Machinehood, by S. B. Divya

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a classic science fiction form I’m not seeing enough of: near-future SF written from an intimate voice. The main points of view in the book are two sisters-in-law, Welga and Nithya, who are also close friends, and whose perspective gives triangulation on the future Divya has created. Most humans are constantly accompanied and assisted by their WAIs (weak AIs), machine intelligences that don’t quite make the full equal personhood grade by humanity’s current estimation. But they’re darn good at what they can do, and as a result humanity has chosen to enter an arms race of source with machines, taking a variety of designer drugs to enhance intellectual focus, speed, healing ability, stamina, and more.

Enter the Machinehood. The Machinehood is a combined human-AI group that is not the least bit satisfied with the status of AIs in the world–and not thrilled with the way human bodies are treated, either. They’ve gotten to the point where they are willing to engage in violent revolution.

Welga has been aligned with the status quo for most of her life–previously as a Marine, now in her work as a shield. But her mother died of bad reactions to drugs, and she’s starting to have some of those herself. Her sister-in-law Nithya has the biotech skills to help her if anyone can–if anyone human can. And they’re both ready to oppose the Machinehood for the safety of their loved ones–for humanity as a whole. They think. They hope.

This book has a few weaknesses. The exposition is often clunky, and the secondary characters (especially Luis, the man who ties the two protagonists together) are sometimes sketched-in ciphers. But if you like near-future hard SF that centers the lives of individuals and gives you close views of their thoughts, Machinehood is exactly what you’re looking for.

Books read, early September

Ben Aaronovitch, Tales from the Folly. Kindle. Vignettes and side stories from the Rivers of London series across time. Fun but not a good place to begin, and not crucial unless you really like the series.

John Blair, Building Anglo-Saxon England. This is a literal title: it is about architecture and archaeology and what we know about this era of English history. Lots of cool details about how we know what we know, interesting research fodder for a project.

Desirina Boskovich, ed., Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Lavishly illustrated, including some illustrations that appear to be newly commissioned for this book–money well spent in my opinion, the Angela Carter one by Dea Boskovich was gorgeous. Many of the entries are house-written but some are guests. Most serious SFF fans will already know some of what’s in here, but which things which people will know varies–I expect there’s something new for everyone here, ranging all over the field including different media.

Marie Brennan, The Nine Lands. Kindle. These were fine short stories, but sometimes one is conscious of an author improving, and this is evidence that Brennan has. Still worth reading? Sure, yes, it was fun. But don’t make this your first Brennan book. They’re early stories, and she does keep getting better.

Christopher Brown, Failed State. The third in its series, and I recommend reading the other two first. It’s fast-paced and well-done and thinking very carefully about the near future of the environment and politics of the US–not always cheerfully. But carefully; and not hopelessly either. This book has forays into both the legal system and land reclamation projects, and does not neglect characterization along the way. Recommended.

Marcia Douglas, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. This is a female (feminist?) Rastafarian novel, across time and certain parts of local space. It’s an extremely different perspective from what I usually read and very interesting; I’m still thinking about it.

John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting. Reread. Discussed elsewhere.

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution. This is a magisterial history of that section of Haitian history. James is acute and unrelenting. There is one footnote from the second edition where he basically said, “this sentence has gotten a lot of criticism and it is still exactly what I think,” and I love this book for that as for so many other things. This book has the courage of its convictions–and has also bothered to significantly research its convictions.

Naomi Mitchison, The Land the Ravens Found. A retelling of the settlement of Iceland through the family of Aud the Deep-Minded. This is my jam and may well be your jam as well. If only it was longer.

Megan O’Keefe, Velocity Weapon. Are you short on charming AIs in your fiction at the moment? Would any number of charming AIs still leave you short on charming AIs? Megan O’Keefe has your back. I enjoyed this a lot and ordered the sequel basically right away.

Nunzio Pernicone, Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892. As I said to a friend in email, this book is very strong on the who, what, where, when, and not so hot on the why, how. If you want to know what conventions and schisms took place in Italian anarchism in the late 19th century, this is a solid resource. If you want to go any deeper about who these people were personally, why they felt the way they did, how their thinking evolved and why…you’ll have to find another book, because that’s not what Pernicone is here to do. Ah well.

Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. This is lovely. It’s got quite a few direct interviews with people living on disappearing or threatened land, it’s got Rush thinking about different American coastal ecosystems, it’s thoughtful and beautiful, hurray this book.

Dana Simpson, Camping With Unicorns, Phoebe and Her Unicorn In Unicorn Theater, The Unicorn Whisperer, Unicorn Bowling. I realized that I had not read the latest adventures of Phoebe and Marigold in quite some time, so I got them all from the library at once and (almost) caught up in one silly evening on the couch. (There’s another new one out. I’m in line for it.) I can recommend silly evenings on the couch with Phoebe and Marigold right now.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 36. Kindle. I am in this, and I make a policy of not reviewing things I’m in.

Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. If you’ve been feeling like contemporary people are uniquely terrible to each other, wow is this the book to remedy that. The staggering amount of racism in and out of both major American political parties during the Roosevelt presidency is quite a lot to deal with. Several remarkable people tried, and knowing about them is good. But yikes, the amount of blatant overt racism is nauseating.

Rebecca West, The Judge. Kindle. Oh this was so bad. Oh goodness this was so bad. It was not worthless, it was not without its charms or I wouldn’t have read it all the way through. (You have no idea how many books I don’t read all the way through.) And other Rebecca West is lovely! But this was long-winded, never taking a paragraph to say what five pages could. And it suffered from so many other flaws that West doesn’t usually, such as: Batman Villainitis! Wherein you can tell by looking at someone whether they are smart, interesting, and generally worthwhile! Expired Satire! Where the thing that was going to be cleverly sent-up doesn’t even really matter in historical context! Excessive Freudianism! Where instead of her usual observations of people, it’s Oedipal complexes all the way down! Improbable Staging! Where seriously, you can’t do that with any bread knife I’ve ever met. There is much better Rebecca West out there for you to read, and I suggest you do that instead.

The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dear Mike,

I miss you. There are signs of life in the atmosphere of Venus, the American West is on fire, and the world in general is in a state that would have gotten us at least four of your poems, maybe more. I don’t expect you could have fixed any of it, but it’d still be better to face it with you.

But we have your stuff. We have that. So I read The Dragon Waiting for the fourth time this week, in its new edition. Scott Lynch wrote a lovely introduction for it, and I had to go off and cry and swear like four times while reading it, because Scott didn’t get to know you, he’s very clear about that in the introduction, and he’s just the very tip of the amazing ship-shattering iceberg of people who should have gotten to know you. But he has The Dragon Waiting. Not the same as getting to talk to you about EMT/firefighter geekery or caper stories or whatever it is that you’d know in common that I don’t even know yet, but it sure isn’t nothing.

In some ways your books are where I left them, Mike. There are bits that I always remember, and I’ve never found them to pale on rereads. The parts I love, the horrible moment of the doctor realizing about the young prince, or the scene where [spoiler] is deliberately horrible to [spoiler] for strategic reasons, or the way that it all unfolds by implication–they’re all still there.

But they also change on the rereads. There are always things that hit me harder later. The line about how if Dimi’s father could die, so could any god: my dad was alive the last time I read that, so it was a softer blow, more bearable. But also I think of you when I read that, though you were neither father nor god to me. If Mike could die so could any friend. If Mike could die so could any mentor. If Mike could die so could any artist. You left us so many of the things we’d need in your absence, but friend, you never intended that they should sit easy, and they don’t.

The things you did with this different world were more graceful, more compact, more allusive than–my God, you wrote this in 1983. 1983. Some of it might look a little less astonishing now that other people have come along and said, hey, yeah, I think I’ll do that too, but it’s like our friend’s kid saying Hamlet was a lot of common quotes strung together. You were there first and best. Your Byzantium, your Margaret of Anjou, your Lord Rivers, the things you think to do that other people still don’t think of…backwards, on schees.

It’s September, which makes it 14 years since we lost you. That math is very hard to understand. And now there’s this new edition, so instead of scouring used bookstores we can just…tell people to pick up a copy. Just casual-like. At their favorite bookstore, if they can go there in this plague; online if not. It’s such a relief, Mike. We’re doing the best we can, but a new copy of The Dragon Waiting sure doesn’t make anything harder. I’ve written you a whole series of Nature stories, Jo’s got Richard and Savonarola and Ficino in Lent, so many others, we haven’t stopped wanting to talk to you. It’s just that now it’s going to be easier to ask more people into the conversation.

Thanks. For all of it.

Books read, late August

Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories. Joan Aiken’s body of work is vast and varied, which makes it a bit of a surprise when an entire collection is fairly one-note. But that’s what these are, in tone and style, in length and so on: they are all of one thing. Which makes sense: they were written specifically for one magazine in one era, and Aiken knew her audience. They’re interesting, they’re just much narrower than I expected.

Jose Andres and Matt Goulding, Vegetables Unleashed. Spanish-influenced treatments of vegetables, most of which were fairly familiar to me but colorful and easily laid out for cooks who have not done a lot with Spanish cooking.

David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. Probably the most disappointing book I read this fortnight. I would still like a history of how we think and talk about civil wars, but this was not really it. Armitage mentioned four strands of thought on this matter and then did not discuss two of them (Arabic and Chinese) at all; he promised to discuss how the Western European strand dominated the discourse and then did not; he made small but important mistakes of fact in areas that I knew well, making me suspicious of his claims in areas I did not. Not recommended.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sibyl in Her Grave and The Sirens Sang of Murder. Rereads. These remain delightful, and they were exactly what I wanted. The voice and the reading experience: such fun. The ending of the series is very much a downer, and I had forgotten why (it’s a characterization thing, it’s a very dark characterization), but I still found them both very much worth rereading and am glad that I now have my own copies so that I can do so again at will.

Kirstin Chen, Bury What We Cannot Take. The gut-wrenching story of a family trying to escape the Cultural Revolution, mostly from the perspective of the two fairly young children. I’m not sorry I read it but will not want to read it again any time soon. Make sure you’re in a steady place for all kinds of child danger if you try to read this one.

Megan Crewe, Wounded Magic. The second volume in a YA trilogy about magic, oppression, and rebellion. I feel like the character relationships and the writing are better than genre-average here, even as Crewe is playing with tropes a lot of other people like to play with two.

Maggie Doherty, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. This is supposedly about a Radcliffe fellowship program for outstanding women in the early ’60s, but most of it is really about Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin’s friendship. Which turns out to be a pretty interesting thing to center a book around, especially if you’re prepared for excursions into other writers, artists, etc. I was reading this in conjunction with the Aiken above, and that was interesting timing.

Lindsey Fitzharris, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. This book is gross. Good! But gross. The “grisly” in the title is there for a reason, and as someone in my family pointed out, they have given it a horror novel cover for a reason: Fitzharris wants to make darn sure you know exactly how bad things could get before proper sterile procedure in surgeries. For many of you, ghouls that you are, this is a recommendation; I certainly found it interesting. I just don’t want it to take you by surprise, because…there are no punches pulled here.

Eleanor Fitzsimmons, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit: Victorian Iconoclast, Children’s Author, and Creator of the Railway Children. I love Nesbit’s books, and I also love AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book. This is, I think, a balanced look at an interesting and complicated person. There are a few places where the timeline shuttles back and forth a little, but that happens when you’re trying to follow multiple threads; people’s lives aren’t necessarily tidy.

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn’t See: And Other Stories. This is very well-done short fiction about generally quite unpleasant people. Not mostly genocidal criminals, just rather nasty humans. Adjust tolerance/reading time accordingly.

Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife. Discussed elsewhere.

Molly Gloss, Unforeseen: Stories. These were beautiful and self-possessed and sometimes speculative and generally a glowing volume of just what I needed, quiet, right.

Justina Ireland, Deathless Divide. Sequel to Dread Nation. Tries to do a little more with Native characters than in its sequel but still focused on questions of passing and social priorities for Black Americans, within the framework of an alternate history zombie YA. A very quick read considering the weight of its subject matter.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, Trouble the Saints. And speaking of passing and social priorities for Black Americans, this is a really intense book about ’20s New York with a lot of cultural texture and interesting magic. I liked it a lot.

Shion Miura, The Great Passage. More books should be about the construction of dictionaries. This one happens to be a novel about the quirky individuals who are working on a Japanese dictionary, and it is lovely and the stakes are dictionaries, which are quite high stakes and at the same time very little bloodshed. Hurrah.

Abir Mukherjee, Death in the East. The fourth in its mystery series, and the protagonist is making personal progress, and his sidekick is making political progress. Along with the rest of India. Since that part is the part of this 1920s Calcutta setting that interests me most, I’m very happy with the direction of the series and will keep reading as soon as there’s more.

Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. This book is very much pop history. It was reasonably fun, and it did a good job of covering the world rather than just “the world haha no really we mean England and France, maybe a little Spain for fun, the US after 1800.” If you know a lot about any area of maritime history, it’s not likely to go into as much detail as you know, but if you don’t actually already have a chapter on Viking shipbuilding (or equivalent) outlined in your head for if somebody asks for it, you might like this one.

Una L. Silberrad, Desire. Not nearly as racy as the title makes it sound–the protagonist’s name is Desire, and this is a 1908 novel that was criticized at the time because the male love interest supported and respected the protagonist in her work outside the home, and clearly that was a female fantasy. I’m not kidding. Anyway, Desire is forthright, practical, and delightful, and so is Desire. Content warning: the death of a Very Nice Dog, but otherwise just what I needed, a heroine who takes her fate–and that of everyone around her–by the horns and builds a life she enjoys. There’s more Silberrad out there, and I’m excited.

Jonathan Strahan, ed., The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Discussed elsewhere.

Tade Thompson, Making Wolf. This is the most violent Ruritanian novel I’ve ever read. It’s a thriller set in contemporary “Alcacia,” which is a heck of a lot like Nigeria but, y’know, all the benefits of being fictional. You can talk about different governmental and extragovernmental entities in ways that make sense with your plot and metaphors. I really like Ruritanian novels, and I like thrillers well enough. This reads very much like the start of a series, and I’ll be glad to have the rest of the series.

Bjorn Vassnes, Kingdom of Frost: How the Cryosphere Shapes Life on Earth. This is not highly technical, so if you’re interested in cold-dwelling life at all sizes, you should be able to enjoy it no problem. That is, in fact, my jam. So.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Why would you want a volume of the year’s best short science fiction? Well, several reasons. If you don’t keep up with short fiction but like it, a one-volume summary from an editor whose taste aligns well with yours can give you a glimpse, at least, of the gigantic world beyond. If you do, you might want some of your favorite stories conveniently in one place, with some perspective that will let you say in 2029, oh yes, that’s what 2019 was like in short fiction, those stories were published at basically the same time. Or you might enjoy having someone hit a few highlights that you didn’t manage to get to yourself.

Because unless someone is directly paying you to read all the short SFF, you will miss some things. I sure do. (I suspect that even the people who are directly paid miss things too. There’s a lot.)

So how does this volume do with that? Pretty well, I think. There are several stories I enjoyed the first time around and am glad to see again collected–notably Fran Wilde’s “A Catalog of Storms” but also Ken Liu’s “Thoughts and Prayers,” Fonda Lee’s “I (28M) Created A Deepfake Girlfriend and Now My Parents Think We’re Getting Married,” and Indrapramit Das’s “Kali_Na.” I would not have made the same choice as Strahan for Best Elizabeth Bear Story of the Year, but “Soft Edges” is a good story, it’s just that there’s tough competition for that position.

Of course I definitely want a YB volume to introduce me to great stories I’ve missed, and this one delivers. There aren’t any I’d consider duds–all have solid reasons to be included (please note that this has not always been the case for me with YB volumes)–and several new stories would have made my favorites list if I’d read them in time. Stand-outs for me in this category included Suzanne Palmer’s “The Painter of Trees,” Karin Tidbeck’s “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir,” Malka Older’s “Sturdy Ladders and Lanterns,” and Alec Nevala-Lee’s “At the Fall”–all very different and very compelling.

Strahan didn’t hit even remotely all of my favorites for 2019, but that would have been impossible and should not be expected. His taste leans toward more exposition than implication in some of these stories, but it’s quality exposition. He also limits his remit to science fiction as distinct from fantasy, which is a distinction I often find counter-productive…except when it’s a matter of fitting vast available material into a book of usable size, in which case it becomes pretty understandable. You could do a lot worse than this one if you tried to pick good stories from 2019.

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I have read a lot of books about cloning, and how they deal with memory and identity varies a lot within their space, and this is one of those, this is within that space. I have also read a lot of thrillers about misogyny, and this is extremely different from the most of the rest of them. Genre overlap is wild.

Evelyn researches cloning and associated human development projects. Most of her work has been in making clones who are as like their originals as possible. Then she discovers that her husband–soon to be ex-husband–has been making a copy of her that only looks like her. The new version, Martine, is docile, agreeable, and very dependent.

And pretty quickly, Martine is in a heap of trouble. One of the things that The Echo Wife understands, that is incredibly real and yet I don’t see it in genre books very much if at all, is that sometimes people suffer consequences professionally because of someone else’s behavior. Sometimes you didn’t do anything wrong and you still have to manage fallout, because you’re in the shape of relationship where people will blame you for the other person. Evelyn is in just that situation, and the consequences ramify fast. Things get bloody. Things get urgent. Things get personal. Very, very personal. This book hits the notes of both thriller and SF and walks the line between them adeptly.

Books read, early August

Claire Beams, We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories. Weird literary stories, a bit like a further-north Karen Russell. I enjoyed this and am glad that I have more Beams on request at the library.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Physicians of Vilnoc. Kindle. So this is another Penric and Desdemona novella, hooray!…except this one is a plague story. Really really a plague story. So, uh. Maybe save that for a day when you’re up for it, if you’re reading this series.

Neil Clarke, ed., Galactic Empires. This table of contents confuses me. It reads like someone took a 20-year-old table of contents edited by someone entirely other than Neil Clarke and tacked a few new stars on it, and that’s how the stories themselves tend to read too. Happy to see Aliette de Bodard and Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee in here, but most of the rest of the volume did not excite me.

Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Science! It is frequently interestingly wrong! Even more so before people had very clear ideas about what it was and what they should want it for! I like books about the social consequences of wrong science, and this is a good one of those.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. This is the story of a woman who wants to run a bookshop in a small town that does not particularly want a bookshop. It’s not very long, novella length I’d guess, and…I don’t know, it just left me cold. I didn’t feel like either the protag or her neighbors were particularly sharply characterized, so the Perfidy Of Human Nature plot just sort of sat there for me.

Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway. Australian Gothic? Modern fairy tale? Whatever you’re labeling this genre, its mix of magic, memory, and control is extremely compelling.

Vylar Kaftan, Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water. I haven’t seen a lot of telepath liberation stories in the last few years, but I think Kaftan must have grown up enjoying many of the same ones as I did. The twist in this one was not particularly twisty for me, but the characters were strong.

T. Kingfisher, Bryony and Roses and Summer in Orcus and The Hollow Places. (The last discussed elsewhere.) The first is a Beauty and the Beast story, the second a children’s quest fantasy grown up a bit, and I devoured them both. Lots of elements not seen all the time in fantasy, very engaging voice. Yay.

Nilah Magruder, MFK. Interesting first volume of a graphic novel that…I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m interested in the setting and characters, and sometimes being unsure is good.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, We Set the Dark On Fire. This is a shape of dystopia I often dislike, and yet I liked this one. Strict categories of women, literal walls enforcing the figurative ones, frenemies thrown together…not really my sort of thing. Except: revolution and friendship and warmth, yes, okay, definitely my sort of thing.

Naomi Mitchison, The Conquered. Historical novel of the Gauls in the time of Vercingetorix, coming under Roman rule. The chapter headings make it clear that she’s also talking about English-colonized Ireland. Her earliest novel and not where I would start with Mitchison but still a good read, a reasonable place to continue.

Abir Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes. Another colonial Calcutta mystery. At the end there is a hint that Mukherjee will not be content to wallow in his protagonist’s addictions, which is a relief to me, since I have always been more interested in the politics of the setting, and also I like mystery series where the detectives are not completely stagnant throughout. So I will likely keep on with this when the new one comes in at the library. Colonial Calcutta politics! Just the sort of thing I like in a murder mystery.

H.G. Parry, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. Okay, how bothered are you when a fantasy alternate history is basically identical to our history even with major well-known magic changes in the timeline? If the answer is that you are quite bothered, you would like magic to matter even a little if the author is going to put it in a book, this is not the book for you. If you’re happy to run along the surface of a story with magic and vampires and the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution and also Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce, this is exactly that book. I spent a lot of it wishing to see more of the Haitian characters. Ah well.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House. Another family novel, this one around a beautiful house and making one’s way in the world and the dislocation that can come of remarriage/stepfamily. That last bit had several uncomfortable pieces for me given my own family history, but still a compulsively readable book.

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members. A satirical epistolary about campus life, with a dark bite at the end. The protagonist is not cursed with the burden of self-awareness, and the entire book (again, I’d estimate novella length?) is his letters and emails and…attempts to fill out a few forms. There are some quite funny bits here.

Mariko Tamaki and Brooklyn Allen, The Lumberjanes BEASTiary. I am not the target audience for this. I found it when I was looking to see what Lumberjanes I had missed out on (see below), and, well, now I have not missed out on it. But it’s the kind of supplemental unplotty book that they put out for kids that doesn’t add much to a series unless you are 10 years old and wildly desperate for Lumberjanes content, which, yes, definitely a valid group, just not my current group.

Tade Thompson, The Survival of Molly Southbourne. Very definitely a sequel and not really a stand-alone one, about the fate of a formerly murderous clone. Interesting and in some weird ways hopeful, but read the very bloody first volume first. (Not that this is without its gore.)

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin. A collection of short stories from a fey and self-contained sense of the magical. Should be much more available and canonical (if anything is) than it has been.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Ayme Sotuyo, Dozerdraws, et al, Lumberjanes: Jackalope Springs Eternal, Lumberjanes: Time After Crime, Lumberjanes: Indoor Recess, and Lumberjanes: X Marks the Spot. I began to sympathize with the people who are dedicated enough to comics to have a pull list, because apparently four actual volumes of Lumberjanes came out while I wasn’t looking, plus two more that are on their way. Oops. Unfortunately, reading them all in a group makes it clear how glacially the arc plot is moving. Fortunately, they’re still charming and focused on friendship to the max.

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows. I knew within the first few pages that this was just the thing I wanted to read at that moment, and it was. It’s an early twentieth century family story where the children and parents are extremely themselves and it’s funny in parts and compelling throughout and full of places where the reader can see things the narrator can’t and oh I loved this.

The Hollow Places, by T. Kingfisher

Review copy provided by the publisher.


Aaaaaaaaaah yikes yikes yikes this book.

Okay, so it said on the label that it is horror, and I know I am not a big horror reader. But I have been enjoying T. Kingfisher’s other books so much, and sometimes when people say horror they really mean dark fantasy, and so I thought, okay, yes, I will read this one!

Friends, it is not dark fantasy. It is horrory horrory horror. It is “I made sure I finished this book with enough time to go read a nice short story about nice things before I had to go to bed” horror. It has Kingfisher’s (Ursula Vernon’s) engaging, entirely readable voice, and it uses that voice to take the reader to some terrifying and unpleasant places.

The taxidermy is mostly not the creepy part, is a good gauge for this book. It is full of taxidermied animals, and they are mostly okay. But there are dimensional problems in this book, not just issues but problems, and there are willows, or willow-like entities, and it all adds up to quite a bit of aaaaaah.

Kara–known to her immediate circle as Carrot–is living with her uncle Earl in the aftermath of her divorce. He’s trying to take care of her. She’s trying to take care of him–and when things go pear-shaped, Uncle Earl makes for extremely effective stakes in the story. Must protect Uncle Earl from interdimensional peril is something I was very sold on, yes, we are here for Uncle Earl, Carrot, do the thing. Her relationship with her friend Simon is also extremely well-drawn, and it was exactly these elements that kept me reading a horror novel that does extremely horrory things that aaaaaaaah.

Books read, late July

Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, eds., In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. It’s possible that somewhere out there is a terrible book on translation that is poorly written and no fun to read. I have not found it yet. This isn’t it. This is a collection of essays that range from ethics to misfires to any number of other issues in the field of translation, and even when there were spots when I wanted to argue with somebody, it was generally in a thoughtful and productive way.

Patrice Caldwell, ed., A Phoenix First Must Burn. This is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in recent years. There were stand-out stories but the entire thing was fun and exciting to read. My favorites included “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life” Rebecca Roanhorse, and “All the Time in the World” by Charlotte Nicole Davis. But really I just generally recommend this book.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. This is Malaysian-inflected, wuxia-inflected fantasy, and I am 100% here for it. I think one of the things I love most is that Cho is so well grounded in wuxia that she would never mistake its beats and pacing for fights-only–the character and relationship stuff is done beautifully here too. You love to see it. Well, I do.

Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem. One of my favorite collections of poetry I’ve read, searingly personal and staggeringly erudite in its range of references. Highly, highly recommended.

Diane Glancy and Mark Nowak, eds., Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours. This is probably a good collection to start with if you don’t have very much exposure to Native writing. I still have some issues with some of its choices–I get that song is an important art form, but there are some kinds of song where the lyrics are repetitive for a reason, and transcribing them as sung doesn’t necessarily give a good sense of the song itself. But this work varies from highly traditional to extremely avant garde, so that’s a useful range.

June Hur, The Silence of Bones. A murder mystery set in Joseon Dynasty Korea (early 1800s Gregorian calendar), where the protagonist is a young girl who is a police servant. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the relationship between traditional Korean society and converts to Roman Catholicism in this period, and the protagonist is engaging.

Kathleen Jamie, Waterlight. Another lovely poetry collection, this one by a Scottish nature poet. Also highly recommended. What a good fortnight for poetry.

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne. Reread. It had been twenty years since I’d gotten back to this one, and I still enjoyed the faux-Provence setting and the extremely stubborn characters. I notice, with this distance, that Arbonne was repeatedly said to be woman-centered but this book is entirely not. I’m not even sure that that’s a shift in Kay, I’d have to reread some other things to be sure, but it’s more noticeable to me now than it was in 2000.

T. Kingfisher, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. Dough, dough, dough and wicked evil plots. This is a fun one, especially if you’re a baker yourself. I like that Mona’s baking-focused abilities are portrayed as an interesting challenge rather than a weakness. Yay.

Abir Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil. Second in a mystery series set in Calcutta in the early ’20s, although this one involves a road trip to a fictional province. The setting is very well drawn and the main appeal for me.

Emma Newman, Brother’s Ruin. I have really liked other things by Emma Newman, but this one left me cold, I’m afraid. I’m sure that there are some people who would be as screeblingly irrational as the protagonist in their outsized emotional reactions to things, but I didn’t find it fun to read about. Also some of the plot “twists” were incredibly thoroughly telegraphed, leaving me impatient with the characters not figuring things out. Also this is another of the novellas that is not actually a complete novella, it’s a novella-sized origin story–which I will put up with when I’m enjoying the thing, but less so when it’s on shaky ground otherwise. Ah well; I’m still eager to read more of Newman’s work, just this one wasn’t for me.

Karen Osborne, Architects of Memory. Discussed elsewhere.

Pat O’Shea, The Hounds of the Morrigan. Reread. I had not read this since I was…14 at the oldest, maybe younger. So I was deeply relieved to find it kind and charming. It’s an old enough work that “hey modern setting but Irish mythology” is a thing that happens partly because people read O’Shea doing it–and having a great deal of fun along the way.

C.L. Polk, The Midnight Bargain. Discussed elsewhere.

Jan Jarboe Russell, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II. This is one of the books that’s better to have read than to read. It’s reasonably fluid prose, it’s just…well, it does what it says on the tin, and that’s not going to be happy fun times. It’s good to know about this stuff, though.

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift. A Zambian magic realist generational novel, wryly and beautifully done. Different races and classes of Zambian lives through the twentieth century into the twenty-first, including some future stuff, not giving a darn what other people’s genre boundaries might be. Recommended.

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Reread. Yes, we have reached the “rereading the Heimskringla” stage of the pandemic here. Welp. It sure is what it is, and I marked it up for my gigantic research project and consider it time well spent. But I had to take breaks in the middle, because there is only so much of St. Olaf one can bear at a time.

K. M. Szpara, ed., Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. Some beautiful stuff in here, but I think that Nino Cipri’s opening story was just such a staggeringly lovely thing. Would have been worth doing the whole volume just for that story–and there’s more.

Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife. Kindle. Tales of immigration, sexuality, and more. Quite well done, very much in the slice-of-life mimetic fiction mode in case that’s what you’re looking for.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Chimedum Ohaegbu, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issue 35. Kindle. Another strong issue. My favorites were Aliette de Bodard’s story and Jennifer Mace’s poem.

Ovidia Yu, The Frangipani Tree Mystery. 1930s Singapore setting, young woman starting out in her career/life as the detective. I had fun with this and will want to read more. Yu walks an interestingly difficult line with a developmentally delayed character: being period-appropriate but also respectful. She does this by having a heroine who is convinced of the supporting character’s capabilities, beyond the assumptions of some fairly nasty people around her. I think it works pretty well, but if having anybody scornful/less than respectful of a developmentally delayed character is going to be a problem for you, you might want to give this one a miss.

Muhammad H. Zaman, Biography of Resistance: The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens. This is another knee-slapper, wooooo. Antibiotic resistance! Hooray! Seriously, good to know more about, not cheerful. Especially since it’s a quite-recent book that was obviously written before the pandemic (as it would have to be!), so Zaman is talking about things that could go wrong in terms of “another pandemic”–and the stuff he’s talking about didn’t disappear just because we got this pandemic. Welp.

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend of many years standing.

Sometimes a book is incredibly timely because its subject matter fits the headlines of the time when it comes out. And sometimes its timeliness is more a matter of mood: that this is the sort of book people will want to read in its particular era. I believe The Midnight Bargain is the second kind. There is nothing in it about pandemics and vaccines. Humans are not dying by the thousand, in The Midnight Bargain. There are glamorous balls, card parties, flirtations, enticing bookshops, hidden grimoires. Beatrice Clayborn has serious problems, but none of them involve masks.


Honestly, who could not use a story that is both heartfelt and witty, full of both peril and wish fulfillment, right now? The Midnight Bargain‘s characters fight misogyny and wrestle with each other’s trust. They struggle with duty and ambition. They bind willful spirits and break down social barriers. They ride spirited horses and sail gallant ships. They wear elaborate clothes and drink fruity gin drinks. I love that stuff. It is the fun stuff. And right now, it is exactly the kind of fun stuff I think so many people need right now, and I’m so glad that it’s coming out soon, because in October? Less than a month from the US Presidential election, many months into a pandemic? EVEN MORE SO.