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Foul Days, by Genoveva Dimova

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Sometimes when I’ve been doing a lot of revisions and bouncing off a string of bad library books, I grump around the house asking if I even like books. The house is stuffed with books. I like books better than basically any other material object. Of course I like books. Sometimes I need the right book to remind me. And Foul Days was one of those books.

Kosara is a witch in the walled city of Chernograd. The rest of the world wants its monsters behind the walls, where the witches and warlocks of Chernograd know how to ward them off, hunt them, or at least mitigate their damage–and Kosara has a lot of experience with all of that. She’s even had very personal run-ins with the Zmey, the terrifying human-like force known as the Tsar of Monsters. But this year in the monster-ridden Foul Days that start a new year, her luck has run out–and she’s cornered in the worst situation a witch can get herself into. With new allies looking suspicious–and the old ones even worse–Kosara has to get her shadow back and beat the Zmey in order for herself and her city to survive intact.

Foul Days is infused on every page with a wry and loving blend of Dimova’s Bulgarian background and her own considerable imagination. The characters, down to the smallest house spirits, relate in a way that feels real and vivid. The entwining of Kosara’s magical and personal obstacles feels real. It was exactly the right thing to snap me out of a reading slump, and I can’t wait for the promised sequel.

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Back at the lab

Every year Analog magazine runs AnLab, its readers’ choice poll that allows readers to select their five favorites in each of its departments. (Except I think the cover, the cover may be three? If this was relevant to me, if I was doing magazine covers, regular readers would know it already, I promise.) This year, my nerd grief poem “Object Permanence” has made their list! You can read it here along with the other finalists.

If you’re paying close attention, that’s the second magazine for which I’ve been in the “reader favorites” poll this year. I find this incredibly gratifying. I think most of all what any of writers wants is to be read and to touch readers–but particularly in speculative poetry. No one imagines fame, fortune, and glory will accrue from writing speculative poetry. We’re just trying to say something that will be meaningful to someone else. Analog’s readers, like Uncanny’s before them on the fiction side, have said that I did that this year. Thank you so much, readers.

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The Book of Ile-Rien, by Martha Wells

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a re-issue in omnibus form of two books I have read separately, years ago. They are united by a common setting–sort of. The country of Ile-Rien is separated by several hundred years in the two books, and it is allowed to evolve between them, to have history and technology and all sorts of things, so that The Element of Fire is a court fantasy and The Death of the Necromancer is very gaslamp. One character is the ancestor of another, and his actions matter but only as a sort of subplot; the magic has similar roots in the same way that we have lots of pieces of technology from hundreds of years ago–kettles, needles and thread, all sorts of things–but also new ones.

So having it reissued in omnibus has a few advantages: one, there’s a reissue at all; two, it’s all in one place; three, the book will stay open nicely if you set it on the table to read while you’re eating. I did this experiment for you, friends, because I value science. However, if you want to get it and read one and then stop for a bit before you read the other, it’s really not all one story, you won’t have to do all 700+ pages at once.

The Element of Fire is the court fantasy. It’s full of fey/Fayre/fairies, the Unseelie court having a representative in the half-fey princess Kade Carrion and her generally quite relatable machinations in the court of her brother king Roland. The captain of the Queen’s Guard, the Dowager Queen and the new queen, all have roles to play in this, and there is court intrigue to the gills. I think Martha may have gotten a friend to sit on it so she could zip it with all the court intrigue she stuffed in there. I love court intrigue. I forgot how much I liked this one.

The Death of the Necromancer is more thieves and miscreants chasing around the city’s underworld trying to figure out in time who is causing the chaos for whom and whether it’s themselves (sometimes yes), and who they can trust enough to add to the team and who is just not going to be worth it. There are horrible, horrible things done to corpses, there are people who are willing to destroy each other for revenge, there is a really good grandmother. It goes on as the beginning of The Element of Fire starts but does not go on.

I found these held up really well and were so satisfying all these years later, and I’m delighted people will have another go at them.

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Books read, early February

Benjamin Breen, Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science. This was really interesting but there were places where I feel like it suffered from Breen wanting Mead to be able to have accomplished things that were beyond the scope of her power. I think he made an incredibly clear case that Timothy Leary was a toxic force in the study of psychedelics on the human consciousness–that seems nearly irrefutable–and his points about the context of what we now call psychedelia before the 1960s were very interesting. But when he leaned into the idea that Mead could have, by championing therapeutic use of psychedelics, changed the course of attitudes, he seems to be ignoring her context as a woman, a mother, and a closeted bisexual person–and I think ignoring the people who tried to change those attitudes and were ignored in multiple directions. It’s a tempting counterfactual, what if Margaret Mead instead of Timothy Leary. It just…doesn’t hold up for more than a short story. Still, gosh the early 20th was full of people mucking around with each other’s brains, wow.

Anne de Courcy, Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944 and Magnificent Rebel: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris. I really like de Courcy’s work in general, and I went and got these two from the library because they were the two the library had that I hadn’t read yet. They were disappointing. I think there is an important line a biographer walks where enthusiasm for the subject cannot be permitted to cross the line into making excuses for the subject, and de Courcy repeatedly crosses it here. This is particularly clear because I picked up these books due to enthusiasm for the biographer rather than the subject. She claims that Chanel’s Riviera is not a biography of Chanel but of this particular snapshot of place and time, which means several things in practice: one, it means that the balance of how much the book is about Chanel and how much it’s about other people is always very weird, and two, it means that there is a lot of telling what’s interesting about Chanel that de Courcy doesn’t feel she has to do. The problem is that I…don’t actually already agree that Chanel was amazing and wonderful and extraordinary. So that when de Courcy falls back on these adjectives, which she did in basically every sentence in which she had to refer to Chanel’s Antisemitism, I have not already been convinced that her style of dress was uniquely worth it. Some of de Courcy’s arguments were just jaw-dropping, like: well, she collaborated, but you see she was used to having a man in her bed. Oh okay. Oh sure well then. It was…not her most coherent work. Magnificent Rebel was not a lot better, arguing for the importance of some relationships over others not with particular focus on Cunard’s life as a whole but more because de Courcy felt like it–sometimes with Paris as the heart of the argument, often not. She wanted to focus on how Cunard promoted the work of Black writers but often made excuses for places where Cunard actively abused those Black writers on a professional and a personal level. There were interesting points here but far too much handwaving for my taste. Earlier work better. Sigh.

Camille T. Dungy, Trophic Cascade. I seem to be working my way backwards through Dungy’s life and oeuvre. The child I first met as an opinionated tween in Soil is a fetus and infant in these poems, and this combined with change in genre is fascinating. Seeing what she was talking about people asking her about writing about nature and race and parenthood, having that back story going in, doesn’t take away a single bit of its power.

Davinia Evans, Shadow Baron. This is in some sense a reread, but the version I’d read before was the manuscript form, and this is the finished version, and it did not disappoint. Lots of ramification from the first book, more magic, more adventure, the world going even deeper, so much fun, recommended.

Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, and Mary Virginia Orna, The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side. These authors very earnestly wanted to be the next Primo Levi, writing a book about the things that were mistakenly identified as elements. Their writing is not limpid and lovely, it is workhorse prose–and the history of mistakenly thinking that you’ve isolated a new element is less exciting than the history of correctly thinking you have. Only a few of these stories were the wacky errors of science tales I was hoping for. Mostly it was, yes, here’s another time someone was wrong, yes, and another. Also there was a lot of weirdly earnest biographical information about who loved their spouse or child and what they died of, which is in some ways sweet but not particularly vivid. Read this if you’re interested in the information it contains, not if you’re interested in reading per se; it would be just as nice beamed directly into your brain.

E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Kindle. This is Forster’s first book, and it has some really lovely parts, well-observed and sometimes witty and sometimes affecting. If you have a friend who loves Italy to the point of viewing it as the solution to all mortal ills, you may laugh out loud at several parts. However. The very ending of this book, and this is a spoiler and I am not sorry for it, the book is over a hundred years old and this is intense, features one of the most gratuitous infant deaths I have ever encountered in fiction. “Yeah, and then this asshole screwed up and the baby died.” It was heavy-handed, it was awful, and I want to warn about it in the strongest of terms, because in some ways Forster is clear about its effects and then in other ways I’m like…no…I don’t think that’s all, there, Morgan. I cannot say it was worth it. No. Really not.

Nicola Griffith, Spear. Reread. Two different book clubs I’m in or near were reading this, and it was no hardship whatsoever to sink back into Peredur’s story, rich as it is in its own angles and deeds and decisions.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven. Reread. Also a book club choice, and I hoped I would like it better than the last time I read it, which was my senior year of high school. I think I respected it more, which is not really the same thing; Le Guin wanted to tell a story where not-doing is the correct choice for good reasons, and I get that, but there were lots of places where I felt like the results still jarred. I would also note that it’s good that she had a chance to grow out of some of these choices–explicitly treating whiteness as the racially unmarked case in ways that I feel sure she would not and did not do later in her career, for example. This is going to remain not my favorite Le Guin, and that’s okay.

Premee Mohamed, The Butcher of the Forest. Discussed elsewhere.

Marieke Nijkamp and Sylvia Bi, Ink Girls. A middle-grade comic of defying censorship and a community coming together to demand justice, in case you know anybody who’s feeling like something like that right now.

Saghïmbay Orozbaq uulu, The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan: A Kirghiz Epic Poem in the Manas Tradition. One of my friends heard I was on an epic kick and sent this one along for comparison, and I’m grateful, because some of it is very similar to other epics I’ve read–comparing this Muslim epic to Roland in terms of how the religious out-group is treated was fascinating, so many parallels–and some of it is very, very different. The scene of how the wrestling champion gets into his tight pants is clearly done in formula terms, for example, and yet is not one I’ve seen elsewhere. There is significantly explicit sexual content here as well as quite a lot of violence, so if you’re thinking “cultural epic” means “read it to the wee kiddies for bedtime,” well, make sure you share premodern nomadic standards for the wee kiddies’ bedtime before you do.

S. E. Porter, Projections. Discussed elsewhere.

Melissa Scott, Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude, and The Empress of Earth. Rereads. This is a trilogy, and I read it in an omnibus volume. It’s got a plucky young pilot overcoming sexism to fly spaceships and later join the previously all-male magi and find the lost road to Earth. I found it readable while I was reading it, but once I was away from each volume some of the emotional motivations seemed very opaque: Silence has now fallen in love with her convenience spouses? Why? One of them does not seem very lovable to me, nor does she seem to have had the chance to have found lovable traits not shown on the page. And their choice of habitation for the very ending…seems like it would make all of them miserable, absolutely miserable, and seemed completely unmotivated. So it was a case of enjoying the experience and then turning it over and not really enjoying the aftermath as much, not because anything became offensive so much as because the length constraints of the time didn’t permit Scott the space to go into as much of the characters’ psychology as I think would have been beneficial–because these were from the era of very short space opera.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Little Nugget. Kindle. This is entirely forgettable Wodehouse. The title refers to an unpleasant spoiled rich boy, assumptions about whom are entirely period, the protagonist agrees to kidnap him for reasons that never hold up very well, and in general if you are on an airplane and this is on your e-reader, fine, but I see no reason to seek it out.

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Projections, by S. E. Porter

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is an absolutely beautifully done book in a darker vein than I would usually pursue, and if it had not been sent me as an ARC I probably would not have read it. The protagonist is brutally murdered on the first page, and she spends her afterlife screaming in horror and rage. Screaming. Throughout. Also doing other things, but the scream reverberates through the book very successfully.

Angus was sure that Catherine was his true love, his destiny. The two of them belonged together–and they were supposed to be doing magic. Grand, glorious magic! Magic in a city of magic, far from the ordinary world of mid-19th century America in which they grew up! And if Catherine didn’t see it that way–if she wanted to choose her own love, her own destiny, her own home and her own focus within it–why, he would make her see it that way. Using whatever tools he had to hand. Hence the murder on page one. Hence the ripping of her screaming ghost into the magical city, there to exist for hundreds of years while he attempts over and over again to project pieces of himself into the mundane world to find the girls most like her and convince them to love him–or else.

Catherine’s journey toward agency and even triumph is not fast or linear. It’s well-done, but it’s not an easy book to read. Flashbacks to her living years underscore rather than relieve the horror of her afterlife, and the moments of hope and sweetness are present but small, contained–fleeting?–not entirely fleeting. But let us say that Porter does not give her heroine a victory that anyone could accuse of being too easily earned. If you’ve ever grown frustrated with the magicians of grand destiny and their high-handed ways, this one might be for you.

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The Butcher of the Forest, by Premee Mohamed

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is an online pal.

Look, even those of us who aren’t Premee’s friends online have learned by now that you do not pick up a Premee Mohamed novella in hopes of the teddy bears having their picnic. There is…outdoor eating? in this one? That’s as close as you’re going to get. Oh: and the children’s nice dog is safely left home, tied up in the kennel. The dog is Sir Not Appearing In This Dark Fantasy, you’re welcome.

Because nobody else is really having a nice day in this book. Nobody else is having the day they hoped for.

Veris Thorne is the only person ever to come out of the North Forest alive, with the child she meant to save from it. Only she has ever braved its magic and won. So when the tyrant’s two children go missing, it’s Veris who’s sent after them–under threat of the destruction of her entire village. It’s Veris who must dodge and feint and bargain with the powers of magic–and get two clueless privileged children to obey her in every particular–or she will lose everything she loves. That is, everything she loves that the tyrant has not taken already.

“Maybe I’ll start this tonight and finish it tomorrow,” I said to myself late last evening. “Maybe I’ll just read a little, and the rest in the morning. It’s been a long week, and I don’t have to read it all now.” Ha. HA. Well, the good news is that it is a novella, so when you make a bad choice like that, it won’t cost you too much sleep. Entirely engrossing.

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Books read, late January

Robyn Arianrhod, Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution. Not really evenly distributed, with more weight given to our own dear Marquise, which…no shade on Mary Somerville there, but who could blame her. This is a work biography, this is focused on the work and the ideas in their lives, and I like it that way, but if you’re not interested in how they thought about physics and helped others to think about physics in context, it won’t be the book for you.

Gwenda Bond, The Frame-Up. Discussed elsewhere.

A.S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories. Reread. I carefully marked “NO” on a little PostIt note on the last story last time around, and I trusted my past self, I don’t do things like that without very solid reasons, so it was a short and stormy volume, full of contained and vivid stories that did not take me long.

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Reread. The opposite, of course, of short and stormy. I was going to reread this just a bit at a time for an approaching book club discussion of it. Ha. The minute I started rereading Middlemarch, the wit of the voice, the engagement with the characters, drew me in, and I didn’t want to be reading anything else–or in fact doing much of anything else until I was all the way through to that amazing last line. So keenly observed, so great, knowing where it was going only enhanced the “OH FRED NO” moments.

Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves. A rather strange book, focusing on the extremely strong signal radio stations that sprung up along the Mexican border, taking advantage of the difference in regulations to reach American listeners with a variety of ideas and products. Fowler and Crawford have some quirks of their own and were particularly thrilled, from the looks of it, to have a chance to interview Wolfman Jack personally. I learned a lot here about an area of history I otherwise didn’t know much about. But gosh how weird.

Kate Heartfield, The Valkyrie. The Ring of the Nibelung retold in an engaging fantasy novel, very much the southern (German) part of Valkyrie stories but they’re theirs too. Engaging and fun, recommended.

Coco Irvine, Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl’s Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age. This extremely short volume is a bit of “how the other half lived” For me: Summit Ave. is a quite wealthy street in St. Paul, and Coco Irvine was living a fairly privileged life pretty much parallel to my own great-grandmother’s across the river in Minneapolis in a very tiny apartment with her immigrant family. Interesting to watch the social history unfold but also to see similarities as well as differences across the class lines. So very very short.

Kelly Link, The Book of Love. Discussed elsewhere.

Jo Miles, Warped State. The first in a space opera series featuring labor activism, which I hoped from that summary would be my jam and it absolutely was, whew and hurray, glad there’s more already out there and still coming. I don’t think I’ve read anybody thinking about the difficulties of union organization with multiple sentient species in quite the way Jo has, and there’s so much more room here, more like this please.

Naomi Mitchison, Small Talk…Memories of an Edwardian Childhood. Another short memoir focused on an early 20th century young woman, but Mitchison’s prose voice is much smoother and more assured, and she knew a great many interesting people even as a small child due to being one of those Haldanes. Niels Bohr gave her a jug for her dollhouse, for heaven’s sake. It’s still not the first or even fourth thing I’d recommend someone read by Naomi Mitchison, but its appeal is somewhat more general to people interested in the early 20th than the Irvine memoir.

Malka Older, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. Discussed elsewhere.

Anna Marie Roos, Martin Lister and His Remarkable Daughters. Early scientific illustration as a family affair, interesting and detailed for such a short work.

Noel Streatfeild, Judith, Shepherdess of Sheep, and The Whicharts. Kindle. Wow, so: three very different books here. All three of these are her adult work, but Judith is Streatfeild in a very familiar mode to those who have read all of her children’s books: this is the “you damn kids need to learn to stand on your own two feet, and it’s the fault of those who raised you that you aren’t doing it already.” As an adult book there’s room for a different set of problems–adults presuming sexual precocity from teenagers and treating them badly because of it, for example–but generally it’s preachy as heck. Shepherdess of Sheep is an attempt to explore the care of young children in a family where one child is developmentally disabled in a way that was not well-understood at the time (and is not actually all that wonderfully understood now, to be fair), but while the protagonist spends most of the book fighting the ableism of those around her (including the man she loves), she ends up succumbing to it in the worst possible way. Of the three books, The Whicharts is the only one I’ll probably even consider rereading or recommending to anyone else, and it is a weird, weird book. This is the grown-up book that was rewritten to be Ballet Shoes, basically, and there are places where it is word for word the same book and places where it is absolutely not. When one major character died, it was the strangest feeling, because it was like losing someone I’d known since childhood…and also not, because she is very much not the same person. (The pronoun is not a spoiler; as with Ballet Shoes, the overwhelming majority of the major characters are female.) If you’re someone who loved Petrova best, this book is proof that so did Noel Streatfeild. If you loved the glamour of stage life…perhaps stick with the children’s books, she is not interested in giving you glamour here. Pauline is the most different–so incredibly different–Posy is just the same but not really a person, but yes, Posy is not really a person in Ballet Shoes either–wow, what a weird book, wow, to have Ballet Shoes but with directors groping teenage actresses who are the illegitimate daughters of WWI officers, wow, okay, wow. So weird.