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Short stories (and poems) I’ve enjoyed this spring

Notable Escapes, Leah Bobet (Strange Horizons)

“At the Heart of Each Pearl Lies a Grain of Sand,” Marie Brennan (Sunday Morning Transport)

“What I Remember of Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata,” P Djeli Clark (The Book of Witches)

“John Hollowback and the Witch,” Amal El-Mohtar (The Book of Witches)

The State Street Robot Factory, Claire Humphrey (Apex)

“Catechism for Those Who Would Find Witches,” Kathleen Jennings (The Book of Witches)

Better Living Through Algorithms, Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld)

Still Life With Slain God and Lemon, Anne Leonard (Translunar Travelers Lounge)

Steve Irwin and the Unicorn, Theo Nicole Lorenz (Strange Horizons)

“So Spake the Mirrorwitch,” Premee Mohamed (The Book of Witches)

A Chronicle of the Mole-Year, Christi Nogle (Strange Horizons)

Little Apocalypses, Aparna Paul (Reckoning)

There’s a Door to the Land of the Dead in the Land of the Dead, Sarah Pinsker (The Deadlands)

“Amrit,” Kiran Kaur Saini (F&SF May/Jun)

Blooms, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

“Drained,” Sonya Taaffe (Not One Of Us #74)

Construction Sacrifice, Bogi Takács (Lightspeed)

“The Cost of Doing Business,” Emily Y Teng (The Book of Witches)

She Blooms and the World Is Changed, Izzy Wasserstein (Lightspeed)

“Manic Pixie Girl,” AC Wise (The Other Side of Never)

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City of Bones, by Martha Wells

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a re-release of a novel first released in 1995. The promotional copy notes that this is the author’s preferred text; I don’t have the original edition, so I can’t make comparisons between the two and say what has changed and whether I like it better or worse than the original. In some senses the question is moot for me. This is the edition in front of me; this is what I’m reviewing.

The titular city is one of desert wastes and technological fantastika. This is a world past its golden age, a world full of relics and mysteries. Khat is from a race of humanoids often not considered fully human though deeply humane in his own instincts; Elen is a Warder, powerful in her own sphere but unable to penetrate some important areas to retrieve artefacts of interest. Together they–well, there appears to be more committing than fighting of crime, from some points of view. But together they muddle through. Get double crossed. And find themselves an unlikely team in the face of a still more unlikely threat.

The role of relics and their forgeries in all of this was the strongest part of the book for me. It’s an engaging enough science fantasy but not my favorite of her works–but then, that’s a pretty high bar to clear at this point, and not a choice anybody should be pushed into making.

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The Curse of Penryth Hall, by Jess Armstrong

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a very Gothicy Gothic. There’s a creepy house, there are villagers who know secrets, there is tragic history of various shapes between various characters that is Tainting! Their! Present! Lives! And of course there is a horrible, horrible murder, with supernatural elements that may or may not have anything to do with it.

Ruby is a flapper trying to recover her spirits after the horrors she saw nursing the wounded in WWI. She assists a bookstore owner (there is remarkably little of this, please do not read the book for this) who sends her on an errand…right into the neighborhood of the last person she wants to see. Who is of course someone she does see. And with whose fate hers is inextricably intertwined.

INEXTRICABLY INTERTWINED. Because it is that kind of book. DOOM DOOM DOOM that kind of book. BALEFUL SERVANT that kind of book. Coincidental dream or is it that kind of book. There are a few consistent usage errors I really hope get picked up in the copy edit, since this is an eARC, but in general this was a pulpy fun read and I was glad to spend an evening with it.

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The Water Outlaws, by S.L. Huang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a retelling of the Chinese classic Water Margin, and if you think you know antiheroes, you don’t know antiheroes until you know classic Chinese lit antiheroes. These people do not let up on the antihero. The author’s note warns you in the front: “gloriously violent,” it says, and that is true. Torture, one attempted sexual assault, cannibalism: yep. It’s all here, and Huang does not look away. If that’s not something you’re up for, this is not the book for you. Take the content warnings seriously here, people.

It’s martial arts fantasy. It’s got a big cast of–not brothers, not quite that, this is sisters mostly, siblings but mostly sisters. It’s queer and female and full of people who aren’t fitting the mold, going off and becoming bandits and challenging the oppressive empire, and some of them would really like to tell themselves that they’re doing it in an honorable, upright way, but they’re not, they’re bandits, they do bandit things, they steal and they maim and they kill, they fight among themselves, they politic and they lie. They mess with alchemical forces beyond their ken, or at least that should have been beyond people’s ken. They mess up a lot, and sometimes they mess each other up. They mess up the work that their healer does, much to her annoyance.

They make themselves heroes. They make the wrong people gods. They make an immense amount of trouble, not least for each other. And there’s nothing quite like them, but you know, there probably should be.

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Books read, early June

Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky. This is a collection of stories that draw on Arimah’s two-cultures experiences. The prose is lovely, and there’s a forthrightness to the endings, a certain “I said what I said,” and if you missed it, go back a bit.

Michael Bazzett, trans., The Popol Vuh. I’m on an epics kick, and watching the paired heroes and the other cultural assumptions that were like some of the other American origin epics I’d read, and not like many of the European origin epics I’d read, was fun. And also seeing the original (…or at least its translated form) of some of the Land of the Dead things I’ve seen reflected elsewhere was good.

Samuel Delany, Babel-17. Reread. Nearly a hundred years ago people started thinking, “…wait…so…we tell a computer things and it changes the world…how much are our brains like that?” and writing stories around the pendulum swing between “quite a bit like that actually” and “no not like that at all.” This is part of that pendulum, and there’s a great deal in it that has not aged well but you can see the places it was revolutionary when it was swinging.

Suzanne Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France. Lots of interesting stuff about religion and the average French peasant in the late 18th century. One of the things that I find fascinating is that the French Revolution changed a great deal about what the law said but changed very little about people’s sense that “the law” was whatever their moral sense aligned with; we have lots of examples of people before the Revolution firmly believing that of the King’s law, and just thereafter there are all sorts of examples of people believing it of the people’s law. On basically no evidence. It…tracks interestingly to some modern assertions, is what I’m saying.

Theresa Earenfight, The King’s Other Body: Maria of Castile and the Crown of Aragon. This is another example of history being more dimensional than it gets credit for: there was more than a century in which Queen-Lieutenancy, in which a substantial fraction of the powers of kingship were explicitly delegated to the queen for specific geographic areas and in which her word was the king’s word and her body the king’s body while he was off doing something else, usually in Italy, sometimes elsewhere in Spain. Seven different Queens of Aragon served as Queen-Lieutenants. Once you start talking about all the exceptions to the flattened-out views of medieval womanhood you are left with nothing. Maria of Castile sat her brother, her brother-in-law, and her husband down and said, sort your shit, my dudes, because I’m not leaving this tent until you do. Maiden in a tower my entire ass. Please do write medieval European fantasy, people, because medieval Europe was varied and wild.

Winifred Holtby, Poor Caroline. Kindle. A novel from the early 1930s about a scam company to make Christian films for the British public and all the ways different people got caught up in it. Probably my least favorite Holtby so far, with some of the cast of characters not quite landing. I think they were supposed to be flawed and human and generally get our sympathy, but the degree to which that worked on me varied quite a great deal: the guy who wanted his kid to be able to have a good life without having to pretend not to be Jewish got way more of my sympathy than most of the others, for example. (Good job insisting that the shop clerks should have names, Jewish guy who loves his son. Come hang out with my friends, who like it when people get to have their own names and religions, it’s this weird thing we have.) She was aimed at “look how screwed up motives can still work out all right,” I think, and…okay? but also? eh? I don’t know, go read one of the others maybe instead.

Janet Kagan, Hellspark. Reread. For my translation panel, alongside several others on this list. Better with body language than really just about anything.

Mohja Kahf, E-mails from Scheherazad. Two-cultures poems, a series of evolving meditations on wearing hijab in the US included. One of the interesting things to me is how the connotative meaning of email evolved from when she published this volume twenty years ago (new! modern! high-tech!) to now (formal! established!).

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy (reread) and Translation State. The stunning conclusion of the Ancillary series was one I really liked for how it let people take the brunt of their own behavior on their own shoulders and also make something better from what they’d been given. I thought I wanted more Presger Translator, which Translation State gave me, but I feel like I’m in a strange intermediate state of having too much or not enough of how that’s working now. Maybe more coming? maybe? one can hope.

Arkady Martine, Rose/House. Robot house sentient murder Gothic contemporary architecture yay. No I am not more coherent about this novella than that.

Abbey Mei Otis, Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories. This is one of those collections of short stories that’s like realizing that the kid who’s been messing around in the trash has actually been building really stunning things out of the gum wrappers. Also they are still gum wrappers and still covered in really gross stuff. So yeah, this is not for the faint of heart, it is not a collection that wants you to feel nice.

Andrew Rabin, Crime and Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England. Sorting out a lot of Norse and Roman and Celtic influences in the law code in this era, good stuff if you know pieces of that and are not clear on which of them are contributing to what.

Mark Russell and Mike Feehan, Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles. What a thing to do, oh my goodness what a thing to do. This is a comic that places a great many of the Hanna-Barbera characters from the mid-century at the heart of the HUAC investigations of theater and literary communities. What if Snagglepuss, Huckleberry Hound, and Quickdraw McGraw were gay and tangled up in all of that. Squiddly Diddly, Augie Doggie, all of them. The art style is on that line between realism and cartoons, with their sad and tired faces, and they interact with humans (including the real artists involved), and it’s heartbreaking and weird and asks a lot of questions about what we’re doing with this stuff and why. It’s one of those things where, if the pitch appeals, the thing will probably appeal, it absolutely nails this strange and wonderful thing, but if the pitch does not appeal, keep going, it’s probably not for you.

Mark Santiago, A Bad Peace and a Good War: Spain and the Mescalero Apache Uprising of 1795-1799. This is a moderately interesting book if you like learning more about colonial periods. It’s quite good at distinguishing among the interests of different Apache and related groups and not treating them as a monolith.

Meg Shaffer, The Wishing Game. A mainstream adult novel that is a love letter to children’s fantasies. The strange thing about this book is that most of the choices have already been made before the main action of the book starts, but I still found it really pleasant to watch it unfold. It is a nice book in which nice things happen to nice people, and it is chock full of references to children’s books I like.

Noel Streatfeild, I Ordered a Table for Six. Kindle. This is a World War II novel published during the war, and the difference between it and the previous adult novel of hers I read is striking: she’s trying to make deaths in war meaningful by fiat here in a way that she did not feel she could or had to do in the interwar period. I find it less successful but still a reasonable read most of the way through.

Emma Törzs, Ink Blood Sister Scribe. This was extremely engaging and well-structured, and while I could indeed strategically put it down to do useful life tasks, I kept thinking about it throughout. The betrayals and double-crosses, the travel and books and weather and relationships…it all came through so vividly. I loved this.

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Thornhedge, by T. Kingfisher

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This novella is a Sleeping Beauty retelling that asks: why would you imprison someone in a hedge of thorns? and comes up with the answer: because they were very dangerous indeed. Its villain is the beautiful princess, and she is an extremely nasty piece of work as only Ursula–oh, sorry, we’re pretending her name is “T.” today–can write a nasty piece of work villain, and this is only not one of her horror works because she spends most of the novella asleep.

Only most of it.

The protagonist is Toadling, the evil fairy who curses the beautiful princess. She is polite, and she tries hard, and she speaks some very wet languages. Toadling is not quite sure what to do, but she will try things until something works. I love her. I am in the curious position of loving this protag but not actually wanting more about her, because this story is very complete. Anything else would be tacked on. Her life is not complete, but her story arc is, there is a very satisfying beginning, middle, and end that are well balanced at novella length, which is hard to do.

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Books read, late May

Engin Akyurek, The Hippodrome of Constantinople. Kindle. It sure is about what it says on the tin. Do you want to know more about the Hippodrome? the one in Constantinople? This will tell you.

Risto Alapuro, State and Revolution in Finland. This is one of those cases where I learned at least as much about what other places did not have/do as what Finland did, here, by contrast. I kept saying aloud, “Oh gosh, I guess they didn’t do that other places!” Which is also useful to know, and depending on what you’ve spent your time on will probably not be your response, depending on what you know about 20th century nation formation. It’s clarifying either way.

Angeline Boulley, Warrior Girl Unearthed. This was a not-very-closely-related sequel to The Firekeeper’s Daughter, and the protag of that volume is the auntie of this one. Its protagonist, Perry, is fierce and prickly, and she’s having to deal with all kinds of problems, from getting access to a family vehicle back after a teeny tiny little incident to classmates and neighbors going missing. She’s also started to be interested in returning artefacts and bones from her tribe to their own land, bringing ancestors home, but it feels like each step toward that goal is thwarted, each adult throwing up obstacles–even in her own tribe, even in her own family. The tension within Perry’s own heart and in her relationships makes for a really good story–and one that builds on The Firekeeper’s Daughter without following its details too closely.

Giulia Calvi, The World in Dress: Costume Books Across Italy, Europe, and the East. Kindle. An examination of how 16th century people used expanded print capabilities to explore how other people looked and lived across the world. I did not expect this to start with the plates that introduced 16th century Italians to the concept of far-north Scandinavian and Sámi peoples, which was, frankly, amazing. Some of the places where people were attempting to illustrate things they had only heard described in prose were hilarious. There were also glorious and frankly political illustrations of dress in various Ottoman provinces of the time, and much more for such a short monograph.

Jinwoo Chong, Flux. A time loop novel that hits a lot of the same tropes that are very common in the genre but with a queer, biracial protagonist whose intersecting identities do matter to the plot. How much they matter vs. how much the extremely common tropes do will depend on the reader, I think.

Robertson Davies, The Manticore. I honestly don’t know why I enjoyed this book. Its protagonist was loathsome and hardly anything happened. I guarantee that if I’d read it twenty years ago it would have made me very angry. And yet I found it hard to put down, and I’m really interested in where Davies is going with this trilogy, as the relationships of these people will go. The protagonist is telling his life to a psychologist, which is not the format of the third book, as I understand it–so we’ll see what is.

William Elliot Griffis, Swiss Fairy Tales. Kindle. I downloaded this for free when I was noodling around on Gutenberg, and I can’t really recommend that you do the same. It’s one of those turn of the last century books for children where the author felt perfectly free to mingle his own fiction with Swiss tradition and label the whole thing Swiss tradition, so you can’t use it as a source about Swiss folk belief, but also it’s not particularly interesting fiction. I finished it basically as a “he said WHAT next” trainwreck. I’m still going to cherish it for its completely out-of-left-field assertion that the Swiss loved Queen Anne (of England) because she loved yodeling. I mean, sure, she might have, why not. Audience or performer? we will never know.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters. Three Sikh sisters are sent on pilgrimage with their mother’s ashes as her final wish to bring them together and in accordance with her own religious beliefs. This works…about as well as you might expect, with fights and secrets revealed at every turn. It is not as unlikely as one might hope, but it’s generally pretty heart-warming–not to the outstanding level of Jaswal’s other books, but a reasonably fun read, albeit with a few genuinely difficult issues addressed.

R. F. Kuang, Yellowface. Late May was loathsome protagonist time around here, I guess, because this was a doozy. It was absolutely beautifully written, and the gap between Juniper’s self-concept and the rest of the world is jaw-dropping. Not a nice book but wow, what a good one.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. Rereads. I wanted to be able to talk intelligently about the Presger Translator in my 4th Street panel on translators and POV, and so I just reread the whole series, not all of it before the month turned over. I really still do love the Presger Translator, particularly the line, “We are not cousins any more.” (If you know, you know.) Also I kept saying to T, “Well, I’ve gotten to the part where Seivarden is a mess.”

Caroline Stevermer, Magic Below Stairs. Reread. This is also 4th Street programming preparation, and I still am a little wobbly on the ending but really like the beginning and middle.

Noel Streatfeild, Parson’s Nine. Kindle. This is my first adult Streatfeild, and wow, wow, fascinating, wow. It’s in some ways extremely like her children’s books–there are entire sections that could be lifted whole and plunked down in one of her children’s books, probably Family Shoes as that’s the one about a clergy family–and you can see where she chooses where to stop telling the story to make it suitable for children. The story doesn’t last long enough that you’d expect the dog to die unless it was a Horrible Children’s Book Dog Death–the dog has a full long life here, and then it dies, and also WWI breaks out. Yeah. This is not a book that pulls any punches. I would say “this is not your great-grandmother’s Noel Streatfeild novel,” but it totally is, this is from 1932, this is a book that reminds you that expressions about previous generations that way are often wrong. It is very clear about how people coped with the Great War and its aftermath, and exactly how pure sexual purity of the time was not, and how a person of sincere religious faith can, without meaning to, drive children in the opposite direction. It was a bit messy in structure, and the very ending was a bit done, but I was really into it anyway, I’d much rather have her being honest about what happens to the suffragist governess in prison and what narsty things the twins really saw behind the woodpile and…still care about them in that all-right-then carrying-on Streatfeild way where multiple people get to have their own deal. I will definitely read more of her adult stuff.

Nghi Vo, Mammoths at the Gates. Discussed elsewhere.