There is an astonishingly lovely and complimentary post about some of my stories over at Lady Business. I feel odd even linking to it because it feels perilously close to linking to reviews–which is not something that is wrong, but it’s not something I do. But it’s more general than that, and just leaving it unnoticed also seems like not the thing. So: gosh, what a nice thing, there it is.
Month: October 2017
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.
Electoral faery fantasy
I have a new story out today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies: The Influence of the Iron Range. For those of you who went to Readercon, it’s the story I read half of at my solo reading there–so this is your chance to find out how it all ends after the stunning cliffhanger I left you on! Even if you didn’t–go, read, enjoy!
My editor, Scott, thought it was particularly satisfying to run this story just before elections in the US. I agree. In my district we “only” have school board elections–but after listening to the candidates’ forum, I have very strong opinions on those school board candidates. If you’re eligible to vote and able to get there, please remember to do so! November 7 if Election Day for most US districts–please check to see if there are local issues on your ballot even if you haven’t heard of anything larger scale. Local issues matter! Your vote makes a huge difference at the local level! Okay, back to your regularly scheduled storytime.
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.
Vallista, by Steven Brust
Review copy provided by Tor Books. Additionally, the author has shown by his behavior that despite what I’ve said in previous review disclaimers about his books, he is absolutely no friend of mine.
However, quite often people who have made me sad, angry, and/or disgusted with their behavior write books that are too dreadfully written to bother to read, and this is not the case with Vallista. This is another entry in the Vlad Taltos series, and like the others it is not doing exactly the same things as its predecessors. It is expanding the universe of the series, it is messing with everything that has gone before and recasting it. It is definitely not an episodic “like this one, but more of it” entry in its series, and the trap-building nature of the vallista comes satisfyingly into play.
What was less satisfying for me this time around, and this may well come into reviewing the author rather than the book as I am trying not to do: everyone has tolerance limits on the First Person Asshole voice. It’s no surprise that a substantial portion of a Vlad Taltos novel is written in First Person Asshole. Some people’s tolerance is about a page and a half, some infinite; mine is, at this point fifteen books into the series, fraying. (I would also like it a lot if someone would write a study of how FPA voice shifts in a long series so that it always feels contemporary and therefore includes very mild contemporary phrasing that’s almost but not quite invisible and ends up being the prose tic version of a long mystery series looking like it only spans two years and yet starting with the protagonist using pay phones and ending in them using smart phones. Someone who is not me should do that using several authors as reference. Thanks.) But Vallista also has, for very good plot-related spoilerific reasons, forays into other prose voices than that, which made it a lot easier to read just when some of the “look at me I’m clever” bits of narrative voice were not feeling quite as clever as hoped and had repeated the not-clever multiple times just to make sure you had a chance to not-laugh at it again. I liked…hard to describe for spoiler reasons…pieces of other prose voice, and the reasons why they were there.
There is quite a lot of Devera in this book. If you’re here for serious forward momentum on ongoing plot arc and for Devera: here you go, this is the one you’re looking for. Relationships among other characters in the series, a great deal less so, but there’s a great deal of “can’t have everything” going around in the world, inevitable that some of it would end up here.
What we tell them and when
Friday night Mark and I took our ten-year-old goddaughter to her first jazz concert, a real grown-up concert in the atrium at Orchestra Hall, not a kids’ concert, tailored to her interest in drums. It was a smashing success and I have been telling people the joyful parts of being able to share this with her, how captivated she was, how the other concertgoers were delighted by her.
There’s another tiny piece I haven’t mentioned, but it’s the week it is, the year it is, the world it is.
When I went out to the bathroom at intermission, Orchestra Hall had the pre-ordered drinks sitting on a table completely unattended. No staff near the table, no staff even visible. People’s names were under the drinks, patrons were milling around. I was appalled. And when I went back in, I mentioned this as a terrible idea, and I said to Lillian, “Sweetie, don’t ever, ever, ever take a drink that’s been left unattended. You always, always, always watch who has had control of your drink.” And she nodded solemnly and said, “Yes.”
She is 10.
I did not say “rape” or “rohypnol” or “GHB.” At her age, she probably honestly filed it away as “someone could spit in that, gross.” But…she is 10. She will be in high school before we know it. And you have to grab the moments you can. You have to take the opportunities. If you sit a kid down for a lecture, here is all the stuff you need to know, some of it will fly past, some of it will not go in. And you will forget to say some of it. If they only hear stuff once, some important stuff will be lost.
I was not that much older than she is when my cousin told me the same thing, always know who has had your drink, do not drink an unknown punch at a party, even if they tell you it’s non-alcoholic, maybe especially if they tell you it’s non-alcoholic. Watch them make your drink, keep your drink with you, do not leave it on the table if you go to the bathroom, finish your soda, get a new one after.
She is 10.
She is 10, and I hope no one has said Harvey Weinstein’s name to her. She watches Big Bang Theory, and I wish she didn’t, because it’s full of toxic bullshit, and because Mayim Bialik is trying to tell her that if only she’s good enough, if only she dresses the right way and wants to be a good smart girl it will be enough. It will not be enough. This thing I am telling her, at 10, about control of her drink, about how to hold her hand when she punches, about kicking for joints and soft places on the body and running like hell, about how she is worth it and never think she is not worth hitting as hard as she can, as hard as she has to: it will not be enough. I cannot promise that it will be. It is what I have. I can give her that my friends think it’s amazing that she loves the drums, my friends want to introduce her to the lead percussionist and help her see all the cool percussion instruments. I can give her grown-ups who see a tiny pixie child intent on listening to jazz and want to give her more of the world, not less. Who say, when you go out in the world, this is what you do–not, don’t go out in the world.
She is 10, and I told her, never take a drink that’s been left unattended.
It will only get more like this, in the years ahead. As the adults, we always want to think it’s too early to have to say the words, and by the time we’re comfortable, it’s too late, they needed to hear them already. We want to protect them from the words, and we can’t protect them from the world. So the opportunities come in the strangest places. It’s fun when it’s “do you know what Cubism means?” This one was not a fun one. But you take the moments you get. She didn’t have to dwell on it, she nodded and went on with her evening, which she declared to be joyful hours. It’s still lodged in my heart, though. She’s 10, she’s 10, she’s 10. I want that to be a magic incantation, but it isn’t.
The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear
Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the author is a personal friend.
This is the beginning of a new trilogy for Bear. It’s set in the same universe as Range of Ghosts and its sequels, which I loved, but it is not a sequel to them per se. As such, this is a great place to jump right in. Different things with different characters! Doing their own stuff with their own themes and foci! Readers famously–infamously–want “more of the same, but different”; this is definitely different, and I think setting it in the same universe will push enough of the “more of the same” buttons for many people.
What has it got in its pocketses? Well, the opener is an ice wyrm attacking a caravan on a frozen river. Frozen riverrrrr. So I’m in. The travelers there center on a pair of roving adventurers, who…don’t share a lot of the traits you expect of the classic fantasy traveling adventurers. Like being alive in all senses and human in all senses–though they are more human than many of the adventuring pairs I’ve read whose authors meant them to be human in all senses. The Dead Man and the Gage are my new favorite buddy road trip pair.
But it’s not just their book. There are also–for more than balance–two rajnis. Two princesses whose not-princess title matters, whose ruling roles are complex and who must make calculations about their own power, the power of those they care about, their people, their people’s relation to the environment. The water divers, the snakes, the elephant and the lilies…these are some of my favorite elements in a modern fantasy novel, pulling in politics and setting as they do. The way that rajni Sayeh’s life as a third sex person within her culture matters, the way that it does and does not change how she sits on her throne–but also the way that her motherhood changes everything she does. I love Sayeh best. There is always a risk that there will be one favorite character, with multi-POV novels, and I love Sayeh best–but not to the point where I was impatient to get through the other scenes, not to the point where I wanted to be done with Mrithuri or the Dead Man and the Gage.
This is definitely the beginning of a trilogy, so we have miles to go before we sleep. But I’m pretty eager to go those miles.
Please consider using out link to buy The Stone in the Skull from Amazon.
Books read, late September
Colin Cotterill, The Rat Catchers’ Olympics. This is the latest in the Dr. Siri mystery series. Like many ongoing mystery series, it leans on “these are the people you already like having adventures,” so The Coroner’s Lunch is a better place to start if you’re interested in historical Communist Laotian magical realist murder mysteries. In this installment, most of the gang heads to Moscow for the 1980 Summer Games. This is simultaneously very typical of long-running murder mystery series doing something “offbeat” to try to change things up and completely thematically appropriate for what Cotterill is doing with Laotian communism and Siri’s crowd.
Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands. A lavishly illustrated book of Atlantis, Ys, and similar places. Eco makes sweeping pronouncements at the drop of a hat, often in ways that completely baffle me; the “we” and “us” he refers to certainly don’t include me, but it’s a beautiful book and at least mildly interesting. A highbrow bathroom book.
Max Gladstone, Ruin of Angels. A romp, a joy, a heist and a half, a family drama, doing completely different things with coexisting cities than The City and the City, a book that runs hot and cold very literally…it slices, it dices, it juliennes! Despite not having a number in the title, this is the latest Craft book, and I expect you’ll be glad to have it around. I am.
Robert Holdstock, The Bone Forest. Revisiting this short story collection did neither it nor me any good. It was a situation where I feel that his handling of sex magic and the mythic has not aged well over the decades since I first read this book, and…look, I’m not saying you can never portray a character with loathsome pedophile reactions, I’m saying that I want a damn good reason to sit through that, and I don’t feel like the last story in the collection gave me a good enough reason. I hope we’ve all grown as a field since these stories.
Jill Jonnes, Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape. This started out talking about which trees had been popular to plant in which eras and why, and it gradually decayed into a litany of tree diseases, and oh heavens diversify your plantings, people, diversify your plantings. I wanted to curl up into a ball and rock. Plant more trees and not the same ones as your neighbors. Don’t be seduced by a uniform canopy. Aaaaah. Aaaaaaah. Look, maybe you don’t cry reading about emerald ash borers, that’s fine, not everyone is me. Statistically quite few people in fact. But still, plant more trees and not the same ones as your neighbors good grief.
Ursula LeGuin, The Compass Rose. Gosh the worries of the ’70s are not the same as the worries of now. I tweeted about this, but…there was so much of “they will call everybody crazy” and then the assumption that there would be care for people labeled mentally ill. From the vantage point of forty years later, oh bless, if only. Some of these stories are great and some are not, but…I kept being reminded of my grandfather telling me that 90% of the things you worry about never come to pass. And that doesn’t mean the future won’t be worrying, as LeGuin well knows.
Kazuki Sakuraba, A Small Charred Face. Discussed elsewhere.
Vivian Shaw, Strange Practice. An urban fantasy from a medical standpoint, with a humane attitude towards groups and individuals that get treated rather more harshly in other urban fantasies. Structured neatly. This has an ending and yet leaves open the possibility of more, which is a good thing. I gulped it down in one eager night.
Laura Swan, The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement. This is a good starter history of beguines. If you already know something about them, it will not be greatly revelatory. Swan is earnest and passionate about her subject, and she’s particularly clear and keen about the relationship between nuns and beguines, which gets very sweet and touching in spots without in any case making me doubt her accuracy.
Karin Tidbeck, Amatka. This is utterly unlike The Dubious Hills except the pace and style of the incluing/worldbuilding hit me similarly. It’s a science fiction dystopia, more or less, sort of, and very Swedish, and very short, and I liked it, but it’s very hard to describe how metaphysical this book gets. Very. It gets very, very metaphysical about very, very practical things.
Jenny Uglow, The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine–Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. Brief and lucid biography of a fascinating figure and her even more fascinating church. Several works have noted that it anticipated the major ideas of Ruskin by a decade and could neither influence nor be influenced by him, existing off on its own as a singular work with ideas about nature and building and carving and art. The book also talks a fair amount about family and women’s choices in the mid-19th century. I had just gotten to the point of thinking, this really is reminiscent of Middlemarch when I turned the page and Jenny Uglow had the same thought but more formally: Losh’s reactions to Rome were not entirely disjoint from Dorothea’s (but again it would have been very difficult if not impossible for them to be an actual influence on Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot)–it’s just all zeitgeisty in the parts of the 19th century I like best.
Fran Wilde, Horizon. Discussed elsewhere.
Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London. This did not remind me of Middlemarch. I honestly got it from the library when I was reading Middlemarch thinking, well, 1830s, there we are then. No, but that’s what Middlemarch is like, it’s going to be like that around here for awhile, some of you know what I mean. But! This is popular history, quite readable, talks a lot about how medical training was happening and its intersection with the sensationalist press and the end of some laws that protected apprentices in the UK at the turn of the 19th century. Interesting stuff.