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.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Amongst Our Weapons is the latest Peter Grant book. My notes on it say, “good, familiar,” and honestly I don’t have much else to add to that. It’s the ninth book in a series, and it’s not descended into awfulness. Recommended for those who’ve been liking the series, but if you dropped out because it got too samey, this won’t change your mind (even if it does seem to be starting a new arc).

T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone is not more of the same. I thought it would be a spiritual sequel to The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places, another “woman in an isolated rural place encounters a supernatural horror world based on early twencen literature” novel. But nope! It’s basically got a fairytale plot, with princesses and impossible tasks and fairy godmothers, except told in quest fantasy style. The result works well; there’s plenty of substance and stylistically it manages to range between humorous and grim while maintaining tonal coherence. Recommended.

TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea also has a kind of fairytale element to it, except… not a fairytale exactly, but a children’s book? It’s about a guy who works at a dystopian bureaucratic organization, and then is assigned to check in on the titular house, which is full of supernatural children who have made a kind of family of themselves. Stylistically, it reminds me of any number of books I read as a kid, except that I literally can’t remember what any of them were.

But like… the setting is exaggerated and simplified, the protagonist is a decent person who speaks very simply and groundedly (sort of an Arthur Dent sort without the archness), there’s a character who will say wise and insightful things, there are puckish kids who kindasorta get into trouble but it’s all in good fun and never too serious, that sort of thing. Even if I can’t name the things I’m thinking of, the takeaway is that if this had been a book I’d read in elementary school (which probably would have required it to be a bit shorter), it would have fit right in. Written for adults, the style is enjoyable. It’s very much in the cozy style (a blurb on one of Klune’s other books describes it as “a warm hug of a book,” and that’s not a bad description here, either); recommended for those who are looking for something light and sweet.

C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold wasn’t what I was expecting. Which is silly, because I don’t even know what I was expecting—something kinda mythic, maybe? But I think I forgot how this got onto my to-read list, because in fact it’s a non-fantastic, non-genre story about a Chinese immigrant family (sort of) in the late 19th century American West.

There’s gold mining, there’s railroads, there’s coal mining, there’s San Francisco. But mostly, there’s the unspooling story of a family and their secrets and their history, and how none of their relationships were quite what they seemed. It’s a good book—it won all sorts of prizes, and deservedly so. It’s got a lot to say about the Chinese American experience, about how gender could play out in the past, about power and money, and especially about family.

But it’s also a fairly grim book. While I could see that objectively it’s excellent, for me personally it elicited more respect than enjoyment. Still, it was enough to keep me reading at a point where I was still thoroughly sick of literary fiction, which is not nothing. If I’d read this at a different time, I might be even more positive about it.

If you’ve just read a bunch of dense literary things, and are looking for something light (as I was), Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Charming Sharra is pretty much exactly what the doctor ordered. This is the soon-to-be-latest book in the Ethshar series (it’s not actually published yet, but Watt-Evans gave an eARC to his Patreon patrons), and it has all the virtues of that series.

Specifically: It’s a book telling a very small personal story, but in doing so it sets up various magical quandaries and puzzles, and then ends up interacting with various events from the sweep of Ethsharian history that long-time series readers will remember. In an important way, it ends up being one of those “I wonder what the deal was with that un-named side character who briefly appeared for two pages in this other book” stories. But in doing that, it takes seriously the idea that we’re all the protagonist in our own stories, and sets up this rich life for a person that explains how they got into that odd situation.

Like all the books in this series, it’s a breezy, unchallenging read with enough depth and quality to it not to feel like trash. The genre needs more books at this weight, and I’m glad Watt-Evans is still producing them.

So Esquire published a list purporting to be the 50 best fantasy novels of all time. It’s a terrible list for that purpose, full of idiosyncratic selections. But it does the much more useful thing that you’d hope such a list would do—it contains interesting books. I’d read twenty-something of the fifty books already, and thought highly of nearly all of them; of the ones I hadn’t read, a bunch were already on my to-read list. This sufficed to give me enough trust in the list’s creator to decide to read through all the books on the list. Honestly, I always hate the period where I’m trying to decide what to read next, so I figured it could only be a good thing to have months of reading mapped out for me ahead of time.

So starting at the bottom of the list, and ignoring the books I’d already read (and one that isn’t available in ebook form), I started reading. Six books in, I had two contradicting opinions.

On the positive side: The “no choices needed” thing worked out wonderfully. Not only don’t I have any waffling around choosing a book, I don’t even know what all these books are, so there’s not even that “ugh, I’m not in the mood for this” hesitation before I go on to the next one. I just load ‘er up, start reading, and see where I’m going. It’s been great. As well, these books have been somewhat off-axis of what I’d normally read, and I always enjoy reading something different from the usual, so that’s been fun, too.

But on the negative side: I had read almost half of the list organically before starting in on working through it deliberately, right. And I hadn’t quite reckoned with what that would mean, which is: All the books that are closely aligned with my “usual” taste, all the ones that I was like “ooh, the author of this list and I agree on all these books!” are ones that I’ve already read and thus am not re-reading here. So while reading through this list as a blank slate would let me mix in some fun adventure-y sorts of books with things that are grimmer, sadder, or more literary, I’ve already pre-selected the fun books out. It’s like eating a can of mixed nuts where I’ve already eaten all the cashews and pecans: Almonds and hazelnuts are fine, but I don’t want a can of just almonds and hazelnuts. Seven books into the list, I kind of hit a wall and just couldn’t continue.

There are still books coming up that I’m interested in, but I’m not quite sure if I’m going to keep going through the list or not. Maybe I just need a break from it, or maybe I’m gonna call this an experiment ended here. I guess I’ll see what I feel like later. But in the meantime, I’ve got 6.1 books to talk about.

#49 on the list is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. This is one that I’ve actually had on my to-read pile for years and years now, never quite rising to the top, but hey, here we are now. It reminds me a lot of The Prestige (the movie, at least; I’ve never read the book) in that it’s about a kind of sociopathic magical duel that takes over people’s lives. But the way that duel plays out, and the titular circus, are cool and stylish. The book has a wonderful atmosphere and great characters. Recommended.

#48 is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, another one that was already on my to-read list. This one, I was somewhat less positive about. It starts out with elderly characters who are living in a kind of semi-amnesiac state, in this foggy and indistinct setting. As the book goes along, it eventually becomes clear that they’re in a post-Arthurian Britain, and that their memory issues are a broader problem. The book is extremely “literary” in that kind of Mythopoeic/World Fantasy Award way (and it was in fact nominated for both of those), and so the characters have some symbolically charged encounters that are not grounded in any kind of psychological realism en route to an extremely symbolic climax. It’s not bad, and I can see the attraction, but personally I would have liked this a lot better as a short story with some of the episodes cut out. Not really recommended, unless you’re looking for a misty, forgetful kind of book.

#47 is Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char. I had never even heard of this one, so had no idea what to expect at all. So I’m happy that it ended up being maybe the highlight of the list for me so far. The book starts out in a way that’s hard to grasp—there’s a huge focus on minor side characters having little story vignettes. Each of them is very good, distinctive and often fun, but it’s hard to see how they relate to each other in a larger way. But at some point in the book, it does become clear, and coheres into a kind of secret history deep fantasy. It’s got big ideas while also being character-driven, and it manages to tell a fairly dark story while keeping a sense of humor. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

#43 is Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World. This turns out to be a collection of short stories, but what’s embarrassing is that I didn’t realize it at first. You know how I was just saying that The Library at Mount Char starts out telling disconnected vignettes about different characters? Well, I thought that’s what was happening here, too. As I read the first two stories, I was like, “these chapters are great, the backstory setup for these characters could almost be whole stories all on their own,” and I was really curious to see how they’d tie together later. And then I started the third story, which was even more obviously unrelated, and started to get suspicious. Oops. So yeah, as you can imagine from my reaction, these are the kind of literary short stories that are heavy on character and atmosphere, but light on plot—they weren’t just “almost” full-on stories as I imagined, they were full-on stories and unbeknownst to me, I’d already gotten to the end of the plot when I’d finished them. Still, the character and atmosphere are well done. Lightly recommended if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

#41 is Ben Loory’s Tales of Falling and Flying. This is another short story collection, but this one is super-obviously so. The stories are hyper-minimalist things that are almost fables in their level of abstraction. Each of them individually is very good; they’re ambiguous enough that you could spend a lot of time teasing out the underlying themes or metaphors or whatever in that fable-y kind of way, like how the mouse and the lion isn’t really just about that relationship between two animals, but is making larger points. But this is a case where cramming a pile of these short fable-like stories together into a single volume isn’t how they’re best experienced. If you were reading a normal short story collection, and there were one of these stories mixed in with a bunch of more straightforward ones, it would be great, a standout that would stick around in your thoughts. But reading all of them back to back, eventually your interpretive brain gets exhausted, and you (or at least: I) just start letting them wash over you without really trying to go deep on them. I think what I want to say about this book is that I’d recommend it, but that you should read like one story and then go read a different book, come back for the next story, read another book, etc. Reading them all together like I did is about the worst way to experience the stories.

#40 is Julia Fine’s What Should be Wild. So this is another one that has that Mythopoeic/World Fantasy Award feeling to it, but wasn’t nominated for either of those. (It did get a Bram Stoker Award nomination, and I guess I can see the horror elements now that I think about it.) On the mythic side, you’ve got a mythic forest that has some shit going on, you’ve got a girl whose touch has the power of life and death, and some creepy family dynamics. But then there is a more straightforward fantasy plot here, too, with more physical dangers and mysteries and so forth. Ultimately, this one fell into the liked-but-didn’t-love bucket for me. Lightly recommended, I suppose.

#38 is Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, and you’ll notice I’m not boldfacing that or listing it officially in this entry, because I started in on it, and it’s this super-literary thing that’s jumping around between like three different characters in an ambiguous but mythic setting, and I was just not in the mood at all. So this is where I noped out of the list for the moment. But my negative impression here may not actually be fair at all, and if/when I do come back to this list, I intend to give this a second chance.

A thing I’ve enjoyed doing, on and off, is reading all the Hugo nominated novels. For this year’s nominees, I’d already read the Becky Chambers (pleasant enough, but not something I’d think of as award-caliber) and the P. Djeli Clark (enjoyable enough, but not his strongest work), which left me with four to read.

First up was Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. This is apparently a fantasticized version of real history (I say “apparently” here because my knowledge of Chinese history is super light, and I don’t actually know anything about the period it’s retelling). But in addition to the explicitly fantastic elements, it’s also somewhat of a secret history, because the main character is here a girl pretending to be a boy (well, pretending at first, and then eventually growing into a more complicated gender identity), which is not apparently true in reality. The book has a tragic character to it—most of the main characters can see their dooms coming from a mile away, and the reader can see the dooms of the rest of them—but it’s also got that fun “fantasy of competence” thing going, where a character’s skills and determination propel them to a fast rise. I think pretty much anyone who likes epic fantasy, and at least some people who don’t, would enjoy this book. Definitely award quality.

Next up was Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary. This isn’t a sequel to The Martian, but it’s doing the same kind of thing: Setting up a premise where Our Clever Hero is stuck alone in space and needs to use ingenuity and science-themed wits to solve a series of puzzles whereby he’ll survive and achieve his goals. The prose is terrible, with writing so bad it made me cringe to read it. The protagonist is annoying. The book is structured around this implausible and awkward flashback structure where the protagonist gradually remembers things leading up to how he got where he is. But… the puzzles are kinda fun, and they feel fair, and it’s fun watching the character solve these obstacles to move on to the next thing. Really, this feels like the transcript of an old text adventure game. It’s got the main character with amnesia, the character in almost total isolation, the mechanical manipulation puzzles… it’s all there. Lightly recommended to people who think they’d like it, but definitely not award quality.

Then there’s Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace. I avoid spoilers, but I’d still somehow absorbed that this was a let-down from the first novel, which I quite liked, so I went in without high hopes. But… it wasn’t a let-down for me, and I liked it a great deal. There’s still a ton of Imperial and Stationer politics in it, but here it’s all happening in the context of a first contact. I’m always a sucker for first contact stories, and love the thing where two alien races with nothing in common try to build a shared understanding of the world; the series of problems that needed to be solved here were interesting (although one of the biggest ones should have been waaaaaaaaaay more obvious to the characters than it was, and it was genuinely implausible how long that remained a mystery to them). Recommended, and also award quality.

Finally, I read Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars. This was the only one of the nominees that was a genuine “what?” to me, as I’d never even heard of it, or indeed the author. And so as I started it, I was dismayed to see that it’s about performing music—I basically never like fiction about music, because it always feels so precious, with characters caring a whole lot about something that doesn’t seem all that important. And then it also started getting surrealistic, with e.g., characters who are demons and also characters who are space aliens and run a donut shoppe. I was expecting to dislike it. But in fact, I liked it a lot. Probably this is because it’s more about the characters than anything else, and the characters are great—both the young trans protagonist (this is extremely a trans story) and the older characters as well. Recommended, and probably highly recommended to those who are more interested in stories about music. This is also a legit award nominee.

At the end of reading all of these, I think this ends up being a reasonably solid slate of nominees. If I were voting, my ballot would be (in order), She Who Became the Sun, A Desolation Called Peace, Light From Uncommon Stars, A Master of Djinn, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, with Project Hail Mary bringing up the rear. (I’d probably drop in No Award ahead of the last one if I were feeling saucy, but not if I were feeling a bit more generous.)

Walter Jon Williams’ Lord Quillifer is the third book of his Quillifer series. As you’d guess from the title—Williams apparently borrowed the titling sceheme from Horatio Hornblower books—our young Quillifer has been moving up in the world, and is now firmly ensconced at court and engaged in high-level political intrigue.

In my write-up of the first book, my biggest complaint was that it was “just a series of episodes. There’s no real larger arc to the story other than ‘here’s a bunch of stuff that happened to a guy.’” After this third book, I think I can safely say that’s not actually true; the arc exists, it’s just at series length. Although I should be clear that this is not (hopefully, vagaries of publishing permitting) the end of the series, it is a kind of caesura—the end of Quillifer’s first act.

The good news for fans of the series is that this retains the virtues of the first two, remaining a fantasy of hyper-competence, with playful wit even as the story goes to some dark places. Recommended.

T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places is not a sequel to The Twisted Ones, and it’s kinda-sorta not even a “spiritual sequel.”

Like, okay, yes, it is about a big-city woman going out to a rural area, and then encountering increasingly-less-subtle signs that Something Horrifying And Weird Is Happening; and yes, it does involve a kind of explicitly fantasy-style world-building underlying all the horror. So they’re not completely different. But whereas The Twisted Ones is Lovecraftian, this feels like something else altogether. And having written that, I thought to myself, “okay, I bet it actually is inspired by some weird 1920s thing I never read and didn’t recognize, let me google this.” And according to Google, it’s apparently inspired by a work written by some guy named Algernon Blackwood. I’ve never heard of him, so have no idea how well this captures that classic Blackwoodian flavor, but yeah, it’s definitely not Lovecraftian.

One other thing this does have in common with The Twisted Ones, though, is that as the book goes on, the horror gets explained and transmutes gradually into just being a kind of vaguely-grim fantasy novel. It seems to me that it’s very hard to keep the horror atmosphere intact through revelation and explanation—Mexican Gothic is one of the few successful examples of that—but even accounting for that, this one shifts from horror to fantasy more quickly than I was expecting. Which is fine in theory, but as a fantasy, it’s a bit silly in concept; it really relies on the horror to carry you through some of the more absurd world-building, like a haunted house that’s creepy in the dark but just looks cheap with the lights on.

Still, Kingfisher largely makes it work, on the strength of an engaging protagonist and keeping the lights out for at least the first third of the book. Recommended.

Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies is, obviously, by the director of a bunch of great movies—12 Angry Men, Network, a whole bunch of other things. And so here Lumet is providing a kind of explanation and demystification of what a director’s job is, and what “making movies” consists of in a real-world sense.

Lumet is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great storyteller. And so even as he’s explaining a lot of prosaic, workday things, he’s doing it with little anecdotes that set a kind of atmosphere and tone, and keep it from ever getting dry. But if, like me, you’re the sort of person who always loves to read about process stuff, and see the ostensibly-boring “how this thing is created” details, this wasn’t going to be dry in the first place. Lumet manages to hit just about the perfect level of abstraction in his writing, talking about big-picture philosophy and goals and the mechanics of how those play out in practice, without getting too lofty or too in-the-weeds.

The book was published in 1996, so the specifics of the moviemaking process that Lumet explains here are almost certainly dated—there’s a long section about the fine details of chemical printing that won’t be relevant in the era of digital cameras—but it hardly matters. This is how Sidney Lumet made movies, and that’s interesting enough in its own right. Recommended.

I really hated John Swartzwelder’s The Time Machine Did It. Which was disappointing, because I’d read an interview with him—he was a writer on The Simpsons during the show’s stronger years—and he was funny in the interview, and mentioned that he’d written some comedic detective novels. I’m always on the lookout for good humor writing, so I checked out the first one.

The thing about humor is that when it works, it’s hilarious, but when it doesn’t work… ugh. And this just didn’t work. I can see where the humor was supposed to be; I can even see how this is the same guy who was funny in that interview. But the kind of deadpan comments that are funny in an interview fall flat in fiction, or at least they did for me now. There’s a part of me that suspects that if I’d read this a quarter century ago, I would have found it hilarious; but I don’t have the time machine to test that claim.

If you want to read a comedic time travel detective story, I promise you that Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a zillion times better than this. Not recommended.

Next up is a pair of novellas, one that ends a series and another that starts a series.

The series-ending one is from James S.A. Corey’s Memory’s Legion. I’d “realized” earlier that in the ebook world, novellas wouldn’t necessarily be collected, so I should just read them as standalone things. Well, oops: Turns out in this case, they did ultimately collect all the Expanse novellas into a single volume. And obviously I’d already read most of them, but there was one new story here, which is set after the end of the series and wraps up a loose thread. This volume was published after the TV series ended, and—intentionally or not—this loose end was introduced right near the end of the show, so this ends up feeling like a coda for both the books and the show. It’s not an essential story all by itself, but if you haven’t read any of the novellas, they’re definitely worth it.

The series-starting one is Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, which I guess is a prequel to some series about left-handed half-brothers. (If you didn’t realize this, as I didn’t at first, there’s a coda at the end that is confusing, as it’s setting up the rest of the series; sort of a Nick Fury post-credits scene.) As a prequel, the novella mostly focuses on the brothers’ parents. It’s a fairly straightforward story, as the length doesn’t give time for much in the way of complication, but if you want a quick-reading romance that is extremely focused on consent, here you are. But I don’t know how much it’s pulling me into reading the rest of the series—I don’t really care about these stupid kids, it’s their parents who were interesting, and their story is apparently done.

Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune is a single-volume, popular-but-not-stupid, history of Venice from about 1200-1500. So this is a time period that I’ve read about a bunch in a whole pile of different contexts, right, but Venice has always been in the background, never the foreground. Like, in reading about the Crusades, there’d be a reference to the “ill-fated” Fourth Crusade and its sacking of Byzantium. Reading about the Renaissance, there’d be an offhand reference to Genoa fighting with Venice. Reading about the Silk Road, Venetian shipping comes up. Whatever the context, Venice is always kinda hanging around.

And so now here’s the book that pulls Venice into the foreground, calling out that this isn’t just some little city, it’s a whole-ass naval empire, with imperial holdings in Greece and on the Black Sea; and military conflicts that directly led to devastation in Constantinople, the greatest city in the Mediterranean at the time. It’s actually the Hundred Years’ War that’s off on the edge of the map where nobody cares; Venice is at the very center of European history at this time.

So, concretely, the book spends a lot of time talking about that Fourth Crusade. Instead of just handwaving it off as an embarrassment, it talks in detail about what ended up happening, why it happened that way, and what the impact was. That bare “Venice had a rivalry with Genoa, yadda yadda sack of Constantinople” narrative that I’d always had lying around in a back-of-head way gets fully fleshed out. And that rivalry with Genoa gets more color, too—I actually find myself really wanting more of the Genoese perspective on it now, but I can’t really fault a book about Venice for not being more about Genoa.

This is a compellingly readable book that colors in an essential player in the the late medieval world. If it sounds at all interesting to you, it’s an easy recommendation.