A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is very much like the other things Becky Chambers has published, and also substantially different.

The elements that are very much like are the gentleness, the belief that humans might relate to each other better in the future, that better human structures are possible; the knowledge that small comforts matter but are not the only thing that matters; the sense of people of goodwill who are bewildered by a very complicated universe but trying their best.

The elements that are substantially different: everything else I’ve read by Chambers has been very focused on space, on built environments. This book is explicitly in a world that has been ravaged by a climate apocalypse, among humans who have had to figure out a better way. It has a strong focus on sustainability. And it also has bunches and bunches of enthusiastic nature-loving robots who wandered off into the wilderness generations ago.

I suspect that this means that the people who have loved Chambers’s work in the past will still love this one, and also some additional people who like other subgenres of science fiction will love it too. I am very fond of Sibling Dex the tea monk and Mosscap the robot, and the indications that this will be a series make me very happy.

Firebreak, by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Once upon a time in the Before-Times, I traveled to New York City. (Pause to stare off into space and consider how distant this now feels.) And while I was there, I went to a reading that featured Nicole Kornher-Stace reading a section of Firebreak, and I got really excited, because it was really good. I was recovering from a bad bout of influenza and did not have the energy to stick around after and enthuse about the book. But! I received it in eARC form and have that opportunity now!

I’m really glad that I heard the late section of the book early, because the beginning of the book is the characters’ work in computer games, and I am a hard sell on computer game books. One of the reasons, though, is that a lot of books that feature computer games struggle with how to make them important and resort to silly melodramatic tropes like “if you die in the GAME you die in REAL LIFE.” Kornher-Stace, on the other hand, understands that games are important because they are an art form humans invest with importance, and Firebreak reflects that on every level.

(“If you die in the opera you die in real life,” come on, nobody feels the need to do this. Ahem. Anyway.)

The other half of this book, besides involvement with online gaming, is water scarcity, and it is vivid and dystopic for sure. As a very water-focused person I found this just horrifying and needed to have a glass of water by my side the entire time I was reading this book, because oh wow, yikes, Kornher-Stace makes you really feel every detail of this system.

I feel like Firebreak deals with tropes and themes that cyberpunk wanted to handle, but in a way that’s taken the last 30-40 years of human politics and culture into account. Corporate behemoths focused on their own profit to the exclusion of human well-being? Check. Online life providing both respite and sinister problems? Check. But unlike most cyberpunk, Firebreak is well grounded in environmental change and in the desperation that can come from humans being ground down in a system that pits them against each other for the barest necessities. Firebreak is not anybody’s-movement-punk. It’s just plain punk. And I for one am here for it.

Even and Odd, by Sarah Beth Durst

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Imagine a world where border closings are disrupting environments and separating families, dividing parent from child. Further imagine that the villain responsible for these atrocities is confronted publicly and declares that they simply don’t care and won’t stop. Sarah Beth Durst has done that here, but the border is that between a mundane world and a magical one, and the villain is…a spoiler to be determined later.

Even and Odd are two sisters who share one person’s normal amount of magic between them, alternating days. Even loves magic and wants to dedicate her life to its practice. Odd would rather help out in an animal shelter, rescuing strays and socializing new puppies and kittens. Both of them have to help out in their parents’ border shop, which sells mundane items to magical beings. But when magic stops working, Even is stuck as a skunk–and their mother is on the wrong side of the border. Distressed centaurs and worried unicorns only add to their complications.

This is a fun kids’ book whose social conscience will probably dawn on some of its target readers only years later. Some of the plot twists are pretty clear if you’re an adult who has read extensively in this genre, but one of the joys of MG is getting to be the place where kids discover a particular trope in the first place.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, by Dawnie Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a fictional piece of rock journalism. It reads like any other book about one of the musical acts of the late ’60s, complete with interviews with label execs, family members, colleagues, and hangers-on. But the people and the events in it are all fictional.

And it is so good.

Walton’s own background includes entertainment journalism, and it shows, not just in her absolutely pitch-perfect rendering of the genre in a fictional form but also in her observations of the personalities within it. And she uses the known elements of this genre to build something beyond itself–at first the ways in which each character may not be fully honest, may be self-justifying or reclusive or rude, seem to be entertaining and beautifully done, but they are that and they are plot. Who is given the benefit of the doubt and who is left hanging out to dry. Who’s the big talent and who’s lucky just to be there. All of these things are so familiar from the realities of music journalism that it takes a moment to realize what Walton is really doing here–and doing it beautifully, backwards and in five-inch platform heels. Highly recommended.

Books read, late February

B. B. Alston, Amari and the Night Brothers. This MG fantasy is great fun and has a strong sense of family and place. On the large and blurry line between traditional fantasy and superhero story, I expect this to appeal to lots of readers. It certainly did to me.

Mike Brooks, The Black Coast. Discussed elsewhere.

Kari Byron, Crash Test Girl. This feels to me more like Life Lessons From Auntie Kari than traditional memoir. I enjoyed getting a little more feel for one of the people I liked to watch on Mythbusters all those years, but I felt more glad that she’d learned the lessons she listed than particularly enlightened on my own account.

Aliette de Bodard, Fireheart Tiger. When I saw this compared to Howl’s Moving Castle on the back, I thought, oh right, with the fire spirit. But it’s that and learning to value oneself, which is pretty great. I read this all in one gulp, snuggled up on the couch with my dog. Great fun, very sweet.

Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. I had thought about a lot of the issues in this book separately, but sometimes it’s useful to come across a book that encourages you to think of them all together, that gives sort of a directionality. I think a lot of us nerds are hypothetically aware of how algorithms can reinforce bias, but watching the examples in action was extremely useful anyway.

Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. This collection of stories is less gloriously weird than her more recent The Office of Historical Corrections, but her eye for human relationships is no less sharp. I like the direction she’s going, but I also like where she’s been.

Paul Farmer, Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History. Beautifully accomplished examination of why ebola was so much worse in some parts of West Africa than in others. Farmer is very smart about poverty and public health. He’s compassionate and involved and has zero patience for exoticization or victim-blaming. Not a fun book, but a really good one all the same.

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn. Discussed elsewhere.

John McPhee, The Patch. Scraps of essay about various things. The first half is mostly sports-themed, which is a thing McPhee does well, but I’m not always that keen (despite being a sports fan in various directions myself). But the second half is his collected short essays, and there are such lovely gems in that bunch. I do wish that the date of publication had been given for each, because sometimes that context would have been lovely. But I was glad to dance through these.

Wendy Moore, No Man’s Land. An interesting account of woman-staffed hospitals during the First World War. One of the things this made me think about was trying to figure out why some people were amenable to taking in data about something they had decided was impossible (women running a hospital, in this case) and some just did not want to see what was in front of their eyes. I’ll be thinking about that for some time ahead, I expect–and the specific stories of the doctors, nurses, and orderlies was lovely and in some places quite touching.

Nnedi Okorafor, Remote Control. An interesting fantastical exploration of community and relationship, another novella I gulped right down in one sitting.

Karen Osborne, Engines of Oblivion. Discussed elsewhere.

C.L. Polk, Soulstar. Wow, the end to this trilogy, wow. The number of ways that humans make each other’s lives difficult just snowballs here, it is wall to wall human foible…sometimes in an incredibly sweet and caring way that takes its time to an adult relationship. Sometimes in a way where even the people closest to each other can disappoint…but also can come through for each other. WHEW. THIS TRILOGY. YAY.

Django Wexler, Siege of Rage and Ruin. This is also the end of a trilogy, but in a very different way. This one has been structured to follow the same characters throughout, and the theme comes through very strongly here. Changing what you think a happy ending means can be really important. Glad to see it.

Aliya Whiteley, Skyward Inn. Discussed elsewhere.

Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley

Review copy provided by the publisher.

In some ways this is a very centrally science fiction story. It is about humans and aliens learning to live with each other, and the central question of the book seems to be: can there be a middle ground between their ways of relating? This book is middle-term future–much of how humanity is living now has been revised, though not wholly rejected, and alien influence is not the only or even the main reason.

But in other ways the tone, the voice of this book are not at all typical of the genre. There is an intimacy of voice that I have been dearly wanting in science fiction novels, a focus on the relationships Jem and her son Fosse have with each other but also with the rest of their world. Worlds. That tight focus shares a lot with some literary novels and with some of my favorite SF of the past. Whiteley shares a science fiction more with Marta Randall than with Isaac Asimov, and this book is all the better for it.

I don’t want to give away the details of the cultural and biological differences at stake here, because watching them unfold gently and naturally is part of the great fun of the book. It’s a lovely meditation on how humans relate, though, and I’m so glad to see something like this coming out at a time when being thoughtful of our own humanity is incredibly important. (And really…when isn’t it.)

Engines of Oblivion, by Karen Osborne

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also Karen is a personal friend.

Natalie Chan came out of Architects of Memory hoping that this would be her chance at a better life. Birthright citizenship instead of indenture, the chance to work on her own terms–things have been hard, but maybe things were looking up for Natalie. She could even buy her father a nice place to live as he got older. She didn’t want to talk to him, of course, but she could do it anyway.

Of course that’s not how this book goes. Natalie Chan Gets Her Life Back Together might have been an interesting book, but it’s very much not this one. Instead, Chan’s best intentions blow up in her face–or rather in the faces of the people she’s in remote contact with–and her work with the corporations is thrown into question. Even her romantic relationship is set off-kilter. Worse, she’s hallucinating–and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the holes in her memory are extremely important. She remembers Kate, and Ash, and Sharma, but…wasn’t there someone else? And how much of the alien Vai is she supposed to be hearing?

Her new mission doesn’t seem optional, but it takes things from bad to worse before Natalie and whichever allies she can cobble together from her past and her present can set things right. Right-ish. Right-adjacent. The structure of this book is symphonic, introducing themes to play their variations in different registers. It’s also a great deal of fun and a fitting conclusion to this duology.

The Black Coast, by Mike Brooks

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is very much a secondary world fantasy, with the tropes that are, while not universal, common to that subgenre. It is a large book with many points of view, some of which only get one chapter when they’re needed. It features not just the relationships of people but of several cultures and nations. It has a lot of moving pieces, and this first volume is just the beginning. Some people do not like this kind of book, and it absolutely is a kind of book, it is pretty squarely in the middle of its genre.

That’s my main caveat, because this book is hitting all the beats of that genre really well, and then adding a few more things it’s doing well. Brooks is really good at not giving any one culture a monopoly on sympathy–there is no Land of the Progressives surrounded by Realms of the Backwards. In some sections of the book, more genders than are used in English are indicated by accent marks. I don’t envy Brooks’s copyeditor the job of checking all the pronouns for the correct inflection, but on the other hand they became intuitive very quickly and added realistic dimension to the cultural differences of the characters.

The fight scenes are strong enough to satisfy the most martial high fantasy fan–possibly stronger–and the magics (and the conflicting attitudes about them!) are interesting though so far well within genre tropes, but for me the strongest part of The Black Coast, and the reason why I would recommend it, is the relationships between characters with strikingly different worldviews, especially the ones who are trying, against all odds, to make a go of peace.

Folklorn, by Angela Mi Young Hur

Review copy provided by Erewhon Books.

“How are you doing?” a family member asked, and I said, “This book about Korean family and identity is making me ache for Stockholm.” “No, your entire personality is making you ache for Stockholm,” was the response I got, and it was not entirely wrong, but it was not entirely right either, Angela Mi Young Hur absolutely did have a hand in these feelings with the descriptions she wrote of walking across the bridge into Gamla Stan in the winter.

But the rest of the book, the experience of this book. Okay. This is about Elsa, a neutrino physicist doing a postdoc in Antarctica (to begin with). It’s about Elsa, who is someone’s daughter and someone’s little sister and trying to figure out what it means for her to be someone. And particularly it is about Elsa’s relationship with the folktales her Korean immigrant mother has told her–who and what is she descended from, what does it all mean, who is this mysterious girl/woman who has been part of her life since childhood but seems to be invisible to everyone else.

It’s a fascinating book, and it’s a singular one. There’s no way you can say, “Oh, another one of those.” I am particularly intrigued to see what Hur decides to do next, because this doesn’t feel like a book that can have a sequel or a direct companion volume. It feels like she is going to launch herself into something else equally unique, and I am so excited to see it, and in the meantime so excited to have this one to revisit. Recommended.

Books read, early February

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. Kindle. Reread. Reread but not since my teens, so while I knew the details from that and from general cultural discussion, a lot of the details had faded. I maintain that Henry Tilney is the best Austen hero: he is nice to his sister, he interacts with art in a non-socially-normative way (being a dude who reads and discusses novels!), and he has a Newfoundland puppy. Hard to beat that really. Meta, funny.

Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped An Age. I was hoping for more of the rest of the club–more Joseph Banks, more Edmund Burke, more Adam Smith, generally more…of anybody but Johnson and Boswell. This was very much their book. Ah well; Damrosch is outstandingly good at remembering that women and servants exist, and much can be forgiven for that. And I’m not not interested in Johnson and Boswell, just…Joseph Banks. Sigh.

Francesca Forrest, Lagoonfire. Discussed elsewhere.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock. This is very much an overview of the Indigenous Environmental Justice movement, so its ideal reader is someone who will be reading with pen or phone in hand, taking notes on what they want to find out more about later. If you’re already pretty well educated in Indigenous EJ, this will not be as useful for you.

Elias Lonnrot, Kalevala. (Francis Peabody Magoun edition.) Reread. I still love Magoun’s focus on preserving the specific cultural aspects of this saga, not blunting the insults by making them generic, making it clear that these people get awls and milk from hell. On a reread, I am startled and aghast that he is willing to use s***w (a slur for Native women) to mean large fish or water fowl. Sir: what? I could not find dictionary support for this usage, and it was very very weird. I still love it, though I’m also motivated to do translation comparisons.

Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Discussed elsewhere.

Mahvesh Murad, ed., The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 4. This struck me as more horror-y than the previous volumes in the series, but there were interesting stories by favorite writers like Zen Cho and Isabel Yap, and a welcome English translation of a Nene Ormes story. (It is taking me a very long time to read the novel I have from Nene, because my Swedish is terrible, and I’m missing a lot of nuance. Yay for translation.)

Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour. Reread. We lost Penman last month, and this was the thing I read in memoriam. I hadn’t reread it since college, and it was still a giant engaging brick of a book, and I still am a fiend for Richard III stuff. With the perspective of twenty+ more years, I feel like she overcorrected previous propaganda making Richard III an unmitigated villain (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, SHAKESPEARE) into a book that makes him nearly an unmitigated saint, but there was still a lot of fun to be had here, and I will probably be motivated to reread others of her work.

Eden Royce, Root Magic. This is a middle-grade Gullah Geechee fantasy novel, ownvoices. The protagonist is trying to navigate school and family life while learning to do root work, a traditional Gullah Geechee practice. The pacing is not standard for this category, and some of the timing of how stuff is revealed to the reader is a little off for my tastes (several instances of telling the reader something after the fact that would have been reasonable and useful to know beforehand, in ways that produced less suspense rather than more), but it’s in general a fun book, and I’m so glad it exists.

F. C. Yee, The Shadow of Kyoshi. The second in this duology. Kyoshi comes into her own, and it’s great fun, and if you liked the first one this is definitely a good read. (If you didn’t read the first one, probably do that first, it’ll be much better that way.)

Kevin Young, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. A magisterial tome of poetry, highly varied, divided by era so that you can find commonality and contrast between poems and between eras. Pays careful attention to lyric and spoken word as a source for these poems. Some favorites already in here and a bunch of poets I’d never read before. Extremely good resource.

Ovidia Yu, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery. The third in its series, but I think it’d actually be okay as a place to start, everything is inclued reasonably well. The setting is barreling toward WWII, but the protagonist is still navigating her immediate Singapore surroundings, infused with colonialism and politics, and of course murder. Eager to read the next one.