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The Blighted Stars, by Megan E. O’Keefe

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Where’s the line between space opera and planetary adventure? “We have a whole bunch of spaceships and vast interstellar organizations and stuff but we’re gonna crash land on a dead planet and have to survive with people about whom we feel terribly conflicted and discover that we were wrong about our worldview”: I think that’s both, right? I think that’s both, but also it’s definitely The Blighted Stars by Megan E. O’Keefe.

Tarquin Mercator is the scion of one of the five wealthy families who control the known worlds. He’s more interested in geology than in politics and power, and he has named his little robot Pliny the Metal. (It is theoretically possible that you will not love Pliny the Metal, but…this does not seem to me very likely, it’s like not loving a tachikoma. Except Pliny the Metal doesn’t talk, so no one will be annoyed by its voice.) Naira Sharp is a revolutionary whose mind has been printed into someone else’s body, and she has to figure out why and what to do about it. Because yeah, this is a world where the map of your consciousness is saved and downloaded, repeatedly, into new bodies. Which sounds great, but gets much worse the more you think about it, and the book thinks about it a lot.

Also, humanity has basically trashed several ecosystems, so…is this trashed ecosystem humanity’s fault? the fault of some very specific humans related to Tarquin Mercator? a cosmic accident? What is going on with the fungus that is the only life-form covering the planet that was supposed to be full of life forms? And can two such different people as Tarquin and Naira manage to work together when they each have pieces of this puzzle?

This is the beginning of a new series, so some of these questions are not fully answered–and the ones that are only lead to more questions. But if you’re looking for planetary adventure that does not let up, this is very much in that mode.

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Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, by Rita Chang-Eppig

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Did someone declare this the year of the Pirates of the Not-Caribbean? This is not a complaint, I’m just wondering, because there’s Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi in the Indian Ocean several centuries ago and now there’s this, which is 19th century piracy in the waters near China and Southeast Asia, and compared to what there has been recently, those two together feel like a boom. Also both of them center women pirates, which, sure, yes, that’s historically accurate, more of that if you like, any time.

The speculative element of Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea is the protagonist’s conversations with the goddess of the sea. They have an ongoing and very specific relationship, and while the eARC format was less ideal for this than I expect the final product will be, the novel threads through stories of different incarnations and experiences of that sea goddess that illuminate the protagonist’s experiences.

I think this book would probably still work well if you didn’t know much about 19th century European colonialism in Asia, but if you do there is a particularly well-handled element of being the audience at the horror movie shouting, “DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT! HONEY STAY OUT OF THAT CELLAR!” while the protagonists go on having their lives, not having hindsight on their side. It’s extremely effective and fits interestingly with the realistic depictions of women’s lives, medicine, and piratical politics. There’s plenty of swashbuckling, but it’s not treated as weightless, never allowed to be “just” a fun action story. Despite taking place substantially at sea, this is a book with very solid grounding.

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The Space Between Here and Now, by Sarah Suk

Review copy provided by the publisher.

If you read science fiction, or if you read YA, and especially if you read both, you’ll be able to predict all the beats of this book. If you’re an adult, that is, and that’s an important caveat. Because YA is not primarily for adults, and YA is part of how people learn what the tropes and story shapes are in the first place.

Aimee Roh has Sensory Time Warp Syndrome, a condition that makes her disappear for seconds, minutes, even hours at a time when she encounters a sensory impression that triggers a memory. No one can predict which memories will carry this baggage when–the trigger sense even varies among STWS sufferers.

Her bicultural father is opposed to her seeing a therapist to help deal with this. He also doesn’t want to tell her why her mother left, where she is now, what happened. He doesn’t seem to want to talk at all, having seemingly embraced the most taciturn parts of Canadian and Korean cultures.

Aimee finally decides that she has to seek out answers herself. Does her mother also have STWS? Could she be caught in a loop, as other STWS sufferers have been? What can Aimee’s parents’ past teach her about herself and her future? As I said to begin with, the answers to these questions are going to seem pretty obvious as you read. What will not seem obvious, though, is the verve and specificity with which Aimee as a young artist apprehends the world. She and her friends and family are extremely well-drawn, and the characterization makes this short novel very much worth the time.

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Nigeria Jones, by Ibi Zoboi

Review copy provided by the publisher.

How many plots are there? You’ll hear different numbers bandied about–three, five, whatever–but they all seem to agree that you can boil everything down to just a few plots if you try hard enough. And this is definitely one of the classics: young person strives to find her place in the world, making a start on sorting out how she feels about parents, larger family group, immediate community, and larger culture.

Other than relatability, one of the reasons this is such a classic plot is that the details matter so much to it. It may be the same plot, but it’s not the same story over and over again, not by a long shot. Especially not when a writer like Ibi Zoboi uses it as the framework for the story of a contemporary young woman raised in a Black Nationalist household with community leader parents.

Nigeria herself is beautifully drawn, complex and conflicted, frequently angry and confused but never one-dimensionally so. She makes bad decisions–and good ones; she doesn’t always have a chance to have her say when she would like to do so, but she does speak up for herself a lot. Her relationships are complex and conflicted as well: a best friend with whom she’s drifted, a cousin with whom the larger family situation has gotten complicated, a couple of new boys with very different backgrounds, assumptions, things that they want of Nigeria. And then, especially, there’s her parents. Her father, whose expectations of her don’t leave a lot of room for the things she wants for herself. Her mother, whose absence has become a defining presence in her life. The shape of Nigeria’s mother’s absence and what exactly happened is beautifully done, with the light dawning for the reader in emotionally evocative ways before Nigeria is ready to talk about them directly herself.

I’m definitely not the target audience for this book. I’m a 44-year-old white lady, and this is definitely YA–and I firmly believe that no matter how much we adults can love MG and YA, we’re not the people it’s written for. But you can enjoy things that are not primarily for you, and I definitely did enjoy this. It is full of respect for the young people it portrays, it wrings joy from the hard places, it is just plain beautifully done.

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Books read, early April

Tobias S. Buckell, Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance. Discussed elsewhere.

Romilly Cavan, Beneath the Visiting Moon. This is a book in which things fail to happen. Sometimes their failure to happen is entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but mostly things do not change a great deal over the course of this book, and things do need to change for these characters. As a result there are entertaining bits that don’t really add up to anything satisfying–there’s a relief in a few metaphorical bullets dodged, but not a lot of it.

Heid E. Erdrich, The Mother’s Tongue. Loved these poems. Far-ranging, thoughtful, striking, personal, yes, absolutely. I immediately went to the library website to request more of Heid E. Erdrich–I had read her sister Louise but not her, and she’s definitely worth the time.

Daryl Gregory, The Album of Dr. Moreau. Genetically altered boyband plus murder mystery. I tore through this one in a very short time, because it’s good fun and also not particularly long.

Frances Hardinge, Unraveller. I love Hardinge’s sideways thinking about magic and worldbuilding and fairy tales. This is a world full of curses and some very cranky teenagers dealing with them–realistically and endearingly cranky.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Last Light of the Sun. Reread. I hadn’t read this since it came out because my impression of it was “but no” and I stand by that. It is one of my least favorite of Kay’s works. Is it still readable, absolutely, I shelved it and will probably read it again in another almost-20 years, or possibly even before then. He’s a good writer and I enjoy reading what he’s written. But also: Kay and I have very fundamentally different takes on Norse culture in the Viking age, and that interferes with the kind of immersion I usually want from his books. Some of this is trivial: if you change the names of the gods you have changed many of the names of the people, because Norse names go like that, you have lots of people whose names are things like Thor’s Bear or Brightness of Freya, right? Norse names are plug and play. You unplug half of them and things go completely awry. But some of this is much deeper: you cannot take the mortality of the gods away from the Norse and end up with the same culture. It’s emotionally and interpersonally fundamental. If you’re going to quote “kin dies, cattle dies”–which he does, twice that I noticed–you cannot have your version removing the gods themselves must one day die and end up with something with the same weight. As a result this is the only Kay book that doesn’t give me those moments of “oh, OH” where the book rings like a bell. But at least I’ve verified that I feel that way, and why.

Patricia Kirkpatrick, Odessa: Poems. A local poet–the Odessa in question is within a few hours of my house, not on the other side of the planet–working with local images but also things like major illness, in interesting combinations.

Madeleine L’Engle, The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, A House Like a Lotus, Meet the Austins, The Moon By Night, A Ring of Endless Light, A Severed Wasp, The Young Unicorns. Rereads. Wow, okay, wow. There’s a lot here. I decided to reread the non-Time Trilogy (what do you mean Quartet, I don’t know what you’re talking about, la la la) L’Engles I had on the shelf to see which ones I still liked. And wow, the answer is definitely not all of them. A Severed Wasp is the only adult novel here, and it’s absolutely appalling about bisexuality and also, separately, about having sex with Nazi prison guards who were your own personal Nazi prison guard. What. Madeline seriously what. Also it goes so far along the line of “Jews were not the only people to suffer under the Nazis” as to focus almost completely on what random able-bodied rich straight people suffered under the Nazis. Madeline stop it. It’s also weirdly heartbreaking in historical terms because we know that the AIDS crisis is already happening–she’s writing about a bisexually active New York community in 1982, and one of the Cathedral staff has a weird pneumonia that won’t go away…and when I read this for the first time as a kid somewhere between 1988 and 1990 it didn’t occur to me that she didn’t already know what that was, but she didn’t.

Was that the worst of them, haha no, that was A House Like a Lotus, which is a completely prime example of kids getting different things out of a book than adults. When I was 8 and I read that, what I got was: some ladies like other ladies in a kissing way, that’s called lesbians and it’s fine. Good take-home message, 8yo Marissa! News you will be able to use (though not, in my case, firsthand) for the rest of your life! What I got out of it as an adult was: you have 5.2 seconds to forgive people who sexually assault you before you’re the problem, and also you’re probably the problem anyway for thinking they might be a good person in the first place; your own uncle will start hassling you to this effect but also the partner of the person who assaulted you will drag you back into the house and drug you after the assault; when you, a 16yo, turn to an adult friend who is a literal doctor at the literal only hospital near your home for help in injuries sustained, he should take this as a good opportunity to have sex with you. Also some stuff about sexy rich boys negging you later. WHAT. MADELEINE WHAT WERE YOU DOING. And then there’s the fact that Meg Murry O’Keefe is feeling “restless” doing nothing but raising children so she gets to go to the theater once for fun, and she has become a bland generic mother figure who doesn’t show her kids any of her interests. NOPE. I strongly, strongly anti-recommend this book.

Also anti-recommended: Dragons in the Waters, fairly badly constructed and centering on White Savior and Noble Savage narrative. No actual dragons harmed in the making of this book. Meet the Austins and The Moon By Night: zero of Madeleine’s batshittery around science, leaving you with just “isn’t our totally normal family totally great,” which works far less well when a huge amount of the narrative is the kids being outright nasty to each other with no resolution and an absolutely staggering amount of pro-violence narrative. How great it is to hit your children, how wonderful, what a sign of a good family, how much happier and better off kids would be if only their parents were of a social class acceptable to Madeleine and also “walloped” them. BIG NOPE HERE.

I started with three of the above five in a row and was really upset. Madeleine L’Engle was formative to my childhood! Didn’t I love any of her books any more? Thankfully I do, and the answer is: the more batshit the better. Possibly this is also because the more metaphysical the better? The Arm of the Starfish is not a coherent spy narrative, but I imprinted on it before I could care that it wasn’t, and I still don’t. A Ring of Endless Light is wrong about dolphins in ways that I do not blame her for, because we didn’t know the things about dolphin behavior that we do now, but it’s substantially right about slowly losing a grandparent and worth having for that. (Many of the Austins remain jerks, but less so than previously, and she doesn’t advocate for intrafamilial violence here.) And then there’s The Young Unicorns, in which the Austin family is the nicest it ever gets and the plot is the most off-the-wall randomly what-is-she-even and…I love it anyway. There are lasers and impersonations and the least plausible street gang ever in the world, and I am absolutely on board for it, sure, yes, do your batshittery, Madeleine, think about redemption and community and all of that, think wrong things about science if you have to get there, I don’t care. So the moral of the story for me seems to be: weird stuff made her a much better writer, always go for the weird stuff. Fair. Enough.

Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. I did not know that some political prisoners in Italy during Mussolini’s rise were internally exiled rather than jailed. This is the novel one of them wrote based on his experiences of being sent to a small, isolated village in the south of Italy. I read it for the political prisoner narrative, but it’s much stronger as regional observations.

Kelly Link, White Cat, Black Dog. I think the last story of this volume was my favorite, which is a great way to structure a volume of short stories. Everybody goes home happy! Where by everybody of course we mean me. Each story had some connection with a fairy tale, but the connections were tenuous at best–which is fine, that kind of leap is what makes Link who she is, and you can read straight retellings pretty much anywhere. This is not the Madeleine L’Engle kind of “strap in we’re going to be very wrong in five directions at once but you’ll have fun with it” kind of off-the-wall, it’s a much quieter and more focused kind. And uh. Less wrong. And more consistently enjoyable for me at this point in my life.

Shion Miura, Kamusari Tales Told at Night. Gentle small-town Japanese fantastica, volume two. I would start with the first one if I were you. This one is somewhat more focused on the character’s romantic relationship, but there’s enough satisfying dog and gods that I enjoyed it and would read more if there was more.

Abdi Nazemian, Only This Beautiful Moment. Discussed elsewhere.

Vivian Shaw, The Helios Syndrome. This novella was an absolute banger. If you want to see someone nail novella pacing, this is it. If you don’t care about that sort of thing on a conscious level, consider that it is about a consulting necromancer for the NTSB, dealing in airline disasters. Interesting, different from other stuff out there, quite good.

Jonathan Strahan, ed., The Book of Witches. Discussed elsewhere.

Noel Streatfeild, Gemma, Gemma Alone, Gemma and Sisters, Good-Bye Gemma, Tennis Shoes, Theatre Shoes. Rereads. Regular readers may remember that I tried Circus Shoes last month and was appalled, so I was relieved that all of these held up reasonably well. Three of the four volumes of the Gemma series (all very short and written in quick succession, I wonder what happened there to make them four rather than two) were in absolutely dreadfully Americanized versions. I do not approve of changing books to make them fit the country they’re being sold to rather than the country they’re set in. Detail is characterization. A British man who only watches television when baseball is on is a very different person from one who only watches it when cricket is on–the former is a giant weirdo who watches way less television, but you know very different things about him than you do about the latter. Also what people call their mothers matters, and it doesn’t always matter in the same way. The distinction between Mom and Mommy is not the same as the distinction between Mum and Mummy, and what people call their mothers is, again, characterization. Ah well. Theatre Shoes has a bit of war-encouraged racism in references to the Pacific theatre, fair warning. It also has a Jewish uncle and cousin who are some of the most positive characters in the book or indeed in all of Streatfeild. (We stan Uncle Mose Cohen.) Also it has quite a lot of Making Do In Wartime, in this case written while the war was still on, which I found really interesting as a kid and still like. Meanwhile I completely did not spot how much Tennis Shoes, of all things, is a book where the author is coping with the loss of empire, and so are the characters. The father’s desire for the children to find ways to be champions is specifically because he feels that Britain has declined and continues to decline, and he wants the children to find ways to excel so that people will respect Britain–not for conquest but for having quite good tennis players, swimmers, singers, and so on. There are far worse ways to cope with this cultural shift.

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. An old woman goes to live out her life in a little hotel with other old people in similar circumstances. The characters are very well-drawn, but it is fundamentally not a very cheerful book; very few of the people one encounters in it are actually interesting people, as opposed to people with distinctive quirks, and this makes me sad as most of the people I encounter are interesting people, so it’s a very large difference in worldview.

Wenfei Tong, Understanding Bird Behavior: An Illustrated Guide to What Birds Do and Why. This is another of the category of books I keep saying I’m liking: interesting facts about a particular area of natural history, for grown-ups. I find them very relaxing, and this one is a visually beautiful example of the type.

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Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance, by Tobias S. Buckell

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Buckell and I started publishing short fiction around the same time, so while we’ve never really been in the same place at the same time long enough to say that we know each other well, I sure know what to look for in his work. So if this is your first Tobias S. Buckell collection, what should you expect (that he totally delivers here)?

Clear prose. Transparency is not the sole virtue prose can have, but it sure is a virtue prose can have, and Buckell’s has it. When you’re in the mood to never have to read a sentence three times to figure out what the author is on about, these are good hands to put yourself in and know that the story will be primary.

Strong roots. Buckell knows his genre. Several of these stories are responses to genre classics, and genre furniture abounds. Do you like stories about robots? aliens? generation ships? jungle Venus, for heaven’s sake? Buckell has you covered here. But those aren’t the only ones of his roots that are giving him a strong grounding here. One of the stories here has a hero with an ethnic and racial background very similar to Buckell’s own Caribbean-American biracial heritage, giving the character a depth and context that absolutely makes the story. The single collaboration in the volume–with Karen Lord, whose work I love–describes in its authors’ notes how these two writers of Caribbean heritage decided to go deep into their own loves and backgrounds, only to find the story incredibly popular and resonant. Which it should be. It’s a great piece.

New twists. Even people who want their science fiction to come with familiar genre furniture could just reread their old favorites if that’s all they wanted. Buckell is intensely thoughtful about the shapes of these stories, the ways in which the old takes don’t quite satisfy, the ways he can make them his own. Even when you’re reading another of his several alien stories, it’s never “oh yeah, another one of those” but rather “oh, interesting, that’s a different place to take it.”

If you haven’t been reading Tobias S. Buckell, this is a pretty ideal place to start. If you have, at least some of the stories will probably be old friends–but I personally like to have stories I’ve enjoyed relocated to convenient collections for me to reread at my leisure, and also even I hadn’t read all of these.

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The Book of Witches, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Review copy provided by the publisher. Several authors published herein are friends or cordial professional acquaintances.

Jonathan Strahan knows how to put together an anthology. I mean, you might think, he ought to by now, he’s done enough of them! But sometimes repetition solidifies bad habits rather than good, and that is not the case here. The focus is broad enough to allow for a wide range of stories but narrow enough that it’s interesting as an anthology topic and can draw out worthwhile stories authors might not otherwise have sat down to write. The stories have an admirable range of subject, tone, style, setting, and cultural background. Basically this is a case study for how to do a well-constructed anthology.

I don’t think there was a dud in this mix, but several standouts–each very different from the other–included P. Djeli Clark’s “What I Remember of Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata,” “Catechism for Those Who Would Find Witches” by Kathleen Jennings, “So Spake the Mirrorwitch” by Premee Mohamed, Emily Y. Teng’s “The Cost of Doing Business,” and the beautiful finale to the book, “John Hollowback and the Witch,” by Amal El-Mohtar. Here you will find good witches, bad witches, morally conflicted witches, witchhunters of every stripe, modern witches, postmodern witches, fairy tale witches, secondary world witches and witches from all around our globe. If you like fantasy short fiction, unless you actively dislike witches in every form and possibly even then, I think you’ll find something to love in this.

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Only This Beautiful Moment, by Abdi Nazemian

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Sometimes you find a book that falls beautifully into its genre while also being so singular that you marvel that someone thought to do it. This is one of those books for me. It is absolutely, without question, queer YA of the 2020s. It is also a layered story of three generations of men in a Persian-American family, each with his own heartaches and secrets, converging on a present where one of them has become the father and another the grandfather in a family. Their relationships with love, art, and politics shift and change with time and circumstance; their approaches to family and ethnicity are also fluid. Sometimes they’re more easily able to see their differences than their commonalities.

It is so good.

Even just the writing of the first section, the introduction to Moud as a contemporary teenager with a fraught relationship with social media and a boyfriend who has seriously different attitudes than he does, promises to be a really lovely novel of personal growth and exploration, just the sort of thing YA does best at its best. And then the next section–expands, shifts, it’s more book than it might have been, deeper and better and with more perspectives.

In addition to the three protagonists, the minor characters are so well considered and so well drawn. This is a book that’s really thoughtful about everybody having their own stuff to deal with, some of it really large stuff. It keeps beautiful perspective on its own specificity as one example of the way the world can strive to be better, not the only example. I’m so glad I had a chance to read this.