Sooo I meant to get this done earlier, as part of a wider set of productive weekend plans, but all of those went out of the window when I sat down on Saturday morning to play Pyre, a 2017 video game about finding redemption and building a revolutionary movement through the medium of ritual basketball, and failed to get up to do anything more strenuous than heat food or pee for about 8 hours. This was not time wasted, because Pyre might be the best character-driven video game experience I’ve had since my heart was stolen by Mass Effect, but it does mean that I am behind on every aspect of my life relating to professional choices, connections with non-fictional people, and the conquering of the physical TBR. Shrug!
Without further ado, here’s some more mini-summaries/reviews of the last couple of weeks of reading. This isn’t everything I’ve read, but it’s everything I feel compelled to tell you about to date, so… thumbs up for “completion”! Again, oddly categorised for your convenience. As you can tell from the numbers, I’m still having a mostly excellent time reading this year so far.
Cosy Winter Fantasy
Despite a long gap since reading the first book in the series, I greatly enjoyed Laurie J. Marks’ Earth Logic and Water Logic, which are books 2 and 3 of the Elemental Logic quartet. These books are notable for their very different take both on magical and political systems, where magic is bestowed through an elemental affinity which literally shapes one’s personality and viewpoint (hence the “logic” of the title), and the task of putting together the war-torn, divided land of Shaftal ends up in the hands of a non-traditional family group whose reluctant “leader” is a former drug addict. Having been invaded and subjugated a generation ago by the Sainnites, Shaftal now has to reclaim its cultural identity (which, to complicate matters, is highly pacifist) while reckoning with the remnants of the invading force, who have been cut off from their own culture and are now facing their own demise through starvation and attrition. What follows is a fascinating political fantasy with a very high proportion of cosy family fireside scenes and midwinter sledge excursions – and, in Water Logic, some time travel. I’m very excited for the final book, Air Logic, which is slated to come out later this year. 8 and 9 out of 10.
Cosy moments are few and far between in the Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, a fantasy set in northern Russia in which a girl must help the personification of Winter to fight an ancient rival, while reckoning with the influence of Christianity on her community’s support to the traditional spirits – which only she can see. In making her hero a talented young girl in a context where women’s life choices were extraordinarily constrained – either submit to an arranged marriage with a man whose idea of matrimony is almost certainly going to be abusive, or join a convent – Arden makes what is already a claustrophobic setting feel almost unbearably constrained, and I found this a page turner purely because I didn’t want to leave Vasiliya in any of the difficult moments which make up the majority of this book. That said, there are some touching family moments in here, and a lovely fairytale feeling which leaves me eager to pick up the sequel. 8 out of 10
Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi also takes much of its inspiration from fairytale, drawing on Persian influences to tell the story of Laylee, a “mordeshoor” who is tasked with preparing her community’s dead for their journey to the afterlife. Once considered a noble profession, Laylee has been left effectively orphaned after her mother’s death and her father’s departure, and her community’s esteem for her work has “mysteriously” plummeted since it became associated with a lone girl. Embittered, burned out and literally working herself to death for an indifferent town, Laylee’s life takes a turn for the dramatic as Alice and Oliver, the protagonists of Furthermore, turn up so that Alice can fulfil the quest that her own (also not particularly sympathetic) town has sent her on. I love the worldbuilding and narrative voice in these books and am looking forward to more. 9 out of 10.
I didn’t read very much space-based sci fi in this batch – the exception being Julie E. Czerneda’s Reunification trilogy (titled This Gulf of Time and Stars, The Gate to Futures Past and To Guard Against the Dark respectively), which wraps up her 9-book Clan Chronicles series in a fast-paced finale sequence with some rather unexpected turns. While I enjoyed these books, I hesitate to call them a satisfying end to a series which has never given its characters easy answers to their questions about home and belonging. Most of the narrative involves the remnants of the alien Clan trying desperately to find safety as their numbers are being thinned out by both external threats and their own psychological struggles, and a game changer towards the end of book 2 leads to a resolution which is simultaneously a little too convenient and not what I was hoping for as someone who loves big found family narratives. As a side note, I was pleasantly surprised that the lack of queer representation in the series is addressed, although this still isn’t a series to pick up if you want lots of significant queer characters. Two 8s and a 7 out of 10
I also picked up Saga Volume 8, another solid entry in this weird space opera-slash family drama. I have to say, I’m much happier now that I’m not following this series month by month, as getting a single arc in a trade is a much better way for me to receive the story. This is too far through the series to summarise without spilling spoilers all over the floor, but while I wouldn’t call it my favourite volume I remain very invested in the adventures of Marko, Alanna and Hazel and their various other “family” members. 7 out of 10
Past and Future
Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly, is set in a city inspired (but in many ways very different to) 1930’s Berlin, where a conservative anti-democratic government is about to manipulate its way into victory and threaten the diverse communities which make Amberlough their home. An interesting cross between Cabaret and a spy thriller, we follow three characters: washed up agent Cyril; his boyfriend, the sharp and stunning cabaret performer (and smuggler) Aristide; and Cordelia, a woman who has come from nothing to secure a place working in the same cabaret. When Cyril’s mission to a nearby state to watch the election goes terribly wrong, the three characters end up embroiled in machinations to protect the community they love against the rise of the One State Party – and, failing that, to protect each other. One can’t help but feel this latter mission would have gone better if any two characters could ever have a straightforward conversation with each other, but the lack of trust even between these people who care very deeply for each other underlines the claustrophobia and desperation which Amberlough creates, presenting a very dark view of the effects of creeping fascism and noting that, by the time most of us notice we are in danger, it is already too late to escape. The audiobook, read by Mary Robinette Kowall, is particularly recommended. 8 out of 10.
Where Amberlough holds a mirror to history through a secondary world, The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer weaves both Enlightenment sensibilities and a far future “utopia” which, by this third book in the Terra Ignota series, is starting to fall apart at the seams. Like the first two books in the series (and most of the actual Enlightenment philosophy I have engaged with), I found The Will to Battle both infuriating and fascinating – infuriating in that its global political machinations are entirely focused in on a few (mostly) “men”, that despite the very different conceptions of gender in the future where the book is set, it is told through the lens of a narrator who brings chauvinist 18th century ideals to the proceedings, and that the mystical and religious elements of the book often feel so left field and ridiculous (a character introduced in the last chapter of book 2 felt particularly absurd) that I’m sceptical about whether the plot elements that aren’t weird mysticism are ever going to come to a conclusion that I find satisfying. Despite all this, this is idea-driven fiction at its absolute peak, and while I wish I didn’t have to wade through the nasty mind of narrator Mycroft Canner to access it, the worldbuilding and political machinations here have really sucked me in. Alas, dear reader, that it is such a long wait for the final book in the quartet! Somewhere between a 6 and a 9 out of 10 depending on my mood (but you should try it).