Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built is (Amazon informs me) the first of her “Robot & Monk” books. Or novellas, I guess, as that’s what this is.
And it sort of feels like a first book. Or more precisely, even, the first third of a book that’s all setup before the plot happens. Because while it can hardly be a surprise to note that the story features both a robot and a monk, one of those characters doesn’t show up until way, way late, and this entire story is essentially the faffing around that the other one does before meeting up with their counterpart and getting started.
But then, it’s a Becky Chambers story, so spending the entire thing faffing around isn’t actually that weird, so maybe this is how it would go if this were the only story in this series. Usually, she’s able to make that low-plot ambient niceness thing work for me, but here it just kinda felt like a big pile of nothing.
Part of that is that I’m really curious about this setting. It’s clearly not on Earth (it’s set on a moon), the people seem like humans, but also they had a period of using petroleum products before moving away from that, so like… are they descendants of people who rode oil-powered spaceships out to settle new colonies? Are they not really human and I missed a very subtle clue? Is this supposed to be somehow a post-apocalypse on a terraformed moon? Honestly, it doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to think about it at all; it feels like I’m supposed to treat it as just a kind of fantasy world, where this is just how it is because it’s how it was created.
So yeah, if you’re going to provide an interesting background for your characters to stand in front of, I’m going to want to spend more time looking at that. (The Galaxy and the Ground Within was cleverly set on a super-boring planet that didn’t overshadow the barely-there plot.) Still, the book is interesting enough that I’ll read the sequel; and while I hope the sequel delves more into the parts of the setting that interest me, I suspect it won’t, and will also just be amiably low-key pleasant.
Mike Duncan’s The Hero of Two Worlds is a biography of America’s favorite fighting Frenchman, Lafayette. Who, it turns out, was not just a sidekick for Hamilton, but a key figure in somewhere between three and five revolutions, depending on how you count. He’s a fascinating guy whose life takes him through fascinating periods of time, and Duncan has written a compellingly readable chronicle of his life.
The only thing that keeps me from a strong recommendation here is that you can also hear about those revolutions on Duncan’s phenomenal podcast, Revolutions, which is one of the best things you’ll put into your earhole. And if you’ve done that, then a lot of what’s in here is already familiar to you, and so all the new parts of the book are the connective tissue. This isn’t nothing—Lafayette’s tour of the United States is great and putting all the pieces together into a singular whole has value—but it maybe moves the book down a notch into just being a medium recommendation. But if for some reason you haven’t listened to Duncan’s podcast… well, you should remedy that, but also you should read the heck out of this book
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow starts off as a sort of Cinderella-style fairy tale—a poor girl in a small village who is forced to do hard household labor for her rich uncle and tormented by her cousin, comes to make the acquaintance of a god and finds her life changed.
And tonally, it has elements of a fairy tale throughout. There’s a kind of formality to the roles that the characters play and the rules that govern the plot; and there’s a narrative tone that views things from an omniscient distance. But if it weren’t so clearly a fairy tale, it would also read like a kind of low-key quest fantasy, complete with a struggle between two would-be lords of death.
And like any good quest fantasy, it involves a lot of traveling—here, the protagonist goes from her village in Yucatan to a nearby city, and ultimately up to the American border and over to the Pacific. The book is set in the 1920s, and so it reminds me a bit of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club in how it combines jazz age “modernity” with that fantastical fairy tale feel (though obviously here, it’s in Mexico rather than New York City, and the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution is also part of the places they’re traveling through).
This is a book that would be worth reading just for its atmosphere and style alone, but it’s also a wonderful character piece with a fascinating plot about the relationship between gods and people. This was nominated for the Nebula, and it’s absolutely award-caliber work. Highly recommended.
So Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister isn’t a historical fantasy; it’s set in the present day, and starts when our protagonist—Jessamyn Teoh, freshly graduated from Harvard, and kind of milling around aimlessly while waiting for adulthood to happen—accompanies her immigrant parents back to Malaysia, and promptly becomes haunted by her dead grandmother.
To a large degree, this book is about Jess trying to figure out how she fits into the world, and how she does or doesn’t fit into Malaysian society in particular. And in this context, the haunting is particularly resonant because of course young modern Harvard graduates don’t believe in ghosts, not really; but all of her older family members assume that ghosts are real as a matter of course. So there’s an element of the heroine navigating a family spiritual tradition from much deeper inside than she’d have wanted to be.
This is a really good book. It’s fun, it’s got great characters, it’s saying interesting things about identity and belonging and history and family, and the plot is twisty and goes in unexpected directions more than once. Basically, it exists at that intersection of fun-but-not-trash that I love. Highly recommended
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is not what you’re expecting. And I say that with no knowledge of what it is you are expecting, really—just the confidence that whatever it is, it’s not this.
This is going to be one of those very unsatisfactory booklog entries where I can’t really talk about the book at all, because the book is a series of revelations and discoveries, such that if I started describing it, all I could do is decide what point in the book I’m comfortable spoiling up to. But okay, look, I guess I can spoil the first page: It is a book where a Moon rises in a Hall that has Vestibules, Tides, Staircases, and Statues. Beyond that, you’ll need to read the book (or, let’s be honest, literally any other description online, probably including the book’s own back cover—but genuinely don’t do that) to find out.
And should you? Well, that’s a hard question to answer. I liked it, but it’s also one of the strangest books I’ve read in a while. It is not, in meaningful ways, like either Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower or Jo Walton’s The Just City, but it shares with them a fundamental oddness that removes it from the genre mainstream. I liked it, both the contemplative mood it creates at first and the ways it evolves as it goes on; recommended if you’re up for something kinda weird that’s going to take some patience
It’s been like seven years since the last Dresden Files book was published. So as I started reading Jim Butcher’s Peace Talks and Battle Ground (they’re a single book published in two volumes), it was hard to escape how dated they felt. The once-fresh pop culture references were now from the ancient past (All your base? Alien Autopsy?), Harry’s twencen sexism is increasingly obnoxious, and in general, the book just felt like a once-popular band trying to put out a new album doing all the things they used to do.
And… that’s not wrong. That impression never really abated. In fact, it got worse as the book kept uncritically treating Chicago cops as good guys, and threw in more than one bit of offhand sexism or racism.
That’s not the only weakness of the books, either. Butcher falls back—a lot—on idiot plotting where a five minute conversation could shortcut whole entire dramatic subplots, but everyone’s too stupid to actually have that conversation. “Things had been moving so fast that there’d been no time to sit down and ask myself some pretty basic questions” is a direct quote from the book, and that works just as long as the reader never pauses to ask themselves those same basic questions, but in some of the cases here, it’d be pretty hard not to.
Oh, and Butcher doesn’t seem to know how to make a story feel significant without ramping up the scale. That power creep has been a pretty consistent throughline in this series, which starts with Harry as a private detective, then has him assuming more and more powerful roles as he goes against more and more powerful enemies. This book cranks it all up to eleven, in the biggest and loudest and most over-the-top conflict yet. It’s basically the Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame duo of the series.
Which is actually a great comparison, because for all that Butcher does badly, my goodness, he is great at writing action. He orchestrates giant battles with tons of characters involved satisfyingly; he shows individual characters’ powers and skill levels subtly but clearly. And he writes in such a way that I always wanted to find out what was going to happen next, even when the book was pissing me off.
This write-up comes off heavily negative, but for all that, I read the books quickly, and will be there to read the next one (even though I am already pre-annoyed at some of the stuff that’s being clearly set up for it). This series is unequivocally trash at this point, and I can’t honestly recommend it to most people, but it’s compelling trash.
So today I’m writing up a novella in a series of novels, and a novel in a series of novellas.
The novella is Ben Aaronovitch’s What Abigail Did That Summer, which is a little side story in his Rivers of London series. As you’d think from the title, this isn’t a Peter Grant story, but instead features Abigail (who we’ve seen in previous novels) dealing with a smaller case. It’s a good installment—the story is standalone, and Abigail works well as a protagonist (and unlike the protagonist of The October Man, doesn’t feel like a clone of Peter). If you’ve read this far in the series, you’ll want to keep reading for this.
The novel is P. Djeli Clark’s Master of Djinn, the first novel in the universe kicked off in shorter works (“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and The Haunting of Tram Car 015). I loved both of those earlier stories, and the universe—one where magic came back to the world in Egypt, resulting in an overthrow of its colonial occupiers and the rewriting of world politics—is fascinating.
The good news is that the series works just as well at novel length. In some ways, really, even better—having the extra room of a novel gives Clark the chance to let Cairo breathe a bit, to let us see more of it than just the handful of people and places that we need for a novella-length plot.
The one downside to this story is that it does rely on some idiot plotting, where the protagonist—a super-brilliant, famous supernatural investigator—completely and utterly fails to see some things that are super-obvious to the reader, and that should have been obvious to her, too. It’s always nice when you as a reader can feel a little smart, but annoying when you’re just waiting for the hero to catch up to something that didn’t require any major deductive leaps on your part.
Still, though it’s a flaw, it’s not a book-killer to me. As in his shorter works, Clark writes with tons of forward momentum, and this was one of those books that I kept picking up with every free moment. Combine that with an interesting setting and characters, and I’ll forgive some flaws of plotting. Recommended.
So what you need to know about Martha Wells’ Fugitive Telemetry is that it’s another Murderbot novella. There, now you’re already off to read it, and my take is superfluous.
But okay, fine, I’ll give it anyway: I was disappointed that this was a prequel to the Murderbot novel, and was prepared to find the book a letdown. But just this once, a prequel turned out not to be a problem, and I thoroughly enjoyed the novella as More Murderbot even if its chronological position meant that it couldn’t really have any meaningful change in it. I guess my inner anticipatory cynic has to be wrong sometimes, and I’m always happy when it is. Recommended, but if you’ve been reading Murderbot, you were going to read this no matter what I thought.
Meanwhile, Becky Chambers’ The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth of her Wayfarers series, and the one thing you can’t say about that series is that any installment is more of the same. Because once again, we have a completely new setting, with a largely-new cast of characters that only slightly overlaps with previous books, and a completely standalone plot.
So the premise of this one is that there’s a little planet with basically the space equivalent of a roadside motel at it, and a handful of different aliens are staying there. For various reasons they are forced to continue staying there longer than planned; they end up talking to and interacting with each other, and since this is a Becky Chambers novel, you can make your own assumptions about how much that forced interaction is nice or nice-adjacent.
It’s a pleasant little book. I don’t think it has anything particularly deep to say, and the plot is light, but the characters are interesting, the alien races well fleshed-out, and the interactions just tense enough to not be dull. If you’re looking for a low-stress comfort read, this might be right up your alley.
One weird thing, though, is that apparently this is the last book in the Wayfarers series. There’s no obvious reason why it would need to be—she’s shown that the setting can support completely arbitrary casts of characters in completely different places doing all kinds of different things, so why shut that down?—but I guess if she’s just bored with it and wants to create a new setting, hey, go for it. At any rate, don’t go into this looking for it to tie the whole series together in a neat package, because it’s not even remotely trying to do that. Recommended for what it is, though.
So I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in advance of the then-upcoming Barry Jenkins miniseries, because I figured that I definitely wanted to watch that, and that reading a book after watching a movie is never going to get you the same experience you’d get if you’d read the book first.
It’s perhaps lightly ironic, then, that I’ve only been watching the show slowly, because it’s faithful enough to the book that it seems a bit predictable. Oops. The good news for me is that my memory is terrible, and that by just waiting a little bit, I’m able to be surprised by events that I read about only a few months earlier.
The bad news for me is that my memory is terrible, and now I need to write up a booklog entry on a book I read some months ago. Welp.
So, the elevator pitch of the book is: What if the Underground Railroad were a literal railroad? But that’s not the premise of the book, exactly, it’s not what the book is about. Because, yes, there’s a somewhat magical railroad here, but it’s just a background fact, a throughline running through the book, but not something the book delves into deeply and explains or examines or whatever. Mostly, it’s used as a kind of transition, to take the protagonists from one would-be safe house to another in a series of episodes that each illuminate some essential truth of the Black experience in America.
The book is well-written, combining direct realism with a mythic fable-like tone. That sounds like it wouldn’t work, but Whitehead makes it work. And the episodic structure works well, too, allowing each new place to build in dread and terribleness at an appropriate pace.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that I don’t think this book comes across as unique in 2021 as it did in 2016—a lot of elements feel familiar from other things I’ve read or seen lately—but another way of phrasing that is arguably that the book has been influential and inspired other works, so. Either way, it’s an excellent book, and easily recommended.
So I looked at the 2020 World Fantasy Award nominees and realized that I’d read all of them except one, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. It’s a strong slate, on the whole, so I figured I might as well finish it off.
The premise here is that on this island nation, the government occasionally declares things forgotten. And then everyone forgets them, in a way that blends a sort of dystopian realism (everyone ostentatiously discarding/burning the forgotten thing to be seen as complying) with straight up fantasy (people legitimately forget the emotional connotations and context of the forgotten things, such that seeing one evokes no response). It’s less fantastic in nature than I would have assumed going in, but the magical realism sense keeps ramping up as the novel goes on.
But it’s the dystopian politics that stand out more than the fantastic elements, because of course the titular police are prominent, seeking out and punishing people who still remember the forgotten things, as well as the people who give them shelter or sympathy.
It’s a very cold book, written with a kind of detachment that keeps it at arm’s remove from the awfulness of the world it describes. On the one hand, this is probably a good choice, because a book that was more sentimental or sensational would feel cheap. But on the other hand, that detachment makes it hard to get really invested in the book, and it ends up reading more like an intellectual exercise than anything pressingly vital. It’s a perfectly decent book, but definitely one of the weaker works on that award slate. If it sounds interesting, I wouldn’t disrecommend it, but I don’t think I’d go so far as to actively recommend it.
So let’s talk about some novellas! Novellas which, unfortunately, I actually read back in early March and then got lazy about booklogging, so welp, let’s see what I can dredge up from memory about these.
First up is Lois Bujold’s The Physicians of Vilnoc and Masquerade in Lodi, the latest of her Penric and Desdemona novella series. This series has largely been pleasant but inessential, the kind of thing that you read and then forget entirely moments later. And writing at this remove, I can confirm that yep, that’s exactly what happened. I actually had to look up the description of Masquerade in Lodi to confirm that it was the one I’d read, since the title wasn’t ringing a bell. That said, I definitely did remember The Physicians of Vilnoc, because it came out in early 2020 and is about a plague, and okay yeah, that’s gonna be memorable. Both stories are worth reading if you’re already reading this series; neither of them are worth starting it for.
Next was Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, a novella about a group of bandits in… China? Malaysia? I honestly don’t remember, and googling turns up different answers, so idk, I can’t be super-precise. Anyway, there they are, and there’s a whole thing where they’re trying to sell off some stuff, but then also half the characters aren’t who they seemed to be, and it gets more complicated, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it even if I remembered it better. There’s more going on here than in those two Bujold novellas, but honestly not too much more—this is definitely a novella that I knew was a novella as I read it, not one of those stealthy almost-novels. Lightly recommended if a wuxia-style story sounds fun.
C.L. Polk’s Stormsong and Soulstar are the last two-thirds of their Kingston Cycle trilogy, which began with Witchmark. And they’re excellent.
When I wrote up Witchmark, I noted that I was “actually really curious to see where the second book goes from here, because it doesn’t seem like it could just be more of the same.” And it is super-not more of the same. Where the first novel is a kind of murder mystery that builds into something larger, the second is a novel of political intrigue and displomacy, and the third is about the impacts of rapid social and technological change. Each has a different protagonist, and feels totally different from the previous book in the series, while also still feeling unmistakably as if they’re telling a single coherent story in three parts.
That alone is a heck of an achievement. But also Polk just does all this really well. The setting is clever and original; the politics seem real; the characters are complicated and flawed, while still being likeable and interesting; and the story just continually goes in unexpected directions. I really don’t want to spoil these books—because each of them builds on the previous, talking about even the shape of the third book gives away a lot of the first two—but I’m a little annoyed that I don’t have more I can say here about them, because they deserve a longer write-up than this.
Between this series and The Midnight Bargain, Polk is writing consistently excellent fantasy across a variety of subgenres. Highly recommended
Mark Bittman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk is one of the more disappointing books I’ve read recently. It purports to be a history of food, and in particular how our food system got to be so broken. But its analysis is facile and uncompelling, and I ended up more frustrated than enlightened by reading it.
The first part of the book, about food systems in older times, is fine. My instinct while I was reading it was to think that it was retelling some really commonly well-known stuff about e.g. the development of wheat and corn and such-like; but on reflection, it’s possible that maybe everyone doesn’t know about einkorn and teosinte and all that, so hey.
But as the book gets up through more modern agriculture, it starts taking a really annoying primitivist turn. Because the thing is, the food system today is incredibly broken, right, and Bittman does a good job of identifying major ways in which that’s true, with enormous swathes of agriculture devoted solely to corn ‘n’ soybeans, with basically all other edible plants as a kind of sideshow. But so as Bittman identifies mechanization and a focus on hyper-efficiency as sources of major problems, he’s not wrong, exactly, but he’s also not reckoning with the benefits of those things. Like, ideally what you want to do is chart a path that will get you all the good stuff from the scientific, big-business approach to farming, while mitigating or eliminating the harms where possible. But Bittman… doesn’t do that, he just says, “so that’s bad, and we should go back to peasant farming,” which is kind of a terrible solution.
But so in doing that, his view of what the harms of modern agriculture are end up getting very weird. He takes it as bad that there are fewer farmers, for instance. And while “90% of family farmers were forced out of their farms into other occupations” sounds bad, “we were able to produce food with only a fraction of the labor it took before” sounds good, and there’s no way to have a modern prosperous society with a large fraction of people doing subsistence farming. Similarly, he talks about what he sees as the illusion that mechanization leads to progress, noting that after farmers spent a bunch of capital on tractors and what-not, they enjoyed a short boom in profits, but then their profits fell down to previous levels. Which, yeah, that’s how competitive markets work—nobody gets to extract major profits for long. (Areas where producers do continue to command large profits, like in big tech companies, are usually markets that lack sufficient competition for one reason or another.) That doesn’t mean the mechanization was bad; the point is that now the farmers are able to produce food more cheaply and with less labor, and consumers get the benefit of that.
The book isn’t all bad; Bittman does identify some of the ways in which the drive to improve efficiency has been genuinely problematic, by imposing externalities like pollution and carbon emissions; by driving toward terrible labor conditions in food production; by steering food toward branded shelf-stable junk products that can be made from that cheap, ubiquitous corn. But it’s hard to pick out the real problems from the non-problems, and his proposed fixes are not meaningfully workable. There’s a big problem in our food system, and Bittman is doing good work in highlighting that fact, but it’s not clear that he’s the right person to really think through the problem with the rigor it needs. Not recommended
So Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm duology, which I picked up after the first volume won the World Fantasy Award, is really awkward to talk about, because the two books are completely different things, with different protagonists and different subjects, but they’re also directly linearly connected plotwise. I can’t talk about the second book at all without somewhat spoiling the first—and I think the second one is far more interesting.
The first book, Queen of the Conquered, starts off with a protagonist who hates herself and thinks she’s an awful person. This is, as I’ve griped about before, a huge YA trope, and given that Callender has mostly written YA, I was sort of settling in to be annoyed, but… it doesn’t go where you’d think it would go, and ends up being subtler than the usual tropey nonsense.
Plotwise, this ends up being weirdly like Gideon the Ninth in that a handful of aristocrats end up on this weird royal island, and there are mysteries to unravel while people start dying, and nobody quite trusts anyone else but also they’re not openly enemies, mostly.
It’s a frustrating book in some ways—characters with really obvious blind spots are so frustrating to read, even if their blind spots are realistic and in-character—and I think it ends up more good than great; but then it sets up the second book, which I think is unambiguously great.
If you’re already interested in reading the series, stop here, because now I’m going to talk a bit about the plot of King of the Rising, which sorta spoils a bit of the first, but I guess tbh maybe not more than the title itself does.
Okay, so the second novel is about a rebellion, right. And that’s not an uncommon subject in fantasy fiction, but it’s done here in much more of a historical mode. The leaders of the rebellion have all worked together to kick it off, but they’re not a band of doughty friends, they’re all prickly individuals with their own interests and goals and mindsets, who will come into conflict with each other as their immediate need for cooperation fades. And kicking out the bad guys doesn’t automatically usher in a new era of peace and prosperity—there are all kinds of problems, because trying to replace a government and an economic system in ways that still work while removing the injustices that drove the rebellion is a really hard problem.
The book is relentless in not allowing easy answers to these hard problems. It is throughout surprising, yet also inevitable, in its developments. Yes, of course this is how it had to go, even as that’s never how I expected it to go. Recommended.
Unlike most of his work until now, P. Djeli Clark’s Ring Shout isn’t in an elaborate alternate history, so much as it’s a fantastic take on actual American history. In the novella, as in reality, The Birth of a Nation has revitalized the Klan; but here, it’s done so by working to empower demons and monsters of the more literal variety. And so we follow a group of women who hunt Ku Kluxes, and follow them as they get embroiled in one of those “something worse is coming” storylines.
There’s a lot to like about this book. The characters are great, the concept behind it is interesting, it does a good job evoking the setting. But it didn’t work for me because it used a plot trope that I often find unbelievable; I can’t talk about this without spoilers, so if you want to avoid those and read this story (which I would still recommend), quit reading this and go do that.
Okay, still here? So the trope that I couldn’t buy is the one where a character’s choice will be the linchpin that determines who wins the day… but the character is obviously a hero and the choice isn’t ambiguous enough for the outcome to be in any doubt. Like, you never really thought Luke Skywalker was going to turn to the Dark Side, right? Similarly it was hard to imagine that the protagonist of this story was ever going to team up with the forces behind the Klan, no matter what twists and revelations might come out along the way. Clark tries to make it plausible, and maybe for other people it works, but I just couldn’t buy it as anything other than a foregone conclusion as soon as it was mentioned.
So the plot bounced off my suspension of disbelief in the end, and I don’t think this is quite as successful as Clark’s other novellas (which I’ve loved). Still, there’s a lot here worth reading, and it is a novella, so it’s not like it’s long. Lightly recommended.
C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain is not the sequel to Witchmark, a fact that disappointed me when I first learned it. But after reading it, now I kinda want them to forget about Witchmark and just keep writing novels in this world (well, okay, actually I want both).
So this is basically a Regency romance, except in a magical world not our own. It follows a young debutante as she goes to not-London for her Season to find a husband, except that she doesn’t want to find a husband, because marriage in this world means having your magical abilities taken away from you, and her ambition is to be a great sorceress. But she’s not free to simply follow her desires, not only for the reasons of social pressure, but because her family is counting on her match financially.
It rarely happens that I’m glad I’ve procrastinated abominably in writing up a book, but in this case, I’ve just watched Bridgerton on Netflix, and so the comparison is really hard to avoid. As it happens, I read and wrote up The Duke and I, the book that series is based on, and while I liked most of it, I was bothered by the “remarkably horrid gender politics” and was looking for a more modern take on the genre. So… yeah, if you were also looking for a more feminist take on the Regency genre, here’s a book for you.
The other reason to be glad I’ve sat on this write-up so long is that now I know for sure all the books I’ve read in 2020, so I can say that this might be the most fun of them all, and that “might” is only there because of Gideon the Ninth back in January. This is one of those books where you just tear through the pages, and good enough that you don’t feel guilty about it. If Regency romance is at all a genre that appeals to you, this is a must-read. Highly recommended.
Although her previous novels have been urban fantasies, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun is a straight-up epic fantasy, full of prophecies and dark gods and ancient orders of priests and political intrigue and roguish ship captains and all the trappings of the genre.
And it delivers on them well. The political intrigue is believable, as reformers who are trying to fix a broken system clash with people who don’t much care if the system stays broken as long as they’re on top of it; the dark figure out of prophecy manages to be both convincingly grim but also vulnerable in human ways; and the roguish captain… well, she’s just a great character, who keeps the book from getting too grimdark. And it’s deploying these characters in a plot that’s trying to look, in a roundabout way, at what it would mean to build a just society—is it just getting revenge on the people who wronged you most recently, is it preserving institutions that keep society stable no matter what oppression is baked into that stability, or is there something more to aim for?
While Roanhorse is writing in the political epic fantasy genre that George R.R. Martin has left such a large imprint on, she’s doing it in a way that’s fresher and more modern: her world is based on Mesoamerican societies, so not just the generic fantasy Europe; and her characters are of a wide variety of genders and sexual orientations.
Highly recommended, with one caveat: This is the first book in a series, and while it does end at a climactic point, it’s still extremely unfinished. I’m optimistic that Roanhorse will be able to end it well and in a reasonable timeframe, but yeah, unfinished epic fantasy series are always a gamble.
(And yes, this booklog entry is backdated; I actually read this book in October and am super-late writing it up, but want to at least make sure it shows up in the right year.
After loving The Warmth of Other Suns, I rushed out to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much. The problem is a familiar one with non-fiction: It feels like a great magazine essay (or in this case maybe 2-3 great magazine essays) padded out to fill book length.
But maybe part of the problem is just that this isn’t the book I expected to be. As the book starts out, it’s talking about how the three big caste systems are India’s famous one; the one that the Nazis instituted in Germany; and America’s racial caste system. And so what I was hoping for was an analytical history of those three systems, how they developed, their parallels and differences, and so forth.
Wilkerson does do some of that—the part about how the Nazis explicitly looked to Jim Crow laws as inspiration when writing their own laws (and how they rejected some American provisions as too harsh) is chilling—but to a large extent, it’s just not the book she’s writing. Wilkerson has done some research on India, clearly, but she’s not fundamentally writing about India’s system, and reading this book will only give you the shallowest understanding of it; she’s writing about America’s, and only really references India and Germany as they relate to the American experience.
Really, beyond wanting the scope of the book to be larger, I think my disappointment is mostly just that this isn’t a history so much as it is a work of journalism. The first person anecdotes in The Warmth of Other Suns read as carrying the oral history of her subjects through to a more recent period, but here they don’t have that function, so just feel more like typical first-person magazine essays.
But so my criticism only goes so far, because this was also a breezy read, and there is good stuff in here. If it feels occasionally repetitive or with some bits of less-essential anecdote as filler, it’s not in any sense bad; it’s just not essential like Warmth was. Lightly recommended.
Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology was written in the ‘90s, but is an extremely 2020 series. For one thing, they start in the 2020s, but for another, they’re describing a sort of broken-down dystopic society.
But so, back in the ‘90s, there were lots of “the future will be a broken-down dystopia” works, right. Like, almost any movie from that period that looks ahead to the near future pictures the nation as being overtaken by inner-city gangs and urban decay. What sets Butler apart from that crowd is the sophistication and eerie plausibility of her dystopia. Like, it’s not a full-on apocalypse, but climate change has wrought havoc and made areas unlivable, and large-scale forced migration has caused rising social tensions, and a breakdown in the effectiveness of government institutions has basically made it so large parts of the country are outside of any actual government control even while the laws nominally still exist and the US is still a thing and all that.
Butler had an eye for how societies fail, is what I’m saying, and it’s rare for a near-future book from decades ago to hold up as well as this one does. Even if it’s not—fingers crossed—our 2020s, there are a lot of familiar elements in this.
But beyond the setting, it’s also a fascinating character portrait, as we see the protagonist first as a girl, and then as a woman (and through the eyes of others in her life). In watching how Lauren Olamina goes through her life, the things she does deliberately for their effect on other people, and the things she can’t help but do because it’s who she is, we get a portrait of a leader in a mold that’s notable even today and must have felt revolutionary then.
These books are deservedly classics, compellingly readable and with a lot to say about society, religion, community, law, and purpose. Highly recommended.
Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus reminds me a lot of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion—it’s got a matriarchal society that’s set up a space-based civilization on a fleet of bio-tech worldships, which you have to admit is not a premise that a lot of books are using—but with the critical difference that the characters are not exclusively horrid monstrous antiheroes.
Which isn’t to say that they’re all nicey-nicey. This is fundamentally a book that’s about social inequities—class, gender, and even to some extent racial strife all pop up in the book—and the characters are embedded in their society in the way that people are, with even the “well-meaning” characters unthinkingly echoing stereotypes they’ve absorbed along the way, or defending the indefensible. There’s plenty of conflict.
But however flawed, the characters do largely mean well. We can see that they’re essentially decent people, and cheer for them to win the day or hope that they’ll change the way they’re handling some particular thing or whatever; and that goes a long way toward turning this book into something that’s enjoyable rather than a brutal and unpleasant slog.
I do have some minor complaints about the book. For one, the main protagonist seems way too ignorant of how her world works, even granting that she’s been a kid with a privileged upbringing; her being so clueless works well as a way to bring the reader up to speed on what’s going on, but it makes her seem kinda legit unqualified to be seeking out political power. For another, there’s a part in the middle of the book where growing political conflict divides two characters, and it seems like that was basically just glossed over with a time skip, like “storming the Bastille yada yada Napoleon took over” (not in the particulars, just in the sense that a lot of interesting stuff got skipped), which also makes later interactions with those two characters ring not-quite-true.
But those aren’t book-killers. Overall, this is an enjoyable book set in a mostly original setting with a lot of things to say. It’s a good, solidly written piece of SF. Recommended.