Crawling out of my crypt for a bit. Here are the books that lit my wick last month.
Yes, this is late, but new job and all that.
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott: Super fun Space Opera where FTL is achieved by alchemy, tarot cards, and harmonic engines that tap as close as possible to the literal music of the spheres. Plus group marriages of convenience, conniving relatives, space pirates, and an “evil empire”. Like I said, super fun.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: A fantasy novel without wars or big events or an entire cohort of characters to keep track of. Instead, it’s a story of a thief press-ganged into assisting a king’s “magus” in recovering a fabulous treasure that’s more valuable as a symbol than for any monetary value. The world building’s rich and deftly done, and the handful of characters fully realized. Recommended.
Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss: That 2019 will see all of Molly Gloss’s novels back in print is a great thing, and while I didn’t enjoy this early novel by her as much as her later work, it was still a treat to read – a bit like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Vren is a young boy with strange powers exiled from his home and forced to live in the haunted woods outside the gates. There he finds friends, but also a rising threat he must confront.
The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton: I hadn’t read Andre Norton before now and I absolutely wish I had. Her stuff is absolutely delightful in a pulpy greasy kids stuff sort of way. Murdoc Jern is a galactic gem trader who inherits a magical ring from his murdered father. What secrets does the ring hold and why would people kill for it? Murdoc decides to find out, and ends up on a quest that sees him wandering the space ways with an assorted bunch of companions including Eet, a mutant space cat that bears more than a little resemblance to HR Giger’s Alien.
Plague Ship by Andre Norton: You can read about this one on my Patreon.
The first two are from December and can stand in for my favorite reads from December 2018 post.
Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman: Lamat is a mountain guide and Disaine is a religious woman come to climb the sacred mountain. A really marvelous piece of fantasy writing that does away with a lot of the grand epic storylines of modern fantasy to focus down on the personal and philosophical.
Semiosis by Sue Burke: Classic science fiction of the First Contact sort where the human colonists must figure out how to communicate and survive with an intelligent and arrogant plant. Also, weirdly, has a heavy undercurrent looking at parenting and partnering styles.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Everything changes for a quaint New Hampshire town when a mysterious auctioneer arrives. Soon people are giving away all their prized possessions so as to profit from the auctions, but the trouble keeps ratcheting up because the Auctioneer always wants to sell more. The scariest book I read this year.
Black God’s Drum by P. Djeli Clark: Fun alternate history fantasy adventure novel. A young pick-pocket in the Free City of New Orleans overhears a group of Confederate dead-enders plot to abduct the Haitian scientist responsible for the construction of Haiti’s deterrent super weapon. From such beginnings pulp adventures are born!
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: I read a few Eric Ambler novels this year, and I loved all of them. This one might have been my favorite because the protagonist, a sleazy taxi driver caught up in a criminal plot, is the most interesting. I also recommend A Coffin for Dmitrios.
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: A story about an elderly midwife and her apprentice living on the margins of a rural English village in the 1960s. It’s a deep dive into a small setting that’s almost folk horror but not quite. Highly recommend it.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: The Hong Kong gangster kung fu fantasy novel I didn’t know I needed until I read it. This was a ton of fun. And with the sequel set to come out in 2019, I’m eager to learn what happens next.
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: In the aftermath of a terrible intergalactic war, the galaxy’s intelligent species have decided they will instead settle their disputes through a musical contest much like the Eurovision contest of our world. Now it’s Earth’s turn to perform, and if we lose our planet is doomed.
Silent Hall by NS Dolkart: A fantasy novel about a world with very active gods and how awful that is for all. This reminded me a lot of the sort of fantasy I devoured in the 1980s, David Eddings, Weiss and Hickman, except Dolkart’s able to update that style with self-awareness to make it appeal to a more contemporary audience. I need to read the sequels.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymir by John Crowley: A story about a crow that’s sort of immortal as he lives on the margins of our world and watches human civilization develop. Bleak and beautiful.
The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington: A non-fiction history book that’s the biography of a single man, Franz Schmidt the 16th century executioner in the German city of Nuremberg. The portrait of Schmidt that emerges is that of a man of honor and integrity in a time and place that hardly warranted either.
An Unhappiness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A science fiction novel set onboard a generation ship and as is usual with that subgenre, everything that can go wrong does go wrong so the society that emerges is a horrible one. But despite all that, the book’s not one you can look away from.
Chuggachug-chugging along towards 2019… who knows what awaits?
Here’s my favorite reads from November.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: This was scary as all hell. Unrelenting and harrowing where the entropy dial is twisted all the way to 11 and the bad stuff keeps happening and the stakes keep ratcheting upward. To be honest I had to put the book down for a bit because I found it too unrelenting. The story’s about a New Hampshire town that finds itself falling under the influence of an out of town auctioneer with big plans for the community, but first he just needs to make some changes to the place. This was Samson’s only novel before she died from cancer. I’m happy to see it back in print.
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed: A weird secondary world novel set in the aftermath of what feels to be the equivalent of the Great War. Lt. Benjamin Braddock managed to survive the war that saw so many of his companions dead, but the ghost of his commanding officer and friend still haunts him. Even more so when Braddock starts taking over that friend’s life. What I liked about this book was that Braddock’s a nobody and his predicament is completely personal. As his friend’s family begins to groom him to replace their dead son, Braddock starts seeing the ways honor can be a curse as much as a gift. That in the end Mohamed zags when I wishes she would have zigged doesn’t take away from how fun the trip was.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark: This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in an alternate 1880s where the Civil War ended in a stalemate, New Orleans is a free state, airships ply the skies, and several Caribbean nations gained their independence by harnessing the powers of the former slave population’s African gods and goddesses. If it had only half those things I might have skipped it, but since it had all those things (and more!) I was hooked.
When a young pickpocket overhears a group of confederate terrorists conspiring to kidnap the Haitian scientist who harnessed the storm god’s power, she sets out on a mission to save the scientist.
Provenance by Ann Leckie: I eventually warmed to Leckie’s Imperial Radch series despite the amount of hype that had accumulated around them, which isn’t the books’ fault at all. In particular the second one, Ancillary Sword, was a fascinating example of military SF, except focusing on all the boring parts of the military like doing garrison duty in a peaceful allied nation. Provenance calls to mind that book. It’s a stand alone novel about history and identity and being from somewhere It’s also filled with quirky little details like how every human culture has their preferred drink and complains when they go to another culture and have to accept other drinks. Like think how much people argue about pizza today, now imagine if every planet in the solar system had multiple styles of pizza. There’s also a good bit in this about parenting, bad parenting in particular.
When Ingray frees a convict from prison to pretty much impress her adoptive mother, it sets in motion events that will see her having to stop the invasion of her planet.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht: A spy novel! A lesbian coming of age novel! A story of imperialism and disillusionment. How exciting! Vera Kelly’s a CIA operative in mid-1960s Argentina monitoring student activists and suspected communists. Vera’s also a teenage girl in 1950s Maryland coming to terms with her crush on a classmate and her failed suicide attempt.
When a coup occurs and one of her contacts betrays her, Vera finds herself trapped without any way of coming home, but also unsure where her home is. This was smart like a good Graham Greene novel mashed up with a Nancy Drew novel.
In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard: A science fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by vietnamese cultures legends. Yên’s a failed scholar bartered away to the dragon Vu Côn by her elders in order to pay for the dragon’s intervention in healing a higher class child’s illness. Yên expects nothing but death at Vu Côn’s hands, but instead the dragon has a job for her, to tutor her two unruly children.
A lot’s made about sense of wonder in speculative fiction and how there’s a lot less of it now than before, to which I have to ask what the hell people are reading, because I find no end of examples of it. And this book would be a go-to example of it. De Bodard’s descriptions are vivid, not simply lush, but dazzling. Wonder (and terror and yearning) abound in this book.
… and that’s all until next time.
Reading is as much about the books as the journey inside your own head or out of it as the case may be.
Often times when I recall a book to mind I’m not just remembering the book and its events, but my state of mind at the time and the places where I read it. Needless to say this makes parting with books a bit difficult, which certainly plays hell with the notion of ever moving again.
Other Cities by Benjamin Rosenbaum: The obvious comparison is to Calvino’s Invisible Cities since Rosenbaum’s operating in the same mode: writing short vignettes describing fantastic cityscapes and societies. There’s the city of detectives, the city of forgotten pleasures, the city of the two sisters, the city that is actually a monster. It’s a mode I quite like, so no surprise that I enjoyed this.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse: Urban Fantasy Monster Hunter novel set in a post-apocalyptic American South West heavily steeped in the mythology and spiritual traditions of the local Tribal Nations. It’s a bit more gun-porny than I like, but the milieu more than makes up for that and those bits of standard Urban Fantasy tropes that annoy me. (Traumatized heroine? Check! Pit fighting? Check!) I’m curious to see where this series goes and how much of the wider world beyond the South West will we be shown.
Ports of Call and Lurulu by Jack Vance: Two of the last books Jack Vance had published. I have lots of feelings about Jack Vance, most of them conflicting. On one hand I think he was a phenomenally imaginative writer, on the other hand I feel like for all his ability creating weird and wondrous societies they often don’t really rise above that joke New Yorker cartoon caption of “Would you look at these assholes?” Not to mention that he’s hard pressed to write a woman character that isn’t an object of derision. Yet, I enjoyed these books. They’re both picaresque space opera following Myron Tany as he sets forth into the galaxy, first on board his Aunt Hester’s yacht, second on board the tramp space freighter the Glicca. Yet… well… okay, imagine Harry Mudd, that sleazy merchant/conman character from Star Trek, now imagine if that guy ran the Federation. That would very much be a Jack Vance universe.
The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane: Another entry in the Brit Takes A Walk subgenre I enjoy. This one is a lively and engaging example of the type. In fact if your social media footprint at all resembles mine you probably already either follow Robert MacFarlane or have him retweeted into your thread multiple times a week. That’s not a bad thing, and should likely give you some idea what to expect here: an interest in the way landscape intersects with language, memory, and the way we think about our world. And here the way MacFarlane takes us into the landscape is by recounting a series of long excursion walks he took, mostly in the United Kingdom, but also in Nepal and the Middle East. I definitely recommend this if you enjoy the books about walking subgenre.
The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre: I feel like le Carre’s spy novels owe more stylistically to Dickens and 19th century literature than they do to Ian Fleming or Len Deighton. The cast of characters is huge, the plot’s oblique, and the prose ripe with caricature and grotesques. I love the world he crafts, but can understand anyone’s complaint that there’s not enough action. If anything le Carre deflates the action oriented spy story, as the more James Bond a character is, the more likely they are to get killed – and not only by enemy agents, but by their own country’s spy services in some inter-departmental spat.
Anyway, all that’s in here as George Smiley seeks to rebuild the British spy service post-Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and sends agent Jerry Westerby to Hong Kong to unearth a Russian “gold seam” of covert money being paid to a Chinese tycoon. As Westerby follows the trail, he travels throughout South East Asia (circa the early-1970s and the final days of the Vietnam War) on a grisly odyssey.
It’s a slog at times, but I absolutely recommend it.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan: This is Book #1 in the Memoirs of Lady Trent and documents her youth where she developed a passion for dragons and naturalism, her debut in society and marriage to a husband who shares her interests, their expedition to study dragons in a remote region of their world, and the adventures that unfold there. It’s a fun blend of Jane Austen, 19th century travelogue and naturalist writings, and simple adventure story. I’ll likely continue with the series. It’s definitely fun and smart, and I’m curious how Lady Trent develops.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold: My first foray into the Vorkosigan Saga and I liked it. Miles Vorkosigan is the disabled son of a military hero in a highly militaristic society (I imagined them to be like a planet full of Prussian Hussars). He fails to achieve his goal of making it in the military and so sets out to visit his mother’s homeworld, which is like a planet of efficient hippies (ever meet anyone who had a Montessori education? Beta Colony is a planet of those people). Soon Miles finds himself and his starship crew embroiled in a small interplanetary war and mayhem ensues from here.
This is fun swashbuckling space opera and yes I could side-eye bits of it, but I won’t. I also chose my favorite cover for this. It looks like a Soviet-era poster.
Sweet Silver Blues by Glenn Cook: I never really took to Cook’s Black Company books, but this I liked. It leans a lot on detective tropes, but I think the covers and ad copy sell that idea more than the book warrants. In a lot of ways this reminded me of Jhereg and the character Vlad Taltos. Very urban, secondary world fantasy, heavily informed by RPGs with the adventure being undertaken for mostly financial reasons. Some of the fun comes from upending expectations, the rest from Cook’s ability to have a plot sprout complications. The bad bit is that it is written in what I can only describe as the uninterrogated Testicular style where the characters spend a good bit of time exasperated by the existence of women. You have to wonder if Cook assumed that no one but guys would read his books.
Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, Sami Kivela, and Jason Wordie: I’m a fan of the paranormal detective genre and Abbott takes the usual tropes but puts them in 1970s Detroit. Our detective is Abbott and she’s a reporter for a local paper at odds with the powers that be, and she’s also someone with a history of having encountered dark powers. While the villainy might be familiar the milieu isn’t and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre.
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: A heist novel full of grotesque characters narrated by a petty crook! So much to like and love here. Not only are people awful, but they have dandruff and leak fluids at inopportune times. My kind of book! Oh yeah, also the basis for some classic movie by some director that annoying film-buff friend of yours won’t shut-up about even though they’ve never seen any of the director’s movies.
Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn: Despite what it says on the Goodreads tin, this isn’t a dystopian novel. Sure it’s set after the collapse of civilization, but in the new society that emerges that’s more agrarian, and to be honest I quite like it. People walk around. The greatest sin is greed, over-consumption, and reproducing without approval. It’s quite utopian but in an acoustic guitar soundtracked 1970s film sort of way. Of course, I have questions about the setting and how did this collapse but that didn’t, but, eh, why pick nits? Part of this is bildungsroman as young Enid searches for her place in the world. The other part is a murder mystery as an older Enid, now an Inspector, must solve a murder in an otherwise peaceful community.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: Everything I read by Tove Jansson floors me. This continues the trend. It has a simple outline plot (young Sophia is spending the summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland with her grandmother), insightful vignette chapters, particulars of the human condition that verge on the grotesque, beautiful, and/or the sublime, and Jansson’s pen and ink illustrations. There’s a kind of minimal stripped down prose that’s rare to find, yet somehow still manages to become dense and rich by how it points itself at what it’s describing. Jansson’s work is the epitome of that quality. (Other examples of it, for me, are Russell Hoban and Alan Garner.)
I did some traveling over July and that meant a lot of time spent on planes, trains, buses, and even a boat for a few hours. Also a lot of time sitting in airport lounges and awake at odd hours from jetlag.
Long story short this meant I read a lot.
A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: I am a sucker for thrillers that involve little more than a nebbish protagonist traveling around the world so they can listen to various weirdoes monologue at length. Here a mystery writer gets fascinated by a death told to him by a Turkish police captain and out of nothing more than idle curiosity starts to investigate the dead man’s life. This promptly opens open a can of worms as the dead man had ties to international terrorism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Also fascinating glimpse into the 1930s.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby: This is a collection of self-scathing essays by someone who got their start by being funny online. Cringe-worthy much of the time, but also very funny almost all the time. If you see this and you enjoy the David Sedaris/Roxanne Gay wry confessional style, read this.
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett: No one ever talks about how Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag is just grimdark Discworld. For me Pratchett’s a bit like Agatha Christie. Each of them has lots of books that my friends adore and which I’ve read a little by, but have never done a deep dive into. Their books are also more or less ubiquitous and one of the easier things to score second hand, so their a bit easy to take for granted. ANYWAY, I read this and The Colour of Magic and enjoyed them both immensely..
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin: You ever notice how almost all Le Guin’s SF novels have titles that sound a bit like Spaghetti Westerns? I don’t know what to make of that, but I think it’s kind of cool. I also like how she swears in her books and writes characters who are quietly and respectfully down to fuck. This novel is a series of linked novellas taking place on a pair of planets, Werel and Yeowe, where the populations were once sorted into “owners” and “assets”, but then a revolution occurred. The characters have either lived through that revolution or have arrived in its aftermath as a new society emerges. Harrowing stuff at times, and in another writer’s hands I’d be worried, but Le Guin does a great job here. (I also reread The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu from the Earthsea series and can still say I adore them.)
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: I adored this book! I want to call this folk horror, but it’s not quite horrific enough. I’ll call it instead folk horror adjacent contemporary fantasy. It’s the 1960s and Fern Cullen is the teenaged assistant to mammy, the local wise woman in a small English village. Most of their work is herblore and midwifery, but they also provide abortions where required. And it’s this that lands them in trouble. As the world changes around them and Mammy ends up hospitalized, Fern must decide whether she is willing to continue the work Mammy has taught her or adapt and change with the times. Like I said, I adored this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells: When we left Murderbot at the end of All Systems Red, they’d saved their humans but fled from their offer of sanctuary, choosing instead to learn the truth of their own past. And so that’s where we pick up here with Murderbot stowing away onboard ART, an Assholish Research Transport vessel, and returning to the site of the massacre they believe they committed. Of course this puts Murderbot in danger, bot only from humans but from other robots that see Murderbot as something of a role model. If you want fun, SF action entertainment these books deliver.