The Trans Space Octopus Congregation, by Bogi Takács

Review copy provided by the author.

Takács has not chosen this title accidentally. While this collection is not a single theme, its constellation of themes undulates around gender, fluidity, and form, with the alien and the other taking varying roles according to the needs of the story. The ordering of the stories has a particularly liquid flow, from one into the next in ways that inform and illuminate with no one theme or tone ever having a chance to grow stale.

I have major issues with the prior claim (NOT by Takács) that science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement (but that is, as they say, another panel–literally, that is a panel I will be on at Readercon next week, discussing the classic Darko Suvin essay on this topic)–but this science fiction is deeply and profoundly estranged, and at the same time is interested in healing that estrangement in the ways that healing is meaningful and possible–and the ways in which efforts toward that healing do not themselves cause greater harm. That is: recognition of estrangement is also a possible good in these stories. Diversity both of problem and of solution is recognized here.

No collection has every story for every reader, but so very much of this was for me–despite almost none of it being “for” my demographic. I am not trans, not Hungarian, not Jewish, not for that matter a cephalopod or an alien, but this is exactly the kind of science fiction where the beauty of not being “same” shines through the most. Recommended.

Hexarchate Stories, by Yoon Ha Lee

Review copy provided by publisher. Also I have known the author since Officially Forever, On Here.

I have rarely read a book with such a clearly defined audience! This is for people who love Yoon’s debut trilogy (the Machineries of Empire trilogy, the one with Jedao in it) and have or enjoy a strong fanfic impulse.

What do I mean by “strong fanfic impulse”: the range of tone in this material is very, very large, and how much it has traditional story structure varies extremely. The central novella that constitutes the bulk of this volume does indeed have a fairly traditional story nature, and so do a couple of the short stories, but others are of structures like “what if favorite character went home for a holiday” structures that are more like “outtakes” and other structures that fanfic explores more thoroughly.

So if you have that kind of impulse to see more range of structure and tone, this is definitely for you. I put off reading this volume, honestly, because I was not sure that I could deal with the levels of complexity, intensity, and darkness that Yoon sometimes brings to his fiction with the other things that were going on in my life at the time. And those are sometimes present, not going to lie about that. But the middle of the volume is definitely in the fluffier end of the range–there is no coffeeshop AU, but there is a lot more of the “this is a lighter moment” end of things, brief touches, small illuminations of a larger world.

I would not recommend starting this series in this point–it does rely fairly heavily on you having some notion of the characters and the setting. But for those who are invested, there is a range and a depth here that will likely be appealing.

David Mogo, Godhunter, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Review copy provided by publisher.

A slightly future/altered Lagos, Nigeria, is the setting and the heart of David Mogo, Godhunter. It is squarely in the middle of the contemporary urban fantasy tradition–the one with Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher, not the one that’s a sub-genre of romance. And that combination of factors changes the beats and the shape of the story completely.

David Mogo is half-orisha. He is learning who he is and who he wants to be. This is a very coming of age sort of book. But coming of age as the son of a god in a ravaged natural and magical landscape is anything but a standard tale. David’s care for his family, his chosen companions, his surroundings, infuse this book with an intensity that makes it a page-turner every bit as much as its dramatic action scenes do.

The Last Tsar’s Dragons, by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know both the authors socially.

Do you want a novella about the Russian Revolution in which Trotsky raises dragons? Because that’s what this is. The POV rotates quite a bit, so it’s not only Trotsky raising dragons, there are also sections on the Tsarina Alexandra’s views on dragons, Rasputin’s views on dragons, etc. Well, and some other things that aren’t dragons. There’s quite a lot of genuine history (fictionalized enough to provide dialog, inner thoughts, etc.) of the last days of the tsar’s empire and the beginning of the Russian Revolution–I was actually surprised at how closely this hewed to the reality of the world we live in, considering: dragons.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The Russian Revolution and its main figures had enough weirdness for any speculative writer. In that context the dragons almost feel like the most normal thing, which may well have been the point.

In any case: if you’re like me, you heard the premise and made up your mind that you wanted it right away, and that is a very sensible thing to do.

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh

Review copy provided by the great chain of agentsiblings through which I know Emily.

This novella is so central to what our agentsibs love, I can hardly believe it. Trees trees, so many trees. Dryads all over the place, questions of who stays dead. Tobias, the wild man of the forest, has dark secrets in his past, and trees upon trees in his present. His future is entwined with that of Henry Silver, both intrigued and intriguing. Henry has a lot of questions, most of which Tobias would really rather not have to answer.

I may have a different favorite character than the rest of them (Henry’s mommmmm), but I think we are united in the squee on this one. This is just our sort of thing, just exactly our sort of leafy stabby thing.

A Sword Named Truth, by Sherwood Smith

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend of some years standing.

This book is just exactly what I needed right now, and also I will probably not be able to tell you at least half of what happened in it in a month. It is full of intrigue. It is intrigue start to finish with then more intrigue. It is probably 850 pages of intrigue in 650 pages of book. And right now that was grand, that could wash right over me like a veritable cornucopia of things that are not personal grief.

Look at all the moving parts! Planets and kingdoms! Humans and shapeshifters! Kids and people who have done the child spell! Whose brain is under which spell and who is thinking clearly? I for one am not, but watching the characters move toward this was just what I wanted in this frame of mind. Not as swashbuckly as Inda but just as political.

Books read, late May

Ben Aaronovitch, The October Man. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth Bear, The Red-Stained Wings. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapters 18-20. Kindle. This was feeling more episodic with its waltzing and ghost stories, but it may be building to something. Boarding school tales on Mars, continued!

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Prisoner of Limnos. Kindle. I enjoy watching Lois play with tropes she enjoys, in this case heists and disguises. It’s in the Chalion universe, in the Penric series, fairly far on in the series and probably don’t start here. Is it her most outstanding work? No, but that’s a very high bar to clear, and it was good fun.

Minister Faust, The Coyote Kings Vs. The Myconauts of Plutonium City, Scrolls 1-6. Kindle. This is a serialized sequel to an earlier Faust which I loved. It has the gonzo referential weirdness that I enjoyed, and it’s certainly moving along quickly enough. I will be glad to see the rest. You can tell I’m enthusiastic because I’m willing to support and read in serial form at all. (Serials are not my medium.)

Tim Flannery, Europe: A Natural History. This was light and funny and lovely, lots of weird animals of historical times, some bits of odd geology, good writing, plenty of things I wanted to read out in the long hours. Absolutely what I needed and recommended.

F.S. Flint et al, Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology. Kindle. Highly variable, and alas, the Imagists I hadn’t had much experience of were not ones I wanted to seek out later, but on a day when things were not going well in the ICU, it was something to read that did not make my life more difficult.

W.H. Hudson, A Shepherd’s Life: Impressions of the South Wiltshire Downs. Kindle. I had hoped that this would have more sheep stuff in it than it had, since I will at some point be revising a novella that is significantly ovine, but it was more an interesting study of a particular place and time, and worth having as such.

Rose MacAulay, What Not. Kindle. This is a comedic satire of the near-future, published in 1918–it’s about the world after the war. It actually still made me laugh in spots–this is the book that made me laugh in the ICU. It is cited as an influence on Brave New World and does all sorts of things with class and caste and intelligence and eugenics more and better and more sharply than BNW. Its ending is also more troubling and ambiguous, more troubled, in fact–similarly unable to see a good way out but in a way that I find more compelling and interesting than Huxley’s because it is so much more personal as well as political. I think MacAulay is joining Naomi Mitchison on the list of writers I expect to read a lot of and squirm and make faces and argue and keep reading. But the fact that most people who are taught Brave New World in school never know of this in the slightest–I feel entirely comfortable saying that’s sexism. That is sexism on a number of levels, and you can go ahead and look for yourself.

Charles Patrick Neimeyer, War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaign to Control the Bay, 1813-14. This is a war technicalities book. It is detailed about very specific bits of war. These are around my house because other people want them, and sometimes I find them very soothing. Here is who went where when. But also I find it solid on a topic that modern Americans do not understand enough, and that is: the dominant empire does not really always get that people who are not the dominant empire often have very different views of the world and of who is the greatest threat than they themselves do. “It’s the French! You should be upset by the French!” the British kept wailing, oblivious to the figure they themselves posed in the world at the time. Ponder this, hegemons.

Fitz James O’Brien, The Diamond Lens. Kindle. This is a 19th century American work of science fiction in which the main character murders a Jewish guy for his diamond to make a perfect lens so he can creep on the microscopic lady who lives in a drop of water. Which then dries up so he pines for her. There, now you don’t have to.

Carla Rahn Phillips, Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century. This is an extremely nerdy book about building and supplying galleons and the taxation and requirements for them, and generally if you are doing a project on early seventeenth century Spanish ships, this is a great resource. I’m not, but it was kind of fascinating anyway, in a soothing way, since it happened to cross my path.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Walking to Aldebaran. Discussed elsewhere.

Sara Teasdale, Flame and Shadow. Kindle. Dramatic and beautiful and somewhat overwrought. Teasdale always feels so young to me, but it was just what I needed in the ICU.

R.J. Theodore, Meran’s Cataclysm. Kindle. A free short to draw the reader into a larger universe, not structured as stand-alone shorts generally are but still interesting.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. Discussed elsewhere.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 28. Kindle. Favorites from this issue included John Chu’s “Probibilitea” and Theodora Goss’s “The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly.”

Jo Walton, Lent. Discussed elsewhere.

Walter Jon Williams, The Accidental War. Space opera, the sequel to the running Praxis books. Lots of aliens and ruling houses and starships going smash and economies going smash and all the sorts of things you would expect from this series. Don’t start here, but if you’ve been having fun, it’s more of that fun.

Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation. Discussed elsewhere.

Lent, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I helped with an earlier draft of this book, because the author is a dear friend.

So this is a theologically focused historical fantasy about Savonarola. Bonfire of the Vanities, “purification” of Florence, hanged and burned by the Pope, that Savonarola. He is the protagonist, the close third person point of view is his. If you already know that you don’t want to spend a lot of time with Savonarola, get out while the getting’s good, because this is that book.

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book except in the vaguest terms, because the plot twist in the middle was so thoroughly surprising to me–and I am rarely surprised by plot twists–that I feel rather firmly that as many people should encounter it unspoiled as possible. Suffice it to say: there is a large structural THING in the middle of the book, a shift that changes all that comes before and after it. This is a book that pivots and then makes a spiral. (Spiral structured books are rare. Greer Gilman has one in Cloud and Ashes, but I’m not readily coming up with a lot of others.)

…most other things I can say about this are major spoilers. I found it fascinating and not like anything else. I mean, it’s like several of Jo’s other books in that it has Florence in it, it has Pico della Mirandola in it, it has Ficino in it, okay. But is it like the other books of Jo’s that have those things, no, not really. I don’t believe in a late-Medieval/Renaissance Catholic worldview on a very fundamental level, and I don’t think the book is trying to convince you to, but if you aren’t willing to entertain that worldview as at least a speculative premise, this will not be the book for you. But if you like interrogating/extending the natural conclusions of worldviews quite unlike your own, oh yes, this can do that. Quite a lot.

Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is SF horror of a very popular kind. You know all the movies about someone who goes very far out into the solar system and finds something horrible and in fact partly it’s them that’s horrible? And there are incomprehensible alien things and lots of blood and sometimes blood spraying out into vacuum? I wouldn’t be surprised if someone made a movie of this novella, because it is exactly like that, and it is a quite well-done and nasty thing in that direction and they tend to want to look for things like that.

Me personally? I hated it. It is not at all the sort of thing I like, and if it had been longer than a novella I would have stopped reading because my sense of the sunk cost fallacy usually kicks in past novella length. But there’s a difference between hating something and thinking it’s badly done. This is not badly done. Nobody does multilimbed critters like Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s just…someone else’s cup of tea, I feel quite sure. It’s definitely tea and not sludge! It’s just not for me.

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a novella in the same universe as the Rivers of London series, but not with the same protagonist. The main character, narrator, supernatural police officer, and human being much put-upon by rivers in this go-round is Tobias Winter, not Peter Grant.

…frankly they are not very different. And Aaronovitch made some allusions that made me think he might be aiming at doing something thematically interesting with the not-very-different-ness? but this is not it. This is another of the same thing. If this is the sort of thing you like, gosh, you might well like this sort of thing. If you were thinking perhaps not having Peter Grant as a protag would mean Aaronovitch had branched out a bit…no. It does not mean that.

The wine of the Mosel Valley is nice to think about, though, and it rattles along entertainingly. It is very definitely a series installment that does what the series does, but removed from the need to handle the recurring issues of the recurring characters.