I’ve remarked before that Dave Duncan was one of my favorite writers in junior high and high school, and he continued writing imaginative, unique, better-than-they-had-to-be fantasy novels even as I became medium-old. He died in 2018, alas, at the age of 85; but being the prolific writer that he was, he left something like five novels in the publication pipeline, including the third and final volume of Dave Duncan’s The Enchanter General series.

So as a little aside before I get into talking about these books, I am these days no longer particularly young, and it’s easy to feel like I’m in the back side of my career, right. So it’s particularly notable to me nowadays that Duncan didn’t publish his first novel until he was 53. He had a whole decades-long professional career as a geologist, and then at an age when people start thinking about retirement, he wrote and published his first novel… and then went on to write like 30-odd more novels without ever stopping. I don’t have any plans to turn to a writing career, but it’s still a little inspiring to think that something like that is possible, you know?

Okay, so anyway, these particular books are historical fantasies. They trace, across the course of the three of them, the life of Durwin, who starts off as a stable-hand, and with the benefit of some training in magic, becomes… well, the series is called “The Enchanter General,” so you can probably guess. His adventures start in the early reign of Henry II and continue through the end of the reign of Richard the Lionheart.

As historical novels, they’re a little old-fashioned; they’re really giving you that pop-culture conception of the characters. This is definitely the Lionheart and not-yet-King John you’ll recognize from movies or Robin Hood stories or whatever. There’s not that sense of really delving into the authentic historical period like there is in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

Also old-fashioned is the book’s handling of women. For the entire first book, basically every character of note is male, and female characters are mostly described in sexualized ways. This is clearly a first-person voice thing, as Duncan’s written tons of books that don’t do this (and the third book in this series, when the protagonist is rather older, doesn’t do it as much), but it’s still a stylistic choice that feels decades past its expiration date. I expect that many readers will bounce off the books because of it.

Which is unfortunate, because except for that, the books are quite good. If the history is a bit poppy, it’s also instantly accessible, with some great characters (including an excellent Eleanor of Aquitaine, giving the book at least one notable female character); and the intersection between the protagonist’s life and grand historical events is a fine place to set a story. And while this isn’t quite up to the standards of Duncan’s best work, it does share with those a propulsive energy that keeps pages turning; I sped through these quickly, reading them in even small free moments.

The poor handling of female characters keeps this from being an unequivocal recommendation, but I guess recommended for those who don’t think that’d be a book-killer for them.

Up until just now, I mostly hadn’t read James S.A. Corey’s Expanse short fiction, because I still have this printed-book-era hangover about short fiction where I think it should be collected into a volume of short stories. But of course, in the modern world, a novella is a full-fledged reading unit all on its own; when I noticed that Amazon was selling all these things as standalone books—and that I’d just finished reading multiple novellas without thinking twice about it—I decided that it was time to go back and catch up on the Expanse stuff I’d missed along the way.

What’s fun about these is that they’re not telling stories about the core Rocinante crew, by and large—they’re about people on the edges of the story, who are involved in the stuff going on in the books, but who aren’t quite in the center of the frame in the main novel sequence. It’s a good way to add depth to the universe, to flesh it out and see what it feels like for people who aren’t interplanetary famous heroes.

So yeah, if you like The Expanse novels, you should also read the novellas. (In fact, I’d argue that they’d be best read in straight chronological publishing order, since each of these is somewhat tied to the novel that they came out near; reading them all at once is definitely not the ideal way to do it.)

The one warning I’ll give is that The Vital Abyss is told from the perspective of a sociopath, and is deeply unpleasant; it’s a good story and is illuminating an important corner of the Expanse universe, but it wasn’t nearly as fun as the rest, and was a bit of a slog to get through.

Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and A Taste of Honey are set in the same world, but are doing two totally different things; they have different characters, are set in different places, and are telling stories in different shapes. About the only thing they have in common is that they’re excellent.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a kind of road novella: It follows a merchant caravan—and particularly its guards—as they go through a fantasy Africa, into the titular Wildeeps. The world-building is fascinating, because it feels mythic and numinous at first, but gradually becomes explicable (if still fantastic). That world-building and the great characters would be by themselves enough to make this a top-notch novella that should have been on award nominee lists. But what should have made it a winner is its use of language. Wilson is a stylist of the first order, with language deployed precisely and with great effect. The characters and the world-building both are expressed naturally just with stylistic choices instead of clumsy narration.

That same literary sensibility is present in A Taste of Honey, but here’s in the service of a courtly romance, more or less—a high-placed royal cousin of a fantasy-African kingdom falls for a fantasy-Roman soldier, and then we trace the story through the days of their affair, and its aftermath. The non-linear format isn’t used just to be clever, it’s essential to making the story work. One weird thing about this story is that it has a forbidden, frowned-upon gay romance in it, and I actually had to look up when it was written (2016), because half the books I read these days have a matter-of-fact gay romance or two in them, which made this feel a little old-fashioned.

So yeah, unrelated stories, and you could honestly read either of them without reading the other. But why would you? They’re both excellent, and are both highly recommended.

Walter Jon Williams’ Quillifer the Knight is, pretty obviously, a sequel to his Quillifer. In that book, a young man had a bunch of adventures; in this one, the man is somewhat more established (given the title, I guess it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s a knight), and is primarily enmeshed in political intrigue, new business enterprises, and romantic entanglements.

Like the first book, it’s a quick-reading tale of derring-do and hyper-competence, and if there are somewhat fewer bold adventures and somewhat more political intrigues, well, that just makes sense for where the character is in his life—it’s like how the Miles Vorkosigan books went from military adventure to diplomatic intrigue. (And that’s not an idle comparison; if you liked the Vorkosigan books, these are probably right up your alley.)

Allegedly this is planned as a six book series, but only a trilogy under contract so far; I for one would be delighted to read all six volumes. Recommended.

So as you start reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, you’ll come on this big list of all the imperial necromantic houses and their members, and then you’ll start off in this bleak and hopeless setting, where a miserable prisoner is desperately trying to escape from a grim hellscape of hatred and indifference. If you share my allergy to grimdark, you might close the book there; in fact, I did, the first time I tried reading this.

But you shouldn’t! Because the book rapidly evolves into an engaging quest/mystery fantasy, it gets likeable characters who don’t all hate each other, and—most importantly—it gets fun.

Most of the credit for that last goes to the titular narrator, who writes like the snarkiest teenager you’ve ever met, if that teenager were actually witty and clever in the way that virtually none are. It’s a hyper-modern writing style that at first seems a bit weird set against this epic dark fantasy/dying-world SF backdrop, like a mashup of a Twitter feed with Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe. But dang if it doesn’t work. This is the best snarky narration this side of Steven Brust, and it might actually be better.

But there’s more than just the narration that works here. The setting is an interesting one—as I said, it’s kind of one of those dying-earth science fantasy settings, but it’s full of necromancy here, with skeleton servitors and bone constructs and the like. And revealing what’s going on with that setting is part of what this book’s mystery plot does. (And also part of what it wisely doesn’t do. You know how I was complaining about Foundryside, that all of its ancient mysteries were popped open in the course of a single novel? Here that’s not the case; there are some revelations, but plenty of mysteries still remain inexplicable and mysterious.)

Most of all, though, this is a character-driven story, and learning about who all the characters are—not just the central characters, but some of the more peripheral ones as well—and seeing them grow and change, is where the story really shines.

This was a big hyped book on its release, and it turns out that wasn’t just manufactured hype. This is really good, and I’ll be all over the sequel immediately when it’s released later this year. Highly recommended.

So I was reading a thing about Greta Gerwig’s new movie, and it made the argument that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women should be considered as a legit classic of American Literature, and it only gets excluded because sexism. This made me feel guilty that I’d never read it, so I started it off… and then remembered that, oh yeah, I actually don’t like most old-timey American Literature.

And there is definitely stuff to not like in this. It’s explicitly a book that pushes old-timey Christian morality on you, and is structured so that each little story has an edifying moral to it. It’s also structured as a collection of episodes rather than any kind of single storyline. If someone asked you to describe the plot, you’d almost have to say, “a family of teenage girls grows up and/or dies,” because there really isn’t more of a throughline than that.

But… despite those things, it’s actually a really compelling, quick read. When Alcott allows her characters to be human, instead of allegorical figures in a morality tale, she captures them vividly and precisely, such that even though they’re from an alien society with wholly different mores and norms than our own, we can recognize their humanity in its particulars. And their coming-of-age struggles, as they seek to figure out what it is they want out of life, are relatable, too (although these are also the quickest to get quashed into a moralizing form).

On the whole, my take is that the forgotten movie reviewer was correct: This absolutely belongs right up there on the shelf with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ethan Frome and the rest of the American Literature canon, for better and worse. But also it’s a quick read, and largely pleasant enough (if you ignore the offscreen implications about its delightful little society for the people who fit into it less well). Recommended, if you’re up for some old-timey Americana.

So after loving Steel Crow Saga, an obvious thing to do was check out Paul Krueger’s Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, an earlier work that had somehow passed me by completely unnoticed.

This one is essentially an urban fantasy, set in the regular world (specifically Chicago, although a much more recognizable one than Jim Butcher’s Chicago) only with magic. But the magic here is… cocktail-based. The conceit is that eldritch monsters feed on drunk and lonely people late at night, and bartenders are a secret guild of protectors, who not only serve drinks but keep their customers safe. And to help them do this, they’ve created magic versions of cocktails that give them special powers—super-strength, invisibility, so on.

This is the kind of too-clever premise that could make for either an absolutely dreadful book or a reasonably fun one, depending on how well it’s handled. Fortunately, Krueger handles it well. The characters do a solid found-family thing, the writing has the same kind of energy that it did in Steel Crow Saga, and the absurd premise is taken just seriously enough—it’s developed out enough that it really does make sense to base a plotline around it, but not so much that you end up forgetting it’s inherently a lark.

This does feel a bit like a first novel—not for any particular reason that I can put my finger on, just something about the pacing or the characters is a little unpolished—but it feels like a really promising first novel. If the premise sounds like it could be fun, then you’ll likely find it so. Recommended.

Theodora Goss’s The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl is the third of the Athena Club books. Like the previous two, it features characters out of Victorian fiction taking on adversaries out of Victorian fiction. But whereas the last book was easy to sum up (“vampires”), this one is a little more diffuse. There’s like… mesmerism, and Egyptology, and… well, it’s kinda just a secret society mish-mash, honestly.

As I think about it for this review, I think Goss was actually trying to do a bit of a mislead, where you’d think the main villain was so-and-so, and then there’d be a big twist, and you’d find out it was actually such-and-such. If so, that would make one scene—which seemed confusingly underplayed to me—make more sense, that I was supposed to have received it as a big shocker, rather than as just another plot development.

But at any rate, the message you should take away here is that this is a basically competent installment of a basically competent series. If you like what Goss has been up to in this series, you’ll probably like this book just fine. I think it’s maybe on the weaker side than previous works, and the repetitive nature of the series is starting to show, but it’s not like a massive step-down or anything. Recommended if you’ve been reading and liking the series so far.

Paul Krueger’s Steel Crow Saga is exactly the kind of book I want to see a lot more of. It takes place in a handful of countries in fantasy not-Asia, where they’re all dealing in one way or another with the consequences of imperialism in ways that are complicated and messy in the way history is. And that really is what the book is about in important ways, with characters who are leaders of countries and members of rebel armies and the fate of nations at stake.

But it’s also a fun quest adventure where the characters include a stylish pipe-smoking detective, a streetwise wise-cracking thief, and they need to fight off mystical opponents with their own magical abilities and spirit companions, while their alliance turns from one of uneasy necessity into something deeper.

Which is to say, it’s everything you want out of trashy adventure fantasy, except also it manages to be about things in a way that trashy adventure fantasy usually isn’t. Krueger writes with style—Steven Brust might be the only writer who’s better at wise-cracking main characters—and I tore through this book about as fast as I could, reading in every spare moment.

Highly recommended. This is the kind of thing that would be actually ideal on an airplane, because I’d never put it aside for the duration of the flight; but it’s way too good to wait for travel to read. This is a complete story in one volume, but it’s not at all hard to imagine sequels. If there are some, I’m there day one.

Steve Pincus’ 1688: The First Modern Revolution is, as you’d expect, a history of England’s Glorious Revolution; and moreover, it’s one making a revisionist case that it was a modern revolution, not just a palace coup or a restoration, as it’s been often portrayed. (And that definitely is how it’s usually portrayed; I was very confused in my English history classes in college why something so absolutely trivial and minor got this big hepped-up “Glorious” title. Pincus in fact points to that title as evidence that people of the time absolutely considered it a big deal.)

So the thing that really stands out to me about this book… well, first it’s that it’s longer than I was expecting. I’ve remarked before about how tricky ebooks can be that way. In this case, I doubt I’d’ve picked up a physical book as long as this one turned out to be (660+ pages in hardcover), because I would have told myself I didn’t care that much about the subject. But having read it, it seems about as long as it needs to be for its subject.

But beyond that, what stands out stylistically is that Pincus does that “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em” thing that high school teachers pound into students’ heads. Which, while it’s a natural structure for student papers, reads really weird in a full-length book like this. The first time I got to one of those summation paragraphs, I was actually confused about whether I’d lost my place and gone back to the original page where he laid out the argument that he was now repeating. But repetition of the repetition made it clear what was going on.

That did make it feel like a student paper, though. I didn’t bother looking up who the author was before I read the book, and I assumed he was some young scholar just making his way in the world, and maybe this was actually a publication of his Ph.D. thesis. But no, Pincus got his Ph.D. some thirty years ago and is an established professor at Yale. Go figure.

As for the actual substance of his argument, I’m probably in some ways an ideal reader to fully accept all his arguments as I have only the most cursory knowledge of the standard historiography, so can be easily persuaded by just about any evidence at all. And for the most part, I do find his argument compelling; contextualizing 1688 by looking at the decades around it definitely does make it seem like this was a modern revolution (the criteria for which he lays out in an early chapter that’s worth reading in a general sense even if you’re not interested in this particular revolution).

But there are definitely times when he seems to be overstating his arguments, like when he talks about how there wasn’t a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment as James II ascended to the throne. In support of this, he quotes a bunch of public proclamations from individuals and institutions that basically boil down to “I for one welcome our new Catholic overlords!” and takes them at face value. Pincus clearly isn’t stupid, and surely understands perfectly well that people could have trepidations that wouldn’t make it into their public pronouncements, so why set up such a transparently weak argument?

At any rate, I think this book is essential reading if you’re interested in its subject matter—whether or not you buy his arguments, it seems to be an important piece of the historiography of the Glorious Revolution. But if you’re just out there looking for engaging history books on any subject at all, you don’t need to either rush to or avoid this one; it’s good, but the style is a bit clunky, and it’s a bit (though just a bit) of a slog.

So I mentioned before that I thought K.J. Parker would be a good author to read on an airplane; as it turns out, I’ve been on a lot of airplanes recently, so I read K.J. Parker’s Fencer trilogy. And now I have a new conclusion about Parker, which is that I don’t like his books and don’t want to read any of them in the future, airplane or no airplane.

So as the story starts out, there’s a conflict between a sophisticated walled city that’s a major trading port, and a tribe of barbarian savages. This is a lot like Savages, obviously. But it also throws in a few more elements, a protagonist who is a fencer (in trials that are decided by duels, so kind of a violent lawyer) and some characters who are bumbling professors at a kind of monastery of not-quite-magic.

We follow them through an implausible series of events in this war, and then in the next two books as they go on to take part in largely unrelated other wars between other countries. Along the way, the characters do horrible things—almost every character in the book is badly damaged and capable of incredible cruelty, a pattern that in retrospect is easy to pick up from Savages as well—and also spend a lot of times forging weapons and armor in super-detailed “I researched all of this, so you’re going to read about it” scenes.

And it all adds up to a whole lot of not much. There’s all these wars, and they just happen. And some people do well for a while, and then they do badly. Or they do badly for a while, and then they do well, and then they do badly again. Nothing matters at all, nobody is ever happy, it’s just this totally random slice-of-life series of events, except that all the events are viciously cruel, sadistic, and bloody. There’s even a magic system that pops up in all three books, but nobody in the books actually understands it, and it just kinda randomly happens, too. The end result is frustrating and deeply, deeply unpleasant. I’m done with this guy, and would recommend that you not start with him.

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is a book whose premise I can’t even talk about without some light book-jacket level spoilers, so stop reading here if that bothers you. It probably shouldn’t.

All right, so this is about some people living in New York circa 2000. Only, it slowly becomes clear, not quite our New York. And one of the characters has dreams that, it slowly becomes clear, are actually journeys back in time, which end up having an effect on the present-day world.

The time travel stuff itself is… fine, I guess, but it never really gets that interesting. If I tell you that they’re travelling back to Elizabethan days and that a playwright figures prominently, I’m guessing you won’t need me to name names. It’s kinda obvious like that.

More interesting is the present-day story, because the person having the dreams is changing the world, but they only remember the old world, so they wake up in the morning thinking that it’s President Gore, and then it turns out oops, not any more. So naturally everyone thinks they’re some kind of high-functioning schizophrenic, which drives some of the more interesting bits of the story.

Least satisfying of all, though, is the big mystery around why this is happening and the larger plot around that. The big reveal is honestly kinda hokey, and felt thematically silly. In no real sense does this feel like a Golden Age SF story—it’s clearly taking the form of literary fantasy—but this felt like the shock twist in an Asimov story.

Not really recommended, but it’s basically inoffensive

So I’ve liked Becky Chambers’ books, and when I saw that she had out a new novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, I jumped right on it… and was disappointed pretty hard.

This isn’t in her existing series, it’s a semi-near-future space exploration story, where Earth sends out early manned exploration missions to nearby exoplanets with apparently life-supporting atmospheres. Not as missions of colonization or anything, just as straight up “let’s see what’s out there” exploration.

And so the book follows one of these missions as it explores its targets, and that’s all fine and dandy; most of the book is pretty straightforward hard SF, with them discovering things and having little mini-adventures and what-not. My main criticism of it for most of its duration is that it’s kind of light on actual story, just more or less a kind of series of events rather than anything that adds up to an actual plot. Inoffensive and pleasant, if a bit aimless.

But then there’s the ending. I hate the ending, with a white-hot passion. I find it absurd and ridiculous and infuriating, just utterly mind-bendingly stupid. It doesn’t seem like how any human would ever plausibly act, nor does it resolve any kind of dramatic tension, it’s just this random bit of nonsense that happens to be at the end of the book. Complaining about it this much probably counts as a spoiler even without the details—if you go to read this story, you’ll spend the whole time wondering what’s going to be so bad at the end now—but maybe the good news is that you won’t think it’s as bad as I’m making it sound, and your lowered expectations will let you be pleasantly surprised instead. That’d be nice, I guess?

Not really recommended.

So when I was reading that history of ancient Egypt, I mentioned that maybe I could do with a bit less pottery in my histories, but here we are in Li Feng’s Early China: A Social and Cultural History:

In fact, through the entire early Western Zhou period, the pottery assemblage in the eastern plains continued to follow the Shang tradition, while in the Zhou central sites in the Wei River valley the pottery culture seems to have gone through a long process of adaptation and modification of the types of different cultural origins.

Oops.

But this is a lot more than pottery; Li is covering here Chinese civilization from prehistory all the way through the Han Dynasty, which ends in 220 AD. So yeah, you get stuff that’s like that early Egyptian archaeology (but a little less early, because Egypt really did get a good solid head start), but then you also get states with some limited written records, and then you go all the way up through heavily bureaucratic states with whole volumes of philosophy, endless tax records, and detailed histories that put Herodotus to shame.

It’s a pretty broad sweep of history, is what I’m saying, and it moves along fast enough to feel like a fast-paced and breezy read; but what’s extra-fascinating is that a lot of this stuff is new discoveries: Li makes constant references to finds in the 1970s and 1990s—and not just like buildings or statues or whatever, but whole new works of literature that were lost to the ages until now, philosophers who were just barely after Confucius and whose works had an impact on their school of thought, but whose works were lost for millennia.

And of course the discoveries made in these time periods have strong political dimensions to them—when Communist China in the middle of the Cold War is finding things about its own history, they tend to be interpreted in an ideological light both by Chinese scholars and American ones, albeit in different ways; Li gets into the historiography of early China in some detail, from the founding of the subfield to these more recent developments.

It’s all fascinating stuff, and the only real downside is that it is covering so much in such a short book (it’s apparently just a bit under 400 pages in print, which I guess isn’t that short, but it felt shorter) that it doesn’t get into much detail. This is the kind of book that makes you want to read more, rather than making you feel like you now know enough. But I guess that’s not a bad thing for a high-level survey to do, and it definitely does it well. Recommended.

Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood reads a bit like one of those turn of the millennium dark fairytale retellings, but also not quite. The basic premise of it is that an ethnographer/folk tale collector is going to a rural village to hear their stories, and stops in at a cottage along the way when he’s caught in the rain. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that there seems to be some connection between the inhabitant of the cabin and the local folktales; but going much beyond that would be a pretty big spoiler, especially considering this is a novella-length work.

But really, there’s not much more to say than that. This is a pleasant enough little story, but there’s not much to it. If it’s the kind of thing you’d like, you’ll like it okay.

So Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a weird fantasy Holmes and Watson pastiche, which very nearly works.

A part that does work is the setting. Everything takes place in an ancient city, one third of which is sunken beneath the waves and ruled by Lovecraftian elder gods; there are portals to different realities everywhere; and it overall feels like a cross between Victorian London and Max Gladstone’s Craft books. A+ for atmosphere.

What works less well is the treatment of the main characters. Sherlock becomes Sheherezade Haas, a sorceress with eldritch powers and deductive abilities; Watson becomes John Wyndham, a trans refugee of a demon-king theocratic state and wounded veteran of eternal interplanar wars. All good so far. But in giving Sheherezade mystical abilities, she also goes from being a Holmes-style asshole into being flat-out evil, murdering people at a whim for her own convenience and/or amusement. This mostly happens in backstory or offscreen, because the author doesn’t want their protagonist to come off as an antihero, but to me at least, this is firmly lodged in antihero territory.

The other thing that doesn’t quite work is the style. It’s meant to be very clever, with dialogue dripping with banter and witty asides, and it comes close. But coming close ends up feeling like you’re trying really hard to be clever, which is very different than actual wittiness. One particularly grating example is that Wyndham will elide Sheherezade’s frequent swearing with things like, ‘“What the heck is going on!” she shouted, only she didn’t say “heck.”’

The first time, it’s lightly amusing. But by the time you read through this book, you’ll have gotten to, I don’t know, the dozenth? twentieth? time seeing a similar construction, and it does not retain its power to amuse.

Unfortunately, this is a book whose premise is better than the execution. It sounds great, but it doesn’t deliver. Not really recommended.

Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light is not a Lady Trent book. Technically.

It is, however, a sequel to the Lady Trent books, featuring Lady Trent’s grand-daughter as the protagonist; and while the younger protagonist isn’t a naturalist like Lady Trent, she is a linguist who gets pulled into deciphering an ancient Draconean tablet; and while the book isn’t told as a memoir, it is told almost entirely through diary entries and letters, so retains a lot of that feel.

So yeah, it’s basically a Lady Trent book. And as one, it’s an enjoyable read. It’s focused around both a literary-historical mystery as the heroine attempts to decipher ancient tablets, and a political mystery as dubious characters appear and violent happenings occur.

It’s not super-deep or anything, but it mixes up the formula just enough to keep things interesting. Recommended for anyone who liked the Lady Trent series.

So Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside starts with a down-on-her-luck thief living in the slums of a magic city, taking on the biggest heist of her life to obtain a mysterious box for an equally-mysterious client.

It’s not exactly the most original of setups, and the immediate plot pretty much goes exactly how you’d think it’d go. But Bennett has an interesting world that he’s built (though not, I’d argue, as interesting as in his Divine Cities trilogy), and is a compelling writer, so despite the over-familiarity of the premise and the predictability with which the story hits all its beats, it’s still well-executed and absorbing, a fun adventure with neat scenery. It feels a lot like Brandon Sanderson, for better or worse.

There is one element of the story that bugs me, though—and it’s probably not the fault of this book so much as just having seen it a lot recently—which is the trope of having artifacts or forgotten knowledge of ancient, long-gone civilizations pop up and then instantly turn out to be absolutely crucial to what’s going on in the book.

I get it, there’s a Chekhov’s gun thing going on, but it really is possible to introduce ancient stuff and have it remain mysterious and ancient for at least the first volume of your series, you know? Like, there’s got to be a lot of interesting stuff in the present of your fantasy world, right? Why not have a few stories that deal with that, before you start immediately jumping to the old gods and fallen empires.

Recommended for people who want a fun fantasy adventure that doesn’t feel like too much of a guilty pleasure.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Orphans of Raspay is the latest of her Penric novellas. Like the previous ones, they’re about a demon-possessing cleric who has miscellaneous adventures—this time around, capture by pirates is the inciting event.

Also like the others, it’s… basically fine, I guess? It’s a story, it reads quickly, there’s nothing wrong with it; but there’s also almost nothing to it, it’s so slight. Worth reading, but not worth seeking out; if you’ve been reading the Penric stories, you’ll presumably want to read this one at some point, but don’t rush.

So as I was reading Fonda Lee’s Jade War, I was trying to think about why it is that I like this book (and the first book in the series) in a way that seems to get past all my “ugh, criminals doing crime shit” filters.

Part of it, I think is that while it’s easy to analogize this book’s setting, with its warring clans based on familial relationship, to the mob, that’s not quite what it is—the clans are also legitimately quasi-governmental bodies responsible for ruling the nation in ways that have nothing to do with crime at all.

Another part of it is that the books are full of people who aren’t traditionally the protagonists of crime shit novels—women play a huge role in the story, not all the characters are straight—and that changes the shape of the thing a lot. There are still the bluff, macho characters prone to fits of violent temper that you’d expect from the genre, but there’s a lot more than that, too.

But I think mostly it’s just that these books are really well-executed. The worldbuilding is great, this feels like a lived history and a real geopolitical situation (the degree to which geopolitics matters probably gets at the “quasi-governmental bodies” part above); the characters are complex and feel real (with the exception of the primary antagonist, but then, we’re not spending a lot of time in their head); and while I’ve seen people describe the pacing as too slow, it seems to move along at a good pace for my tastes.

I’m looking forward to the next volume. Recommended.