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Lent, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I helped with an earlier draft of this book, because the author is a dear friend.

So this is a theologically focused historical fantasy about Savonarola. Bonfire of the Vanities, “purification” of Florence, hanged and burned by the Pope, that Savonarola. He is the protagonist, the close third person point of view is his. If you already know that you don’t want to spend a lot of time with Savonarola, get out while the getting’s good, because this is that book.

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book except in the vaguest terms, because the plot twist in the middle was so thoroughly surprising to me–and I am rarely surprised by plot twists–that I feel rather firmly that as many people should encounter it unspoiled as possible. Suffice it to say: there is a large structural THING in the middle of the book, a shift that changes all that comes before and after it. This is a book that pivots and then makes a spiral. (Spiral structured books are rare. Greer Gilman has one in Cloud and Ashes, but I’m not readily coming up with a lot of others.)

…most other things I can say about this are major spoilers. I found it fascinating and not like anything else. I mean, it’s like several of Jo’s other books in that it has Florence in it, it has Pico della Mirandola in it, it has Ficino in it, okay. But is it like the other books of Jo’s that have those things, no, not really. I don’t believe in a late-Medieval/Renaissance Catholic worldview on a very fundamental level, and I don’t think the book is trying to convince you to, but if you aren’t willing to entertain that worldview as at least a speculative premise, this will not be the book for you. But if you like interrogating/extending the natural conclusions of worldviews quite unlike your own, oh yes, this can do that. Quite a lot.

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Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is SF horror of a very popular kind. You know all the movies about someone who goes very far out into the solar system and finds something horrible and in fact partly it’s them that’s horrible? And there are incomprehensible alien things and lots of blood and sometimes blood spraying out into vacuum? I wouldn’t be surprised if someone made a movie of this novella, because it is exactly like that, and it is a quite well-done and nasty thing in that direction and they tend to want to look for things like that.

Me personally? I hated it. It is not at all the sort of thing I like, and if it had been longer than a novella I would have stopped reading because my sense of the sunk cost fallacy usually kicks in past novella length. But there’s a difference between hating something and thinking it’s badly done. This is not badly done. Nobody does multilimbed critters like Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s just…someone else’s cup of tea, I feel quite sure. It’s definitely tea and not sludge! It’s just not for me.

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The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a novella in the same universe as the Rivers of London series, but not with the same protagonist. The main character, narrator, supernatural police officer, and human being much put-upon by rivers in this go-round is Tobias Winter, not Peter Grant.

…frankly they are not very different. And Aaronovitch made some allusions that made me think he might be aiming at doing something thematically interesting with the not-very-different-ness? but this is not it. This is another of the same thing. If this is the sort of thing you like, gosh, you might well like this sort of thing. If you were thinking perhaps not having Peter Grant as a protag would mean Aaronovitch had branched out a bit…no. It does not mean that.

The wine of the Mosel Valley is nice to think about, though, and it rattles along entertainingly. It is very definitely a series installment that does what the series does, but removed from the need to handle the recurring issues of the recurring characters.

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The Red-Stained Wings, by Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by the publisher. In addition, the author is a dear friend.

I love middle books.

I know that there are people who complain about them, but I love them so much. I know what I’m getting into, there’s still room for new twists and surprises, and my standards for whether the author stuck the landing are different because it’s supposed to be an intermediate ending, not a final one. (When it’s not even an intermediate ending, then I get mad. This has an intermediate ending. This is a good place to pause and think about things before the last book in the trilogy.)

There’s a lot here. Animal familiars and predators, toxic dragons, draught and deserts, plotting and betrayal and trust. (I put them in that order for a reason.) There is a mechanical man, a bear-dog, complicated interactions with dolphins and a river goddess. There is despair and hope. There are so many reasons to continue with this book, and I’m so glad there’s more to come.

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The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a really interesting work of SF criticism focused on the Dark Other, specifically on Black girls/women on the peripheries of popular media properties. Thomas takes the lessons of the title works and others and uses them as exemplars of larger issues in the genre. She deliberately eschews the old-fashioned academic convention of obscuring/abstracting the critic’s voice: she is coming from a very specific place as a late Gen X Black woman from Detroit, and she explicitly (as well as implicitly with her prose choices) rejects the idea of some universal construct called “the reader” who can stand for every reader. This is extremely constructive.

In addition to the titular works, Thomas spends a fair amount of time on the TV show Merlin and also on both the TV show and the book series The Vampire Diaries, examining the ways visual adaptations of preexisting material interact with fan expectations. She has deep roots in fanfiction fandom and is not afraid to use that experience as a lens in this work.

Frankly I think a lot of white SFF writers could benefit from seeing Thomas’s perspective laid out in detail with examples. The power of “I didn’t realize I was doing that, and I’d prefer not to” is pretty strong, and it has to be in the face of “I don’t worry about that kind of thing.”

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The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is so timely that I can’t even predict how someone will read the phrase “this book is so timely” in the gap between writing this review and posting it. So timely. You might want to read it for that reason. You might want to avoid it for that reason, but if so, definitely read it later, because this is good stuff. Wineapple does not fall into common historian traps like referring to white Southerners as simply “Southerners”; she is willing to state flat out when one of her subjects is known to be lying and when they might or might not have been lying but definitely were wrong.

The first section, about the Reconstruction before impeachment proceedings, made me think a lot about the essential problems of forming a civil society with people who don’t think you’re human. I feel that most American schools under-teach the Reconstruction. The end of the Civil War is presented as a triumph; the path to the Civil Rights movement sort of a hand-waving muddle. Culturally there is a focus on a narrative of progress: no longer slaves! full civil rights! Yay! Wineapple goes into clear and succinct detail on the sorts of crimes that did not end with the Civil War–in fact in some directions intensified–and their impact on Black Americans for more than 150 years. Even if you have some background in this material, she handles it well. It’s very clarifying, too, how a person can consider themself to be on the right side–can even be, more or less, on what history will consider the right side–and still not have done the self-examination enough to grow in their treatment of other people, their perspective on others’ needs. This book is a thorough demonstration of how choosing the right side is not enough, dreaming of a just nation is not enough.

There are characters in this narrative, compelling, astonishing characters. Thaddeus Stevens and his family of choice, Frederick Douglass, Vinnie Ream, Ulysses S. Grant and his incredibly touching friendship with William Tecumseh Sherman. No perfect people, but fascinating ones, well-drawn.

The impeachment itself is a parade of dead ends, times when people were ready to give up, things not making a lot of sense. It ends abruptly. But it’s an incredibly useful perspective to have, in a century where Nixon and Clinton shape our view of censured presidents and what good censuring them does. You don’t have to trust the process. It doesn’t always result in the most justice for the most humans. But there are things that are worth doing even if they can’t be completed. Even if there’s still more to be done 150 years later. Having a torch to pass along is better than extinguishing it.

Also, Andrew Johnson: screw that guy, man. I have all sorts of more nuanced historical take here–and so does Brenda Wineapple, way more nuanced than mine–but really it’s probably never a bad moment to roll your eyes at that guy. Blech.

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Books read, early May

Charlie Jane Anders, Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. This is a slim collection, and every story in it is engaging. I had no desire to skim even the ones I’ve read before. Definitely worth having.

Daniel M. Bensen, Junction. This is a very modern version of a very classic SF thing. There is a portal to an alien world, and the humans in the story have to navigate the alien biosphere. Lots of interesting creatures here, and also a different set of group dynamics than the ’80s standard for this type of thing. A fun read.

Stephanie Burgis, The Boy Who Learned to Dream. Kindle. This is a short story that I belatedly realized is set, not in the universe of Stephanie’s stuff that I’ve enjoyed already, but in the universe of Stephanie’s stuff that is still on my to-read pile. It was fun and appealing but probably better once you’ve read the appropriate series…so I want to hurry up.

CJ Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher, Alliance Rising. A new installment in this series, and I had fun with it. It did point out to me how substantially men are the default in Cherryh’s work as a whole–random receptionist, bartender, passerby, all skew far more male than humanity does. It ended up feeling very weird in that way. But I still had fun with the space station politics.

Lynne Kelly, Song for a Whale. A Deaf girl gets fascinated with a whale whose song is different from other whales’, and goes into some Pretty Wacky Hijinks to try to get to where she can (legitimately scientifically) communicate with him. This is not science fiction, it’s fiction about a scientist, albeit a very young scientist. And also her gran. Which I like a lot.

Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. I suppose “and on a boat” would be an unwieldy subtitle, and yet the ancient pathways MacFarlane is retracing are mostly rather than all walking paths. Still, this is chatty and interesting and thoughtful and inspiring. I like MacFarlane’s work so far.

Mary Oliver, Thirst. This is a volume of grief upon the death of her partner. There are some lovely things in it, but I feel it’s not something to go into unprepared for a lot of loss and a lot of eternity. Sometimes that’s just what you need, and sometimes it’s far too much. (Sometimes both.)

Andrew Reeves, Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian Carp Crisis. This is about American watersheds, particularly the Mississippi watershed, and what can be done, is being done, needs to be done about invasive carp species. It’s frustrating and illuminating and generally an interesting book, but you have to have a pretty high carp tolerance.

Chris Santiago, Tula. I heard this poet at a live event and put his collection on my list to read. He’s a Filipino-Minnesotan poet who draws a lot on family experience for his poems. I recommend seeing him live if you can, but the collection was worth reading also.

Bogi Takács, Algorithmic Shapeshifting. Discussed elsewhere.

Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land. Discussed elsewhere.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and Brandon O’Brien, eds., Fiyah Issue 10. The theme of this issue is hair, and it’s handled in a really strong variety of ways. This is one of the things that Fiyah can do that other publications just can’t do, and I value them so much for it.

G. Willow Wilson, The Bird King. I know, I know, people get to write what they want to write, what they get paid to write, all sorts of things…and Ms. Marvel is lovely, but…I am so glad, so very very glad, that G. Willow Wilson wanted to write another novel. This one is historical, set at the very end of Muslim structural presence in Spain, and its characters are vivid and lovable and loving and flawed and so much fun to spend time with.

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Algorithmic Shapeshifting, by Bogi Takács

Review copy provided by the author.

This is what science fiction can do.

There is more about alienation and difference in this slim chapbook than most thumping space epics manage. Takács draws deftly on both eir own experience as a multiply marginalized person and eir gift for listening to the experiences of others to create poems that illuminate the diversity of the universe, personally, cognitively, emotionally, with vivid flashes of image and turns of word.

My favorite poems in this collection were “Never Cease” and “The Tiny English-Hungarian Phrasebook for Visiting Extraterrestrials”–each searing and astonishing in their own way, each making me gasp with the turns their perspective took. But there are so many strong works in so few pages here–so many unexpected angles–that I know I’m going to reread the whole thing more than once. Highly recommended.

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Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Human history repeats itself.

This is a central thesis of Unholy Land, but what shapes the book is what ways Tidhar wants to show human history repeating itself. There is no good solution in this book. There is no timeline in which people treat each other generally decently. This is a very meta book, a book full of layers of alternate worlds, histories that might have been–but they all come back to guns and oppression and prejudice and fear.

Tidhar is Israeli-born and has lived in lots of places. He’s speaking from a position of knowledge, personal knowledge, when he writes about the permutations of Jewish homeland and disapora Judaism. There are all sorts of things that he does quite well in this. But the overall thesis is not an upbeat one about the nature of people in general, and you should be prepared for that going in.