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The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend of many years standing.

Sometimes a book is incredibly timely because its subject matter fits the headlines of the time when it comes out. And sometimes its timeliness is more a matter of mood: that this is the sort of book people will want to read in its particular era. I believe The Midnight Bargain is the second kind. There is nothing in it about pandemics and vaccines. Humans are not dying by the thousand, in The Midnight Bargain. There are glamorous balls, card parties, flirtations, enticing bookshops, hidden grimoires. Beatrice Clayborn has serious problems, but none of them involve masks.


Honestly, who could not use a story that is both heartfelt and witty, full of both peril and wish fulfillment, right now? The Midnight Bargain‘s characters fight misogyny and wrestle with each other’s trust. They struggle with duty and ambition. They bind willful spirits and break down social barriers. They ride spirited horses and sail gallant ships. They wear elaborate clothes and drink fruity gin drinks. I love that stuff. It is the fun stuff. And right now, it is exactly the kind of fun stuff I think so many people need right now, and I’m so glad that it’s coming out soon, because in October? Less than a month from the US Presidential election, many months into a pandemic? EVEN MORE SO.

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Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend.

Ashlan Jackson’s world was, theoretically, shattered by humanity’s war with the incomprehensible screaming alien Vai. In reality, humanity had done quite enough before the Vai ever came along to break Ash’s world to pieces. The debt and indenture system set up by corporations of the future put people like her into a long series of no-win situations, so the risk and trauma of being soldiers in an alien war just feels like the capstone rather than something separate. Ash has already lost a fiance. She just wants a place to call home, people to call family.

And on the Twenty-Five, she has it, sort of. Her crewmates annoy her in the way that family can annoy, but they’re a good team, searching and salvaging to a “Christmas list” of tech treasures, sorting through corpses on the quiet space battlefield.

But Ash’s body is quietly, slowly betraying her. And it turns out so are some other humans. And all the empathy and understanding she can bring to the situation are tested and twisted as she gets staggering new insight on the nature of the Vai and their interactions with humanity.

I don’t know what was in the water a few years ago to result in a rich subgenre vein of salvage-focused space opera, but I’m glad it was, and I would like to continue with whatever supplement that is, please. Celestium or whatever, sure, let’s have some of that. Because this is an incredibly different book from Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night and Machine, Valerie Valdes’s Chilling Effect, or Suzanne Palmer’s Finder. In no way could you blur any two of them together, they are tonally and thematically incredibly different. But taken as a group of recent finding-the-weird-stuff salvage space opera, it’s a sub-genre I’m very pleased with, and would like to see continue. And I’m so glad to add Architects of Memory to that conversation and the thoughts sparked thereby.

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Books read, early July

Maya Angelou, The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. I think there is a certain groove to reading complete collected works of poetry. You have to know that you’re watching somebody grow as an artist and a person–more so in some cases than in others, but this one, oh, watching the first tentative poems grow into the mature outpourings, it’s a bit like tracing the Mississippi downstream. I had taken some of these poems a bit for granted, but having them placed in context with the other poems that led to them and followed them was amazing and well worth the time.

Mary Hunter Austin, A Woman of Genius. Kindle. So this is a weird book, it is a fictionalized autobiography of a woman who came from a small town in middle America to become an actress in the late 19th century, and all the ways in which it was weird and hard for her to be a woman trying to do something of her own when people did not expect that. She wrote it in 1912, and it has all the melodramatic fervor about Talent and Gift that that era produced, but at the same time, if you’ve been a square peg in a round hole, if you’ve been a tall poppy, this is an extremely vivid and sympathetic book. Unfortunately it is marred by certain sadly predictable racial/ethnic attitudes, but these elements don’t take much of the book’s time.

James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain. A brilliant family story, a deeps-of-the-South-and-out story, a Black story, a queer story, a weirdly modern story. I’m so glad I read this, I recommend it.

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapters 3 & 4. Forward! Onward! Hijinks! Light fun!

Stephanie Burgis, Fine Deceptions. Kindle. This is the latest in its series and the longest, but it never drags–the blossoming romance of mad scientists is just what I needed, fun and fast-paced and funny.

Ally Carter, Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor. The plot arc here is quite predictable but watching the kids get there is still fun. This is a lost heir plot and a plucky orphan plot and it is clearly the beginning of the series. And there are nerdy little friends having adventures, and I wanted that, and I bet some of you could do with some of that right now too.

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered and The Shortest Way to Hades. Rereads. These are charming and witty and hold up extremely well since last I read them. I picked up the one and immediately had to read the other too; if I had the last two in the series in my house I would have immediately read them as well. They are murder mysteries that are almost entirely voice. (I also think that they are the first thing I ever read where the protagonist’s gender was successfully obfuscated; I read Hilary Tamar as nonbinary, and that is not an accidental headcanon, that fits entirely with Caudwell’s text.)

Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943. Chen wants to situate Chinatown and its environs as a firmly trans-Pacific community in opposition to some historians who tried to treat it as an outpost of China, and I think this is entirely successful, and also in parts extremely interesting.

Aliette de Bodard, Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. What a relief this was, having it show up just when I was not feeling good (don’t worry, it’s fine). This is a holiday story, but this time it’s Tet rather than Christmas, and going home for Tet is…a very fraught thing for this dragon and fallen angel pair. So much fun.

Sarah Gailey, When We Were Magic. I’m really pleased that there are more fantasy novels coming out that center teen girl friendships. I am a huge sucker for friendship books in whatever genders, but having teen girls treated with respect on their own terms warms my heart. Like Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers, this one sees teenage girls clearly, their mistakes and gaps in knowledge but also their capacity for caring, ferocity, and so much more. I did feel that When We Were Magic could have done with a little more in the way of consequences for some of the stuff–or at least underlining what the consequences it had actually meant–but on the whole I enjoyed it a lot.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Grace. Kindle. Another fluffy fun fantasy romance about adult people with baggage. One of the two protagonists is a perfumer, which means that her worldview is one of the only sensible ones ever in fantasy, focused on how people smell yes good that is life.

Rosemary Kirstein, The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power. Rereads. The Marta Randall novel I read further down the alphabet reminded me a bit of these, so I decided to finish rereading the series. This was a great decision and my only regret is that books 5 and 6 are not out yet, but at least I know Rosemary’s writing them now. The focus on knowledge, investigation, and kindness is exactly what I needed in a science fiction novel. I did end up feeling weird about being bilaterally symmetrical, but that’ll happen from time to time.

Seanan McGuire, Come Tumbling Down. The latest in her series of portal fantasy novellas, goes back to previous worlds and characters, definitely not a stand-alone but another installation in the larger story.

Marta Randall, Mapping Winter. Kindle. People trying to do good within a corrupt system. This is fantasy, but it reminds me, as I said above, of the Steerswoman books, the tech level, the exploratory feeling, the entire social structure. This is a compliment. I am looking forward to the sequel.

Iona Datt Sharma, ed. Consolation Songs. I make a policy of not reviewing anthologies I’m in, and I’m in this one.

Jo Walton, Or What You Will. Discussed elsewhere.

W.B. Yeats, Poems and Seven Poems and a Fragment. Kindle. The one that says poems is mostly plays, and there’s a poem about some of my response in a previous entry. Yeats is doing things with Irish mythologies that are more intellectually interesting than emotionally resonant for me, but they are intellectually interesting…and these were on my Kindle when I desperately and immediately needed a diversion. (Ideally next fortnight’s book post will be less like that….)

Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves, eds., Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. This is an exhibit book from a beautiful, varied, and in places surprising exhibition at Minneapolis Institute of Art. I went to talks around this exhibition, and I’m glad there are essays and photos to showcase it, because it’s good and needed work.

Jane Yolen, ed., Nebula Awards Showcase 2018. I’d already read a lot of this because of keeping up in the field in general, but the few I had not encountered yet were worth the time, and I’m glad they’re doing these volumes.

Steven J. Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. This account of a massive early 20th century pogrom and the social fallout thereafter was good and useful history to know and also incredibly difficult to read.

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A bit of what I’ve been doing

COVID Summer: Emergent
Never before so quiet,
Never before so quick–
Or distracted. Oh good.
You’re one we can save.
Have a blanket. Steroids.
Calm the welts down.
No cough here, no fever.
This one smells the hospital,
Her own exhausted breath.
Get her in, get her out.
The next won’t be so lucky.

COVID Summer: The Plain People
Two a.m. in the ER
William Butler Yeats
Can’t stand the plain people
Selling their souls; me,
I just can’t stand.
His salt of the earth
Sustain me through testing
Take me home in the dark.

COVID Summer: Hives
“Ninety percent of the things you worry about
Never come to pass,” he told us over and over.
And he was right–but then come all the things
You forgot to give a chance at that magic ninety
Red welts barely kept in check, the itching
Unexpected misery in a world of expected.
Quick, what should I worry about next?

COVID Summer: Hand Soap
Four months since I’ve seen
My favorite lemon soap
We’re halfway through
The big aloe refill bottle now,
No one singing any more,
No mantras: we’re retrained.
I still miss the lemon
And not having the list
In my head, what we need,
What we can get by on,
Soft aloe stopgaps.

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Present Writers: Lisa Goldstein

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, Susan Cooper, and Ellen Klages.

Critical discourse about the speculative genres often focuses on alienation. And Lisa Goldstein does a lot with that theme–but she often does it in the slightly gentler realm of visitor/tourist. The bewildered traveler–either metaphorically or literally–estranged from the world around them but interested–is a common theme through Goldstein’s books. With this angle comes the willingness to experience new things but also the struggle to free oneself from previous perspective.

The first time I read Tourists, Ivory Apples, and A Mask for the General–my three favorite of Goldstein’s novels–this common thread didn’t strike me as strongly as it does on this time around. Maybe it’s because I’m staying put myself. Maybe it’s just having a little more perspective. It’s not like she didn’t hand us clues to what she was doing: her collection is called Travelers in Magic, for heaven’s sake. But right now, in the middle of our pandemic shutdown, I’m particularly appreciating the strangely familiar feel of this kind of long strange trip. And I’m particularly glad that Lisa Goldstein is still around imagining new places to take us. We need them now.

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Welcome to the pod I casted

The virtual Fourth Street Fantasy panels are up in podcast form! Please enjoy this audio panel on The Role of Hospitality in Stories, featuring Reuben Poling, Pamela Dean, Matt Doyle, and Max Gladstone!

And, uh, me. Your moderator.

Look, there’s no way I’m listening to this, I don’t listen to podcasts I’m not on, and I definitely do not want to hear my own voice for basically an hour, so…you enjoy, tell me about it.

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Two stories today!

That’s right, two! So that was a surprise for me when I woke up. (I am always amazed by people who know exactly when they’re having which things coming out. How do they do it? I write down dates when people give them to me, it’s just…they don’t, always.)

The first one is Addison and Julia Tell the Truth to Pemaquid Beach, in Daily Science Fiction. Future fantasy, literary superpower, I don’t know how to classify this one except: it’s mine, I wrote it, you can read it.

The second one is The Foolish Man Built His House Upon the Sand, in Nature Futures. Continuing my current interest in soil health in, uh, a different direction.

Hope you enjoy both!

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After Ragnarok

I have a new poem out in Star*Line, “Fenrir and Sigyn, After Ragnarok.” You can buy it here.

I wanted to write this as a story for literally over a decade, and then I woke up one morning and said, oh, it’s a poem. And just sat down and wrote it. The wolf and his stepmother and the beginning that comes after the end of the world, there it was. Enjoy.

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Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a dear friend, and I read this book in an early draft.

For a book about death this is not particularly gloomy. It’s not only about death, it’s about creation/subcreation and the uplifting nature of story, and about Florence, and about a bunch of Shakespeare’s characters. But it is substantially about death. And yet…and yet it is not a particularly sad book, not on my list of “oh goodness don’t read this now.”

The mix of 21st century Montreal writer, 19th century Latin scholars, and fantastical 15th-16th-ish-sorta century fantasy characters give the story a sort of syncretist flexibility. It’s intensely personal and specific and yet very far-ranging. And…look, Caliban has a family. Caliban is not a singular monster but a person with motivation and family and compatriots. I like all sorts of things about this book, but I think one of my favorites is that it takes the time to have thinking, feeling creatures who are quite unlike each other, finding ways to get through it all in the same world. Worlds. Whichever.