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Uncommon Charm, by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver

Review copy provided by the authors, who are also personal friends of mine. Also I read an earlier draft of this novella.

Julia Selwyn-Stirling doesn’t like to think of things she can’t make into a joke, she tells us right out. She would really like to romp her way into her social debut and the pleasant upper class life to follow. There’s no reason the new guest in her home has to interfere with that, even if he is her closest friends’ illegitimate half-brother–and studying magic with her mother.

But as Julia gets to know Simon, the secrets that have been woven into her family life for her entire childhood start to unravel. And as beguiling as it is to drawl jokes and practice fencing, the ghosts that Simon can talk to have concerns that–dare Julia admit it?–might be more important.

This is Mitfordian fantasy, its froth not actually concealing family dysfunction and social discontent–not actually trying. It’s got the interwar jewels and frocks and parties and boxing matches, it’s got all the fun elements you’re looking for in a novella with its prose voice. But it also has an awareness of all the solid, real things that a young woman could use a clever, assured voice to cover for in our world–and how much nastier that could get with working magic. This is so well-grounded and so self-assured as well as so much fun. I’m so glad it’s coming out where the rest of you can enjoy it too.

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Aspects, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dear Mike,

I read the poems in this, and bits of the prose, in your handwriting. You know I’ve read it before. And now here it is, it’s a real book (with glue!), and you’re gone, you’re so far from us I can’t wrap my mind around it. (Neither can Neil, you can tell from the introduction he wrote for you.) And I read the first of the poems that I remembered in your handwriting, and I thought, all right, I can do this, and I got to the first two paragraphs, about the timing and manner of a person’s death, and Mike, I broke down sobbing again.

You always do that.

A lot of stuff I’ve spent the last fifteen years saying I want more of in books is in this book. Trains! Parliaments (and other forms of government that are not monarchies)! Friendships of all shapes and sizes and ages! Disability representation of more than one kind! People who have hobbies and still have intense life work and relationships! And now I will be able to point people at this and say yes, this, this is actually what I meant. I mean, other things too. But this, this is what I was talking about.

This is the thing that you said to us over your shoulder from the doorway as you were leaving, and I’ve been calling down the hall after you since, and now, and now…other people can hear at least some of your part of the conversation.

It’s so clear that you knew here–as in all your other books–that you wouldn’t have much time. There is so much of this book that knows that time is short, so damnably short. And there is also so much of this book that is clear that you thought you’d have more time than this, and it’s so unfair, it’s so unfair, I can see the shape of where you were going, not just with the touchstone sonnets at the end but the worldbuilding, even just small moments like the conversation about which characters learn which second languages in which countries–this is a shape of continental politics that is moving, and I can see the pieces on the game board, I watch their shadows, but the details matter, Mike, the colors matter, and this book has so much color.

Now there isn’t any book of yours I haven’t read at least twice.

Now there isn’t any book of yours I haven’t pressed on people, saying, here, you can read it, you should read it, it’s full of people making things and wrestling with their better selves and asking questions, finding spaces where they can breathe more easily and people who help them do it. There is a moment where one character asks of another, “who is he?” and the answer comes, “Someone who will leave Lescoray a better place, if he can only find the time.”

Time was so short but you did find so much of it for that. I wish you could have given us all of this. But it is so good, so good to have what there is of it, here, in my hands, where I can share it around, where in addition to shouting down the passage after you, I can turn to the person just coming in and say, “whew, that poem that came with Agate’s sculpture, right? RIGHT???” And they can know. They can finally know.

Thanks for this final gift, my friend.

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Stories I’ve liked, first quarter 2022

Lily, the Immortal, Kylie Lee Baker (Uncanny)

Surprise, Tom Barlow (Reckoning)

Thirteen Goes to the Festival, L Chan (The Deadlands)

“How to Make a Spell Jar,” EA Crawley (Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth)

A Record Of Our Meeting With the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised, A. T. Greenblatt (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

If We Make It Through This Alive, A. T. Greenblatt (Slate)

Merry in Time, Kathleen Jennings (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Clay, Isabel J. Kim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Dragon Project, Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld)

This Tree Is a Eulogy, Jordan Kurella (Strange Horizons)

“Maker of Chains,” Sarah A. Macklin (F&SF Mar/Apr)

The Goldfish Man, Maureen McHugh (Uncanny)

Move, Mountain, Move, Russell Nichols (Reckoning)

“Now Is the Time for Expansion and Growth,” Sarah Pinsker (The Sunday Morning Transport, 3/20)

“Delivery,” C.L. Polk (Fiyah No. 21)

Babang Luksa, Nicasio Andres Reed (Reckoning)

Sheri, at This Very Moment, Bianca Sayan (Apex)

To Embody a Wildfire Starting, Iona Datt Sharma (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Water-logged Roots, Cislyn Smith (Reckoning)

“The Aloe’s Bargain,” Julian Stuart (Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth)

The Direction of Escape, Sonya Taaffe (Not One of Us)

The House Snakes, Sonya Taaffe (Uncanny)

Weaver Girl Dream, Lisabelle Tay (Uncanny)

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Sweep of Stars, by Maurice Broaddus

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is an internet and convention pal, as he is with basically everybody at this point because he is just so darn nice and friendly.

So what do you want in a space opera? Do you want interplanetary politics? The Muungano empire has you covered, with its distributed system of ships and families, griots and captains. Do you want artificial intelligences who may be having a teeny little problem? Maya’s got your back–and everyone else’s–unless a little glitch is making her artificial life a little difficult. Do you want space soldiers fighting against impossible odds? Fela Buhari and her unit are there for all your space shooty-shoot needs. Do you want the drama of wormholes and alien races and what the heck is going on over there? Look, I don’t want to go too far into it, because spoilers, but it’s there, I promise it’s there. This is basically a perfect kitchen sink space opera with something for every lover of space opera.

Oh, unless you think that every space opera has to be full of white people, in which case it’s not for you, sorry not sorry. But everyone else should find a little something for them, a character to follow, a conflict to latch onto and follow into the next book. Will Amachi and Stacia ever be really good friends again? and AAAAAAH FIX MAYA was mine, but you’re going to find your own and get swept away in it. A lot of us need a fun fast read right now, and whooosh this is definitely it.

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Books read, early March

Charlie Jane Anders, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Rowany Goes to Summer School. Kindle. Chaz continues with his exploration of the Mars-that-wasn’t, and also genres-that-sometimes are, and this one was spy training, and if you love a good training montage, why, here we are, at novella-ish length.

Susan Cooper, The Grey King and Silver on the Tree. Rereads. Okay, so I was going to keep wandering through this series as slowly as I had the previous three volumes, but when I posted about Greenwitch in my last book post, I got to talking to Sonya about it, and then there was a poem that needed writing, but I had to read the other books with Jane in them first, so these two got read much more quickly than I’d planned. I remember The Grey King being more plot-coherent than it is. There’s quite a lot of “and for reasons of their own” and “and for some reason” and “the Light has its ways” and so on in this book, and even apart from that there’s “and then someone happened to tell the eleven-year-old completely age-inappropriate things about how the neighbor tried to rape his friend’s mom and oh there’s the neighbor now.” Yeah. Wow. Huh. And it leans very hard on threat and eventually carrying through with the threat to the dog. There’s still the part where they teach at least one and possibly up to three generations of Anglophone nerds how to pronounce Welsh, but it’s structured extremely weirdly; I have a much harder time understanding why she made the choices she did with Will’s memory loss and abrupt return now that I ask questions like that. Silver on the Tree was a relief after that–it has some of the horrible gender aspects of the rest of the series (Jane is such a blank slate that she is not even allowed to look down at her clothes while time traveling–lest she have an opinion about them?), but it also does some really lovely things with the Wild Magic and the Lost Land, and it hangs together as a mythic book. I also am now old enough to notice that Stanton Drew is the location of a major stone circle, so: heh, all right, Susan. Glad I read them, despite noticing a lot more things that were off about them than I did as a kid.

Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Vita Nostra. Speaking of training montages, this is not a bit like Chaz’s. It’s one of those books where the universe and the authority figures in it are both hostile and violent and everything around magic is unbearably nasty–both on the macroscale (will kill you and your family!) and on the microscale (everything rather squalid, will mess with your college plans and romances). My tolerance for that kind of approach is usually fairly low, but under these circumstances I can rather see why Ukrainian authors would feel that way about the world sometimes, and the very ending was aiming for something better.

Ronald Hutton, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. Hutton is very clear that primary source material about the druids is minimal. What he’s doing is talking about what various eras have wanted to use the druids to mean, and he’s very thorough and interesting about that, for good and for ill.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Worlds of Exile and Illusion. Discussed elsewhere.

Elias Lönnrot, Kalevala. Translated by Keith Bosley. People often ask me what translation of the Kalevala I recommend, and now I’ve read the major English translations and can say definitively: good Lord not this one. Stick with Magoun, Magoun keeps the weird in, Magoun is dated but delightful, Bosley is dated but dreary. Friberg if you can’t find Magoun but ugh, not Bosley. I hate the syllabic unmetered lines he made up for himself, I hate a great many of his translation choices (g–sy is not a good choice for “transient laborer” for so many reasons, sir), cultural quirks do not need smoothing out, they’re what we’re here for, this is the bloody Kalevala, you wind in the back staircase. Which is an insult you will not find in Bosley. Which is part of why you should not read his translation. Where is our modern translation, where. But even Bosley can’t entirely dim my delight in the source material, and anyway now I know.

Rose Macaulay, Staying With Relations. I ordered this more or less at random from mid-period Macaulay. I did not expect it to be set in Guatemala. There is a plot twist that is a plot twist only if you do not trust Macaulay to be better than the average white person of her era about whether Guatemalans are so-called savages, but that’s okay because there is still how it unfolds and all the stuff after it. I don’t know why it annoys me less when Macaulay writes about writers than when other people do, but it’s absolutely true that it does. This is once again a book that does all sorts of things differently than other people, and even knowing that it’s Rose, I don’t know all of where it’s going, and I love that, I love her.

Andri Snær Magnason, The Casket of Time. This disappionted me. It was an environmentalist fable, a combination fairy tale and children’s science fiction novel, with very heavy-handed messaging, and there wasn’t a lot to it except the messaging. There were enough charming bits that I stayed on through the end hoping for more and did not find them. I enjoyed one of his adult books and will try another, but this was not really worth the time, alas.

Thomas J. Misa, Digital State: the Story of Minnesota’s Computing Industry. Wow, this is why people think they don’t like nonfiction. Because it is delivering the data that it has and no more than that. There are not charming stories here, no anecdotes, no side tales–and there are opportunities for some, which I know, because I know some of the individuals involved in this. This is a reference volume. Refer to it if you want the stuff it refers to.

Alexander McCall Smith, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. This is a slim volume, and good thing, because Alexander McCall Smith is fairly determined not to go into the ways that Auden can exasperate you and make you tear your hair, or even gently say, “Oh Uncle Wystan, oh my darling no,” or the ways that Auden can make you stare at the wall and maybe go for a walk when it’s too cold to go for a walk and you don’t feel good but something has to clear your head after the bit of W.H. Auden you just read and anyway I begin to think that Alexander McCall Smith has only the very edges of an idea of what W.H. Auden can do for you, or possibly a limited concept of who you might be. But if you want someone to say to you in bracing tones, “isn’t he neat? isn’t he just keen?” then by God Sandy’s your man. And you know, I actually did, for a bit; it was nice, it was like having someone I don’t like very much also like my favorite aunt’s paintings, it’s good that he does, I’m glad I’m not the only one, and I’m glad that person has gone home now. He has, right? oh good. Whew.

Anton Van Der Lem, Revolt in the Netherlands: The Eighty Years War, 1568-1648. Did I spend this entire lavishly illustrated volume thinking of it as Panic in the Disco? I’ll never tell. But it is, it is absolutely gorgeously illustrated, full color on most pages. If you want to know lots of things about the Low Countries and how they got their freedom from Spain, here you are. If you just like looking at weird old maps and pictures of people wearing ruffs, this is also a good volume for you.

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Worlds of Exile and Illusion, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Review copy provided by the publisher.

What this book is, what it isn’t. Okay, first: I think this is one of the biggest upgrades in edition of any of the Tor Essentials reprints. My previous copy of an omnibus containing these three novellas/short novels bore the title Three Hainish Novels and a garish (though content-accurate) orange cover illustration of sword-wielding people riding flying cats. The previous title effectively appealed only to people who already knew they wanted to read something in this series, and the previous cover image drove away all but the most dedicated readers of Le Guin.

What it isn’t: I don’t actually think this is a great place to start reading Le Guin. She is just starting out here, writing planetary romance, more or less, in the telepathy-obsessed mode of the mid-1960s. Happily for humans, most of us get better as we learn our craft, and even more happily, there has been more room for women to be more than docile and gentle and obsessed with bearing sons to men in recent decades–and particularly in more recent Le Guin work. If you take this starting point as representative of where she wanted to be or where she would end up, you will underestimate Le Guin by a great deal.

What it is, again: it is an interesting representation of mid-1960s short adventure science fiction, and the telepathy focus is a mostly-lost trope that Le Guin pursues, particularly in City of Illusions, the last of these works, farther than most of the people who played with it went. And these are a beginning, and it is worth having them in print, worth seeing where someone whose voyage went the places hers went started. Worth seeing the first of her travelers through snow, the first of her characters pondering how to not harm other life, the first of her people looking around and trying to treat everyone else as people, and failing, and trying again.

That a book–in this case, three of them in one volume–is imperfect is so trite as to barely be worth stating. What is this imperfect book doing. It’s reaching out. It’s looking for what comes next. I think it will be more interesting to you if you’ve seen more of what comes next. But I’m glad that this edition is here once you have.

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Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, by Charlie Jane Anders

Review copy provided by the publisher.

It sure is a good thing that galaxies stay saved once you save them, right? Right?


The characters from Victories Greater Than Death are back, and they’re pursuing the heck out of their dreams…mostly. Those of them who can. Those of them who are not recovering from the total ass-whupping it was to save the galaxy. Because it turns out that saving the galaxy takes a whole heck of a lot out of you, and sometimes you do not bounce back in exactly the same shape as you were before. Sometimes you are literally larger and more purple. Sometimes figuratively…well. There’s a lot to come back from, is what I’m saying. And that’s before you learn that the villain you vanquished has not been as thoroughly caged and the ground (space?) around him as thoroughly salted as you might have hoped.


So yeah, this is a middle book with the volume turned up to eleven. This is so very middle book of a trilogy. I love middle books. The stakes are set, the complications set in, the characters’ decisions ramify and come back to bite them. In this case, Tina’s story is allowed to spread to give Rachael, Elza, and the others more focal time and perspective, and I am entirely here for it.

And there is a lot of room for more alien species, more cultural stuff–alien video games! alien snacks! alien pop culture jokes!–and generally room to move around in the universe Anders has built and see how it fits. And how it falls apart under pressure, and who it fails. What dreams it offers. What heartbreak. The emotions are all turned up to eleven here, and that’s what YA is best at. That’s one of my favorite things to read YA for. I could immediately think of at least three teens and two adults who would be enthralled with this series. I can’t wait for the stunning conclusion.

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Books read, late February

M.A. Carrick, The Liar’s Knot. I wanted to immerse myself in secondary world fantasy, and this fits the bill. Complicated clash of cultures! Deception, magic, familiars, secret societies! This is the second in its series, and I think you’ll do better for having read the first, but good news, it’s in print.

Susan Cooper, Greenwitch. Reread. An interesting note as the middle book of this series, allowing the kindness of a human girl to hold sway after the general internalized misogyny of the first two. I thought of this as “the girl book” in the series when I was a little kid, and I don’t think that was wrong–the place where Jane is allowed power is still explicitly fairly feminized and held as a sphere apart from the rest. But as I said rereading the ones before it–I see the flaws in these and still love them anyway, or in the case of this one still like it, this was not one that I loved. As an adult I see how I appreciated that the kids were not instant friends, that they could, amidst a fantasy plot, have ordinary kid resentments and assumptions and annoyances. That’s a lot more typical of fantasy writing for kids than it was when this was written, and this series is part of why.

Alex Danchev, Magritte: A Life. Well, it was bound to happen. You read enough biographies of people, and you’ll get to one where all the interest of the person was in their work. Danchev wrote quite well about Magritte–you can tell he’s good at this–but Magritte, at the end of the day, was a fairly tedious subject. Because of that I can’t recommend this biography even though Danchev did a good job with it.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku, The River Where Blood Is Born. This is a generational novel about nine generations of Black women in a family that spans Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. I read a lot more of this type of novel when I was a teenager (and in fact that’s when this one came out), and voice is completely crucial to whether I’ll enjoy it–voice and variety of character, which this one definitely has, from country quilting grandmas to city party girls to globetrotting seekers after their roots.

Kathleen Jamie, ed., Antlers of Water. This is an anthology of Scottish nature writing and art, with essays and poetry and photos included. It’s very much in the “if you don’t like this one the next will be quite different” school of anthology, and Jamie has made sure to reflect the diversity of modern Scotland with her choices of authors. The main voice I missed here was, of course, hers.

Abir Mukherjee, The Shadows of Men. Do you like chase scenes? because this book has chase scenes. This book has enough chase scenes to make me wonder whether someone in Mukherjee’s writing group challenged him to fit the maximum chase scenes per word count and whether there’s another book out there in competition with it for that prize. What it also has: a murder mystery set in Raj-era India, with the characters thinking quite hard about religious issues and Indian independence. This is fifth in its series, and the characters are allowed to grow and change, and I like that.

Naomi Oreskes, Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean. She is so good, she is so extremely good, as thinkers about how modern science is done she is just so hard to beat, I just love her work. By which, of course, I mean, I am depressed and appalled by her work. But also wow, just wow, watching how sharply Oreskes zeroes in on places where people completely fail at epistemic neutrality–she just lays it out for you, here is how the way this experiment is designed is presupposing the results it wants, here’s what they didn’t even bother to investigate, here’s the entire field that was considered crucial to oceanography in the 19th century that was sort of shoved away in the 20th and a pretty clear indicator of why. And further, she’s really great at getting into why people would behave in the ways that they did–the places where researchers would be lying to themselves about some forms of influence, not just to us–and she’s so good at advocating for transparency and yes, this is 500 pages plus notes but it went so fast.

Erica L. Satifka, How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters. The “disasters” in the title is not an accident, and it’s not an indication of bad craft–Satifka does her work very well here, but almost all of the stories have a disastrously grim view of humanity and any other intelligence it might ever encounter. If you’re a person who deals with hard times by going dark, this is a very well-done collection and probably for you. If not, maybe save it for brighter days.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 45. Kindle. For me the absolute hands-down stand-out of this issue, the story I needed right now, was the Maureen McHugh story that opened the issue. It’s dealing head-on with a great many things at once, homelessness, addiction, the pandemic, none of them “fun escapist things,” but the way it makes science fiction of them is humane and human and lovely.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, eds., The Deadlands Issue 10. Kindle. In addition to the Amanda Downum column, which is always a pleasure, my favorite thing in this issue was the haunting story from Fran Wilde.

Sarah Tolmie, All the Horses of Iceland. Discussed elsewhere.

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen. Tomalin is such a pleasure as a biographer, sympathetic without making excuses, able to see her subject’s point of view without shutting out that of others. I actually did not read this because I had a passionate curiosity about the life of Jane Austen but rather because Claire Tomalin is so good at her work, and I intend to keep doing that with other authors. That said, she really did so well with things like Austen’s long depression/writer’s block/whatever it was. It was all beautifully handled. What a good book.

Piers Vitebsky, Living Without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos. This is about a culture in India that shifted, over the years Vitebsky visited them, from shamanism to a mix of missionary Baptist and orthodox Hindu, and he talked about how and why and when that happened. The structure of the book is a little dry at first but you can see academically why he wants you to have the groundwork in who is what to whom, and it picks up a great deal after that. One of the things I found most interesting about the entire process is that some of the very social functions that this particular instantiation of Christianity destroyed for this particular group are social functions it has served perfectly well elsewhere–but were not the focus of the missionaries who came to this group for various reasons. So people who wanted to argue the benefits of the different religious approaches would need to look at the local versions, not their preconceptions of What Christianity Means To Me or What Shamanism Means To Me or etc. Vitebsky does a really good job of making it specific and real and human.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Friends for Robots. This is such a warm and friendly and loving collection. There are old favorites here, there are things I’ve never read before, there are things to make you laugh, this is…if you’re a person who deals with hard times by trying to reach out to others and build something good, this is the collection for you.