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Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley

Review copy provided by the publisher.

In some ways this is a very centrally science fiction story. It is about humans and aliens learning to live with each other, and the central question of the book seems to be: can there be a middle ground between their ways of relating? This book is middle-term future–much of how humanity is living now has been revised, though not wholly rejected, and alien influence is not the only or even the main reason.

But in other ways the tone, the voice of this book are not at all typical of the genre. There is an intimacy of voice that I have been dearly wanting in science fiction novels, a focus on the relationships Jem and her son Fosse have with each other but also with the rest of their world. Worlds. That tight focus shares a lot with some literary novels and with some of my favorite SF of the past. Whiteley shares a science fiction more with Marta Randall than with Isaac Asimov, and this book is all the better for it.

I don’t want to give away the details of the cultural and biological differences at stake here, because watching them unfold gently and naturally is part of the great fun of the book. It’s a lovely meditation on how humans relate, though, and I’m so glad to see something like this coming out at a time when being thoughtful of our own humanity is incredibly important. (And really…when isn’t it.)

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Engines of Oblivion, by Karen Osborne

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also Karen is a personal friend.

Natalie Chan came out of Architects of Memory hoping that this would be her chance at a better life. Birthright citizenship instead of indenture, the chance to work on her own terms–things have been hard, but maybe things were looking up for Natalie. She could even buy her father a nice place to live as he got older. She didn’t want to talk to him, of course, but she could do it anyway.

Of course that’s not how this book goes. Natalie Chan Gets Her Life Back Together might have been an interesting book, but it’s very much not this one. Instead, Chan’s best intentions blow up in her face–or rather in the faces of the people she’s in remote contact with–and her work with the corporations is thrown into question. Even her romantic relationship is set off-kilter. Worse, she’s hallucinating–and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the holes in her memory are extremely important. She remembers Kate, and Ash, and Sharma, but…wasn’t there someone else? And how much of the alien Vai is she supposed to be hearing?

Her new mission doesn’t seem optional, but it takes things from bad to worse before Natalie and whichever allies she can cobble together from her past and her present can set things right. Right-ish. Right-adjacent. The structure of this book is symphonic, introducing themes to play their variations in different registers. It’s also a great deal of fun and a fitting conclusion to this duology.

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The Black Coast, by Mike Brooks

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is very much a secondary world fantasy, with the tropes that are, while not universal, common to that subgenre. It is a large book with many points of view, some of which only get one chapter when they’re needed. It features not just the relationships of people but of several cultures and nations. It has a lot of moving pieces, and this first volume is just the beginning. Some people do not like this kind of book, and it absolutely is a kind of book, it is pretty squarely in the middle of its genre.

That’s my main caveat, because this book is hitting all the beats of that genre really well, and then adding a few more things it’s doing well. Brooks is really good at not giving any one culture a monopoly on sympathy–there is no Land of the Progressives surrounded by Realms of the Backwards. In some sections of the book, more genders than are used in English are indicated by accent marks. I don’t envy Brooks’s copyeditor the job of checking all the pronouns for the correct inflection, but on the other hand they became intuitive very quickly and added realistic dimension to the cultural differences of the characters.

The fight scenes are strong enough to satisfy the most martial high fantasy fan–possibly stronger–and the magics (and the conflicting attitudes about them!) are interesting though so far well within genre tropes, but for me the strongest part of The Black Coast, and the reason why I would recommend it, is the relationships between characters with strikingly different worldviews, especially the ones who are trying, against all odds, to make a go of peace.

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Folklorn, by Angela Mi Young Hur

Review copy provided by Erewhon Books.

“How are you doing?” a family member asked, and I said, “This book about Korean family and identity is making me ache for Stockholm.” “No, your entire personality is making you ache for Stockholm,” was the response I got, and it was not entirely wrong, but it was not entirely right either, Angela Mi Young Hur absolutely did have a hand in these feelings with the descriptions she wrote of walking across the bridge into Gamla Stan in the winter.

But the rest of the book, the experience of this book. Okay. This is about Elsa, a neutrino physicist doing a postdoc in Antarctica (to begin with). It’s about Elsa, who is someone’s daughter and someone’s little sister and trying to figure out what it means for her to be someone. And particularly it is about Elsa’s relationship with the folktales her Korean immigrant mother has told her–who and what is she descended from, what does it all mean, who is this mysterious girl/woman who has been part of her life since childhood but seems to be invisible to everyone else.

It’s a fascinating book, and it’s a singular one. There’s no way you can say, “Oh, another one of those.” I am particularly intrigued to see what Hur decides to do next, because this doesn’t feel like a book that can have a sequel or a direct companion volume. It feels like she is going to launch herself into something else equally unique, and I am so excited to see it, and in the meantime so excited to have this one to revisit. Recommended.

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Books read, early February

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. Kindle. Reread. Reread but not since my teens, so while I knew the details from that and from general cultural discussion, a lot of the details had faded. I maintain that Henry Tilney is the best Austen hero: he is nice to his sister, he interacts with art in a non-socially-normative way (being a dude who reads and discusses novels!), and he has a Newfoundland puppy. Hard to beat that really. Meta, funny.

Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped An Age. I was hoping for more of the rest of the club–more Joseph Banks, more Edmund Burke, more Adam Smith, generally more…of anybody but Johnson and Boswell. This was very much their book. Ah well; Damrosch is outstandingly good at remembering that women and servants exist, and much can be forgiven for that. And I’m not not interested in Johnson and Boswell, just…Joseph Banks. Sigh.

Francesca Forrest, Lagoonfire. Discussed elsewhere.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock. This is very much an overview of the Indigenous Environmental Justice movement, so its ideal reader is someone who will be reading with pen or phone in hand, taking notes on what they want to find out more about later. If you’re already pretty well educated in Indigenous EJ, this will not be as useful for you.

Elias Lonnrot, Kalevala. (Francis Peabody Magoun edition.) Reread. I still love Magoun’s focus on preserving the specific cultural aspects of this saga, not blunting the insults by making them generic, making it clear that these people get awls and milk from hell. On a reread, I am startled and aghast that he is willing to use s***w (a slur for Native women) to mean large fish or water fowl. Sir: what? I could not find dictionary support for this usage, and it was very very weird. I still love it, though I’m also motivated to do translation comparisons.

Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Discussed elsewhere.

Mahvesh Murad, ed., The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 4. This struck me as more horror-y than the previous volumes in the series, but there were interesting stories by favorite writers like Zen Cho and Isabel Yap, and a welcome English translation of a Nene Ormes story. (It is taking me a very long time to read the novel I have from Nene, because my Swedish is terrible, and I’m missing a lot of nuance. Yay for translation.)

Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour. Reread. We lost Penman last month, and this was the thing I read in memoriam. I hadn’t reread it since college, and it was still a giant engaging brick of a book, and I still am a fiend for Richard III stuff. With the perspective of twenty+ more years, I feel like she overcorrected previous propaganda making Richard III an unmitigated villain (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, SHAKESPEARE) into a book that makes him nearly an unmitigated saint, but there was still a lot of fun to be had here, and I will probably be motivated to reread others of her work.

Eden Royce, Root Magic. This is a middle-grade Gullah Geechee fantasy novel, ownvoices. The protagonist is trying to navigate school and family life while learning to do root work, a traditional Gullah Geechee practice. The pacing is not standard for this category, and some of the timing of how stuff is revealed to the reader is a little off for my tastes (several instances of telling the reader something after the fact that would have been reasonable and useful to know beforehand, in ways that produced less suspense rather than more), but it’s in general a fun book, and I’m so glad it exists.

F. C. Yee, The Shadow of Kyoshi. The second in this duology. Kyoshi comes into her own, and it’s great fun, and if you liked the first one this is definitely a good read. (If you didn’t read the first one, probably do that first, it’ll be much better that way.)

Kevin Young, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. A magisterial tome of poetry, highly varied, divided by era so that you can find commonality and contrast between poems and between eras. Pays careful attention to lyric and spoken word as a source for these poems. Some favorites already in here and a bunch of poets I’d never read before. Extremely good resource.

Ovidia Yu, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery. The third in its series, but I think it’d actually be okay as a place to start, everything is inclued reasonably well. The setting is barreling toward WWII, but the protagonist is still navigating her immediate Singapore surroundings, infused with colonialism and politics, and of course murder. Eager to read the next one.

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Lagoonfire, by Francesca Forrest

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also, the author has been an internet friend for some years.

I have not read the other book in this series, The Inconvenient God–it’s been on my list for awhile and has now shot up to the top of it, because I enjoyed Lagoonfire so much. But I loved Forrest’s previous work, Pen Pal, so when I had a chance to read this one, I jumped at it, and I’m glad I did. This is a perfectly reasonable place to start reading about the Polity, though I’m eager to find out more because I enjoyed the balance of it so much.

Decommissioner Thirty-seven, also known as Sweeting to the former gods who are her friends, spends her work hours easing former gods out of lives of divinity and into human old age. The Polity is a modern government, where citizens should appeal to abstractions, not to gods, and they’re willing and able to un-deify whatever gods they need to. Thirty-seven has a fondness for the previous gods and visits them to play strategy games and drink fruit juice when she’s off the clock.

They’re her main friends, because Thirty-seven has a terrible family secret in her past. Her parents were mass-murdering terrorists, and she must constantly reeducate herself to the precepts and principles of the Polity in order to assure those in power that she won’t follow in her family’s footsteps.

All of that puts her particularly at risk when a dying former god asks her a favor that has surprising overlap with some of her assignments at work. The stranger she meets while investigating both issues only complicates matters. The result is delightful and nuanced. Highly recommended.

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The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Racism is bad for everyone. This seems like the sort of anodyne statement most people you’d be at all willing to talk to would agree with. And McGhee–an American Black political strategist–wants to be clear that she doesn’t want to re-center discussion yet again on White America–that problems that affect people of color are worth handling in and of themselves.

Buuuuut. This book seems to come from her frustration with a zero-sum game mindset. (I agree with her, the zero-sum game mindset is pretty terrible.) And the more research she did, the more she had gigantic stacks of facts, figures, and personal stories that indicated that–really, truly, here’s the math–racism makes the entire system worse for white people as well as for people of color. Is that the only reason, or even the main reason, to oppose racism? Hell no, and McGhee would be the first to tell us it isn’t. But there’s a big difference between “I know this is great for you, but it’s bad for other people so you shouldn’t support it” and “This is terrible for everybody,” and it’s worth recognizing that difference.

Which McGhee does, in detail. Even if you think that you’re a reasonably historically and politically educated person who is committed to anti-racism, some of the stats here may well surprise you. When I was first reading this book, I kept thinking, this is good, but will anyone who actually needs convincing pick it up? But I think the main part of the point for a book like this one is to make racists say, “Well, crap! I am screwing up my life by being racist! I should stop that!” but rather to strengthen the arguments of people who already have the general concept but can benefit from the details. I learned things here, and I’m glad I did. I think you will too.

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Books read, late January

Tola Rotimi Abraham, Black Sunday. This is a beautifully written Nigerian family novel, tracing the lives of a group of siblings from earliest childhood well into their adult years. The things that happen to the family in question spiral significantly downward to the end, so it is not a pick-me-up sort of cheerful book, but it’s extremely good at what it’s doing.

Michael J. DeLuca, Cecile Cristofari, Leah Bobet, et al, eds., Reckoning Issue 5. Kindle. I enjoy every year’s issue of this speculative/environmental journal, but each one in a slightly different way, I think possibly because of the rotating cast of guest editors. The poetry selections were particularly strong this time around, with stand-out poems from Julia da Silva, Catherine Rockwood, and Jennifer Mace.

Melissa Faliveno, Tomboyland. A collection of essays that…hmm, I need a new term. Because I do not identify with Melissa Faliveno here, I neighbor with her. I see her in these essays, she is someone who is unlike me in a lot of ways but whose perspective I find familiar in the sense of, oh yes, here is someone unlike me who is very like a lot of people I like to be around. I wouldn’t say that it’s because these essays are necessarily warm and friendly! There’s a lot of dark content here (well handled). But for me, her musings about gender and sexuality and pain and Wisconsin are a very congenial kind of completely-not-me. If that makes sense. (Those of you who have experience with sexual harassment in the SF field…Melissa Faliveno is from Wisconsin, and there’s a thing in here…well. Be braced for some very specific familiarity that is not named, and yet: if you know, you know. I was startled to come upon that here, and would like others in my position to be more braced for it. In a good way, definitely still worth reading! But. Oof, solidarity, Faliveno.)

Kendra Fortmeyer, Hole in the Middle. I find that there’s a sweet spot in somewhat-surreal speculative fiction, between explaining too little to be coherent and explaining too much to make sense. While the emotional core of this book rings true, the handling of the speculative elements was overexplained for my tastes–the technobabble really, really did not work scientifically, and it would have been fine if Fortmeyer had just let the speculative elements be symbolic instead. Ah well.

Isabel Ibanez, Written in Starlight. A follow-up to Woven in Moonlight, exploring more of that world and those characters. The ending was the strongest part, in my opinion–I really would like to spend more time in this world, but the middle suffered a bit from not being as strongly conceived as the first volume.

Robert P. Jones, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Jones is himself a Southern white Christian, so on the one hand, do not let his be the only voice you encounter on this topic, and on the other hand, he knows whereof he speaks and is attempting to grapple very honestly with cultural elements he encountered, took for granted, and in some cases participated in. He also runs a religion-focused polling institute and does a lot of stats on this issue, so if you want hard numbers for some of the things you might suspect on this topic, Jones is there with the data.

R. A. Lafferty, The Best of R. A. Lafferty. Discussed elsewhere.

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Parker is extremely thoughtful, and encourages her readers to be extremely thoughtful, about the purpose and structure of various parties, meetings, and get-togethers. I feel that a lot of people who run conventions and gaming groups could benefit from reading this book. She is relying on good faith participation from both planners and guests, and in some ways I think that’s a missed opportunity for one of the most important topics, which is how to deal with people who are not acting in good faith in a social and/or professional gathering. But this is valuable for what is discussed, more than it’s frustrating for what isn’t.

Neil Price, ed., The Archaeology of Shamanism. I would love to read a magisterial work by Neil Price with this title, but this is instead a collection of papers edited by Neil Price. Still interesting, world-spanning and considered about shamanism in various places, but be aware going in that it will not be the kind of large work Price has done on shamanism in the Norden in the Viking Age. Maybe someday.

Eva Saulitis, Into the Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. This has a satisfying amount of orcas per unit memoir. I wanted to read about orcas for my grandfather’s birthday, and this was an interesting contemporary book about studying orcas and all the feelings that come with dealing with their current habitat situation.

V. E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. A really interesting take on the deal-with-the-devil story, with a particularly satisfying ending. The parts that are and are not spelled out early on, that unfold to the reader’s eye…well, it’s a fun balance, I can see why this is popular enough to be hard to get.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies. Discussed elsewhere.

Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy. Short, snappy story about an American spy in Africa grappling with the interpersonal and international system that brought her to this point. Definitely interested in whatever Wilkinson does next.

G. Willow Wilson et al, Ms. Marvel: Teenage Wasteland and Ms. Marvel: Time and Again. Apparently the end of G. Willow Wilson’s run on Ms. Marvel, and I had good fun with it–it had a lot of the elements that I have enjoyed about the previous volumes, with enough new elements to keep things fresh.

Terri Windling, The Wood Wife. Discussed elsewhere.

F. C. Yee, The Rise of Kyoshi. Usually when an author whose work I have enjoyed gets a gig writing media tie-ins, I’m happy for them and sad for me (money! exposure!…time away from projects I will be more interested in!). But in this case the story of Avatar Kyoshi seemed far enough removed from the main arc of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: Legend of Korra that I thought it would be worth a try. I was right: the temporal distance gave Yee the room to do very different things with the world and characters without contradicting the show’s canon. This was delightful, and I will be happy to read the sequel. (…and also will still hope for more of Yee’s own original work soon.)