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Stories I’ve Enjoyed This Quarter

As usual, I’m not caught up on everything, so please feel free to link to stories you’ve enjoyed in the comments!

“Just Deserts,” A. M. Barrie (Fiyah Issue 23)

The Part You Throw Away, Elizabeth Bear (Sunday Morning Transport)

Sunday in the Park With Hank, Leah Bobet (The Deadlands)

Tyrni, Laura Adrienne Brady (Reckoning)

Billable Hours for the Disputed Rights of the Chosen One, L. Chan (Wyngraf)

Elsewhere, Elsewhen, L. Chan (GigaNotoSaurus)

Miracle Babies, Roshani Chokshi (Strange Horizons)

If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You, John Chu (Uncanny)

“Finding Ways,” Zig Zag Claybourne (Dreams for a Broken World)

“Solidity,” Greg Egan (Asimov’s Sep/Oct)

Have Mercy, My Love, While We Wait for the Thaw, Iori Kusano (Apex)

Rooted, Wen-yi Lee (Reckoning)

We Greet the Solstice, Avra Margariti (Haven Spec)

The Malachite Storm, Devin Miller (Strange Horizons)

Two Beaches, Devil Miller (Haven Spec)

All That Burns Unseen, Premee Mohamed (Slate)

“The Usual Way,” Lina Munroe (Fiyah Issue 23)

Footnotes From “Phosphates, Nitrates, and the Lake A Incident: A Review,” Mari Ness (Reckoning)

Witchbreaker, Leah Ning (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Locked Pod, Malka Older (Sunday Morning Transport)

On the Sunlit Side of Venus, Benjamin Parzybok (Apex) (SERIOUS DESPAIR AND SELF-HARM CONTENT WARNING)

Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat, DaVaun Sanders (Fireside)

One More Fairy Tale, Carol Scheina (Cossmass Infinities)

Give This Letter to the Crows, Iona Datt Sharma (The Deadlands)

“Bumblebot,” Marie Vibbert (Analog Sep/Oct)

“Subscription Life,” Marie Vibbert (Dreams for a Broken World)

Demonic Invasion or Placebo Effect?, John Wiswell (Sunday Morning Transport)

DIY, John Wiswell (

“Inheritance,” Hannah Yang (Analog Sep/Oct)

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Books read, early September

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 1. Kindle. Strange place to start, with a very long poem on the same theme as Paradise Lost, but fortuitous for me because I’d just reread that and could appreciate EBB’s version even more for its genuine liking of nature and humanity. Contrary to Milton’s ideas, EBB decided to write about an Adam who deeply loved and valued Eve–in context even more touching. There are other poems in this volume, a long Prometheus followed by gradually shorter versions of Greek texts and paeans to other poets. If you’re not sure how much EBB you want to read, there are probably “selected works” volumes that do a better introductory job, but if you are sure, it’s free on Gutenberg to just dive in and keep going.

Catherine Ceniza Choy, Asian American Histories of the United States. This is so short as to be almost vignettes–if you’re not familiar with the topic it will be a whistle-stop tour–but it’s vivid enough and passionate enough that it’s not a bad place to start–and introduced me to some anecdotes I (not a beginner) didn’t know.

Danielle Clarke, ed., Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, and Aemilia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets. Mostly Elizabethan poets here, a tiny bit of the early reign of James I. These three are economically more diverse than one might expect, and their topics even more so. One of the fascinating things to me was that “translating” a psalter meant, for Mary Sidney and her brother, writing an English poem with the same theme and dominant imagery, rather than a more literal and direct translation. The thing that made this interesting was that Biblical locations were very culturally familiar, so those were as they would appear in the original, but the theology was immensely early-Protestant in its focus rather than Jewish–superficial similarities in the poems but deep differences.

H. A. Clarke, The Scratch Daughters. Discussed elsewhere.

Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC-1000 AD. I was disappointed in this, and the fact that it was published in this millennium with AD/BC terminology right in the title should have been a clue. Cunliffe had extremely bizarre areas in which he was over-willing or under-willing to attribute motives to people known only through archaeology, with inherent ethnic imperatives being my least-favorite.

Kate Elliott, The Keeper’s Six. Discussed elsewhere.

Seb Falk, The Light Ages: the Surprising Story of Medieval Science. This was lovely, discussing things like how to construct a water clock to have an alarm. I think this is particularly useful for fantasy writers, but it was such a joy to read that I don’t just recommend it for purely utilitarian purposes.

Caleb Gayle, We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power. Gayle brings a passion and a history of reporting to the story of Black Creeks who were stripped of their Creek identity in 1979. His prose is fast and punchy (there’s the reporting background), and he lays the issues out very clearly here.

Linda LeGarde Grover, Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong. This is a mixture of memoir, stories of the Duluth area’s recent history, and Anishinaabe legends. It’s short but charming, especially if you know Duluth well and would like to know it better.

Frances Hardinge, Deeplight. Deep sea creatures and pirates and corruption and magic and all sorts of good adventurey fantasy stuff in this one.

Christopher Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution. Probably a fairly good first history of the French Revolution, focused on particular vignettes that are fairly consistently the ones you’ll find embedded in longer histories rather than weird outliers.

Emmi Itäranta, The Moonday Letters. Enchanting, immersive, acutely suspenseful, Solar System-spanning science fiction but also fantasy about healing and environment.

Sim Kern, Seeds for the Swarm. Discussed elsewhere.

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. It would be more accurate, I think, not to give this book a subtitle that ends with “in Occupied France” when more than half of it takes place not in Occupied France but in concentration camps. It’s a really well done discussion of the fates of French women political prisoners under the Nazis. But as such it spends a lot of time in camps being very clear about their horrors, so: be prepared.

Louis Sachar, Holes. Reread. I wanted this fresh in my head to discuss with a friend who was reading it with their kid, and I was reminded that it falls into a weird middle ground to me, where it’s too surreal to be successfully mimetic and too realistic to be successfully surreal. Ah well.

Caroline Stevermer, The Serpent’s Egg. Kindle. Absolutely delightful. If you like The Goblin Emperor or Swordspoint or the Secret Country books, this is the thing for you. Magic and political scheming and not-very-obtrusive snippets of English verse reference. Loved it.

Sonya Taaffe, As the Tide Came Flowing In. This is a collection of thematically linked poems with a novelette to follow, and I love that Sonya did that and wish more people would do similar mixed form/thematic unity projects. This is full of the sea and its strangeness. Hurrah.

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons. “Remember that really obnoxious guy in your first-term philosophy seminar?” says Turgenev. “We had him in 19th century Russian too, isn’t that a gas?” and you say, “nobody really uses ‘gas’ that way any more, Turgenev, but yeah, it sure is striking.” And he’s like, “oh well, I’m from a different generation I guess.”

Valerie Valdes, Fault Tolerance. The third and possibly last in its series, pulling all the threads together for a stunning conclusion–if it’s not last in the series, there will have to be a tone shift of some sort, because that sure looked like a successful ending to me. Should you start here? No, probably not, the others are still available, go ahead and start at the beginning knowing that there’s a complete arc waiting for you if you want space opera hijinks.

Iona Whishaw, A Killer in King’s Cove. A Canadian murder mystery set in the aftermath of WWII. I was hoping this would be the beginning of a long series I wanted to read, and it’s the beginning of a long series, but…eh. In the category of “fine I guess.”

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The Keeper’s Six, by Kate Elliott

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Esther isn’t supposed to go into the Beyond any more. She and her Hex broke the rules–even if they broke them in the best possible way. But when she wakes up to find that someone from the Beyond has kidnapped her adult son Daniel away from his family, her conflict-ridden Hex has to reunite to get him back–and Esther is the one who has to do the reuniting. Blues Brothers this ain’t–but they are definitely getting the band back together.

This is a novella, and as such there’s only so much room for development. Some of the characters are pretty sketched in as a result, and there’s a lot of worldbuilding left vague as well. Mostly this is intriguing, occasionally frustrating. The themes end up being much larger than the literal story–themes of freedom, self-possession, and what we owe each other. Would more space have given Elliott time to develop these themes or just stretched out a story that does get satisfactorily solved in the word count available? Hard to guess. There are oppressive dragon regimes going on here! It’s hard to be satisfied with just a gesture toward them, oh, oppressive dragon regimes, you know what they’re like. And yet on some level one knows enough. The plot moves on.

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Out of various lands

It’s apparently a Double Dell Month, the second I’ve ever had! That is to say, I have stories in both Asimov’s and Analog. I told you about the Asimov’s story when the author copies arrived, but now I have the ones for Analog as well–my story is Out of the Red Lands, and it is available in Analog now!

And if that’s not enough for you, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2021 is out too! It features my BCS story “The Past, Like a River In Flood” but also dozens of stories from friends and colleagues. An embarrassment of riches. Go, read, enjoy!

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Seeds for the Swarm, by Sim Kern

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rylla McCracken is a denizen of the Dust, the impoverished region that used to be known as the American Southwest before the aquifers were pumped dry. She has always yearned for something more, something better–education, but also a place to live where clean water–any water–is widely available. A place where life can flourish across a landscape, not just in narrow bands and with imported resources.

And Rylla’s activism wins her such a place: a scholarship at Wingates University. Wingates is filled with passionate young thinkers like Rylla–most of whom have far easier upbringings in places outside the Dust. But–you know there was a but, and there’s more than one–Rylla’s cultural background has definitely not prepared her for this. Even the methods of accessing online information are different in this brave new world. She misses her family, particularly her older brother and his partner. And the climate disaster she always knew existed is much, much worse than she thought. The students and faculty at Wingate are supposed to be finding ways to help the planet survive and thrive–but Rylla almost immediately stumbles on evidence that all is not as it seems.

This is a book that definitely remembers the “punk” part of solarpunk. It is not a subtle book. It is three chords and a
yell. And the stuff it is yelling about is worth yelling about. Climate change, economic inequality, species extinction…there’s a lot to hit hard here, and Kern really turns up the amp up to 11.

This is not without drawbacks. The addiction subplot in particular seemed to be very linear and handled so simply as to be nearly simplistic–which is not my favorite thing to do with a difficult topic so many people have immediate experience of. But in general, moshing around the world they’ve created gives Kern a chance to mull over a large range of ideas, through a wide-eyed and justly angry young woman. Rylla makes mistakes. Some of them are incredibly stupid mistakes. But they’re not out of character stupid mistakes; they are exactly the sort of thing a person with her personality and background would do when plunged into a tech-saturated academic environment without
support or cultural background to navigate it. There’s a seque coming, and the plot requires it–but I’m excited to see where it goes.

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The Scratch Daughters, by H. A. Clarke

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a sequel to The Scapegracers, and it is very very sequel–I strongly recommend that you read the first volume first, because a lot of the plot and character arc are directly dependent on its events.

One of the things I loved about the first book that was kept here–and even to some extent expanded—was how clearly Clarke respects teenage girls and their friendships for who and what they are–not trying to make them into adults in order to give them respect but looking at this particular stage of human life with love. In this book there are nonbinary teens in this category as well, and Clarke is scrupulous never to deadname a character who changes their name in the middle of the book, which is just lovely.

The friendships themselves are not entirely smooth sailing, as you might expect for any high school novel to begin with, but certainly for one about a coven, particularly a coven whose pet book demon is in rather unusual living quarters at the moment. The titular daughters of Scratch–who were also the titular Scapegracers of the last book–are making their presence felt around town, putting spells on violent people (especially boys and men) to make sure they can’t hurt people (especially teenage girls). And that kind of behavior is never without pushback.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting and well-done in this book is that sexuality can be a motivation without the motivation being “and then I want to have sex with this person.” Coming out stories are important, and stories where people’s sexuality just is are important, but this is neither of those things, this is a story where sexuality as distinct from sex is a plot motivator, and I don’t see that
nearly as often as I’d like.

The kids make the kind of trash decisions that teenagers are prone to, and the adults around them make the kind of trash decisions that adult are prone to—but in neither case is it universal. There are always people in both groups who shine as examples of how to human in tough circumstances, some of them in tweed blazers and some in shimmery lip gloss. And some trying out both.

How I feel about the ending depends on whether this is the last book or whether there will be another. As it stands, the ending felt a bit abrupt to me, and a bit too easily tied up in a bow. If it’s just the end of this volume, okay fine; if this is all we get in this series, ehhhh I wish there was a bit more denouement.

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Books read, late August

Jarod K. Anderson, Love Notes from the Hollow Tree. I found this volume of poetry rather didactic, focused on supposed insights the poet had without a lot of fireworks in the language or image department.

Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. This is about mammalian evolution from their first distinguishable appearance, and it has a lot of really interesting parts. I felt it was somewhat marred by the author’s tendency to talk about evolution as directed and/or directional in ways that I’m sure he felt were easily understood to be figures of speech, but…people do not actually understand that very well, it’s important not to reinforce that proto-bats were not following their dreams and working hard to make it happen when they evolved the features that allow for flight, just for example. Nobody is the pinnacle of evolution. Evolution is not a thing that has pinnacles. Lots of great stuff about jawbones here, though.

P. Djeli Clark, The Black God’s Drums. I see why this got so many rave reviews a few years back, because it’s so much fun! Airships in a fantasy historical Louisiana, wow, yes, love it, more.

Brandon Crilly, Catalyst. Discussed elsewhere.

Hannah Gadsby, Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation. I love Nanette and Douglas, I think Gadsby is so brilliant, and this book was an interesting companion to that material. I wanted to give it to the parents of a few friends who are queer and neurodiverse, because there were very relatable elements in this book that I think might be much easier to get across about a third party than about their own children, and Gadsby did such a good job of communicating them. Mostly I just wanted to bake her cookies.

Linda Gregg, All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems. This was another case where the poet and I were ships passing in the night–I could see what she was doing but I couldn’t feel what she was doing. Our rhythms did not mesh. This happens.

Kate Heartfield, The Embroidered Book. Best thing she’s done so far. Love it. Did you need Hapsburgs in your fantasy? you totally did. It’s just chock full of Hapsburgs, Hapsburgs as far as the eye can see, and the concept of magic Kate’s got going is far more intense on the subject of exchange and personal sacrifice than most of what you see out there. I had a tiny quibble with a minute fraction of the ending, but not enough to prevent me recommending this book wholeheartedly.

Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold. Holtby’s first book, about a Socialist agitator coming to a small Yorkshire village in 1913 (written in 1923). It’s hilarious in parts and outright tragic in other parts; it is not the masterwork that South Riding is, and there is some Irish stereotyping in it. But that last bit aside it was still a mostly lovely read.

R. F. Kuang, Babel. Another “best thing she’s done so far. Love it” book for August. As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a sucker for writing about translation, and this is explicitly about translation, and explicitly about colonialism, and also it is a beautifully done historical fantasy, and it is also a great college novel (I love college novels), and it is also a lovely book about friendship, and…look, I recommend it, okay? I highly recommend it.

Ken Liu, Speaking Bones. The stunning conclusion of this series. I felt like this was somewhat tighter than the third book but still had quite a lot of Liu’s eagerness to show the backstory of every fantastical military innovation…but at the same time, did I enjoy those backstories? I sure did. Don’t start here, but I do recommend the series–it gets where it’s going eventually, and as long as you’re not in a hurry it’s a good ride.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Mixture of Mischief. The third in a series of MG books about magic, friendship, family, and baking. Probably better to start at the beginning of the series but fine to start here. The family stuff in this book shook me up (in a good way), and I loved it when the characters had the opportunity to be stupid and not confide in each other and rejected that opportunity. Because there are still plenty of problems when you are not making more of them by being a jerk to the people you’re closest to and/or fueling the classic “idiot plot.” Anyway, fun times.

John Milton, Paradise Lost. Reread. So when you go to do a retelling, you ask yourself: what am I bringing to this retelling? What’s the new bit that’s me? And from what I can see, some of the crucial things Milton brought to the story of the Fall were: 1) English verse, 2) lashings of sexism (no really, way more sexism than the original), and 3) a sense of the world as the size that we now know it. That last part was fascinating to me, that when he was talking about the whole world, he meant it in roughly the way that a modern person would mean it. He knew there was such a place as Peru and felt like it had to be accounted for somehow in this story’s references. And considering how recently he had a chance to know that, it was astonishing to me how integrated it was into the text, how he didn’t just handwave it away as of no consequence. The sexism, though. Lord. There is an entire speech from Adam that’s basically, “the angels are all dudes, why didn’t you make us all dudes? why didn’t you make Adam and Steve, God?” I am paraphrasing but not maliciously, that is really what his speech says. There is a whole heaping helping of “she’s beautiful but wow is she dumb” in the concept of Eve in this telling. Sigh.

Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope. Kindle. Parker is quotable–we all know she’s quotable. What was interesting to me was how differently she came off in aggregate than in snippets. Yes, there was the bright, brittle, witty cynicism, but also there was quite a lot of acknowledgment that she had been hurt, more willingness to have something beneath that surface. (But still funny.)

Lina Rather, Sisters of the Forsaken Stars. Sequel, and I recommend reading the first one first, because this is a lot of consequences from the first set of actions, and the characters hang together perfectly well if you know what’s come before, but I think if you didn’t there would be several moments of “who’s this other person, why do we care.” The rebel space nuns have not stopped space rebelling. Did you want them to? I sure didn’t.

Emma Southon, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World. Okay, this is a very weird book. It’s a biography of Agrippina that Southon decided to write with loads of pop culture references to make the Roman stuff make more sense to the modern reader. Except…I feel like a lot of the specific references she chose were for a very specific audience. I am in that audience. But there was at least one reference that friends ten years older and ten years younger than me did not get when I asked them about it, and I suspect there are a lot more. So…I suspect that within the next decade the pop culture stuff in this book will be more alien than the Roman stuff, not less. Is that okay? Of course it’s okay, I read Victorian writers who are doing exactly the same thing 150 years before Southon, and it’s fascinating. But it’s something to know about the book, that it’s not very formal and is very referential. Also Agrippina, I mean, Nero’s mom, Caligula’s sister, this was going to be a weird book anyway. No way it couldn’t be.

Rebecca Stott, Dark Earth. For me this book suffered from being set in a milieu I have put a lot of research into and therefore have a lot of opinions about, that is to say, immediately post-Roman Britain. So I kept being snagged out of the story (it’s an historical fantasy) by reactions that can be summed up as “I see why you think that but I think this instead and have you read….” Which is too bad, because the character relationships and prose were quite good, so if you’re not weird about post-Roman Britain like me, you may well enjoy it.

Davide Turcato, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Maltesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900. I think one of the most gratifying things about this book is how literally the title is true: Turcato is actually going on the premise that people often do things for reasons that make some sense to them at the time–shocking, I know–and that it’s worth looking at what those reasons are rather than throwing our hands up and saying, “Anarchists! they were irrational!” They quite often were not, and by taking this approach, Turcato manages to do radical things like…actually looking for someone rather than taking a contemporary letter that he has “disappeared” as in some way factual (since…human beings do not actually have that power…this was fruitful). Should this be your first or only book on 19th century anarchism, probably not, but it’s really interesting for the portion it is about.

Nghi Vo, Into the Riverlands. Discussed elsewhere.