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Books read, late August

Susann Cokal, The Kingdom of Little Wounds. The author of this book apparently described it to people as “a fairy tale of syphilis,” and this is pretty accurate. It’s also about mercury poisoning, madness, and abuse (both sexual and non-sexual). And a Ruritanian Scandinavian/Nordic kingdom. It’s really well-written. It’s really grueling and horrible. I recommend it. I recommend it very, very selectively. If you’re not going to be put off by something like 500 pages of the above, with very little relief from any other topic whatsoever, then rock on with this book.

Curtis Craddock, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. Discussed elsewhere.

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I was not hitting good luck with the cheerful books this August. Demick did a lot of interviews with people who had escaped, a lot of stuff about everyday life, personal experiences, some stuff about starvation and terror but in the context of just getting by, school uniforms and trying to cook what you have and trying to have a job you don’t totally hate and…human things. Utterly, utterly human things. It’s worthwhile not to look away from this kind of reporting…for some of us, some of the time. It’s okay for you to choose whether this is going to be one of the horrible bits of knowledge you’re going to endure right away, right now.

Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth. An alternate history novella with hippos in the lower Mississippi. Diverse on the axes of gender and race. Hippos are hippos, not anthropomorphized, and while they have been domesticated, they are not notably sweet. Nor are they notably mean-spirited in all cases. They’re, well, hippos. Sometimes bad things happen to characters, but it’s not a crapsack world where nobody cares about anybody. I had fun with this.

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. This is an essay collection whose jacket copy talked up the author’s job as an actress teaching med students patient empathy. Only the first of the essays touched on that, and it only in very shallow terms. The rest of the essays were much more random-essay-collection fare about her travels to various places and what she hopes to have learned from their inhabitants, what she is thinking about herself and society and the world. Given the title I feel that I am failing a bit when I say: this did not strike me as an outstanding collection of its type. It was fine. I am not sorry I read it; I cannot particularly commend it to you as more insightful than another randomly selected set of essays that managed best when focused on their own author.

N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. The worldbuilding in this is just outstanding. There is so much geology. I don’t know when I’ve seen so much passionate geology in worldbuilding. I think never. I can see why this series is winning so many awards, because it has both physical and social ramifications. It is just plain impeccable. The social ramifications are substantially on the front of “fractal implications of the structures of oppression,” which means that it can be a horrifying thing to read over and over again. The characters’ interpersonal relationships have only small positive moments punctuating long stretches of grief, despair–not horror as a genre, but horror in how humans treat other humans. Brilliantly done–but another one to time very carefully.

Simo Laakkonen, Richard Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War. This is an academic volume of essays, of the sort where each chapter takes a different focus and is by a different author or authors. So there will be a bit about Hawaii and the Pacific, a bit about the Arctic, and so on. I found that a few too many of the chapters equated ecology a bit too strongly with managed environment for my tastes–farms and managed forests are important but are not by any means the only systems to consider–but on the other hand I do want them considered, I want the impact on them considered. And most of the contributors appeared to be Finnish and Canadian, giving the overall authorial voice a cool tone outside the superpower assumptions that was beautiful, great, well-done.

Leena Likitalo, The Five Daughters of the Moon. Exquisitely done worldbuilding, based on the last days of the tsar. I’m not sure I understand the decision to make this into a novella duology with a cliffhanger in the middle instead of, y’know, a novel. But I was invested enough in some of the characters (and all of the worldbuilding, amber and machinery and all) to pick up the next when it comes out.

Josh MacIvor-Andersen, ed., Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. The pieces vary quite a lot here, from things I would classify as prose poems to more standard essays. Also in length. Not a lot of it was directly about trees either scientifically or more poetically. It was mostly about people in tree-adjacent ways. That surprised me, but it was still interesting. There was a bunch of stuff about religion, a bunch about families and relationships, a little bit about math…it was quite an interesting mix. (And I was only half-joking with a friend about doing a Best New Arboreal Fiction. That would actually be more than tree-adjacent, I would hope.)

Anton Treuer, Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe. This was actually really very positive for a people who have been through quite a lot. And the structural trick for writing an uplifting book about a nation of people who have had a lot of oppressive crap dumped on them without whitewashing the oppressive crap appears to be focusing on positive community leadership. Not every book can be like that, but this book is like that, and I think it’s quite good for it to be like that. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad it exists. Recommended if you have even a little interest in this topic.

Phoebe Wagner and Bronte Christopher Wieland, eds., Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. Mismatch of writer and reader expectations is a well-known phenomenon, and it’s generally a good idea not to write a bad review of a book that is not bad but merely not what was expected. I do want to flag, though, this specific thing: for me there is a difference between something that’s labeled optimistic and something that’s labeled optimistic ecological science fiction. When almost none of the SF chosen is SF that connects in a solid speculative way to the present–when it’s not anywhere we can see a path to get from here–the optimism feels less optimistic to me in a way that it wouldn’t if the stories had not been labeled ecological SF or eco-speculation or even solarpunk. It actually ends up feeling pessimistic: as though to get an optimistic emotional tone we have to have a complete departure from this reality, which I don’t think is the case, and I don’t think is at all the position of the editors or the authors. And it’s the sort of thing that an anthology can fall into without clear intent, if solicited authors deliver stories with a particular bent. So: setting that consideration aside, I felt that A.C. Wise’s story was a clear stand-out, and I also felt that Lavie Tidhar executed very well. I also particularly enjoyed poems by Chloe N. Clark (both!), Sara Norja, and Brandon O’Brien.

Caroline Yoachim, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World. This collection has both breadth and depth, in both ideas and tone. Seriously one of the best collections I’ve read in years. I can’t call out favorite stories because there are just too many of them. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s fantasy, it’s science fiction, it’s got everything. You really want this collection. Highly recommended.