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Cloudbound, by Fran Wilde

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the author is a personal friend.

What do I want in the middle book of a trilogy? Well. I want consequences from the first book. If the events of the first book are unimportant, it’s not so much a trilogy as a set of standalones. I want further developments of the characters. If they are exactly who they are at the beginning of the first book when the beginning of the second book rolls around, that undermines the importance of the events of the first book. And I want more worldbuilding. Whatever made the first book cool, there should be more of it. I like even stand-alone books to give me a sense that there’s more there there than will fit in one book; I want that sense to expand with the middle book in a series. Nuance, complication, detail.

Cloudbound does all of that. The point of view character changes from Kirit to Nat, which gives some obvious ways to handle everything good in a sequel: Nat’s thoughts and opinions and knowledge are not Kirit’s. His priorities are not Kirit’s. His skills are not Kirit’s. So there is an entirely different angle on the towers, the Spire, the Singers, and the culture at hand–in addition to the new events unfolding before us. Science! Treachery! Exploration! Protective interpersonal relationships! There’s plenty to sink your teeth into in this book.

Because it is so thoroughly the middle book of a trilogy, I would recommend starting with Updraft. But that’s readily available in new formats now, so there’s really no reason not to. The worldbuilding will be clearer if you’ve read the first book, but more importantly, the emotional impact will be stronger. So go ahead and get started on that!

Please consider using our link to buy Cloudbound from Amazon.

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The Demon Girl’s Song, by Susan Jane Bigelow

Review copy provided by the author.

One of the things I’ve seen a lot around this field is reviewers who don’t belong to a particular marginalized group not understanding the value in representation for people who do belong to that group. I want to avoid that mistake in this review: it’s very easy for me, as a heterosexual woman, to read a book like The Demon Girl’s Song and think, well, I don’t care one way or the other that the protagonist is a lesbian. People have all sorts of orientation, and for me as a straight lady with plenty of representation in fiction, it would be easy to say, “It doesn’t matter to me either way, I only care about the story.” And I do care about the story. But the protagonist, Andín, does care about who she loves. Her story is hers, it matters to her, and it matters to readers who don’t see themselves enough in quest fantasies.

The beginning is a little rocky, but things smooth out a lot when Andín starts traveling. If you like the central conceit of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric’s Demon novellas, Bigelow is working with a similar idea but different enough that it’s clearly not the same story, just some of the same furniture. Andín and her demon also have to find an accommodation, but in different ways than Penric–with larger-scale consequences.

Please consider using our link to buy The Demon Girl’s Song from Amazon.

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Death’s End, by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Review copy provided by Tor.

I don’t always, or even usually, note who translates a work in translation, but Ken Liu did such a beautiful job with the balance of fluid English prose and not flattening out cultural differences. He also translated the first volume of this trilogy with similar skill, and I was pleased with the translator of the middle volume, Joel Martinsen, as well. I hope that both Ken Liu and Martinsen get further translation jobs, because I would love to have more Chinese SF out there to compare and contrast.

Because of how the publishing industry works, this makes me encourage people to buy and read and talk about this book and the two before it in the series, even though I…didn’t really enjoy it. I respect some of the things it’s doing. It’s a major achievement. But enjoy? No. I can’t say that I did.

Here’s why: this is basically a horror universe, which is not my jam. The universe is not indifferent, it is actively hostile. And not just outside forces in the universe. “Space was like a distorting mirror that magnified the dark side of humanity to the maximum,” is a line in the book that is not really contradicted by anything else in the book. It is, in fact, exemplified by a lot of things in this book. There is more than one discussion of cannibalism in fairly flat affect, so if you’re not down with that, this is not the book for you.

Further, while it has central female characters (unlike the book before it), the degree of sexism and gender essentialism is pretty staggering. Somehow Liu managed to get to 2016 without realizing that “she was a woman, not a warrior,” needs to be preceded with “Dammit, Jim” or omitted completely. (Seriously, can you imagine writing, “he was a man, not a warrior”? No? Then cut it out. “She was a woman, not a” should be finished with “man” or “genderqueer/nonbinary person” if absolutely necessary. Otherwise, in this century and most of the last one we acknowledge that womaning doesn’t interfere with professions, thank you and good night.) Further, there is a whole long riff on feminized men in the middle, culminating in a time jump forward to: “This was another age capable of producing men.”

There is one autistic character who doesn’t ever appear on stage, he is just there to be the source of genius solutions and “tortured by his illness.” Do I even need to? NO JUST DO NOT DO THIS.

So. This is a book that is Stapledonian in scope, the entire age of the solar system available. It is sweeping, it is full of ideas about space travel and the continuation of the human race. It is doing some interesting things. And I want there to be more Chinese SF translated into English, so I really want to encourage people to buy and read and talk about this book. But for weird and substantially external reasons, so I’m pretty conflicted about that.

Please consider using our link to buy Death’s End from Amazon.

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Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

At my house we often complain that urban fantasy is not actually urban, but more sort of vaguely suburban fantasy. Vassa in the Night does not have that problem. In the least. It’s set in a magical all-night convenient store.

Well, not very convenient. Baba Yaga is involved.

Vassa is one of three sisters of highly assorted parentage, grumpy and snarky and not at all sure what she wants out of life other than that this is not it. She has an even grumpier, snarkier magical wooden doll that she keeps secret from even her sisters. And magic is an integral part of her world–no one thinks twice at having to sing an incantation to a convenient store that dances on chicken legs to get it to stop and let a customer in.

Add in a mix of swans, the Night itself, non-human attorneys, and independently functional hands like the worst nightmare of Thing from The Addams Family, and you’ve got a book that is really, really not like your average retold folktale. It’s bloody and strange and headlong, willing to look at the night without flinching but ultimately hopeful. This is the right way to stand out of the teen urban fantasy pack.

Please consider using our link to buy Vassa in the Night from Amazon.

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The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I don’t think a single one of Cherie Priest’s books is My Sort Of Thing, and yet I’ve read almost all of them. Cherie knows paragraph-level pacing like nobody’s business, the sort of thing that makes it easy to read just a little more and just a little more until another hour has gone past and you haven’t started making supper yet.

This one is a haunted house story. In some ways it’s a very classic haunted house story, and in others it’s very modern. Everyone uses their cell phones sensibly, and most of the characters are engaged in a very modern business: salvaging wood, fixtures, and other parts from old houses before they get torn down, to sell them for elevated antique prices. Dahlia Dutton is a recent divorcee, still working through her issues with losing both husband and house in the divorce. She’s working with her cousins and another employee on a job that could make or break the family business. And that job turns out–of course–to be haunted.

Cherie Priest clearly knows a lot about old houses and their bits, and there’s an affection for them that shines on almost every page. She doesn’t shy away from admitting the places where they can be unpleasant, even downright nasty, but the feeling that they’re worth attention comes out and makes the house feel more special than the genre-standard haunted house.

Please consider using our link to buy The Family Plot from Amazon.

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Stories I’ve enjoyed: the re-storenating

These posts make no pretense at being comprehensive. I know for a fact that I haven’t read everything from the magazines I’m linking to, much less everything from all magazines. So please feel free to share your own recently-read favorites in the comments if you like. More stories for everyone.

My Grandmother’s Bones, by S. L. Huang. (Daily Science Fiction)

Today I Am Paul, by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)

Exquisite Corpse, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Daily Science Fiction)

Left the Century to Sit Unmoved, by Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons)

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde (Shimmer)

The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles, by Rachael K. Jones (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

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Books read, early September

Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. I was a little confused at first about why these stories tended to be heavy on exposition. Then I realized that when you’re trying to do things that are not very well aligned with what has gone before–when you’re trying to break new ground, examine new territory–sometimes that ends up heavily weighted towards having to tell people what you’re doing. Go figure.

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack. Discussed elsewhere.

Christopher Hibbert, Garibaldi: Hero of Italian Unification. Nineteenth century Italy is deeply, truly weird. I mean, totally bizarre. This is an older book–from the 1960s–so you’ll still find people referred to with racial terminology that, while not deliberately offensive, is not what we would use in my lifetime. Also, there is not a great deal on Garibaldi’s early life. With those caveats, it’s a fascinating book about a strange, strange place/time.

Luis Martin, Daughters of the Conquistadores: Women of the Viceroyalty of Peru. This author had very firm ideas about what convents are Supposed To Be Doing and how nuns are Supposed To Act. If you can get past him telling colonial Peruvian nuns, rather frantically, that they were Doin It Rong, this is a fascinating study about women of many walks of life. The other caveat is that the author was focused on Spanish-descended women and plaintively called for someone else to write a study of the roles of native and African-descended women. Amen, brother. I am with you on that. But Peruvian women had some really interesting cultural quirks that you would not guess from first principles, and this was very much worth my time.

Nisi Shawl, Everfair. Discussed elsewhere.

Gerald Vizenor, Chair of Tears. This is the third of Vizenor’s short novels I’ve read, and it occupies a conceptual place between the other two as well as a temporal one. The satire explores both university culture and Native families, it draws on the trickster stories so clearly dear to Vizenor’s heart, and it divides the book into stylistically and tonally different sections. It’s interesting to watch Vizenor change and stay the same with time, and I will probably read more of his stuff.

Drew Weing, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo. Discussed elsewhere.

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The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, by Drew Weing

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

If you have watched Gravity Falls, you may have wondered where Thompson came from. The earnest butt of his teenage friends’ jokes, the one who is always stuck with the dare, fond, ambling, amiable Thompson. I don’t think that Drew Weing meant for the protagonist of his kids’ comic to be an origin story for that Thompson. But here we are: Charles Thompson, preteen, moving to a new city where he would have preferred his old small town. This Thompson is precise, cranky, nosey, nervous. This Thompson is physically quite similar, but he has not learned to go with the flow. He would not know the flow if he saw it. Young Charles Thompson is the anti-flow.

And then he meets Margo Maloo.

Charles–Thompson, as Margo Maloo immediately decides to call him–has a troll problem. Not with the internet, with his closet. His new friend and neighbor Kevin gives him her business card, says that Margo is the person to call. Sharp and impatient, Margo swings through his window to take care of things. Her methods, though, are not as Thompson expects, and he ends up pursuing her through her next few cases–different kinds of monsters, different parts of the city–trying to figure out what is going on and what Margo Maloo knows about it.

There is room for nearly infinite variation in this if it’s going to be a series, which it feels like it is: different monsters, different kids in addition to Charles Thompson and Margo Maloo. Different interactions with the outside world. In a kids’ comic, you have to make the choice how scary your scary things are going to be. The trolls, ogres, goblins, ghosts, and vampires in this volume, at least, threaten but do not carry through on their threats, and while they are unfamiliar shapes and colors, they seem to be at least as threatened by humans as threatening to them. Some kids are going to be scared by anything with monsters in it. But ruling out that category, it’s hard to imagine anyone else finding this book genuinely frightening. If anything, it pulls too many punches/fangs. It’s aiming for a pretty heavy message of “we shouldn’t be xenophobic, we should talk out our differences with people who look different from us, and everybody should get along.” I like that message! But I kind of feel like that message gets undermined when the person you are shaking hands and agreeing to be pals with is *literally considering eating you* rather than shaking your hand. So…Weing walks a really fine line here. Because if the monsters are basically not at all scary–which is the side I came down on, I had a very hard time reading them as scary–then people who are treating them as scary are being xenophobes, bigots, pretty much inexplicably so. And if the monsters actually might eat you…”Oh, be nice, it’ll probably be fine, let’s leave everyone else in ignorance of the danger” seems like it’s maybe not the best complete response, even if “kill it with fire” is also going too far.

So…odd little book, fun to read, fast read if you’re not new to this reading thing. Balanced a little strangely, but entertaining enough.

Please consider using our link to buy The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo from Amazon.

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Begin as you mean to go on, or why I’m willing to quit

Sometimes I run into people online wondering whether they gave a book enough of a chance.

These people are often writers, and I think there’s a component of “I want people to give me a chance, or, if possible, an infinite number of chances” in this reaction. But there’s some sense that if you don’t like a book (or even just don’t love it) and quit reading it after a few chapters, you might have been unjust, you might be missing out. It might get better.

I don’t have this. If I bounce off a book on page one, that’s where I bounce. If I read half of it and decide I don’t care about the characters, if I notice that I’m consistently coming up with other things to do rather than reading this book, I’m out. And I’m totally, completely fine with this. Because the beginning of a story has a specific function, and it’s not to tell you what came first. You can write the beginning of a story that’s not the beginning of the events quite easily–it’s done all the time. And why is it done all the time? Because the beginning of the story is there to draw you in and tell you what kind of thing you’re dealing with.

So–take, for example, the movie I bounced off recently from the library. It was filmed in the 1940s, and it started with a racist joke and continued with at least four minutes of sexual harassment. I know, times were different then, different things were accepted by polite society, blah blah blah…but the point is, they were harassing the living shit out of this woman, by the standards of this viewer. And I say “at least four minutes” because I turned it off, I was done.

Did I miss out? Maybe. Sometimes if you dig through a dumpster you find someone’s wedding ring. But it’s still okay to say, “I don’t feel like digging through that dumpster is going to be worth my time even if there is a wedding ring in it.” An article I read (in the Journal of I Read It Somewhere Studies) had the staff of their magazine watch the first ten minutes of movies, write down how much they thought they’d like them, and finish the movies. And if I recall correctly, they were only wrong in a single-digit number of cases.

Here is why: the beginning sets expectations. That’s what it’s for. It says, here is the kind of story you’re reading. Even if it’s a deeply subversive story, it sets out what kind of thing is here to be subverted. When a movie starts with a racist joke that is, as far as I can tell, completely incidental to its premise, that’s telling you something. It’s telling you that this is the sort of thing the people who made this movie find funny. It’s totally okay to say, you have given me this data, and I have learned from it; I am stopping here. This is why the early episodes of House featured some really graphic medical scenes: they were letting you know, if you are going to be grossed out by the medical stuff, this is not your show. Thank those people for their clarity of vision and move on.

What about quitting in the middle, though? Well, look. Sunk cost fallacies are hard. Humans are, generally, neurologically, terrible at getting ourselves out of sunk cost fallacies. Even if you’re aware of this, it doesn’t always help. Last week I caught myself thinking, of the book I was reading, that I heard rumors that the series was almost done, so I would probably only have two or three more books to read before it was over. Not regretfully. Just in the way that you would think, “I have to wash sheets and towels and delicates, so that’s three more loads of laundry before I’m done.” No one assigned me these books. I have read some in this series before. I can go pick it up again if I really want. But if it is not being worthwhile to read now, it doesn’t matter that I’ve already read one or two or six or however many.

Reading isn’t just a process of discovering what happened, because I could just ask someone who read this book. It’s the experience of reading. If that experience isn’t going well for you, go ahead and read something else. Why not? If no one is paying you money and you’re not in love with the author–I mean, literally, actually in love with the author, not “in love with” as a colloquial way of saying you enjoy their work very much–the fact that you are not happy with this reading experience, right now, in a larger way than just one paragraph or scene making you go meh: I hereby give you permission to get out. You don’t have to finish desserts that taste bad, and you don’t have to keep reading books just because you’ve already read a hundred or two hundred pages of that book, or 1600 pages of that series. You are free. Run like the wind. Run to a different book. There are several out there.

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Edgar Allan Poe: An Adult Coloring Book, by Odessa Begay

Review copy provided by Sterling Publishing.


This is very much what it says on the label. It is an adult coloring book centered around the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Each set of facing pages has one page of pure image and one page of Poe quote surrounded with fancy scrolls, curlicues, etc. to color. The one I colored was from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but there’s a lot of best-known Poe here: “The Raven,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” etc.

The images are in some spots gruesome, but not gory. I feel perfectly comfortable sharing this coloring book with my goddaughter, who is nine. It may spark questions about what the quotes mean, what the stories are about, but I’m comfortable with that.

My main complaint in the coloring experience is twofold: one, some of the images seem to me to be more focused on producing little fiddly bits to color than on illustrating Poe; and two, that some of the images (as shown) look like they will be full of little fiddly bits to color, but they’re actually quite a lot of background with unconnected lines on it. I could have colored the background of this a solid color, but that didn’t sound like much fun, so I didn’t. Not all of them are like that, but some are.

Overall, though, if you’re a fan of adult coloring books, and you’re also Gothy in general or into Poe in specific, this will probably be an entertaining buy for you. If you’re not really a color-er, it’s really geared toward that, so people who are only Poe fans might want to give it a pass. But the world is full of Goths with crafty tendencies, so I expect this will have a pretty strong audience.

Please consider using our link to buy Edgar Allen Poe: An Adult Coloring Book from Amazon.