Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a very prickly book with a very prickly protagonist. Freddy (Frederica) starts out constantly angry at the world in general and her family in particular. Her main life strategy is to fly under the radar, to remain unnoticed. When new neighbors add a stream of confrontation and chaos to her sister and stepbrother’s unabashed differences, it infuriates her.

Bouncing through space and time with one of those neighbors in a series of uncontrolled time leaps brings her anger to a point where she has to deal with it, where she can deal with it–where, over the course of a deeply syncretist, confusing (to Freddy, but not particularly to this reader) journey she matures enough to deal with it. But bouncing around space and time is only the beginning–well, okay, the middle. There is still plenty of pointed plot after that, and it’s not just herself Freddy has to sort out.

There is a lot to like here. The fantasy part of the structure is entirely itself, the characters are stubborn and fierce and allowed to be flawed, and the resolution is resolute without being neatly tied.

This book does the opposite of most books that have any connection with role-playing games. Most RPG-related books have some connection to a campaign; this one blatantly could not be any kind of campaign. Instead, Maaren has thought about initiative and perspective from a role-playing perspective…and then done the work of putting those thoughts into the context of this medium. One of my major complaints about a lot of science fiction is that it appears to take place in a world with no science fiction; lately I have added to that complaint that it seems to take place in a world with no modern gaming. This book, thank heavens, has noticed that the last 30-40 years of gaming exist, in the same way that writers since time immemorial have noticed that card games exist: not everyone has the same relationship with it, not everyone gains the same insights from it, but people do gain insights from it without the poker game itself having to be the plot of the book. Instead of taking the shallow end of games, she’s taken the deep end; like most of the things I like about this book, more would be a spoiler.

There are also a few things that make me scrinch my nose up. Mel is charming and completely underused; Freddy herself is the type of teen protagonist whose flaws are spotted by the boys around her, a plot arc I am getting a little tired of (and barely redeemed here by the facts that 1. they are not romantic interest boys and 2. they are pretty flawed themselves). Also…this is a book where the protagonist has a growth arc that involves going from being a jerk to her stepbrother Roland about all sorts of things that include his disability (he is profoundly deaf, she refuses to acknowledge that she can communicate with him in ASL, making him read her lips instead and not doing a very good job of that either) to being less of a jerk to him about various things that include his disability. ASL plays some pivotal roles in the book and there are some bits that aren’t pivotal at all and still nicely done…but if you’re a reader who has already had it up to your eyebrows in your ordinary life with people being jerks about deafness, well, here it is again. And if you found yourself asking why exactly this book was about Freddy when Roland is pretty awesome and entirely plot crucial, well, sometimes books do a thing, and this is that thing, and there are lots of other things to like in the course of this book, but it might not be enough if that’s your thing. If you decide to skip it, you’d be missing out on Roland himself, who is pretty damn great, and on some very well-done supporting characters who are deaf (and not all to the same degree and not all with the same interfaces with the hearing world–variety of disability for the win). But for some people, sitting through the part where Freddy’s an ass to Roland may be more painful than having Roland as a really great character, and for others the opposite; judge for yourself which you are.

There’s a lot about initiative and choice and story here, a lot about growth and family. There are awkward bits. There are good bits. And in some ways I find the title particularly amusing, because it is very much not a circle, it is a very very spiky shape, and that’s what it needs to be.

Please consider using our link to buy Weave a Circle Round from Amazon.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 5&6, by Paul Witcover and Tessa Gratton

Review access provided by Serial Box.

Now that I am caught up, I am considering the episodes more as individual episodes. Which is not my best mode of interacting with serials–it’s me, not them–and yet it does expose interesting things about the construction of serial narrative as a unique form. No installation is trying to tell a complete story, but each is trying to be satisfying in its own right, thematically, individually.

These two have a paired focus that I think works as the heart of this season of Tremontaine: the holes left by losses from the previous seasons. Consequence and ramification is the hallmark of good series storytelling for me–not just doing the same thing over again but letting it go on to become more and different than it was.

With chocolate, and the organizing of a new school. The new school in particular is something that seems to be finally finding its logistical feet in these episodes. I hope so. The university is my jam, was some of why I loved The Fall of the Kings so much. I pin some hopes on this new school as a plot element.

Books read, early November

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Americanah. This is a really beautifully done book about immigration and alienation and belonging, about Nigeria and the US and a little bit the UK, about race and nationality and culture and love. And hair. There is a lot of stuff about hair in here, all interesting and good. There is complexity and challenge and acceptance and its opposite. Recommended.

Marie Brennan, Ars Historica. Discussed elsewhere.

Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones. This is about a massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937, a novel, a novel about surviving it and about those who don’t, and about the relationship between Dominicans and Haitians in the DR at the time and after. It is sparely done, it goes quickly if you don’t let yourself look away, which you possibly should. The relationships are allowed to be complicated. It is not a long book but still a grueling one.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Karen Lord, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Witcover. Tremontaine, Season 2, Season 3 Episodes 1-4. Discussed elsewhere.

Cory Doctorow, A Place So Foreign and Eight More. Reread. I have been seeing what I connect with on the short fiction shelves upon reread, and the answer here is: these are modern stories, well-constructed and well-written, and they are not hitting me in deeply emotional places, but they are still worth my time to read again, and probably will be again in another decade. So it went back on the shelf. None of the stories made me gasp and say, oh, that one, have to talk about that one. But I kept the book. Okay.

Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. This is one of the places where a subtitle contradicts the book it’s appended to. This is not actually about Machiavelli and The Prince, mostly; it’s about Machiavelli the dude, wandering around Florence and around Italy at large, writing plays and other things, arranging for people to preach sermons that were not in the least of interest to himself, surrounded by syphilis at every turn or so it seemed. So much syphilis, so much strappado. Fascinating, short, not at all a nice book really.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. This is a young adult novel that’s hard to describe without making it sound like less than what it is. It’s about a young woman who is in the car when her childhood friend is killed by a police officer, and all the life complications that ensue thereby–and that makes it sound like a “problem novel,” like an “issue book,” when instead it is a deep exploration of character, relationship, culture, family, history, and more. Thomas is not out to make a quick buck on current events, she is writing a deeply personal exploration of historical trends she places in much broader perspective for her characters while still giving them the kind of individual story that makes a novel really work. Highly recommended. One of the cases where widespread buzz is wholly, wholly justified.

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. When it says personal, it basically means that Simon Winder is going to intrude his stories of his kid’s school program or whatever in the middle of his stories of sixteenth century monarchs. Not because he has enough for a memoir, because he doesn’t, but because he feels that you need your hand held through the Habsburgs, that if you don’t have your hand held through the Habsburgs you will be very frightened. Sometimes he is wry and funny, though not usually when talking about himself, and there were enough ways in which he was insightful about other historians’ failings early on that I did not immediately flee, which I should have. Look, here is the thing about family trees: they are there to make things easier, not harder. If someone tries to tell you that a family tree is confusing, it’s almost certainly because the family is confusing. LIKE THE HABSBURGS. There is a certain category of person who is convinced that maps and diagrams of any kind are Technical and therefore Difficult and therefore Intimidating, but these things are tools for visualization and clarification, it’s worth learning to use them rather than running away and hiding, unless you have a genuine learning disability. And if you do, just ignore those bits. Turn the page and move on. Because Winder’s attempts to do without are kind of emblematic of what he means to simplify and does not manage, that didn’t really need to be simplified anyway.

(Disclosure: I feel this way about equations also, so you may want to discount what I say based on that. If you have both equations and text, and you didn’t screw it up, things should be clearer, not less clear, than if you’re trying to express something that has an equation without saying the equation. Equations are a really bad thing to play charades with.)

Ars Historica, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author, who is also a personal friend.

This is another collection of Brennan’s short fiction. All of this one is historical fiction, skewing in the historical fantasy direction. If you’ve enjoyed her Onyx Court series (the one that starts with Midnight Never Come), there are several stories here that are either explicitly in that continuity or clearly came from the same set of research. The settings of these stories range from the ancient world to the nineteenth century, but there’s a strong focus here in Brennan’s wheelhouse, early modern England.

Fans of Beneath Ceaseless Skies may recognize that some of these stories appeared there originally–but some time ago, so more recent fans of BCS should use that more as a cue for what kind of adventure-historical aesthetic to expect. It’s not all fairies–it’s not all fitting magic around highly specific historical events–it’s not all dueling–it’s not all any one thing, so if you don’t like one story, another will come along very soon. And yet there is a much clearer unifying feel to this collection than to the previous one, and I’m hard pressed to think of any of Brennan’s books that aren’t a good fit in the “if you liked x, you’ll also like Ars Historica” equation. No dragons, but some very well-considered humans.

Please consider using out link to buy Ars Historica on Amazon.

Tremontaine Season 2, Season 3 episodes 1-4

Review access provided by Serial Box. Written by Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Karen Lord, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Witcover.

A sharp eye will notice that this is a substantially overlapping but not identical writing staff to Tremontaine Season 1. An even sharper eye will start to discern the difference in episode writers in very much the same way as a long-term viewer of a TV show can–especially if they’ve read some of the above authors before. Alaya Dawn Johnson remains my favorite, but if you’ve read Mary Anne Mohanraj before, a blind taste test will show you which episodes are hers, no problem. And–this is not a criticism. This is a serial. It’s not supposed to be a seamlessly edited novel where there is no extraneous reminder of what has gone before. It’s supposed to be a serial. Divers hands recruited specifically.

A friend of mine commented on my review of season 1, that a lot of it felt like retcons to her. And I’ve been thinking about why it didn’t feel that way to me, because season 2 and the beginning of season 3 go even deeper into making this a world that has borders beyond Riverside, beyond the City, beyond its country. I think the reason this is working particularly well for me as an expansion is that the original protagonists of Swordspoint are focused to the point of being self-centered, and while some of the protagonists of this serial are also focused/self-centered (heh, oh my yes), their focus is not all in the same place. So: would the originals have known where chocolate came from in any detail? Not if it bit them rather than them biting it. Is Ixkaab similarly self-centered, but with a different focus? Definitely. And therefore her knowledge of the world is quite different, while retaining many of the features of the original.

There is so much scheming here. So much scheming. I think that while season one had scheming, the thing that makes seasons two and three work better for me is that they have follow-through. They have consequences to the scheming. Does anyone learn their lesson? They learn many lessons, but their lesson, ahaha no. So–many relationships are reconfigured, this is not a series that has set pieces that are repeating over and over again, but things ramify. I do love ramifications.

And the mathematician gets to do math that is not just navigation calculations, which I like, because navigation is mostly interesting to non-mathematicians. Some people will be in this for the sex, of which there is a considerable and varied amount. Okay. For me, the mathematician gets to do more geometric stuff, hurrah. One of the benefits of a varied ensemble cast that keeps getting more varied is that it increases the odds that you will find a favorite somewhere: the duchess, the forger, the ambassador, the merchant? The mathematician. Who also knows a lot about cows and turnips and does not like yelling.

We have gotten to a place, by the end of the fourth episode of season three, where plot has reached social proportions. Where it is not just one person’s schemes or another but the movement of people, sieges and…well, one might call it barricades. One just might. I was interested in what happened to the mathematician, but I am captivated by what happens with the aftermath of the social unrest. And there are new installments coming along weekly. Yay.

Books read, late October

Patty Bryant, Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Whitcover. Tremontaine, a serial: all of season 1 and season 2 through episode 8. Season 1 is discussed elsewhere and I will review seasons 2 and 3 entire rather than piecemeal here.

A.S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories. Reread. I have been collecting the works of Byatt used when I am trading in books I don’t want, and I don’t always have a clear memory of which stories are in which volumes. Therefore I could be blindsided by the last work in this volume, in which an older woman is considering a sexual harassment complaint lodged by a younger woman against an older man. And…oh Antonia. Oh my dear Antonia no. She replicates…oh, it’s awful. She replicates all the ways that young women get dismissed when they’ve been assaulted, and she does dismiss her, she’s mentally ill, she doesn’t really get art, her clothes are unattractive, the man she’s accusing must have been very attractive in his younger days, oh God, it’s nauseating, it’s everything we hear every day and I kept looking for some shred of evidence that it was meant to be scathing irony, that she had done it on purpose. But no, the protagonist and the accused kept having their damned lunch. Antonia. Dammit. I should mark it with a PostIt, because I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist, I don’t need to pretend she’s perfect just because I love her, but I will forget what’s in which volume, I always do. There, I’ve done that. But hell, what a week, what a year, what a lifetime to stumble on that story again.

Charles de Lint, Moonlight and Vines. Reread. This is a Newford collection that is not where my heart is any more, but also is fairly readable, a parade of characters each doing their thing, only occasionally visiting Jilly and Geordie, not yet full-on formula ensemble cast. I hadn’t read it since 1999. I think I loved it in 1999, and yet…I never reread it. It was not my formative Newford collection. I’m glad contemporary fantasy has moved on from here, and I winced at some of de Lint’s attempts to be inclusive, but I also am glad that he made the attempts, glad that we kept going from there.

Nicky Drayden, The Prey of Gods. This was a very fast-paced, exciting read. I’ve seen lots of people describing it as fun, and I did have fun with it, but I want to flag that while there is a lot of cool futuristic and magical South African content in this book that is like nothing else I have ever read before so lots of you are already buying it or adding it to your library list…it also has some fairly upsetting sexually violent content. And I am trying to be cautious about flagging that. It is…I don’t know, science fantasy always feels like it means something specific and not-this. It is futuristic fantasy. It is a weird ride. You shouldn’t get too hung up on genre boundaries when describing this book. But…maybe not if you’re feeling fragile about sexual violence, please. Time it carefully, take care of yourselves.

Todd Fahnestock, The Wishing World. Discussed elsewhere.

William N. Fenton, The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. This was a gigantic tome with lots of consultations with modern Iroquoian peoples even though its focus was pre-Columbian and the first few centuries after contact. It went into a great deal of ritual detail. It also discussed lots of fascinating aspects of how different family structures shaped relationships and communications with other ethnic groups. I’m very glad I read this book, but even more glad that I am done reading it because oh my goodness it is very very large.

Thor Hanson, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. I found this very soothing, a discussion of all sorts of different ways plants have evolved shapes and sizes and types of seeds. Yay seeds. When the world is complicated and upsetting, botany is VERY NICE. This may explain much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. MY SYMPATHIES, THOSE CENTURIES.

Carrie Jones, Enhanced. Discussed elsewhere.

John Julius Norwich, ed., Cities That Shaped the Ancient World. I was expecting Norwich’s own work–library thumbnails are sometimes misleading–and this was essays by divers hands, with lots of lavish pictures: ancient cities, photos, layouts, ideas about what was cool about them. It was, as I expected of Norwich, heavily focused on the Mediterranean region, but there were sections on southern Africa, east Asia, the Americas. It was not deep. It was a reasonably fun thing to get from the library and look at the pictures.

Tremontaine Season 1

Review access provided by Serial box. Written by Patty Bryant, Joel Derfner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover.

When Serial Box contacted me asking if I wanted to review season 3 of their Tremontaine serial, I said I did not unless I could also read the first two seasons. I felt like jumping into season three without knowing who was who and what was what would probably do the story an injustice. They said sure, and here we are! My initial intention was to read the entire thing and review the entire series up to the current episode, but one of the things you should know about Serial Box serials if you don’t already is that there is a lot of word count for your subscription dollar in these things. You are definitely not getting shorted in terms of amount of fiction to read here. So I thought, well, I will talk about this project in pieces rather than all at one go.

This is a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s famous fantasy novel Swordspoint, set in her beloved Riverside and surrounding environs. I am fondest of the novel that she co-wrote with her wife, Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings, so the idea of other people co-creating Riverside tales did not bother me a bit. As the season unfolded in episodes, I found that the voice of each writer remained to flavor the text while giving a consistent storyline. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s episodes were my favorite, but there was no one who made me groan when I saw their name on a file.

There is more here than in the original, more perspective characters, more room for class diversity, ethnic diversity, diversity of gender and its expression. There is also less here: less focus, less tightness, less drive. It is a different category of thing. It is not trying to be the same. This is trying to be frothy, the chocolate cup that is so often discussed in its pages. And as so often comes up–it’s not as sweet a cup of chocolate as one might expect. Many, most of the characters may have sex in various configurations, but few of them seem to much like each other. This does not appear to be accidental–this is a serial about scheming. Occasionally there are pangs of conscience, furies of betrayal, confusion at a friend’s major or minor abandonment–but for the most part, plotting and planning come up a lot more than human warmth.

So…I will read the rest of this. I’m even looking forward to it on its own terms. But I also think it’s probably better suited to its originally planned style of reading, the serial, than the way I read it, because taking breaks for other styles of thing seems like it might be a very good idea amidst the individual episodes–not trying to live on hot chocolate but maybe having a sandwich from time to time.

The Wishing World, by Todd Fahnestock

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

There are some children’s books that are really all-ages books, classified as children’s books because they do nothing to exclude children. This is not one of them. This is a children’s book because if you have read very many books, it will no longer be very satisfying. It checks off the boxes, it does the things: portal fantasy, missing family quest, eeeeevil child therapist, “quirky” animal sidekicks with verbal tic but no real personalities, set catchphrase for young protagonist (“double ____ with _____ on top!”).

I was ready for something charming and not too demanding, after the…um…world I’d been having. And this was not too demanding. The kids found that the power was within them all along, they were really special for reasons, their family loved them and could be saved, there were various whimsical and nonthreatening creatures on their side, the threatening creatures didn’t threaten excessively. It was fast. I don’t think this would offend very many people except the ones who are offended by the existence of fantasy. I think it’s also sadly unlikely to be deeply charming to very many. This was a thing I read, and I read this thing. If it hits one of your buttons (griffins? portal fantasy? reunification of families?), here it is, fine enough.

Please consider using our link to buy The Wishing World from Amazon.

Enhanced, by Carrie Jones

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the sequel to last year’s charming Flying. It’s not a bad book, but it highlights the perils of sequels rather clearly. Flying has a clear emotional arc and core: Mana is figuring out what the heck is going on with aliens and enhanced humans and her place in the world, but her relationship with her mother and her friends is rock solid. In Enhanced, the central mystery is far smaller in scale. The basic facts of the world are known and we’re down to figuring out the details. Mana’s mother is out of commission, and her relationship with her friends is shaky for most of it.

Possibly worse, her combination of cheerleader and superpowered (enhanced, as in the title) individual really doesn’t get a chance to shine for a full three-quarters of the book. Mana is scared, uncertain, and on the defensive–which is fine, but it’s less fun to read about than Mana discovering, exploring, and kicking butt.

There are some new aliens, some new government agencies, some new developments in the world. But in general this feels like a little more of the same but less so. A de-escalation in some senses, a holding pattern. I still believe that Jones has somewhere to take Mana and her pals Seppie and Lyle, and this book is a fast read to get to the next step, but…we’re not at the next step yet, and I don’t really feel closer.

Please consider using our link to buy Enhanced from Amazon. Or Flying.

Books read, early October

Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull. Discussed elsewhere.

Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. Evo devo is, generally speaking, bullshit, but Carroll is someone I heard at Nobel Conference, and he goes beyond Just So Stories; he is a good egg. And he talked in general in this volume, stuff that one could find anywhere and probably already knew if one had the slightest interest, but then also about insect wing patterns, and the insect wing pattern stuff was interesting, so basically: skim to get to the insect wings.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance. Kindle. I had had such smashing success with 19th century novels lately! (Oh my Middlemarch.) And this one is set in a Fourierist phalanx and I thought, brilliant, lovely, let’s do that then, perhaps I love Hawthorne now too! Oh. Oh neighbors. No. No not so much. Poor Mr. Hawthorne. I read all the many many pages of Middlemarch, and North and South and Framley Parsonage and so on, and never once did I think, well, poor lamb, I suppose you can’t help it, it’s like being born before antibiotics. And yet with The Blithedale Romance I caught myself thinking that on nearly every page. Because it was the only way through, the other alternative was to shake him until his teeth rattled and send him to bed without supper, two punishments that would not occur to me without 19th century novelists, thank you my dear Louisa. So: he goes on at great length about how men have no tenderness really, and there is a bunch of maundering stuff about women’s work and the purity of women and how bachelors have to obsess about whether the women around them have known marriage before (hint: nope, obsessing on this topic is completely optional), there is a Dreadful Secret, he abandons all interest in the Fourierist phalanx except as background noise…oh Hawthorne. Oh Hawthorne no.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Searoad. Reread. I first read this when I lived in Oregon. I keep learning things about characterization from it, how she creates a seaside town one person at a time, how the stories link and twine and inform each other. This time, thanks to a conversation I’m having with Marie Brennan, I thought about how differently it would read if the stories were in a different order, how a character is shown novelistically though the structure looks like short stories.

Carter Meland, Stories for a Lost Child. This is a literary science fiction novel in an Anishinaabe tradition; the way that Meland uses the rhythms and patterning of language are not at all the same as the way Gerald Vizenor does in Treaty Shirts, and having more than one is really nice, I want more, yay. Stories for a Lost Child goes forward and backward in time, contemporary teenagers trying to figure things out, a grandfather writing with stories previously barely dreamed of, a space program, past pure water, all sorts of elements that fold together.

Mary Szybist, Incarnadine. This is a poetry collection focused–not in a religious-inspirational way, in a literary way–on the Annunciation. The image, the idea of the Annunciation threads through these poems, beautifully. They are beautiful poems. I was beginning to worry that they were all going to be beautiful poems and none of them were going to be heart-touching for me–that I was going to nod along and say, yes, beautiful, well done, but never, oh, oh, would you look at THIS one–and then, and then there was Here There Are Blueberries, so: oh. Would you look at THIS one.

Carrie Vaughn, Bannerless. I had previously enjoyed some of Vaughn’s short stories but not really been the target audience for the Kitty books, so I was really excited at what a complete departure this is. It’s a police procedural of sorts, with flashbacks to the (sorta) cop’s young adulthood. It’s also a post-apocalyptic novel, with a catastrophe that has led people to seriously consider their resource usage. And it’s also a relationship story that, because of flashback structure, allows the protagonist to grow past her teenage relationship, to change and be an adult. For a short novel, there’s a lot going on, and it all fits together and wraps itself up by the end. Pleased.