Book Hauling and Chain Reading – a Three Week Wrap-up (Part 1)

So after several weeks without a review, I think I’ve identified at least one of the problems I have with scheduling (beyond laziness and poor time management): I tend to do the most reading and book buying when I’m on holiday, but I never review when I’m away, so I end up with huge intimidating backlogs which then stop me from reviewing any more recent stuff. As I want to do Hugo Roundups in the next week as well, I think another short roundup is in order!

I also do the vast majority of my book buying on holiday, especially when I pass through my favourite bookstores in Bangkok. I was there twice in a week at the beginning of February and, uh, this happened:

bookhaul Feb18.jpgNot a sensible move for someone who needs to figure out intercontinental shipping in the next two months, but this pile – and the other things on my Physical TBR, which is my current priority – has been very good to me so far!

Instead of going chronologically (you can read my Librarything thread for that, if you want), I thought I’d organise most of the last few weeks into thematic areas. It turns out I’ve read a ton of fantasy of all different stripes recently, from pure secondary world goodness to portal fun to the magic of our own planet. It’s mostly been very good, as the ratings attest:

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I picked up Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018, Tor.com) in audiobook and was not disappointed. This is the third in the Wayward Children series of novellas, which centres around a boarding school for teenagers who have returned from different magical lands and are unable to adjust back to the “real” world. Where the first book in the series was a murder mystery, and the second a horror story, BtSS is a straightforward quest narrative, involving a band of wonderful characters hopping through portals to try and resurrect a girl who died before her daughter could be born. Complicating this quest is the fact that the instigator, Rini, is the daughter, and exists anyway thanks to her belonging to a logic-free reality called Confection. I loved the musings on baking in this, as well as the viewpoint of Cora, a fat girl who fell into an ocean world and became a mermaid. The Wayward Children books can be read out of order, but be warned that this one contains spoilers for the first – start with Every Heart a Doorway if this series appeals. 9 out of 10.

Another knockout success was In Other Lands (2017, Small Beer Press) by Sarah Rees Brennan, a story I found and lost again when she was self-publishing it on her LiveJournal a few years ago. This standalone follows Elliot Schafer, a prickly 13-year-old from our world who is brought over to the magical Borderlands and offered a place at an exclusive training camp for humans seeking to defend their territory from the elves, dwarves, mermaids, harpies, trolls and other peoples of this world. Despite being a resolute pacifist, Elliot joins the school’s (highly undervalued) diplomatic training course and proceeds to cause constant headaches for staff and other students alike, while navigating awkward teenage relationships with Serene, the female chauvinist elf girl, and Luke, the handsome, talented son of the Borderland’s most prominent fighting family. This setup could easily have been a recipe for disaster, but Brennan balances it all perfectly, lovingly eviscerating the tropes involved in fantasy teenage warrior school and foregrounding the personal development of a difficult and yet usually sympathetic main character, showing how we are all worthy of love without making excuses or rewarding the character for his more unpleasant moments. A glowing, borderline incoherent 10 out of 10.

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows (2017, Angry Robot Books) was more of an impulse buy, based on my desire to support the author after she became the focus point of some nasty internet attacks from right-wing morons. This is the sequel to an Accident of Stars, which I honestly didn’t love – I found the main character, a white Australian teenage girl called Saffron who falls through a portal to a country called Kena, too unrealistically “woke”, and some of the things that happened to her felt rather laboured. I’m happy to report, however, that I didn’t have the same problems with this sequel at all. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Saffron, who was sent back to our world at the end of the first book with some literally inexplicable scars and injuries, is forced to return to a school where her value as a young woman is being constantly dismissed or used to benefit other students above herself, and finds herself much less able to simply swallow the tiny injustices being perpetrated against her. I don’t know if I liked this more than its predecessor because the narrative is different, or because I look for different things in books now, but either way I liked all of the characters and their journeys here, and I appreciate why Meadows chose to have an open minded protagonist whose learning journey isn’t foregrounded relative to the struggles of the other characters around her. An enthusiastic 8 out of 10.

Not Quite Our World

Like the books above, Exit West by Mohsin Hamad contains doors through which the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, escape from their war torn Middle Eastern city into another world. Unlike the above, however, this other world is not a fantasy domain but other locations on our own planet – first Mykonos, then London, and then, eventually, something better. Using the speculative conceit of doors which proliferate throughout the world and cannot be controlled or policed, Hamad explores the experience of refugees and what might happen if more fortunate countries were literally unable to prevent them from entering. It’s a short book – basically novella length – and Saeed and Nadia’s relationship development suffers from the lack of space, but the political aspects of this are excellent, and I felt the worldbuilding was much more interesting than the similar conceit in the Underground Railroad, which also adds a fantasy touch to migration and escape but without changing the fundamental shape of the history it is telling. 8 out of 10.

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (2005, Small Beer Press), is a collection of short stories which mainly fall into the slipstream/magical realism category, where everything is 80% our world and 20% strange dreamlike happenings which still have a strange logic behind them. The stories in this ranged from fantastic – the titular Magic for Beginners, about a group of teenagers brought together for love of an odd fantasy TV show, was beautiful, and The Faery Handbag and Stone Animals were also very strong – to “yeah, OK” (the cannon thing…?) – overall, I was left with a strong positive impression. 8 out of 10.

I was, however, reminded that not everything in the magical realism wheelhouse works for me, when Frontier by Can Xue sadly left me behind. This is a series of interlinked “stories” – although there’s not much in the way of identifiable plot, to be honest – from the perspectives of people living in Pebble Town, a Chinese frontier town with a mysterious Design Institute, some weird animal interactions, a park (?) and not much else. There were some excellent images in this, and, having spent time in far west China, I did recognise the “we are trapped in a desolate corporate town without a purpose, while there are actual communities somewhere around here that ours knows nothing about” vibe. But although the imagery kept me going past the point I felt I should DNF, and I’d try Can Xue in short form if the opportunity arose, I wouldn’t recommend this to casual readers. A confused 5 out of 10.

 

Stay tuned for part 2, in which I muse on the wintry books I read while bathed in tropical heat, apologise for not going to space enough, and attempt that rarest of feats (for me): reviewing non-genre books…

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Binti: The Night Masquerade; The Underground Railroad

I’m falling behind on things I want to review! To catch up, here’s two quickies on very different but worthy reads from the week before last:

 

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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Published 2018 by Tor.com

Third in a novella trilogy about Binti, a girl from the Himba tribe (who are a real people, living in Namibia) with a gift for mathematics and for “harmonizing” which takes her across the stars to Oomza University, and plunges her into an interspecies conflict between the alien Meduse, and the Khoush, a dominant human culture in her far future version of Earth. In each book, Binti faces challenges which threaten both her life and her cultural identity. The first sees her encountering the Meduse, a traumatic experience which leaves its mark on her at the same time as she is processing her own decision to leave home, something the Himba of the far future don’t ever do, while showcasing the unique position she is in to broker peace with these allegedly unreasonable aliens. In the second book, Binti: Home, Binti returns briefly to Earth (even space universities need vactations) with her closest Meduse friend in tow, hoping her family will welcome her back despite her choice to leave – only to find that cultural expectations aren’t that easy to overcome, and also that her cultural heritage may not be as straightforward as she thought.

In Binti: The Night Masquerade, we are still on earth immediately after the events of the second book. Conflict between the Meduse and the Khoush seems inevitable, but may still be prevented if the Himba choose to intervene – a solution which, we expect, will require both Binti’s unique talents and her perserverence to pull off. From what seems like a standard conclusion to the series’ themes, however, Okorafor takes her story somewhere completely different, subverting Binti’s “chosen one” feel while simultaneously adding yet more complexity to her identity. While I wasn’t sure how to feel about this during the book itself, I was left very happy with the conclusion – it stays true to the themes of each book, which are themselves a refreshing and much-needed change from classic space opera.

Rating: 7.5 magical math equations out of 10

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Published 2016 by Anchor Books

Yep, I finally got around to reading one of the most celebrated books of 2016, and on most levels it didn’t disappoint. Colson Whitehead’s book follows Cora, a slave born on a plantation in Georgia, as she runs away and tries to find a better life, with the help of an Underground Railroad which is literally a railway underground. The narrative alternates between describing the stops on Cora’s journey – from the plantation, through states with equal or worse oppression and those with ostensibly progressive programmes with sinister undertones, and eventually to somewhere where she seems, briefly, to be treated as a human being – with chapters from other character’s perspectives.

As the subject matter requires, this is a relentlessly brutal book. There are no good slave owners here, and few characters who are portrayed in any sort of positive light, just endless forms of abusers and enablers among the white characters, and black characters desperately trying survive a system which wants to separate them from any definition of humanity. Cora’s relationship with her absent mother (who escaped from the plantation when Cora was young, never to be caught) was a particularly poignant strand throughout the book, as she seeks to understand how her mother could have run away and left her, and if such an action can ever be forgiven.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the speculative element – the literal underground railroad – feels very underutilised. It’s treated as a useful conceit, getting Cora from one location to another in a way which justifies the linked but separate experiences she has in each, but she spends very little time actually on or in the railroad, and its existence is left deliberately unexplained. Towards the end, it feels like there are parallels being drawn between this mysterious project and the workers who built it, and the still-unacknowledged work of slaves on which the USA’s wealth is built. But it’s subtle, and I was hoping for something with more of an integrated fantasy element. That said – I can’t fault the Underground Railroad for being the book it is, and it’s definitely one to pick up if you’re looking for an unflinching mostly-historical read about this difficult but important period in US history.

Rating: 8 uncomfortable boxcar rides out of 10

The Stratification Trilogy by Julie E. Czerneda

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Stratification by Julie E. Czerneda: Reap the Wild Wind (2007), Riders of the Storm (2008), Rift in the Sky (2009)

Published by DAW books

This trilogy, which I read in its entirety in January, is Julie Czerneda’s second in her Clan Chronicles series in terms of publication order, but actually comes chronologically before the first – while I believe the author recommends reading it first, for some reason I ended up starting in publication order. It fills in some of the history behind the Clan, or Mhir’ay, a race of human-looking aliens with strong psychic powers (including interstellar teleportation) and sentient hair  who are accidentally breeding themselves into extinction through eugenics. It explains how they left their homeworld and came to secretly live among humans and other species in the worlds of the Trade Pact, and teases some setup to the problems they face generations later. Essentially, Stratification is a first contact story, but with the roles reversed – we see, through the perspective of aliens whose concerns are recognisable but very different from humanity, what it looks like when incomprehensible aliens (who are actually human) bring their culture and concerns to the planet.

The Mhir’ay are called Om’ray in Stratification, and they haven’t got the hang of interstellar teleportation. Instead, they are confined to a small set of clans on a single planet, Cersi, eking out more or less precarious existences beside two more powerful alien races, who control individual clans according to incomprehensible alien motives, and insist above all that nothing changes. Our hero, Aryl Sarc, is from one of the most precarious clans: the Yena live in houses on the side of giant trees and connected by rope bridges, on top of a swamp full of murderous animals, and basically learn to climb before they can walk. Despite this level of competence, the clan is left reeling when their annual harvest of their staple crop is interrupted by a mysterious alien craft, which ends up knocking a huge number of young people and the better part of the harvest itself into the death swamp. Aryl isn’t supposed to be part of this harvest mission, but has snuck onto the canopy alongside her brother, and when disaster strikes she instinctively uses a new power to save her best buddy and intended lover (more on this later), teleporting him to safety but leaving everyone else – including her brother – to die horribly. Compounding their misery, the Yena are then forced to deliver most of their remaining food to their alien neighbours, the Tikitik, as annual tribute, calling their survival as a whole into question. The Yena are trapped by the agreement that won’t let them leave their home, slowly starving, and in Aryl’s case extremely conflicted about a new power which seems certain to change the balance of power between Cersi’s species – a huge taboo.

The way this situation develops over the course of the trilogy owes much to Aryl as a main character, who faces the challenges posed towards her with creativity and courage, taking on an increasing leadership role from Book 2 which makes the character even more interesting. Her eventual meeting with the aliens who brought tragedy on her people, and in particular the human Marcus Bowman, proves extremely challenging; Om’ray are extremely self-centred, believing themselves to “be the world”, because their psychic sense of place and connection is so fundamental to who they are, so having a stranger who looks like her but without a psychic presence, and who tells her that her world is just a small corner of a single planet, is at first deeply threatening and difficult to accept. Aryl’s interactions with Marcus, which gradually become more sympathetic, also open her to learning more about the races she shares Cersi with, and these portions of the narrative play to Czerneda’s strengths of creating fascinating alien cultures and thought processes. Intertwined with Aryl’s story is the related journey of another Om’ray, Enris Mendolar, who uses his period of choice to seek out information about other clans, particularly the secretive Vyna, and who crosses paths with Aryl repeatedly over the first couple of books. Both Aryl and Enris’ journeys challenge their assumptions about change for their species, making it clear that, in fact, the Om’ray are constantly evolving, but that this is being controlled in such a way that few in each generation are aware of what is going on and why. Ultimately, their fate is decided through a combination of attempting to resist and challenge this control, and from the impact this swift change has on their species – though as a prequel trilogy, the destination isn’t as interesting as the journey.

While it’s not the focus of this trilogy in the same way as it is for later books, Om’ray reproduction plays a significant background role here, and this is unfortunately the part of the worldbuilding which worked least for me. Because of their psychic makeup, Om’ray form exclusively monogamous pairings, with young women who come of age sending out a “call” to young men which they are allowed to travel between clans to answer (this being the only inter-clan travel allowed under the agreement.) This is risky for the men, who can die from environmental hazards, or arrive at another clan only to find that the call they were following has already been answered by someone else. It also makes adult Om’ray highly risk averse, because the death of one person in a couple means that the other will either die or become irreversibly brain damaged – no second marriages or love triangles here.

Despite the dangers in this system for men in particular, and the complete inability to take more than one partner in a lifetime, there is no indication that this system leaves any older women without partners – perhaps I missed a remark about their birth rate, but it seems to be 50/50 male/female, so it’s not like nature is correcting itself there either. We know that Om’ray have very imperfect racial memories and that their reproductive system hasn’t always been so inflexible, but it’s clear from conversations between young women in the text that they have no direct examples of older “unChosen” women to draw on to understand what might happen if they can’t make a choice, meaning there have apparently been two or three generations of completely perfect pairings against all realistic odds. There are also only two examples of choice going wrong for women, and one is resolved to almost everyone’s satisfaction quite quickly, while the other is left unexplored once it’s established that the life of the woman is no longer in danger – even though the resolution is SUPER weird (like, Twilight: Breaking Dawn levels of weird, seriously). This system also means that Om’ray are RELENTLESSLY heteronormative (gender roles outside reproduction are weaker and the hierarchy is, if anything, skewed towards women, but gender is Still There). Being in a binary gendered opposite sex monogamous life partnership is literally part of their fundamental identity as a species, and unlike other parts of this identity – like the belief they “are the world” – this is never addressed in the text. It’s quite notable coming from Ann Leckie’s vision of the galaxy to this one, and while I appreciate that Czerneda is a biologist who specifically wanted to explore a particular type of reproduction in these books, the lack of anyone existing outside a rigid binary is difficult to suspend disbelief for.

There are other ways in which this trilogy falls short of perfect –moments where the narrative changes suddenly for reasons which aren’t fully explained, characters whose arcs get cut off prematurely, and a weird chapter naming convention where all the chapters about Aryl are numbered, and all the ones involving Enris are called “interludes” (I don’t know why this irritates me so much but seriously just give them all numbers please!) It also starts off in a very claustrophobic setting compared to the galaxy-spanning Trade Pact trilogy, although this wouldn’t be noticeable if this is where one starts. Despite its flaws, however, I highly enjoyed this trilogy, and would recommend it to anyone looking for interesting alien cultures and contact, with the potential of reading on to some more explicit space opera in the trilogies to come. Just be aware you’re going to get a whole lot of Space Straights.

Rating: 7 locks of unruly sentient hair out of 10

Jade City by Fonda Lee

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Jade City by Fonda Lee

Published 2017 by Orbit

A third of the way into Jade City, I found myself feeling sick to my stomach with fear. One of Kaul siblings, the leaders of one of Janloon’s biggest magically enhanced gang families, has just been challenged by the champion of a rival and needs to respond with overwhelming force, even though they could be killed in the process and the outcome is far from certain. Other characters object, but are overruled – in the brutal logic of the world the Kauls live in, this is all they can do, even if their death risks bringing down their entire family. The ten or so Kindle pages for this to resolve were some of the longest reading of my life.

That’s the magic that Fonda Lee brings to Jade City, an epic fantasy set in a modernised world where ancient families wield magic powers through training to control a particular type of jade found only on their island home. Most of the main characters in this book come from the aforementioned Kaul family, who lead the No Peak clan: there’s young Pillar (leader) Lan, trying to establish himself while dealing with forces still loyal to his retired, ill grandfather; his aggressive younger brother and Horn (general) Hilo, whose skill in developing individual relationships does not extend to a general understanding of politics; his estranged sister Shae, who has just returned to Janloon after following a boyfriend abroad to study two years previously and is trying to stay out of the family business; and adoptive youngest “cousin” Anden, still in his last year of school and attempting to overcome prejudice both from being mixed-race and from his mother’s highly stigmatised death from jade overexposure. The clan as a whole are dealing with an increasingly strong and belligerent rival, the Mountain clan, whose quiet machinations to control the production of jade and of a new drug which allows foreigners to harness its power are just beginning to be felt.

While “20th-century-analogue Asian City undergoing a post-war economic miracle” is hardly a common setting for epic fantasy, the level of detail in the world of Jade City, and the sense of complex history and culture behind the characters and their actions, more than justifies the label. As noted above, one of the book’s greatest strengths is how gripping it is – its been a while since a book made me this viscerally fearful for the people in it – and the narrative goes along at a strong pace from start to finish. The other impressive aspect is how successfully Fonda Lee’s characters encouraged me to think like them. Without spoiling anything at all in the plot, there is a point around halfway through where an opportunity is taken by one character when I felt strongly (and I’m sure this was intended) that this person wasn’t suitable and another character should have had it instead. Instead of glossing over that discrepancy, or resolving it in the second character’s favour in some messy pyrrhic victory later down the line (which is what I expected to happen), the apparent unfairness is quickly raised and just as soon dismissed in text by another character, who makes it clear why, in the world of Janloon, things had to turn out in a particular way. Most characters are very morally grey, but in a way where it’s clear they’re always trying to do “good” – it’s just that all of their actions are so tied up in a causal web of obligations and expected behaviour and far-reaching consequences that “good” sometimes ends up being “do an honourable murder”. It’s such a testament to Fonda Lee’s skills that these constraints don’t feel artificial in context, and I always believed the characters were acting in the ways they felt they had to act, even when as a reader I didn’t agree with their logic.

This is a book which takes a lot of its narrative cues and setup from media I associate too much with shitty masculinity to ever watch – things like the Godfather, and similar TV shows that former male “friends” loved to quote to each other over dinner when they wanted to exclude me from conversation. It doesn’t shy away from showing a highly patriarchal society, albeit one where women can break in when they show themselves to be overwhelmingly more competent and/or ruthless than their male counterparts. Again, this was handled well, with casual misogyny (and racism, and occasional homophobia) present among the characters but not at all condoned by the text, and no mentions of sexual violence or lingering descriptions of the particular victimisation of women in the war between the gangs (although as most of the Green Bones trained for fighting are men, and there’s a pretty significant body count involved, the fighting clearly does have gendered impacts). This is hardly a comfort read to begin with, so I didn’t mind reading about discrimination alongside transnational drug trading and arms races and the like – but if you like your fantasy to include a critical mass of unquestioned fighting women at all levels, this isn’t the book to give you that.

In short, this book is excellent and well worth your time if you enjoy morally ambiguous character driven epic fantasy, even if the list of influences leaves you a bit cold. I’m eagerly awaiting the next volume of this unusual series.

My Rating: 9 Pieces of Magical Jade Jewelry out of 10

Provenance by Ann Leckie

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Provenance by Ann Leckie

Released 2017 by Orbit Books. Audiobook Narrated by Adjoa Andoh

Ann Leckie had a tough act to follow with this novel, her first since the mind blowingly excellent Imperial Radch trilogy. I’m happy to report that Provenance, while a very different book, did not disappoint me at all, with fantastic worldbuilding and compelling characters packed into a highly enjoyable plot which kept me engaged right to the end.

I feel like the biggest factor for Provenance’s success for me was the main character, Ingray. Ingray is the young adult daughter of one of Hwae’s most pre-eminent politicians. Like many people on Hwae, Ingray was fostered at a young age, but unlike most with her upbringing, she comes not from another wealthy family but from a “public creche”: a fact which she is constantly cognisant of, and which makes her relationship with her rather manipulative mother considerably more fraught. To further complicate matters, Ingray’s mother has explicitly put her into competition with her more privileged and obnoxious brother, Danach, for inheritance – a fight Ingray is already sure she will lose, but feels she needs to pull out all the stops to succeed at. The last of these “stops” kicks off the novel’s plot, as Ingray travels to another system to recover another Hwaean called Pahlad Budrakim, who she has paid to have broken out of “compassionate removal” (i.e. a dystopian inescapable prison planet) in order to obtain information about the location of priceless artefacts (“vestiges”) belonging to her mother’s political rival. (It’s worth noting that Palahd is also neither male or female, using “e – em – eir” pronouns: Hwaean culture explicitly recognises three genders for adults, which children choose when they come of age).

It’s clear within the first chapter that things are not going to go to plan for Ingray, and, unusually for a science fiction hero, she spends a lot of time barely keeping it together as things go off-script, flailing around before coming up with a plan which usually fits the situation and her resources – only to have the wider situation change around her, or someone not react totally as expected, putting her back into the fall apart and flail phase for a while. She’s smart without being sharp; demonstrably good at building alliances and making friends even in the most unlikely of places despite not being particularly skilled at reading the people around her, and she has a deeply flawed view of success and competence from her parent and brother which takes her a long time to recognise. The best part is that other characters are not just happy to allow this, but clearly value her strengths despite the fact she’s not the flawless five-dimensional chess player we often expect protagonists to be. Admittedly, this makes Provenance’s plot more reactive than proactive at times – while Ingray is usually trying to do something, it’s more often off-stage machinations between different players which drive events – but in terms of a realistic portrayal of a young woman interacting with much larger political forces, it really resonated with me.

Moreover, while Provenance doesn’t have the same intensity that Ancillary Justice, in particular, brings to its plot, there’s still a lot at stake here beyond Ingray’s personal future: the cultural identity of the Hwaeans, their relationship with their neighbours, and the relationship between humanity in general and an alien species, the Geck, whose ambassador follows the ship Ingray takes back to Hwae for rather alien – but ultimately very recognisable – reasons. It’s almost impossible to describe how these pieces fit together without diving into a lengthy retelling of the plot, which I won’t do (because you should read the book), but suffice to say that I am in awe of Leckie’s worldbuilding abilities, which handles the background politics brilliantly. By setting the novel outside the ostensibly homogenous Radch, Leckie has more space to explicitly develop several more or less alien cultures while linking everything to factors we can recognise in our own world – privilege and upbringing, family relationships, the way we build histories and myths and how we ascribe values to particular narratives (or objects), and the difference between doing what’s legal and doing what’s right. There are also a lot of spider robots, because it’s 2017 (2018 now) and Spiders are In.

An extra gush (Ancillary Gush?) is due to the audiobook narrator, Adjoa Andoh – who has apparently done the audiobooks for all Ann Leckie’s books so far – who brings the characters to life so well, and in particular does Danach with a Yorkshire accent which is bizarre and yet so perfect, all of our superior arsehole rich kid space brothers should be from Yorkshire, accept no substitutes, etc. Seriously, well worth picking this up in audiobook form – or in any form at all. A wonderful book.

Rating: 9 historically relevant invitation cards out of 10

Winterglass by Benjanun Sridaungkaew

I know I haven’t been very good at this own-site reviewing thing! But it’s a resolution for this year, and I’m going to do my best to work towards Reviewing All the Things – even when it’s a bit short like this one is.

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Winterglass by Benjanun Sridaungkaew (Novella)

Published 2017 by Apex

Received as a review copy through Librarything’s Early Reviewers Programme in exchange for an honest review

Sridaungkaew brings the Snow Queen myth to southeast Asia, in a story about a woman who has grown up with a shard of glass in her heart and what happens when the Queen and her General pay a visit to find her. The city of Siraparit was once tropical, but since being conquered is now a distant frozen colony full of oneiromancy and technology powered by executed ghosts; main character Nuawa is a professional fighter who enters herself into a dreamlike tournament to become the first Siraparit citizen to gain an officer’s commission in the empire. We follow Nuawa as she enters into the tournament and is thrown into intrigue and romance with the Queen’s general, Lussadh, and eventually into the orbit of the Snow Queen herself.
As the description above makes clear, the book has no shortage of compelling, if generally awful, characters, most of whom are women who love women (cis and trans), with nonbinary and genderfluid representation also present. While Nuawa’s motivations could be clearer, her journey into Lussadh’s confidence is interesting – although most of the actual tournament fighting is barely described at all – and the conclusion is brutal but fitting for the kind of story this is. While the worldbuilding is also interesting, it’s unfortunately obscured by a descriptive style which I can only describe as Too Much. We are given paragraphs of prose about details of the city which for me just made it less clear in my mind where we were – yes, the shadows on this building are isosceles triangles, but what does it actually look like? These overdescribed and sometimes obscure details also spoil what I think is supposed to be deliberate nonsense when we get into the dream world where the tournament is held, meaning it’s just not obvious that walls “made of pomegranate stone, gravid inside with thorn-knitted bones” is meant to be absurd – because a sentence like that wouldn’t have been out of place in descriptions of Siraparit itself. I also find it frustrating to run into these sorts of descriptions at novella length, when so much of the action seems to be glossed over, because it feels like a misuse of space – although I accept that others may enjoy the slower pace which this style brings!
Ultimately, I don’t regret reading this, but failing to gel with the author style is a tricky problem to overcome, and I probably would have DNF’d the book if it had been any longer. Recommended for those looking for dark, slow burning fantasy with lots of lesbians, but be aware that patience is also a must.

Rating: 6 Shards of Heart-destroying Glass out of 10

(Note: I can’t post this review without noting that this author has a well-documented history of conducting online harassment, disproportionately against women of colour, and most prominently as blogger Requires Hate – see for example here and here. Obviously I still chose to read this book and have made every effort to keep my opinions on the author’s behaviour separate from my review of its contents; however, I think this is still something potential readers might like to be aware of before picking this up.)

Mini-Reviews: 2017 Books in August

For one reason or another, I’ve read quite a few books published this year over the past couple of weeks, and have also completely stalled on writing about them, mainly because my review of Borne has been languishing part-written for so long.

Borne_(book_cover).jpgBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is a gritty but heartwarming tale of a dysfunctional family struggling to hold themselves together in the face of a capricious and uncaring world. It’s also post-apocalyptic New Weird creepiness from Jeff VanderMeer. It turns out these things are perfect together.

The title “Borne” refers to one of the book’s main characters, a mysterious bioengineered creature which narrator Rachel finds nestled in the fur of a giant, malicious, flying bear (Mord!). Beginning its life as a small piece of inanimate goo, Borne quickly acquires all the traits of an inevitably-disastrous monster companion: exponential growth, sentience, pseudopods, unnecessary male pronouns, precociousness, lack of respect for personal boundaries, and (of course) an insatiable hunger. Unlike VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which leaves a lot of biological horror elements open to interpretation, Borne’s various forms and transformations are quite realistically and even whimsically described, and it’s quite easy for a reader to follow along with Rachel as she develops a strong maternal instinct for the many-eyed, many-tentacled thing she has taken under her wing.

Borne, Mord, and the other bits of weird biological innovation (alcohol minnows!) are all fascinating in their own right, but I found Rachel’s voice, and her relationships with Borne and Wick and with her own past, the most compelling part of this book. Rachel is a climate refugee, who has spent most of her life moving through camps with her parents after her island nation flooded; she now views the ruined, decaying city with heartbreaking resignation. The book implies through Wick that the maternal relationship between Borne and Rachel is unnatural, but I don’t think the narrative itself comes down strongly on that side, and certainly Rachel isn’t punished for developing affection, even as the difficulties and misunderstandings pile up. It’s refreshing to have a survivalist character who is allowed to care, within sensible limits, and who is given a narrative which doesn’t make that out to be ridiculous or dangerous. Wick, too, develops from a character trope we are expecting to be antagonistic and uncaring into someone quite complex, and while conflict between him and Borne is a key plot strand, it never devolves into a forced choice for Rachel. The effect is a book which is unflinching about the kind of horror which humanity is able to inflict on itself when it’s not thinking (and sometimes when it is), but which also quietly celebrates our ability to love and to connect with each other, and with many-tentacled things, no matter how imperfectly that might play out in real life.

Definitely worth picking up – 9 desiccated alcohol minnows out of 10

 

raven stratagem.jpgRaven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

The sequel to last year’s Ninefox Gambit is a book which I literally cannot stop referring to as “The Raven Stratagem” (seriously, it’s going to slip back through in the next couple of paragraphs, just you wait). It picks up right where Book One left off: the Hexarchate, a galaxy-spanning totalitarian government which relies on controlling the thoughts and behaviour of its citizens through a calendar in order to literally shape the laws of reality, has let a 400-year-old disembodied mass-murdering general out of his magic box in order to conduct an assault on a heretical fortress. In order to do so, he has possessed Kel Cheris, a rather unusual member of the Hexarchate’s soldier faction. Inevitably, the nice tidy wrap-up of the fortress campaign where General Shuos Jedao would go back into his magic box has gone wrong, and in Raven Stratagem he’s commandeered a rogue fleet for some military manoeuvres of his own, while elsewhere the leaders of the Hexarchate’s factions wage their own political battles.

This series is fascinating space fantasy, and I enjoyed the fact that there are more glimpses at how the Hexarchate manages to suppress and control its populations in the way it does – I generally enjoy science fiction and fantasy which explores colonialism and assimilation, and the way the Hexarchate functions is an extreme example which Lee takes in interesting directions through different characters. There is a plot strand in Raven Stratagem which deals directly with ethnic cleansing, which I didn’t think added a great deal to the book, aside from providing additional evidence on the gaps between different factions and the brutality of the group sent out to commit these murders (apparently 1/6 of galactic humanity have the power to kill dissidents by touching them? OK). While I loved the setting and characters in Raven Stratagem, however, the political machinations and the overall plot left me cold – there is a game-changing reveal towards the end which was welcome but not nearly as surprising as Lee seemed to intend, and otherwise the “six dimensional chess” aspects of who was fighting who and why simply didn’t grab me. I suspect part of this is simply “middle book” syndrome, and payoff will come in later instalments, but as a standalone experience it was still a little disappointing.

Raven Stratagem is in the unfortunate situation of being less memorable the further I get away from it. However, there’s still a ton of interesting stuff here, and exciting set-up for Book 3, which I hope is going to bring more action back to this unique and interesting world – 7 cindermoth manoeuvres out of 10

 

the stone sky.jpgThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The third book in the Broken Earth trilogy ends this series with all the grace and fury of a Fulcrum-trained orogene’s torus. In the Stone Sky, we reach the end of the story of Essun, a woman born with the power to control earthquakes (i.e. an orogene), in a world where having that power means being treated as subhuman and discriminated against at every turn. Ironically, the Broken Earth’s world is the Stillness, an enormous mega-continent which is constantly being afflicted with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and where humans must periodically endure “Fifth Seasons”, which are long periods after major seismic events where normal weather patterns end and communities need to go into regimented survival mode to have any hope of continuation. Even in normal times, the Stillness’ entire society is built around this survivalist mindset; people don’t have family names, they have “usecastes” which define the work they will do in a fifth season, as well as a comm name which indicates where they belong. The Stillness has racial prejudice as well as discrimination against magic users, but this is expressed through features which don’t exist on earth, like “ashblow hair” which is fine and woolly enough to act as a filter when volcanic dust is in the air. The whole series is a worldbuilding masterclass, where nothing is just lazily imported from our earth – the humans of the Stillness are who they are because of their world, not ours.

From a storytelling standpoint, neither the Stone Sky or its predecessor, the Obelisk Gate quite reaches the technical brilliance of Book 1, the Fifth Season, which I highly recommend you read without any sort of spoiler. However, the story, and its exploration of anger and trauma and of trying to belong in a world where the entire of humanity is prejudiced against you and the earth itself is literally trying to kill you, is just as brilliant here as ever. The Stone Sky also spends some time building on hints of the past which have come up over the past two books – I was somewhat torn over these sections, as on one hand their appearance in the last third of the narrative is well-timed, but it also means that we only get glimpses of a long-dead society which feels like it needs another book series dedicated to exploring it. Maybe we’ll get that series one day, or maybe this is a good time for me to explore Broken Earth fanfiction.

Love it, love it, love it – 9.5 ominous floating onyx monuments out of 10.

 

And some even shorter reviews:

massacre of mankind.jpgThe Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter: A sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, set 13 years after the original at the opening of a second Martian invasion. I won an ARC of this from the Strange Horizons fund drive lucky draw so long ago, and even though it didn’t explicitly come with a requirement to review it I feel really bad for not doing so (although technically it’s not out until tomorrow in the USA, so I’m still a tiny bit early!) My main interaction with War of the Worlds is the Jeff Wayne musical, although I read the book earlier this year and it was pretty much what I expected it to be. The Massacre of Mankind delivers more of the same in some ways, but expands to a genuinely global scale and features a more proactive hero (the sister-in-law of the original book’s narrator) and a plot where characters continue to persevere even in the face of invasion, rather than giving up early and going for a hopeless descriptive walk. The plot itself is a bit left field, but works with the tone. It also directly addresses the limitations of the first book and incorporates the reaction to that text (which canonically exists as a widely-read non-fiction work in Massacre of Mankind), indirectly raising questions about who gets remembered by history in such cases. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read despite feeling like it’s Not My Thing – which is actually a very impressive thing for a book to achieve. 7.5/10

Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Noemi is a human from Genesis, an idyllic planet trying to escape from earth control. Abel is a prototype android from Earth, built with superhuman skills and, it transpires, the Capacity to Love. They meet and turn out to be conveniently heterosexual and into each other, while also trying to save Genesis from Earth in a way which doesn’t involve a mass suicide assault. As a rule, it takes quite a lot to get me to read YA romance-like things these days, but I loved both of Claudia Gray’s Star Wars tie-ins, and one of those is a YA romance-like thing (Lost Stars), so I thought I’d give this a go. It was fun, with some likeable characters (including the central pairing) and a plot that wasn’t super straightforward. I struggle to say there was anything spectacular about any of the worldbuilding or the issues raised, however, and I’m not sure I care enough about the future of Earth and/or Genesis enough to pick up a sequel. 6/10

Inferno Squad by Christie Golden: OK, so this one is pure Star Wars tie-in (to a forthcoming Battlefront video game). Crack team of Empire kids infiltrates a hardcore Rebel cell. Inferno Squad had promise, but because it presumably needs its surviving characters to be at a certain developmental point for the beginning of the video game, nobody actually seemed to grow or learn anything in the book itself. My expectations were probably too high, to be fair, but this was highly mediocre. 5/10