Books read, late February

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You. I’m really glad this was not my first Lily Anderson novel, frankly, because this is in the same vein of mainstream YA as Not Now, Not Ever, with strong friendships among highly nerdy teenagers, and yet I would have been completely put off by the fact that one of its central plots is a very, very combative love story. You know the kind: I hate you I hate you let’s smooch. This is not a spoiler really–you can see it coming a mile off, you can see it in the title for heaven’s sake. And Anderson does it well, and there are other things going on. But–I really like having talked about romance/love stories enough to have the vocabulary to say that I prefer mine collaborative rather than combative, and I really like that I read her second book first so that I didn’t have a more general idea of this as Her Thing when in fact it’s just one facet.

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass. Fantasy with djinn and various related entities, ranging from Egypt to South Asia. This book started off with a very firm historical setting and wandered off from there into fantasical fireworks, and it is very clearly a first novel with miles to go before the series sleeps.

Barbara Hambly, Murder in July. An entry in the Benjamin January series. Not a great starting point for that as its emotional heft depends on you caring about the supporting cast and knowing a fair amount about them, but if you’re invested in this series–which I really like, New Orleans area free people of color as the main family–then, hey, here’s another.

Kat Howard, An Unkindness of Magicians. Very few contemporary fantasies are as honest about power and complicity in modern systems as this one is–and very few want to actually do something about that rather than saying oh woe the world is grim and dark, look how grim and dark, gosh that sucks. Rather than: look how grim and dark, better fix it, ya big jerk. The magic system Howard postulates here is pretty nasty. But she actually wants to talk about friendship and family and figuring out a way to do better. Which is more than a lot of authors can say when they think about power dynamics. So yes, this book has a lot of unkindness; it says so on the tin. This is one of those where some of us in the gutter actually are looking at the stars.

Barbara Jensen, Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. This book was startling, staggering, amazing. Jensen is my own people, to a startling degree my own people; she is from the north of the Twin Cities, some of the suburbs where I have great-aunts and -uncles. So when she used her own family examples to contrast working-class and middle-class cultural differences, she was talking about Minnesota Scandinavian Lutherans in both cases; she was talking about different parts of my family. There were a couple of places where I actually cried because I had never seen both class branches represented with respect and even affection, things that were good and valid about both, places where she could speak clearly and coherently about there being a difference rather than an absence. So that was amazing. It’s a really fascinating book. I think there are a couple of flaws. One of them is that it’s so very very generational. A great many middle-class assumptions she was talking about did not continue past the Baby Boomers, and I would be fascinated to see an analysis of what it means to be middle-class without them. Another is that I think in her rush not to throw working-class culture under the bus as has been done so many, many times before, she took several accounts of ideals as accounts of actuality. But it’s still a really thought-provoking, discussion-provoking book.

Sujata Massey, The Sleeping Dictionary. I am perpetually short on historical fiction, and Massey delivers with this one. It gets harrowing in several spots in several directions, child endangerment and sexual violence and relationship threat, just to flag that for readers, but I think that the story is interesting and has enough context to be sensitive and worth the emotional ups and downs if you’re ever up for them in any book. (Obviously if you just never want that, it’s a different calculation.) The setting is eastern India leading up to the time of independence from the UK, with independence a constantly intertwined theme for the heroine. It’s listed as the first in a series, but I don’t see that a sequel has come out yet.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., Robots Vs. Fairies. Sometimes you have a solid anthology where one story just completely blows you away and steals your heart, and this is one of those for me. Madeline Ashby’s “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” is the sort of story that I already know in February will be one of my favorites of the year. It deals with eldercare and traditional belief and robots and Iceland and I love this story to bits, worth the price of admission even if it wasn’t a well-constructed anthology otherwise. Which it is, it absolutely is, I just…am completely making heart-eyes at this one story.

Shel Silverstein, The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Okay, so really, Uncle Shelby, this stuff is…you didn’t really. You did? And people bought it for their kids? oh golly. There are all sorts of relationship things that he’s talking about with shapes here, and…welp. There it all is then. Learn to be happy on your own and sing your own songs and…yep, Shel Silverstein is exactly who he told us all he was. Repeatedly.

F.C. Yee, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. This book actually made me laugh out loud in spots. It’s a teen fantasy adventure about the Monkey King showing up to fight a demon infestation in a Silicon Valley suburb, and Yee has totally nailed the reality of that type of suburb being a great deal more influenced by strip malls and highways than redwoods at the moment. I loved Genie and her relationship with her parents and friends and legends and asskickery.

Books read, early February

This half-month’s book post was written, and then WordPress decided that “Save Draft” and “Destroy Draft” were somehow the same thing. So it is not only going to be late but also a trifle terse. Sigh.

Lily Anderson, Not Now, Not Ever. I liked this book now, but when I was twelve to fourteen, you would not have been able to pry me off it. A girl. Runs away. To Academic Decathlon camp. It is as though Lily Anderson said, hello, yes, Marissa, I would like to write you a book please, even though I have never met you, this is for you, okay thank you. There are also other fun elements of it–military family culture, teen relationships not only with love interest but with pals and cousins, intersectionality assumed as a default setting–but really, she had me at AcaDec.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapters 8-12. Kindle. We edge the plot along with British boarding school assumptions…I am really bad at reading serials and also really bad at leaving them alone when I have the files piled up on my Kindle and am traveling….

Box Brown, Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman. Discussed elsewhere.

Lucille Clifton, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010. This is the sort of collection that shows why reading the entirety of a poet’s work in order can be so intense and worthwhile. You can watch her feeling more able to talk about certain things, more expansive, as time goes by, as well as watching the progression of a human life. Clifton’s work is very grounded, very rooted, in community, in family, in person, and it’s wonderful to watch that grow as she grows as a person, even as it’s sometimes harrowing to watch that happen too. Highly, highly recommended.

Tessa Gratton, The Lost Sun. A North America shaped by Aesir visibly present in the world, a Baldur who does not behave as he had before, and some young people who have to sort out what’s going on before Ragnarok is upon them. This could have gone strongly either way for me, and I turned out to like it a lot and have fun with the Norse syncretist road trip aspects of it. I’ll look for the rest of the series.

Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives. Heinrich talks about wanting to observe individual bird personalities, and he does that, but there’s a bit of an oversell about what conclusions he can draw about them. There’s a lot more trolling of birds and his wife than I might ideally want, so I rolled my eyes a lot. If you’re going to start with a Heinrich, probably don’t make it this one, even though there’s some interesting naturalist observation here.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 5. Kindle. Fiyah continues to come up with themes that inspire their authors to diverse stories. My favorite in this issue was Monique Desir’s “Bondye Bon,” but I didn’t find any of it a bad read. I’m also glad to see them including some related nonfiction. I enjoy that.

Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The subtitle sounded like it was biting off an awfully lot of material, but Kimmerer is a botanist and a Native person, and the two combine to set her nature writing apart. I really enjoyed this.

Seanan McGuire, Beneath the Sugar Sky. The third in its series of portal fantasy novellas. I found the second one structurally a bit frustrating, but this is back to full form, doing interesting things with the nature of longing and desire in portal fantasy while giving vivid details of character and world in the specific fantasy settings along the way.

Malka Older, Null States. I found the characters more compelling in the first one, but this is idea science fiction around microdemocracy and its difficulties, and that’s a set of ideas I’m pretty much always going to find interesting, so I was definitely here for this.

Kimberly Reid, #Prettyboy Must Die. Discussed elsewhere.

Shel Silverstein, Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back. Wow, did Uncle Shelby sneak a lot of stuff past as kids’ books. Marshmallows, sure, but–the ending, what even was that. Okay. (I read this because it came up at a writers’ meetup and I’d never read it. More on this in the next fortnight’s book post.)

Robin Sloan, Sourdough. Literary contemporary fantasy about bread baking and the tech startup culture of the Bay Area. It’s a fast, smoothly written read…that starts to leave a bad taste the more you think about what he’s actually saying. Ethnically pretty gross. Interpersonally…also pretty gross honestly. It’s a surface critique of tech startup culture that actually embraces most of what’s toxic about tech startup culture, so…well, enjoy the bits about bread baking if you can get there through the hipster one-upsmanship.

Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. I’m really enjoying reading through Solnit’s back catalog, and this is no exception. It does what it says on the tin, with illustrations.

Nic Stone, Dear Martin. Passionate and heartfelt young adult novel in which a young Black man tries to process his proximity to police shootings. He uses letters to Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his methods of figuring out his own modern world, but sparingly, thoughtfully. The characters are all complex and human, and there’s a lot packed into this short book. Recommended.

Louisa Thomas, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. She did indeed live an extraordinary life, doing a great deal of the work of being an ambassador to various nations early in the American Republic, so there’s a lot of “what an interesting life” here even aside from being First Lady. (That part was not that fascinating honestly.) But there’s also a heaping helping of: John Quincy Adams: which boots would you wear to kick him in the shins? discuss. I think one of the greatest strengths of this biography, though, was that the biographer was able to talk about the ways in which Louisa Adams was and was not ahead of her time on various issues like race, where she left extensive writings–places where Thomas could give the reader context and say, you know what, nope, she was really not a heroine here, or hey, she was trying on this question of gender but just didn’t get there. It’s a perspective I think more biographers could use, because going head-down into one person often makes you a partisan for them even when you think you’re recognizing their foibles. Thomas did very well with understanding that flaws don’t just mean the sort of things that would make them annoying to share a bathroom with.

P.G. Wodehouse, Mike and Psmith. Kindle. Lighthearted boarding school book, silly, full of cricket and who gets which study. If you want this sort of thing, here it is.

J.Y. Yang, The Red Threads of Fortune. I was so glad I read The Black Tide of Heaven first, because I felt like the characterization and worldbuilding both unfolded really well in this order. I really enjoy the Tensorate universe and am glad we’ll be getting more.

#Prettyboy Must Die by Kimberly Reid

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a teen spy novel that stands alone perfectly well. There’s room for a sequel, but no sequel is required, and I imagine that if there was a sequel it could also be written to stand alone perfectly well–that Jake and his girlfriend Katie and his best buddy Bunker could all be introduced very swiftly, very easily, in the short chapters and pithy style of the spy novel as it intersects with the short chapters and pithy style of the action YA, allowing for getting on with it as quickly as possible.

Jake has been part of Operation EarlyBird, a program of very young CIA operatives, and the book opens with him on an actual real live mission. But oh no! he has to go back to high school! Does this cramp his style? Of course it does not! Hijinks continue to ensue! Trouble finds Jake wherever he goes, under whatever alias he uses!

This is a very, very contemporary book. The hashtag in the title is no accident–getting tagged #prettyboy on social media is one of the banes of Jake’s young would-be spy existence. There is slang that…I’m pretty sure will be “oh God that’s so 2017” in 2022. But it is not 2022 now, and it’s not offensive slang; in my memory part of reading kids’ books is the wonderment of learning slightly outdated slang while the plot rips breathlessly past you. There is camaraderie, there are twists and turns that all click neatly into place, there is wish fulfillment like whoa, and even if it doesn’t happen to be *your* wish fulfillment–as it was very much not mine–it’s a fun read that doesn’t take that long. So if you’re in the market for a teen spy novel, you could do a lot worse than this book, which understands friendship, pacing, and the aspirational potential of a girl with a ready supply of poisons.

Please consider using our link to buy #Prettyboy Must Die from Amazon.

Books read, January

Ben Aaronovitch, The Furthest Station. Abigail is great. Why do I always like the supporting cast better than the main characters in this series? I don’t know, but in this novella we meet Peter’s young cousin Abigail, and she is great. More Abigail. Blah blah rivers, magic, ghosts: Abigail. Yay.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Fox. Kindle. A particularly metaphysical installation in this novella series. What do nonhuman species contribute to our experience of life and knowledge, in fantasy novella format! So!

John Crowley, Totalitopia. Very short collection of short stories and essays. The very first one did white ethnicity as a presence rather than a default, very thoughtful, I enjoyed it a lot. I think I like Crowley better as a fiction writer than an essayist, but that’s okay, that’s where the bulk of his work is too, so that’s good for me.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, and Racheline Maltese, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13. Discussed elsewhere.

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. This was fascinating, about a woman who was kept from credit substantially by the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. She not only worked in wartime codebreaking but also in Prohibition and other projects. Codebreaking was in its infancy at the time, and Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William were crucial to the American effort. If I had one complaint about Fagone’s focus it was that he sometimes was not at all alert to the nuances of some of the things he said, in his hurry to focus on achievement rather than obstacle. At one point he said that asking whether she faced sexism was like asking whether Mme. Curie faced sexism. I blinked at that and said, “So…yes, then. Really really super yes.” (He was making a different point about being ground-breaking, the first in your field, etc. Sure! And sexism STILL….) Focus on achievement rather than obstacle is admirable, but let’s not actively minimize the obstacle along the way, dude.

Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens. This is a New England-and-Guatemala novel. Its sense of place and relationship is fascinating, and the way it handles both is not like anything else I’ve read. The title misled me completely and then once I had read the book very much fit. It’s very contemporary, deals with modern immigration and adoption issues…I’m not sure what else to say about it. Very interesting book that I’ve only been able to discuss with one other person because it just isn’t widely known in my circles.

Elizabeth Hand, Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories. Kindle. Reread. This was the source of insight for me about short stories pivoting rather than unfolding, and I think I prefer Hand’s work when it unfolds. Several of them had a very strong sense of place that I enjoyed, and it was a reasonable thing to revisit when I was exhausted on an airplane I did not expect to be on.

Janet Kagan, Mirabile. Reread. A mosaic novel of genetic emergency, made of fun, reread for my disaster response panel only to find that it was not as relevant as I’d hoped. Still pretty much always worth the time.

Lydia Kang, The November Girl. A runaway kid and a spirit of Lake Superior in the winter find each other, help each other…this is a fast-paced and deeply felt YA, and I liked lots of things about it while not being the main target audience for it. Although. It’s still my lake, so…yeah, soft spot here.

Fonda Lee, Jade City. I have been recommending this everywhere, because it’s just plain fun. Lee draws on fantasy novels but also kung fu movie structure in ways that make her plot less predictable than a lot of novels for me, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. First in a series, yay! Magic jade, clans warring, people trying to stay true to themselves but also to people they care about…oh yes. Yes please.

Naomi Libicki and Alter Reiss, eds., The Scintillation Collection. Kindle. A small convention jam-packed with people I know and like is going to be great, and I am so excited…but it meant that a lot of these stories were rereads, because I follow pretty much everybody’s work. On the other hand, it also meant that I liked a lot of these the first time around and was glad to see them again (on an airplane…I did not intend to be on…).

Leena Likitalo, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress. I expected this to be very much an ending, since it is the second book of what I thought was two. But instead it felt very much like a middle. The worldbuilding and the family relationships continued to appeal to me, but…the ending felt…ongoing, very much ongoing…well. Perhaps we will be going on with this series.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Extremely quirky and surreal stories, mostly focused on Southern India. Very, very short, so easy to read in short bites if that’s a thing you’re looking for.

Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman. A structurally unusual accounting of first contacts. Mitchison is one of the women you still occasionally run into, who mistook the limitations placed on her personally for gender differences in general and yet who did not mistake them for a general inequality, and so there are all sorts of ways of trying to write about this galactic explorer and communicator in ways that are weirdly warped by Mitchison’s own upbringing. What communication means and what the protagonist brings to her interspecies communications…this is a weird and fascinating plot, not really much like anything else.

David R. Montgomery, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. This is very popular-level science. Any of you has enough science background to understand it, and in fact in the first few chapters he is a bit patronizing in prose tone. After that he settles into the nuts and bolts of how farming should be revamped to be better for the soil, less costly in terms of chemicals, better for people and plants and even herd animals. He’s immensely convincing and in places even touching. I did not expect that so much of this would take place in the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota, in places where I have people. I cried in spots, where families managed to save not only the soil but their farms thereby. It’s good stuff, inspiring.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: The Night Masquerade. The last in its trilogy, and definitely do not start here, as a great deal of the emotional weight rests on knowing the people and their meaning to each other. A satisfying conclusion but not a satisfying start by any means.

Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. This is a beautiful book, essays from a Black woman visiting American landmarks. It’s nature writing from an angle I don’t see often, looking at the land from a different angle, from a very personal and human angle that illuminated it. Highly recommended.

Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, Viking Friendship: The Social Bond in Iceland and Norway, c. 900-1300. There is some very interesting stuff here about chosen social bond as opposed to family in saga and history. There are also some places where Sigurdsson…well, look, if you don’t listen to what people know, you won’t know it. And there were places where I just rolled laughing because you could ask any Nordic auntie, any at all, some of the things that he thought were mysterious, and they would either tell you or snort in disbelief that you had to ask such an ignorant question (why women were so prevalent in wedding seating disputes, dear God, do I even have to unpack that for you in the comments), so look, it is not their fault if you look like a fool in your book sometimes, they’re right there, child.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. This was, I think, the first book I read this year, and I was so glad of it, its wanders and focus on wandering, its meanders through thought and relationship and landscape. I am so very much enjoying making my way through Solnit’s works.

Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts. Spaceship life through an incredibly intersectional lens, with detailed attention to how relationships change in confined spaces around power in so many ways, energy in so many ways, so many assumptions examined. Powerful, reaching, fascinating.

Kanishk Tharoor, Swimmer Among the Stars. Lovely short stories, amazing. I am not seeing these discussed among genre readers, and they’re mostly not traditional speculative genre stories, but they range through space and time in beautiful ways that I would like to see more of, and I’m so very glad to have found them, and I wish more people were finding them.

Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus. I think I’m very glad that I started with late period Vizenor, because this is whimsical and interesting, and of course it’s good that Vizenor has learned better on some issues, especially some gender issues, and yet…and yet there are some places I sigh and roll my eyes a bit and am glad this is not where I began. And I would not necessarily recommend that you begin here either. There is some magic to this recasting, this…re-legending?…but if you have to pick just one Vizenor, really probably not this one.

J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven. I was absolutely enchanted by this story of siblings and power and gender and empire, by the worldbuilding, by all of it. I can’t wait for the other novella in this pair.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13

By Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, and Racheline Maltese

Review access provided by Serial Box.

This is the end of the season of Tremontaine, and it’s very obvious. Some season endings are about wrapping up plot threads, some are about setting up new plot threads for the next season. This is both. This is a ton of both. There is more than one scale of fight scene here; there are personal confrontations and decisions not to confront. There are relationships, if not repaired, at least…in d├ętente.

There are deaths. Unexpected deaths. Surprises. Fencing fighting torture revenge…not so much true love. But it’s not really that kind of series. Chocolate, though. Lots and lots of true chocolate.

And something quite new in all the world of Tremontaine. Something looking up. A new direction (nudge nudge) for season 4. So that’s very interesting.

Books read, late December

Sarah Gailey, The Fisher of Bones. A grim and affecting fantasy novella about the leader of a group of people on a trek across a wasted landscape. Gailey’s previous novella, with the hippos, was not exactly pure joy, but was a lot of fun. This is a different tone completely, displaying her range. It’s very dark. Very, very dark. Well done, but…brace yourself.

Tessa Gratton and Karen Lord, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 10 and 11. Discussed elsewhere.

Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free. The first half of this book is a history of peasant uprisings in medieval Europe, the second specifically a history of the British peasants’ revolt of 1381. As it is not a long book, both halves were interesting, but I could have done with twice as much of each. There is not a sufficiency of peasant uprising history running around, though, so we take what we can get I guess. There’s a lot of discussion of what worked and what didn’t, in which ways peasants got which rights when, how they conceived of what they were asking for and when they just flailed angrily and why, etc.

Justina Ireland, Troy L. Wiggins, et al, Fiyah Issues 3 and 4. One of the lovely things about Fiyah is that I can read it purely as a fan, not being eligible to submit. That being the case, I have no idea how their issue themes hit their authors, whether they feel inspiring or frustrating from the author side. From the reader side, I think they’re succeeding admirably at picking things that are broad enough and deep enough to give a body of work that feels united without feeling samey. The specific stories I loved best will show up in my short story recommendations post, but I’m definitely glad to have a subscription here for the next year.

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties. Oh, these stories. I had read some of them, most I had not. And they just…unfolded beautifully, relentlessly. The title is perfect. I think the one that hit me the most, the best, started out feeling like a catalog of lovers, like a mimetic story, and…went from there into something far more speculative. But there’s so much here. This is another example of the hype I heard being absolutely worth it. I was entranced.

Peter Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague. Weird book about a weird man. A lot of this was background and biography, trying to put Rudolf II in his context in his place and time with the Habsburg family and Austria and Spain and…hoo. That era. They were in that “we are figuring stuff out!…we really don’t have stuff figured out!” era, when “maybe pour mercury on it!” was as good an idea as anybody had. “It might be a comet who knows!” Yes sure give that a look. This is not an outstanding book on the topic, but if you’re really enthusiastic about the topic, well, here we are.

Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia. This is a history of the concept of human rights, and a discussion of a) why people associate it with the 1940s, b) why the 1970s were actually an even stronger time for its rise, c) other aspects of human rights as a global concept/focus. Interesting, far more focused on those two decades than I expected, not too long and not too abstruse. Made a good case for human rights as a social minimum rather than a social maximum when figuring out a society.

Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun. Oh, this one was lovely. It’s about missionaries to fairyland, a missionary and his sister more accurately, and it has all sorts of grounding in what missionaries actually were like and did, and also all sorts of grounding in what old fairy stories were actually like before they got prettified, and as a result there are strange and dark and terrifying things going on here, many of them human. Captivating, thoroughly recommended.

Ada Palmer, The Will to Battle. Discussed elsewhere.

Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars. This is a Serbian novel in translation, a somewhat Ruritanian novel in encyclopedia entries. It would be another mildly interesting entry alongside the others I like of that type–I am a sucker for Ruritanian novels–except that being Serbian ends up distinguishing it extremely, because when Anglophones try to set a Ruritanian novel in that part of the world, they quite often attempt to leave out religion, or at least dash past it with a glancing blow. Pavic has no interest in that. Dictionary of the Khazars is in three sections for the three largest religions of that area, and quite often each section will have different things to say in its encyclopedia entry about a person or element of “Khazar” life. The shape of thing comes out distinctive and interesting, coming together at the end with a bang.

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Will and Temper. I critiqued this book in draft and loved it then, so I saved the polished version for when I knew I would want something I would enjoy. This, it turns out, was prescient; nothing gets you through a six hour airline delay while recovering from multiple illnesses like a book you already know you like but haven’t gotten in quite its final form yet. This is a book of fin de siecle art world, family relationships, fencing, and diabolism. It’s fun. It’s got significance and depth and the ending goes straight to me–in ways that I can claim no credit for, because Molly had nailed it the very first time I saw it. I’ve been wanting to be able to rec this book for two years now, and here it is. Yay.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trotta, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issues 18 and 19. These were two very strong issues, and I had notes on which stories I really loved from them, and…those notes went wandering when I was in the process of recommending stories on Twitter. I have them for my big short story recommendation post! So it’ll be in there! Short version is: enjoyed them, glad I subscribe so I don’t miss things in passing, but it does mean that I’m less likely to read things in passing because I know I’ll get there eventually.

Deborah Weisgall, The World Before Her. This is a novel with two parallel time streams, one of which is about George Eliot adjusting to her late life marriage, the other about a sculptor in the ’80s whose marriage is not really working. The details of her art work are delightful, and both timelines actually end up working fairly well for me, although I have to confess that since I have recently read Middlemarch the main effect of this book is to make me want to read Daniel Deronda. There are worse effects for a book to have.

Emily Wilson translating Homer, The Odyssey. Yes, this is counter to my usual policy of listing the author first. But come on, we all know that it’s Homer’s Odyssey…and we all know that this translation being by Emily Wilson is immensely important and immensely specific. This just feels so clear on the page. I didn’t struggle with the Fitzgerald Homer I read in college–I don’t ever recall feeling like this was hard material–so the clarity I mean is aesthetic, like sparkly water. The focus on hospitality, the characters getting to be characters, even the slaves. This is just a joy to read. I’m so glad of it.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 10 and 11, by Tessa Gratton and Karen Lord

Access provided by Serial Box.

We’ve reached the part of a season of Tremontaine where plot elements start to spiral very actively. A few of them are bureaucratic, but most of them are very action–violence abounds in these two episodes, and even its avoidance is active and specific. At this point in the series, getting all the regular characters appearances while the plot moves in the ways it needs to is quite a feat, but Gratton and Lord are both skilled enough with ensemble casts that it doesn’t feel contrived–even though as a writer I looked at some of what needed to happen in fairly short space and took some deep cleansing breaths. Personal favorites like Micah and her math are not getting a lot of attention here, but that’s understandable–there’s a lot to do for the plot to get to fruition.

This is basically the bit where everyone is running ahead of the rolling boulder and trying not to get crushed. Some of them are, in fact, getting crushed.

We’re also back to chocolate, so that’s a relief.

The Will to Battle, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Further, the author is a dear friend of a dear friend.

How do you prevent the world from destroying itself? I wish there was a time in my adult life when this had felt like an irrelevant question. I can certainly see why Ada made it the central question of this series; we’re about the same age, and it has been relevant since before we showed up on the planet.

And this is a book that spends basically all its time on that question, that one question: how do we keep the planet from destroying itself or more specifically all the humans. Is war inevitable, how big a war is inevitable, how big a war is permissible if it siphons energy off that would otherwise contribute to a more catastrophic war. What kinds of violence can be permitted between groups of people and in what conditions. This is all on the page, and it’s practically the only thing on the page; there is a moment of dramatic filibuster when a character chooses to read the articles of the world constitution on the page. (While the concerns fascinate me, that part of the writing style was not my favorite.)

And unfortunately, this very passionate concern is very thoroughly based on the worldbuilding of the previous two books–on the gender politics and the religious politics, specifically, but also on the class politics–that are working less and less well for me the more I see of them. The former two elements are not nearly as foregrounded in The Will to Battle as they were in Seven Surrenders, but they are basic to the functioning of the entire narrative; it’s impossible to say, okay, but never mind that part, because that’s the world, that’s the functioning of the whole system. It’s not moderated, it’s not soft-pedaled, it’s all there, so if you had trouble with suspension of disbelief about anything previously, there really isn’t anything to change that in this volume. It depends very heavily on the previous ones for plot and characterization. This is not a good place to start.

I think the thing that makes it most curious for me is that the focus is entirely on the very, very, very most powerful people in the world. The nosebleed levels of elite, the .00001%–and no one else. “The people” are pawns, rioters, never major actors, never forces of their own–no one is going to rise from the herd, no one is unexpected outside very narrow circles. The world is the canvas of this book, but the world’s population behaves like an ocean in ways that ultimately don’t end up working very well for me. Ada commented, in an interview a few books back, that issues like bash’ formation would be delved further into in later books. I’m wondering where there will be room, with this focus in so much of the volume of pages so far. I guess we’ll see.

Please consider using our link to buy The Will to Battle from Amazon.

Books read, early December

Liz Duffy Adams and Delia Sherman, Joel Derfner, and Karen Lord, Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 7-9. Discussed elsewhere.

Ann Leckie, Provenance. I enjoyed this mightily. It had questions of identity and belonging and a spot of murder here and there, it had aliens and drones and families with complicated emotional politics interacting with larger world/worlds politics. It is set in the same universe as the Ancillary books but is a very, very different reading experience, which makes me so happy, because it feels like Ann has not let herself get pigeonholed early, hurrah, I love to see range. And I love questions of forgery and provenance and authenticity. Mooooooore.

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, eds., Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet Issue 36. This was full of stories that were beautifully done but did not individually grab me. I’m glad I read the whole issue–there wasn’t a bit of it I was sorry I read–but I’m not finding myself wanting to talk about the individual stories now that I’m done with them.

Margaret Mahy, The Haunting. Very short children’s book that is substantially about magic family politics. Barney has a very curious vision when his great-uncle dies; he and his sisters have to untangle their family history as a result. Hard to find, reasonably fun, not earthshaking. A lot of things are treated very matter-of-factly for such a short span: the kids have a stepmother they adore, one of the sisters is fat and enjoys swimming and has no time for people who try to fat-shame her, and probably several others I’m forgetting because the tone is so straightforward about human variation.

Robin McKinley, A Knot in the Grain. Reread. I think this one is somewhat stronger than A Door in the Hedge, less formulaic, more of McKinley learning to strike out on her own. The title story is interesting to me because it feels so dated and doesn’t have much of a plot and yet feels so emotionally strong that I loved reading it anyway, each time. It points out that stories are not a matter of doing the right things on a checklist, they’re a matter of hitting chords with a reader. Which we all know, and yet…having an example turn up again is never a bad thing.

Sarah Rees Brennan, In Other Lands. This book took a lot of risks, and I think only some of them paid off. The narrator was deliberately annoying–he was the sort of teenage smart kid who blunders all over other people’s emotions in an attempt to prove himself the smartest person in the room for the vast majority of the book. I think most readers will have had a high school friend who was like him (and if you can’t see who it was…). He was often a useful commentary on portal fantasy–there were lots of places where he was completely right–but he was allowed to be annoying in very realistic ways that were sometimes incredibly tedious to read about. And I think one of the reasons for that is that the deliberately annoying narrator risk got combined with another, which is: I understand that this book was originally written on tumblr, and that’s cool, it’s just that it looks to me like it did not get edited down significantly from its tumblr form. So the pacing is not tight. It rambles and saunters and meanders through the years of its characters’ schooling. There is a mermaid on the cover; the mermaids are purely hypothetical for most of the book. So are the harpies. I like a leisurely pace of book, with the right voice. I can deal with a grating voice, with the right pace of book. The combination made this one a pretty tough sell. Also–I’m having a hard time seeing how the relationship messages are going to get through to the people who need them, rather than the people like me, who are the aunts of the people who need them and see them coming from hundreds of pages off. It made me laugh in spots. I’m not sorry I read it. But what an odd set of choices, in some ways.

Rebecca Spang, Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. Fascinating weird book about monetary policy and money as physical objects and all the stuff floating around those ideas. Lots of politics–Spang explicitly has no time for the people who think that economics can be separated out from politics–and lots of concern for what actual people were actually doing. There is a huge focus on how people made change in both senses of that: how alterations to the system were accomplished, but also how people who wanted to pay a certain amount and had large money got small money back in return, because this was a serious problem. HOLY CRUD were these people messed up. The investments they had…well. We certainly are messed up differently now! Fascinating, definitely recommended especially for SFF writers who want to look at how a time that sort of looks familiarish can be really, REALLY different in a lot of particulars.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 7-9

Written by Liz Duffy Adams and Delia Sherman, Joel Derfner, and Karen Lord. Review access provided by Serial Box.

The trend of identifiable style among the Tremontaine writers continues. If you want mysticism in the woods in this world, apparently you bring in Delia Sherman, because Episode 7 was the most like The Fall of the Kings of any Tremontaine episode so far. (I am here for it. Any time. I love that book.) Deer in the woods and everyone slightly addled…yep, I know who wrote this episode.

This season continues to expand on holidays in the worldbuilding. It also continues to ramify. The school is actually starting, maybe; the murder mystery is collecting evidence; the relationships are relating, and that doesn’t mean everyone is returning to season 1 configurations like swallows to Capistrano.

There is a lot less chocolate in these episodes. I don’t want the chocolate to get repetitive, but…there’s a bunch of sex that is not particularly my thing, there’s only a little swordplay, I’m leaning heavily on academic politics and investigation and woodland woowoo here because the chocolate is substantially absent. Sigh. Well. I’m told one can’t have everything. But usually one can have chocolate.