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Books read, late June

Short post, due to reading friends’ manuscripts and reviews for elsewhere a lot this fortnight. Did not get posted due to personal stuff, so here you get it late.

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Snow White, Blood Red. Reread. While this was a reread, it had been years since I’d picked it up again. Some of the stories now look much less fresh, as happens when a new thing becomes an established genre. Others were still really great. I think this must have been the first thing I ever read of Caroline Stevermer’s, given the timing of when I bought this book. I really liked Jack Dann’s “The Glass Casket,” and “The Snow Queen” might well be my favorite Patricia McKillip story–maybe I should seek out more of her short work. Or maybe I’m finally coming around? A lot of people I know and respect are huge McKillip fans, but she never really clicked for me. But this story did. I’m a huge sucker for Snow Queen stories, though.

Kate Elliott, Black Wolves. This book has a lot of things I would say I want. Layers of imperial politics. Different cultures under empire. The demon coils were a kind of magic I liked. There were cool things in this book. It took some time for me to get going with it, and I never really got very emotionally involved. I wanted to talk to a couple of friends at Readercon about this book, but I had to drag myself through caring on a purely intellectual level in several spots. Also, when I say that I am tired, tired, tired of reading fantasy novels where women get raped, it is not because I want more fantasy novels where men get raped. It is particularly not because I want more fantasy novels where men who are not major point of view characters get raped to motivate other men because God forbid we should have to deal with the fallout of a man in that kind of experience having to go on with his life and protag; it’s hard enough to get women that way. So that is a major content warning for you there I guess.

Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners. Sometimes when you’re in your early twenties, the wrong person gets associated with a movie or a singer or an author. They enthuse too much, they press the thing on you–maybe it’s a toxic friend, maybe it’s an ex-love, maybe it’s a relative who just wouldn’t let you be. And the art or the artist gets a bad association in your head, you think, ugh, that. And then gradually you’re not that age any more, and you’re not around that person any more, and for some reason you listen to a song by the singer, you read a story by the writer, whatever, and you think, hey, this is really good. This is actually a lot more my sort of thing than I thought. And that person and their associations aren’t important to me any more anyway. Well. Here we are in my mid-thirties reading the Kelly Link back catalog. And I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer, because there’s not only the title story, but there’s “The Faery Handbag.” There is an old Scrabble-playing lady with a large foreign vocabulary. I needed this story. I am so glad not to have done any longer without this story. I will need it again, and now I will have it. Yay.

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Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine

Review copy provided by Tor Books

David is one of those lovely people on the border of friend and acquaintance. He is certainly the close friend of several of my close friends. I wanted to make sure to get this book read and reviewed when it was coming out, even though it arrived at an inconvenient time, because I like David personally and want to see him do well, and he’s gone through some incredibly hard stuff the last few years.

Sometimes that kind of personal disclaimer does not fit the review that follows. I fear this is one of those times.

Look, the prose and the adventure plot flow smoothly in Arabella of Mars. It is well-written in that sense. It is a Regency adventure if Mars was part of the Regency-era British empire, if clockworks and odd gases and a crablike Martian race were part of the world in which the British were fighting Boney. The adventure plot is primary–the stuff about automata and Martians sort of is background–but if that’s what you want it does that thing, and there is clearly more, it’s clearly the beginning of a series.

But it is yet another plot where the plucky heroine is being distinguished from other girls because she does not like girl stuff. This doesn’t end up looking like “be yourself, society and its gender norms are stifling” if you never have plots in which plucky boys are distinguished from other boys by not liking boy stuff. If you don’t have any other human females who are interesting people and do happen to like “girl stuff.” (In the entire book. Ever. There is one other female character who does more than scream, faint, or act annoying, and it’s another species–who gets very, very little page time.) If “girl stuff” is always and forever the same. It just ends up looking like girls and our stuff suck. Which is bad enough when it’s a woman writer who may have been smooshed by social expectations, letting her frustrations out on the page. When it’s a male writer? Sorry, but I just feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus. Or maybe I’m plucky and not like other girls because I like science and science fiction? Yeah, thanks, but don’t do me any favors–I count as a girl.

This gets worse with a passage in which Arabella decides not to fight “like a girl” but rather to fight “to win.” Despite having had a female Martian warrior as her main role model–making this kind of internalized sexism pretty odd–she associates women fighting with ineffectual scratching and hair-pulling. Not with, oh, say, fending off your rapist desperately and succeeding. So much fail. And–if this is meant to be Arabella’s internal viewpoint, if this is meant to be a devastating portrait of internalized sexism, then having any women characters at all besides Arabella herself who are effectual and interesting might be nice. Instead, no. So…yet another lesson in “being like a woman is being ineffectual, you need to be like a man to be effective and worthwhile” from Arabella of Mars. Good to know, thanks.

And it gets worse again when one her most dramatic acts of heroism is praised explicitly as being really great for a girl. This would be good for a man, but gosh, it’s really great for a girl. And again, that’s definitely something someone from a sexist culture would think. But it’s not challenged, it’s not undermined, it’s just there: yep. Arabella, really great–for a girl, I guess.

Do I seem angry? I am angry. I am angry, because I expected better. Because I am so tired of books that are fun romps being fun romps on my face in hobnailed boots.

I want David to do well. I want him to sell future books. But I want him to sell future books in which he doesn’t do this stuff over again. In which he can play with swashbuckling and clockworks and atmosphere between the planets and not have the same tired depictions of misogyny to do it. If it had been someone else, I probably would have quit reading at the halfway point, where she didn’t fight like a girl, she fought to win. But because it was David, I thought, oh, surely he’s going to flip all this on its head. Surely Arabella is going to run into some other human women who are not shrieking, sniveling incompetents. One? One other human woman? Surely the nauseating levels of internalized misogyny are not going to be consistent throughout. Surely someone who was raised by Martians will not be surprised when a Martian warrior is a woman–how completely implausible in context was that.

Be less sure than I was, friends. If you’re waiting for that, wait for the sequel. Because I still believe David Levine can do better than he did here. But if you’re going to try it….

Please consider using our link to buy Arabella of Mars from Amazon.

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Necessity, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Jo is, as I have said in previous reviews, a dear friend, and also you will find me in the acknowledgments, because I have already read this book twice to comment on it before it was published. Let no one say there is a secret cabal here, because this cabal is right out in the open.

So. Necessity. It is the end of a trilogy, and I think that it does the thing where it reminds you of what has come before, what is important about the previous volumes, quite admirably. I don’t think that it’s going to be a very good choice to read without the others–the emotional weight won’t be there, the impact won’t be there. So really start with The Just City if you haven’t. But if you’re a person who wants the series to be complete–this series is really, really complete. The ending is an ending really and for true. The first one stands alone completely, and each of the others is doing a different enough thing that they’re worth having on their own, not just warmed-up leftovers, but they also follow the arc on naturally as the best kind of sequels do. There are new characters here as well as some of the old ones.

There is robot viewpoint. And that is my favorite thing. My very, very favorite thing. Not only do you finally get more about characters who are not golds–major characters in this book are Iron and Silver, hurrah hurrah!–but Crocus, Crocus speaks. Crocus speaks at length. This is in some ways the book where the robots and the aliens come into their own, without the gods giving up their say in the process. So yes: a very weird book, robots and aliens and gods and time travel, like nothing else I can point at, very hard to talk about without spoilers for the others.

(There are aliens, though! That’s a spoiler but! Aren’t you glad I did?)

The series continues to take on volition, purpose, and consent head-on. How to live, how to grapple with time and causality and the gods…things take a turn for the metaphysical but do not leave the realm of human emotion in this volume. The cities and their inhabitants continue to evolve, to change and grow and learn. And to free themselves and each other, which is the best part of all.

I don’t believe there’s much likelihood that you’re bound by necessity–the loops of time, potential paradoxes–to seek out this one. So you can do it of your own free will, which always feels nicer.

Please consider using our link to buy Necessity from Amazon. (or The Just City, or The Philosopher Kings.)