So the basic premise of Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is that in the age of British imperialism, they also discovered Arcadia, the mystical land of the Fae… and proceeded to go about sending missionaries and traders and so forth there, just as much as they did to any other “heathen” place.
Neat premise, but unfortunately it gets executed in the form of a gothic tale of misery and horror. A missionary has been in Arcadia for some time, and his sister gets worried about him, and decides to go for a visit. When she arrives, she finds a faerieland that is inscrutable and incomprehensible to mortals, on her way to the creepy old mansion (named “Gethsemane”) where her brother has been staying.
From there it gets less and less pleasant, as dark secrets are exposed on the way to the revelation of even darker secrets, horrors pile upon horrors, and all the characters descend into their own personal nightmares.
Objectively speaking, this is a good book. Ng has built something that’s unlike any other fairy story I’ve read; and it engages with religion more deeply than I’ve seen outside of, say, Lent, with which it shares some common themes, now that I think about it.
But it was deeply, deeply unpleasant to read, and I can’t really recommend it, unless gothic tragedy in elfland is the aesthetic you’re looking for.
Martha Wells’ Network Effect is the first Murderbot novel (after four novellas), and it is pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be.
Basically, you’ve got Murderbot, one of the best first-person narrators in recent years (really, rivaled only by Gideon). You’ve got returning characters from the novellas, including my personal favorite. You’ve got the meditations on identity and humanity and friendship and purpose that are kind of the running theme of the series. And you’ve got a very solid plot full of mysteries to be solved and action to be had.
Really, the only difference between this novel and any of the novellas is that it’s more. The character interactions get a chance to be deeper; the plot is substantially more complex; there’s just more room for everything to breathe. There are writers out there who, in making the jump from novella to novel, might end up losing the tautness of their work as a bit of flab sets in, but Wells isn’t one of them.
To my tastes, this is the best Murderbot work yet. The whole series is strongly recommended.
I was a little meh about Foundryside, but Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the second book in that trilogy, impressed me a lot more.
Part of this is because of where things were left at the end of Foundryside. Rather than just reprising a standard fantasy-thief thing, it’s set up to do something far more interesting; I don’t want to talk about this in any detail, because that probably constitutes a spoiler for the first book, but it’s neat.
But then also part of it is because this book just kicks into high gear and never lets up. There’s this hyper-compressed timeframe (I think the whole book takes place in like two days?), and just a lot of stuff going on. And then, when you think you know where it’s going to end up, it doesn’t really do that, either.
It’s not just fast-paced action, though; the book is also digging into some really interesting themes about what it means to “win” in a historical sense, in kinda the way that the last season of Game of Thrones essentially failed to. I’m looking forward to the third book, and will read it basically as soon as it’s available. Recommended to anyone who likes modern-style epic fantasies that don’t suck.
So I liked Station Eleven quite a bit, which made picking up Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel an easy call. But so, in my write-up of that earlier book, I mentioned that it wasn’t really an apocalypse/post-apocalypse novel, it was “one of those literary novels that tells a portrait of a handful of characters over the course of their lives.” And hey, guess what this is doing even more explicitly, and with even less of a fantastic element to it?
So the main thing that happens in the book, the event that the story is wound around in a multi-character, time-jumping sort of way, is the unwinding of a Ponzi scheme that’s explicitly based on the Bernie Madoff scandal. There’s more to it than just that, because you don’t make rich, layered character portraits out of just a single event, but that’s the really big thing.
It’s well-written and affecting, mostly with a kind of melancholic mood. Recommended if you liked Station Eleven for its literary qualities, which this also has; disrecommended if you liked it for its apocalypse, which it doesn’t.
Walter Jon Williams’ The Rift is kind of a weird book. WJW has mostly written interesting and sophisticated SF and fantasy, but this was his attempt to write a bestseller disaster novel in the ‘90s, and it reads like… well, like a big dumb bestseller from the ‘90s.
It’s got the tons of characters—the President, a rollerblading teen (the ‘90s!), a stockbroker, a KKK sheriff, an end-times preacher, and a whole bunch more. It’s got the dumbed-down, easy-reader bestseller style. (Which is really weird when you know that’s not how he normally writes.) And of course, it’s got its big ol’ disaster.
The disaster is a little weird, too, because it’s not an apocalypse. Yes, there’s a giant earthquake; yes, bad things happen to the Mississippi; yes, our characters are caught in the midst of life-threatening crises… but at the end of the day, civilization isn’t destroyed; the US government is deploying its resources to get things back to normal and rescue people and all that.
Like, there’s one part where a character in deep shock is trying to get to their job, and it’s obviously absurd—the city they live in is levelled, there’s a disaster going on, of course “your job” isn’t a thing to be thinking about anymore. And yet, the company’s New York branch is totally fine and 100% unaffected, and the person’s coworkers are still working normal 9-5 shifts and the company’s still cutting them a paycheck and what-not.
It’s a little surreal, that combination of world-altering crises mixed with life-goes-on mundanity, but also more than a little relateable at this particular moment.
But also, the part where rescues keep happening but our protagonists need to always be in danger results in some semi-contrived plotting, as the characters keep finding almost-safe spots and then leaving them for one reason or another. In fact, because they’re always in motion, this ends up being something of a river novel, as they go down the Mississippi from Missouri to Louisiana. (And really, the part where the main characters of this river novel are a black man and a white boy has to to be a deliberate nod to Twain.)
Anyway, the book is fine, and if you want to read a big dumb disaster thriller period piece, hey, here it is. It’d be good airport reading, if airports are ever a thing again. But if you’re expecting a Walter Jon Williams novel, with the kind of style and verve that would normally imply, this isn’t what you’re looking for.
So Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about magic doors, in pretty much every sense of the word. It’s set around the turn of the century (not this most recent one, the one before that), and it interweaves a kind of children’s adventure story in with the rise of twentieth century imperialism, contrasting modern capitalist institutions with exploration and wonder and the like. Which sounds really tendentious when I say it that way, but while the book comes close to being too precious, it stays on the right side of the line.
While I was reading it, though, the Hugo nominees were announced, and somewhat to my surprise, I saw that Ten Thousand Doors was on the list, as were two books I’d previously read (Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire). Well, that’s three of six; if I’m halfway done reading the nominees, I might as well commit to it, and read the rest.
So next up was Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night. I’d read a previous novel of hers while reading through the 2017 nominees; it was okay, but was the weakest of that bunch, so expectations were low here—but those expectations were easily surpassed. Because this is a kind of ‘70s-era SF story about a distant-future human civilization on a planet with a distinctive environment (in this case, it’s tidally locked to its sun, so has a boiling hot side and a freezing cold side, and humanity lives in a narrow band on the boundary between them); it’s one of those civilizations where things clearly have not gone right for the settlers, and seem to be only going worse over time in an entropic way. So in addition to the personal story of the protagonists of this novel, there’s also a kind of over-arching question of whether humanity has a future.
One of the things I like about this novel is that it is deeply political, but it is never simplistic. As much as you might sympathize with the revolutionaries, Anders will keep you from deifying them; as much as you might hate this or that aristocratic character, it’s not clear whether anyone else in their position wold really be better. Solid characters, great world-building, and an interesting multi-track story make this one a very solid piece of SF in the Le Guin mold.
And speaking of low expectations, I was extremely hesitant about Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, because I also read one of her books, Feed, while reading through the 2011 nominees, and I absolutely loathed it. It was, and remains, one of the worst SF books I’ve read, and it was a terrible award nominee.
And so McGuire has been super-successful, with like a zillion Hugo nominations (and wins) to her credit, and it is of course entirely possible that a writer can grow and improve over nearly a decade; but I have been distinctly lacking in recommendations for her work from people who share my opinion of her early stuff, so… who knew what I was getting into.
Fortunately, it turns out that she has improved greatly as a writer. This book is enormously better than Feed was, in a whole bunch of ways. It’s telling the story of two kids with a particular destiny, the alchemist who made them, and the battle for control of cosmic forces as waged through children’s fantasy stories. It’s creditably fast-reading, has an interesting story structure that’s playing around with time, and is an enjoyable read.
But while it’s good, I still don’t think it’s great. The storybook element never really fully integrates in with the modern storyline, and there’s some really clunky writing—I forget if it’s actually a verbatim quote that the villain says “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” but at worst, it’s something close to that. Yikes. Decent fluff, but not really award-caliber stuff, in my opinion (which is clearly not that of the Hugo nominators).
And finally, we come to Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. This one is best described as a leftist’s response to Starship Troopers. It starts off the same way, with a young boy who’s not a citizen joining up to attack the alien menace after they wipe a city off the Earth, and then we follow him through that war (not always in strict chronological order—this is another one that’s doing interesting structural things with time). It should be an interesting read, and much of the time it is.
But the problem is, the actual story is interspersed with these godawful political rants. Some of them are monologues in a character’s mouth, others are just straight tendentious description from the first-person viewpoint. In both cases, they’re awful. They’re just crashingly unsubtle. While Hurley’s political beliefs are a lot better than Ayn Rand’s, this has the monologuing quality of Rand, like someone got a really predictable red rose twitter feed mixed up with the novel.
And the hell of it is, it’s not needed. If Hurley just told the story straight, you’d end up angry at the capitalist overlords; if she just had people naturally doing what they do and going about their lives, you’d understand the pains and frustrations of their daily life in this world. Showing the story would drive home the point a lot more clearly than page after page of political philosophizing does anyway. (And really, even if it were taken down a notch that way, it’d still be simplistic; there’s none of the nuance and depth you see in Anders’ novel here, this is just straight polemic.)
Overall, this is a solid round of nominees. If I were voting for the winner, I’d put Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire on the top of my list (probably in that order); next up would be Ten Thousand Doors and City in the Middle of the Night (in no particular order), as the “very good” choices. Below that, I’d vote for Middlegame as a kind of weak winner, and then “No Award” before Hurley’s novel. It’ll be interesting to see what the actual Hugo voters do.
C.L. Polk’s Witchmark is set in a fantasy world that’s at like the equivalent of our world’s World War 1, both in terms of its tech (where aether-powered lights are replacing older gaslights, for instance), and in terms of, well, a major war coming near an end.
That’s the setting. The story is about a doctor with a secret past investigating a mysterious death—which involves gathering allies and delving into the world’s political and magical underpinnings. I’m reluctant to say much more than that, because it’d be too spoilery; but thanks to the original world-building, this is an interesting journey to go on.
This is the first volume in a series, but it does resolve satisfactorily without any kind of cliffhanger. (And the second book is out now anyway, as it happens.) I’m 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. Highly recommended to fans of fantasy investigations.
N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became is an expansion of her excellent short story, “The City Born Great.” The question that always arises when a great story is expanded into a full novel trilogy is, did it need to be? Was there really enough there to justify a full series, or did someone just want to cash in on the success of something that was perfect at its original length?
At first, I was leaning toward the latter take. The prologue of this book is a less-complete version of the standalone story, and then the first chapter of the book sort of feels like a drawn-out repeat of the short story’s climax, so it really did feel like this was just an unnecessarily padded retelling.
But as the book goes on, it changes up more, and starts adding more layers and complexity to the story, and by the end… yeah, okay, this novel justifies its existence, and it points the way to a trilogy that fully justifies its existence. It’s Jemisin, and she knows what she’s doing. The original short story probably packs more punch per-word, but even if you’ve read it, the novel is well worth reading, too
Mark Bittman and David Katz’s How to Eat is an expansion of this excellent article about how to eat well. The question that always arises when a great article is expanded into a full book is, did it need to be? Was there really enough there to justify a full book, or did someone just want to cash in on the success of something that was perfect at its original length?
In this case, the answer is: sorta both? The book retains the primary virtue of the article—its Q&A format and breezy tone—but I don’t know that it really gives you any better advice about its ostensible topic. If you really wanted to know how to eat, you could read the original article and give the book a miss. There’s more detail in the book, but nothing that fundamentally changes anything.
The main thing the book actually adds is a defense of nutrition science, and I think this is where Katz (who is a nutrition scientist) is coming to the forefront of the writing duties. Because the thing is, the easy conclusion from reading the original article is that nutrition science isn’t worth a damn, and that in this particular field, we should just ignore science altogether and focus on more traditional ways of knowing things. The book doesn’t exactly disagree with this, but it does try to carve out a space for science to augment and enhance the knowledge we have from rough empiricism and common sense. So if you’re of a science-y bent and you’ve been disturbed by the apparent failures of nutrition science, hey, here’s some consolation for you.
For most people, though, this counts as a breezy, interesting-enough, but probably inessential book; you could totally just read the article and leave it at that
So Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House is an urban fantasy, wherein a young woman is recruited by a centuries-old occult organization to guard against supernatural evil, and trains under the tutelage of an older and more experienced man. And somehow, it wasn’t until I wrote that out that it even occurred to me that you could compare it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Mostly that’s because this is so firmly its own thing; I wasn’t even thinking of it as being in the urban fantasy genre until well into the book. Part of this is the setting: It takes place at Yale, and it is super about Yale, both as a geographical place and as a cultural institution. The other part of it is the main character, who is very much not the type of person who usually ends up at Yale, which sets up a strong sense of class-based culture shock, as this person who’s lived in genuine down-and-out circumstances is now immersed in a world of wealth and privilege. (It’s also a pretty straight-up class conflict, too, but in a way that feels relevant and true, not in some cartoonish Animal House kinda way.)
The world-building is interesting, the mystery has enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages, the narrator is vivid and jumps off the page, and it does that thing where it combines breezy readability with some real substance. Strongly recommended.
Ben Aaronovitch’s False Value is the latest full-length Peter Grant novel, and it’s my favorite in quite a while. As I mentioned when I wrote up the last one, the series had gotten mired in a convoluted ongoing story; but fortunately that’s over now, and we’re back to what this series should be: A smart-ass wizard cop investigating magically-suspicious mysteries with the help of an interesting cast of characters.
About the only fault I have with this book is that it does an in media res start that, when combined with my terrible memory and the last book being like two years ago, had me convinced I’d forgotten an important plot point in the last book. But no, I hadn’t, it eventually flashes back and fills the reader in on what happened.
If you’ve been reading this series, you’ll want to read this one, even if you’ve thought it was flagging and getting bogged down recently. This very much feels like a return to form. Recommended.
Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History is much more directly about the Silk Road than is Peter Frankopan’s similarly named book. Specifically, it’s looking at a half dozen sites on the route between China and the West, and examining the archaeological evidence to try to adduce a history of those locations, and particularly of trade and cultural exchange there.
The spoilery version is that there’s not really any particular evidence of large-scale, long-distance trade in any consistent way; there’s mostly small local trade, and cultural and technological exchange that happens through population movements, with people immigrating to a new city for whatever reason. But of course, the book isn’t just outlining that bare thesis, it’s also going into detail about each location, the significance of what was found there, the history of its archeology, and its relation to other nearby cities.
It’s a bit on the potsherds side of history—many of the records that historical surmise is built on come to us not as whole documents, but as paper fragments repurposed for funerary goods—but it’s lively and interesting, and a relatively quick read. Lightly recommended.
So T Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones is an (indirectly) Lovecraft-inspired work of fantasy horror. It’s actually based on some super-old-timey Victorian fantasy horror that Lovecraft only wrote a letter about, but it’s inspired by his letter as much as the original story, so hey: Lovecraftian it is.
And it feels Lovecraftian. At first, as in Lovecraft’s stories, there’s this sense of mystery, of things beyond human comprehension, ancient beyond time and unknowable and ps super fucking creepy. The book is suffused with creeping dread and eldritch horrors glimpsed only briefly and partially. I was reading it alone at night, and not gonna lie, I turned on some very unnecessary (but at that moment, extremely necessary) lights.
But if you’re finding it too scary, just keep reading, because then you get to the part that—as in Lovecraft’s own stories—takes all this horror and turns it into a more-or-less straight fantasy novel. The mysteries are explained and made visible, which necessarily robs them of their power to horrify. (The book lampshades this at one point, noting that even though you’d think this should be the case, the protagonist was still pretty friggin’ scared—which, fair enough, if something is actually happening to you, different story. But as a reader of fiction who doesn’t have to deal with unpleasant realities, yeah, not so scary anymore.)
Of course, there’s also the ways this book is not like Lovecraft—it’s got a protagonist who feels like a real person, most notably. The book is in first person, and it’s a great narrative voice; I’m not normally a fan of fantasy-horror, but got pulled along for the ride by the narrator, a woman who reminds me of an older, more mature version of Gideon the Ninth.
Recommended for anyone who likes Lovecraftian fantasy-horror written by a better writer than Lovecraft.
So it occurred to me that I’ve never actually read a history of World War II. In recent years, as I became more interested in modern history, I’ve read about the buildup to WW1, WW1 and the interwar period, and the post-WW2 period, but I just kinda skipped right over WW2 itself. So I looked around for recommendations for a reasonably up-to-date general overview of the war, and settled on Max Hastings’ Inferno.
It very much does what it sets out to do, give a comprehensive and comprehensible high-level view of the war in all its theaters and fronts, colored with enough first-person detail to keep it from becoming dry, but not so detailed that you get caught looking at trees instead of forests. It’s absolutely the sort of book that’s meant to be a “first” book on the topic, giving you enough context to plug in more narrowly-focused books on any topic that particularly interests you. So kudos on that front.
The biggest negative is… maybe not actually a negative, in context. Specifically, it’s that this is a very conventional book. The Winston Churchill we see here is man of resolve and willpower, with just a soupcon of racist shitbaggery; the dropping of the atomic bomb is justified with ease; maybe the most daringly revisionist view it holds is that Douglas MacArthur was a vainglorious fool who got a lot of people killed for no good reason. And so it’d be nice to read a book that’s maybe a bit more thoughtful about topics like that, but honestly I’ve always found it useful to know the conventional wisdom before you start reading the things that push back against it, so a conventional history at this level isn’t bad at all.
Recommended to anyone who has a high school level knowledge of WW2, and wants to know just a wee bit more.
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.