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All the Horses of Iceland, by Sarah Tolmie

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the difficulties of writing historical fiction–even writing historical fantasy–is making it as far-ranging, weird, and textured as actual history and still having the casual reader accept it. All the Horses of Iceland doesn’t succeed at this, of course–it’s just a novella and not a particularly long one at that, it doesn’t have room for even a tenth the strangeness that its span might imply. But with its very structure it tries: Eyvind, a man of Iceland, travels to the Khazar Khaganate for horses to take back to his homeland. This, in itself, is more of history’s weird loops and complexities than most historical fiction even attempts. Vikings go a-viking! The steppes are…steppey! What are we doing here! Well, we’re doing exactly what we have very solid evidence that actual people did. And the way they figure out how to talk to each other, the places that they are uncomfortable with each other’s customs–and cope, and find ways around that–are extremely historical.

Beyond that, of course, it’s a fantasy novella. So there are ghosts, there are differing cultural interpretations and interactions and rituals for those ghosts. There is the meaning of the white horse. Were this a longer book, I would start to be frustrated by how overwhelmingly male it is, and how straightforward the story. But it is not a longer book. It is, like a much earlier volume, allowed to go there, and then back again. And that is, for this short tale, enough.

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And that’s final

The good readers of Asimov’s magazine get to vote on their favorite stories, poems, and artwork each year, and you can see the finalists for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award for 2021 here, with links to read the works online.

I mention this not just to be nice but also because my poem, Chalk and Carbon, is one of the finalists in the poem category. So you can read that now! Thanks, dear Asimov’s readers!

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Books read, early February

Leif Bersweden, The Orchid Hunter. This guy took his gap year to find all the orchids in Britain and Ireland in the wild. Just to…drive around and go see them. The best part of this is when he’s talking about orchids. Yay botany! Sometimes it seems like someone said to him, “Leif, mate, add a personal touch or two,” and…honestly he is not more interesting or a better writer than your average 23-year-old (he did it when he was 19, wrote about it when he was 23), so he doesn’t really manage to make getting texts from his dad or thinking about a girl while he was orchid hunting vivid or special, just…get back to the orchids. If you’re not interested in botany, this is not one of those lyrical and lovely books that will elevate a nonfiction topic that is not otherwise of interest to you. If you don’t think, “Ooh, orchids!”, probably read something else.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. This is the third of Gailey’s collections of poetry I’ve read, and the best developed thematically and the most gut-wrenching, I think. A great place to introduce yourself to her work, if you’re all right with both literal and figurative fallout, which. Well. I am.

Max Gladstone, Last Exit. Discussed elsewhere.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. A really interesting choice to read in close proximity with Last Exit, because they both deal intimately with how we sometimes limit ourselves in what we imagine of other humans and how society can work, how our assumptions trip us up. Obviously from completely different angles. Graeber and Wengrow want to challenge a linear-universal narrative of progress of human cultures, and they have lined up all sorts of examples of how cultures don’t in fact follow a straight line and can’t be shoved into boxes–and also how they sometimes develop in conscious or forced contrast to neighboring cultures. Lots of stuff to look into further here.

Alix E. Harrow, A Mirror Mended. Discussed elsewhere.

Ellen Key, The Woman Movement. Kindle. A Swedish writer trying to take on board what women can expect of men, the world, and themselves with this newfangled first-wave feminism thing. Since her assumptions of what women can expect of men are so low that you could bury the bar in the ground–she is very much one of the late 19th/early 20th century people who doesn’t seem to have noticed that feminism might have anything to offer men–there are a great many cringe-worthy moments in this. She is also writing from that era when she had no idea that there might be anything wrong with eugenics and no immediately vivid examples of what was already going very wrong. (Key died in 1926; this book is from 1912.) It took me over a year to get through reading it in bits and pieces, because other parts of Key’s work have interested me, but this is one with wall-to-wall yikes, and I can’t really recommend it unless you’re interested in this part of the history of how people tried out various angles of what exactly it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about gender.

Fonda Lee, Jade Legacy. This is the sort of story people mean when they say “the triumphant conclusion.” For heaven’s sake don’t start here. Go back to the beginning of this trilogy, it is all out now and you can have the entire saga with blood and jade and magic and family and love and betrayal, all of it, you can have the big action-y doorstoppers all at once, because it’s all here now, and this is definitely the ending this series deserved. Wow. Wow.

Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Hewel, Salt and Sweet: Water and the Dutch. This is substantially a book of images–paintings, photos–but there are also essays, and the entire theme is the interface of sea and freshwater and how the Dutch manage it historically and in the present. There are beautiful things to look at and fascinating things to think about, and it is not just for people interested in environmentalism and science fiction, but for us, yes, this, definitely this.

Brandon O’Brien, Can You Sign My Tentacle? My favorite of this book is the closing poem, which I have loved before. There’s a lot of it for which I am not the target audience simply because I am not a Lovecraft fan, but on the other hand it gives me a fascinating look at how someone else interacts with those narratives that have their own problems of which he is all too aware–how he takes that tension and makes it into new art.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. O’Connor is aiming this book at a very, very generalist audience, so if you are interested in what people’s brains are doing during grief but are afraid it might be too technical, fear not. There are a few areas where her metaphors really do not work for me, but there’s also a calm and compassionate recognition of the diversity of forms grief can take, and some stuff that may be useful if you’re grieving yourself or know anyone who is. Y’know, or know anyone who is, while we’re still in a pandemic. Sigh.

Daniel José Older, Ballad and Dagger. Discussed elsewhere.

Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin, eds., Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth. Many of these stories were of the category “I’m not the target audience, and that’s okay, it’s good to read things that aren’t aimed at me sometimes,” but two really touched my heart anyway. I found Julian Stuart’s “The Aloe’s Bargain” charming and sweet. And then…E.A. Crawley’s “How to Make a Spell Jar” absolutely was aimed at me, but not for the reasons on the title of the anthology: it’s a 4H story! It’s a magical 4H story! I loved it, I was so happy, yay.

Stephen Spotswood, Murder Under Her Skin. The second in this series that is basically a gender-swapped Wolfe and Goodwin in tone. Willowjean (Will)’s past with the circus has come calling in the form of a dead tattooed lady, and she and Ms. Pentecost have to investigate–the lady in question was one of Will’s old friends, but so are most of the suspects. I was absolutely in the mood for this kind of mystery, and Spotswood delivered–I’m glad to have the promise of more of this series ahead.

Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m frankly willing to read Jenny Uglow writing about just about anybody, including people I have no inherent interest in, but I also really love the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, so having a trusted and lucid biographer for her was a special treat. I especially enjoyed watching Gaskell’s relationships with other writers of the period unfold, watching them critique each other’s manuscripts and host each other for visits and generally…well, behave like us. This is a warm and lovely volume that doesn’t mistake its affection for its subject for any kind of perfection on her part. I wish I saw more of that balance. I’m glad to find it here.

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Because I Could Not Text With Death

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A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Zinnia Gray is back in this sequel to A Spindle Splintered. It’s a sequel that leans hard on the knowledge of character and situation from the first novella–which is still in print and, hey, a novella, so no reason not to read it first. Zinnia is still world-hopping. Still helping other Sleeping Beauties into the best possible version of their story, the best she can. It’s getting a little old, all the happily ever. She’s getting a little tired. But it beats going home to her loving family, to her best friends, to the chronic illness that is slowly killing her no matter what heroics she learns or improvises in other fairy tale landscapes.

Until she gets pulled sideways into a different story. With Zinnia’s understanding of fairy tales, she has the sinking feeling that she knows exactly who the hot older lady with the apple and the mirror is, and why, exactly, she should not be underestimated. There are just as many worlds of Snow White as there are of Sleeping Beauty, and some of them are just exactly as messed up–and Zinnia has to figure out how to get herself out of there, fast, because things are getting weird in world-spanning ways, and there are sure a lot of people willing to cut other people’s hearts out in this story.

Not all of them figuratively.

Zinnia continues to be winning, fierce, and realistically scared about her own reality, and it was lovely to see her getting a chance to break the mold she’d made for herself–and for other people too.

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Ballad and Dagger, by Daniel José Older

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I have really enjoyed everything I’ve read in the Rick Riordan Presents line, but I admit that I had started to form a certain expectation of them, and with it a worry. They have not only all been middle-grade fantasy, they’ve had a very similar shape of subgenre/plot: a tween or young teen from modern America discovering the mythology of their heritage in a rather firsthand way. Some of them have been amazing books, but I’m very glad to see that this line is open to a somewhat broader age range and plot type.

Which is to say: Ballad and Dagger is young adult, not middle-grade. Its hero, Mateo Matisse, is a high school student whose vocabulary, life concerns before this book, and plot arc in this book are definitely a notch or two more mature than, say, my girl Aru Shah in the wonderful books that bear her name. And the world Older has created draws on his heritage but is very much his own creation.

Mateo is a high school junior living in Little Madrigal in New York City–the diaspora community formed after the secret magical island of San Madrigal sank beneath the waves. The people who had originally formed the community of San Madrigal were a mix of Santeros, Sephardim, and pirates; over the centuries the fusion of cultures has made its own unique combination–but not one the outside world is allowed to know much about. The people of San Madrigal have been fiercely proud of the way they stood aloof from colonialism, and they’d like to keep it that way. And if observant teens like Mateo and his friends have moments of wondering how a country that was never touched by the icy hand of colonialism managed to replicate some of its worse features, well…history is full of mysteries, right?

Some of those mysteries are about to get solved. Because the powers of Little Madrigal want to raise San Madrigal from the waves. If only they can find the children of San Madrigal’s three central spirits: a creator, a destroy, and a healer. Mateo’s focus is his music, but he also loves his friends, his aunts, and his community–and would love to be able to help, if only he had any power to do so. If only…well, this is a YA fantasy, right? Something’s bound to turn up. But Mateo’s music forms a strong central thread to a book with compelling characters and fun worldbuilding. While there’s almost certainly more to be told of Little Madrigal, this book surprised me with how quickly things pulled into a satisfying ending for this piece of the story.

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Last Exit, by Max Gladstone

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

One of the central things a review is supposed to do is say who might like a thing, and genre is one of the major ways of doing that. So right away we have the question: what genre is Last Exit? When I was much younger and less concerned with being fair, I drew the line between dark fantasy and horror at my own taste: if I liked it, it was dark fantasy; if I did not, it was horror. Last Exit, then, is dark fantasy.

I grew up, though, and I recognized that that was not very helpful to other people, nor even, necessarily, to myself. (Growing up and recognizing when you’ve oversimplified is not irrelevant to this book! but onward.)

So: horror is the genre that is attempting to horrify, to terrify? Well then. Some sections of Last Exit are very certainly horror. Because there are scenes of rot and decay both literal and moral, there are scenes of monsters too relentless to flee effectively, there are good people snuffed out not just in fangs but in the worst of the culture that you will recognize yourself to live in right now–the kind of horror that you can’t escape by reminding yourself that zombies aren’t real, because it’s not about zombies, it’s about the worst thoughts that whisper in the minds of Americans. Last Exit, then, is horror.

But what if, instead, horror is about worldview. What if whether a story is horror or not depends on the hostility of the universe in which it is set–a universe that is out to get the protagonists at every turn, a universe in which good deeds and intentions will always turn to nothing, a universe in which all shelter is inherently temporary and the permanent condition is always, eventually, fear and despair–well–if that’s the case, is Last Exit horror or fantasy? That…is a spoiler. Because that’s one of the central questions of the book. That is, in fact, one of the major things the characters are wrestling with. Can we get to something better, can we make something better–is it possible.

But what’s the book about. Oh, well then. Zelda and Sal, Sarah, Ish, and Ramón are college friends who have learned a knack of passing between alternate worlds, and they were determined to find or make the way to something better. And they failed. And in that failure, Sal was lost, and has stayed lost for ten years. They’ve grown apart, each into their separate ways of coping, but that no longer looks sustainable. Now they have to find Sal again and fix what they broke or–well. The details of that “or” look pretty nasty not just for them but for the entire array of worlds they can manage to see. It’s full of road trips and first loves and growing into yourself and figuring out who your friends are when you’ve been apart for awhile and recoiling from all the worst things you can’t pretend aren’t out there in the world, and also it has a couple of places where it made me cry hard enough the entire front of my body seized up at once. (Good job, Gladstone.) Is it dark, yes. Is it only dark, no, absolutely not. It is really, really, really good. For me it was also a book I described as a full-contact sport. This book is not going to fight Marquis of Queensbury Rules with you, and if you want a gentle book at this exact moment, maybe keep this one on the pile until you’re ready for something that isn’t. Because it isn’t. Not everything is. And this one really needed not to be, to get where it’s going in the end.

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Books read, late January

Chaz Brenchley, Rowany de Vere and the Traveler in Gin. Kindle. A short work in the Mars-that-wasn’t that Chaz is having such fun playing with, juggling genres, and this is in Rowany’s spy genre rather than the school stories.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Knot of Shadows. Kindle. The Penric series returns to where this world started: death magic. But as one might expect, not at all a tidy kind–the title is extremely appropriate. Not all is happy here, but for once the gods seem to be paying a bit of attention to justice at a human scale…eventually.

Robert Chaney, The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West. Every year I buy myself a book for my late grandpa’s birthday that the two of us might have enjoyed sharing. This one is about the rocky coexistence of humans and bears and how that’s changing with development of the American West, its recreations and economics. Chaney not only makes a really good case for giving bears the space to be bears, he also acknowledges a lot of places where he has an easier time selling readership on charismatic megafauna where other species face similar problems without the easily marketable face. Interesting stuff, glad I chose it.

Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places. A series of essays about white expectations vs. Native realities in cultural areas such as music, early movies, technology, etc. Deloria’s family is extremely prominent in Native activism and scholarship, and he easily earns his place among them with this work, although if you are not–how do I put this delicately–a racist shithead, at least some of your education from this book will be in what horrifying things white people used to expect of Native people.

James A. Estes, Serendipity: An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature. Quite often I will say that a book I’m talking about in these book notes does what it says on the tin. This emphatically does not: if you pick it up expecting a broad ramble about serendipity as a concept, understanding nature as a philosophical generality, this will definitely not be the book for you. This is a book about one ecologist’s specific career studying the balance of predator-prey relationships among sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp, with orcas later considered in the mix. There are some comparisons with other predator-prey relationships for reference, but it is toward the technical end of popularizations and is very much a retrospective of his career specifics. Am I interested in this topic, absolutely, but if you are looking for more of a general approach and are likely to be bored with how such studies are performed in the field, this is not the book for you.

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. Oh, this was a romp. Gabriele and Perry (the latter of whom is a personal friend) absolutely danced through the Middle Ages. Their thesis–that this was by no means a Dark Ages but a time when Europe was in high contrast, when things were illuminated from various directions and were a great deal more diverse than they get credit for–is beautifully illustrated. If you’re deeply familiar with the history of the Middle Ages this will be less new information and more different–often deeper–ways of thinking about what you already know.

Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Ellen Harrison, Ancient Art and Ritual. Kindle. Oh, the Edwardians. There is absolutely nothing like the Edwardians for being elegantly, confidently wrong. Harrison, for those of you who don’t know, was Hope Mirrlees’s housemate, chosen family…something. And she has all these theories about art, and it’s fascinating to watch what is so obvious to her that it isn’t even worth constructing an argument about it, she can just assert it (textile arts, for example, are not art, obviously…oh Jane). And then, of course, there are the things where she is constructing her beautiful theories on completely wrong data and cannot help it–they didn’t know, when she was writing this, that ancient Greek statuary was brightly painted. This is less interesting to me for its thoughts about its topic than for its reflection of what people were thinking in its time, especially a passionate, vigorous, educated woman like this one. I found it so very readable. Disagreeing with her at every turn was no problem really.

Hebi-Zou and Tsuta Suzuki, Heaven’s Design Team Volume 4. If you like this thing, it’s more of this thing! The joke is: various design constraints have to go into making animals. Real animals result in the strangest ways.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. Another book that really does not do what it says on the tin. I’m very glad a friend recommended it, because I would not have picked it up based on the title. It’s actually about a young woman finding her path in life through teaching English at various levels in her community and finding connection with the older, more traditional women in it–who have quite different life experiences. There is a thriller B-plot and a romance C-plot that tie in with the main plot of these women connecting, sometimes through racy fiction, and figuring out what they really want in their lives and how to get there from where they are.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Hope. Kindle. Third in its series. Having now read one of Kingfisher’s (that is, Ursula Vernon’s) horror novels, I keep noticing how much creepier her fantasy villains are than the average of the genre. Not necessarily more evil–hard to be more evil than Sauron–but scarier, nastier, more…skin-crawlingly real, even when what they’re up to is entirely fantastical. In any case, this is another paladin from the order of the Saint of Steel finding love with another weirdo, in this case the city’s lich forensic pathologist. Gnoles abound.

Lucian of Samosata, The True History. Kindle. Some people call this the first science fiction novel(la). It does not have novel structure. It is very much like talking to a four-year-old but less sticky. I like four-year-olds a lot. I find the part of talking to four-year-olds that goes “and then those guys flew on giant bugs and then there was a whole island full of owls and then me and my friends fought with the mean ladies and they ran away and we ran away and um and um and um we met ODYSSEUS” to be amazing and great. Especially if there is not that much of it total and you take it in small bites. And there really is not that much of this total, and I took it in small bites.

Naomi Mitchison, Anna Comnena. This is a very short biography, and it in no way pretends objectivity. It is like sitting down with a dear and very nerdy friend who has been reading a lot of history and takes sides, and then she tells you all her opinions about her favorite historical figures and what they were up to, and if you make yourself tea and remember that she probably drank a lot of tea while she was writing it, it’s approximately the coziest thing you can get in biographical or historical reading. You all have friends like that, right? well, you have me. And several of you are friends like that. So Naomi: she is another one. And death and time and space cannot stop you having her over for tea to gossip over the late Byzantines if that’s the sort of thing you want, because she wrote this down.

Polly Morland, The Society of Timid Souls, or How to Be Brave. This one is what it says on the tin. Contrary to trends in novel titling, this is not a novel. It is nonfiction about the topic written right there on the cover: bravery. Morland has gone around interviewing people about various kinds of bravery and what they feel like and whether they are inherent or developed and if developed, how, and so on. Odds are very good it will make a change from most of whatever else you’re reading.

Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Woman. A very breezy end to its series, but for heaven’s sake don’t start here, this is all conclusion, start at the beginning so the characters and their setting make sense.

Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good. This is a tiny volume of stories about an old lady who solves her problems by murdering the deserving and getting away with it. Do you want that? because that is 100% what this is. I admit that when I saw the title, I had hopes that she would have more variation in her up-to-no-goodness. I have read other books where the protagonist unapologetically kills people the author has constructed to be more or less deserving (I’m thinking particularly of Bradley Denton’s Blackburn), and I read this one, and I will need a pretty good reason to read another.

Matt Wallace, The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid. Max is not thrilled with the damage done to his community by the superheroes it lauds, and he feels like he needs guidance in his life, so he reaches out to the least likely source: a supervillain named Master Plan. Who is, like Max, a fat guy, and who has some theories about how Max can deal with bullies without running afoul of the authorities as Master Plan has. Do things unfold seamlessly? Well, Master Plan’s master plans seldom do…. Charming, fun, a very warm and fast-paced read.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Hero’s Choice. Kindle. A novelette satire on destiny, chosen ones, and high fantasy. Good times with fluffy doom ponies, swords, and evil wizards.