Back when I was a kid haunting the aisles of Waldenbooks, there were just absolute piles of licensed IP books—Star Trek, which I bought and read because I loved Star Trek; but also other ones that I didn’t know anything about, like the Forgotten Realms and DragonLance and Battletech. I eventually read the Forgotten Realms and DragonLance ones, essentially out of a misguided belief that popular things must have something meritorious to them (and hey, I like fantasy stuff); having learned that this was wrong, I abandoned that section of the bookstore for good.

Until now, because I just read William H. Keith Jr.’s Saga of the Gray Death Legion and Michael A. Stackpole’s Blood of Kerensky Trilogy, both early trilogies in that Battletech universe. I knew these books weren’t going to be good, but I read them because I bought the rulebooks and minis for the Battletech board game, and while the game seems interesting, it quickly became apparent that it was going to feel cold and sterile without some narrative connection to the setting. And to be honest, there was a part of me that was curious what was lurking on those Waldenbooks shelves, these long decades past.

And so, knowing what I was getting into and looking for dated nostalgia, the books were enjoyable enough that I burned through six of them quickly enough. (I picked the Gray Death ones because they were the very first ones published, and I figure they would give me the baseline sense of what the game was during its “Succession Wars” timeline; the Kerensky ones are the pivotal early novels of the “Clan Invasion”, which is a big deal in game terms.) But I want to emphasize all those qualifiers about “knowing what I was getting into,” because by any objective measure, these are terrible books.

The first three are particularly weak. This Keith guy isn’t a good writer (or at least, he wasn’t in 1988, maybe he got better over time), and the books are amateurish on every level from prose style to characterization to plot structure. The biggest problem the books have is that Keith really wants his hero (whose name is, for real, “Grayson Death Carlyle”—yes, the Gray Death legion is named after him and it’s purely a coincidence that it’s a bad-ass name) to be an underdog, and so he puts him into a position where he doesn’t have any mechs at all, and needs to attack a superior force.

Which is problematic, because the whole point of Battletech is that mechs are super-cool and ultra-powerful and awesome and that normal infantry or vehicles have no chance against mechs at all… but here’s a book that’s just showing mechs getting their asses handed to them by a smart kid with a flamethrower and a Jeep, even while it insists that they’re super-powerful and unbeatable. It’s silly, which is really just a good description of everything in the book, from battle strategies to romances. But it’s great at giving you a visceral understanding of what the different mechs are and how a Locust is different from a Phoenix Hawk, so purpose served for me.

Stackpole’s trilogy suffered for me by being apparently the fourth trilogy of Battletech novels written, and already being hip-deep in backstory, such that I constantly felt like I was missing references, because of how I was. Everyone in this book is either a major character from a previous series, or their kid. This would be less of a problem if this book weren’t just jam-packed full of plot, with a sprawling cast of characters who spend like a whole book just maneuvering around clumsily so they can be in the right places for the setpiece battles and campaigns of the next two books.

(One fun thing is that the setting is super-weird. Partly this is because it’s a future from 1988, so whenever they specifically envision computers, they’re primitive and pathetic… but every other tech just has permission to be magical, apparently. But then also partly it’s because it’s a setting designed to set up mech combat, because that’s what the whole goddamn game is about, so you need to have incredible materials science and neural interfaces, but also totally shitty wireless communications or e.g. targeting computers. The amount of handwaves you need to make the setting plausible enough for gameplay turns out to be way lower than the number you need to make it suitable for a novel.)

Anyway, in addition to all the other ways these books are terrible, they’re also from the 1980s, so like… you will be shocked to learn that the space faction that is obviously based on Japanese culture is big into honor and falling on your sword and so forth. There’s nothing that I remember as being grossly offensive (and despite a lot of focus on eugenics, it’s eventually proven out to be a stupid, untrue idea), but it’s obviously not how you’d write any of this today.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend these books to anyone unless you want to get into the right mindset to play a big ol’ game of fighting mechs from the ‘80s, in which case, they will do exactly what you want done.

So a thing I’ve enjoyed doing the last few years is reading all the Hugo novel nominees; I often feel like I’m not as connected to the wider field of SF/fantasy as I used to be, and reading the award nominees at least helps me understand where the genre (or at least one part of it) is at. So this year, I’d already read T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone; I’m going to wait to read Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth, as everything I’ve heard tells me that I should read this series all at once if I want to have any hope of understanding it. And that leaves four more books.

First up is Travis Baldree’s Lattes and Love. This is the story of an orc adventurer who sets up a coffee bar after retiring from the adventuring life. It’s pure fluff, one of those books with low stakes and little conflict, where the protagonist gathers a found family of misfits who realize that they all love each other. It’s a quick, light read, and well done as fluff goes. But I’m baffled at the idea that this is an award nominee—multiple award nominee, as it was also Nebula nominated! Enjoyable book, recommended on its own terms, but I hate this nomination.

Next is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. This takes the Dr. Moreau story and puts it into a remote estate in Mexico. I’ve loved Moreno-Garcia’s earlier work, particularly Mexican Gothic, a horror novel set in a similarly isolated house. This one, I didn’t like quite as much—it felt like a more straightforwardly conventional plot, without the richness and surprise of her earlier works. I didn’t read this and think “oh man, this is incredible, this needs to win awards,” but it’s a respectable nominee.

Less respectable is John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society. I understand why it was nominated (Scalzi is popular), and the book has some merits, mostly around the world-building—the relationship the kaiju have to Earth (and their ecosystem overall) is genuinely interesting. But it’s really more of an airport book than anything else. The characters all talk in identical Scalzi snark (a mode of dialogue I really don’t love), the plot is ridiculously obvious with “shocking twists” that literally every reader will have seen coming from half a book away, and it’s just not doing anything even remotely ambitious. Scalzi himself seems to have viewed it, based on the afterword, as something of a post-Covid/Trump palate-cleanser. In the context of the Hugo, this reminds me of nothing so much as when Robert J. Sawyer would get nominated for these shitty action SF thrillers. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.

But that’s not my least favorite of the Hugo nominees; that prize goes to Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man. This book legitimately made me angry. The writing has a weird, off-putting style—it feels like it’s trying to do a hard-boiled detective thing and failing badly. The world-building is incredibly bad; we’re allegedly in a world where people take interplanetary luxury cruises, and yet everything about the society is basically the present day, except in space. Every social attitude, every social controversy, is lifted straight out of the 2020s, to the point that when one character does some retrograde pronoun usage, the protagonist chides them for being out of the 1980s, a comment that genuinely left me puzzled, as there was no hint prior that this was an alt-history instead of the future. (Oh, and a popular show is Zero Gravity Dancing With the Stars, a name that is so obnoxious for how of-five-years-ago it is, but also how lazy it is. Not Dancing Among the Stars or something, just literally we’re making it futuristic by throwing the adjective “Zero Gravity” in there. Ugh.)

But it’s maybe the characters who are the worst part of all, because they’re rich assholes who go around being wilfully stubborn and throwing their money and power around to get their way all the time. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be cheering for them getting their revenge on the officious security officers who are oppressing them, but it honestly reads more like rich people having a tantrum. The only reason they’re the protagonists at all is that their opponents are cartoon villains. (Imagine a world in which cruise ship private security rent-a-cops would viciously beat and assault rich passengers! It’s absurd.) The only saving grace of this book is that its central mystery is interesting, and I wanted to find out what happened. But even though I kept turning pages, I hated every moment of reading them. Obviously, I don’t think this should have been nominated at all.

Last year’s nominees were a solid slate, but this year’s aren’t. If I were a voter, I’d give the award to Nettle and Bone more or less by default, with the Moreno-Garcia novel being my second choice. I haven’t read the Tamsyn Muir thing yet, but on the strength of Gideon, I suspect it belongs up with these two. But after that, I’d put No Award, and then layer in the last three—Baldree, Scalzi, and then Kowal at the very bottom.

All right, obviously I’ve fallen way behind on my booklogging, but here’s my chance to begin catching up. Because I read the first three novellas of Nghi Vo’s Singing Hill Cycle back in January and never got around to writing them up, but now I’ve just finished the fourth one, so… hey, this is a current entry now.

So the framing device of the series is that a monk and a bird are wandering around collecting stories. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, they arrive at a forgotten palace inhabited by an old woman, and hear her stories and learn about the palace and her life; in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, they’re in the frozen north, and when misfortune strikes, the monk has to tell a tale to an audience that has their own version of it, and frequently “corrects” the story; in Into the Riverlands, the monk is looking for tales of martial art master brigands, and ends up getting more embroiled than expected; and in Mammoths at the Gate, the monk comes back home to their monastery and learns stories about someone who they only really knew from a child’s perspective.

They’re novellas, so telling a short, contained story, but they’re excellent: The stories are interesting, the structure of the telling enriches the story, and in general they’re surprising delights. Highly recommended.

Given how much I just finished griping about the Cosmere, you might have expected that I’d also be annoyed with Brandon Sanderson’s Tress of the Emerald Sea. I mean, it’s a fantasy novel with an almost-fairy-tale tone (I thought The Princess Bride was too facile a comparison until Sanderson in the afterword called it out as an explicit inspiration) that could totally be a standalone fantasy novel… except that lots of major characters are from the Cosmere and its unique magic system is described in terms of Investiture (and was previously seen in that Cowboy Mistborn book in slightly different form).

But… here, it didn’t bother me. I think the difference is that this Emerald Sea setting (the planet has a name, which I’m sure you’ll read in many future Cosmere novels, but I forgot it) is new to me, and so reading it as “one of the planets in the Cosmere” is like okay fine whatever, whereas Mistborn started off as a totally standalone thing, got itself a “secret history” that tied it to the Cosmere, and then only recently got fully retconned in. In comic book terms, it’s like how both Conan the Barbarian and Captain America are Avengers, but it’s kinda weird for one of them.

Anyway, beyond all the Cosmere stuff, this book has a fun first-person narrative voice, engaging and distinctive characters, an engrossing story, and an interestingly unique setting—all BranSan’s usual strengths. Even better, the anachronistically modern vocabulary that often trips him up when writing fantasy works here, because the narrator is from the Cosmere and so can use modern tech/management-culture inflected phrasings deliberately.

Because of all the Cosmere stuff in this, I don’t think I’d recommend it to someone who’s never read a Cosmere novel; there are just too many places where you’re clearly supposed to know stuff, like who Hoid is. But if you’ve been reading them, this is a good one, and an easy recommendation.

Brandon Sanderson’s The Lost Metal finishes up his Cowboy Mistborn trilogy, seven years after the last installment. If you’re like me, that means you have absolutely no idea what was going on in this series, and you’re going to need to know, so I will do you the favor of linking to the wiki with extremely detailed recaps—but do be careful about clicking around outside the recaps, the spoiler warnings are real.

So, now that your memory is refreshed, you might also remember that in my write-up of the previous book, I was worried about whether this series was getting too Cosmere-y. For the last book, the answer was “not yet” but for this book the answer is, “oh, absolutely yes.”

On that BranSan wiki, the Cosmere page says: “Despite the connections, Brandon has remained clear that one does not need any knowledge of the broader cosmere to read, understand, or enjoy books that take place in the cosmere.” That’s a neat theory, and I’m sure it was true once, but it is absolutely 1,000% no longer true. This entire book is about the broader cosmere. It’s chock full of characters and places that appear in his other books, and that will appear in future series. The core plot couldn’t exist without the cosmere.

And, I hate it. I thought that tying together all his books into one big meta-story was going to be a bad idea, and now that it’s happened, I’m even more certain that it is. It turns fiction into meta-fiction, it turns magic systems into meta-magic systems, and it turns story into meta-story. Mistborn is a setting that should have all kinds of possibility, but now that it’s just one train stop on the cosmere line, all those stories have been burnt up, and all that matters is how Mistlandia fits into the cosmere. So I guess get used to seeing these characters in BranSan’s other books, before he finally returns for the third age of Mistborn series, which I guess are going to be all about exploring the cosmere or some such nonsense.

If you’ve been reading this series, you’ll probably need to read this one just to get the end of it—and I mean, on a page-by-page level, it’s not bad; BranSan is still a writer who knows how to make things compellingly readable—but ugh, what a mess.

So I originally read Steven Brust and Emma Bull’s Freedom & Necessity back when it came out in the ‘90s, but inspired by Dracula Daily, Kate Nepveu organized a read-along-with-the-date group read, and so what the hell, I can re-read a book every quarter century.

My memories of what happened in the novel were very thin—all I remembered is that there was a bunch of revolutionary stuff that tied into 1848 (about which I knew very little back when I first read it; thanks to listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, I now know a lot more).

And upon re-reading, it’s clear why my memory is so hazy: The book is written as a series of letters, right. And through tbh a lot of the book, the two writers are just throwing plot hooks at each other, like generous improv partners. Which is cool, but then eventually they need to start closing all the doors they opened. And so there are a lot of plot elements that just are not really compatible with each other at all. Reading along with other people and being able to ask, “wait, who was that again?” and so forth, I can see that it’s possible for it all to make sense as not just a single elaborate conspiracy, but as an interlocking-and-overlapping-but-not-coinciding set of elaborate conspiracies… but even at that, a couple of plot elements ended up not quite working their way to fruition, including most of the explicitly-fantastic one (one of which appears to have been pulled back in at the end, as a kind of sequel hook; I assume at this point no sequel is forthcoming, though).

But the story isn’t really where this book shines, anyway; the characters are. And Susan and Kitty and James and Richard still jump off the page just as much today as they did a quarter century ago. I think I probably liked this book more way back when, but it’s still enjoyable today, and recommended.

Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite certainly wins the award for the book I took longest to read after buying. I picked it up on its initial “Del Rey Discovery” publication in 1993, and well, here we are, nearly thirty years later.

So the weird thing about the delay is that (with the exception of one plot element, which I’ll get to), this book really feels like it could be written now. It’s about a rapacious corporation that’s trying to settle a planet, but which is stymined by a deadly virus, one which leaves only women alive—and where a society of women has grown up from an earlier wave of settlement. (How did they not all die off in a generation? Well, that’s one of the questions the book poses as a mystery, so you’ll have to read it to find out.)

So, yeah: Themes of colonialism, capitalism, pandemic, and gender. It’s extremely 2022, but of course actually from the ‘90s.

In another way, though, it also feels like it could be older. Its anthropological framing (the main character is an anthropologist) and that focus on gender put it straight in the “heir to Ursula Le Guin” mold. (Though of course, when it was written, Le Guin was still alive and actively writing and didn’t need an heir.) The part where it’s very explicitly SF, even though it sorta feels like it wants to be fantasy, also puts it as part of that older tradition.

And then there’s its treatment of a potential vaccine against the virus—it works, but the protagonist rejects it, because it’s full of poisons and removes her connection from the natural world, and the key is to accept the virus. This is very much in a kind of (mostly regrettable) crunchy-left tradition, classically, but to 2022 eyes, it’s super-yikes. I doubt Griffith would write that the same way today.

But at any rate, the point I was trying to make isn’t so much that this is exactly like a book written today—culture doesn’t stay static for thirty years, of course it’s not—but that that it’s talking about a lot of topics that are still extremely relevant today, and any book that prescient is probably saying something worth hearing. And of course, beyond that, it’s a solid adventure story of inter-societal conflict and the ways people handle grief. The book probably felt more bracingly original thirty years ago, but that’s been replaced with the patina of an established classic, and it’s still worth reading today. Recommended.

N.K. Jemisin’s The World We Make is maybe the most disappointing book I’ve read in a while—both because Jemisin has written some absolutely incredible novels and the potential was high, and because it’s genuinely a bad book.

The problem with it, fundamentally, is that it’s just a collection of the most banal, shallow leftist ideas possible: Cops are bad, ICE is bad, techbros are bad, Wall Street is bad, Trump is bad. And I’m not even kidding about that last one; literally the motto of the bad guy in this (a mayor, not a President) is “Make New York Great Again.” At the end of the day, it reads more like a Twitter feed than a novel—crashingly obvious, tendentiously polemic, and just absolutely lacking in the subtlety and deep humanity that pervades Jemisin’s better works (including the first book in this series!).

And I think Jemisin sorta knows it. The afterword talks about how difficult the book was to write for her, how she scrapped the idea of a trilogy to wrap the series up after this second book, and how she was tempted to not even write it at all, but felt obliged to finish off the plot for readers that didn’t want to be stuck in the middle with no resolution. TBH, I think she should have stuck by that impulse; yeah, this “wrapped up” the overarching plot, but the metaphysical bits are honestly just not that interesting. There’s a bit of niftiness from a lost city pruned from reality, but other than that, everything about the metaphysical plot stuff feels obvious, the straightforward and dull way to finish the story the first book started.

So yeah, not recommended. This lousy sequel makes me even more convinced that the original short story is the best form of this idea.

So you’ll recall that on a short domestic flight in September, I’d read a Courtney Milan novel and found it to be ideal airplane reading. Then back in October, I read five Courtney Milan novels/novellas to get me through flights to and from Hawaii. Well, in December I ended up needing to fly to India, which is a considerably longer flight, so I ended up reading nine of them—specifically, Courtney Milan’s Worth Saga and the Cyclone series.

The Worth Saga is another historical series, though I think set later than the Brothers Sinister books—late 19th century, anyway, mostly. It does that series-y thing of spiraling outward from its main character, but here it spirals further away into maybe Milan’s most diverse cast. There’s a story about a genuinely poor woman who falls in love with a mostly-also-poor man, no dukes in sight; there’s a story about two soldiers who fall in love with each other during the Revolutionary War (a kind of prequelly thing); there’s a story about two elderly women who fall in love with each other; and about a Chinese girl raised by an English woman who falls in love with a telegraph magnate; as well as some more traditional nobility/nobility-adjacent romances. The first book (one of the traditional nobility ones) didn’t really work for me, and felt very by-the-numbers, with faux-witty banter that reminded me of David Weber. Past that, though, the series was plenty enjoyable.

The Cyclone series is set in the modern-day. Beyond the change in setting, it’s also a narrative departure, being told in first-person, present-tense—this is weird at first, but quickly turns invisible. So kind of the weird thing here is that one of the characters is a billionaire (the also-brilliant son of a Jobs/Gates-style tech genius who is still personally leading the tech company he founded). In a sense, this is not really any different than the dukes of historical fiction—there’s the same incredible privilege and power going on—but because it’s set in a more normal, and less fantastical, world, it ends up feeling more starkly odd, like one of the characters has superpowers or something. The second book in the series is better for being less billionaire-focused, but also the plot is basically just You’ve Got Mail, with characters who’ve been corresponding pseudonymously and have digital feelings for each other, but who unknowingly hate each other in the real world. I mean, there are some wrinkles to it (one of the characters is trans), but end of the day, it lives or dies based on how much you want a reprise of that story template. The final story isn’t even really a romance properly—it’s about the parents of the characters from the first book meeting each other. They don’t fall in love or anything, it’s just a normal story about parents meeting, except that the parents are all outsized personalities; it’s fun.

So obviously, Milan’s books are all recommended, especially but not exclusively for flying purposes. But for my part, I’m keeping the rest in reserve for my next flight—the biggest problem I have is that it won’t take too many more trips before I’ll have burned through all her books.

So as I started Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry’s The Bright Ages, it seemed to be a kind of “mythbusting” book—you know, all “hey, these aren’t the so-called Dark Ages you’re picturing, actually they were super-awesome times!”

And so when the book started out talking about the fall of Rome by basically denying that there was any such thing at all, real “you know, things are always changing all the time, but the Empire continued on in the East, and really it’s just more of an evolution than a fall” energy, I got a bad taste in my mouth. Because the authors of course know that there are elements of both continuity and catastrophe there, and to ignore one half of that (“What about Phocaean Red Slip ware and the decline in industrialized pottery production!” I shouted) to push hard on the other half feels like I’m getting a deliberately one-sided argument rather than an attempt to paint a different, but still fair picture.

So I went into the rest of the book with a kind of suspicious mindset, expecting it to be full of more Pollyanna-ish takes that would take a reasonable point and extend it too far in order to seem contrarian. But, as far as I can tell, it mostly wasn’t. After that initial annoying bit, it seemed to be playing fair.

Yes, it’s always living up to its title, looking on the bright side of things and working to combat the “time of darkness and ignorance and superstition” myth (which tbh has been so consistently and thoroughly combated that I legitimately wonder if anyone who would read this book actually believes it); but mostly it’s just doing a breezy tour of the greatest hits of the medieval period—Justinian! Charlemagne! Vikings! Crusades! Al-Andalus! Mongols! Plague!—and talking about them in a way that emphasizes the shared humanity and sophistication of the people involved.

As you’d expect from a survey that broad in a book this short (barely over 300 pages in print), these treatments are generally pretty basic. With pretty much any of the subjects here, if you’ve read so much as a single book on the topic, you’re not going to learn much, if anything, new. But if you haven’t, they’re quick, accessible little nuggets that’ll give you some solid context. Despite my initial reservations, this ends up being a lightly recommended book for anyone interesed in reading a breezy first book about the medieval period.

So I’m slightly behind on my booklog (this entry is backdated by about two months), and I’m afraid I’m going to have to do some catchup posts. This one will be entitled “what I read on my Hawaiian vacation.”

So to start with, I’d had success reading a Courtney Milan novel on a previous flight; with a much longer flight, I loaded up the rest of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. The books were a little uneven—there’s some repetition with sciencey heroines and men whose main obstacle is their (of course inaccurate) rakish reputations—but fundamentally they kept me reading through a long flight, and I kept reading them on the beach and was sad when they were done. If you’re looking for the hits, I’d recommend The Heiress Effect and The Suffragette Scandal, but the way that each book picks up secondary characters from previous books and deepens them out is part of the fun, so just read them all; they’re good enough to justify it.

Next up was Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything. I love Ryan North’s writing, and this is a fun conceit for a pop-science/culture book. I read through it quickly, but… well, I grew up reading pop-science books, so there was less new here than would be ideal, and North’s voice is pitched somewhat YA. Enjoyable enough for adult readers, but highly recommended for yutes.

Finally, we have Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy. As this series starts, it’s really obviously a kind of Harry Potter deconstruction thing, like “what would it be like to be one of the other students at Hogwarts while Harry Potter is there having all this big adventures?” That might be an interesting premise for a short story, but it couldn’t possibly suppport a trilogy.

And it doesn’t. From that premise, Novik spirals out into an elaborate world-building exercise, trying to make that Hogwarts-style setting make any sense at all. And so the first book is about surviving a year at not-Hogwarts, and has good characters, interesting events, all the stuff you’d look for. But the second and third books broaden their perspective from there, and look at not just surviving the school, but making it better, and then interrogating what type of world needs a school like that in the first place.

If I have a criticism of the trilogy, it’s that the ending is a bit too pat—one of the big themes of the series is that there are hard tradeoffs in magic and society, but then the ending is a little too easy and uncomplicated. But it’s an absolutely propulsive read, one of those books that when I wasn’t reading it, I wanted to be reading it. No lie, on the last day as we were driving around and seeing the last sights of Hawaii, I kept thinking “we could just go to the airport and then I could read the rest of this book.” Great airplane reading, but also highly recommended if you’re not on an airplane.

Becky Chambers’ A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is, unfortunately, something of a miss for me.

The thing about Chambers’ books (particularly her more recent ones) is that nothing really happens in them, and there’s no real big conflict to be resolved, so the books really just amount to hanging out with the main characters in whatever setting they’re in.

Sometimes that works well; I enjoyed The Galaxy, and the Ground Within in just that way. But this Monk and Robot series is not working for me at all.

Part of it is that I don’t really like the monk character. They seem driven primarily by a vague sense of ennui. I find ennui-driven people tedious and unpleasant in real life, and they’re not more enjoyable in fiction. (The robot is significantly more interesting, but I wish the childlike wonder was balanced by something sharper, not duller.)

But the other part of it is that the world building annoys me. The problem is, it’s doing a post-industrial world, where they quit using petroleum and what-not and everything is renewable and sustainable and eco-friendly. Great. I love it. Except… I don’t believe it for a second. There’s just too much tech in this book that’s needing somewhere to have a gross, messy factory making chemicals or engaging in the smelly processes of reclaiming resources from trash. Presenting a society full of wood elves in science fictional clothing just ends up feeling like naive nonsense—it’s the kind of mindset that gets people mobilizing to oppose solar farms, because they want the kind of solar that seamlessly blends into the environment obtrusively, which… isn’t a real thing at the levels needed.

Annoying protagonist in an annoying world, doing nothing in particular? Yeah, no. Not recommended.

So when I read The Governess Affair, I remarked that I didn’t really care about the next-gen characters in the coda; but I went ahead and read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War anyway, and it turns out that those characters are actually plenty interesting once they’re more grown up.

The main thing that stood out to me about this book is that it had way less disguise, pretend marriage, or other implausible contrivances in it than most romances I’ve read. It’s a surprisingly straightforward story, really, where the main thing keeping the obvious love interest apart is their own personal traumas that they’re working through, such that the happy ending feels earned as a kind of personal growth almost independent of the relationship itself.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the characters are maybe a little too perfect, but enh, whatever. It was ideal airplane reading, and I suspect I’ll burn through the rest of the series next time I’m flying somewhere.

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Locklands is the conclusion of his Founders Trilogy, which started with Foundryside.

The thing about this trilogy is that each book is very different from the previous one. Like, in terms of plot and characters, there are obviously major connections between them, but the feel and style of the books are so different. The first book is about a street thief who gets mixed up in some shit; the second book is about city politics and capitalism; and this third book is about an all-encompassing existential war. On the one hand, when you’re liking the vibe of a book, you kinda want more of it, so there’s some frustration to this structure; on the other hand, we live in an artistic culture that is far too dedicated to giving you more of what you already like, so I applaud anyone who refuses to do that.

But leaving all that to the side, another key thing about this book is that it starts off a) some years after the previous book, and b) with absolutely zero recap whatsoever. Nobody thinking back to the events at the end of the second book, no authorial reminders of who a character is, nothing. If you, like me, read the second book some while ago and don’t have a great memory for fictional detail, you absolutely must go out and hunt down a recap if you don’t want to spend the first third of the book just desperately wishing you remembered what the deal was with everything.

Beyond that, I don’t want to say too much about the plot—probably even what I’ve already said is an unacceptable spoiler for the first two books—so I’ll just note that while it’s rather darker than the first two books in the series, it does bring matters to a satisfying conclusion while exploring some interesting ideas, in keeping with the “SF disguised as fantasy” feel of the trilogy. Recommended to epic fantasy fans.

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash are a duology that feels like a mashup of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy and Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan books.

Like the former, it is set in a desert city with djinn and sandstorms and what-not (though Suri’s world isn’t a fantastic version of Earth, it’s a full on fantasy world); like the latter, it’s a book about empire, and what it means to live in an empire as a conquered people.

Tonally, it probably ends up closer to Martine’s series—it is a fairly straightforward adventure work, but it’s not as breezy as Chakraborty’s. Like, when a book is called Realm of Ash, you can just sorta tell that it’s not going to be all cheery and sunny, you know?

But they never get unpleasantly dark, and the characters and setting are interesting. Recommended to anyone looking for desert fantasy.

Lauren Groff’s Matrix has nothing to do with the film franchise, but is instead a semi-fictional semi-biography of Marie de France, a poet who was a contemporary of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I say “semi” twice there because this is the kind of book that blurs the line between history and fiction. Like Hild, this is taking a real historical figure and doesn’t contradict what we know of that figure… but also we know virtually nothing whatsoever, so the author is free to just invent a life with the barest constraints on it.

And Hild is a good comparison for the feel of this book, too. Matrix is set later historically, but the thing it does similarly is set up a world of people with alien mindsets. The concerns of Marie are not the concerns a modern would have. Like, this is the story of her administration of a nunnery, and it’s a story about how competent women carved out a place for themselves in a world that tried hard to make that impossible (and Eleanor of Aquitaine is not an incidental presence in this book), but the characters don’t feel like modern feminists dropped back into a repressive time period—they’re largely people who are of their time.

If I’m being honest, I think Matrix does all this a little less well than Hild—modernity does leak in around the edges here—but I really super-loved Hild, and so if I liked this book a bit less, it’s still easy to recommend.

Oliver Clements’ The Eyes of the Queen and The Queen’s Men are intriguey spy novels set in Elizabethan England. Which sounds like it would be a lot of fun, and… they are, sort of, but the word that keeps appearing in my notes is “weird.”

So we’re focusing on a handful of the Queen’s trusted advisors, actual historical figures whose secret doings we’re now seeing here. This should involve a lot of cameraderie and such-like, you’d think, but… not so. People who seem to like each other do unforgivable things to each other seemingly on a whim. Like, if one of my friends got me arrested into a filthy debtor’s prison and left me there for a long time, I don’t think they’d be my friend anymore, you know?

Similarly weird is how the books keep setting things up and then not using them. The books are just full of mantleguns that never get fired—one of the weirdest of which is that at the end of the first book, it seems like Clements is setting up a kind of historical James Bond parallel, assigning everyone analogous roles and even giving one of the agents the code number 007… but then that’s basically just ignored.

There’s also strangeness in the setting. The book seems to be written almost as pro-Elizabethan propaganda in that it is weirdly salacious about Mary, and vicious about Catholics in general. Like, obviously people in this historical period had strong factional religious opinions, but this bled through into narration to such a degree that it felt authorial.

But I’m emphasizing the weird bits heavily here precisely because they’re the parts I didn’t expect. There are also the parts I did expect, the derring-do and complicated plots and court intrigue and the mysteries solved at the last minute, and those are lots of fun. So as long as you’re okay with some oddness, you will also get the adventure story that you’re looking for. Lightly recommended.

S.L. Huang’s Cas Russell series has a complicated publication history, it turns out. Huang wrote four self-published novels, and then when the series got picked up for commercial publication from Tor, she did some revisions on the first two, and followed them up with a third, brand-new book. (I guess the other two self-published books will come later, but not sure.)

I mention this, because I read the self-published, CC-licensed version of the first book; and then once I realized that the series was being changed around, switched over to the commercial versions for the next two. Mostly this was okay, but it’s clear that the ending of the first book is significantly different in the self-published version, so there’s a degree to which I read a fictional alt-history. I recommend sticking to the commercial versions for consistency.

So okay, with that complication out of the way: These are books about a kind of mathematical superhero. The conceit is that Cas Russell can do math so super-well that she can e.g. calculate the trajectory of a projectile to an implausible degree of precision and in realtime can perfectly dodge every hit in a fight while engaging in complicated bankshot hits. Yes, that’s not how math works, but it’s the premise so roll with it.

At any rate, these abilities come in handy in her job as a private investigator, because obviously she gets into trouble pretty quickly when it turns out that a case she’s on isn’t quite what it seems. I don’t want to give anything away, but the enemy of the first book is interesting, and the way everything plays out is fun and fast-reading. I read it on an airplane, and it’s a great airplane book.

The next two books, though, were kind of a let-down for me, because they didn’t go in the direction I wanted. What I wanted was… more of the first book. Another case, another villain, go. But what we got was Russell having to confront her mysterious past in a way that’s grimmer and darker and full of interesting ethical dilemmas. Which is fine as far as it goes, they’re good books, but you know how nobody uses “grim,” “dark,” or “ethical dilemma” as synonyms for fun? Yeah, they’re less fun.

Still, I did read through them quickly, and when a fourth one gets published, I’ll read that, too. Recommended.

So when I picked up Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, I was at first thinking of it as being in the Reamde mold, a mostly non-SFnal present-day thriller. But the more I read it, the more I realized that in fact, it was doing what Cryptonomicon did way back in the day: Taking society’s present occupations and concerns, lightly extrapolating, and fitting them into an SF adventure story.

So just as Cryptonomicon was really thinking about money and cryptography and open-source software and dot-com startups—basically all stuff you could read about in any issue of Wired—and tying it all into an expedition through the Phillippines, Termination Shock is about feral hogs, climate change, Covid, self-driving cars, social media celebrity—basically all stuff you could read about on Twitter—and tying it into an expedition through the wilds of a declining America.

As it happens, I think that the preoccupations of the ‘90s were more interesting than the preoccupations of today, so the book suffers somewhat in comparison (and of course, it doesn’t have the WW2 timeline in it at all), but still: This is vintage Stephenson in a lot of ways, for better and worse.

One of the “and worse” points is that the characters here are mostly very passive. They do a lot of sight-seeing, just going to places where significant things are occurring but not necessarily doing anything. This inevitably gives the book a bit of a travelogue feeling. But… the things they’re seeing are largely interesting, and for me at least, it works. (There are also, of course, enormous huge digressions—the feral hog thing takes up a surprisingly large section of the book—but if you’re deliberately reading Stephenson, I assume that’s a plus for you.)

It’s probably over-selling it to say that this is Stephenson back to his prime, but it’s definitely a solid step up from Fall. Recommended to fans of Stephenson.

Katherine Addison’s The Angel of the Crows is not, as I had believed, a sequel to The Goblin Emperor. Instead, it’s a Sherlock Holmes pastiche—like, really super obviously one, with characters named “Doyle” and “Moriarty” and the like. It’s even structured as a series of mostly-unrelated cases, including a Baskerville family and a possible magic hound. If you like Sherlock Holmes (and I do), then you get the fun of having extremely similar stories plus the fun of seeing what changes Addison made to turn the series into fantasy. It worked well for me, but at the end of the book there was an author’s note where she explains that it’s apparently written in a subgenre of fanfic called “wingfic” where… randomly some of the characters have wings? Which is such a stupid idea that if I’d heard it before I read the book, I would have been annoyed throughout, even though within the book it totally works to have Sherlock as an angel, with elaborate worldbuilding rules around what angels are and how they work in Victorian London. So probably I’ve now poisoned the book for you; sorry. Recommended if you can get past the fact that this is such a common trope as to need a name.

Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones actually are sequels to The Goblin Emperor. Sort of. They don’t feature the titular emperor, but instead follow one of the other characters from that book. Like the Sherlock book, there’s a kind of episodic nature here—the protagonist is a Witness for the Dead, and so solves murders and handles wills and just generally helps clear up questions that linger after a death. Some of the things he does are small and not really plot-relevant; others are the major cases the books are built on. But the overall effect of putting the big and small things together is that it just feels like… a job. You’re basically watching a guy go to work and do his job, even when it gets out of control and he’s fighting flesh-eating ghouls. The books have a kind of serene, low-key orderly energy to them, but somehow still manage to be compellingly readable. These are the first two books of a trilogy, and they’re extremely tightly-connected—the second book starts almost to the minute where the first one ends—so it might be worth waiting for the third one if you have my (lack of) memory for fiction. But whether now or later, these are definitely worth reading; recommended.