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Books read, early October

Roshani Chokshi, The Bronzed Beasts. The culmination of a fantasy trilogy, many things much worse than chickens coming home to roost for characters who have been running out of time to save themselves, their friends, and their relationships with each other for two books now. Magical twists and turns. Glad to be here.

Jan Grue, I Live a Life Like Yours. A disability memoir translated from the Norwegian. Some of his approaches are very culturally and personally familiar. I will note that Grue leans extremely heavily on literal heteronormativity for his appeals to what “like yours” means: he has an opposite-sex partner and a biological child he is raising with his partner, and while he also has a “normal” job, I can’t help but think that some of what he’s doing here, while it isn’t wrong per se, leaves out some of the people I think he wouldn’t want to exclude. So that’s a very interesting balance point. He’s telling his own particular story, which includes those elements, and when he sticks to that part it’s great–it’s when he reaches for the larger point, for what he feels makes him really human, that I start to go, hmm, huh, this is…I think probably not completely what you meant, Grue.

Barbara Hambly, A Scandal in Babylon. 1920s Hollywood murder mystery. Drinking and debauchery generally at arm’s length from a nerdy heroine who is a bit out of her element. Not as much to my taste as the Benjamin January series, but still a fun read and worth the time.

Ada Palmer, Perhaps the Stars. Discussed elsewhere.

Gervase Rosser, The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England, 1250-1550. An interesting analysis for anyone who wants to think past default assumptions about the organization of society in this era, what’s important and why. Rosser’s ideas about guild and gender, for example, go past “everything in England must have been like it was in [preconceptions of] Italy at the time” by quite a wide margin. Not long but good.

Christopher Rowe, Telling the Map. Reread. Someone wanted to talk to me about the first story, so I was just going to reread that, and then I just…didn’t stop. Because I find Rowe’s prose and settings so compelling. I’m very pleased to have looked it up and found that there will be more Voluntary State fiction coming soon, but in the meantime, this is entirely worth its own return.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 42. Kindle. Two stories in this really struck me, Betsy Aoki’s “On a Branch Floating Down a River, a Wren is Singing,” and Rachael K. Jones’s “Six Fictions About Unicorns.” Quite different stories, but examining tropes that want a good look, very effectively too.

Cadwell Turnbull, No Gods, No Monsters. This pulled me in immediately, with its layered cast of characters and their varying monstrosity and relationship to their own and other people’s monstrosity. Turnbull’s ability to synthesize contemporary issues so that they can be woven seamlessly into a manuscript that is about other things (and is also about those contemporary issues of race and power and gender and attention management) is astonishing. Also this book is fun to read. What a balancing act. So well done.

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Perhaps the Stars, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by the publisher.

In some ways it’s hard to review a book like this, where I know not only the author but also many of the people closest to her. In other ways it can become a fun game, smiling along to see–oh yes, there’s another of her favorites, and oh, I think I know who she was talking to there.

One of my favorite things about later books in a series is that you go in knowing what you’ve agreed to. The parameters are set. If you have issues with the worldbuilding, you know what those are, you’ve decided that you’re up for them at the moment, or else you don’t go in at all. This is the culmination of everything you’ve liked or disliked about the worldbuilding of the Terra Ignota series. This is the moment when the factions plunge into a worldwide war of non-nations, when we see what it is for bashes instead of families to be torn apart or reunited. There are aspects of it that are thrilling, touching, funny, and moving. My particular favorite was when humanity was excoriated about learning to get better at First Contact with truly alien intelligences–indeed, we do need to learn that, and fast, not just in case of little green men but in the smaller ways that more mildly alien intelligences all around us require it of us.

Unfortunately, I am fundamentally in axiom lock with this book. There is a fundamental principle that both major sides of this war agree on: that making Earth a nicer place to live will make it psychologically harder for humans to choose to pursue space travel, to reach out for the stars and other potential intelligences who live there. They are simply in disagreement on whether they should or should not make this choice–in enough disagreement, in fact, to go to war over it. No one in the entire book seems to say, “Wait–do we have solid reason to think that’s how humans work?” And in fact I don’t think it is. I certainly don’t think it’s substantiated enough that everybody should just say, oh yeah, obviously, now let’s pick a team. There’s a point about three-quarters of the way through where a character well known to the reader from a previous volumes who has not been interacting with the others in this volume shows up and has this presented to them. And instead of examining evidence of this–instead of asking questions about, for example, whether people who do science in very extreme conditions (deep sea! Antarctica! space but not just space!) now tend to come from comfortably-off families and countries (I think they do) and whether most people who pursue extreme sports tend to come from comfortable circumstances (again, I think they do)–whether in fact having a safer nest to launch from allows people to fly farther–instead, this character, upon having this axiom presented, basically nods and says, oh yeah, I get it, and picks a side.

This particularly frustrated me for two reasons. One, because I have personal examples in my life of people who come from more, not less, comfort being the ones who want to take risks for what they view as something greater than themselves. (We all miss you, Maxi.) And two, because it was not actually necessary for the plot to work. It would be a major spoiler to say which faction(s) is/are aligned against the pursuit of space travel as primary and why, but there is a specific other goal the major group is pursuing that would be entirely convincing on its own without this axiom coming up over and over again unchallenged.

I think this is one of the hard parts about trying something really ambitious. If a book isn’t aiming for something world-spanning, it’s easier to shrug when you run into something like this: okay, perhaps these five people all have this axiom. But the very overarching nature of the scope of this series means that when nobody seems to be thinking of something, it’s really nobody–or at least nobody who, in the context of this world, gets a chance to matter. I was left at the end of the book hoping that the places where there was compromise and contact with alien minds would allow for this particular piece to open later, or at least for readers to open a door that the book’s context left firmly closed. Which I think, from what I know of the author, is exactly the sort of thing she would like to have happen.

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Books read, late September

Stephanie Burgis, The Raven Heir. This is a new series from Steph, and it’s lovely. It’s a family story, a magic story, a forest story, all the things I like best all at once, and the end made me cry a bit in the best way.

Gardner Dozois, Modern Classics of Fantasy. Kindle. Well. This sure is a collection of fantasy stories published in the mid-90s. I was reading quite a lot of fantasy by then, and the genre Dozois is outlining is completely unrecognizable to me. It’s also comprised entirely of white people, the overwhelming majority of them men; meanwhile I was reading…a…variety of people? It was particularly jarring because I wanted this collection for a Suzy McKee Charnas story that’s not readily available elsewhere. That story, at least, was quite good. Some of the others were quite good. A lot of the remaining ones were sexist gaze Silver Age blather, and I know times have changed and to some extent Dozois changed with them, but he felt he had to include two stories each from Avram Davidson and Fritz Leiber while ignoring, lordy, just about everything Terri Windling ever edited, there’s a Bruce Sterling story in here, he talked complete nonsense about what T.H. White tropes had become “universal” in other Arthurian fiction at the time–and I know it was nonsense because I did a gigantic survey paper about contemporary Arthurian fiction two years before this book came out. I spent most of this book just wondering how it is that I managed to come of age reading fantasy that was a completely different field than this one wanted to engage with and promote and use his clout in the field to attempt to set as canon.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. Reread. Just as I was about to start talking about this, a discussion of it broke out in a private forum I’m on. I still do like it, but I feel its age particularly in the shape of roles the women take–what kind of heroism is possible to the women characters. There definitely is some, but it’s a constrained heroism for reasons that seem assumed rather than built into the world particularly, and the focus is chosen rather than necessary. Still, the moments where no one else can hear the name of the obliterated homeland, where they strain to make out what word the Tiganan characters are saying…those stayed with me, ever since the first time I’ve read it, and that’s the core of the book I keep returning to.

L.M. Montgomery, Further Chronicles of Avonlea. Reread. This is another random collection of Montgomery stories. This one seems to be highlighting the places where our values do not align very well–if you believe these stories, the central problem of family life is that people are too proud, and I don’t really believe that’s true. Ah well, at least I’ve reclaimed the shelf space, and there are other Montgomeries I still do love.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Son of the Storm. This is a fascinating book, because structurally it is so very secondary world fantasy, and worldbuilding-wise it is extremely Africa-influenced. So if you wonder what that looks like…this is definitely the book.

Naomi Oreskes, Why Trust Science? A concise and thoughtful take on what science has to offer as a system of apprehending the world. This series about modern thought is set up to offer challenges to the main body of the book by other thinkers and then gives the author a chance to rebut those challenges, and Oreskes’s work in that regard is magisterial, a joy to behold.

Lucy Pick, Pilgrimage. Historical fiction that weaves a tale from a figure along the periphery of actual history: a blind minor noblewoman from what would now be Belgium in the 12th century, swept along on what becomes a pilgrimage into Spain. Her comfort and skill in her own world are repeatedly upended, and her resourcefulness (and her dog’s resourcefulness!) in dealing with new circumstances are beautifully drawn but not superhuman. Because this is based on an actual historical life, there are places where I could not predict what would happen next because they’re shaped by real human chance rather than narrative convenience. Interesting.

Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Refreshingly, Roach decided to turn her wry and anecdotal eye not on weapons of destruction but on the peripheral technologies of warfare and its fallout. This is not a book for the fainthearted–there are descriptions of genital reconstruction surgery here, there are discussions of intestinal distress in field conditions–but the focus is not on killing but on survival.

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, Fiyah Issue 18. Kindle. For me the standout story here was Marika Bailey’s “The White Road or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River,” but once again Fiyah does an excellent job of bringing a variety of new-to-me authors to my attention.

Lisa Sanders, Diagnosis and Every Patient Tells a Story. In some ways these two volumes are opposite views of the same author. The first is a series of 2-6 page essays, sort of a “best of” her column in New York Times Magazine about diagnosis. Each is a self-contained medical mystery, and as with many very short mysteries they can be a bit unsatisfying because there isn’t room for much other than exposition and solution. Frankly I recommend it as bathroom reading. The latter volume is where Sanders has the chance to talk about diagnostic medicine at length, conceptually and holistically but most importantly in its human context–to talk about where she feels its stories fit in the human story. It’s a much better book.

Greg van Eekhout, Weird Kid. A shapeshifting kid investigates strange happenings in his town, gradually becoming part of them. Mayhem ensues. Fun times.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, et al, Lumberjanes: A Summer to Remember. This series is clearly wrapping up, and this was a bit of a nostalgia tour rather than…the actual plot wrap-up. For which I’m getting more and more impatient. I am also getting pickier about the art as we near the end. Ah well.

Anders Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe. Okay so this was great. This actually looked at why Scandinavians converted to Christianity when they did, taking into account that Adam of Bremen was not an unbiased observer about…the topic of how great and holy Adam of Bremen’s bosses were. You can believe in sincere conversions while still noticing that things like when and how the French fortified their bridges had a serious effect on Viking raids vs. merchant connections in the world, and having an author like Winroth who is willing to treat the Scandinavians of that time as active rather than passive participants in their own conversion made all the difference in the world. I was very excited about this book.