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Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also, the author and I are pals in part because we share an agent.

The first page says: “Some Desperate Glory contains sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist and ableist attitudes, sexual assault, violence, child abuse, radicalization as child abuse, genocide, suicidal ideation, and suicide.” Friends, Emily is not kidding about this list. She’s not doing it to shock, there is literally nothing of epater les bourgeois here. But if you are thinking, haha wow, that’s a long list, probably some of it is a bit glossed over: not really, no. I recommend this book, but not on a day you need rainbows and bunnies, because those are in short supply here. The genocide in this book is space opera genocide, except unlike many space operas with genocide, Emily never forgets that it’s still genocide. And she’s not going to let the reader forget either.

So what is it, other than the content warnings. It’s a space opera about humans traumatized by the destruction of Earth, eking out their existence and training for vengeance on the aliens who destroyed it. (Because apparently for humans destroying Earth is like hitting your little brother: you do it yourself all the time but get really mad when someone else does. Ahem. Anyway.) Valkyr was born into this tiny, militaristic culture. She has drunk in every part of it. She is going to be its perfect representative. She was literally born for this.

Or so she thinks. Until her ideas of what the people around her are doing and how they should be treated keep getting upended–not because she’s a nice person, because she is absolutely not. Kyr is a great big jerk with all the certainty of a 17-year-old who hasn’t experienced any world outside her tiny space village/barracks. But because some of the things she knows to be true are put in contradiction to each other. She meets an alien. She and her brother both run into adulthood hard and the fallout is…literally explosive.

Sometimes if you’re raised in a deeply sexist culture, there’s a part of you that thinks, deep down, that sexism is because girls are less worthy. That’s the entire message you’ve been steeped in, sometimes it’s hard to get all of it out. And one of the things Emily gives us with Kyr is a heroine whose solution to this has always been to just be good enough…and to run her into that wall, that giant unforgiving wall that says, you don’t matter, all your achievements don’t matter, because this is what they believe about women, you cannot Not Like The Other Girls your way out of sexism, it doesn’t work that way, that’s not why sexism exists. And for me that was one of the hardest parts. And also it was one of the most beautiful parts.

What else is there, there’s a lot else, there’s a galaxy-spanning computer and various aliens and people getting to say exactly what they think to the people they’ve known for years, there are fight scenes and first dates and snark in its place but only in its place. There are family members who manage to care about each other despite differences so deep as to be basically incomprehensible…until they aren’t. There are bits where people are better than you think and bits where people are worse than you think. This is not a book that leaves anything for the swim back, and I love it for that.

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The Crane Husband, by Kelly Barnhill

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I know the author from On Here and from being very local.

This is an amazing novella, and if it had been any longer than a novella it might have been so intense as to be unbearable. It’s the story of a teenage girl who is used to being the responsible party for her widowed artist mother and her six-year-old brother. She’s done the books for her mother’s business since her dad died six years ago, arranged for meals, gotten her brother dressed and to school on time.

But one night her mother brings home a crane. A taller-than-human, spectacle-wearing bird. Neighborhood frogs are not safe from his long, sharp beak…and neither is her mother. The longer the crane husband stays, the more wounds her mother bears–and the more she seems to slip away from ordinary human concerns. That includes her children.

So yeah, major, major content warnings for abusive relationships and child neglect here. And for feelings of helplessness and rage. Because that’s what this story is about, about neglect and abuse and bewildered love and being powerless to help one person you love most–and determined to help another. It’s also about art and modern (future?) rural life. There’s so much packed into this novella, and it will leave you reeling in the best possible way.

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Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction

Edited by Sheree Renee Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight. Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is an anthology of original fiction by authors from Africa and the African diaspora. Its editors are extremely personally aware that Africa is not one location but an entire continent worth, and that any anthology of this nature should have breadth and depth of story choice.

And wow, does it deliver. There’s the hardest of science fiction and the highest of fantasy and everything in between. Settings everywhere, everywhere. Stylistic choices of basically every type. If you can’t find something you like in this anthology, you probably don’t like speculative fiction at all, because there’s just so much here. I have long argued that lists like “best Mexican-American poetry” should be evaluated not as an AND but as an OR: if you are specifically interested in EITHER Mexican-American writing OR poetry, you should give it a look, as long as you’re not actively averse to one of them, and I think that’s important here. If you have an interest in speculative fiction by writers with African roots, great–but if you just have an interest in one of those categories, still great, don’t miss it.

There were a few stories that really stood out for me in this antho. First off, they started with an absolute barnburner of a story from Dilman Dila, “The Blue House.” It’s poignant, it’s excellent at thinking through non-standard points of view, and it’s got a human-robot hybrid in it, literally what more could you ask Dila for. “Lady Rainbow” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu has a lovely relationship with the protag’s grandmother, mediated by her cookbook, and also there’s a giant mantis element in it (!!!). Wole Talabi’s “A Dream of Electric Mothers” also has strong themes of family and ancestors, with giant future computers involved in a thoughtful examination of the complex nature of peace.

But those are just my favorites–there’s enough in this anthology that I’m sure you’ll find other things. There are friends and familiar names in here but also authors I’d never read before, which is a hard and wonderful balance for an anthology to strike. Recommended.

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Books read, early October

Antonia Angress, Sirens and Muses. Art school novel about artists and commercialism and collaboration and an entire cluster of related themes, including theme itself. Some of the characters make gleefully poor decisions, some struggle to do better, lots of thought about why we value particular art.

Terry J. Benton-Walker, Blood Debts. Discussed elsewhere.

Lyndsie Bourgnon, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. Bourgnon’s focus in this book is poverty in logging/formerly-logging communities and the social effects on the forest ensuing from it. Which is interesting and probably worth knowing about, but I wish she gave more context about whether individual poor and working class people are the main sources of forest crime and negative impact on forest ecosystems and how else we might define tree theft/other forest theft.

Octavia Butler, Imago. Reread. I think it’s pretty clear that Butler wanted to write about colonialism and empire with these books, and at that part she did a very interesting uncomfortable job. (Which was clearly her goal. If you read this trilogy and feel cozy, that’s…shall we say not the intended response.) But in the late ’80s/early ’90s when she was writing it, we were in a very different place with writing about gender and about sexuality and consent. So the farther you get in this trilogy, the more the gender essentialism becomes central, and the more the characters who “can’t help themselves” and “absolutely must” have sex with other people have POV sections. Which are not “wow what a rapey asshole this person is,” and yet: wow, so much rapey assholery in this book. So relieved to be done with it. There are books like Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw that take a sexist attitude like that, apply it to a non-human species, and show how clear it is that humans do not actually have the trait the sexist attitude assumes. Because this was not central to what it looks like Butler intended to do, that’s not the case here. This may be my least favorite of her books.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. This is a compendium of things we have from the pre-Norman Conquest world: wills, letters, poetry, recipes, riddles. It contains the entirety of the Crossley-Holland translation of Beowulf, which is not even my third-favorite translation of Beowulf. Crossley-Holland himself is explicitly writing for an audience that conceives of itself as having Anglo-Saxon ancestors–he talks about it in his notes. Despite these drawbacks I find this an immensely useful and interesting volume to have.

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Early Republic. The process of assimilation and the obliteration of Native cultures can be horrifying, but also I feel like we owe it to each other to know what’s been done in this area. This particular school was far earlier and less organized than the infamous Native Schools in the US and Canada–it was very much an amalgam of any male non-Christian person they could get to come, from 13yo Cherokees to full-grown Hawaiian men and at least one Jewish immigrant. This school explicitly aimed at converting its students to Christianity and promoting the success of their own project as a template, and Demos covers a lot of ground in how the aims changed over time but also were not consistent from person to person involved.

Nisid Hajari, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. One of the problems of starting to learn about horrible things that happened in history is that if you don’t know a lot, you can’t always tell whether the book you’ve found is reasonably fair-minded. Literally zero people in this book look good by the end, but Hajari is not someone who thinks that “fair” means “equivalent,” and Hajari is willing to be clear that specific individuals in each community did have the potential to be better or (much, much) worse than others. Not cheerful but informative.

Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution. Wat Tyler! John Ball! “When Adam delved and Eve span” and peasants who had very solid ideas of what was going wrong and not at all solid ideas of what they might do about it.

R. B. Lemberg, The Unbalancing. This is a lovely place to start reading Birdverse stories if you haven’t started them already. The worldbuilding is clear but not tedious, and the starkeeper’s relationship with the poet is spiky and lovely and real.

Marina Lostetter, The Helm of Midnight. Discussed elsewhere.

Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers. A bookstore owner friend of mine says this is what he gives people who come in looking for a tearjerker, and I believe it. It’s a two-timeline book, and the first of them is gay men at the very early height of the AIDS crisis. And the other is 30 years later but doesn’t give away very much of who survives and in what condition. Also the second is about the relationship of a mother with her estranged daughter, so…there are a lot of reasons you might want to go into this one braced for it and/or on a good day for you.

Emily Midorikawa, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice. And by “Visionary” we mean “the Spiritualist movement.” I don’t know, this was a weird middle ground for me between the depth of focus of a biography and the breadth of a more general history. Fine but not probably the best place to start on this topic.

Catherine Musemeche, Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II. I was hoping for more oceanography and less WWII-era sexism. The sexism is defeated by awesomeness at great personal cost etc.! And that’s great and it’s a fine book of that type! I just. Would like more oceanography.

Eleanor Parker, Conquered: The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England. One of the rare contemporary uses of “Anglo-Saxon” in a title that I don’t side-eye, because Parker is distinguishing among British ethnicities here: she means not the Normans and not the Celts and there is not a very good alternate term for that distinction that I know of. She traces the fates of the culturally last examples of some different power groups from the pre-Conquest society, and it’s pretty cool. If you’re not clear on how things generally went in the 11th century, probably not a good starting point.

Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment. Ridley’s thesis is that while George V has a reputation for personal dullness, his reign was excessively interesting. Fair enough. She seemed to promise that she was going to have theories of why George V managed to keep his throne when monarchies were falling all around him, but I found that less clear/convincing than “oh gosh what a time to be the head of somebody’s state.” That part was pretty good, though. She has dodged between the Scylla and Charybids of either idolizing or hate-biographing somebody. Also I see why this was not called George V and Mary with the same subtitle, but a rather substantial chunk of it was about Queen Mary.

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation. A science fiction novella about insomnia and siphoning sleep off people with all sorts of cultural commentary layered in. It was published as weird fiction/literary fiction, band the ending is more in those genres, but it is no less SF than a lot of other SF and I wish more people had talked about it when it was new. Also just reading this book made me grateful for sleep.

Cat Sebastian, The Missing Page. The second in a charming post-WWII mystery series (that is, written now, set immediately post-WWII). Two men struggling to recover from their wounds (some of them even physical) have found each other but are also solving crimes, and frankly my main complaint in this series is that she didn’t start writing it very long ago so I don’t have a giant stack o f them to catch up on.

Greg van Eekhout, Fenris and Mott. Stray puppy is Fenris, extremely cute and fluffy, and Mott has to stop him from eating the moon and bringing down the absolute worst of Ragnarok–even when adults are on the other side. Environmental context is clear without being preachy, and the characters are a delight. Loved this.

Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession and Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. Wulf is far better at the Old World than the New. This pair of books arose from one body of research, and it’s a very interesting take on how the white men at the heads of an established and an emerging empire influenced the course of botany and were influenced by it in turn. It’s a little curious that Wulf doesn’t seem to think of the gardeners these empires ran over, or in the case of the book about North America even acknowledge their existence. She has fallen hard for the myth of untouched wilderness in North America. If you want to read about the establishment, these are a reasonable source, but don’t mistake her focus for the world even when she does.

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Blood Debts, by Terry J. Benton-Walker

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Every family relationship has its ups and downs, and twins Cristina and Clement are definitely in a low point. Instead of bringing them together, their father’s death has pushed them apart–and their mother and her sisters are going through much the same thing. Inexperienced Clem got more interested in the generational magic that is their birthright, while his accomplished sister rejected it. They can’t seem to meet in the middle. But they’re going to have to, because the powers that be in their city are not willing to leave their family alone.

The New Orleans Benton-Walker imagines for us here is just next door to our own universe. This is not a tourist’s NOLA, though it has tourists in it, but one drawn from thought about the history and culture that shaped the area–and ways they could have gone somewhat differently. Benton-Walker isn’t trying to write about every person or group in his imagined New Orleans. Instead he makes sure that the people clustered around the centers of generational magic power have a vividly drawn world and relationships within it.

This is not a stand-alone. Benton-Walker has more story than he can fit in this one book–the characters’ relationships aren’t done, and the worldbuilding definitely isn’t done. But there’s a satisfying climax here, a barnburner that left me wanting more.

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The Helm of Midnight, by Marina Lostetter

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Sometimes I wear a family ring I inherited from my dad on a chain around my neck when I want to feel close to him, and I think Marina Lostetter understands having that kind of relationship with jewelry, because The Helm of Midnight is absolutely full of emotion-imbued magical gemstones. Each broach or bracelet or embellishment of clothing can influence the wearer’s internal state. As you might expect, this is not always used for the kind of sweetness I have in my family heirloom. Sometimes–this is not a book where everyone is perpetually wallowing in misery despite the dark title. But not always.

This is the first of a series, and it features three closely interwoven timelines at most ten years apart–so you get to see characters in the “present” in their earlier incarnations, from their own points of view, and wonder at what could have gotten them from one point to another. Which magics, which betrayals, which death masks, which gods.

While there’s a sequel (coming soon! and its review here likewise!), the climax of this book is very climactic indeed, pulling together characters and plot threads in a thoughtful way. If you’re the kind of fantasy nerd who likes taxonomies and monstrous beasts and family relationships of various shapes, this will probably be your jam. I expect to have fun with the next one as well.

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Books read, late September

Daniel Abraham, A Betrayal in Winter. Reread. One of the things I notice about Daniel’s stuff is that he has actual witty lines in the place where lesser fantasy writers really hope that their lines are witty. The pacing of the wit is exactly the same, but the success level is so much higher. I feel like on the reread, the andat are a huge slow-moving backdrop against which the humans dart about. But slow-moving is not the same as stationary, and that’s fun to watch knowing where it’s all going, how he put it together.

Bae Myung-Hoon, Tower. Short science fiction satire, translated from Korean. Good if you like that sort of thing, which I do.

Casey Blair, Tales from a Magical Teashop. Kindle. Most of these are vignettes rather than stories, and I think Casey’s thinking about what kind of magical teas and tisanes would need clear consent evolved as she was writing them. To me, this is a side work compared to the trilogy, but if what you’re looking for is vibes, this is very vibesy.

Amy Brady and Tajja Isen, eds., The World As We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate. An essay collection with a successfully diverse set of viewpoints on current observations of changing climate, not just “there’s my best friend and my next door neighbor, that’s diverse!” Lots to observe here, and most of it quite well-observed.

Octavia Butler, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Bloodchild. Rereads. Short stories first: I tell myself, when I pick out a short story collection, that I can’t just reread Bloodchild every time. Which results in me not rereading Bloodchild very much at all, it had been years and I had forgotten how much the collection rests on the first two stories. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the rest, but they’re less substantial. But then, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is a story of my heart, so everything is going to pale next to that. Still love it. So much. I’m going to finish the Lilith’s Brood series, I just haven’t gotten to it yet. The first two are…a lot. Gosh they are a lot. Major consent issues–deliberately so, but still–and most characters are jerks, in ways that, again, are deliberate and understandable, but there’s only so much time I can spend with that before I need a break.

C.J. Cherryh, Angel With the Sword and Forty Thousand in Gehenna. The latter a reread. The former was slight and dated–I can see why it’s not one of hers that has stayed well-known–but still a fun read. I’m not sure I would describe the latter as a “fun read” at all. I nearly quit at the first gang rape. I’m still not sure that wouldn’t have been a better life choice. Damn there was a lot of casual sexual violence in the SFF I grew up on. I found the abandoned colony/symbiotic alien relationship theme interesting to read next to the Butlers for several reasons, and the ending is not as hopeless as I thought it was when I was a teenager, but…it’s still some pretty grim stuff. I also think that we’d handle the nonverbal characters completely differently today, but Cherryh’s version was probably considerably above the average for its era.

Davinia Evans, Notorious Sorcerer. I read this in a previous manuscript form, and it’s such a delight to see its final incarnation, full of travel between planes and magical ingredients and complicated relationships. Highly recommended.

Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. There was more of the stuff I didn’t want and less of the stuff I did, in this book–less of “here’s what happened to the people who were on the hook for killing Charles I” and more of “here’s the backstory about killing Charles I, which…since I already possess a book called The Trial of Charles I, thanks, yes, am on board. But not everyone is; it’s probably useful.

Elizabeth Lim, The Dragon’s Promise. Sequel, and it’s worth starting with the first one, because this is definitely its consequences exploding in all directions. Great fun, though.

Hugh Ryan, The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison. Prisons: they’ve basically never been good! But sometimes knowing the details of how and why something has gone horribly awry is really socially useful–especially for social context on what the penalties have been for not conforming in various ways. A hard read but worth knowing.

Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner, eds., Apex Issue 133. Kindle. My favorite story from this issue was one I’ve used the most content warnings with in any short fiction I’ve recommended. This is a hard issue. This is a very emotional issue.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 48. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing things I’m in, and I’m in this.

Ruth Ware, The It Girl. This is a combination college novel and thriller. It does really well at the shaky uncertain social ground that is the beginning of one’s first year at university, and the juxtaposition of that with the thriller element is excellent if you like that sort of thing. I occasionally do like that sort of thing. So.

Django Wexler, Blood of the Chosen. Second in a series, and I don’t recommend starting with it, but there’s a lot of page-turning action going on here–if you already read the first book, there’s more.

F. C. Yee, The Dawn of Yangchen. I don’t read a lot of tie-in fiction, but I am still all-in for Yee’s Avatar: The Last Airbender books. This one introduces us to a new past Avatar, an Air Nomad with an extremely strong connection to her past memories. Good times, fun use of the preexisting worldbuilding and enough of Yee’s own elements to keep it interesting.