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Dead Country, by Max Gladstone

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

How do we teach better than we were taught? When we’ve won free of an abusive system or person (or both), how do we make sure that we don’t revert to the things we were taught and create the same situation all over again for our student (child, nibling, other younger person)? I’m now finding it astonishing that more books don’t deal with this question as centrally as Dead Country, because it’s pretty crucial to progress. It would behoove us to think more about it. So here’s Max, thinking more about it, to the tune of at least one book. I am pleased.

So here we have–pleasant surprise!–Tara Abernathy again. Not precisely older and wiser, but certainly informed by her experiences in previous Craft novels. Except now she’s on her way home, because–and this is not a spoiler, it happens right away–her dad has died. (Note: if you are the daughter of a strong marriage who is still grieving her dad, this one will hit hard in places.) She loved her father fiercely. The rest of her hometown? eh. Not so much.

And on the way there, she’s picked up an apprentice, Dawn, a teenager whose voracious appetite for learning reminds Tara of herself. Which puts her in the role of…

Best not to think about that now. (She cannot not think about that now.) Because there are raiders at the gates, and her old neighbors are, shall we say, only variably glad to see her, and only variably interested in accepting her help.

So yeah. There’s a lot packed into this short volume. A lot of consequence, and this is very much first in a series–there are places yet to go with these ideas, and I can’t wait to get there. The marketing materials indicate that this is meant to be a good entry point for this series, and I totally agree. If you already know Tara, hurrah, more Tara. If you don’t, her characterization here is clear and interesting, entirely enough to go on. Highly recommended, regardless of whether you’ve enjoyed all the other Craft novels or never picked up a one.

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Growing Up Weightless, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publishers.

Dear Mike,

Did you know this is the novel of yours I’ve read the most often? Yes, and recommended the most often too, because to me it is like a clear glass of water, it’s very obvious who needs this book, and the answer is: most people, most of the time.

It turns out that not everyone agrees on the clear glass of water thing, Mike. A lot of other people seem to think it’s more like a milkshake, rich but opaque. You heard that a lot before you went, I bet, and here’s a new introduction from Francis Spufford saying it again: that you scarcely tell us what’s going on here. This confuses me. You hardly do anything but tell us what’s going on. Sometimes you are telling us five or six things going on all in the same paragraph. He also says–and don’t get me wrong, it’s quite a nice introduction and I’m grateful that they had him write it–that “It’s like eavesdropping on a rich, puzzling, clearly urgent conversation between strangers.” But Matt isn’t a stranger, Mike. You wrote him our friend. Our angry, confused, still figuring things out young friend. But still. From the angry start, Matthias Ronay is no stranger to me.

(Mr. Spufford also says of the ending that you “had a promise to keep to Heinlein,” and this I think is not quite right. The promise you received was from Heinlein. The promise you had to keep was to us. To the people who were basically Matt Ronay’s age when Growing Up Weightless came out. Or possibly to the people who are Matt’s age reading it now.)

The thing that struck me anew reading this in 2022, Mike, is how carefully you gave us xenophobia in a form that your readers would accept and sympathize with, only to move us, with Matt, to seeing how wrong it is, how wrong it always is. Earth people! Slammers, who could not look down on them, who could not be annoyed with them! Some days it seems like everyone who’s ever annoyed me is from Earth! But then, up close and at the full bore of xenophobia, suddenly that justification seems flimsy, disappears completely. Suddenly there is the full horror of watching people who had always been decent to you be quite otherwise to someone else, and feeling nearly powerless to stop them. Oh. Oh, I hope that gets somewhere it needs to go. And soon, Mike, we’ve been needing it even more since you left.

In the very beginning of the story-within-the-story that is the teenagers’ LARP, you put the line, “Some people always cheered when the body dropped.” And isn’t that just like you, Mike, to put bits of your theme right there front and center. To say: here it is, look at what I’m showing you. A clear glass of water, it’s right there. We can’t even say it’s sneaky because it was in a teenagers’ game, because you, of all people, took both teenagers and games seriously. What you didn’t do was take them out of their own context. And threaded through all of this the games are part of how people work, and how people learn. And they are night and day different from the gamification we’re seeing now, and oh how I wonder what you’d have thought of Adrian Hon’s book, of all the ways gamification has crept in. I want to ask you whether you think it gamification undermines games. I’ll put it on the list, I guess.

It’s not a long book. But there’s so much here, the water supply on the moon and how we have moments with our friends before the ancient enemy, entropy, sends us flying in different directions, how we know who is our own people, why we get it wrong sometimes, what we sacrifice and what we discover later that we shouldn’t have. And also: lots of scenes of teenagers having fun and genuinely liking each other, on Luna. On the moon. It’s a bit like the argument I had with someone who was very very not you about Tooth and Claw, where they were saying it wasn’t really a book about dragons and I was insisting that what made it good was that it was all those other things through being a book about dragons. This would not be the book it is about every other topic if it wasn’t mostly a book about teenagers playing games on the Moon.

And finally, at the ending, just where I thought I was done crying about the little lines you left us in this book, there is Sonya telling Matt: “‘That–doing your work as well as you know it can be done, whatever less someone else may expect–that is what will keep you sound in yourself, Matt. That is what life is for.'” Oh, my friend. Well. We’ll try, okay? We’ll try.

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Books read, early November

Julian Aguon, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies. This is a slim collection of essays and poems with an environmental theme, rooted in the author’s experience as a Guamanian. One of his strengths is that he manages to be lyrical but also provide footnotes to give credit where due and a light to other paths.

Lindsey Fitzharris, The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I. I think this is one where you know pretty well from the subtitle whether you want to read it or not. It is pretty clear about what damage can be done to humans without killing them and what procedures people in the early 20th worked on to try to help fix them up. Fitzharris talks in an early note about her decision to include graphic photos of the patients in question, but those pictures are not reproduced in line with the text but rather concentrated in the illustration insert section, so if you really need to not look at what you’re reading described, it’s fairly easy not to.

Jorie Graham, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014. I love reading “collected works” but also other career-spanning volumes of poetry for a number of reasons. One is that if there is a period I don’t connect with as much, it’s clearer in a chronological collection. In this case, Graham moves from a grounded natural lyricism to a very personally generated formalism that doesn’t connect with me at all–so I know now to seek out the early work, which is a win.

Toby Green, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa From the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. This is the beginning of what I’m looking for. Okay. Okay, look. So if you go to an art museum, it’s clear that they know all sorts of things about African politics pre-colonization. There’ll be notes about how such-and-such a thing was the poroperty of the Dahomey ambassador to Portugal or something like that. So like: we know who that was. We know all sorts of things about the Dahomey kingdom and its surrounding kingdoms. It’s a matter of collecting those things and synthesizing them, because these people were doing diplomacy with Europe, they were doing trade, they were doing exchanges of art. These people exist in records. They have–and this is a major point Green makes, contrary to some earlier European thinkers’ explicit erasure–history. And Green, who is a historian of Lusophone Africa–that means Portuguese-speaking–has started doing some of that, and it’s fascinating and lovely and so important. More. More.

Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North. So it turns out that there are two different poets, Linda Gregg and Linda Gregerson, and when I got a book by the former earlier and thought, huh, this isn’t anything like the poem of her I liked before…there was a reason for that. Erudite, insightful, and faintly Nordic.

Adrian Hon, You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. I read this in part because I am one of the least gamified people I know, and I felt like it was good to know what was being done to people in different social situations than mine and/or with different brain wiring. Hon is clearly not anti-game and in fact is one of the creators of Zombies, Run!, which makes him a good person to assess the ups and downs of gamification, neither demonizing the entire industry nor wearing blinkers about it.

Jordan Kurella, I Never Liked You Anyway. This novella is an Orpheus and Eurydice story, and also a modern college musicians story, and the combination works perfectly. Tangled relationships, confused ambitions, Cerberus with snacks from the modern world, this novella has it all.

Freya Marske, A Restless Truth. When the first book in this series arrived I sat down and read it straight through. It was exactly what I wanted to be reading in that moment. And that happened again: shipboard mystery and romance, scandalous magicians, a parrot, yes, yes this, absolutely, more of this.

Bina Shah, Before She Sleeps. This is the kind of science fiction I wish I saw discussed more often in SF circles: it’s a feminist dystopia by an Iranian writer, so it has a very different perspective than a lot of US or even broader Anglophone SF in the same subgenre, even using similar familiar elements like a skewed gender ratio and forced marriage. One of the things I think Shah writes acutely about is that sex is not the only or even the main thing straight men want with women, and keeping that kind of complexity of relationship in a dystopia was lovely to see.

Margery Sharp, The Nutmeg Tree. This is a frothy joy from 1937. It’s not sexually explicit, but it is sexually frank, and funny, and compassionate, and sharply observant about human relationships, class, and interpersonal deception. In the first few chapters, the heroine, a widowed mother, ends up in spangled tights being (a stationary) part of a trapeze act. That’s the level of “let’s do something fun in the next chapter” Sharp is working from.

Jay Wellons, All That Moves Us: A Pediatric Neurosurgeon, His Young Patients, and Their Stories of Grace and Resilience. This is another one that you will probably know if you want to avoid just from the title. Are you going to be really upset at quite young children needing often-emergent neurosurgery? Then this is not the book for you. Are you going to be eye-rollingly annoyed at the writer’s insistence on Important Life Lessons From Sick Children? pretty borderline. But there’s also a lot of interesting stuff about the actual practice of pediatric neurosurgery.

Jonathan Wylie and David Margolin, The Ring of Dancers: Images of Faroese Culture. This one isn’t actually literally what it says on the tin. Specifically, it’s not about images that are commonly used in Faroese culture. The subtitle is more meant to convey snapshots, small vignettes, about Faroese culture. Still interesting, helping me fill in some blanks in this tiny part of a geography I’m otherwise fairly familiar with.

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Books read, late October

Kelly Barnhill, The Crane Husband. Discussed elsewhere.

Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective. This is one of those books that starts out in the introduction clarifying that the German Peasants’ War of 1525 was not just Germans, not just peasants, started in 1524 and ended in 1526. Hee, okay. But Blickle really does a good job of going into what they said they wanted, how widespread each of the demands was, what affected that spread, how things played out after.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Volumes 2 and 4. Kindle. I am still in search of a title, and EBB has failed me. These two volumes were very different, though. Volume 2 was full of deliberately archaic speech (it was very forsoothly) and had some ideas that did not wage well, like EBB trying to write a poem from the POV of an enslaved Black American woman. Her heart was probably in a pretty decent place but oh dear. Volume 4 is the one that has Sonnets from the Portuguese in it and has really started flowing in some ways. Those were ways that were completely useless to me. But still.

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger. This is a fairly cheerful mystery of blackmail and murder, low on classism and gratuitous racist remarks compared to Christie’s average. I haven’t committed to reading all of them, in fact quite the opposite, but when I see someone reading a decent one I will probably follow suit and enjoy it reasonably well.

Rio Cortez, Golden Ax. There’s all sorts of speculative-adjacent stuff in this poetry collection, and its handling of tropes about race and land is quite good. I picked it up without knowing anything about it and I’m glad I did.

David Enrich, Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice. This is not a pleasant read, but it’s sometimes useful, I feel, to have some of the specific details of the unpleasantness rather than a vague politically icky feeling, and this is one of those times.

Elizabeth M. Hallam and Judith Everard, Capetian France 987-1328. What it says on the tin, except that it’s really the monarchs and a very few high clergy of that era. Fills a gap reasonably, will be solid grounding for other detail.

Hua Hsu, Stay True. This is a memoir of a lost friendship. Hsu is about the same age as me, and so many of the cultural touchstones of our college years were skillfully drawn…while portraying a friend group absolutely nothing like mine. Fast and heartbreaking.

Justina Ireland, Rust in the Root. The Dirty Thirties are in my opinion a desperately underused decade for historical fiction, and Ireland gives them a beautifully alternate twist that never loses sight of what the reality looked like. Definitely the first in a series, and I really want the next one.

Peter Lasko, The Kingdom of the Franks: North-West Europe Before Charlemagne. Sometimes you can tell that somebody has recently sold a collection to the used bookstore, and this was one of those times, because I got this at the same time as I did the Capetian book. It’s not as extensive or solid but was still basically fine.

L. D. Lewis and Charles Payseur, eds., We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2021. Some of my favorite stories from 2021 were in this, plus some authors I hadn’t read before. Always a good mix to aim for in an anthology of this type.

Mary McMyne, The Book of Gothel. Medieval German fantasy that carries the echoes of fairy tales without adhering to them particularly strongly. Stands alone. Lovely, so lovely.

Adrian Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World. Okay, so I gave the title major side-eye (last, huh? I could make some introductions, Murdoch), but I was interested in a biography of Julian the Apostate. And this was a pretty interesting one, threading the needle between the natural urge to sympathize with one’s topic and the ability to paint a nuanced portrait of a human being–particularly impressive with classical sources.

Orhan Pamuk, Nights of Plague. Historical novel that does what it says on the tin, set on a fictional Mediterranean island that was part of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th century. This is a book clearly written with the experience of COVID in mind–the reactions to contagion are in no way idealized, and no one is saved through individual force of will. May be a tough read at the moment, or in fact for any foreseeable time.

Leslye Penelope, The Monsters We Defy. The Twenties have never Roared like this before. Magical heist novel, absolute romp, structured in the best traditions of con job reveals. Such fun.

Catherine Rockwood et al, eds., Reckoning: Our Beautiful Reward. Kindle. I am in this volume, and I make it a policy not to review things I’m in.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shards of Earth. This was a fun space opera with a bunch of different human variants as well as aliens. First in a series, and I’ll be glad to have the next one.

Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory. Discussed elsewhere.

Sheree Renee Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight, eds., Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction. Discussed elsewhere.

Amy Wilson, Lightning Falls. A charming middle-grade fantasy about a girl who might not be a ghost after all. I needed a fun book with rainbows on the cover that day, and this delivered.

Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of Self and The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. Like the previous pair of Wulf books I read recently, these two pair fairly obviously. You can see where the research for one led to the interest in the next. German Romantics and their worldview and their weird complicated relationships with each other! Fun times to look at from a distance.

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Another circle

New poem out today, Dante on the Metro in Mobius.

I wrote this because I miss the Montreal Metro. I miss visiting other people’s public transit in general, but the Montreal Metro, man, the way it’s warm when you rush down out of the cold to catch your train, the way you run into multiple Celine Dion cover buskers in one day, the whole of it, absolutely the entire thing. Again someday. But meanwhile this.