So I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in advance of the then-upcoming Barry Jenkins miniseries, because I figured that I definitely wanted to watch that, and that reading a book after watching a movie is never going to get you the same experience you’d get if you’d read the book first.
It’s perhaps lightly ironic, then, that I’ve only been watching the show slowly, because it’s faithful enough to the book that it seems a bit predictable. Oops. The good news for me is that my memory is terrible, and that by just waiting a little bit, I’m able to be surprised by events that I read about only a few months earlier.
The bad news for me is that my memory is terrible, and now I need to write up a booklog entry on a book I read some months ago. Welp.
So, the elevator pitch of the book is: What if the Underground Railroad were a literal railroad? But that’s not the premise of the book, exactly, it’s not what the book is about. Because, yes, there’s a somewhat magical railroad here, but it’s just a background fact, a throughline running through the book, but not something the book delves into deeply and explains or examines or whatever. Mostly, it’s used as a kind of transition, to take the protagonists from one would-be safe house to another in a series of episodes that each illuminate some essential truth of the Black experience in America.
The book is well-written, combining direct realism with a mythic fable-like tone. That sounds like it wouldn’t work, but Whitehead makes it work. And the episodic structure works well, too, allowing each new place to build in dread and terribleness at an appropriate pace.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that I don’t think this book comes across as unique in 2021 as it did in 2016—a lot of elements feel familiar from other things I’ve read or seen lately—but another way of phrasing that is arguably that the book has been influential and inspired other works, so. Either way, it’s an excellent book, and easily recommended.
So I looked at the 2020 World Fantasy Award nominees and realized that I’d read all of them except one, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. It’s a strong slate, on the whole, so I figured I might as well finish it off.
The premise here is that on this island nation, the government occasionally declares things forgotten. And then everyone forgets them, in a way that blends a sort of dystopian realism (everyone ostentatiously discarding/burning the forgotten thing to be seen as complying) with straight up fantasy (people legitimately forget the emotional connotations and context of the forgotten things, such that seeing one evokes no response). It’s less fantastic in nature than I would have assumed going in, but the magical realism sense keeps ramping up as the novel goes on.
But it’s the dystopian politics that stand out more than the fantastic elements, because of course the titular police are prominent, seeking out and punishing people who still remember the forgotten things, as well as the people who give them shelter or sympathy.
It’s a very cold book, written with a kind of detachment that keeps it at arm’s remove from the awfulness of the world it describes. On the one hand, this is probably a good choice, because a book that was more sentimental or sensational would feel cheap. But on the other hand, that detachment makes it hard to get really invested in the book, and it ends up reading more like an intellectual exercise than anything pressingly vital. It’s a perfectly decent book, but definitely one of the weaker works on that award slate. If it sounds interesting, I wouldn’t disrecommend it, but I don’t think I’d go so far as to actively recommend it.
So let’s talk about some novellas! Novellas which, unfortunately, I actually read back in early March and then got lazy about booklogging, so welp, let’s see what I can dredge up from memory about these.
First up is Lois Bujold’s The Physicians of Vilnoc and Masquerade in Lodi, the latest of her Penric and Desdemona novella series. This series has largely been pleasant but inessential, the kind of thing that you read and then forget entirely moments later. And writing at this remove, I can confirm that yep, that’s exactly what happened. I actually had to look up the description of Masquerade in Lodi to confirm that it was the one I’d read, since the title wasn’t ringing a bell. That said, I definitely did remember The Physicians of Vilnoc, because it came out in early 2020 and is about a plague, and okay yeah, that’s gonna be memorable. Both stories are worth reading if you’re already reading this series; neither of them are worth starting it for.
Next was Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, a novella about a group of bandits in… China? Malaysia? I honestly don’t remember, and googling turns up different answers, so idk, I can’t be super-precise. Anyway, there they are, and there’s a whole thing where they’re trying to sell off some stuff, but then also half the characters aren’t who they seemed to be, and it gets more complicated, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it even if I remembered it better. There’s more going on here than in those two Bujold novellas, but honestly not too much more—this is definitely a novella that I knew was a novella as I read it, not one of those stealthy almost-novels. Lightly recommended if a wuxia-style story sounds fun.
C.L. Polk’s Stormsong and Soulstar are the last two-thirds of their Kingston Cycle trilogy, which began with Witchmark. And they’re excellent.
When I wrote up Witchmark, I noted that I was “actually really curious to see where the second book goes from here, because it doesn’t seem like it could just be more of the same.” And it is super-not more of the same. Where the first novel is a kind of murder mystery that builds into something larger, the second is a novel of political intrigue and displomacy, and the third is about the impacts of rapid social and technological change. Each has a different protagonist, and feels totally different from the previous book in the series, while also still feeling unmistakably as if they’re telling a single coherent story in three parts.
That alone is a heck of an achievement. But also Polk just does all this really well. The setting is clever and original; the politics seem real; the characters are complicated and flawed, while still being likeable and interesting; and the story just continually goes in unexpected directions. I really don’t want to spoil these books—because each of them builds on the previous, talking about even the shape of the third book gives away a lot of the first two—but I’m a little annoyed that I don’t have more I can say here about them, because they deserve a longer write-up than this.
Between this series and The Midnight Bargain, Polk is writing consistently excellent fantasy across a variety of subgenres. Highly recommended
Mark Bittman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk is one of the more disappointing books I’ve read recently. It purports to be a history of food, and in particular how our food system got to be so broken. But its analysis is facile and uncompelling, and I ended up more frustrated than enlightened by reading it.
The first part of the book, about food systems in older times, is fine. My instinct while I was reading it was to think that it was retelling some really commonly well-known stuff about e.g. the development of wheat and corn and such-like; but on reflection, it’s possible that maybe everyone doesn’t know about einkorn and teosinte and all that, so hey.
But as the book gets up through more modern agriculture, it starts taking a really annoying primitivist turn. Because the thing is, the food system today is incredibly broken, right, and Bittman does a good job of identifying major ways in which that’s true, with enormous swathes of agriculture devoted solely to corn ‘n’ soybeans, with basically all other edible plants as a kind of sideshow. But so as Bittman identifies mechanization and a focus on hyper-efficiency as sources of major problems, he’s not wrong, exactly, but he’s also not reckoning with the benefits of those things. Like, ideally what you want to do is chart a path that will get you all the good stuff from the scientific, big-business approach to farming, while mitigating or eliminating the harms where possible. But Bittman… doesn’t do that, he just says, “so that’s bad, and we should go back to peasant farming,” which is kind of a terrible solution.
But so in doing that, his view of what the harms of modern agriculture are end up getting very weird. He takes it as bad that there are fewer farmers, for instance. And while “90% of family farmers were forced out of their farms into other occupations” sounds bad, “we were able to produce food with only a fraction of the labor it took before” sounds good, and there’s no way to have a modern prosperous society with a large fraction of people doing subsistence farming. Similarly, he talks about what he sees as the illusion that mechanization leads to progress, noting that after farmers spent a bunch of capital on tractors and what-not, they enjoyed a short boom in profits, but then their profits fell down to previous levels. Which, yeah, that’s how competitive markets work—nobody gets to extract major profits for long. (Areas where producers do continue to command large profits, like in big tech companies, are usually markets that lack sufficient competition for one reason or another.) That doesn’t mean the mechanization was bad; the point is that now the farmers are able to produce food more cheaply and with less labor, and consumers get the benefit of that.
The book isn’t all bad; Bittman does identify some of the ways in which the drive to improve efficiency has been genuinely problematic, by imposing externalities like pollution and carbon emissions; by driving toward terrible labor conditions in food production; by steering food toward branded shelf-stable junk products that can be made from that cheap, ubiquitous corn. But it’s hard to pick out the real problems from the non-problems, and his proposed fixes are not meaningfully workable. There’s a big problem in our food system, and Bittman is doing good work in highlighting that fact, but it’s not clear that he’s the right person to really think through the problem with the rigor it needs. Not recommended
So Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm duology, which I picked up after the first volume won the World Fantasy Award, is really awkward to talk about, because the two books are completely different things, with different protagonists and different subjects, but they’re also directly linearly connected plotwise. I can’t talk about the second book at all without somewhat spoiling the first—and I think the second one is far more interesting.
The first book, Queen of the Conquered, starts off with a protagonist who hates herself and thinks she’s an awful person. This is, as I’ve griped about before, a huge YA trope, and given that Callender has mostly written YA, I was sort of settling in to be annoyed, but… it doesn’t go where you’d think it would go, and ends up being subtler than the usual tropey nonsense.
Plotwise, this ends up being weirdly like Gideon the Ninth in that a handful of aristocrats end up on this weird royal island, and there are mysteries to unravel while people start dying, and nobody quite trusts anyone else but also they’re not openly enemies, mostly.
It’s a frustrating book in some ways—characters with really obvious blind spots are so frustrating to read, even if their blind spots are realistic and in-character—and I think it ends up more good than great; but then it sets up the second book, which I think is unambiguously great.
If you’re already interested in reading the series, stop here, because now I’m going to talk a bit about the plot of King of the Rising, which sorta spoils a bit of the first, but I guess tbh maybe not more than the title itself does.
Okay, so the second novel is about a rebellion, right. And that’s not an uncommon subject in fantasy fiction, but it’s done here in much more of a historical mode. The leaders of the rebellion have all worked together to kick it off, but they’re not a band of doughty friends, they’re all prickly individuals with their own interests and goals and mindsets, who will come into conflict with each other as their immediate need for cooperation fades. And kicking out the bad guys doesn’t automatically usher in a new era of peace and prosperity—there are all kinds of problems, because trying to replace a government and an economic system in ways that still work while removing the injustices that drove the rebellion is a really hard problem.
The book is relentless in not allowing easy answers to these hard problems. It is throughout surprising, yet also inevitable, in its developments. Yes, of course this is how it had to go, even as that’s never how I expected it to go. Recommended.
Unlike most of his work until now, P. Djeli Clark’s Ring Shout isn’t in an elaborate alternate history, so much as it’s a fantastic take on actual American history. In the novella, as in reality, The Birth of a Nation has revitalized the Klan; but here, it’s done so by working to empower demons and monsters of the more literal variety. And so we follow a group of women who hunt Ku Kluxes, and follow them as they get embroiled in one of those “something worse is coming” storylines.
There’s a lot to like about this book. The characters are great, the concept behind it is interesting, it does a good job evoking the setting. But it didn’t work for me because it used a plot trope that I often find unbelievable; I can’t talk about this without spoilers, so if you want to avoid those and read this story (which I would still recommend), quit reading this and go do that.
Okay, still here? So the trope that I couldn’t buy is the one where a character’s choice will be the linchpin that determines who wins the day… but the character is obviously a hero and the choice isn’t ambiguous enough for the outcome to be in any doubt. Like, you never really thought Luke Skywalker was going to turn to the Dark Side, right? Similarly it was hard to imagine that the protagonist of this story was ever going to team up with the forces behind the Klan, no matter what twists and revelations might come out along the way. Clark tries to make it plausible, and maybe for other people it works, but I just couldn’t buy it as anything other than a foregone conclusion as soon as it was mentioned.
So the plot bounced off my suspension of disbelief in the end, and I don’t think this is quite as successful as Clark’s other novellas (which I’ve loved). Still, there’s a lot here worth reading, and it is a novella, so it’s not like it’s long. Lightly recommended.
C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain is not the sequel to Witchmark, a fact that disappointed me when I first learned it. But after reading it, now I kinda want them to forget about Witchmark and just keep writing novels in this world (well, okay, actually I want both).
So this is basically a Regency romance, except in a magical world not our own. It follows a young debutante as she goes to not-London for her Season to find a husband, except that she doesn’t want to find a husband, because marriage in this world means having your magical abilities taken away from you, and her ambition is to be a great sorceress. But she’s not free to simply follow her desires, not only for the reasons of social pressure, but because her family is counting on her match financially.
It rarely happens that I’m glad I’ve procrastinated abominably in writing up a book, but in this case, I’ve just watched Bridgerton on Netflix, and so the comparison is really hard to avoid. As it happens, I read and wrote up The Duke and I, the book that series is based on, and while I liked most of it, I was bothered by the “remarkably horrid gender politics” and was looking for a more modern take on the genre. So… yeah, if you were also looking for a more feminist take on the Regency genre, here’s a book for you.
The other reason to be glad I’ve sat on this write-up so long is that now I know for sure all the books I’ve read in 2020, so I can say that this might be the most fun of them all, and that “might” is only there because of Gideon the Ninth back in January. This is one of those books where you just tear through the pages, and good enough that you don’t feel guilty about it. If Regency romance is at all a genre that appeals to you, this is a must-read. Highly recommended.
Although her previous novels have been urban fantasies, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun is a straight-up epic fantasy, full of prophecies and dark gods and ancient orders of priests and political intrigue and roguish ship captains and all the trappings of the genre.
And it delivers on them well. The political intrigue is believable, as reformers who are trying to fix a broken system clash with people who don’t much care if the system stays broken as long as they’re on top of it; the dark figure out of prophecy manages to be both convincingly grim but also vulnerable in human ways; and the roguish captain… well, she’s just a great character, who keeps the book from getting too grimdark. And it’s deploying these characters in a plot that’s trying to look, in a roundabout way, at what it would mean to build a just society—is it just getting revenge on the people who wronged you most recently, is it preserving institutions that keep society stable no matter what oppression is baked into that stability, or is there something more to aim for?
While Roanhorse is writing in the political epic fantasy genre that George R.R. Martin has left such a large imprint on, she’s doing it in a way that’s fresher and more modern: her world is based on Mesoamerican societies, so not just the generic fantasy Europe; and her characters are of a wide variety of genders and sexual orientations.
Highly recommended, with one caveat: This is the first book in a series, and while it does end at a climactic point, it’s still extremely unfinished. I’m optimistic that Roanhorse will be able to end it well and in a reasonable timeframe, but yeah, unfinished epic fantasy series are always a gamble.
(And yes, this booklog entry is backdated; I actually read this book in October and am super-late writing it up, but want to at least make sure it shows up in the right year.
After loving The Warmth of Other Suns, I rushed out to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much. The problem is a familiar one with non-fiction: It feels like a great magazine essay (or in this case maybe 2-3 great magazine essays) padded out to fill book length.
But maybe part of the problem is just that this isn’t the book I expected to be. As the book starts out, it’s talking about how the three big caste systems are India’s famous one; the one that the Nazis instituted in Germany; and America’s racial caste system. And so what I was hoping for was an analytical history of those three systems, how they developed, their parallels and differences, and so forth.
Wilkerson does do some of that—the part about how the Nazis explicitly looked to Jim Crow laws as inspiration when writing their own laws (and how they rejected some American provisions as too harsh) is chilling—but to a large extent, it’s just not the book she’s writing. Wilkerson has done some research on India, clearly, but she’s not fundamentally writing about India’s system, and reading this book will only give you the shallowest understanding of it; she’s writing about America’s, and only really references India and Germany as they relate to the American experience.
Really, beyond wanting the scope of the book to be larger, I think my disappointment is mostly just that this isn’t a history so much as it is a work of journalism. The first person anecdotes in The Warmth of Other Suns read as carrying the oral history of her subjects through to a more recent period, but here they don’t have that function, so just feel more like typical first-person magazine essays.
But so my criticism only goes so far, because this was also a breezy read, and there is good stuff in here. If it feels occasionally repetitive or with some bits of less-essential anecdote as filler, it’s not in any sense bad; it’s just not essential like Warmth was. Lightly recommended.
Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology was written in the ‘90s, but is an extremely 2020 series. For one thing, they start in the 2020s, but for another, they’re describing a sort of broken-down dystopic society.
But so, back in the ‘90s, there were lots of “the future will be a broken-down dystopia” works, right. Like, almost any movie from that period that looks ahead to the near future pictures the nation as being overtaken by inner-city gangs and urban decay. What sets Butler apart from that crowd is the sophistication and eerie plausibility of her dystopia. Like, it’s not a full-on apocalypse, but climate change has wrought havoc and made areas unlivable, and large-scale forced migration has caused rising social tensions, and a breakdown in the effectiveness of government institutions has basically made it so large parts of the country are outside of any actual government control even while the laws nominally still exist and the US is still a thing and all that.
Butler had an eye for how societies fail, is what I’m saying, and it’s rare for a near-future book from decades ago to hold up as well as this one does. Even if it’s not—fingers crossed—our 2020s, there are a lot of familiar elements in this.
But beyond the setting, it’s also a fascinating character portrait, as we see the protagonist first as a girl, and then as a woman (and through the eyes of others in her life). In watching how Lauren Olamina goes through her life, the things she does deliberately for their effect on other people, and the things she can’t help but do because it’s who she is, we get a portrait of a leader in a mold that’s notable even today and must have felt revolutionary then.
These books are deservedly classics, compellingly readable and with a lot to say about society, religion, community, law, and purpose. Highly recommended.
Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus reminds me a lot of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion—it’s got a matriarchal society that’s set up a space-based civilization on a fleet of bio-tech worldships, which you have to admit is not a premise that a lot of books are using—but with the critical difference that the characters are not exclusively horrid monstrous antiheroes.
Which isn’t to say that they’re all nicey-nicey. This is fundamentally a book that’s about social inequities—class, gender, and even to some extent racial strife all pop up in the book—and the characters are embedded in their society in the way that people are, with even the “well-meaning” characters unthinkingly echoing stereotypes they’ve absorbed along the way, or defending the indefensible. There’s plenty of conflict.
But however flawed, the characters do largely mean well. We can see that they’re essentially decent people, and cheer for them to win the day or hope that they’ll change the way they’re handling some particular thing or whatever; and that goes a long way toward turning this book into something that’s enjoyable rather than a brutal and unpleasant slog.
I do have some minor complaints about the book. For one, the main protagonist seems way too ignorant of how her world works, even granting that she’s been a kid with a privileged upbringing; her being so clueless works well as a way to bring the reader up to speed on what’s going on, but it makes her seem kinda legit unqualified to be seeking out political power. For another, there’s a part in the middle of the book where growing political conflict divides two characters, and it seems like that was basically just glossed over with a time skip, like “storming the Bastille yada yada Napoleon took over” (not in the particulars, just in the sense that a lot of interesting stuff got skipped), which also makes later interactions with those two characters ring not-quite-true.
But those aren’t book-killers. Overall, this is an enjoyable book set in a mostly original setting with a lot of things to say. It’s a good, solidly written piece of SF. Recommended.
Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an oral history of the Great Migration. The book is built around the experiences of three Black Southerners, who moved to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century; it’s sourced from interviews that Wilkerson did with them in (mostly) the 1990s, as well as newspapers, public records, and other research that puts more color and detail into their experiences, and sets up the broader context for the world in which they were living.
The book was a huge bestseller and award winner when it came out a decade ago, and so the stuff Wilkerson is writing about has diffused out into the wider culture a lot more over that decade. That’s probably exactly what a writer of a book like this wants to happen, but it does mean that this book wasn’t as novel and surprising in 2020 as it probably was in 2010—I think I’ve read any number of essays and explainers and thinkpieces that cited this book in one way or another. But even with all those people blithely spoiling history without a proper spoiler warning, it’s still fascinating reading.
Because yes, the book’s got a lot of facts and statistics and big-picture social trend stuff in it, but fundamentally, it’s the story of these three people who uprooted their lives in the South for one reason or another to set up in the North or West. And Wilkerson does an amazing job at telling their complex human stories—to the point where I’m not sure if she waited so long after the interviews to publish because she had a lot of research and writing to do, or because publishing a book with such candid, frank pictures of these people would have felt inappropriate while they were still alive. These are just ordinary people, by and large, but she tells their stories so compellingly that the book ends up a page-turner as we move through the happenings of their lives. Among other things, I can’t help but think that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be grateful to have such a thoroughly humanized look at who their grandparents were and what they lived through.
All those people who praised this book when it came out were dead-on correct: This is a history that both illuminates the big demographic shift of the American twentieth century and tells the deeply personal stories of these three people, and does both things well. Highly recommended.
So the thing I always love about history is seeing the connections and influences that exist across expanses of time, the way that things persist and change and are forgotten. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a novel, not a history, but it captures that feeling better than just about any novel I can remember reading.
Because yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s also a collection of short stories at the same time—Gyasi is telling the story of two separated sisters and their descendants, in this multi-generational epic. And so every chapter has a new protagonist, and each chapter tells a contained story about that person’s life; you could flip to any chapter at random, read it, and feel like you got a complete story. But they also build and connect, as each chapter relates inevitably to the chapter before it, with this protagonist’s life shaped inexorably by the experiences of previous generations.
It’s a brilliant structure, because it really captures both the depth of connection that we have with our history, and how invisible it is—we know our parents through a lens as their child, we know our grandparents as old people, and beyond that, for most people their family’s history is just a set of names and maybe a few fragments of memory. And so you see that in these stories where people end up in situations that to them are inevitable, normal, and just how the world is; but we see the contingent personal decisions and experiences that led to this point.
And of course, this structure only works if the stories work—being introduced to a series of new characters and situations would be absolutely momentum-sapping if they were dull or uninteresting in any way. But they’re not. Each story, across continents and centuries, is vivid and fascinating and memorable.
So, yeah, I straight up love this book. I haven’t read anything quite like this before, and it’s doing exactly what I want fiction to do. Highly recommended.
The titular character of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby was born in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, and the book follows him (and his superpowered sister) as he grows up, constantly faced with obstacles due to his race; as he is put into a racist and exploitative carceral system; and finally, into an SFnal future where the systemic racism that’s shaped his life is made that much more efficient with new technological innovations. It is a book brimming with anger in a way that, by the end, reminded me of Jemisin’s Broken Earth books (and in fact, the author references those books as an inspiration in the afterword).
And so taken on those terms, as a book that’s trying to viscerally communicate the awfulness and hopelessness and endless ratcheting impositions of living in a society suffused with racism, it succeeds. It’s searing, and if you ever start to think “well, maybe it’s not always this bad,” you just need to look at the news to be disabused of that notion. (I was thinking as I wrote this, that the book is incredibly timely with this week’s events; but then realized that depressingly it would have been just as timely months ago, or years ago, and will likely be timely in the future, too.)
Taken as an SF novel, though, it worked less well for me. Mostly this is because the fantastic elements of the book aren’t really explored in any thorough way. The superpowered heroine doesn’t really get a lot of time fleshing out the details of what she can do, or why, or how. It’s kind of a background element that’s just there, accepted by the characters in the story as just a Thing. Which is clearly a deliberate choice the author made, but which left me feeling like the book was skipping over an important element, in the way that novelettes and short stories tend to background their SFnal elements out of wordcount necessity.
But, look, I can see that this complaint comes perilously close to “the book spent too much time on all this race stuff, and didn’t give me the superpower book I really wanted,” and that’s obviously a pretty shitty and off-point critique to make. So I guess what I’ll say is, go into this knowing what you’re getting: Yes, there are SFnal and fantastic elements, but fundamentally this isn’t a book that’s delving deep into those. They’re there for a reason, they’re critical to the story being told, but end of the day, this is mostly a story set in the present-day about a character living in our actual society. Recommended for anyone more interested in the characters and the portrait of an unjust society than the fantastic elements.
So when I read and liked The Haunting of Tram Car 015 in my Hugo novella reading, it was pointed out to me that Clark had written another novella in that setting, so I went off and read P. Djeli Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Black God’s Drums.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo is the one that’s in the same world as Tram Car 015—it’s an alt-history Cairo where magic is returned to the world, and (as in the other story), we’re following an official in the government agency whose job it is to investigate supernatural crimes, as they investigate a murder. It’s pretty clear that I was supposed to have read this before the later story—while Tram Car 015 stood alone just fine, there were in retrospect character callbacks to this one that I hadn’t recognized as such, but had recognized as having weirdly important-seeming characters who played only minor roles. The mystery of this one is a little more obvious than in the later story, and it feels a bit more rushed, like a novel crammed into novella form, but it’s still good stuff. (Although oh wait, now that I’m looking stuff up, I see that this is actually “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” properly styled, as it’s a novelette and not a novella. Which certainly explains why it’d feel like it wanted more wordcount. Oops. Well, I’m still counting it as a full book, since it was published under its own cover and all, so neener.) Anyway, I love this setting and I want a novel in it, and allegedly one is on its way, so that’s cool.
So The Black God’s Drums (which actually is a novella—I just checked) isn’t in that same setting, but is also an alt-historical fantasy with airships and magic. This one is set in New Orleans, but a New Orleans that’s not part of any United States. It follows a young street girl as she meets up with an airship captain to… well, figuring out exactly what’s going on is a lot of the story, so I’ll just leave it at that. It’s also a lot of fun, and I’d be happy to read a novel in this setting, too.
Both stories are highly recommended to anyone who likes alt-historical fantasy, and Clark is on my read-on-sight list at this point.
Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of those novels that I’m not going to be able to do justice to. Because so it’s an African epic fantasy novel, right, but when you say that, it’s easy to think “Tolkien or Martin or whatever, except in Africa.” But it’s not that; it’s dense and layered and literary and subtle in ways that remind me of nothing so much as a Gene Wolfe novel.
And the thing about novels like this is, I’m bad at reading them. When there are stories nested in stories nested in stories, when there are unreliable narrators… well, the thing is, I’m not always up to reading something dense and challenging, right. So when I’m reading this kind of book, I’ll go read some comic books with breakfast instead, and so it takes me forever to read it, and because I’m interweaving it with like a month’s worth of Marvel comics, I end up missing things or taking events too superficially.
But all that said… dang, this is really good. I rarely read the book jacket/blurb stuff before I read a book, and so without the prompt that this was an epic fantasy, it’s not immediately obvious what James is doing at first—it starts off with a framing story, but then jumps into earlier parts of the protagonist’s life, with a sort of coming of age, and things about family—but it eventually becomes clear at some point that this is, nominally, a quest fantasy that follows some familiar genre patterns. Except sorta also not really. I don’t want to go too hard on this Gene Wolfe comparison—James’ writing is a lot funnier and more earthy than Wolfe’s cool, distant tone—but you know how Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series was supposed to be his foray into straight-up epic fantasy, except that it totally wasn’t? Yeah, it’s like that.
So yeah, this is a dense novel with a lot going on; it’s got a distinctive African mythology that it’s working with, it’s got great characters who are tragic and funny and horny, and the writing is evocative and distinctive. This kind of dense literary novel is the type where I often end up saying, “I respected it, but I didn’t like it,” but in this case, I actually did like it a lot, too. It’s definitely not a light read, so pick it up when you’re ready to give it some attention… but do pick it up.
Also, I didn’t know this when I read it, but apparently this is the first book of a whole friggin’ trilogy, and according to an interview with James, “The thing is, the next novel is somebody else’s eyewitness testimony, and their first remark is, ‘Everything you read before is not true.’” So, uh, yeah, getting back into these in detail years apart is going to be a challenge. But I’m up for it, eventually. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the intersection of literary fiction and epic fantasy.
So last up on my Hugo reading for 2020 is two of the novella nominees.
P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a supernatural mystery of sorts. The main characters are from a bureau that investigates hauntings and such-like, in an alternate Egypt where magic was reintroduced into the world there. The world-building is excellent; it’s only a novella, but in the space available to it, it builds up a world with a different history, with different magic-tech, with different politics and international relations, one that feels plausible and detailed. And then it adds to this great characters, with not only the two protagonists (an older, more jaded, investigator and his fresh-eyed young partner) but a whole cast that they interact with. And then it uses these characters and setting to build and develop an actually interesting mystery storyline. This is everything that you want a story to do, but which so many novellas can’t quite manage. This Is How You Lose the Time War was a worthy winner in this category, but I wouldn’t have been mad if this had won.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep is based on an a song from clipping. (which is why it has so many authors listed), and tells the story of a society of water-breathing sea people and their historian. The book description/cover copy gives more detail than that, but doling out information about their history is largely what this story is about, so I’m going to call that too spoilery for me to say here. This novella is good, but didn’t quite work for me. The story structure is a bit lumpy, as it’s trying to mix together a present-tense story of this historian with the history of the people as seen both in broad overview and in specific anecdotes—while the history and the character’s story have thematic resonances, the interweaving of them still felt awkward. Then too, the protagonist is doing that YA thing where they think of themselves as a bad person for reasons that are obviously not true, and discovering this is going to be one of the emotional beats of the story. This is a common trope that must work for a lot of people, but I always bounce off it. I think this is a worthy nominee, and I’d probably place it about the middle of my list if I’d been voting for the Hugo.
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is subtitled “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” and sure enough, that’s what it is, an epic, centuries-spanning intellectual history of (especially) anti-Black racism.
The book is organized around examining the ideas and times of five historical figures—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. It can sometimes get a bit loose in this framing, because there are things that Kendi needs to introduce that those people weren’t involved with, but as an organizing structure, it does keep the scope focused.
I’m not going to sit here and recap the book’s arguments or analyses, because that’s what the book’s for. What I will say is that Kendi lays his analytical framework out clearly, makes a compelling case for his arguments, and draws a clear intellectual through-line through five hundred years of European colonialist and then American history. This is a scholarly book (by which I mean, for calibration, there are 45 pages of endnotes citing sources), but is absolutely accessible enough to find a popular audience.
Which, obviously, it has, winning a whole boatload of awards and topping bestseller lists. So yeah, my recommendation isn’t really needed here, but all the same: Highly recommended, essential reading for anyone who wants to actually understand American history.
So I started reading Ted Chiang’s Exhalation because one of the novelettes in it, “Omphalos,” was Hugo-nominated. I didn’t actually like that story much, but I’ve liked Chiang’s short fiction in the past, so figured the rest of the book would be better. Alas, it mostly wasn’t.
The problem is that most of these stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just thinkpiece essays with a light veneer of fictionalization on them. More than anything else, they’re exploring a science-fictional premise in detail rather than narrating a set of events that occur to characters we’re supposed to care about. Chiang is particularly interested in the themes of free will and the exploration of truth, and most of the essays… er, stories touch on those themes in one way or another.
To be fair, there are two exceptions: The Lifestyle of Software Objects and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom both have multiple characters who interact with each other in a way that relates a sequence of events in narrative form, which is to say, they’re actual friggin’ stories. And they’re pretty good! And as you can tell from my italics, they’re both novellas, so make up a significant fraction of the book’s total verbiage.
I’ve been pretty negative here, but really, you can probably make a case that it’s worth reading this collection for two good novellas alone, and it’s not like the shorter fiction is terrible; if you like thought experiments, Chiang runs them with the best. Recommended for fans of Chiang, people who like SF short fiction better than I do, and people who are more interested in big ideas than characters or plots.