When I read Chernow’s Hamilton biography, I remarked that “when I’ve read biographies of historical figures in the past, for college classes, they were always medieval or early modern figures, people whose lives have a lot of blank spots and whose personalities require a lot of guesswork based on relatively little evidence.” Which is a pretty spot-on description of Levi Roach’s Æthelred: The Unready.
Because here we are with a biography of a long-reigning king, and all we have is the thinnest of public records to hang it on. Like, we know he married twice, for instance, but we don’t even know what happened to his first wife—did she die? was she cast out in disfavor? when?—never mind anything personal at all. Even on matters of major policy, there’s not a whole lot there. Major court realignments are adduced from the order of signatures on monastic charters; significant policy shifts are visible in which monasteries get more land in those charters; guesses at the mindset of a kingdom under invasion are based on changes in coinage. A single extant poem detailing a particular battle becomes this enormously significant piece of evidence all out of proportion to what we really can know based on it (as Roach notes), just because we have so little.
But Roach takes this scanty data and manages to turn it into a compelling analysis of an important moment in English history, detailing the primary periods of Æthelred’s kingship—his regency as a child king; his reaction against his regents as he came into maturity; his repentance for that youthful reaction and re-embrace of those old influences; increasing crisis and a shift in advisors; and finally, the rising tide of Danish invasion and the conquest of England.
For the most part, this is a sober, analytical history rather than a narrative one (though at one point Roach does allow himself a bit of (well-sourced) dramatic license to imagine how a scene of the king’s repentance might have played out), so it’s not the kind of page-turner that, e.g. that Hamilton bio is; probably it’s not going to inspire any hit musicals. But it is clear, concise, and informative; recommended if this is the sort of thing you’re looking for.
Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is pretty much what the title suggests. It goes through a double-handful of the wrong (and often pernicious) nonsense beliefs that we learn, either in school or just kind of vaguely around, and notes the ways in which they’re not actually true, and explains what is… maybe not “true,” as such, but at least less wrong.
(Okay, that was a confusing sentence. This is one of those academic histories that has fully embraced epistemological nihilism and doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as historical truth, or that if it would be knowable if there were. So it explicitly disavows any claims to be giving its readers the actual truth, but it also pretty clearly thinks it’s useful to say that the myths it’s arguing against are just flat wrong.)
It’s a good book for what it is, and I think it overall explains the history well, and makes a good case for the falsity of the myths it’s addressing. But for me personally, it falls into that awkward category of histories that debunk things I don’t even know well enough to have the myth-version of.
Like, back in a college English history class, one of the books we used went really hard into the idea that some particular king wasn’t as evil as everybody thought, and it was a little weird to me, because I didn’t know a damn thing about the guy and had no reason to think he was evil in the first place. (Turns out that Shakespeare was very unkind to him, and that portrayal had become pop-culture canon for people who were less clueless than nineteen-year-old me.)
And same thing here. A lot of this book is focused on de-mythologizing Cortes in particular, and I didn’t even realize that Cortes was a particularly notable guy; he was just one of the post-Columbus randos that got glossed over really quickly in my high-school world history course during the whole “Age of Exploration” thing: Magellan, Pizarro, Cortes, de Soto, etc. He doesn’t even have a cool fountain of youth thing like Ponce de Leon, you know?
But apparently in real life, he’s a big deal, and now I know both a lot of the incorrect things that have been believed about him, as well as some things that are probably less wrong. So that’s cool.
In the preface to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, he gives this mission statement:
I wanted to know more about Russia and Central Asia, about Persia and Mesopotamia. I wanted to understand the origins of Christianity when viewed from Asia; and how the Crusades looked to those living in the great cities of the Middle Ages – Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Cairo, for example; I wanted to learn about the great empires of the east, about the Mongols and their conquests; and to understand how two world wars looked when viewed not from Flanders or the eastern front, but from Afghanistan and India.
Hey, Pete, me too! So it’s kinda disappointing that that’s not what this book is. While the focus of the book is on the Middle East and Asia, it’s on them from the perspective of Europe—they’re acted upon, only rarely actors. So, for instance, we hear about how the Roman Empire was focused more on the Middle East than on Western Europe, how Egypt and Persia were more important than Britain and Gaul, despite all we hear about Caesar’s northwestern campaign. But we don’t read about internal Egyptian politics, we don’t read about life in the Persian Empire. We’re still focused on Rome.
And that pattern follows throughout the book. As we get to the Crusades, we don’t read about the various Islamic factions, but we get a full accounting of the divisions in Christendom. There’s almost no discussion of life in India, but a whole bunch about the East India Company. Almost every part of twentieth-century Middle Eastern history is through the lens of French, British, and American foreign policy.
But… that’s not a devastating critique, because if this isn’t the book I wanted or the book that the preface seems to think it is, it is an interesting history of Europe, as focused on Asia. And it is a useful corrective to the kind of mythological “western civilization” take on history that you might get in high school. With a scope as broad as this (it goes from antiquity to the George W. Bush administration, which tbh is probably way too recent to really count as “history,” but one can understand the temptation to not stop before 9/11), it’s necessarily not going to go into too much detail on any particular time period, but it manages to be satisfyingly informative even from a high-level view.
Recommended, if this is what you’re looking for; but I still want the book the preface promised.
So James S.A. Corey’s Persepolis Rising, the latest (seventh?) Expanse novel, does precisely what you’d expect at this point in the series, which is: 1) advance the plot in a big way; 2) but also in a way you almost certainly didn’t see coming.
Particularly surprising here is that it starts off with a pretty big time-jump, with thirty years or so passing from the end of the last book. This is actually a little weird, because on the one hand a bunch of stuff has changed and everything’s different; but on the other hand, some stuff hasn’t really changed, and is less different than you’d think it ought to be.
But then, that’s kind of the whole thing with books in series, right: You want just enough change for each book to feel new and interesting and not stale, but not so much change that the book feels too far away from what you look to that series for. (Whenever the Aubrey-Maturin books got away from naval action for too long, it started getting a bit weird, for instance.) And the things you look for in an Expanse book are still here—the found family of the Rocinante, political intrigue, cosmic mystery, and maybe even some fighting.
This is a great series, and while you obviously shouldn’t jump on with this book, you should definitely read it if you somehow haven’t.
Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms is one of the first and most famous microhistories, focusing in-depth on a relatively small subject—in this case, a particular miller in 16th century Italy, and his heretical views.
It’s a fun book, in a bunch of ways. One is that it’s a picture of the life of an ordinary everyday person in this period; usually there’s not a whole lot of documentation about randos, but turns out that if you spend a lot of time talking to the Inquisition, well, you’ve left yourself a document trail. But another is that it’s a fascinating look at this guy’s idiosyncratic cosmogony (which does involve both cheese and worms), and how he’s taken a handful of books that he read and turned them over in his mind, and come to these novel conclusions about the nature of god and man and souls and the construction of societies.
Because in one sense, he’s just kinda this blowhard, right, the guy who goes down to the bar and has a few drinks and proceeds to go on about how all these big fancy bishops are full of shit. But in another sense, there is a kind of cleverness and ingenuity in his ideas, and it reminds us of how much human potential was (and still is) squandered by the accidents of social class or whatever else might keep someone from getting an education and being able to fully participate in the exchange of ideas.
And of course, it also reminds us of how a lot of ideas got kept down rather deliberately by a Church that was adamant about everyone very specifically believing a narrow range of opinions. The Inquisition here isn’t the gratuitously evil one you might be thinking of—they’re scrupulous in giving a fair trial, and merciful where they can be within the scope of their duties—but at the end of the day, they really are people who will use imprisonment, torture, and death to ensure that only orthodox ideas are expressed. And the miller in this book expresses some wildly unorthodox ideas, some of which seem common-sensical to a modern (and some of which seem even wackier now than they would have then), and rather than be able to bounce his ideas off other people and refine them, he got imprisoned, told to stfu, and eventually killed.
Anyway, this is a quick, absorbing, down-to-earth read. Recommended for anyone who is even tangentially interested in folk theology in post-Reformation Italy.
John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid is the first of a multi-volume history of ancient Egypt. As the subtitle indicates, it starts off in prehistory, and ends with Khufu.
Which means, ultimately, that it’s a history of a period we don’t know very much about, a point that Romer drives home repeatedly. He’ll talk about the archaeological evidence that we have—a comb with some engravings, maybe—and review what interpretations past historians have put on it, then calmly explain that they were all full of shit, and that, like Jon Snow, we know nothing.
This bit from near the end gets a lot of the flavor of the book:
And yet our real knowledge of these ancient people hardly extends beyond their pyramids, their tomb chapels and names and titularies. We know nothing, for example, of those who carried Hetep-heres in her palanquin, and though we possess her very intestines, we know nothing of the woman or the queen at all. As we have seen, it is convention, rather than hard proof, that describes her as the daughter of King Huni, the wife of Sneferu and the mother of King Khufu. And it is precisely this mix of intimacy, anonymity and grandeur, at once alien and familiar, which is so very fascinating.
So, yeah, if you want to read a long overview of the development of pottery and building trades in ancient Egypt (about the only things we have real evidence for), and an overview of the very little that we know about the first three and a half dynasties, and about life in Egypt during them, this is a great book for the purpose. But for my own part, reading for fun, I can’t help but prefer to read about a period when we have more evidence available to us, and when a history can be more about the people and less about the buildings and vases they left behind.
If you’ve read the Ballantine Lord of the Rings paperbacks, you may have read the introduction where Tolkien is quoted as saying, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”
And history is exactly what N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy provides. This is a series set in a world with history piled on history—it’s a sort of Vance-ian/Wolfe-ian Old Earth setting, except bleaker, because this is a world where the very nature of the planet works to destroy civilizations, and humanity is barely holding on to survival after repeated cataclysms. And it probably isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the cataclysms aren’t entirely in the past when the first line of the first book is: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”
And as a history, oh boy does it have some applicability to it. It’s applicable to almost any of the big issues of our day: Climate change, and the possibility that the planet will go on but humanity won’t; nuclear proliferation, and the possibility for humanity to end itself through stupid mischance; terrorism, and the damage that a single motivated person can do to a society; and maybe especially to racial justice, and what kind of justice is possible in a society built at its roots on oppression.
(When discussing that last question in other contexts, Ta-Nehisi Coates has gotten a lot of pushback for lacking “hope” that things might someday get better. In one interview, he noted that any improvement is unlikely to happen in a congenial way: “It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.” This quote came to mind a couple of times while reading these books.)
Beyond all that, from a pure craft level, this is amazing work. Jemisin gave herself a task with the degree of difficulty cranked way up: Half of this book is written in second-person present. This could easily come off gimmicky; I think about 95% of the writing I’ve read like that previously has been text adventures. But it works, and it reads so naturally that you often don’t even notice it, except when the book deliberately brings it to your attention. (And to be clear, Jemisin’s not just doing this as a stunt to prove that she could; this is integral to how the story is framed and told… but it’s still not something you’d want to see a lesser writer try.)
The characters are richly drawn and compelling; the plot is complex but absorbing. This is just flat out one of the best series the genre has to offer, a success at every level, and it’s been recognized widely as such, having won the most recent two Best Novel Hugos (and with a decent shot at a third next year, in my opinion). Read it.
Ann Leckie’s Provenance is set in the same universe as her Ancillary novels, but is essentially unrelated—instead of telling a story about the fate of species and empires, it’s telling a much smaller story; really, when it comes down to it, it’s telling a coming-of-age story, like one of those old-timey Heinlein juvies.
As the story opens, our protagonist, a young woman who wants to be named the heir to her family, is in the middle of a scheme; as it quickly turns out, she’s too young and naive to really understand what she’s kicked off, and is quickly stuck into situations she hadn’t anticipated. The story is about her figuring things out, growing into her competence, and recasting her family, her world, and her own life in adult terms rather than those of a child.
This is not as dense a book as Ancillary Justice, but it’s still got a reasonably complex plot, still touches on important themes of justice and power; and its plot moves forward so propulsively that it’s hard to put down. This is a fun book that has all the virtues of old-timey SF without most of those books’ weaknesses.
Max Gladstone’s Ruin of Angels is the sixth book in his Craft Sequence, a series that’s set in the aftermath of the God Wars, where necromancers fought against the old gods and the world was changed. In this one, that’s an even more direct setting than usual, because its story is set in a city that was Alikand before it was partially destroyed in the God Wars, and which was subsequently settled by the Iskari, who rebuilt the city as Agdel Lex.
Each of Gladstone’s books use their setting to consider social problems through a fantasy lens, and this one is no difference, because it’s as straight-up an examination of colonialism as you’ll see, looking at how Alikand and Agdel Lex co-exist and how the families of Alikand try to preserve their history and culture while the Iskari try to impose their version of order. Except of course, it’s all richer and more fantastic than that (Alikand used to house angels, for instance, and the Iskari are servants of a Cthulhoid master), and it’s a story told through a mystery, a heist, and a bunch of stuff it’d be a spoiler to even mention. The plot moves along briskly and is never dull or rote.
And of course, the characters are great, too. One of the protagonists of this book is Kai Pohala (who was also a protagonist of the previous book in the series); another is her sister, and the relationship between them drives a lot of the book; but the rest of the supporting cast—a handful of new characters, and some returning favorites from previous books—all have their own stories to be told, and they’re fleshed out enough that it’s almost plausible to just say that the book has a good solid half-dozen co-protagonists. There’s a lot going on here.
The Craft Sequence is a great series, and this is an excellent installment in it. Read these books.
So back in the paper book era, novellas were kind of an awkward length for a story—too short to be published as a standalone book, but too long to be published in a magazine normally. So typically you saw them in kind of awkward form factors—serialized in magazines or as a giant lump at the end of a short story collection. But ebooks have changed that, and now you can just sell a novella as a standalone book, which works out well for stories that want to be told at novella-length.
Which brings us to Martha Well’s All Systems Red, a novella that’s the first of what is apparently to be a trilogy of Murderbot stories. The eponymous protagonist is a security android that has slipped its leash (but mostly uses its freedom to binge-watch TV) on an expedition where stuff starts going wrong. It’s got a wry voice and an interesting protagonist, and you can always count on Wells for plots that move along quickly. Light, enjoyable, and fun.
Next, we come to Ben Aaronovitch’s The Furthest Station, a novella set in the Rivers of London series that tells a little standalone story of a ghost appearing on a train, the investigation into it, and what that turns up. If you’ve enjoyed any of Aaronovitch’s books in this series, you’ll almost certainly like this one.
In fact, I enjoyed it more than The Hanging Tree, which is not a novella, and is the most recent full-length novel in the series. The problem with this book is that the series has been swallowed by its continuity; I really want the books to be about new crimes to investigate, and they sort of are… but it seems like every book ties back in to the larger over-plot about the Faceless Man, which I’m sure I cared about at one point, but no longer do.
I really want Aaronovitch to just wrap that up already, and move on to new stories that aren’t all tied into a single, increasingly convoluted, Big Bad. Because while I think he’s trying to do the thing Jim Butcher did with his Dresden series—complexifying the world and getting deeper into how it works as the books go on—he’s just not doing it as interestingly or as well. And even Butcher has a collection of continuing antagonists for Dresden, not just one Moriarty for him to face over and over.
Still, it’s not a bad book. On a page-by-page level, it’s a quick read and enjoyable enough. It’s just not moving the series in the directions I want it to be moved.
Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome wasn’t really what I expected, which threw me off while I was reading it, and took me a bit to come to grips with after I finished.
What I was expecting was… a history of ancient Rome. Start at the beginning, proceed through the end, telling the reader what we know and how we know it, explaining along the way the uncertainties that we still have and the gaps in our knowledge and maybe occasionally “things we thought we knew, but we were wrong,” when they’re common-enough misperceptions.
But in fact this is kind of “Mythbusters: Rome Edition.” The book is really organized as series of anecdotes about individual periods of Roman history, in loose chronological order. For most of them, Beard will give a retelling of the old, accepted story of that event, and then freeze frame, pull back the curtain, and here’s why you shouldn’t necessarily believe that, and here’s what we really know nowadays. (Which in many cases is: honestly not a whole lot.)
And so while I was reading it at first, it felt like cotton candy fluff, a bunch of glossy “Did you know…?” blurbs all connected together. I kept waiting for the actual meat of the book to really kick in, and—in the sense I was expecting—it never did. Frustrating.
But as I’ve had a chance to think about it, my reaction has grown more positive. Yeah, okay, it’s a high-level history—it’s a relatively short volume that covers 1000 years, it almost has to be. And yes, it’s not the comprehensive history I wanted. But there’s legitimate value in unteaching the mythology of history, in explaining why sources that have been historically taken at face value shouldn’t be. And there’s value in explaining the methods of modern history and the kind of evidence that historians look for, and have available. And of course, there’s value in looking beyond the stories of the nobility into the history of the “regular” people of Rome, the history of women, and the history of slaves, which Beard also does.
It’s still not the book I want—I want the book that does all that stuff in the context of telling a detailed history—but it’s a book that’s worth reading if you want an accessible, quick overview of modern historical understanding of Roman history.
The fun thing about non-fiction books is that you don’t need to guess what they’re about, because they tell you right in the post-colon half of their titles. So, yeah, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is exactly what it says on the tin, a look at Europe in the years leading up to the first World War.
There are probably two big ideas that Clark is pushing against. The first is that WW1 was inevitable, that the constellation of inexorable historic forces would have made it happen regardless of anything, and that Franz Ferdinand was just a pretext. Toward this end, Clark takes the Serbian trigger seriously and delves reasonably deeply into the history of Serbian nationalism and the particulars of Serbian government and its relationship to clandestine conspiracy groups. He also moves on to examining the history of the relationships between the European powers in the decades leading up to the war, and shows how they were in constant flux, and that if war hadn’t broken out when it did, the constellation of alliances could have been completely different in a few years.
The second idea he’s pushing against is the idea that it’s productive to sit around pointing fingers and putting together rankings of who is the most to blame. Which, okay, not wrong. History is complicated and counter-factuals are impossible to evaluate, and everyone legitimately has their own competing interests and all. But at the same time, as someone who’s grown up with history books where Germany was on the opposing side, and who’s always understood that they were the aggressor, it’s a little odd to read a book in which it’s the French who are pushing the war forward the hardest, and pushing their allies to do the same.
But of course, saying that “France” did anything is kind of missing the point, too, because—to go back to that first point about the contingency of history—one of the things Clark illustrates vividly is that each country had its internal factions, and had its hawks and doves, and that the particulars of policy depended on the specific human beings who were in power (or, sometimes, just in key ambassadorial or ministerial roles) at any given time, and that their preoccupations and characters and beliefs shaped the course of events in ways that were unpredictable and could easily have been changed. The idea that the person in charge might be essential to avoiding or inciting catastrophe on the scale of global war isn’t one that’s particularly reassuring right now, but alas, it has a lot of compelling evidence behind it.
Ultimately, The Sleepwalkers is a good demystification and explication of a period of history that is usually taught with vague handwaves and yadda-yaddas. It’s not so blindingly revelatory that I’d recommend it to everyone no matter what, but certainly if you’re interested in the run-up to WW1, it’s a solid read.
So Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and Death’s End complete the trilogy started in The Three-Body Problem, and this is definitely a case where reading the whole series changes my opinion of the first book.
Because the thing is, that book is a “novel of ideas” in that old-timey SF way, but its idea wasn’t really that deep, novel, or interesting, so it felt pretty basic. But the sequels take that idea and run it through cycles of elaboration, piling on more and more ideas, each one a “oh, you thought you understood the universe, but wait there’s more“ moment. By the end of the third book, there’s so much going on that you could arguably make the criticism that it’s overstuffed with too many SFnal concepts.
But it’s not a criticism that I’ll make, because I liked it a lot. It is still very retro-style throwback SF, but it’s doing a thing that I love—following a society through deep time as it evolves and changes—and doing it well. It’s fun, albeit in a bleak way.
The criticism I’ll actually make is that the third book has a running theme contrasting “masculine” decisiveness and aggression with “feminine” pacifism and nurturing, which… well, if you’re going to mine old-timey SF for cool plot structures, go for it; but the antiquated gender role bullshit really doesn’t need to come along for the ride.
Anyway, if you like SF of the old-school with space shit and technological development and aliens and civilization-defining crises and all that, and you don’t demand naturalistic dialogue or three-dimensional characters and can look past some weird retro-sexism, this is what you’re looking for.
So the next Hugo nominee turns out to be the third novel in a series that I hadn’t previously read, so I started in on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu), which is itself a 2015 Hugo nominee.
So this is a novel originally written in Chinese, and it seems that Ken Liu, when translating, has tried to keep it faithful to the style of the Chinese novel. Which, I’m not going to pretend to know much of anything about Chinese prose style, but in this case at least, it means that the dialogue comes across as very stilted and artificial. Which, ironically, makes it seem kinda old-fashionedy, as it reads like old Golden Age SF, Asimov or Clarke or whatever.
But actually, now that I think about it, what it’s really most like is indeed an Asimov novel, but not one from the Golden Age—it’s The Gods Themselves, a novel wherein aliens (from a parallel universe with different physical rules) try to communicate with the people of Earth, and factions on both sides try to steer the interactions between the societies. That’s not exactly the plot of The Three-Body Problem, obviously, but it gives a surprisingly large amount of the flavor.
On the SF side, anyway. Because the other subject it deals with is China’s Cultural Revolution, during which the first part of the book is set. To my tastes, this is by far the more interesting part—a straight historical novel that ditched the SF trappings not be abandoning the stuff that makes this novel interesting. (Of course, it also wouldn’t have been nominated for the Hugo, which means I probably wouldn’t have read it, so… yeah, really need to work on reading more mainstream fiction.)
But in the end, what you’re getting with this book is really a book with quasi-Asimovian prose and SFnal content, but embedded in a Chinese context. It’s interesting, and I’m happy to keep reading more, but it’s definitely the “Chinese” part that makes the book more than an utterly forgettable throwback.
Next Hugo nominee up is Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.
Tonally, this is a kind of weird book, because it’s a bit all over the place. One moment, it’s hyper-naturalistic, with people behaving like regular ol’ people and events that are wholly mundane; the next, it’s using archetypes straight out of fairy tales, with people acting in completely unrealistic ways. It’s not quite doing the hysterical realism thing, although it dabbles in that at times, too.
At its best, the book is telling the stories of its protagonists, who are interesting people doing interesting things, and who are sometimes jerks, but mostly pretty decent, in a way that rings true. At its worst, the book is delivering a crashingly unsubtle message about the need to balance technology with humanity. Most of the time, it’s doing those two things together, and the result is something that ends up being readable and interesting, but falls well short of greatness.
Compared to the other nominees I’ve read, it’s more ambitious than Chambers, but less well-executed; and lacking in both ambition and execution compared to Lee or Palmer. But I don’t want to be too critical here, because this is a really strong slate of nominees, and this is ultimately a perfectly fine book, even if it’s not one that I’d vote for to win the Hugo.
Next up on the Hugo nominee reading list is Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. This turns out to be another first novel, but Lee is an accomplished short story writer, and that comes through pretty clearly—for both good and ill, I think.
So the world-building on this one is… complex. It throws you into the deep end of a galactic war built around quasi-magical concepts, and as you read about calendrical heresies and threshold winnowers and Kel formations… yeah, you’d better have some experience doing that SF-reading thing where you are able to read dense clouds of nonsense words and figure out what they mean gradually as you go. But I promise it does cohere quickly enough, and into a setting that’s both unique but also very much in the SF tradition of magic-tech space empires.
What never quite cohered for me in the same way was the main character. We spend the book seeing things through their eyes, but I didn’t feel like we ever really got to see behind their eyes; the protagonist was reserved and distant in a way that made it hard to really get emotionally invested in the book. For maybe unfair reasons, this kind of distant affect strikes me as a short story-ish quality, and I think it works fine at short length, but for novels I want more of a visceral hook.
Ultimately for me this is one of those books that I respect, but don’t love. The world-building’s great; the plot moved along quickly enough to keep me reading, with twists along the way; the writing is quietly accomplished; but… well, there’s a sequel coming out soonish, and even though I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t really care that much. Still, given that this is a very solid first novel, I’ll probably give it a go, and hope that it manages to be just that bit more friendly.
So the next book on my Hugo nominee reading list is Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, except that it’s a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, so I ended up reading both.
You’ll recall that I went on for a bit about how little How Like the Lightning felt like a first novel, right. Well, The Long Way feels very, very much like the first novel that it is. Clunky writing, cliched setup and world-building, characters that feel like lightly-disguised versions of characters from TV shows, a sloppy plot that kinda ambles around pointlessly and is full of coincidences. Really, all the hallmarks are there.
But that’s not to say it’s bad. It reminded me a lot of early Scalzi—Old Man’s War, let’s say, even down to the tedious infodumps about how the warp drives work. I’d say it’s probably a bit more fun than the Scalzi, though, so if you like sloppy-but-enthusiastic found-family-onna-spaceship stuff, it’ll be up your alley.
But anyway, that’s not the book that got Hugo-nominated. The second, nominated novel is significantly better. A Closed and Common Orbit is a quasi-sequel to the first book—you’d probably want to read them in order, but they don’t have a ton of characters overlapping—and it’s about growing up and learning to be a person, from a couple of different angles. It’s a more distinctive novel all around, with characters that feel more developed, a story that actually is about something, and writing that doesn’t embarrass. The growth between the two novels is huge, and promises good stuff from Chambers’ future works.
Still and all, I’m not sure I’d really consider it Hugo-quality, but then, I’ve thought that about a lot of past nominees (and plenty of winners, even), and this is better than a lot of those, so maybe I’m being too picky. At any rate, if it wouldn’t get my vote for the award, it’s definitely good enough that I’m looking forward to Chambers’ next book.
So the 2017 Hugo nominees were announced, and I discovered that I had read literally zero of the novel nominees (though I have read The Ballad of Black Tom, which is apparently considered a mere novella). I usually get some book recommendations from the Hugo nominee list, but I haven’t read all the nominees since 2011, for one reason or another. But this year’s list all look to be interesting, so I figure I’ll give it a go.
First up is Ada Palmer’s How Like the Lightning, which I picked because it’s one of the few books on the list that isn’t the second or third book of a series, so it’d only commit me to reading a single book. Or so I thought, up until I got to the end of it and saw a “here ends the first half of our story” thing, at which point I sighed and also picked up Seven Surrenders, which more or less completes the story. (There are to be more sequels, and there’s plenty of room for them, but the key elements of this one are wrapped up in it.)
So this is apparently Palmer’s first novel, but you really wouldn’t know it from reading. It is incredibly accomplished at a technical level, with a complexity and command that you rarely see from a first novelist.
Really, the word to best describe the novel is “layered.” It’s the story of a future society that is vastly, enormously different from our own, and it’s narrated by an author who is writing in a kind of deliberately retro-eighteenth-century omniscient-first style for a presumed future audience living in a different society. And so the narrator is explaining the world to the reader, as one does when writing about alien societies, but they’re also showing the world to you, and these things don’t always mesh up perfectly, anymore than Thomas Jefferson’s high-flown writings about liberty align with him being a slaveholder.
So there’s definitely this level of the unreliable narrator to it, which puts me in mind of Gene Wolfe novels, but there are layers in more senses than just that. There are layers of revelation as the plot builds; there are the layers of sediment that lie in the backstory of the book. Palmer is apparently a historian by trade, and this reads like a book written by a historian, aware of how alien societies can be across time, and how their concerns and morals—and even their crimes and perversions—might not be readily comprehensible in terms of the present.
(And as a side note, there are crimes and perversions aplenty. The content warnings on the front of the books are world-building for the future society, but also not lies. There is a portion of these books that was getting to more sordid and unpleasant than I generally like; it never crossed the line for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people for whom it did.)
I’ve probably already said too much here—I went into these books knowing nothing, and I think that’s pretty ideal—but these are also books where, even though I absolutely loved them and tore through them at top speed, I think they will not be to everyone’s taste, so I figured I needed to give more than a blanket recommendation. (Amazon reviews seem to back this up; the first book gets a pile of five-star ratings, but it also gets a lot of “this is total garbage, who could like this” comments.) But if you like unreliable-narrator future-history SF with some 18th century flair and a bunch of talky philosophy, boy howdy is this the book for you.
So, having listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton about a zillion times, I decided that I really should read the book that inspired it, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, if for no other reason than just to know which parts of the musical were true and which were dramatic license.
But Chernow’s biography turns out to be a lot more than just a sourcebook for the musical, of course. It’s a portrait not just of Hamilton, but of his era, because it turns out that if you’re trying to explain the life of this guy who did so much to shape the nascent United States, you really need to explain the politics and controversies and wars and personalities of the time as well.
One of the things that surprised me was how narrative, almost novelistic, the book is. Because when I’ve read biographies of historical figures in the past, for college classes, they were always medieval or early modern figures, people whose lives have a lot of blank spots and whose personalities require a lot of guesswork based on relatively little evidence. But Hamilton lived much more recently, and there’s so much from and about him—letters that he wrote to his friends and to his wife, letters from his illicit mistress, the letters that he wrote to his political allies, letters that his enemies wrote about him, plus newspaper essays and wartime correspondence and trial records and and and. So there’s a lot of emotion and personality in it, in a way that I hadn’t expected. It’s easy to see why Miranda was inspired to make Hamilton the subject of a musical, because he’s almost bursting out of the pages the whole time.
But I don’t want to give the opinion that this is just a fun diversion. For all that Chernow writes accessibly, and that Hamilton’s life lends itself to narrative, this is a well-sourced biography with tons of primary sources and apparently original research; and Chernow does an excellent job evoking the colonial and post-colonial worlds.
If the subject holds any interest at all to you, strongly recommended.
So V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy is about three different Londons in different dimensions, the people who travel between them, and the dangers that threaten them.
It’s actually a kind of weird trilogy, because the structure of it is really lumpy and uneven. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but the first book stands alone well; the second book feels like it could have been an entirely satisfactory standalone book except for the ending, which has nothing to do with 98% of the content of the book and what all the characters were doing, but does set up a cliffhanger that it takes the whole third book to resolve.
And so as those plots unfold, the amount to which the different Londons come into play comes and goes, and to a large extent, huge swaths of the book are just set in a fantasy London and oh btw our real-world London exists somewhere but it’s not really that important.
But look, I’m sitting here nitpicking at the structure of the series, but that’s hardly the most important thing. What’s important is that the trilogy features some great characters—protagonists, antagonists, and even little side characters are all fleshed-out and detailed people (even when we can’t entirely see that through the protagonists’ perspective at first)—engaged in a series of plots that move along briskly and are always interesting. There’s piracy, a magical tournament, interdimensional court intrigue, ancient evils, family drama, and plenty of witty repartee.
It’s a lot of fun, reasonably original, and compellingly readable. Recommended.