Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is a sequel of sorts to Uprooted; though there’s no actual direct connection between them (apparently they’re not even set in the same world), they feel related.
Mostly this is because they’re in the same subgenre, of epic fantasy fairytales. Like Uprooted, this one starts with a girl living in a village, but here she’s a poor moneylender’s daughter. I don’t want to spoil where the story goes, but it involves dukes and kings, ice fae and demons, promises sworn and impossible tasks assigned. It’s exploring what it means to live on the margins of society (this isn’t our world, as such, but it’s enough so that the moneylenders are explicitly Jewish rather than some fantasy analog), what it means to be a ruler, and what it means to be a family, all familiar fairy tale themes.
The book is excellent. The characters are tropes given flesh and complexity; the story is familiar but new and unexpected; and the world captures the charm and danger of fairy tales. I’m actually a little annoyed right now, because having finished this book, all I want to do is read another book in this series, but there isn’t one. Hopefully Novik will remedy that quickly.
The Ballad of Black Tom is one of the best Lovecraft stories I’ve read, but when I went to read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, I actually had no idea what it would be. I assumed it wasn’t more Lovecraftian horror, but so maybe some kind of fairytale thing?
And so it starts out as a very mundane slice-of-life kind of story, one that would be totally at home in the literary fiction aisles (where, it turns out, LaValle’s earlier books have been shelved; I had completely thought that Black Tom was his first publication, but apparently just the first one that I noticed). And as literary fiction, it’s really good. It’s sharply observed, wry, and peopled with believable characters. If LaValle were to write a book about people just going about their lives, it’d be a fun read.
But it turns out this isn’t that, because eventually that mundane starts getting mixed in with the mystical, and oh yeah, this is a fairytale thing. And it might not be Lovecraftian, but it is still horror.
I’m not really a horror reader—I read a bunch of it back in junior high when it was super-popular, to try to figure out why it was so popular, and I never actually understood the appeal. But I do get it here, because this book is intense. The every-day elements serve to ground the fantastic, to keep it from getting too wifty and supernatural; but also to intensify them, to make them feel that much more possible and real.
Excellent stuff, recommended for everyone who doesn’t mind some darkness in their fairy tale.
Monica Byrne’s The Girl In the Road is, fundamentally, one of those novels of the road, all about a journey both physical and (inevitably) spiritual and metaphorical and what-not as well. In fact, it’s actually two of those stories, told interweavingly, and with the relationship between them unclear for a while.
So Byrne, who is “an American able-bodied, middle-class, mostly straight cis white” woman, has written an essay arguing that people like her should write stories about… well, the protagonist of this story: a queer mentally-ill Indian woman (who is in a relationship with a trans woman). I don’t have any opinion worth noting about the ethics of that argument, but from the purely artistic side, I think this novel argues against her.
Because while I’m sure Byrne did a ton of research and tried to write from experience and ran it by sensitivity readers and what-not, the protagonist just seemed a bit… off. She read like… well, like she was someone with Byrne’s background, rather than the background she actually has in the story. (And no, this isn’t just my seeing what I expected. I actually assumed at first that Byrne was Indian despite her name, and only when the book was feeling a bit weird, I googled her, and found that essay.)
But I don’t know, it’s not like the story would be improved if the protagonist were a white girl from Massachusetts. And you could make a case that this is set in the future when India is a prosperous and dominant world power, so maybe an Indian woman of that time should feel more like a modern American. Ultimately, my biggest problem with the novel isn’t about that anyway—it is, simply, that it’s unpleasant to read a first-person travelogue when you super-hate the protagonist, who is basically a straight-up antihero, just doing a string of horrid things for the whole book.
Obviously lots of people love them a good antihero—antihero shit is a super-popular genre. And at least this one isn’t yet another angry white dude, so there’s that. But yeah, still not for me. If you like your protagonists unpleasant and unconvincing, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.
So Steven Brust’s Vallista is the latest Vlad Taltos novel, a series which I have now been reading for substantially longer than this booklog’s existed, which is increasingly saying something. (Like, I re-read the first one 15 years ago, and thought then that it had been a good while since I read it initially.)
For a long time, this was one of my favorite series, and if you go back and look at the write-ups of each book in the series, you’ll see that come through. But lately, I’ve been getting disenchanted with puzzlebox fiction that sets up a big mystery and teases out reveals over time, because it’s hard not to notice that the ending rarely lives up to all the build-up. And surely that’s going to be doubly true for a series that I’ve been reading my entire adult life; hell, I’m not sure that Brust even has a big master plan that’ll make sense of all the obscure hints he’s been dropping for decades. (He is, after all, a huge admirer of Roger “make-it-up-as-you-go” Zelazny.)
So I didn’t read this right when it came out, and I went into it with medium-low expectations, figuring that it was going to be a by-the-numbers installment of a series that I used to love, but was now reading out of a sense of inertia and completionism.
The thing is, I was completely and delightfully wrong. What I keep forgetting is how much fun these novels can be. I laughed at the witty writing and kept wanting to share quotes from it. And while this is exactly the kind of puzzlebox that I normally hate—not only did it have some big, but slightly ambiguous, reveals about the overall series, the plot of this book is structured as a giant puzzle whose solution needs to be found—it somehow worked. I cared about the central mystery of the book, and I even cared about the larger series reveals. And it made me wonder if maybe Brust actually does have a plan, and the series won’t disappoint in the end.
It seems weird that I can be positively surprised by a series I’ve loved for decades, but I was anyway. Great stuff. If you haven’t read Brust, start in on Jhereg, and know that it stays good at least this far in.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers imagines a WW1 where spiritualism—mediums, seances, circles, all that—is real, and where the British are secretly gathering military intelligence from the recently dead. Which is going well and all, until one dead soldier reports treasonous murder, and now we’ve got ourselves a mystery/conspiracy novel.
So what this reminded me of was a Connie Willis novel, one of those farces like To Say Nothing of the Dog or especially, even though they’re different wars, Blackout. It’s not really a farce—it’s basically a straight suspense thriller—but the characters have the same kind of jocularity, and there’s the same madcap running all over chasing after clues.
And also, frustratingly, there’s the part of the book where if people would just relax, talk to someone else, and compare notes, they’d be able to short-circuit a whole bunch of unnecessary excitement. To her credit, Kowal motivates the lack of communication a lot better than Willis usually does—there’s a conspiracy, and without knowing who’s involved, it’s impossible to know who’s trustworthy and who’s not—but it’s still frustrating to read through, even if it does make sense in internal story logic.
Still, that’s not a huge complaint. This is a light, breezy read despite the nominal heaviness of a WW1 setting; recommended for airport reading or its equivalent.
So Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a dystopian novel set on a generation ship. The dystopia is partly due to events—something happened to the ship at one point in the past that screwed up its functioning, and it hasn’t been quite right ever since—and partly intrinsic in the society that built it, which is deeply racist in a kind of 19th century way, with explicitly segregated decks and racialist science about the subhumanity of those on the lower decks.
The book is focused on the people living in the margins of the ship. The protagonist is a woman from the lower decks, brilliant, autistic, and working as an assistant to the Surgeon (who is part of the ruling families, but whose position in society isn’t that simple); in addition to the Surgeon, it also focuses on her quasi-sister, angry and erratic and dealing (not entirely successfully) with the abuse and trauma that have been heaped upon her.
As a generation ship novel, it’s heavy on the “generations” part, focusing on the mysteries surrounding the characters’ parents and ancestors. It actually reminds me a lot of these books that I read when I was young, the title of which I’ve long since forgotten, YA post-dystopian things where characters had to break the rules of their society to find out what was really going on (which, it turned out, was some aftereffect of nuclear war, omni-present in Cold War SF). The characters here do the same sort of thing, breaking the rules of their society to find out what’s really happening on the ship. But these aren’t the rules of a cool and distant priesthood, they’re the rules of oppressors whose cruelty is more explicitly visceral.
It’s well-written, the characters feel deeply real, and the story moves along at a good pace; and though it’s anything but a cheerful book, it’s not “grimdark” in the way that I find off-putting. Recommended, though maybe not for light vacation reading.
Reading descriptions of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous raised a bunch of caution flags for me. Its protagonist is an anti-patent crusader who does open-source-type stuff, and Newitz is or has been a tech journalist and EFF policy analyst. So it’s not hard at all to imagine this being one of those ultra-tedious Doctorow-style essays masquerading as fiction.
But the good news is, it’s not that at all. Newitz is fundamentally writing a story about her characters and the particulars of their circumstances—not just the anti-patent crusader, but also a younger boy and a military robot. And her characters bounce up against each other and even come into conflict, so the book can’t be that simple fictionalized manifesto.
Without getting too spoilery, the title of this book is deeply apropos, because—from a bunch of different angles—it’s exploring what it means to be autonomous in relation to the self, to society, to friends, to one’s own history, to institutions. It’s one of those books that makes you think about the world we’re building and the world we might want to build instead.
Martha Well’s Artificial Condition is the second of her Murderbot novellas. As much as I loved the first one, I was kind of unsure as to whether a sequel would really work as well—it felt like maybe one of those works where everything comes together perfectly and trying to recapture the feel of it without getting stale might not work, you know?
But I shouldn’t have been concerned, because this is absolutely great. Murderbot remains a superb narrator (I mentioned in my last post that Oar from Ascending is one of my favorite protagonists; Murderbot is right up there), and ART is a great supporting character. And the situation in this book is very much not a reprise of the first story—things are moving forward for Murderbot, but without losing what makes the character appealing.
A fast-paced story, wonderful characters, a great narrative voice, and enough character development that it feels like more than just empty fun. I’m totally in for as much Murderbot as Wells wants to write at this point. Recommended for just about anyone.
So James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is the first in a new series of novels from him (the back of the book has a promo for the second, due later this year). This is particularly noteworthy because his last series, the League of Peoples, ranged from good to excellent (Ascending has one of my favorite narrators ever), but also wrapped up over a decade ago. I honestly thought he was retired from writing, but apparently—and thankfully—not.
This is also a really enjoyable and promising start for a series. The premise sounds like it could be cheesy—vampires vs. superheroes!—but in fact it works pretty well. Because what Gardner is doing isn’t just setting up a geeky fan-service conflict, he’s actually built a world in which this makes sense, where the vampires and demons are the capitalist overlords, the CEOs and other one percenters; and the superheroes are (usually!) the champion of the everyperson.
But beyond the kind of political background, it’s also just a very personal story. Fundamentally, this is the story of Kim Lam discovering who they are and what they want their life to be, and that just happens to be a personal story that involves superheroes punching vampires.
And plus, Gardner writes with verve and energy, and this book moves propulsively forward with a tone that’s as light-hearted as the title would suggest. Really good stuff, recommended to anyone who doesn’t demand complete seriousness from their books at all times.
So as R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War started out, I was really loving it. It was doing this kind of boarding school story where a scrappy kid in a bad situation works hard and gets into the big school, and now has to deal with a whole new world of high society that they know nothing about, dealing with the resentments of their rich classmates, etc. Like Harry Potter if Harry Potter were good. It’s a shape of story that I have a real fondness for, and it was done well.
But then, something like half of the way into the book, it took a turn into the grimdark. And to clarify what I mean by that phrase, it’s not about the events in the book (though those were often both grim and dark), it’s about the attitude of the characters. Once we get to the grimdark portion of the book, there’s almost never a non-sardonic smile, almost never a moment of non-mordant levity, almost never any interpersonal relationship that isn’t warped and twisted by self-loathing and violence.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, as such. Kuang seems to be doing something very intentional with the grimdark here. (From the ending, I’m pretty sure this is the start to a trilogy; it tells a complete story in itself, but there’s a lot of dangling ends.) But me personally, I super-hate grimdark. I kept reading this book, hoping that it would take another turn and go back to being the book I wanted it to be, but no such luck. I’m curious about where the series goes from here, but I suspect that it’s going to stay solidly in the grimdark, so will probably never read the sequels to find out, alas.
Recommended for people who are more grimdark-tolerant than me.
So J.Y. Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune are billed as “twin novellas” that can be read in any order, but they both are about the same main characters, and one of them happens chronologically 100% after the other one. So while I guess you could read the later book first, and then treat the other as a prequel, it makes waaaaay more sense to just say that Black Tides is book one, and Red Threads book two.
So these are apparently considered “silkpunk,” and I’m not sure I actually understand what the “punk” suffix means anymore, but they’re set in a fantasy Asian empire with magic-based tech, and the protagonists are a set of twins who seem to have been picked out by fate. There’s family drama, politics, romance (the characters involved have a reasonable variety of genders and sexualities), and straight-up action.
These are fast-reading, and not just because they’re short—I talk a lot about how much I like books that have that propulsive sense of momentum, and these have that in spades. (I had actually picked them out to read on an airplane, started the first one to see if they were really the appropriate tone for airplane reading, and then ended up plowing through them well before the trip. Oops.) But like the best such books, they’ve also got some depth to them: The characters feel real, the politics meaningful, the world seems to exist beyond the horizons of what the characters see.
Really fun books, strongly recommended to any fantasy fan, and I’m excited to see more of them.
Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War is a history of the Seven Years’ War, which you probably learned about in high school US history as “The French and Indian War.” So the book argues that this conflict was actually hugely important in shaping the course of American history, that the (spoilers) British victory over the French and subsequent domination of North America was at least as big a turning point as the American Revolution. And it makes a pretty good case for its view; it’s definitely hard not to think that this was severely under-covered in my high school US history courses.
But so also of course, this isn’t just American history. Fundamentally, this is a conflict between the French and British empires, encompassing complex European “balance of powers” bullshit (modern European history is an exhausting chronicle of soi-disant diplomatic geniuses blundering into stupid, bloody wars, apparently), Caribbean island invasions, attempts to control the India trade, in addition to the North American stuff. And the book does a good job giving an overview of those different theaters to provide the full context, though it stays at arm’s length from all of them; it’s definitely focused on North America.
What it also does a good job of doing is focusing on the politics that drove military decisions. Which means in a British context, Parliamentary factions and court politics; in an American context, relationships between colonial governors and the elected assemblies; and in an Indian context, the relationships between nations (particularly around the Iroquois League) and factions within them. One of the devilish things about history is the way that a particular policy might be terrible for a nation, but good for a particular faction whose leaders happen to be ascendant, and Anderson captures well the internal political logic of bad decisions.
Overall, this is a thorough and well-contextualized book that puts a lot of meat onto the bare bones of high-school history classes. Recommended for anyone interested in British colonial America.
When I read Chernow’s Hamilton biography, I remarked that “when I’ve read biographies of historical figures in the past, for college classes, they were always medieval or early modern figures, people whose lives have a lot of blank spots and whose personalities require a lot of guesswork based on relatively little evidence.” Which is a pretty spot-on description of Levi Roach’s Æthelred: The Unready.
Because here we are with a biography of a long-reigning king, and all we have is the thinnest of public records to hang it on. Like, we know he married twice, for instance, but we don’t even know what happened to his first wife—did she die? was she cast out in disfavor? when?—never mind anything personal at all. Even on matters of major policy, there’s not a whole lot there. Major court realignments are adduced from the order of signatures on monastic charters; significant policy shifts are visible in which monasteries get more land in those charters; guesses at the mindset of a kingdom under invasion are based on changes in coinage. A single extant poem detailing a particular battle becomes this enormously significant piece of evidence all out of proportion to what we really can know based on it (as Roach notes), just because we have so little.
But Roach takes this scanty data and manages to turn it into a compelling analysis of an important moment in English history, detailing the primary periods of Æthelred’s kingship—his regency as a child king; his reaction against his regents as he came into maturity; his repentance for that youthful reaction and re-embrace of those old influences; increasing crisis and a shift in advisors; and finally, the rising tide of Danish invasion and the conquest of England.
For the most part, this is a sober, analytical history rather than a narrative one (though at one point Roach does allow himself a bit of (well-sourced) dramatic license to imagine how a scene of the king’s repentance might have played out), so it’s not the kind of page-turner that, e.g. that Hamilton bio is; probably it’s not going to inspire any hit musicals. But it is clear, concise, and informative; recommended if this is the sort of thing you’re looking for.
Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is pretty much what the title suggests. It goes through a double-handful of the wrong (and often pernicious) nonsense beliefs that we learn, either in school or just kind of vaguely around, and notes the ways in which they’re not actually true, and explains what is… maybe not “true,” as such, but at least less wrong.
(Okay, that was a confusing sentence. This is one of those academic histories that has fully embraced epistemological nihilism and doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as historical truth, or that if it would be knowable if there were. So it explicitly disavows any claims to be giving its readers the actual truth, but it also pretty clearly thinks it’s useful to say that the myths it’s arguing against are just flat wrong.)
It’s a good book for what it is, and I think it overall explains the history well, and makes a good case for the falsity of the myths it’s addressing. But for me personally, it falls into that awkward category of histories that debunk things I don’t even know well enough to have the myth-version of.
Like, back in a college English history class, one of the books we used went really hard into the idea that some particular king wasn’t as evil as everybody thought, and it was a little weird to me, because I didn’t know a damn thing about the guy and had no reason to think he was evil in the first place. (Turns out that Shakespeare was very unkind to him, and that portrayal had become pop-culture canon for people who were less clueless than nineteen-year-old me.)
And same thing here. A lot of this book is focused on de-mythologizing Cortes in particular, and I didn’t even realize that Cortes was a particularly notable guy; he was just one of the post-Columbus randos that got glossed over really quickly in my high-school world history course during the whole “Age of Exploration” thing: Magellan, Pizarro, Cortes, de Soto, etc. He doesn’t even have a cool fountain of youth thing like Ponce de Leon, you know?
But apparently in real life, he’s a big deal, and now I know both a lot of the incorrect things that have been believed about him, as well as some things that are probably less wrong. So that’s cool.
In the preface to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, he gives this mission statement:
I wanted to know more about Russia and Central Asia, about Persia and Mesopotamia. I wanted to understand the origins of Christianity when viewed from Asia; and how the Crusades looked to those living in the great cities of the Middle Ages – Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Cairo, for example; I wanted to learn about the great empires of the east, about the Mongols and their conquests; and to understand how two world wars looked when viewed not from Flanders or the eastern front, but from Afghanistan and India.
Hey, Pete, me too! So it’s kinda disappointing that that’s not what this book is. While the focus of the book is on the Middle East and Asia, it’s on them from the perspective of Europe—they’re acted upon, only rarely actors. So, for instance, we hear about how the Roman Empire was focused more on the Middle East than on Western Europe, how Egypt and Persia were more important than Britain and Gaul, despite all we hear about Caesar’s northwestern campaign. But we don’t read about internal Egyptian politics, we don’t read about life in the Persian Empire. We’re still focused on Rome.
And that pattern follows throughout the book. As we get to the Crusades, we don’t read about the various Islamic factions, but we get a full accounting of the divisions in Christendom. There’s almost no discussion of life in India, but a whole bunch about the East India Company. Almost every part of twentieth-century Middle Eastern history is through the lens of French, British, and American foreign policy.
But… that’s not a devastating critique, because if this isn’t the book I wanted or the book that the preface seems to think it is, it is an interesting history of Europe, as focused on Asia. And it is a useful corrective to the kind of mythological “western civilization” take on history that you might get in high school. With a scope as broad as this (it goes from antiquity to the George W. Bush administration, which tbh is probably way too recent to really count as “history,” but one can understand the temptation to not stop before 9/11), it’s necessarily not going to go into too much detail on any particular time period, but it manages to be satisfyingly informative even from a high-level view.
Recommended, if this is what you’re looking for; but I still want the book the preface promised.
So James S.A. Corey’s Persepolis Rising, the latest (seventh?) Expanse novel, does precisely what you’d expect at this point in the series, which is: 1) advance the plot in a big way; 2) but also in a way you almost certainly didn’t see coming.
Particularly surprising here is that it starts off with a pretty big time-jump, with thirty years or so passing from the end of the last book. This is actually a little weird, because on the one hand a bunch of stuff has changed and everything’s different; but on the other hand, some stuff hasn’t really changed, and is less different than you’d think it ought to be.
But then, that’s kind of the whole thing with books in series, right: You want just enough change for each book to feel new and interesting and not stale, but not so much change that the book feels too far away from what you look to that series for. (Whenever the Aubrey-Maturin books got away from naval action for too long, it started getting a bit weird, for instance.) And the things you look for in an Expanse book are still here—the found family of the Rocinante, political intrigue, cosmic mystery, and maybe even some fighting.
This is a great series, and while you obviously shouldn’t jump on with this book, you should definitely read it if you somehow haven’t.
Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms is one of the first and most famous microhistories, focusing in-depth on a relatively small subject—in this case, a particular miller in 16th century Italy, and his heretical views.
It’s a fun book, in a bunch of ways. One is that it’s a picture of the life of an ordinary everyday person in this period; usually there’s not a whole lot of documentation about randos, but turns out that if you spend a lot of time talking to the Inquisition, well, you’ve left yourself a document trail. But another is that it’s a fascinating look at this guy’s idiosyncratic cosmogony (which does involve both cheese and worms), and how he’s taken a handful of books that he read and turned them over in his mind, and come to these novel conclusions about the nature of god and man and souls and the construction of societies.
Because in one sense, he’s just kinda this blowhard, right, the guy who goes down to the bar and has a few drinks and proceeds to go on about how all these big fancy bishops are full of shit. But in another sense, there is a kind of cleverness and ingenuity in his ideas, and it reminds us of how much human potential was (and still is) squandered by the accidents of social class or whatever else might keep someone from getting an education and being able to fully participate in the exchange of ideas.
And of course, it also reminds us of how a lot of ideas got kept down rather deliberately by a Church that was adamant about everyone very specifically believing a narrow range of opinions. The Inquisition here isn’t the gratuitously evil one you might be thinking of—they’re scrupulous in giving a fair trial, and merciful where they can be within the scope of their duties—but at the end of the day, they really are people who will use imprisonment, torture, and death to ensure that only orthodox ideas are expressed. And the miller in this book expresses some wildly unorthodox ideas, some of which seem common-sensical to a modern (and some of which seem even wackier now than they would have then), and rather than be able to bounce his ideas off other people and refine them, he got imprisoned, told to stfu, and eventually killed.
Anyway, this is a quick, absorbing, down-to-earth read. Recommended for anyone who is even tangentially interested in folk theology in post-Reformation Italy.
John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid is the first of a multi-volume history of ancient Egypt. As the subtitle indicates, it starts off in prehistory, and ends with Khufu.
Which means, ultimately, that it’s a history of a period we don’t know very much about, a point that Romer drives home repeatedly. He’ll talk about the archaeological evidence that we have—a comb with some engravings, maybe—and review what interpretations past historians have put on it, then calmly explain that they were all full of shit, and that, like Jon Snow, we know nothing.
This bit from near the end gets a lot of the flavor of the book:
And yet our real knowledge of these ancient people hardly extends beyond their pyramids, their tomb chapels and names and titularies. We know nothing, for example, of those who carried Hetep-heres in her palanquin, and though we possess her very intestines, we know nothing of the woman or the queen at all. As we have seen, it is convention, rather than hard proof, that describes her as the daughter of King Huni, the wife of Sneferu and the mother of King Khufu. And it is precisely this mix of intimacy, anonymity and grandeur, at once alien and familiar, which is so very fascinating.
So, yeah, if you want to read a long overview of the development of pottery and building trades in ancient Egypt (about the only things we have real evidence for), and an overview of the very little that we know about the first three and a half dynasties, and about life in Egypt during them, this is a great book for the purpose. But for my own part, reading for fun, I can’t help but prefer to read about a period when we have more evidence available to us, and when a history can be more about the people and less about the buildings and vases they left behind.
If you’ve read the Ballantine Lord of the Rings paperbacks, you may have read the introduction where Tolkien is quoted as saying, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”
And history is exactly what N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy provides. This is a series set in a world with history piled on history—it’s a sort of Vance-ian/Wolfe-ian Old Earth setting, except bleaker, because this is a world where the very nature of the planet works to destroy civilizations, and humanity is barely holding on to survival after repeated cataclysms. And it probably isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the cataclysms aren’t entirely in the past when the first line of the first book is: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”
And as a history, oh boy does it have some applicability to it. It’s applicable to almost any of the big issues of our day: Climate change, and the possibility that the planet will go on but humanity won’t; nuclear proliferation, and the possibility for humanity to end itself through stupid mischance; terrorism, and the damage that a single motivated person can do to a society; and maybe especially to racial justice, and what kind of justice is possible in a society built at its roots on oppression.
(When discussing that last question in other contexts, Ta-Nehisi Coates has gotten a lot of pushback for lacking “hope” that things might someday get better. In one interview, he noted that any improvement is unlikely to happen in a congenial way: “It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.” This quote came to mind a couple of times while reading these books.)
Beyond all that, from a pure craft level, this is amazing work. Jemisin gave herself a task with the degree of difficulty cranked way up: Half of this book is written in second-person present. This could easily come off gimmicky; I think about 95% of the writing I’ve read like that previously has been text adventures. But it works, and it reads so naturally that you often don’t even notice it, except when the book deliberately brings it to your attention. (And to be clear, Jemisin’s not just doing this as a stunt to prove that she could; this is integral to how the story is framed and told… but it’s still not something you’d want to see a lesser writer try.)
The characters are richly drawn and compelling; the plot is complex but absorbing. This is just flat out one of the best series the genre has to offer, a success at every level, and it’s been recognized widely as such, having won the most recent two Best Novel Hugos (and with a decent shot at a third next year, in my opinion). Read it.
Ann Leckie’s Provenance is set in the same universe as her Ancillary novels, but is essentially unrelated—instead of telling a story about the fate of species and empires, it’s telling a much smaller story; really, when it comes down to it, it’s telling a coming-of-age story, like one of those old-timey Heinlein juvies.
As the story opens, our protagonist, a young woman who wants to be named the heir to her family, is in the middle of a scheme; as it quickly turns out, she’s too young and naive to really understand what she’s kicked off, and is quickly stuck into situations she hadn’t anticipated. The story is about her figuring things out, growing into her competence, and recasting her family, her world, and her own life in adult terms rather than those of a child.
This is not as dense a book as Ancillary Justice, but it’s still got a reasonably complex plot, still touches on important themes of justice and power; and its plot moves forward so propulsively that it’s hard to put down. This is a fun book that has all the virtues of old-timey SF without most of those books’ weaknesses.