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The Cage of Dark Hours, by Marina Lostetter

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a sequel to The Helm of Midnight, and I’m a lot more ambivalent than I usually am about whether you can read it first. Probably? The beginning has a short but thorough explanation of what’s gone before. And also…the focus has shifted a lot, compared to what you usually see in second books. All the elements are here, but which ones are background and which are of primary interest seem to have shifted significantly to me, rather than only progressing with the plot. (More monster. So much more monster focus.)

So…stand-alone? almost? Well, no: the ending is very much a middle book ending. Either that or it’s a horrifying ending–think Han Solo in carbonite, the end good talk–so if you’re looking for a stand-alone fantasy, this is not it.

If, however, you’re looking for a really classically structured genre fantasy, this ticks all the boxes. Taxonomies of magic and humans and gods and monsters! Really wicked adversaries, vivid protagonists trying the best they can! Mazes of secret passages while horrible deeds are taking place. Mysteries of identity and fate and family. Twists on what you thought you found out from the book before. Sometimes you really want a fantasy novel that hits the brief, and this one very much does. (So does its predecessor.)

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Books read, early January

Rani-Henrik Andersson and David C. Posthumus, Lakȟóta: An Indigenous History. I want more of this kind of thing: more Indigenous histories that are not actually histories of interactions with white folks. That’d be great. I did feel like there were a few points where Andersson and Posthumus were weirdly biased for or against particular Lakȟóta people, but in a corrective to treating them as incidental to their own history, all right, we’ll adjust for that.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble. This is exactly the kind of book I don’t like: it is terrible people in New York struggling with their lives and marriages. Two things saved it: one, the prose voice, compulsively readable, and two, the odd choice of point of view, which I kept reading to see why Brodesser-Akner had chosen it. I fear that the final answer might be that she inhabited the mindset of that character more personally/naturally than she did any of the others, rather than anything more brilliant, but it was still a level of remove that was just right to make me keep going.

Suzy McKee Charnas, Walk to the End of the World. Reread. When Suzy died I decided to reread the book of hers on our shelf that I had not reread particularly recently. It was well-done, well-written, and also, as I vaguely remembered, extremely unpleasant: it’s chock full of rape and cannibalism, both of them quite vivid. The thing that was particularly noticeable to me now as opposed to when I read it in the last millennium, though, was how little of this classic of feminist SF featured female perspective. It is literally three-quarters of the book before you get to woman’s-eye view. Fascinating–and not, I think, the way Suzy would have written it later in life.

James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould, Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence. So much nest-building. So much assessment of what takes fresh decisions vs. instinctive behavior. Really interesting stuff.

Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior. A lovely biography of someone from an era when biographies are harder to get at. Very clear about the muddled nature of succession in this era. The not-at-all-inevitable rise of the Angevins from the front row.

Ronald Hutton, Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation. Hutton is really, really good at fine distinctions, and this book is full of them: folk magic as part of Christianity vs. outside it is something Hutton examines in an extremely scholarly and interesting way.

Nicole Kornher-Stace, Jillian Vs. Parasite Planet. I was a little worried about this one: would it veer into horror? Hurrah, it did not, it was extremely capable and fun SF adventure. That had gross and scary stuff in it! But at an age-appropriate and Marissa-appropriate level. Wheee.

Ian McDonald, Hopeland. Discussed elsewhere.

Sean McGlynn, Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England, 1216. I feel like McGlynn could have benefited more from Hanley’s clear sense that succession was still very much up in the air in this era–“how do we figure out our next king” was not a question with one answer. But as books outlining the French relationships and utter failures of King John go, this was a useful one.

Toni Morrison, Home. Very short and hard-hitting story of a Korean War vet and his sister and how they construct a concept of home in a world that has betrayed them in multiple directions.

Alison Richard, The Sloth-Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present. This book literally goes from Madagascar being formed to the present day–that’s what Richard means by “the deep past.” Along the way we get to look at lots of rocks and lemurs and various other cool things, and I, for one, like rocks and lemurs.

Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. Brisk and lively and in no way flinching away from either the darker or especially the weirder aspects of the life and character of John Donne. So glad to have this.

Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams. I could wish that Schiff was clearer about how much the Founders for the most part considered themselves Englishmen, but this was still an interesting study, especially considering how much of his correspondence etc. Adams burned for the safety of all concerned (as opposed to some less radical Founders who were very consciously writing absolute reams about themselves For Posterity).

Margery Sharp, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets. Funny as Sharp always is, this book is about the difference between what you think you want and what you actually want, and learning to see the genuine.

Jason Sizemore, Lesley Conner, et al, eds., Apex Issue 135. Kindle. Favorite story in this issue was an absolute firecracker of an opening to the year from Isabel J. Kim.

D.E. Stevenson, Charlotte Fairlie. A mid-fifties novel of a youngish woman who is headmistress of a girls’ school and her struggles with pupils, teachers, and parents. I didn’t find the ending entirely satisfactory–I felt like it rather suddenly hand-waved away some of the questions of work it had raised–but the book was so much fun to read that I don’t really mind.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Issue 50. Kindle. The special double issue really delivered, with favorite stories from John Wiswell and E. Lily Yu and a favorite poem from Brandon O’Brien.

Peter H. Wilson, Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-Speaking Peoples Since 1500. Discussed elsewhere.

Ryan Lee Wong, Which Side Are You On. This debut novel is about interracial and intergenerational activism, and also it’s a well-drawn portrait of a family, and also there’s some really beautiful stuff about being Korean-American in Los Angeles. Reed, the protagonist, is a Chinese-Korean-American who is drawn to a very similar part of the left to his parents, but with very different life experiences and stage of life informing his choices–and that all sounds very worthy but also it’s a fun read with smooth prose. Can’t wait to see what Wong does next.

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Hopeland, by Ian McDonald

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the things that I find important in talking about other people’s books is not to get annoyed that they didn’t write the book I wanted, that they wrote the book they wanted instead. But sometimes that’s very hard, because it’s difficult to fathom why they wanted to write that book when another (coughbettercough) book was so close at hand.

Hopeland is about all sorts of things I like to read about. It’s got found family and giant scope both temporally and geographically; it’s got people coping with the reality of climate change, people making art, people growing things and making music and trying to figure out how best to rear children. It’s got Iceland and Tonga (okay, he calls it Ava’u…but really…) and several other locations in between.

And for some reason I will never understand, McDonald has decided to center his tale on Amon Brightbourne, one of the most boring sadsack white men ever to helm a science fiction novel. He believes himself to be living a charmed life, but there is some question about whether that charmed life is a zero-sum game, whether the good things come to him at the expense of others. When I thought this might be dealt with directly, I was cautiously interested, but no, people go on making decades’ worth of life choices based on the premise that his superpower is Captain Zero-Sum, and nobody seems to say to themselves, “hey, this guy’s life really sucks, so…let’s reexamine our premises.” Very late in the book there’s a moment where another character says of Amon, “Oh, he makes me so angry and he’s stupid and entitled and he has no sense about anything.” YEP. THAT IS SURE TRUE. And then she goes on, “All that. But I’ve never…stopped…loving him.” And I went: what? literally why???

Everything else in this mildly woowoo science fiction fantasy mashup is framed around the existence and importance of Amon Brightbourne. Raisa and Atli and Morwenna and the princesses and Kimmie and all the other characters…they continue to refer back to him, to constantly care what he’s doing and thinking, which means that the elements that might otherwise build a fascinating story just sort of hang around with this guy. I’m not even annoyed with him except as a protagonist, I just find him fundamentally so dull that the rest of the novel is colored by his constant presence. I couldn’t wish him ill, but I also couldn’t wish him well, and I felt that if I wished him weird, he would leach all the pigment out of that too. So. I dunno. Lots of good stuff in here, but for me the sum was much less than its parts.

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Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-Speaking Peoples Since 1500, by Peter H. Wilson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is an absolutely lovely brick. I loved reading it, and I recommend it highly. Wilson is the author of a similarly huge history of the Thirty Years War which I also really enjoyed, and he starts this book in 1500 in part because he knows that a lot of the “common wisdom” about things that started with or after the Thirty Years War is not true and wants to give a fuller context.

This book isn’t called The Swiss: They Exist, Dammit but that’s a major theme that works really, really well: Wilson doesn’t mistake the current national boundaries among German-speaking peoples for inevitable eternal destiny, and this makes a lot of things make a lot more sense than they do if you assume that we have arrived at the one true set of national boundaries toward which everyone was always yearning. This is true of the Austrians but especially of the Swiss, they are so often relegated to “I dunno they were up in the mountains somewhere what do you want from me.” Not this time. Detailed accounts of the establishment and maintenance of Swiss neutrality, Swiss mercenary corps, etc. Hurrah.

It’s quite a long and eventful bit of history to cover, so my one complaint is that Wilson has chosen to divide into periods and then into theme within period…which is great…but his periods are extremely long. And I get that he has stuff he wants to cover about how various things in WWII segued directly into how militaries were handled in the divided Germanies of the 20th century and that segued into how the reunited Germany handles those same issues in the present, but…it made for a lot of back-and-forthing. 1930s to present is…rather long. As periods go for this kind of discussion.

Nevertheless, this is a book that has a lot of interesting things to say both about fun details with which you can amaze your family (plunderhosen, my pals) and about the larger patterns–and also what they weren’t. It’s the sort of book that seems essential once you have it.

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So hey, uh, it looks like I’m a finalist for the inaugural round of Emeka Walter Dinjos Awards:…/ It’s so nice to have one’s work thought of, I have to say, especially as I can rattle off dozens of wonderful disabled writers. I’m so privileged to work in the field I do, with the colleagues I have.

The work in question is So Your Grandmother Is a Starship Now: A Quick Guide for the Bewildered:

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Books read, late December

Daniel Abraham, An Autumn War. Reread. Third in its series and for heaven’s sake don’t start here, this is all ramification all the time. Wow is this the difference between a good book and a nice book. Abraham lets his characters screw up massively with world-altering repercussions, and I am 100% here for it.

Jeanne E. Abrams, A View from Abroad: The Story of John and Abigail Adams in Europe. This is one of those nonfiction books that was interesting but left me wanting a slightly different book than the author wanted to write, namely a history of the early diplomatic corps of the US. Somebody go write this for me. This is a little bit of that and a lot of Adamses, which is fair because that’s what it says on the tin.

Molly Brodak, A Little Middle of the Night. Personal poetry with a shifting set of angles on illness and disability, loved it, absolutely recommend.

Stephanie Burt, We Are Mermaids. I wanted this poetry collection because of the title poem, and it did not disappoint. Trans issues, mythology, mythologizing one’s own issues, good stuff, hard-hitting stuff.

Caris Avendano Cruz, Marikit and the Ocean of Stars. A romp through Filipina legends and mythology and growing up. It feels a little younger than most of the middle-grade books with this title pattern, but not babyish or anything, and the legends are well-handled.

Don Duncan and dave ring, eds., Opulent Syntax: Irish Speculative Fiction. A slim volume, none of which was really outstandingly my sort of thing, but I want more of this sort of exercise, more angles on different voices in sff; it only stands to reason that they won’t all hit me the same way.

George Eliot, Romola. Kindle. Well, this is it: now I’ve read all of George Eliot’s novels. I’m very glad I have. Romola was not my favorite but was still very much worth a read. It’s set further back in history from where the author was writing it than most of her books–late 15th century Florence–and you can sort of see the shape of some of the ideas she was working with that would eventually become Middlemarch.

Sonja Fritzsche, Science Fiction Literature in East Germany. Kindle. A friend sent me this because he’s colleagues with the author, and it was fascinating to watch her trace the different science fictional literary movements in a tradition almost but not completely disjoint from mine–she has a lot of the same touchstones in western SF to ground the discourse in what I do know. (There was, for example, a moment where she cited Darko Suvin, and I said, “Okay but the thing about Darko Suvin–” only to find that in the next paragraph she was basically giving the same points as I’d been saying. Yes. Good.)

Carrie Jenkins and Carla Nappi, Uninvited: Talking Back to Plato. Mostly responding to Plato’s dialogs with feminist poetry, sometimes other things as well–a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Earth orbit, a bit of a lot of things. I found this more intellectually interesting as an exercise than emotionally affecting as poetry, but I think that’s just because it wasn’t quite my kind of poetry rather than that it was badly done in any way.

Catherine Kerrison, Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America. Kerrison did an impressive amount of research around Patsy and Polly Jefferson and Harriet Hemings, including attempting to trace Harriet’s life after she left Monticello and looking for people who might have been her, with a lot of attention to education and status for varied women in this era. Unlike many people who might be drawn to this topic, she doesn’t seem to have been pulled into the black hole that is Thomas Jefferson’s charm–she never actually writes “what a jerk,” but its presence is pretty strong, and appropriate in context.

L.R. Lam, Dragonfall. Discussed elsewhere.

Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. Lots of analysis of who was hanged and why (by profession, by gender, all sorts of variables), with further attention to ideas of criminality, class, and society around it. Extremely interesting.

Dipika Mukherjee, Dialect of Distant Harbors. Poetry around themes of immigration and distance, beautiful stuff.

Alex Roland, Underwater Warfare in the Age of Sail. All sorts of technical stuff about mines and diving bells and cool stuff you might want to know if you’re that kind of nerd.

Drew Sarkis, Schemes of the Wayfarer. Discussed elsewhere.

Chris Scott, with Sarah Zorn, Homage: Recipes and Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen. This was a really interesting read not because I wanted to make these recipes (I don’t) or because the author was such a stunning prose stylist (he isn’t) but because his entire way of thinking about food was interesting and made me think about it differently too.

Margery Sharp, The Innocents. Kindle. The story of a sixty-something woman who ends up caring for a developmentally delayed toddler during WWII. There are a few uses of language/concepts that are not contemporary (the r-word once, other casual slurs from well-meaning people around the child’s intellect and mutism but honestly not nearly so many as I would have expected, and also the child is said not to be autistic with a complete misunderstanding of what that would mean), but in general this is a very affirming story of a young person and an old person who manage to be their best selves together, and it’s really not a shape of story I see much.

Sun Yung Shin, The Wet Hex. Poems with a witchy theme and an immigrant theme. Not one of the volumes that resonated most with me, but worth reading.

Daniel Arthur Smith, Oceans: The Anthology. Kindle. This was a place where previous favorite authors shone: the stories I liked best were from Ken Liu and Caroline Yoachim. Lots of watery ideas, always room for more water, yay.

Nathan Tavares, Fractured Infinity. A multiplicity of other universes, with other versions of oneself and one’s partner, combined with a machine that tells the future foretelling extremely tough choices. A gay love story, a story of possibilities.

Martha Wells, The Witch King. Discussed elsewhere.

Ovidia Yu, The Mushroom Tree Mystery. The latest in this series of historical mysteries set in Singapore. This one takes us up to the very end of the Second World War, with all the chaos and change of that. I love that Yu is burning plot this way. I love that she’s not saving anything for the proverbial swim back.

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Outpost reading

Hey Twin Cities area pals! Two weeks from today–that is, January 15–at 2:00 p.m. I will be reading at Outpost’s event in Lakeville! Details and tickets here.

I’ve attended Outpost before as an audience member and really enjoyed it, so I’m thrilled to be on the other side of things this time around. There will also be a poet and five quite varied musicians, so I think of it sort of as an elevated variety show. See you there if your location and risk budget permit!