bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I had the privilege of hearing N. K. Jemisin read from a draft of The Fifth Season, the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy, at Arisia way back in 2015.  It was beautiful and terrifying, and yet I still didn't immediately read the book when it was published, nor even when it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year, because I am always and eternally months behind on what I intend to be reading. But it was high up on The List, and when it was suggested for this month's BSpec book club -- which is still three weeks away -- I was thrilled to be coerced into finally getting around to it.

The story takes place on a viciously volatile planet, prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and other seismic cataclysms to a point that surviving through them defines all human culture. The big continent all the humans live on is sarcastically named the Stillness; no one lives on islands, because if it's small enough to be considered an island it's also small enough to disappear tomorrow under a tsunami. Every couple hundred years the planet undergoes a Fifth Season, defined as any sort of environmental catastrophe resulting in six months or more of winter. Usually these see civilization go to pieces to some degree or another. There are people with magical abilities to work with seismic energies; they are called orogenes, and they are feared and loathed, carefully trained to guard civilization from the Earth's ravages, but distrusted and tightly controlled.

There are three storylines in this book, which take place in three different times, and the most recent one -- which is related in the second person -- happens at the beginning of one of these cataclysms. The protagonists are a young female "grit" (an orogene still in training) called Damaya; a twentysomething trained orogene named Syenite; and a middle-aged orogene named Essun, who is the protagonist of the second-person sections where the Season has started. I was able to guess how these characters were related just enough before it was revealed to feel smart, but not far enough in advance to feel like Jemisin was treating the reader like they're dumb. 

This might be as close a thing to the perfect book as I've read in quite a while, from a whole bunch of different angles. The worldbuilding is fantastic -- utterly unlike anything I've ever read, but based in enough real stuff to make it easy to vividly imagine. The societies in it are old-fashioned -- rustic, even -- and modern at the same time, with distinctive language that sounds naturally evolved and is easy to pick up on quickly. The three-threaded way the story is structured is brilliant, especially once you do find out how they all come together. The language is rich and alive and beautiful and makes me want to roll around in it except that it also has sudden stabby bits and you should never roll around in anything that comes out of N. K. Jemisin's imagination, figuratively or otherwise, because it will probably eat your face off. It's scary, but also makes me remember how much I enjoyed collecting shiny rocks as a kid and that Earth science is really interesting. The characters are mostly POC, at least half of them women, and a range of sexualities are represented, including a trans character. The ending, which is obviously a setup into the next book, is one of the most brutal verbal cliffhangers in the history of brutal cliffhangers -- like, ending a 450-page novel with a question could be cheap, but in this case it's really, really not. 

Jemisin is clever with little details, too. An example: The very hateful, very obscene slur for orogenes is rogga. You can see the -rog- taken from orogene as its root, but the dropped vowel makes it start off sounding like rock, which is both plebian and on-topic. The double g in the middle parallels that in one of the most hateful, most obscene slurs in American English, subtly -- possibly subconsciously -- driving home just how unacceptable the word is: It sounds, instantly, blunt and harsh and taboo, even though it's a completely made-up word that I've never heard before in my life. When reading the book, I occasionally read sentences out loud to myself, because sometimes I do that in books with really good sentences, but whenever I reached that word, I couldn't say it out loud; I'd absorbed the taboo already.

In short, we are not worthy of N. K. Jemisin.

I'm kind of annoyed I can't just dive right into the sequel since I have other book clubs to read stuff for, but maybe I'll blow them off.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.

Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.

In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.

Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.

Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.

Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
WELL THAT ONLY TOOK ME THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JANUARY.

But I did pull it off just in time for book club, by which I mean I was reading the last twenty pages or so at book club.

This is the BSpec book club, and we read Ken Liu's Grace of Kings, which had been on The List for a while. It's a political/military epic fantasy, drawing on pseudo-medieval Chinese myth and history rather than pseudo-medieval European myth and history. I do kind of wish I'd read it closer to when it first came out, though, if only because it's really hard right now to get invested in the collapse of fictional empires when the real-world empire I live in is actually for reals collapsing right around me. Also the real world one has more spies. Like, there are some spies in Grace of Kings, but the news is like ALL SPIES lately.

Anyway. The short version of the plot is that a bunch of squabbling kingdoms have been forcibly united under an oppressive Emperor for about a generation. When the Emperor dies, his young son becomes Emperor, but the kid is deliberately spoiled and kept away from governing so his aides can jockey for power. Against this backdrop, a popular uprising against the Empire starts, which eventually becomes a whole bunch of different factions reclaiming their own lands (sound familiar?). The two biggest players in this struggle who emerge are Kuni Garu, a jovial trickster type, and Mata Zyndu, a preternaturally tall and strong scion of a deposed royal family who is fearsomely unbeatable in battle and super uptight. He's basically a Terminator. Despite being polar opposites, they team up to become the rebellion's power couple for a while, but eventually fall out over something stupid that Mata is too rigid-minded to ever patch up properly. In the background of all this, a pantheon of gods all designate certain characters their pawns and try to influence the situation so "their" favorite mortals can "win."

We discussed our nitpicks at book club--such as that the female characters were memorable but there were a limited number of them; meanwhile, the overwhelming number of male characters with often-similar names meant I got a lot of them except the two leads mixed up--but overall this was a pretty solid example of the type of book it is, with a lot of factionalism and strategy and death and fighting. Some elements of the worldbuilding were a little inconsistent or episodic--like, at one point there were mechanical giant whale submarines, but then they were done being used so there just... weren't any more whale submarines. You can't just do this to a girl--if your book is gonna have giant whale submarines at all, it's gotta give us a LOT of giant whale submarines. They are too awesome to be a minor throwaway plot point.

That said, the intrigue is really good, and it's got some interesting meditations on power, morality, the limitations of militarism, and all that sort of stuff that's necessary to make the gods' chess game have more meaning than just a chess game. I'm not as enthused about the sequel as I'd hoped I'd be, though, but that might be partly because I've decided to dedicate the next two years to reading about Nazis. It's really not Ken Liu's fault--anyone writing political fantasy has just had their job made infinitely harder by the vagaries of reality.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It was a bit of common wisdom among my Harry Potter community many years ago that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the less good ones — better than non-Harry Potter books, of course, but inferior to the other books in the series.

For the life of me, I cannot remember why.

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.

As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)

Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.

Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For BSpec's book club this season I read Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a classic of YA fantasy that I think I read once when I was wee but didn't end up taking to. I think it was because it was a little too '80s and I didn't know things about the '80s, so I found the Manhattan setting more difficult to understand than I should have considering I grew up like an hour outside of New York City. But now I am an ADULT and I know what the Pan Am building is (mainly, that it isn't the Pan Am building anymore), so I was ready to take another stab at it.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that, like many YA/children's books from the pre-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire era, it's decently short and quite fast-paced, which is not necessarily the case with a lot of the books I read these days. Nita, a 13-year-old girl who is consistently beat up by a bunch of her classmates, finds the titular grimoire while hiding out in a library in the very first chapter. From then things move along quite rapidly as she studies the wizardry book, makes friends with a fellow novice wizard named Kit, accidentally summons an adorable tiny white dwarf start that they name Fred who is so unendingly adorably and charming that you know immediately he's going to die (er, "blow his quanta") at the end from almost the moment he appears on the page, and sets off on a simple-seeming Quest to retrieve her space pen from where Fred accidentally ate it, which, predictably, goes all wrong.

I swear to God it's like I'd forgotten what normal adventure story pacing is like. I should take notes and apply them to my own endlessly long meandering manuscript o' doom.

Anyway, Fred is super cute, and the creepy shadow version of New York that he and Nita and Kit wind up in is deeply creepy. Things like taxis and fire hydrants and helicopters are semi-alive, and terrifying--predatory creatures that eat dogs and pigeons and other hapless actual-lifeforms. This version of the universe has no sun and is ruled by a Morgoth-like being who has stolen the MacGuffin of the story, the Book of Night with Moon, the object within which all reality is written. The two teens, being totally unprepared novice wizards and therefore more powerful than the older ones (this isn't snark; that's actually how magic works in this world--younger people have it more powerfully) have to find and retrieve the Book and bring it back to their own universe through a small tear in space-time in Grand Central Station. This involves getting chased a lot, making friends with an angry Lexus, and bartering with a senile dragon. It's all simultaneously very thrilling and very adorable.

I can definitely see why this really spoke to a lot of kids in the age range it's targeted toward, and why it seems to have had the same effects on its fandom as the Alanna books or the Wrinkle in Time series or Ella Enchanted. I'm not going to get that same level of sucked into it, probably, since my formative years have passed, but I'd definitely be interested in reading the sequels.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
As the most recent dictator of the newly installed rotating dictatorship for my writing group's book club, I decreed that the next book we'd be reading after Sorcerer to the Crown would be Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which was just published this fall and which I had heard enthusiastic, if vague, good things about. It promised a lot of political intrigue--which it delivered, in spades.

The premise of the story is that young Baru Cormorant lives in a nice little tropical island society that is taken over by a foreign power called the Imperial Republic, colloquially known as the Masquerade, because its agents wear masks when acting in official capacities. The Masquerade seems to be based largely on the early modern European empires that conquered most of the globe from the 1500s through 1900s, but keyed up to be even more sinister, with four centuries of stuff happening within a generation or two and every element of chaos that marked real-world colonialism reworked as a deliberate and calculated act of empire. The Masquerade is powerful not so much for its military might--although it has that, relying most heavily on its Navy--but also because of its more insidious weapons: bureaucracy, cultural annihilation, plague, trade, paper money, racism, sexism, repressive mores of sexual purity, and eugenics. Also citrus juice and salt.

In case you are not getting the picture yet, this book is about colonialism. And not just regular levels of about colonialism, either; this book is SUPER ABOUT COLONIALISM. It is about, like, all the colonialism that has ever happened and how and why.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that it is also largely about money.

It used to be something of a given that fantasy books were terrible about money. Everything cost One Gold Piece when you remembered that people are supposed to pay for stuff occasionally; where that piece came from was rarely explained much; characters were generally either Poor or they were Noble (and therefore rich) and this difference was illustrated largely through lifestyle. Lately, this has been changing. Huge chunks of the A Song of Ice and Fire books feature discussion of debts and budgets; Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper books deal much more with everyday realities of living paycheck to paycheck than her earlier books did; The Hunger Games deals explicitly, if not in super mathy detail, with Panem's mercantilist economic system and how it keeps the Districts poor and the Capitol rich. I want to say that ever since the global economic crash, finance has featured more heavily in all sorts of genre fiction as being a thing that is Big and Dramatic and Dangerous and Will Fuck You Up. It is also just possible that I am reading better, more thoughtfully written books now that I am older than I was in 2008 and have less tolerance for stories where Stew just pops up out of thin air.

Either way, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is pretty much the fantasy book the most about money that I've ever read. Baru, after years of diligent studying in the new Masquerade schools that are definitely not based on the U.S. and Canada's boarding schools for Native American children at all, is made the Imperial Accountant to another of the Masquerade's colonies, a clump of squabbling duchies known collectively as Aurdwynn. Being Imperial Accountant is a very important post because money is very important. Being Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn is tough because Aurdwynn has a tendency toward rebellion, and Baru needs to put down the latest brewing rebellion--using the power of the purse--to prove that she is worthy of going to Falcrest (the home country of the Masquerade) so that she can learn everything about power and accumulate it for herself, a thing she wants to do because she wants to be able to liberate her homeland from the Masquerade. Baru is deeply committed to the idea that the best way to destroy the master's house is from the inside with the master's tools; unsurprisingly, the Aurdwynn rebels disagree, and whether or not it's possible to do so is one of the driving questions in the book.

The other driving questions in the book at any given time are 1 "Is the power of money more or less powerful than (insert whatever else the other person is using)" and 2 "What the hell side is everybody on," something that just gets more and more complex as the book goes on, all the way to the last page. By the end of the book it's not entirely clear what all the sides are, and I don't want to go into it any more than that, but there are so many layers of intrigue that I think I'd have to read the book again knowing what I know now to double-check if it all makes sense or if there are plot holes, since at the moment I've just been turned around too many times. It's a very intricate, literary sort of book; in this instance, I'm using "literary" to mean that basically all the characters are terrible, the main character included, and everyone is very serious all the time, and the role of the individual within nearly any social issue you care to name is explored (spoiler: the individual is always miserable). The only character who makes any jokes is Baru's secretary, Muire Lo, who is very understatedly following in the wonderful tradition of the dryly sarcastic butler type.

I think this'll make fun book group discussion fodder because of all the THINGS HAPPENING that I can't really go into here because spoilers. For the moment, though I have two last random thoughts:
1. I like that the Masquerade's sexist bullshit is a seamless mix of real-world sexist stereotypes and the opposite of real-world ones. The Masquerade is all like "Women are given to abstract thought, so they're less emotionally stable and also better at navigating and mathematics." Sounds at least as vaguely plausible as the shit we believe!
2. Scurvy features heavily in this book, which would be great and all grounded 'n' stuff except that I listened to the Sawbones episode about scurvy like a week ago and it's a terrifying creepy disease and every time the book mentions it my teeth and toes hurt. Aieeee. Drink your orange juice, kids.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In the latest edition of Failing At Book Clubs, one of the books clubs I'm in read the entirety of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series, which all in all is probably about the length of one regular adult novel. Despite being given plenty of lead time, I managed to only read the first book, The Book of Three, and then missed the actual book club because I was sick.

I remember the Chronicles of Prydain very fondly from my childhood but I think I hadn't quite realized how long ago in my childhood I read them since I was very surprised at how quickly things moved along when I started reading. I guess I haven't actually read them since my reading level surpassed a 5th grader's, nor have I read much in the way of other books at quite that level. Middle grade is about as young as I go these days, except for the Victorian classics.

Anyway, the book was still cute and adventuresome for all that, and had that early-medieval British Isles thing going on that I like so much. I'd forgotten that it takes place in basically Wales, not England. I really need to learn more about Wales; it seems an interesting place with a lot of wacky history.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Well, I am on a roll with reading books wrong. In the case of Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, the third book in the Outlander series, it's because I got it out of the library, only read 25% of it before I had to return it about two months ago, got back in line, and read the rest of it last week when it finally cycled back to me.
While Outlander took place almost entirely in Scotland, and Dragonfly in Amber brought us as far as France, the aptly named Voyager brings us basically everywhere. Acting on news from the research project she, Brianna, and Roger started in 1968, Claire moves from Boston back to Scotland, travels back through the stone circles at Craigh na Dun to sometime in the 1760s, tracks down Jamie in Edinburgh, and from there a relentless flood of shenanigans takes them all around Scotland, then to France, and then back over the Atlantic to the Caribbean. And that's just the main plotline, from Claire's perspective. We also get POVs from Jamie, as he does all sorts of dramatic Highlander things like hide in a cave for seven years and escape from an English prison; from Roger; and from one Lord John Grey, who seems to have a bunch of his own spinoff novels now.
The book is also kind of all over the place in other ways, too. Some of it is very serious--Jamie's time in Ardsmuir, for example, is pretty dark, treated with all seriousness and mostly not filled with highly improbable action-hero hijinks. Other bits are, uh, not--once they get on a boat everything basically becomes "Highlanders of the Caribbean" and it's all very colorful and almost absurdly action-packed, and develops a serious case of Les Mis-level small world syndrome (you know how in Les Mis, Paris has like twenty people and one policeman and one apartment to rent? In Voyager, the entire British Empire has about twenty people, one ship, and two military officers).
One of the big effects of leaving the rural Scottish highlands is that there are a lot more people of color in this book, which is a thing that can obviously go very wrong very quickly, especially considering the time period is really the height of British colonial power in the New World (it's like, 10 years before the American Revolution starts, I think) and the slave trade is in full swing. I have... mixed feelings about how this is handled. It's clearly well researched, which certainly helps it avoid some of the more common myths and pitfalls about the time (most notably, Gabaldon knows what involuntary indenture is and the ways in which it is similar to and different from chattel slavery; this shouldn't be noteworthy but it is). But the general approach she takes to characterizing pretty much all ethnicities--which is not so much to avoid stereotypes, but to deliberately walk straight into them and then try to build up more perspective/characterization on top of it--works slightly less well with, for example, the one Chinese character--a short, frequently drunk man with very bad English whose skillset is basically a grab bag of Chinese Things, including Chinese herbal medicine, acrobatics, calligraphy, acupuncture, and, of course, magic--than it does with any one of the ten billion Scots that populate the series. (Granted, one of the things I do kind of like about the books is that every culture the characters come into contact with has its own magical traditions and they all appear to work equally well, but the execution can still feel a bit clumsy--like, this random English lady keeps finding herself in situations where every time she meets new people she gets to witness their magic in action. Every single time.) The one Chinese dude is an especially interesting case of both being an interesting character and giving me wincy feelings because he's a fairly major secondary character and he gets a good amount of page time. He's known throughout the book as Mr. Willoughby, which is obviously not his name but was bestowed upon him in a well-meaning but ultimately worse-than-useless attempt to help him blend in. He's sometimes a comic character but other times a very tragic one, especially when you finally learn his backstory--something I found particularly interesting was that a major part of his backstory is that he is actually kind of a sexist dillweed, in the hopeless-romantic-with-ludicrously-unrealistic-views-of-women method that made me like him a bit less as a reader but is clearly a huge point of commonality between him and a lot of the white dudes in the book. By the end of the story I actually did like him, but there were a couple of cringeworthy scenes to get to that point.
Also cringeworthy is an appearance of one of my least favorite tropes EVER, actually I don't really know if it's a trope but I have seen it in one other book at least, which makes two too many--where a nice white lady who is very opposed to slavery gets so upset about it that she winds up owning one, because that is totally a thing that happens, and it is very upsetting, because clearly the important thing about slavery is how hard it would be on anti-slavery white people to be landed with one, and now she has to decide how best to go about being a good white savior, which in both cases I've read have inexplicably involved steps other than "ask person what they want and do it." I partly don't like this trope because it smacks very strongly of "author's personal self-examination and thought exercises leaking onto the paper"; in this case, many of the compounding issues that cropped up in the Jackie Faber book where this happens are thankfully avoided, but at least in the series so far, I can't help but think that the entire subplot with Temeraire could have been completely excised with no harm done to the rest of the book whatsoever.
These are the low points. There are many, many other things going on in this book (these books tend to be pretty densely packed with a wide assortment of Things), including the reappearance of Geillis Duncan (who is a major creeper), our first gay character who isn't predatory and terrible, hints of family backstory and things for Claire's Boston doctor friend Joe Abernathy (JOE ABERNATHY IS GREAT), lots of ladies with lots of agency in different ways all along the moral spectrum, and, as usual, a lot of sex, although kilts have been sadly outlawed at this point so Jamie is reduced to constantly wearing breeches. And have I mentioned the MELODRAMATIC ADVENTURES ON THE HIGH SEAS? It is everything you could want out of a melodramatic adventure on the high seas; I think Gabaldon had a checklist of Stuff That Happens When Adventure On the High Seas and made sure every point got in there somewhere--there is kidnapping, espionage, shipwrecks, slave revolts, an outbreak of plague, naval battles, pirate attacks, smuggling, big storms, seasickness, hardtack with weevils, a Portuguese pirate with too much jewelry and a cutlass, stowaways, a parentally disapproved-of romance, and even a dude with a hook for a hand, although the said dude is Fergus, who we actually met in the last book and who lost his hand long before becoming a sailor. At one point there is even a big hat. (Note: People for whom melodramatic pirate adventures are NOT catnip might find this half of the book frustrating, the way I find cartoon physics in non-cartoon movies frustrating, because it kind of pushes against one's suspension of disbelief sometimes. I'm just willing to overlook this because for me, melodramatic pirate adventures are SUPER CATNIP.)
On a more serious note, the looks we get into the British penal and colonial systems, in Scotland and elsewhere, are really, really well done, I think--they're very informative but also very emotionally engaging, and involve a lot of heavy stuff about power and identity, which is especially apt since the British relied even more heavily on eradicating people's identity to conquer them than they did on brute force (not like brute force wasn't a major component, of course). I particularly appreciate the looks at the basically decent English people who were still complicit in and perpetrators of these colonial systems that very definitely weren't at all about "helping" or "civilizing" any of the people in the lands the British took over and who the English definitely never saw as their fellow countrymen, even the sort of nice ones, no matter what the official imperialist rhetoric was.
This book's story arc never particularly wraps up--it just leads right into the next book, which I have dutifully added to my library queue. The line is shorter than it was for the last few books, so with luck I will have it within a few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Do you ever, like . . . read a book wrong? Because that's sort of what I felt I did with Kai Ashante Wilson's short but intricate debut novel, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Though it's less than 250 pages long, it took me nearly three weeks to read, mostly in small chunks of 10 pages or less.

This is not the recommended way of reading this book. There's too much going on, and it's not all laid out and explained as clearly as one might need if one is, you know, not actually fully paying attention.

The basic storyline is that of a demigod (put simply) named Demane, a healer, who is traveling with a band of mercenaries/security guards to escort a caravan across a magically-guarded road through the Wildeeps to its destination. The road is supposed to be protected from the mysterious time-and-space-bending monster-filled magic of the Wildeeps, but there are reports of something coming onto the road and eating people anyway. Demane and another demigod-posing-as-a-human, who goes by "the Captain," have to protect their fellow mercenaries and hunt down the threat, while simultaneously pretending to be humans and hiding their relationship with each other from the humans, who are apparently not OK with that sort of thing. If that sounds boring, it's because I'm explaining it badly. The narrative is structured nonlinearly, with a lot of flashbacks and bits that are hinted at, and it's a very character-driven story, so the main point of the thing is really more Demane's struggles to find a place within the humans' weird ways of doing things, managing his relationships with all the other fighters in the caravan, and, eventually, learning to go back to and harness his demigodhood to protect them.

The language in the book is a big glorious colorful tapestry of code-switching, blithely ignoring the constraints of any one register or sensibility of real-world history. Some of it dips into a sort of modernist, poetic stream-of-consciousness style; other parts are gory and action-movie-y; some bits are silly to the point of slapstick (some humans are silly to the point of slapstick too, so I supposed that's realism); the setting is mostly in the pseudo-medieval-fantasy vein--although it's more of a McAfrica than McEurope--but there's elements of science fiction, or at least science fiction terminology, woven in there too. There's slang that sounds very modern to my ear, which I admit I could be entirely wrong about since it's mostly Black slang and I'm not very well educated on Black slang, and there's bits of French and Spanish tossed in (which was fun but frankly a little jarring since it's a secondary-world fantasy), and basically the point here is that it's a ridiculous ton of fun if you like playing with language! Also it keeps you on your toes.

People closer to the topic than me have written, and in all likelihood will continue to write, insightful things about what it means that nearly the entire cast of characters in this book is black men, and the two leads are queer black men. I will read those things; right now I'm only going to say that I don't think this should be such a rarity. (Also I don't think reading it damaged my fragile white lady brain or anything.)

I'd be very interested to read more things set in this universe, partly because it was really engaging but also partly because there's clearly a lot more to it than was actually explained in the book itself and now I'm curious. I'm also not sure if this is a standalone novel or the first in a series; it has an abrupt ending that really seems like it could go either way.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I seem to be getting back into the swing of this whole "book clubs" thing! For my writing group's book club, I just finished reading Kameron Hurley's debut novel, God's War, the first book in her "Bel Dame Apocrypha" series, which appears to be at . . . three books? Four books? A trilogy with a companion novel? Idunno.
Our heroine—or possibly anti-heroine; it's difficult to tell since this is one of those "everybody sucks, but in different ways" sorts of stories—is Nyx, a bel dame, which is a sort of government assassin who mostly is supposed to cut off the heads of "contaminated" soldiers and draft dodgers. This is serious business, because Nyx's world is embroiled in a centuries-long ongoing holy war between her country of Nasheen and its neighboring Chenja, and in Nasheen, the entire Nasheenian male populace is drafted. As a result, women do basically everything else, although a lot of them go to the front, too. (In Chenja, it works a little differently, but most of the men are still drafted.) The world they live on has been laboriously terraformed by magicians to be habitable, but is still an inhospitable desert planet in which bugs are the main power source for most things—from cars to medicine to magic—and biological weapons are common in the war. Overall, the worldbuilding is highly original, very earthy, and extremely gross.
Nyx, through a series of bad life choices, winds up stripped of her bel dame license and running a bounty-hunting operation with a ragtag team of international misfits, which consists of Rhys, a pious Chenjan political refugee and magician of mediocre talent; Khos, a big blond Vikingesque shapeshifter dude who left his strictly sex-segregated homeland of Mhoria because he was too heterosexual to cope (somehow this isn't stupid); Taite, an asylum-seeker from the shapeshifter-hating country of Ras Tieg who isn't properly inoculated and whose pregnant older sister isn't, either; and Anneke, who is I think actually Nasheenian and who is sort of the mechanically handy one and is super into weapons.
Nyx gets issued a note (i.e., a bounty-hunting assignment) by no less illustrious a person than the Queen herself, which is unusual, because the Queen ordinarily does not give notes to disreputable bounty hunters and indeed seems to be attempting to actively circumvent the bel dames, who are supposed to be the government's assassins. The note will pay enough for Nyx and her entire team to peacefully retire, if it doesn't get them all killed. Obviously, that's going to be a BIG "if."
The assignment is to bring in an alien who has gone missing—possibly kidnapped, more likely she ditched the other aliens she came to the planet with and went into hiding—and who, supposedly, could end the war. How, it is not known, but obviously this is kind of a big deal, because if she could end the war in favor of Nasheen then she could also end it in favor of Chenja.
Since the bug tech/magic in this world is quite advanced and biopunky, Nyx and co. are able to sustain a pretty hefty amount of getting shot, tortured, beaten, sunburned, starved, cut up, and generally damaged before they will die, and in certain cases, even death isn't the end—we learn that Nyx has already been resuscitated once before the book's main story even starts. This mission (and Nyx's life in general) is brutal. The actual body count is high—assassins gotta assassinate somehow, after all—but Nyx also goes through organs and limbs like they're going out of style, and all the immigrants on her crew seem to get beaten up, cavity searched, and tossed into boxing rings on the regs. It's the grittiest thing I've read since I listened to that podcast about medieval bread (it had actual grit in it so it wore people's teeth down and gave them abscesses).
I'm also impressed that there's number of tropes in here that could have been crappy if they'd been written by a less skilled or more bitter writer. Nasheen is run entirely by women, with the entire male gender being sidelined to the role of cannon fodder, and it's neither a feminist utopia nor the sort of whiny simplistic oppression-reversal story that has plagued so many decades of sci-fi, but a real-feeling, high-stakes look into the unsustainable human cost of constant warfare. I think one way the book gets avoids having any of these tropes come off badly is that there's such a variety of them—the overarching "shared" culture on the planet is largely technological, plus sectarian violence around what is technically supposed to be the same religion. Outside of that, each country structures its society and its oppressions radically differently, and none of them come off looking particularly good. It's Khos, the giant Viking dog-man who left his homeland because he liked sleeping with women too much, who has the most astute observation in the entire book: All these societies, in their different ways, lack balance, and this lack of balance—these systems of control, separation, and lack of respect—that cut people apart from each other are all really like cutting out a part of yourself, which is why everything on Bugpunk Desert Planet is so endlessly messed up.
This is a high-octane, high-context, action-packed work of grim, cynical, desert-flavored grimdark. It would make an absolutely killer HBO show, and I'm very much looking forward to the book club discussion.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So far, one of the most-hyped books I've seen this summer was Shadowshaper. Granted, I deliberately sought out a bunch of the hype because I loved Daniel José Older's adult "ghost noir" fantasy books, Half-Resurrection Blues and Salsa Nocturna. But then it was actually released, and even more hype appeared, in places I was not expecting it--Holly Black's review in the New York Times, for instance, or Kate Beaton praising it on Twitter.

I had deliberately chosen to avoid preordering it so I could buy it at Readercon and get the author to sign it. I had deliberately chosen to torment myself.

After a brief heart attack when the Crossed Genres table said they only had limited copies available so we should all hurry up--I had to be late for the con because of work so this scared me--I finally arrived at Readercon, and ran immediately to the dealer's room to get two copies (one for me, one for a friend) before I keeled over dead.

Now recovered from Readercon (except financially) and not deaded, I can say that I have read Shadowshaper and it was quite worth all the running around and flailing.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a 16-year-old street artist in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn (i.e. the current one). Sierra's project for the summer is to paint a mural of a big old dragon on the side of an abandoned monstrosity of a development project in the Junklot, near where all her old dude neighbors play dominoes. Things start to get weird when she notices that one of the other murals in the Junklot, a portrait of a now-deceased neighbor, is fading--and crying. Also, her grandfather--who hasn't spoken coherently in over a year, since he had a stroke--suddenly starts apologizing and telling her to hang out with Robbie, a tattoo-covered Haitian kid at her school. And then a thing that's basically a zombie shows up at a house party and chases her, at which point things are definitely weird and she's not imagining it.

This confluence of weird things is how Sierra finds out she's a shadowshaper, a type of sorcerer who can channel whatever spirits are present into art, bringing the art alive and giving the spirits form and herself access to the spirits' power. It's a very original and thoroughly enviable form of magic power, and one that I (and probably every other reader of the book) instantly coveted. The shadowshaper community is in a sorry state, though, having been hijacked by male chauvinism and anthropology over Sierra's lifetime, which is why she didn't know about it.

Sierra, her awesome wisecracking friends, tattooed cute shadowshaper Robbie, Sierra's brother Juan who is in a salsa thrash band, a librarian at Columbia, and Sierra's possibly-a-gangster godfather all must band together to find the mysterious, powerful ancestral spirit Lucera and save the shadowshaping tradition from the machinations of a power-hungry anthropologist named Dr. Wick, who has gotten a little too deep into multiple of the spiritual traditions he studies and is, apparently, miffed that he hasn't been accepted as the #1 most powerful leader in all of them, like the sweeping-in-late-outsider white dude always does in stories like Dancing with Wolves/Dune/Avatar/any of a number of others. He's convinced that the shadowshapers need to be "saved," for a value of "saved" that apparently involves killing a bunch of them, and he has to be the one to do it.

Daniel José Older is not shy about his political views, especially the view that white people need to learn when to stay in their lane, and while he is extra not-shy about them on panels and on Twitter (seriously, everybody go follow him on Twitter), the book is also a pretty explicitly political book (all his books are). Because he is a very smart dude, he doesn't believe that there's such thing as a non-political book, just books that don't acknowledge their politics or explore them intelligently and ones that do. This particular book explores issues of gender, race, gentrification, the imperialist history of anthropology, street harassment, ethnic identity (this is different than race), plus the YA staples of family, finding out unflattering things about grown-ups in your family, and taking on adult roles and responsibilities. There is a lot of a lot of stuff going on here, is what I'm saying. It is both built into the fabric of the plot and, often, called out explicitly, which I know is not necessarily everyone's bag but would probably be kind of weird not to do, because I think most people occasionally do try to talk about stuff that's going on with other people. It also establishes Sierra as an intelligent straight-talker who's not afraid to call out bullshit--or in some cases, who becomes not afraid to call out bullshit, which is a vital growing up skill.

A big part of the book is Sierra's sense of identity and place as a black Puerto Rican in Brooklyn, and as an outsider to all of these things (seriously, I think the last time I went to Brooklyn was when my great-grandmother was alive, for her surprise 90th birthday party, which is not what killed her don't worry) I am not in any way qualified to be having opinions on how this is approached or portrayed--the author knows more about this than I do, for obvious reasons--but what I will say is that, to someone not very familiar with this milieu, it's very vibrant and grounded, with a palpable sense of place and culture that permeates everything and makes it all feel cohesive and natural. Like, sometimes people know exactly what they're talking about but they're not very good at bringing it alive for other people, and this does not seem to be one of those cases. And I love, love, love that the city functions like a city--and especially like a city at this current moment in time for U.S. cities--with street-harassing douchebags yelling gross things at you when you walk down the street, and public transit taking like ten goddamn years to get anywhere, and the lightning speed of gentrification turning things into Starbuckses every time you look away for a second--all that I am in a place to tell you is all VERY TRUE STUFF these days. (The place is Boston, supposedly the most rapidly gentrifying city in the U.S. right now.)

Anyway, all of that is wrapped up in a big loud fun fast-moving ACTION FANTASY PLOT of FANTASY ACTION, with FIGHTING CHALK NINJAS and SNOTTY OLD CHURCH GHOSTS and DRIVING REAL FAST and SNEAKY INFILTRATION OF LIBRARIES and ZOMBIE ATTACKS and WITTY BANTER and all that fun stuff. And a lot of stuff about music, which I personally sometimes find a bit weird to deal with in books because my imagination fails me, but in this case I now really want salsa thrash to be a thing. (Is it a thing? Can someone make it so, if not?) And there is of course an Obligatory Romance, which, me being me, I believe has two main things going for it: it is blessedly straightforward (no triangles! no creepy starting-off-hating-each-other!) and the dude is not an overbearing twit. (For anyone unfamiliar with my general reactions to romances--which are divided into "wanting to punch one of the parties" and "not wanting to punch either of the parties"--that was a positive assessment.)

Oh, and the librarian character was the best, because librarians are the best. Except for sometimes when Sierra's friends are the best, because they are all full of hilarious one-liners.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix back when I was dropping lots of money on e-books, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until just now. I didn’t know much about it going in except that it was Chinese-inspired fantasy and it was girl-led YA, which, honestly, were pretty much the only things I needed to know. I went in expecting probably a fun sort of adventure fantasy romance thingy, and that is exactly what I got.

Our heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Ai Ling, who is not married because her parents are having trouble arranging one, because of some sort of scandal that her father was involved with twenty years ago that Ai Ling doesn’t know the details of. When her father has to go back to the Palace he’d been expelled from twenty years ago, on some sort of ill-defined business trip, he doesn’t come back—so Ai Ling sets out to find him. Along the way she has many adventures of the sort that make a long ride/long walk quest fun, including being attacked by many scary demons, coming into possession of magical talismans, discovering the extent of her own magic powers, meeting a handsome young man with his own tragic backstory, gaining a fun companion who then sadly dies, eating a lot of lovingly-described food, and riding a dragon. (Is “riding a dragon” not a trope used in every single quest narrative? BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE.) There’s a strong theme of sexual jealousy running through the various backstories and larger plot, adding an element of heaviness to the standard pro-romantic-love, anti-arranged-marriage theme that’s so prominent in historical fiction and historical fantasy. (My verdict on Chen Yong, the love interest: Sometimes broody due to Tragic Backstory, but almost 100% not an annoying jerkface.) (Anyone who knows my opinions on dude romantic leads will know that this is basically glowing praise coming from me.)

This book is pretty squarely within a certain tradition of teen girl adventure stories that is unabashedly my favorite and that I tend to turn to as comfort reading, so I ate right through this with probably not enough of a critical eye for plot holes or tropes that have been overdone (they are mostly tropes I like. But I know that I have read them in, at this point, literally hundreds of different novels). The world is fun, a lived-in-feeling pseudo-medieval Chinese set of kingdoms and some nonhuman realms that I think are based at least partly on Chinese myths and legends that I’m not very familiar with (but if so, apparently there are some wicked creepy Chinese legends out there!). Ai Ling is a pretty relatable, likeable character (with the notable exception of one episode of egregious obliviousness that almost gets everybody killed), and there’s some really well-done fight scenes and a fairy-tale structure/flavor to the whole thing that appealed to me.

The ending sets up a sequel, with the broody non-jerkface mixed-race love interest faffing off on another quest to find his father instead of proposing to Ai Ling already because apparently he is also sort of obtuse, so I think in the sequel she goes on the quest with him? I hope? I’m totally up for another quest with these characters, so long as Chen Yong proposes at the end. And this is not even because I’m super invested in their relationship as because it’d just be stupid of him not to and I don’t like stupid love interests.

I could see this getting a movie adaptation if the live-action Mulan does well, although sadly I could also see it getting a really bad movie adaptation even though the book itself has a lot of strong cinematic elements, because YA adaptations.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Man, I have fallen behind on my reviews. These are gonna be a bit short.

About two weeks ago I read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, because I had been a bad book nerd and watched the television show first, and the television show was awesome. It is about a World War II combat nurse named Claire who accidentally time travels back to eighteenth-century Scotland and drinks a lot and has a romance with a slightly silly, very handsome young Highlander warrior named Jamie. There is a lot of politics and a lot of sex and a lot of drinking and a lot of weird gross medical stuff and very little magic except for the time travel, which, interestingly, seems to be an established thing in that universe, in that there are a lot of stories of women (always women) time-traveling two hundred years away and eventually returning.

The first half of the book I basically knew what was happening, because the TV show thus far has covered it. The second half was all new material, since the second half of the first season of the show doesn’t start for another few weeks. I’m really curious if they’ll keep quite everything the same, since Jamie in the show is a bit nicer and dorkier than Jamie in the books, who is a bit of a jerk, but definitely is more of a jerk in the second half now that he is an eighteenth-century husband. Much of the second half of the book deals at great length with the ethics of beating people, especially dependents, in the context of But It’s The Eighteenth Century. It’s a bit disturbing, not even in the ways that I’m used to romance novel-y crap being disturbing—it’s not glamorized or handwaved away as OK Because It’s Love, but it makes it look reasonable by actually discussing it thoughtfully and with a lot of analysis of responsibilities, power dynamics, and what it is that is supposedly being accomplished. It’s so creepy.

Additionally, the stuff that is supposed to be creepy succeeds spectacularly at being creepy too! Mainly, Black Jack Randall. I can’t actually discuss anything about him here because everything is a giant trigger warning. I will say I am very curious about how a certain thing that happens to him at the end of the book affects the future.

While the book has strong elements of being a romance novel, it’s definitely a good romance novel for people who are me, because it’s packed full of high-intensity stuff-besides-romance, interspersed with actual humor. (God save me from romance that insists upon being dead serious all the time.) This is not to say that the book was without its things-I-experience-as-flaws; it is a very stuff-packed book and it does not skimp on anything, including stuff I’d rather it skimped on. I am the worst at reviewing romances. I’m just like “Ugh, OK, I guess Claire really loves Jamie or whatever, I guess that’s as good a motivation as any… for DARING PRISON BREAKS AND WRESTLING WOLVES WOOO” and then once the wolves are wrestled I’m like “Heartfelt reunion blah blah, is there anything in the world more boring than other people’s boobs, who’s gonna get kidnapped next?” which means my standards for judging a romance are like “How daring were the prison breaks?” I will say, this book has some astoundingly intense prison breaks; they are not for the faint of heart.

I definitely want to read the sequels, but I may reserve them for beach reading.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I was a bit worried that the third installment of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, Mortal Heart, would be boring after the deep fuckedupness of Dark Triumph, especially since it follows the angelic Annith rather than the madness-prone Sybella. But it turns out that Annith’s secrets are just as screwed up as either of our previous protagonists’.

Annith was brought to the convent as a baby, and she doesn’t have some of the things the other daughters of Mortain have—namely a birth story, or any sign of the various gifts that each of his daughters usually display one of. What she does have is secrets, and more skill at every task the young assassins are taught than any of the other girls, in part due to starting so early, and in part because of her treatment at the hands of the Dragonette, the former Abbess.

In addition to the ongoing war with France, which has formed the main source of conflict through this series, most of the conflict in this book comes from Annith’s being denied the opportunity to go out and actually serve as an assassin—the only thing she’s ever wanted, and the thing she’s been trained for. Instead, the current Abbess declares that Annith, because she is so biddable and obedient, will stay at the convent and train as its new Seeress. Biddable obedient Annith—who has deliberately done her best to be the perfect novice so that she will be entrusted with an off-island assignment—promptly runs the hell away. Or not that promptly, really, but quite shortly afterwards, after doing some snooping around.

The dual threads of war with France and Annith’s uncovering of her own family secrets—and they are some seriously messed-up secrets—are woven together tightly, bound with a lot of mythology about Brittany’s nine pagan gods. Up until now we’ve mostly only known about Mortain, the god of death, but here we meet followers of Arduinna, protector of innocents, and hear a  lot of different versions of the story of Mortain and his ill-fated marriage with Arduinna’s sister Amourna. We also meet the hellequin, Death’s riders, earning penance for their misdeeds in life by escorting lost ghosts to the Underworld and hunting down malevolent ones. Annith’s romance with the lead hellequin, Balthazaar, seems somewhat obligatory and tacked-on for the first half of the book or so, but then plot twists happened and I changed my mind. Balthazaar has secrets too! Everyone in this book has secrets!

But this book doesn’t just use secrets for shock value—the whole book, at its core, is a surprisingly thorough exploration of how people can be bent to one another’s will—through secrets and lies, through promises and praise, through coaxing and tricking and teaching them into effacing their own wills voluntarily. Though Annith certainly has enough reasons to complain on her own—she’s been treated abominably and robbed of the expected payoff that had been her reason for putting up with it—it’s her concern for the other girls being lied to and manipulated in the same way that allows her to really become a powerful moral force.

I also love that (and here there be spoilers) in this book about assassins, the final climactic “assassination” that saves Brittany involves shooting someone—with love! Love saves the day, huzzah! But also shooting by a teenaged assassin nun! Idunno, I thought it was great.

Putting all three of the together, this trilogy is one of the strongest YA trilogies I’ve read in years—and you know how much I love YA and how many trilogies there are! Usually one of them is weak; either the middle book has Middle Book Syndrome or the last one is rushed and just falls apart. But this series, along with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy, is really just stellar all the way through. With some surprisingly thoughtful themes lurking behind the main action of war, mayhem, and glorious medieval nonsense, it’s really everything I want in a YA fantasy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The elevator pitch for Elizabeth Bear’s new novel Karen Memory is colorful enough that you can pretty much be certain that if you like the elevator pitch, you will like the book, and if you don’t, you won’t. The elevator pitch is: Heroic prostitutes versus disaster capitalists in the steampunk Old West.

I was pretty much sold at that point, and I am happy report that Karen Memory is just what you’d want from a pitch like that, with added awesomeness besides. This includes a fictional appearance by real-life historical badass U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and his giant mustache.

I’ll be frank: I have enjoyed a fair number of stories that are absolute trashy messes, because they are trashy mess hodgepodges of stuff I like, and I probably would have still liked Karen Memory well enough if it were that. All the same, that is not the case here: This is a really solid story. It’s got strong and unashamed dime-novel elements, but it all ties together into a coherent, well-paced, thrilling narrative that is chock-full of awesome things and they all make total sense.

It’s a first-person narrative that does well the main thing a first-person narrative has to do well, which is: the voice is fabulous. Karen’s been taught “proper” grammar as part of her genteel parlor-girling duties, but the narration is in her regular nineteenth-century Old West working-class reads-a-lot-of-dime-store-novels voice, and it’s great—it’s fun and colorful and folksy and smart, and Karen’s a great one for sly observations and over-the-top similes and you can generally tell she’s got her roots in a good old playful Irish storytelling tradition. She says “could of” and “knowed” and she’s not one whit the less smart for it. She’s also totally adorable in her developing feelings for Priya, an Indian girl who’s managed to escape the cribhouses of the story’s villain, abusive pimp Peter Bantle.

Priya’s also great—a budding mad scientist with phenomenal language-learning skills who wears pants and is even more awkward about feelings than Karen. In fact, the cast of characters surrounding Karen is almost exclusively made of thoroughly awesome people, except the people who are such utter terrible people that you viscerally want to punch them in the face with their own fists, which does still make them great character. The cast at Madame Damnable’s consists of a diverse crowd of women (and one dude—the house bouncer, a gay Black man named Crispin), including the inestimable Miss Francina, a transwoman who nobody is an asshole to about it (except Peter Bantle, of course), the human embodiment of solidarity and friendship, and all-around stellar character. The other girls come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and accents, and they each have their own characters, though we rarely learn their backstories. The rest of Rapid City seems to be populated with men ranging from the villainous to the sort of ineffectually decent enough, at least until Marshal Bass Reeves and his posseman, a Comanche dude named Tomoatooah, arrive. They kick ass, quietly and with great dignity and sometimes dynamite. The dynamite is less quiet, obviously.

On to the steampunky bits! The steampunky bits are a bit less goofy than much of the steampunk I’ve read so far, although I admit to only reading ridiculous steampunk. There are no flying whales. There is, however, a lot of really bizarre city infrastructure and some weirdo robot full-body sewing machines that sound more like Iron Man suits than anything else. Much of the plot hinges on a creepy technological advance that’s so far still secret but not implausible based on what tech they’ve already got, and a bit more plot hinges on a particularly souped-up submarine with tentacles, because what’s a steampunk story without at least one octopus-thing? At any rate, I’m wicked jealous of Karen’s sewing machine.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone who likes badass ladies, steampunk, stories about lesbians that aren’t tragic death coming-out novels, historical figures you haven’t learned of in school, seeing abusive assholes get what they deserve, the Old West, big diverse ensemble casts, luxuriant mustaches, characters exhibiting genre-savviness (the genre in question being dime novels), and fun.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a most timely boon from the library gods, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, became available just in time for a weekend bookended by four-hour bus rides between Boston and New York, where me and some of my lovely friendesses were going to check out some awesome Gothy New York things, like the “Death Becomes Her” Victorian mourning fashion exhibit at the Met, and a trendy foofy cocktail bar called Death & Co.

Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.

The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).

Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.

Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh is the fourth and, currently, last volume in R.L. LaFevers’ series about Theodosia Throckmorton, the eleven-year-old daughter of two British Egyptologists, who is able to sense magic and remove curses from ancient artifacts. In this installment, Theodosia travels to Egypt with her mother—an archaeologist who is nevertheless completely unaware of all things magical—to return a sacred artifact to the ancient order of the Eyes of Horus. As usual, she is pursued by the evil Serpents of Chaos, who are the actually dangerous order of occultists that tend to pursue her (the other one, the goofy Black Sun, were disposed of in the last book). Guarded, in part, by her contacts with the Brotherhood—another secret order, this one dedicated to guarding the lost knowledge of the library of Alexandria—Theodosia has to manage her time carefully in order to return the emerald tablet without her mother finding out, which unfortunately means a lot of playing too sick to go to the digs.

As much as I liked this book, putting Theodosia and all her special Egypt powers back into the milieu of Egypt occasionally got a little awkward as the book danced along trying to keep Theodosia sufficiently protagonist-y without splatting too hard into a white savior storyline. The results are mixed, what with Theodosia's role in the various plots and orders being very very special, but also a lot of pretty well-developed secondary Egyptian characters and a sympathetic look at the Egyptian nationalist movement.

While there is a lot of Gadji, I still think there is not enough Gadji in this book. I'd read a book entirely about Gadji.

I think this book is emotionally strongest (and least squidgy) when dealing with Theodosia's feelings of alienation towards her family and her secrecy-strained relationship with her mother, especially when more of her family history is uncovered.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Miss Theodosia Throckmorton is the sort of MG heroine I would have been completely obsessed with had R. L. LaFevers' delightful series been around when I was about ten or eleven. As it is, I'm unashamed to eat this series up with a spoon. I'd read the first two a couple years ago when I temporarily stole them from Asshole Ex's younger sister, and more recently, a friend of mine who works for HMH--after also getting me hooked on LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy--procured me copies of books 3 and 4.
I read Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus all in one day, which was yesterday, when I was suffering a stomach bug that required a billion hours of napping to get over, otherwise it wouldn't have taken the entire day. Despite my having forgotten quite a lot of what happened in the first two books, it was still a fun read, and most of it got explained again enough that I wasn't lost for long.
The basic concept of this series is that Theodosia Throckmorton, the daughter of two Egyptologists who work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, can sense magic--specifically, curses of the sort that hang around on the ancient artifacts that tend to wind up in antiquities museums. She's also a fair hand at removing them, although occasionally something gets out of hand and we get a book.
In this third installment, Theodosia and her little brother Henry discover an emerald tablet, and it appears that everyone is after it. "Everyone," in this case, includes the Serpents of Chaos, a thoroughly evil secret society; the Black Suns, a mostly just completely batty but also somewhat evil secret society; and Awi Bubu, an Egyptian mesmerist who may be more than he seems. The only people who aren't after the emerald tablet, in fact, is the Chosen Keepers, which is unfortunate for Theodosia as she supposedly works for/with them and they keep blowing her off.
As one would expect, basically all the grownups in the series are oblivious numbskulls, even the nice ones, such as Theodosia's kindly but very career-focused parents. All the same, they are entertaining secondary characters, and some of them are even sympathetic, such as the socially inept Stilton. The younger kids are much more fun, though, especially Theodosia's street urchin friend Sticky Will and all his weirdly-named brothers.
This series strikes an odd middle ground of not overly romanticizing the Victorian era but not really dealing with any of its social issues in much depth either--it's just sort of dropped in there that, for example, Sticky Will's mother is still alive but is barely making ends meet as a laundress and will have to keep laundressing until she drops dead of exhaustion. Upon reflection, I think this is probably appropriate for middle grade, so that the book remains a fun adventure and doesn't turn into an issues book, but the children who read it still shouldn't grow up to be intolerably stupid adults who think the Victorian era was all manners and spiffy hats.
On to book four, while I wait for the second His Fair Assassin book to clear at the library.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a desperate bid to complete my Goodreads challenge this year (Why oh why did I extend it by 25 books?), I have been looking at the shortest, fastest-looking reads on my TBR shelf, and that means middle-grade. Luckily, because I have excellent taste in middle-grade fiction, this meant I finally got around to reading Niel Gaiman’s Coraline.

I’ve seen the movie, which was pretty awesome—directed by Henry Selick, who is the only stop-motion animation director worth having direct your stop-motion movie—so I mostly knew what the storyline would be, although it’s been a couple of years.

Since this is a Niel Gaiman book, and particularly one of his children’s books, it’s both cute and creepy. Coraline moves into a new flat with her parents, and is bored, feeling that her parents aren’t paying enough attention to her because they’re doing boring grown-up things, like working.
Coraline fancies herself an explorer, so she explores the flat and her upstairs neighbor and her downstairs neighbors and eventually explores her way through a door that opens into brick wall most of the time, and find herself, Alice-style, in a mirror version of her flat populated with alternate versions of her parents and neighbors. Her “other mother” seems quite nice at first, paying her lavish attention, but Coraline realizes something is up when she returns to her real flat and her parents are missing. Coraline and the other mother begin a terrifying game wherein Coraline has to get herself, her parents, and the ghosts of other trapped children out of the alternate universe and into the real world—or she’ll be stuck as the other mother’s pet forever, or at least until the other mother uses up her soul.

This story was simple, whimsical, and creepy all at the same time, with Coraline’s spare, childlike voice directing a close third person narrative that ends up feeling more than a little surrealist. It definitely makes me want to rewatch the movie, since there’s a lot of morbidly whimsical visuals in the book and I can’t remember how they were done. Overall it’s an excellent modern fairy tale, and I think I would have particularly loved it had it been around when I was eight or so.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, despite generally falling super far behind on reading along with Mark Reads, I did manage to finish up Terry Pratchett’s Sourcery only a day or two after the final post went up.

Sourcery is one of the books that I have only read once ever, and therefore have forgotten basically everything about. There are quite a number of these, particularly early in the series. I’d had it mentally filed away as one of the “not very good” ones, comparatively speaking, and for some reason I thought it was a standalone (perhaps I was mashing it up with Eric in my head?), even though it is actually a Rincewind book.

This time around, I think it’s still not going to stick with me as a particular favorite Discworld book, but hopefully I’ll remember that it is good, because it’s worth remembering. Sourcery charts the rise and fall of Coin, a sourcerer—the eighth son of a wizard who was already the eighth son of an eighth son, and so who is himself a source of magic, instead of just someone with the ability to wield it. This is deeply, deeply dangerous, particularly as eight-year-old Coin, armed with his father’s deeply creepy staff, sets out to have wizards conquer the world. This, of course, causes chaos and death and destruction and, as usually happens, opens a path for the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions.

In all this, Rincewind, having run away, partly due to his own cowardice and partly on the urging of the Archchancellor’s Hat, falls in with a couple of weird adventurers and proceeds to have lots of chaotic shenanigans where Rincewind keeps trying to run away and his damn friends keep trying to save the world. Eventually, Rincewind, with the help of the Librarian, who continues to be awesome, manages to figure out what’s really going on with little Coin, and then things get deep and sad as well as chaotic and wacky, because that’s how Terry Pratchett books work.

There are some particularly excellent puns in this one that I am glad to have rediscovered, especially the one about appendectomies, and it’s great to start to see some more continuity and character development across books as the series starts settling into being a series, and with Rincewind’s sub-series specifically.

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