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Weird Fishes, by Rae Mariz

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rarely, if in fact ever, have I encountered such a classic “she’s an x, she’s a y, they fight crime” structure of a novella. Ceph is a squid-like organism from the ocean depths, a scientist among her people! Iliokai is a whale rider, a shapeshifting song-weaver of the sea, concerned about the changes around her and her inability to find any others of her kind. Together, they fight [the] crime [of ocean pollution and temperature increase]!

Mariz’s notes after the novella make it clear that the creatures of the very deep ocean were a major inspiration for this novella, and I cannot help but approve: I too think that they are majorly neglected as weird muses for speculative fiction. More creatures of the utter depths, more! Gender-shifting cephalopod sibling colonies that tyrannize the crabs, sure, why not! Bring on the urchins and the anemones and the coral and the stuff that’s far deeper and weirder!

The thrust of this book’s argument is very linear. If you might read environmentalist fiction at all, you will not be surprised by the positions it takes on microplastics, free floating ocean garbage, warming the seas, or homo sapiens in general. But its moments of warmth with the parasite(/symbiote?) and unlikely friendships from different zones of the ocean make it worth the price of admission.

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Books read, early May

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapters 7-12. Kindle. Catching up on another serial from Chaz, this one in the boarding school science fiction oeuvre.

Susan Burch, Committed: Remembering Native Kinship In and Beyond Institutions. Kindle. Well, this was harrowing, and also worth knowing. While the abuses of the schools US and Canadian governments forced Native/First Nations people into have been in the news lately, it’s useful not to forget that they were not the only institutional tool at hand, merely the one aimed at the youngest members of society. Burch details some of the “deviant” behavior that landed people in these institutions, including examples that highlight the cultural specificity of the assessments: mothers who allowed their children to choose their own food, for example, were incapable and probably not mentally fit. Aughhh. It was a very difficult read, but I felt like it was important to bear witness–particularly because I have (white) relatives in the town (Canton, SD) whose institution was the source of a lot of Burch’s data. She successfully centers the stories and kinships of the Native/First Nations people involved and includes copious notes on sources and methods.

Paolo Chikiamco, Alternative Alamat: Stories Inspired by Philippine Mythology. Kindle. The thing about anthologies is that there are often stories in them where the prose voice just doesn’t work for me, and that’s okay, they’re supposed to be varied, it doesn’t ruin the anthology. But I found this one entirely readable and interesting, I didn’t bounce off any of the stories, I just dove right in. Which was a particularly cool feeling because they were not, culturally speaking, tailored to me per se. So. Neat stuff.

Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was An Aztec. This volume is largely though not completely focused on struggling with being the family member of an addict. It’s harrowing, and there are parts of it I feel like I shouldn’t look away from because it is distinctly a Native experience of that, it is not at all uncoupled from racism and colonialism. At the same time, I am still turning over in my head the fact that Diaz chose another Native group, to which she does not belong, as a metaphor for death-worship and human sacrifice as embodied by her brother’s addiction. A lot to continue pondering there.

Ruthanna Emrys, A Half-Built Garden. Discussed elsewhere.

Rachel Ferguson, A Harp in Lowndes Square. A Gothic sort of time-travelish sort of ghost-ish story, and I did not fully know where it was going at any time, and I like not knowing. Figuring out family history tangles up with figuring out what they’re going to do with their lives, and the answers are less constrained than the stereotype of a book from 1936 would indicate. There are several quite funny bits. The brief moments of stereotypical language are almost entirely uncoupled from reference to actual characters but do exist, fair warning.

Winifred Holtby, South Riding. Another English novel of the mid-1930s, but of a completely different order. If I had not read South Riding in this fortnight I might have spent more time raving about A Harp in Lowndes Square because I really did have fun reading it, but South Riding took my breath away, made me cry several times, I loved it so much, what a grand book it is. Local politics including the first female county alderman in Yorkshire (based on Holtby’s own mother, who was), taking local people and their lives quite seriously and going from local gentry down the scale to the quite poor. Holtby understands and cares about questions like whether a young woman from an overly large poor family will be able to continue her high school education in ways that…I am not used to some parts of my ancestry being directly considered by literature so thoughtfully, and sometimes I had to get up and pace and do other things because it was overwhelming how much she understood. I loved so many of the characters, even the least lovable ones. And the clear and sure and detailed dedication to local action, through actual plot…oh, I love this book, oh wow.

T. Kingfisher, Nettle and Bone. This starts quite dark so you know what you’re getting into, but I really do think it’s dark fantasy rather than horror in worldview–the characters’ agency really ends up making a difference in important ways, the universe is indifferent rather than actively hostile. And the Bonedog is so lovely really, what a nice Bonedog. It’s got some nice second-order examinations of fantasy takes on fairy tale tropes: yes, it’s all very well to notice that some of these situations are terrible for the people in them, but some of the solutions are terrible as well, and what’s to actually be done about it given the politics and powers of the world? Still quite a lot, actually, but carefully. The godmothers are my favorite non-Bonedog part here.

Selma Lagerlöf, Invisible Links. Kindle. A short story collection with some astonishingly turn-of-the-prior-century Swedish cultural references and some weird assumptions about…assumptions, actually. Minor work, a diversion when I was mostly doing other things, probably for the completist only.

H. M. Long, Temple of No God. The sequel to Hall of Smoke, and it closely follows the empires, characters, and particularly deities/magic of that book; while this is a fun fantasy novel, I do not recommend starting with it at all, it is not a complete story without the first volume in the series.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 46. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing works in which I appear, and I’m in this one.

Ovidia Yu, The Cannonball Tree Mystery. The latest in this historical mystery series–it has brought its heroine and her native Singapore up to the Japanese occupation. They’re engagingly written and fun to read, and I’m interested in the way that Yu is leaning into actively changing the setting and characters with history rather than falling into the pit of the Eternal Now that snares so many mystery writers. The series is, in fact, moving at a faster clip than history would strictly require. Which feels all to the good to me right now.

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A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a long-time friend, as you will find out if you read the acknowledgments and discover that my name is in there.

The corporations that plagued Earth for so long have been forced out of dominance a generation ago and corralled into artificial islands–aislands–where their influence can be limited. The collectives who organize themselves around the watersheds have set about the hard work of making Earth inhabitable in the long-term–keeping the worst of climate change from harrowing its inhabitants farther than they already, by 2083, have suffered.

And then, one spring night, Judy Wallach-Stevens, a Chesapeake Bay area water chemist, wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants. Because she’s the nearest responsible party to investigate what turns out to be…aliens, dumping waste from their broken spaceship in the water table. Two symbiotic species of aliens, in fact! They come in peace, and they’re very excited to meet us! Very excited. So excited, in fact, that they’ve come with all sorts of assumptions about what we’re going to want to do when we meet them.


Judy and her wife Carol start first contact off on an unexpectedly right foot by having their baby with them in a sling, which to these aliens is just good manners. Almost everything else about their response is not what the Ringers expected from the first intelligence they meet outside their own solar system. Their two species agreed to break down their planets for parts, and surely when humans have the same opportunity they will follow suit. Universally. Without question. And immediately.

When have humans ever agreed to anything universally, without question, and immediately?

The two kinds of aliens, of course, didn’t either, in their own past, but that was enough generations ago for myth-building and daydreaming to build up. Judy and Carol and their family have to figure out what kind of diplomacy is called for to get the entire process to slow down to a rate everyone can cope with, before relationships with the first other sentient species humanity ever encounters are broken for good–or shaped by the worst humanity has to offer.

This is so lovely. It’s got complicated families, in which meaning well and doing well are not always the same thing–in multiple species. It’s got very crunchy real considerations of disability, cultural difference, historical weight, and watersheds. It’s got a Passover seder where Octavia Butler is quoted. Most of all, it’s got flawed, stubborn, lovable people working desperately hard for a better world, at a time when I think we all need more of that. Highly recommended.

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Books read, late April

Chaz Brenchley, The Bone Mask Boys, Chapters 4-10. Kindle. Catching up on another of Chaz’s Mars serials, this one investigating murders through different facets of the Marsport community.

Tim Clayton, This Dark Business: The Secret War Against Napoleon. The British (and some French) conspiring, propagandizing, having assassination attempts, general skullduggery. You want the sneaky side of the Napoleonic Wars, this is a start on that. People in disguise, scurrilous broadsheets blaming Napoleon for other people’s sins and forgetting to blame him for his own.

Paul Cornell, Rosebud. Discussed elsewhere.

Dennis Duncan, Index, A History of the. A charming little romp through the things people do to organize telling people about what’s in their book. Many indexing jokes included.

George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical. Kindle. This may be my least favorite George Eliot book, and I still enjoyed the heck out of reading it. It goes into all sorts of places about elections and local politics and was an historical novel when it was written. I feel like the middle is less conventional than I expected and the ending more so. But it’s still my girl Maryann, there are still funny and pithy observations, I still had just a darn good time reading it.

Nicola Griffith, Spear. An Arthurian novella with gender-swapping in one crucial place, and would I have been reading such a thing if it had not been written by Nicola Griffith, who can be counted upon to know what she’s doing with this era? I would not have. It’s not the straight-up historical some people attempt, though she could do that; there is definite fantasy content here. I liked but did not love it. It made me think about the ways that we take primogeniture for granted in contexts (this era of Britain for example) where it absolutely historically does not belong. Stupid primogeniture mimetic contaminants, very hard to wash off.

Michael J. Hathaway, What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make. Mushroom people are so charming, and in this one Hathaway is being weird but generally sensible about the places people make unwarranted assumptions about hierarchies in multikingdom ecologies. Fungus will hold its own and serve its own ends, and this book goes into how and where.

Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road. Jarman’s focus is very material-archaeological, which I enjoy; I have plenty of balance from written sources in other places. Lots of quite nice detail, nothing at the grand scale that startled me, but part of the reason is that I’ve been following work including Cat’s for years.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Molly on the Moon. Discussed elsewhere.

Vernon Lee, Hauntings. Kindle. This is a set of late nineteenth century weird fiction novelettes (best guess on length); if you’ve read things like that before, well, they’re definitely like that. Is someone being haunted by their great-great-grandmother? or something? maybe they’re just murdery? Yep. It’s like that.

Andri Snær Magnason, On Time and Water. Icelandic environmentalist essays about family and water and climate change and how we personally interact with something so large as a planet and an aeon.

L.M. Montgomery, Magic for Marigold. Reread. This is in the category of “verified that I still don’t like it so I can stop giving it shelf space,” also in the category of “quite mediocre late-period Montgomery,” though not in fact as bad as Mistress Pat. There is no magic in this book. When I was 9 years old there was almost nothing that made me angry faster than a book that said magic in the title and then it was a metaphor for your imaginaaaaation or the power of loooove or some nonsense like that. Okay well, nothing in book titles anyway. And this is Example #1 of that failing. Marigold doesn’t even have particularly a lot of magic in her magical imaginings. There’s just an imaginary friend whose name is Sylvia, which is your friends’ grandmas’ name. I understand that for Montgomery it was a magical dryad name but for me it was a nice old lady name, probably had Werther’s in her purse. Anyway: Sylvia did nothing. She just existed, magically, and this was terribly scandalous for Marigold’s family. Marigold played pretend. What did she play pretend? Nothing much really. Also she was terribly terribly lonely, having only Sylvia and her imaginary spice gumdrops for company (I made up the spice gumdrops, they are 100% more spice than Sylvia actually had), and so she has someone new to play with in basically every chapter. What. And then the other werid thing is that the book is substantially focused on Marigold’s earliest years, age six or seven, and is very condescending about those ages. For whom is this book written? A ten-year-old who loves reading about six-year-olds? What? Then we get her aging rapidly, doing Montgomery plots very quickly so Montgomery can turn the book in, and at the very end she learns a valuable lesson: lie about your feelings so that the people who hurt you never have a chance to grow, and you’ll get a chance to be their trusted doormat for the rest of your life. Like your mother, who wanted to name you Marigold but didn’t dare to say so but got to do so anyway by a random chance what are the odds. (ZERO. THE ODDS ARE ZERO. Like my desire to keep this book.) Oh, complete side note: this is one of absolute piles of books where there is a plot point of a character’s actions being changed by a communicable disease–if you pay attention and don’t let them sweep past you, you’ll notice it, things like Marigold not being allowed to go a particular family gathering because there were measles or mumps or scarlet fever in that town. Paying attention to virus concentrations and adjusting behavior accordingly used to be so normal it’s half a sentence on the way to something else. Watch for it.

Lynn Povich, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. This is short and pithy, and if you were born after about 1965 it will cover things that changed before you got here, in a workplace sense–it’s about the 1970s, mostly, and some of the staggeringly horrible ways women were treated in journalism and the ways and reasons that changed. It made me angry and tired in ways that I was already angry and tired. It is still useful to know the details. This won’t take you that long.

Qiu Xiaolong, The Mao Case. This book is extremely nerdy about historical context and Chinese idiom, and a lot of it is the characters explaining to each other what they’ve discovered about historical figures’ misdeeds. Wow are they mad about Mao and his contemporaries. And not without cause, one can certainly see that. But the mystery structure of it is…if you don’t want to read about people eating random Chinese food and nerding out about their history research, this is probably not the book for you, because the mystery structure is not very satisfying.

M.C. Ricklefs, The Seen and Unseen Worlds in Java, 1726-1749: History, Literature, and Islam in the Court of Pakubuwana II. An end of literature I did not know much about, and still don’t, but here’s a little light shone on a corner of it. Here’s a start, with ideas about who was reading what in which form and who was writing it for which political purposes.

Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick. Reread. I read this in memory of someone who died whose favorite thing was paperback mysteries. It holds up reasonably well–a Regency mystery in which the characters have horrible secrets and sometimes are melodramatic, but in reasonably entertaining ways.

Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. I spent this entire volume reading a few poems and thinking, eh, I don’t think I like her much, and then coming upon another one and going, OH ALL RIGHT FINE, KAY, YOU CAN STAY. She likes very short, choppy line lengths and the kind of observation that often think needs just a touch more insight to make it really interesting…except for the poems where it doesn’t need more at all, it’s just as it ought to be, choppy lines and all. Maddening. Probably good for me.

Sherwood Smith, Time of Daughters Book 2. The title should be a very good tipoff for how much this is a standalone book, which is to say: not much. But if you’re in the mood for the kind of epic fantasy that is conceived of very much like history and very much like tragedy–here are some people’s fixed flaws and how they play out in concert with each other, without there being a long-term thrust to it because often in life there is not–this is the rest of that kind of fantasy. As many nicknames and connections as my family reunions, which makes it a particular kind of comfort read for me.

Noel Streatfeild, The Magic Summer. Reread. Having gotten Magic for Marigold out of my system (and off my shelves), I recalled another childhood annoyance in the category of “books that say magic but don’t have it” and went to see whether I liked The Magic Summer any better as an adult. It was in fact worse with adult perspective. Much worse. The basic shape of this story is that children are sent to stay with a great-aunt during a family emergency, and she has them fend for themselves to the extent of not even providing potable water, and this is meant to be so good for them as to be magical (although the original title was The Growing Summer) and definitely not a complete asshole move. The book undermines its own premise that the children need to learn to be more self-sufficient (NO EVERYBODY NEEDS POTABLE WATER THIS IS A HILL I WILL DIE ON) in that their very first thought when their father has an emergency while traveling and their mother needs to go see to his care is that they should stay home and take care of themselves with perhaps a neighbor to look in on them. Nonsense! says the book. You must go to rural West Ireland to do all that but in an unfamiliar setting, without friends or very basic support, to learn hardiness and shun modern things! Also this great-aunt is charming and good, because she knows poetry you don’t know, and will quote it at moments that are only vaguely appropriate to the conversation! Look, I know science fiction fans like this, and I know some of how the raising of some of their kids went from the perspective of the now-adult kids, and it turns out that you can both quote quirky poetry and see to your minor children’s medical care. Simultaneously. Amazing. Screw this book and, in fact, the horse it rode in on. Actually no, I am concerned about whether the horse was properly nourished or whether someone spouted nonsense about nature’s bounty and left the horse somewhere it would be malnourished. Would someone please do a welfare check on the horse this book rode in on. Thank you. WAIT I AM NOT DONE. There is a subplot where another child is hiding with them, and they don’t know his identity, but other people do, and the entire “you like too many modern things, which suck” message is undermined by this, if these characters were as obsessed with Bad Modern Things TM as the plot wants them to be, the subplot would fall apart. It basically does anyway. The other child’s character makes no sense. This is very much in the running for Worst Streatfeild Book Ever.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, eds., The Deadlands Issue 12. Kindle. For me the standout story of this issue was KT Bryski’s “This Is I,” knowledgeable and fond about certain aspects of the Pre-Raphaelites without being worshipful about the ways in which they definitely did not deserve it.

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I suppose these are large, friendly letters

Don’t panic! At least not about criticism of your fiction. I have a new essay out in Uncanny today, From Panic to Process: What Taking Criticism Actually Means.

This is a bigger topic than one essay could hold, so I have all sorts of further ideas about fans taking gracefully criticism of works they love dearly, organizing and sub-organizing types of critique notes, and more. But this has the beginnings of the “taking criticism” conversation for me.