels are out, so at least you can go on with them if you like–and I know that this will sound great to some people, it would sound great to me in some moods and I read the whole thing. But the last bit went far enough over the top that I don’t know that I’ll be reading the sequel right away.

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Charm and Hunger. Also a cliffhanger ending, but more resolved and satisfying, for me at least. This is the third in its series, and you’ll get things out of it if you’ve read the first two–there was a moment of “oh no oh no [character] run away” that came specifically because I have read the first one. But I do think it would work reasonably if you didn’t want the first ones and just started here, because each book is set in a different era with different central characters. This one brings the diabolists up to WWII.

Martha Wells, Network Effect. It’s Murderbot! In a full-length novel! It is what Murderbot in a full-length novel should be. While this is the first full-length Murderbot novel, it’s not the first Murderbot book, so go read the others and then wallow in this. Wallow.

F. C. Yee, The Iron Will of Genie Lo. This is also a sequel, a YA inspired by Journey to the West. It is so. Much. Fun. I love Genie and Yunie and all the other characters. I tore through this on a very stressful day and it was just the perfect thing, and you might need it if you ever have a stressful day too.

Jane Yolen, Curse of the Thirteenth Fey. This is the fairy backstory to Sleeping Beauty, with fairy family and fairy culture and fairy politics. You know where it’s going, but it’s still fun getting there.

The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Caralee is a traverser, someone who travels professionally between universes similar enough to her own to resonate with them. Like other traversers, she led a hard and risky childhood–you can only travel to worlds in which your other self has died, and Caralee’s other self has been in an entire metric ton of peril.

Oh, and also: her employer thinks she is one of those other selves, a more naive girl named Caramenta. When Caramenta was transferred into Caralee’s world and died from being in the same place as her double, Caralee took her clothes, her world-traveling tech–and her life. Or at least as much of her life as she could figure out. Luckily Caramenta was an assiduous journaler. Even luckier for Caralee, she’s a quick study–because these worlds are pretty universally brutal, and missteps could cost her everything.

Cara’s got a job, a safe place to live, a mentor, even a family–which is more than she had at home. But all of those things are threatened, and she is constantly having to maneuver around the ruling classes, who find her useful as a traverser but don’t have any interest in protecting her as a person. She has a history of being romantically involved with people who treat her like garbage, but it comes around in different ways in different worlds. Navigating all the different histories (which are kept deftly woven for the reader!) provides complication after complication for Cara as her expectations of one person shift to better fitting another–but even learning that anyone can be on her side is a major obstacle for her given her past. It’s a very different take on parallel worlds than most, and one I found interesting throughout.

Books read, late April

David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. German history is confusing. Usually the more I learn about it, the more confused I am, reinforcing that it is genuinely confusing, not just my ignorance. But this book! This book was a bit of German history that actually straightened a few things out in my mind. Because it was German hydrological history! Canals and sloughs and barges and all sorts of things that you can actually trace a reasonably straightforward narrative about! So much water. It’s not a highly technical book, you don’t have to be a hydrologist yourself. It’s another of those “this is history too, and it’s not about crowns and battles” books that I like so much.

Marie Brennan, Driftwood. Discussed elsewhere.

Stephanie Burgis, Deadly Courtesies. Kindle. The next short story in a series about necromancy, crafting magic (in this case metalcrafting), and impending romance. Great fun.

Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. This goes through plant sensory systems and what research there is about them (and what has been debunked). Hurrah for a comforting book about botany.

Isabel Greenberg, Glass Town. A graphic novel about the Bronte siblings’ juvenilia and also their relationships with each other. I read this to discuss it with a friend who is a great Gondal fan, but then it turned out she hasn’t had time yet. If you’re interested in the topic I think it would be a reasonable introduction.

S.L. Huang, Critical Point and Null Set. Discussed elsewhere, and also discussed elsewhere.

Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On Disaster Capitalists. A short book on what the heck is going on there, with competing views for handling post-hurricane devastation and what the future of the island should be. Klein is not trying to avoid taking sides, but I think the side she takes is reasonable, and she also provides some useful information I had not seen covered well elsewhere in the mainland US.

Mary Robinette Kowal, The Relentless Moon. Discussed elsewhere.

Naomi Mitchison, The Bull Calves. This is a thumping big historical novel set in 18th century Scotland. It is full of Scots dialect and people with very similar names who are related to each other, and I liked it anyway. Whenever there’s a Naomi Mitchison book on my pile, it’s what I want to read. They’re not like each other in overt ways, just in subtle ways.

Jenn Reese, A Game of Fox and Squirrels. This is a heart-rending book with a happy ending. Two sisters have had to move to their aunts’ house in Oregon because of their dad’s abuse, and the younger one gets caught up in a magical card game. And there is a lot of learning to trust and learning how to love people who love you well when you’ve had other kinds of love in the past, and it’s really good that way, but hoo, it is not easy, don’t think that the middle-grade age target makes it easy.

John Sayles, Yellow Earth. Speaking of good but not easy…well, no one was going to make that mistake with Sayles. This novel is about the North Dakota oil fields and the people around them, and…and…oh, it is not a “fun” book, but I loved it. I have generally believed John Sayles about the details of his work, that people say the things he says they do (adjusted a tiny bit for Sayles…), but in this book he is talking about various forms of my people, and he gets it right, he gets very tiny things right as well as large ones. A lot of flawed people trying the best they can, some of them not trying the best they can, and some people get genuinely happy endings, within the Sayles capacity. In this case the happy ending of the very last page felt like it was written just for me, so hey, thanks, Mr. Sayles, I love you too.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. This is a thin pamphlet that is all polemic, some of it quite reasonable polemic, but still. There are places where Snyder is acting in his capacity as a Holocaust scholar and times when he’s speaking more or less without evidence, just stuff that he as a human believes. I prefer the former category, but most of the latter are okay, if less interesting. Won’t take you long, but I suspect that most people who read my blog already know much of what they would gain from this.

Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence. This is very much a memoir rather than an autobiography. If you’re here for a recitation of the facts of Solnit’s life, in chronological order, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The focus here is to muse on how her work and her life have intertwined, and I found that very interesting. (She is another author I tend to want to read right away when I have one of her books on my pile.)

Tasha Suri, Realm of Ash. A sequel to Empire of Sand, but I actually think it would do all right as a stand-alone, if you’re looking for magic and thoughtfulness about empire and its costs. I enjoyed this.

Tade Thompson, Household Gods and Other Narrative Offenses. Kindle. A really good introduction to his short work, varied settings and characters.

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Shattering autobiographical poems. Read slowly.

Raynor Winn, The Salt Path. This is a memoir of a couple who lost their farm, and also the husband got a terminal diagnosis, so they…decided to walk over 600 miles of English coast, Devon and Cornwall. They were flat broke and just started walking. There is quite a lot of focus on what they managed to eat, but also there are some really poignant moments, and a lot of thoughtfulness about who has access to what and why.

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.

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.