K. J. Parker’s Savages is, as it eventually becomes clear, a fantasy novel that is telling a story about the epic sweep of history—the conflicts between a great empire and its rival to the east; its internal divisions and crises; and its shifting relations to the titular “savages” (a term that the title is using for ironic effect) who comprise much of its armies and sit on its northern borders. It doesn’t take too much knowledge of Roman history to see the parallels here, although Parker isn’t quite doing a 1:1 mapping.
The scope of the book—spanning decades, with a large cast of characters—suggests an epic feel to it, and in broad outline, there is that; you can see the fate of nations and armies play out over the course of the book, and it has that kind of large-scale historical feel to it. But each individual character’s story feels a lot smaller-scale, as they pull off a successful con or bluff their way into a carpentry job or whatever other small-bore thing they’re doing that day. It actually reminded me a lot of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Ethshar series in that respect, because Ethshar has its “grand scope of history” overlaying the whole series, but individual books feel like light fantasy. Here, the larger history is foregrounded more, but it still has a light fantasy feel.
Which makes sense, because it turns out that K. J. Parker is actually Tom Holt, a British writer who’s written a whole bunch of humorous fantasies dating back to the ‘80s. I read a solid handful of his books back in college; this was about the same time I was discovering Terry Pratchett, and probably the most certain thing I remember is that they weren’t nearly as good as Pratchett.
But whatever I thought of Holt as a humorous fantasist, in his guise as Parker, his style works well, keeping a weighty topic breezily readable. Savages wasn’t super-brilliant, and I’m not going to immediately rush out and devour the rest of Parker’s back catalog; but it’s a sure bet that next time I’m flying somewhere or otherwise going on vacation, I’ll load up the phone with some of his stuff. Lightly recommended.
As Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever starts out, it’s set in the very near future, and we’re following around a tech executive doing the same kind of stuff they might be doing in a Neal Stephenson book.
But very quickly, it becomes a different type of book entirely, as she’s pulled into a far-future ultra-science universe, in a way that reminds me of Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky. But that’s about the only way this is like an Asimov book—beyond that, it’s more like Vance than Asimov, as it’s set in an inventive galaxy full of strange and ancient cultures (apparently inspired greatly by Journey to the West, which I’ve never read).
This being Gladstone, you can be sure that there’s a way in which this is a lens into modernity, and here I think is the weakest aspect of the book. Because what he’s doing is taking this techbro (well, techsis, anyway) and looking at how her personality traits have driven her to success… but also at how in doing so, they’ve caused larger societal problems. It’s not a particularly subtle critique, and it comes off a bit ham-handed in the plot as well. I much prefer the more organic ways that the Craft novels work their relevance into the fabric of their world-building.
Overall, this is an enjoyable adventure novel in an inventive SF setting. I enjoyed it, and if there’s a sequel, I’ll be reading it quickly. But it also feels like Gladstone’s weakest novel, by a good bit. Recommended, but if you haven’t read his Craft novels, read those first.
Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is a novel of political intrigue, set in a vast interstellar empire. As it begins, our protagonist, a young woman from a small space-station-based civilization just outside the edge of the Teixcalaan Empire, is summoned to be the new ambassador to the empire.
Upon arriving at the capital city planet to start her new job, she discovers that her predecessor was murdered, and oh hey imperial court politics, whee. From there, it takes all kinds of twists and turns as she ferrets out what happened, what’s happening now, and tries even more to figure out what she wants to happen.
Beyond the political intrigue thriller aspects of it, this is also a book about the nature of empire itself, and is grappling with trying to reconcile admiration for an empire’s beauties with an awareness of its intrinsic inhuman monstrousness; it’s maybe one of the most ambiguous novels I’ve read, that way.
This is good stuff; there will apparently be sequels to this, but it’s a complete story as written, so don’t feel a need to wait.
Annoyingly, Jo Walton’s Lent is another one of these books where even talking about the shape of the story is a huge spoiler (don’t read the cover copy on Amazon, because it blithely spoils major revelations), so let’s see what I can say about it.
I can definitely say that it’s a sort of biography of Savonarola—you know, the Renaissance “bonfire of the vanities” guy?—except that it appears to be one in which Christian mythology is real, and things like demons really do exist.
Taken straight up as a biography and as a portrait of Renaissance Florence, it’s enjoyable, and if your knowledge of Savonarola is as shallow as mine (which, playing the odds, is likely), it’s a useful recasting of his character. But I think I can safely say that it’s not just a straight biography, either, and that there more of a story than just a straight retelling of Savonarola’s life; the unspooling of that story was fascinating, because I like the subgenre that it turned into, but I found the ultimate resolution a little under-motivated and sudden.
(As a random note, I was for a bit convinced that this was set in the same universe as Walton’s Just City books, because Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino are both characters in it, and they’re both so prominent in those other books. But I guess it’s just one of those things where if you’re going hard into Florentine Renaissance humanists, these guys are going to be prominent.)
Overall, I think this is one of Walton’s weaker books—it doesn’t have the punch of Farthing, the wild inventiveness of the Just City books, or the just-right reworking of Tooth and Claw—but it’s still good, and certainly recommended to anyone interested in Renaissance Florence.
Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell has one big thing in common with Seveneves, and it’s that it has a wildly unconventional and unpredictable structure to it, such that saying absolutely anything at all about the book feels like a huge spoiler—and sort of is, because taking the book in totally naive is just going to be this wildly surprising experience that you can’t get if you’ve been spoiled for the shape of the thing.
But, fuck it, I’ve got stuff to say, and I’m going to say it. So I’m going to go ahead with book jacket level spoilers here. If you want the totally unspoiled reading experience (probably only if you’re a dedicated Stephensonphile), stop reading now, and come back later. If you’ve already read the Amazon description of the book, though, I’m not going to really be worse than that.
All right, then. So I had actually been spoiled for this myself, having read an article that mentioned that this was a science fiction story that contained a fantasy story, and so I thought this was going to be some kind of “play within a play” thing, where there’d be an exterior story and an interior story, but nope, it turns out to be one big story that just shifts genres repeatedly.
It starts out as a current-day novel, where it’s Stephensonian in its close, almost pedantic observation of mundane details and is focused on geeky characters, but is otherwise unremarkable. Then it slips into near-future SF, where it’s addressing some very of-the-moment themes about social media and echo chambers and conspiracy theories; and the throughline through both of these parts is a kind of interest in cryonics and brain-scanning and so forth, which eventually gets relevant in the less-near future part of the book; and as we move into the perspective of the simulated brain, it ends up gradually drifting from big-idea SF into straight-up quest fantasy—which means, really, that all the SF part of the book is just the Techbro Silmarillion.
The quest fantasy taken as a straight quest fantasy is fairly banal and generic. But because of all that SFnal context that we bring to the table—the grand sweep of history, if you will—it ends up being interesting anyway.
At least to me. Because the thing is, a lot of Stephenson’s books feel like they should be wildly unpopular and as if he’s writing for a small audience of people who like that sort of eccentric thing, right. But whereas I’d go to bat for the excellence of Anathem or the Baroque Cycle even as I totally understand why a lot of people dislike them, here I think this might actually just be a kinda-bad book that I happen to like a lot.
Because, I mean, the SFnal part of it is really awfully long for how many ideas and/or interesting characters it has; and both it and the fantasy part are almost pathologically focused on the handful of billionaire characters in the book, even at one point having one of the characters explain to another that they shouldn’t feel guilty for using their money to get ahead, that’s just how the world works. Which is not wrong, exactly, but also not the sort of thing that you usually have your sympathetic characters saying in an approving fashion.
And then plus, even beyond the weirdness of this book’s structure, it’s also tying together Reamde and the Baroque Cycle universes in a way that seems to be making a metaphysical point about that larger shared universe. It’s basically never a good idea when authors start tying their franchises together late in their career; it probably isn’t here, either, even though I kinda like it.
So yeah, this is probably Decadent Late-Period Stephenson at this point, and certainly this doesn’t have anything like the verve and brilliance of his best novels, and has some very noticeable warts on it. But for all that, I still liked it immoderately, and powered through it quickly. Recommended for diehard Stephenson fans only.
S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper are the first two books of her Daevabad Trilogy… which, yes, means that I started an unfinished series despite my general resolve to quit doing that. Oops.
Chakraborty is writing Islamic fantasy here; the book starts off with a poor woman living as more or less a con artist on the streets of Cairo during the Napoleonic era; but pretty quickly it takes a turn to the fantastic, and leaves mundane geography behind altogether as it moves to the titular locations.
The story explores weighty themes, looking at an unjust society and how revolution and accommodation and war can change that for good and ill. Despite that, it all moves along quickly and compellingly, with complex characters, political intrigue, ancient magics, and tense action scenes; this is one of those books where I found myself reading it in every spare second, on elevator rides, while walking down long hallways, etc.
Which, if I have a criticism, it’s that it’s maybe a bit too easy to read.
Like, many of the characters are supernatural beings who are hundreds of years old and have lived their life in Asia or the Middle East in the 17th-19th centuries, right; even the human characters are from 19th century Cairo. Despite which, their mindset—the things they think about, the things they value, the things that bother them—too frequently seems casually modern and American.
This ends up making the setting feel like an Islamic gloss over the standard fantasyland—like, just change a few nouns around, and it could be set in generic Disney-medieval Europe. Compare that to something like Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Zen Cho’s The True Queen, where the characters genuinely feel of their time and place, and have concerns and mindsets that aren’t automatically familiar to modern American readers, and you really notice the difference.
But that’s not a huge criticism, because really most fantasy books end up feeling ahistorical in that way, and anyway, Chakraborty’s explicitly stated goal was to make a series that combined Islamic characters and settings with the feeling of “a summer blockbuster,” and she definitely achieved that. If you like epic fantasy full of high magic and political intrigue, these are strongly recommended. I’ll be reading the third book just as soon as it’s released.
R. I. Moore’s The War on Heresy is a revisionist take on late medieval heresy, particularly in the lead up to the Albigensian Crusade.
The main argument the book is making is that a lot of the commonplace beliefs about “Cathars” in that era—particularly their well-organized counter-church, and belief in a Manichaean dualism—aren’t actually backed up by much in the way of credible evidence. He goes through case after case, building up the argument that most heresies investigated at the time were some mix of generic apostolic lay reformer anti-clericalism (which he puts into its social and religious context) and political maneuvering (likewise); and goes on to provide plausible explanations for the origin of the by-now long-standing belief in a) an organized group of “Cathar” heretics who b) believed in a consistent theology based around Manichaean precepts.
The book gets a little bit in the weeds as it goes through all these individual cases, but it’s necessary for what it’s trying to do, and Moore mostly keeps it from getting too muddled and repetitive, with a lively writing style. And the picture it draws—of church institutions, heresies, and the various cultures that surrounded them both, from the theological teachings of Paris schools to the strains on social fabric of increasing trade and manufacture—is one that’s vibrant and messy and deeply human, and which sounds honestly a lot more like real history than the picture more usually painted.
Moore’s argument is controversial, and I am not nearly qualified enough to even begin to judge which way the historiographical winds will blow, but I think that even if Moore’s argument ends up being seen as off-base, it paints a picture interesting enough to be worth reading about, and is a useful look at the difficulties of contextualizing and interpreting primary sources.
And plus also, I find it deeply fascinating that stuff I learned in history classes only twenty years ago, basic foundational things that were just taken for granted as needing only explication rather than argument, is now up for debate. You’d think that the events of 800 years ago would be pretty well understood by now, but apparently: nope. No wonder historians are such nihilists about ever knowing the truth about anything.
Recommended, but probably not if this is your first exposure to the Albigensian Crusade and the Cathars; you’ll want to know the conventional take first.
Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories is, as the title would suggest, a collection of her short stories.
They’re largely little slice of life vignettes. Each stands alone; taken as a whole collection, though, themes emerge. Most of them are about relationships, in one way or another—good marriages, bad marriages, not marriages at all. A bunch of them are about going home, or not going home, or really just generally the complicated relationship that someone who’s moved away might have with their small-town home. And a very grim percentage of them are about people who are dying or have degenerative medical conditions, and how they face that.
It’s easy to see why Munro has won all the prizes she has; she’s masterful at characterization, piercing through the stories and myths that people build around themselves, cutting directly and surgically to the core of her characters’ innermost selves—but doing so with a kind of fundamental kindness, rather than cruelty.
If you think you’d like this, you almost certainly will. Highly recommended.
So Rebecca Roanhorse’s Storm of Locusts is the second of her Sixth World Navajo urban fantasies. I liked the first one well enough, but bounced off of a couple of the story elements of it; I’m happy to say that this one worked better for me.
The main improvement was that a couple of character notes that bugged me in the first book were cleared up in that book. There were still character things I didn’t love, but this is definitely my own idiosyncratic personal preference—the protagonists in this book are a group of people who are working together, but all have their own interests and don’t quite trust or like each other. Which is… well, it’s fine, I guess. It’s realistic, it makes sense, I have no objective criticism of it.
But what I really love is when those characters like each other and have fun as a sort of found family. That’s where Butcher’s Dresden books or “M.L.N. Hanover”/Daniel Abraham’s Black Sun’s Daughter books really get me; it’s not about the supernatural baddies, it’s about the group of friends working together to oppose them.
But there is some of that here, and it goes along with great world-building, a creepy bad guy, and what looks like an interesting over-arching plot. Good stuff, and I’m in for the next one.
So the last up of the Hugo nominees is Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Strategem and Revenant Gun. I mean, technically, it’s just Revenant Gun, but it’s not like I’m going to read the first novel in a series and then the third, without reading the second.
So I’m super-glad this was on the list, because when I read Ninefox Gambit, I respected it, but didn’t really enjoy it that much—it was just too distant from its characters, a well-executed novel full of brilliant ideas, but one which I could never really connect to. And so I always kinda meant to go on and read the sequels, but it’s hard to get myself psyched up for something that’s going to feel like work.
But in fact, these books are not only good, they’re fun. That’s maybe a weird word to use when they’re about interstellar wars and mass murderers and genocides and what-not, but—and I’m not sure if this is really the book or just me finally leaning in to the setting—the protagonists seem more human this time around, with little quirks and light banter and some positive relationships. The distant reserve that I felt from the first book is entirely thawed out in these two. And then all the positive stuff of the first book is still here—the unique worldbuilding, the political intrigue, the questions about the nature of a good society—just leavened with a dose of humanity.
Good stuff, and I won’t wait for Hugo nominations to read more of Lee’s work.
Next up on the Hugo nominee list is Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. This is basically one of those urban fantasies with a monster-hunting badass woman who has a problematic boyfriend; Roanhorse seems to be aware of the cliche, at one point having her character self-consciously dress up in a midriff-baring halter top and heavy black eyeliner for dramatic purposes.
But they’re better than the average for the genre largely by virtue of the setting. As it starts out, it’s clearly post-apocalyptic, but it seems like one where magic is still (as in our-world urban fantasies) a bit underground and not entirely believed in by everyone; as the book goes on, it becomes clear that this is actually a post-apocalyptic high fantasy setting, where gods and miracles (out of Navajo traditions; the book is set in Dinétah, a Navajo nation post-apocalyptically resurgent) are everyday occurrences. So that’s cool.
There were a couple of things that bugged me, though. The main one is that the heroine is doing a thing I think of as a YA staple, narrating about how she’s inherently evil/corrupted/a monster, based on some past event that’s initially revealed to the viewer only partially, but where even at that, it’s immediately obvious to the reader that there’s an alternate interpretation of events that puts the heroine in a better light. It’s an annoying trope, but at least it isn’t foregrounded too heavily.
The other problem I had is that… y’know, okay, relationships are complicated, and even moreso when they have mystical elements to them and all, but even at that, I just didn’t understand some of the motivations that drove characters’ actions—I understood what they wanted, but not why they wanted it.
All that aside, it’s still an enjoyable read and a very solid first novel; I’ll be looking forward to the sequel (which, now that I look, was just released; okay, cool, that’ll help me to not forget this book entirely by the time I get to the next volume). Recommended, and highly recommended to people who like urban fantasy more than I do.
Next up on the Hugo nominee list is Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. Technically only the first book is nominated, but this is one of those series where it’s really just one book cut in half, so it really only makes sense to read them together.
So the backstory on these novels is that Kowal wrote a novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” (which you can read for free), about an old woman who had been one of the pioneering Martian astronauts, and then decided to write the prequel about her as a young woman in the 1950s, trying to become the person she becomes.
This is the kind of Hugo-bait that I honestly feel a little conceptually ooked-out about, as it’s basically just fan service for the nostalgia for the Space Age rocket program that got so many aging SF fans into the genre in the first place, back when they were little kids watching original Trek and moon landings and what-not. And the book positively revels in the details of its alt-history space program, organizational, technical, and procedural. This is, fundamentally, a book about how the protagonist really super wants to go into space, more than anything else in the whole world, and we’re supposed to go along with that premise without a second thought.
But it’s hard not to notice that this is a phenomenally selfish desire. You can see it in the inciting events of the book—Kowal has a giant extinction-level meteor hit, one that will lead to lethal levels of global warming over a period of decades, and the protagonist’s first thought is “well, they’d better start colonizing other planets, so that some of us will still stay alive when Earth is dead.”
This makes basically zero sense on a conceptual level—terraforming a too-hot Earth is waaaaaaaay easier than terraforming Mars—and of course it also means writing off billions of people as casualties of Earth’s demise while focusing on the hundreds or thousands that might survive on a Mars colony. But the book never even really gets into this, and it treats her space advocacy as matter-of-fact science that nobody could really argue with except irrational short-sighted idiots.
And then too on a personal level, there’s the selfishness of this woman being the one who wants to get into space personally, right. And to some extent that’s kinda inevitable in any competitive field—there probably weren’t any astronauts out there who were genuinely deep-down chill about whether or not they got picked to go to the moon or whatever, you know? And of course, because she is a woman in a time when women faced super-overt discrimination, that kind of “selfishness” more naturally reads as a fight for equality, right. Who wouldn’t cheer for this highly qualified woman to get the job that she by rights ought to have?
And so yeah, I wouldn’t normally read that as selfishness at all… except that there are also black characters in the cast here, including a number of black women, who btw are facing some even more hardcore discrimination here in 1952, and she pretty much steamrolls right over all of them, too. She kind of idly means well, off and on, but at the end of the day, she’s not really doing much of anything to advance their cause even after they’ve helped her out. I think the book sort of recognizes this—they get very angry with her obliviousness at various points—but at the same time, the book is frequently setting things up for her to get to be ineffectually righteous and burnish her good-person cred in between stints of not really giving a shit about anyone except herself.
So there’s kind of an unpleasant undercurrent lying underneath the thing, but the nonsensicality of responding to a planet-threatening disaster by trying to leave is pretty much baked into the space colony genre. And on the race front… well, at least the book doesn’t just make her into a total white savior figure; this kind of imperfect historical figure is a lot more plausible, and really the main problem there is just the hagiographic tone of the books.
So that’s a lot of negative words, but these really were a pleasant quick read with interesting technical details, and I burned through the both of them in quick succession. Recommended if you’re less allergic to Boomer nostalgia (and SF fandom’s space fetishism) than I am.
So the 2019 Hugo nominees were recently announced. I had read all the novel nominees a few years ago and found it to be a rewarding exercise. I missed out on doing that last year, but hey, I should be able to manage it this year, right? I’ve already read Record of a Spaceborn Few and Spinning Silver, so next up on the list is Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera.
So the thing about this is, it’s a book about a galactic Eurovision contest, and the heroes are over-the-hill glam rockers. Books about pop music are really, really not my thing, and if I’d realized the full meaning of the title before I’d started reading, I might have just skipped it entirely.
It’s also written in a style that can only be described as Douglas Adams pastiche—but it’s actually more amped-up than Adams ever was. Like, you know the little parts between chapters where Adams will go off into an extended essay about (for instance) how big space is, before narrowing his focus back down to Arthur Dent and what’s happening to him? Valente stays in that extended essay mode almost the whole time, never really tightening up and falling back into quiet understatement, but always staying at the grandiose level of the hyper-absurd. Maybe it’s like the glam rock version of Douglas Adams.
And so yeah, I wasn’t expecting to really like this very much; at 5% of the way in, I almost just gave up on it entirely, but I enjoy doing the Hugo read thing even if I don’t super-love a particular book, so I kept going, and… well, Valente made it work, even for me. There’s enough heart to the characters, enough originality in the world-building, and enough verve in the writing that it kept me reading and interested. I’m not crying out for a sequel or anything, but it was an enjoyable read.
If it sounds like the sort of thing you’ll like, you’ll probably like it a great deal; if it sounds like the sort of thing you’d hate, who knows, you might still like it. Recommended.
James S.A. Corey’s Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth installment of the Expanse novels, and it feels like it, in a good way. A lot of time has passed since the first book’s events, and our characters have lived through a pile of major events, right.
And the thing about this series is, the books aren’t just doing the same thing over and over. Events have real significance and the world changes in meaningful ways, including the people in it. And so our protagonists can look back at the choices they’ve made, and the world they’ve created, and work through a complex set of feelings about all of it. It’s a bit reminiscent of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, though perhaps not so melancholy.
But of course, this is the Expanse, which means that these wonderfully-drawn characters share center stage with some real Big Idea SF, and the ideas here are big indeed—interstellar empires, incredible artifacts of dead civilizations, questions about the nature of humanity, and the fate of human civilization, just for starters.
There’s allegedly only one more volume left in the series; there’s a lot to wrap up in it, if it really happens that way, but this does feel like a series that’s nearing an end, even if I’d personally be happy for it to go on indefinitely. This is some of the best SF out there, and even though it’s gotten a lot of recognition (including a very well-done TV adaptation), I feel like it deserves more. Highly recommended.
Zen Cho’s The True Queen is the sequel to her Sorcerer to the Crown; but whereas that book was working very much in the Regency-England-with-magic genre, this one is going a bit further afield.
Specifically, its main characters are from Janda Baik, and merely visiting England by way of Faerie. So when we see the characters and institutions of the first book, they’re seen through fresh eyes. And too, the concerns of the book are larger than the concerns of England, and the Sorceress Royal is merely an ally to be courted rather than the biggest mover and shaker.
Mostly, though, it’s a book about family—and especially sisters. It works well and is a solid sequel, and I’m looking forward to the next novel in this setting. Highly recommended.
So I’m not super read-up on my Victorian horror, which turned out to be kind of a problem for me when reading Theodora Goss’s European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. Because there’d be, for instance, a place named “Carfax” and I’m immediately thinking that it’s a stupid idea to put in a place name that’s the same as a modern auto-buying service… but of course it turns out that Goss is just making a reference to something out of Stoker, not choosing that name out of nowhere. And I guess it’s probably not Stoker’s fault that he couldn’t have foreseen what kind of brands would exist in the future.
But so as little as I know about these old books, when you start throwing around names like “Van Helsing” and “Harker,” even I can put two and two together and guess that the book is going to feature vampires. And so it does. The heroines of Goss’s Athena Club take off on a journey across Europe to confront their enemies and save the day and it’s going to involve crumbling castles and ancient counts and the like.
One unusual stylistic thing this series does is have the characters interject all the time (because the conceit is that it’s being written by one of them). So you’ll have something like “Mary was determined and fearless as she faced her foe” in the narration and then a little “Mary: Actually I was terrified!” or whatever. I understand the purpose of this—it’s to get in some extra characterization and provide a bit of behind-the-scenes fourth wall breaking to make some exposition easier—but I don’t think it adds enough to make up for how distracting it is. I think Goss is committed to the gimmick after two books, but I sort of wish she’d never started with it, because I’d much rather read the book straight. (I’m actually a bit curious as to how this is formatted in the print version—if it’s done in the margins in pseudo-handwriting, I could see it being less distracting, for instance.)
That’s a relatively minor thing, though, and overall it’s an enjoyable enough book. These aren’t great novels, but they’re pleasant quick reads, just above the level of good airport books; possibly they’d be more than that if you’re more into Victorian horror than I am. Lightly recommended.
Katherine Fabian and Iona Datt Sharma’s Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night reminds me a bit of a Connie Willis novel, where the characters run around trying to put clues together to figure out the solution to a problem before a deadline hits. It’s not quite as madcap farcical as Willis books often are, but it has some of that same feel to it.
In this case, though, the problem is that the protagonists’ boyfriend is missing as the result of a spell he cast; the book is set in a world that’s a lot like ours, but oh yeah also Elfland is right around the corner and magic is a thing, everyday and normal but also a bit disreputable and dangerous.
With protagonists who are collectively bisexual poly genderqueer Hindu Jewish half-elves (okay, arguably the half-elf is less of a protagonist than a quest object), this could have felt like maybe it was trying too hard, but it doesn’t; I don’t know the authors’ biographies, but the details feel lived-in and mundane enough that it mostly ends up feeling like lived experience, at least from where I sit.
This is a relatively slight book (I think actually novella length, maybe), but it’s an enjoyable comfort read in the way those Connie Willis books can be. Recommended if it sounds like the kind of thing you’d like.
Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower isn’t what I expected. I was thinking, based on nothing other than the cover design, that it was going to be a straight-up epic fantasy—you know, a band of heroes gets together and goes on a quest to save the world, that kind of thing.
And being Leckie, I figured it’d have some interesting twists to it, the kind of thing that brings a twencen genre into modernity, maybe something like Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series.
But no, it’s actually doing something altogether different. It is a fantasy, but it’s operating in a more mythic mode, with old gods and usurping princes and the like. And, like Leckie’s other books, it has an unusual narrator and is doing clever things with the narrative form.
It’s an excellent book, taking on heady themes of justice and vengeance in unexpected ways, and I fully expect to see it come up a lot when the appropriate nominations come in.
Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is officially the first volume of “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club,” but I think that’s only because “The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen” might have had some trademark problems.
Because really, this is doing the same thing that Alan Moore’s comic was doing: Grabbing characters out of Victorian pulp fiction as if they were real people living in a shared universe, and then giving them an adventure together. But of course, here it’s taking heroines rather than heroes, which provides an opportunity for some social commentary along the way.
So the book starts off with Mary Jekyll dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy, and proceeds to wind its way through the streets of London, encountering everyone you might expect to encounter, and a few that you might not have thought of.
It’s a solid, well-paced adventure story with a bit of feminism tossed in along the way. It’s a little weirdly blind about class issues—there’s a lot of matter-of-fact acceptance of the privileges that come with being a gentlewoman—and I think basically everyone in the book is white, but maybe some of that is explored in later books. Enjoyable light fun.
So let’s be real clear here: David Weber’s Through Fiery Trials is not a good book. And sure, none of this Safehold series is objectively good, but even through the lens of someone who’s in the tank for this series and all its godawful names, this is pretty terrible.
The thing about Weber is, his failure case is well-known, because it’s happened in a whole bunch of books so far: It’s when his characters have a moment to relax, so they spend 1100 pages just sitting around telling each other how awesome they are.
Before I started this book, I suspected strongly this might be one of those volumes, because having just wrapped up a major conflict in the last volume, everyone seemed primed for a fuck-you nothing-happens volume. But as the book began, Weber was careful to actually lay out the stakes that remained, and set up a conflict, and… maybe this will actually be a book that has a reason to exist?
But haha, no. The conflict he sets up gets resolved over maybe, idk, 100 pages or so, the rest of which is taken up with pure fluff. If you’re a super-super-super-super-super-dedicated reader of the Safehold series, you’ll want to read this book, with its meetings between characters you’ve come to know and love, where they sing paeans to each others’ greatness. But no normal human could possibly sit through this interminable, insufferable book.
Not recommended, but then look it’s like book ten, and are you really going to stop now? No, I didn’t think so. Suck it up, buttercup.