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The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, by Malka Older

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Mossa and Pleiti are back.

And unfortunately for them, their fellow citizens of the floating settlements above Jupiter–and its moons–are disappearing again. It’s up to Mossa to find them, or at least to figure out where they’ve gone, and university politics have reached enough of an unappealing fever pitch that Pleiti is all too glad to spend the time helping her instead. Even if it means going to Io, where everything is–gasp–stuck to the ground, and modes of transport are–oh horrors–not on rails but free form at the operator’s discretion. Who knows what might happen in a place like that. (Well, Mossa knows. She’s from there.)

I’m on the fence about whether I think this would work as well for people who hadn’t read The Mimicking of Known Successes. There’s a lot of characterization and worldbuilding in that volume that carries through into this one, and at such a short length there’s not really room to do everything again at full length. On the other hand, if you’re ready to pick up details by incluing I think it’s all there. On the other other hand, the first one is still in print and is quite short. So if you want to go get the feel for this detective relationship above Jupiter and where their bumps and uncertainties–with the world and with each other–are coming from, it’s not a huge time commitment. But if you haven’t reread the first one since it came out, Older will definitely remind you who’s who and what’s what as you go. I feel like the series is only getting better as it goes on, so to me it’s worth the time to read both.

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The Frame-Up, by Gwenda Bond

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a heist novel with a bit of magic in it. I want to distinguish this, because if you are hoping for a fantasy novel with a heist in it, you will be disappointed. This is not a book that intends to go deep into its magic theory, spending pages upon pages on how the magic works, who gets it and why, how they develop it, how they apply it, any of that. No. This is a book that looked at heist movies and said, I want a one of those. But with some magic.

Want that? You’ve got it. It’s got the bit where you find out the job, the bit where you get the team together, the bit where it’s all a little wobbly. It’s got a cute dog, a love triangle, a fancy gala, a really sketchy customer, and a terribly fraught emotional backstory to complicate the whole thing. It’s got the supply run and picking out the dress for the gala and the point where you think it can’t work but it has and the point where you’re sure it has worked and it hasn’t. It has all the things you want in a heist. Also the cute dog is not harmed in the making of this book.

But notice that those things were not the magic training sequence, the wise wizard mentor, the cool spell, or any of the other genre furniture for fantasy. Okay? Because this is a heist book, with some fantasy elements. Dani Poissant and her border collie Sunflower are absolutely here for your art theft needs. (I really, really like Sunflower.)

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The Book of Love, by Kelly Link

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Look, friends, this felt so comfortable, okay? This felt like–of course, of course this is what reading a Kelly Link novel feels like, haven’t I been doing this for years? I haven’t? It’s her first go at it? Really? Oh. So is it a novella, then, or a near-novella, sort of a stepping stone to dabble her toes into the land of novel? Nnnnnope it is an entire bugcrusher, it has the room to have secondary characters and subplots and texture to the setting.

So. Three young people disappear for a year from a small coastal Massachusetts town. This is not a thriller, it is a fantasy novel, so it’s not a great surprise that when the early reveal is that they’ve been dead all that year, they’re back, more or less intact, confused, interacting with magics they don’t entirely understand. Their high school music teacher seems to be at the center of it, but the more they learn, the less his centrality seems sure.

Of the three of them–Daniel, Laura, and Mo–two have lives that can fold them back into the magical explanation given by their music teacher for their absence. But Laura’s sister Susannah is not so easily swayed. Though she can’t quite place what’s wrong with the spell that’s cast on her, she knows something is–and she keeps circling around those memories and those feelings, trying to figure out what isn’t adding up. As Daniel, Laura, and Mo–and the other supernatural beings in their orbit–hurry to settle their relationships with life, death, this world, the next, and magic itself, before a disastrous figure brings catastrophe to all they love, Susannah keeps finding pieces of the answer to what really happened a year ago. And it’s her relationship with them, and their relationships with each other, that prove crucial in that answer.

We get time with each of the major characters, and many of the minor ones too. When one twist arose I knew immediately who it applied to and gasped “OH YOU HAD BETTER NOT,” not because it was predictable but because there was a tidal inevitability. But each crash of the tide in this book revealed something else fascinating on the shore, a new piece of glass or gnarled wood washed up its characters’ emotional lives, and the final resolution was one I could accept as satisfying even with some heartbreak along the way. As who would not expect heartbreak in a book of this title, this woven with life and death–and families? The main characters of The Book of Love are mainly achingly young, but Link doesn’t make the mistake of imagining young people to exist in some kind of youthful isolation. Each one is a grandchild, a child, a sibling, a friend, an employee, all things that turn out to matter crucially to their lives. It’s not The Book of [Romantic] Love, it’s just The Book of Love, wholeheartedly. Or as whole as hearts can remain in the land of the living, where there is suffering and loss. But it’s a much better book for all of these things being part of it, for taking the time and the space to allow these things to be part of it. I really loved this. I’m glad to have made a start on the years of reading Kelly Link novels.

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Books read, early January

C.J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher, Defiance. This is the latest atevi novel. Don’t start here, seriously, oh my goodness, do not start here, when you have to stop and count how many trilogies this is it is way too deep in the series to start here. There’s a lot of backstory piled up here and meaningful to the story. The set pieces are exciting and fun, the politics are moving along, it is very much not its own thing but rather a chunk of larger story. If you like that ongoing story, here’s some more.

Robert Darnton, The Revolutionary Temper: Paris 1748-1789. Darnton does a really fascinating, thorough job of tracing where Parisians of the pre-Revolutionary period were getting their ideas about the world, from formal and informal sources, local to international. Very cool as a window on worldviews before they solidified into our expectations, as well as this period of history in specific.

Emily J. Edwards, Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man. A mystery novel set in 1950, full of slang and clothes, short and zippy.

Margrét Helgadóttir, ed., Nordic Visions: The Best of Nordic Speculative Fiction. Dang, if it weren’t for the Finns this would be a very grim lot. Sit with that for a moment if you will.

Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman’s Road, The Lost Steersman, and The Language of Power. Rereads. This was for book club, and there are so many things I like about this series…and I ended up putting a PostIt note in the first book to say not to read it again, because it’s very clearly not a thing Rosemary would do that way now (she has in fact said so), and…it makes me enjoy the other books less to watch the same characters enthusiastic about torture as a method of gaining reliable information, in a way that is supported by the narrative. The books are otherwise quite good at allowing characters to be wrong and find out their errors in ways that fiction is not always great at, and I enjoyed talking about how it all unfolded in book club. It remains one of the hardest series to pitch without spoilers.

Leah Myers, Thinning Blood: A Memoir of Family, Myth, and Identity. This was brief and pithy, a reflection on how we categorize who counts in which groups and what we take from our roots.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Warrior of the Wind. A sequel and very reliant on the events of the first one for its weight, but interesting once you’ve enjoyed that first one.

Elliot Rappaport, Reading the Glass: A Captain’s View of Weather, Water, and Life on Ships. Lots of good descriptions of weather and sailing, interesting in a genre we don’t get much of these days.

Christopher Rowe, The Navigating Fox. A very different–very fictional–meditation on roots and identity and belonging and loyalty. The fox and navigation in the title are not metaphorical.

Nisi Shawl, Kinning. Discussed elsewhere.

Georgia Summers, City of Stardust. Discussed elsewhere.

Steven Ujifusa, The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I. Does what it says on the tin, and these are good details for us not to take for granted in the present world. I think especially if we’re reading a lot of fiction where evil is required to make sense, it’s good to be reminded that neither good nor evil is required to do so in the real world.

Susan Wels, An Assassin in Utopia: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Sex Cult and a President’s Murder. Nineteenth-century America was very, very small and also folded funny, so the Oneida Community had cousins in all sorts of places. This was brief and written rather vividly; the title by no means gives too expressive a sense of how sensationalist it intends to be.

Laura Zimmerman, Just Do This One Thing For Me. A really well-written YA novel that deals with difficult themes of child neglect without veering into “problem novel” territory. It is particularly outstanding in its loving and accurate portrayal of the protagonist’s eight-year-old brother. It also is quite good at small town Wisconsin life. Some readers will not want to read it because it’s too well done for its topic–a group of one grade school kid and two teens without reasonable adult supervision will be hard for some adult readers–but the characterization and writing is absolutely top-notch if that’s a topic you can cope with.

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Kinning, by Nisi Shawl

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The alternate history of Everfair was a creative work not quite like any seen before in the genre, bringing a steampunk story to a fictional African realm and peopling it with vivid and beautifully drawn characters. With Kinning Nisi Shawl returns us to Everfair in a direct sequel that takes it in a new direction.

Now siblings Tink and Bee-Lung have developed a fungus that bonds people into telepathic super-organisms, and Queen Josina is working behind the scenes to determine which of her children should inherit the throne of Everfair, who should be fungally bonded in which groups, and how else the fungus can be used for the benefit of Everfair and the world.

If this sounds like a major departure, it sure is. Everfair read like alternate history steampunk. Kinning, on the other hand, falls more into a trend I’ve noticed where contemporary authors take on tropes of the ’70s and redo them without the racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that plagued the works of that era. So why not, the people who didn’t get to play with the toys the first time around should get to play with the toys, everybody gets a turn, this time someone’s actually thinking about not being gross about incest in addition to all the above-listed improvements. If you want “more of the same, only slightly different,” Shawl isn’t interested in doing that. If you want to see what she wanted to do next, here you go, this is it.

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The City of Stardust, by Georgia Summers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Violet Everly has been under a curse she doesn’t understand her whole life. Her mother disappeared when she was ten, and she never knew her father. Her uncles have been raising her, but they aren’t very forthcoming about the bits of strangeness she’s seen at the edges of the world. She’s scrambling for clues not just about where her mother might be but why–and what else might be going on.

There’s a young man about her own age she’s only met a few times, Aleksander, who has a different set of clues than she does, but he’s still fumbling around the edges of a greater truth, in the face of older, more powerful people keeping him on the periphery. Violet and Aleksander have to determine whether they can be friends–allies–even more–or whether they will be forever at cross-purposes.

The title is, alas, only slightly apropos. This book has a lot in common with the subgenre known as dark academia, although the existence of people known as scholars doesn’t mean that the academy is playing a significant part. There is a dark glittering vividness to it, and yet the periphery is very vague, this is not a deeply worldbuilt book. There’s a lot of our own world, and only as much fantasy as the plot requires. It was a fast and entertaining read but didn’t leave me thinking of it much after.

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Books read, late December

Casey Blair, The Sorceress Transcendent. Kindle. Very much a romance, but with very much epic fantasy level consequences–there are characters killing the heck out of other people right after they’ve been bantering and doing cozy things with each other. If either of those things is not for you, this shorter work will not be for you.

A.S. Byatt, Possession and Sugar and Other Stories. Rereads. The first half of Sugar and Other Stories made me think, oh, oh lovely, why don’t I rank this higher in my mind, and the second half reminded me why not, because it’s a bit Orientalist and exoticizing and I hope I remember to skip it in future. As for Possession, it was very much in the category of “this is exactly what I want to be reading the minute I start rereading it.” I love the different styles of poem and letter and how those fit together, and this is the first I’m reading it since reading the letters of the Brownings, which gives it more resonance.

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising. Reread. One of my online book clubs read this as a cozy late-December discussion that was a reread for most of us, including me. Among the small points I picked up fresh on this reread, I noticed this time how careful Cooper was to make sure that she was not setting her work up to be coopted by xenophobes, which I appreciated.

Seth Dickinson, Exordia. Discussed elsewhere.

Christina Estes, Off the Air. Discussed elsewhere.

Linda Gregerson, Waterborne. Probably my least favorite volume of her poetry so far, the one that feels least characteristic of her voice, although she could of course disagree on that. It was entirely readable, just did not feel as special or vivid.

Derek Heng, Southeast Asian Interconnections: Geography, Networks, and Trade. Kindle. This is another monograph in the series about the Global Middle Ages, so it’s an examination of what these networks looked like in that era, which is a useful stone in the wall of knowledge one can build about the period, the region, or both.

Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. A relief, in some ways, to read in holiday time, a poetry examination of the philosophical concept of ordinary time.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Faith. Kindle. Another satisfying entry in this series, with a disturbing ending that leaves the door open for much more. I wouldn’t start here, as there are references to earlier events and characters, but there’s the kind of love story and creepy fantasy villainy and everything you’ve come to expect of Kingfisher/Vernon’s work.

Rose Macaulay, Keeping Up Appearances. The story of a woman trying to make a living writing and make a life for herself in her father’s class, not her mother’s, with all the omissions and sometimes lies that involves. There’s a structural trick in it that you might find clever or you might find frustrating; I sighed at it a little. The end was a typical frustrated (but not, for me, frustrating) Rose Macaulay ending. Her works stand alone, and this one is very much of its period, but not in a bad way per se.

Ryan North and Chris Fenoglio, Star Trek Lower Decks: Rarely Going Where No One Has Gone Before. A holodeck episode in graphic novel form. It turns out that some of the forms of joke in Squirrel Girl were not something special Ryan North was doing for Squirrel Girl, they were just…his shtick. Which makes it frustratingly less appealing in both works, unfortunately. It was fine; it was in the house because someone else wanted it, and it didn’t take me any amount of time to read. Would not have been among my favorite episodes of the show if filmed.

Hanna Pylväinen, The End of Drum-Time. This book was so good, and it made me just ache in spots. It had more sensible interest in reindeer herding, what was going to happen to various herds at various times of the year, than any other novel I’ve ever read. Its depiction of how it feels to have disappointed a Swedish parent were so intense I could hardly bear it. Historical novel about the period of Laestadius, and I loved it so much.

Shivanee Ramlochan, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. It took me about half this volume of poetry to really get into Ramlochan’s poetic rhythm, which in some ways is good, if I’m only reading things I immediately get into it means I’m not reaching far enough. A lot of the poems deal graphically with sexual violence, some of them with interesting mythic resonances. They are quite good, but you should have that content warning going in.

Margery Sharp, Martha, Eric, and George. Kindle. The last in its series of short novels, and actually my least favorite, because it spends the least time on Martha’s art, which is the part that most interests me. Martha sees the world differently; how will this be accommodated or not, how will she make others around her bend to her vision, or not. The existence of Eric and George in their own ways complicates this problem interestingly, but for me as for Martha the central question remains Martha’s art, and for this book it does not. Ah well.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Lords of Uncreation. The end of its smash bang space opera trilogy full of interdimensional weird godhelpus, and for heaven’s sake don’t start here, you’ll be lost, but if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series, this sure is more of it.

Diane Wilson, The Seed Keeper. A gentle and straightforward novel about the land and Dakota identity in the Minnesota River Valley, the far eastern end of which I live in. The construction of mixed race identity as a CHOICE made me wince a little but there was some really good vivid writing as well.

John Wiswell, Someone You Can Build a Nest In. Discussed elsewhere.

Ann Wroe, The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in Renaissance Europe. Wroe does an amazing job of discussing the person who was known as various names including Piers Osbeck, Perkin Warbeck, and Richard Plantagenet; she is really great at not putting her thumb on the scales about what we know about him at any given time. It’s a really good book about how we construct people’s identities and what we know about them in any given era.

Lisa Yaszek, The Future Is Female! Volume Two: The 1970s. This was for my other online book club, a gradual read as we discussed about four stories per session. Some familiar stories, including both loved and hated, and some new. A real mix, including some that provoked a lot of discussion and some where the main discussion was “why is this here.” It’s really good to have a book club where you can have big (good) feelings about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution” together.