The Haunting of Hill House is by Shirley Jackson (Ms. Jackson if you're nasty), author of the very famous short story The Lottery and the person the Shirley Jackson Award is given in honor of at Readercon every year. Both The Lottery and We Have Always Lived In the Castle were deeply creepy, but they still did not prepare me for the creepiness of The Haunting of Hill House, which, as you can probably guess from the title, is a haunted house story, and I am highly susceptible to haunted house stories anyway for basically the same reasons that I love wacky old houses, which is that I am an overly sensitive dork.
Even by haunted house story standards, this one is creepy because, while there is definitely something otherworldly living in Hill House, this seems to be the result of the core problem that the house itself is simply fundamentally, unreservedly evil, and has been from the moment it was built, even before it was finished being built. Its very architecture is apparently designed to psychologically torment anyone who looks at it, let alone anyone who spends time in there. It is weirdly imbued with all the psychological unhealthiness of the morbid weirdo who commissioned the thing, and it is dark and all the angles are wrong and it is buried deep in the feet of the hills and none of the doors ever stay open.
Our main characters are four people who go to stay in the house for a three-month study of paranormal phenomena; two of them are women who have experienced paranormal phenomena in the past. Our narrator is a timid, dreamy, somewhat internally spiteful oddity named Eleanor, who is thirty-two years old and reads like she’s eighteen, and I say this as someone who is both younger than thirty-two and continually feels like she’s still a teenager. Eleanor’s sense of stunted, prolonged adultulescence isn’t formed by widespread economic collapse like mine and my peers’ is; it’s instead due largely to having spent most of her adult life shut away caring for her sick and not-just-internally spiteful mother, plus an overbearing sister who treats her like a child. Eleanor basically has to steal the car and run away to get to Hill House, which is totally how functional adult families work.
When Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House, and meets Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, and the creepy-ass housekeeper and his creepy-ass wife, things go one of three ways in a series of exquisitely paced and plotted scenes: Sometimes, Hill House is just disorienting and unpleasant, with little supernatural activity and a lot of tilting minor annoyances, like things maybe moving just outside your peripheral vision, or just being oppressively dank and Victorian. Other times, the company and good food and occasional bout of nice weather mean that they actually are having quite a nice time, exploring the brook in the backyard or drinking brandy and playing parlor games, all shut up together in the parlor where they can safely keep an eye on each other. And sometimes, there are the manifestations, which are when shit gets really creepy: writing on the walls that calls out Eleanor by name, blood all over Theo’s room, banging noises and creepy laughter in the hallway. It’s all done in a way that is fantastically, exquisitely chilling, and even now thinking about it I have had to pull my legs to the side where I can see them because they felt unsafe all the way under the desk in the dark, and the heat vent is gently blowing on a wall hanging and the noise is making me jump out of my skin with every taptaptap of the wooden dowel on the wall, a noise that usually becomes quite invisible to me by the end of the first day of having the heat on.
But Hill House has plans for Eleanor, and they are not to scare her into leaving; they are much more sinister than that. And seeing Eleanor’s thought process change and morph as she goes totally Yellow Wallpaper on us is even more terrifying than any of the manifestations Hill House throws at her, except perhaps the one where she’s holding Theo’s hand in the dark while there’s a voice manifesting in the next room and then when the lights go on Theo’s too far away for it to have been her hand. Why that one scared the shit out of me the most I’m not sure; probably because it’s more deceptive than the more cinematic hauntings like the white, white trees against the black, black sky. In unrelated news, I’m going to bug the fuck out next time I try to wear my black shirt with the white tree on it, aren’t I.
Apologies to our beautiful shy cat Amaranth who tried to come in and meow at me in a rare display of friendliness while I was writing this review; I didn’t mean to jump out of my skin and shriek at you, it was just very bad timing. She’s probably going to hide from me for like a month now.
Anyway, I feel like this book certainly has earned its reputation as the scariest ghost story ever told, and I will not be reading it again anytime soon, although Andrea has threatened me with the movie. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.
Magic for Beginners is weird. It’s fantasy, but the sort of fantasy that also skirts the borders of literary fiction and of magical realism and of translations of really old stories that sound weird to a modern audience because they use a different kind of story logic than we’re quite used to. There’s nine stories in the compilation and none of them are boring. The collection sort of eases you into the weird by starting off with The Faery Handbag, which uses a lot of traditional elements of well-known fairy tales from a variety of traditions, and weaves it into a new and increasingly unsettling fairy tale. After that, the stories are full of recognizable elements like ghosts and zombies but they don’t work the way you’re used to them working and they’re not in quite the sorts of stories you’re used to seeing them in. The zombies, for example, don’t seem to be taking over the world or spreading or eating people or really causing much mayhem at all—certainly not a zombie apocalypse—they just keep showing up at an all-night convenience store and not buying anything. The real creepy element in that story is the pajamas.
Any one individual story could probably yield several really fun literary criticism papers, even the ones about people’s marriages falling apart. One of the ones about a marriage falling apart is also about a haunted house, although it’s not haunted by ghosts; it’s haunted by bunnies. Another story about a marriage falling apart is an alien invasion story with lots of cloning. I personally prefer The Faery Handbag, and the one about the ghost television show, and—well, any of the ones where the main character is too young to be in a falling-apart marriage. That’s on me as a reader, though. That I did like all nine of the stories no matter how much about marriage they were is a pretty impressive feat of writing by Kelly Link. There’s quite a lot to say about any one of these stories, but I feel like I might have to be in conversation with someone else who’s also read them in order to tease out what it is exactly I have to say. There’s a lot of seemingly random, dreamlike stuff going on in all these pieces that I’m pretty sure are metaphor or analogues or catalysts or something like that for all the issues of regular life, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out what they are. It’s not as obvious as it usually is. Like, the zombies aren’t mindlessly eating everybody in a thinly-veiled metaphor for inescapable consumerism and the insatiable demands of a growth-based capitalist economy. The zombies are the creatures that don’t buy anything at the convenience store. So what are they and what are we supposed to do with them? I’m going to have to think about it.
One thing that is particularly fun in this short story collection is that they are all connected: They all take place in the same universe—indeed, the same Brooklyn—as Half-Resurrection Blues, and feature a lot of the same characters. A bunch of the stories are from Carlos’ point of view; others are from the POV of other supernatural-affiliated characters, most of whom know Carlos and get all mixed up in his plans of trying to sabotage whatever nasty power-grubbing nonsense the Council of the Dead is up to.
While the Council gets up to quite a bit of nasty nonsense, including an attempted hostile takeover of a neighborhood in Manhattan that had been outside of its jurisdiction, not all the stories in the collection involve the CoD. Some involve various other malevolent ghosts, sorcery-wielding miscreants, and other weird shit. There’s a great one about creepy possessed vintage porcelain dolls, although Carlos has to go and continually be such a dude and keeps referring to them as American Girl dolls even though they clearly can’t be. There is also one about the ghost of a giant woolly mammoth, and that’s possibly the least weird story in there.
There’s a good balance of creepy and funny in this selection, with pretty much all of the stories being creepy and some of them being funnier than others depending on who’s in them: Any time Carlos’ ghost cop partner Riley shows up trying to be macho it’s going to be goofy sort of funny; whereas CiCi’s stories have a warmer, more subtle sort of humor, in an indulgent-grandma kind of way. (Like the old people IMing bit, which is… old people IMing. IT’S ADORABLE.) Carlos on the occasions when he’s being a total dork continues to be the most fun, in my opinion.
Unrelated to the content, but a thing which I nevertheless have opinions about: This book is published by Crossed Genres, a funky small press here in MA, which is awesome. They also decided to use straight quotes instead of smart quotes for the whole book and really compressed ellipses, which is less awesome. I feel bad bagging on a small press for things like this but I really hate straight quotes in print.
ANYWAY. Do you like ghosts? This book has all the ghosts. Ghost elephants. Ghost bureaucrats. Ghost shit-stirring Black magicians from the 1800s (I think 1800s?). A ghost bus driver with a ghost bus. This book is only like 150 pages but it’s got a whole shadow universe of New York in it full of weirdo ghosts doing weirdo ghost things, and it’s great.
Well, I feel like I have a lot of things to say about Half-Resurrection Blues, but chances are good I’ll forget to say some of them, or possibly I will not say them as fully as they are in my head. Sometimes you get a book where there’s just a lot going on. (Sometimes this is because it’s 1500 pages, but sometimes it’s not.)
Starting with the basics: Half-Resurrection Blues is the first novel in the Bone Street Rumba “spectral noir” or “ghost noir” urban fantasy series by Daniel José Older, who I’ve seen on a bunch of panels at Readercon and Arisia, where he was always a kickass panelist. He has opinions on italicizing Spanish that I always think about whenever we have clients who are like “We’re trying to target a Hispanic market, also, italicize any term in Spanish.” He also answers all my bullshit tweets which is (a) good author marketing branding practice stuff and (b) a sign that his fanbase isn’t big enough, so go buy his book. He was also nice enough to sign my copy at Arisia so nyah nyah.
We’ll get to the ugly little fucker on the exercise bike in a bit.
So “ghost noir” turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin: It’s noir, all lyric description of gritty city streets (in this case, Brooklyn) and characters smoking a lot and doing shots because they’re in such a manly bad mood and thinking about sex and having tragic buried backstories and stuff. It’s also got ghosts. Our gruff damaged protagonist is a “half-resurrected” (meaning he died but has mysteriously come mostway back to life, no one knows how) special agent for the Council of the Dead. His name is Carlos Delacruz and he figures he’s Puerto Rican and he doesn’t know anything of his former life. Mostly he skulks around keeping shit-stirring ghosts in line and drinking rum with some of his ghost agent bros and making fun of hipsters in his inner monologue and reading, which sounds like a pretty good life for a noir protagonist. But then the plot shows up in the form of another half-resurrected guy—the first one Carlos has ever seen—who wants to bring a bunch of college bros into the Underworld, and Carlos has to kill him, and then everything gets complicated. Not least because Carlos immediately develops a ginormous crush on a photograph of the now-dead half-resurrected guy’s sister, except that he’s just killed her brother, so you can imagine how well that’s going to go.
The other immediate problem is the sudden infestation of a bunch of soul-tearingly irritating (literally) ugly little demon things called ngks, which apparently look like tiny grinning toads riding tiny stationary bikes. Somehow they are connected to whatever terrible plan involved the college bros, and Carlos and his ghost cop buddies have to set about trying to figure out and dismantle an increasingly labyrinthine situation set up by some ancient weirdo called Sarco that manages to involve (and by involve I mean screw over) pretty much everyone we’re introduced to in the entire book, as is right and proper noir/hardboiled plotting. I don’t want to talk more about the plot because spoilers.
Possibly my favorite thing about this book is the voice. It’s a first-person POV, as is also only right and proper, and man, does Carlos have certain aspects of sounding like Noir-y Protagonist Man down pat. He swears a lot and he bounces back and forth between the lyrical descriptive thing and the blunt, matter-of-fact hardboiled thing accompanied by cynical inner monologue about everybody. But while Carlos’ voice and characterization is unapologetically working within a certain tradition, he doesn’t sound like a Philip Marlowe ripoff. He’s more modern and more Puerto Rican, obviously, and the Brooklyn he moves in is a modern Brooklyn, full of communities of color getting slowly edged out by annoying white hipsters and rich people, which is precisely what’s happening in Brooklyn, from all reports. I’m wildly unqualified to have any opinions on the authenticity of the use of Spanish in this book because obviously the author is actually Hispanic and I am an Irish-American living in a mostly white section of Boston, but from some recent reports of People Having Opinions About Spanish In Fiction, I am going to say that it’s really not that difficult to read, guys, even if you don’t speak Spanish. I did not even have to use the Google machine once. Stylistically I think it lends a sense of place and a sense of specificity— you don’t feel like you’re in Anycity USA, in the I Guess People Live Here Quarter where people speak Ninth Grade Textbook English—but whether it’s accurate is up to people who have been to Brooklyn more than twice. The language overall is very playful and colloquial and makes you want to read it all out loud just for the fun of it.
Additionally, but no less importantly than any of the stuff to do with race, class, or identity, is that this book is funny. Dry cynical wisecracking is a time-honored part of noir, obviously, but the humor in this book runs much goofier than that sometimes, because why not. Carlos’ super surly noir man persona not infrequently gives way to a sort of flaily haplessness when either shit gets truly bizarre (see: demons on tiny bikes) or when he’s attempting to put together sentences about Sasha, our maybe-femme-fatale love-interest lady. There are also a handful of memorable puns, the aforementioned ridiculous ngk bikes (which are never really explained), and a ghost that shows up and says “Schmloooo” a lot during a very important and suspenseful following-people scene, apparently just to ruin the atmosphere. It could easily have not worked, but it does.
My biggest criticism of the book: It is pretty dudely. There are a handful of pretty cool but still pretty minor female characters, a secondary character who is a female house ghost, and Sasha. And I like Sasha, and I actually like most of the other female characters and think they all should totally get more page time in the sequel. Apparently the Council of the Dead and all its ghost cops have a serious gender imbalance in their line of work, though. Overall, though, considering the long history of surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny in the noir genre, Half-Resurrection Blues makes an excellent refuge for people who love gritty noiry mystery shit but are over the surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny.
Highly recommended for: Anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Chandler novel and been like “This would be perfect with a little less raging racism and sexism, and maybe some ghosts.” Fans of Castle who are always disappointed at the end of the Nerd Episodes when the vampires/zombies/ghosts/Victorian time travelers turn out not to be real. People who like urban fantasy but are bored of the same old Laurell K. Hamilton knockoff shit. Anyone who really appreciates good use of style and language in genre fiction.
Wyrd Sisters is, basically, Macbeth. But Discworld-style, of course. It takes place in the tiny sad mountainous microkingdom of Lancre, where the villainous Duke Felmet—at the urging of his ruthless wife—murders King Verence, who was not really so much a good king as he was a not-particularly-bad king, and more importantly, he was a king who cared about Lancre. Duke Felmet does not care about Lancre, and Lancre can tell. Felmet is also all squidgy about anyone finding out that he killed Verence, which slowly drives him into a complete mental breakdown.
Granny, Nanny, and Magrat hide Verence’s baby boy with a troupe of traveling actors, a troupe which includes a dwarf playwright plagued with incessant inspiration. His name is Hwel. It’s probably pronounced “Will” because he’s definitely Shakespeare. Obviously, the baby has a destiny to come back and defeat Felmet and reclaim his throne. The witches have a plan to make this happen, but also obviously, nothing ever goes quite according to plan.
A lot of this book, like all the best Discworld books, is about stories, with the theater featuring quite heavily, but also a lot of awesome jokes about the tropes of witchcraft. As someone who grew up reading a lot of witch books and seeing a lot of Shakespeare performed, this is 100% right up my alley and unendingly hilarious to me. I also identify a lot with Magrat, the youngest witch, whose idea of witchcraft is much more Gothicy and druidessy and generally Wiccan than the older witches, and who has a mad case of impostor syndrome, and who is generally a gigantic dork.
The funny bits are, as usual, hilarious, but Pratchett is definitely starting to develop and further work in his serious opinions about things like power and stories and human nature, even if most of it is lumped under the amusing label “headology.” There are also many rather thought-provoking, if joke-laden, discussions about what constitutes “meddling.” The real thing that brings Pratchett a cut above most other comic writing, of course, is the characterization, which is often very absurd and very real at the same time, and the characters never run together. Granny, Nanny, and Magrat, in particular, are all very different, all larger-than-life characters in their own way, and there’s no way to have trouble keeping them apart, unless, apparently, you’re the typesetter, who seems to have mixed up a few “Nannys” with “Grannys,” but nobody’s perfect.
There is probably doctoral-thesis-level amounts of Stuff going on in this book that I could write about all night, but it’s too much and my brain would collapse. Just going to leave it at saying that the witches are some of my favorite of all the Discworld characters.
A thing I did not realize at first is that this book is a reprint of a work that was originally published shortly after the turn of last century, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. Once you start reading it, it's wildly obvious, because it's written in such an earnestly Edwardian manner. The book is a collection of short anecdotes, organized into categories, interspersed with a lot of arguments about why they are credible and that the fashionable skepticism about their validity is arrogance, arrogance I tell you. The two men who compiled this were obviously smart and well-educated men, who are actually quite vocal in their defense of the Irish populace from charges of "superstition" (a popular anti-Catholic stereotype), but who are entirely convinced that it makes prudent scientific sense to believe in "psychical phenomena" and stuff. It's really kind of adorable. The stories themselves are sometimes sort of short and weird--like "there was a Mrs. S and she lived in this house and saw a figure, and then her sister came to visit and she saw it too" and nothing else really happens--but some of them are quite imaginative and interesting, particularly the ones that are less generically haunted-housey and get into banshees and the like. The banshee stories are particularly awesome. Most of these stories aren't that scary, although there are one or two that feature images that managed to get weirdly under my skin anyway, but that may be because I am a highly suggestible wimp (a bad trait for a Goth, but oh well).
I'd really only recommend this to people who are particularly interested in weird folklore; the lack of a narrative thread and the pseudo-scientific tangents would probably make it a bit of a dry read for people who prefer reading regularly-structured books.
Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, published by the awesome local Small Beer Press, has recently won the British Fantasy Award, which is what moved it to Spot #1 on my To Be Read ASAP pile. (My TBR pile has an ASAP section that is like… fifty books long. This is why I keep missing my book clubs.) I had bought a copy at Readercon and gotten it signed by Ms. Samatar herself, who is a delightfully friendly and smart lady with impeccable taste in scarves.
A Stranger in Olondria is a ghost story, and a love story, and a story about books. It is the memoir of Jevick of Tyom, the son of a pepper merchant, a boy who loves books and dreams of the day when he will accompany his father to Bain, the capital of the great empire of Olondria, where books are plentiful. Books are not really a thing in Tyom; Jevick only knows how to read because his father hired him an Olondrian tutor, so that Jevick would not be made fun of or ripped off when he became old enough to go to Bain to sell pepper. He had never really intended to turn Jevick into a big old philosophical poetry-loving book nerd, but that is what happened.
Jevick’s first trip to Bain does not go at all as planned. He picks up a ghost, the ghost of a willful girl from near his home country who had gone to Bain to seek medical help and died; this attracts the attention of two competing Olondrian religious cults, who each have their own very specific ideas about what happens when someone is haunted by ghosts—or, as the Olondrians call them, angels—neither of which mesh well with Jevick and the ghost’s own beliefs.
I don’t want to talk too much about the plot, because the plot, while well-executed, is not the only thing going on here. The bare bones of the plot’s structure are a classic coming-of-age story, with a lot of stuff about parents and a young rural innocent going to the big city and getting into trouble and becoming the important person they will grow up to be. The basics of the ghost plot are also essentially a classic ghost plot—ghost torments narrator until it is buried properly; at the end, it is buried and the haunting is ended—but a lot happens in between.
The two things that really stick out to me about this book are the worldbuilding and the love of books that’s woven throughout it. These two are closely intertwined, often, as much of our narrator’s understanding of the world in which he lives comes from having read its literature, and there is an abundance of quotations from various in-universe famous authors about the various places in and around Olondria. The quotations are rich, dense, ornately-worded, and sound genuinely like any sort of adjective-riddled ancient text you’ve ever read a translation of, full of vivid poetic images that sound kind of random (and occasionally incomprehensible) to modern ears, song lyrics that don’t rhyme in English and words that can’t be quite translated. It is detailed and thorough and utterly believable.
In my only-middlingly-educated opinion, this book owes a lot more to ancient myth and folklore storytelling traditions than it does to other modern fantasy novels. The language is descriptive and poetic, most of the stuff that isn’t quotations isn’t quite as dense as the stuff that is quotations, but it has the rhythms and details and long, intricate setups of old stories rooted in oral traditions, back when we had to remember stuff and well before we invented “invisible writing.”
If you like reading old folklore and ancient epics as much as you like reading “regular” fantasy novels, A Stranger in Olondria is probably a great book for you. I’d also recommend it to anyone who likes the work of Catherynne M. Valente; there are similarities in the stylized poetic-fantasy approach she takes, I think. Also recommended for people who are seeking fantasy books with non-headdesky representations of people of color, and anyone who particularly wants to support awesome independent small presses with awesome not-nearly-famous-enough lady authors.
Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.
Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.
Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.
There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.
The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.
One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.
On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.
Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.
Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)
Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.
Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.
In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.
Like all the best crime novels, this story actually focuses on two cases, which are related. In a deviation from the usual formula, we actually find out how these cases are related pretty early on: the Shadow Snake, the child murderer who kidnaps small children to extort treasures from their families, has killed the grandson of Crookshank, a neighborhood crime lord who seems to be doing some sort of hidden mining operation involving fire opals, and killing off his diggers. It’s the murder of baby Rolond that kicks off investigations into both of these plotlines.
Beka Cooper is just starting out as a trainee member of the Provost’s Guard, which is basically the city watch/rudimentary police force. She is assigned to the two very best and most well-known and awesome pair of Dogs (as they call themselves) on the Evening Watch, which is the interesting one. These are Mattes Tunstall, the laid-back goofy one, and Clary Goodwin, the hardass sarcastic one. They are both great, great characters as well as great Dogs. Beka, having moved out of Lord Gershwin’s house where her family lives, is also living in her very first own apartment (which is apparently a one-bedroom, as there are other people in her lodging-house but they’re not in her “rooms”, which makes me super jealous! My first apartment was an eight-bedroom. I would love a one-person apartment. On the other hand, apparently medieval apartments do not have kitchens, which would make me sad). She makes FRIENDS!! with a bunch of other Puppies (trainee police) and also some “rushers” (persons on the other side of the law) from Scanra, who are all darlings despite two of them being professional killers. Rosto in particular is like a bizarre mashup of Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland in the terrible TMI movie and Jamie Campbell Bower as Slutty Playboy King Arthur in that terrible Camelot show. He’d definitely be bad news for Beka but as a character he’s hilarious and weird and there is lots of very bizarre UST between him and Beka and it’s just gloriously awkward.
The journal format seems to have bugged a lot of people, but I have a giant soft spot for journal format books. I also love the extra-old-fashioned language—I remember it throwing me off a bit the first time I read the book, but it’s just so fun! The swears in particular! Every time I read a Beka Cooper book I remember that I have to call more people terrible medieval names like “sarden cankerblossom” in real life instead of just being like “What an asshole” every time someone’s an asshole, but alas, I keep forgetting.
Reading this with the MR commentariat also meant I learned a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including recipes, and that twilsey is a real thing that you can make with fruit vinegar because fruit vinegars are also a real thing. (My foodieism needs serious work. I must become a proper foodie; they know how to have fun. Especially in Paris.) (By the way, does anyone know what you actually do with vanilla butter? I bought some…)
Thumbs up A+ would read again, I freaking love Tamora Pierce.
Doll Bones is told from the protagonist of a middle-school boy named Zach, who plays an awesome sort of pirate adventure fantasy game with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, using various dolls/action figures. In their game, an antique doll that Polly’s mom keeps locked in a cabinet serves as the Queen.
Stuff gets weird when Zach’s dad, an occasional proponent of the “teach kids that life is hard by deliberately making their lives hard” school of childrearing, declares that Zach is too old for this make-believe stuff and throws all of Zach’s action figures away. Zach, too embarrassed and upset to admit that this happened, tells Poppy and Alice that he doesn’t want to play the game anymore. So when Poppy starts telling him that the Queen is talking to her, Zach thinks he’s just trying to lure him back into the game. When Poppy and Alice actually show up at his house in the middle of the night telling him they have to go to somewhere in Ohio to bury the Queen doll because the bone china of the doll is actually made from the bones of a murdered girl, Zach decides to go with them, if only to shut Poppy up. But as the quest continues and weird things start to happen, Zach becomes increasingly convinced that the Queen really is a restless spirit.
Mostly, though, Zach and Poppy and Alice fight, and keep secrets from each other, and generally put all their friendships through the wringer, as they all try to work through what’s a game and what isn’t, and what’s really important to all of them. This is definitely one of those stories that’s largely about stories, which is totally fine by me. It’s also very much about friendship and the importance of being honest with your friends, which I am generally inclined to find heartwarming and adorable.
The thing here that I am MOST impressed about is the doll’s backstory. HOO-EE. That is some hardcore shit and no mistake. It’s gruesome and heartbreaking and sort of morbidly beautiful because ~art~ and it’s got some real Victorian and Romantic novel tropes woven in there very effectively, and certainly much more subtly than any Victorian novel actually used them (I guess you can’t ever really do “grief-stricken mad genius artist” that subtly, but… I’ve seen worse). The doll itself is giantly creepy and gruesome and just gets more so every time you learn something else about how it was made; and the Queen’s… characterization? Ghost powers? They kinda run together—are pretty unsettling.
The thing I felt the least impressed with might have been the very end? This may just be me getting unused to standalones or shorter books, but I remember being surprised that I had reached the end, not because it was a dreadful cliffhanger or anything, which I’m getting rather used to, but because everything had seemed to wrap up neatly, so I was waiting for one more twist or something weird to pop up and be not actually settled or something like that… I think I’ve gotten used to “Oh look we’ve finished our quest, we can go home now” as being the fake-out to a story ending instead of, like, how books actually end. Even though that’s kind of the standard way for stories to end and has been for much of the history of Western storytelling and I should know this because I have a goddamn degree in this sort of thing.
Overall I found this to be a good, cutely Gothic kind of read and I’m sure I would have gotten all obsessed with it and had a whole Phase if I’d found it when I was in late-elementary or middle school. Also I’m glad the only doll I have in my room is a nice goofy mass-produced Monster High doll (don’t judge meeee we didn’t have Monster High when I was the right age for it) or I might have been creeped out for reals and not slept for a week.
In this one, a heavily pregnant Alexia Maccon, Lady Woolsey, is trying to manage her domestic life, which largely involves buying a town house for the pack next to Lord Akeldama’s house so that Akeldama can adopt the baby and Alexia can live in one of his closets. This is all to make the Westminster Hive of vampires stop trying to kill Alexia and the baby, because vampires are chronically incapable of minding their own business. Then a half-crazy ghost shows up at the new town house and vaguely warns Alexia that there is a plot afoot to kill the queen.
From then on there is a bunch of the usual delightful Gail Carriger-style nonsense involving cravats, naked werewolves, mad scientists, and Alexia being cranky at people. There is a rather touching subplot about Biffy, formerly Lord Akeldama’s drone but now a werewolf and member of Woolsey Pack, and his difficulties adjusting to pack life. Alexia does some investigating of the area mad scientists, the Order of the Brass Octopus, which involves a lot of investigating the past, as well—specifically, the last plot to kill the Queen, which originated out of Conall’s former pack in Scotland. We learn more stuff about Alexia’s father, Alessandro Tarabotti, who has been an interestingly mysterious figure throughout this whole series. And we get to hang out with Countess Nasdasdy and the Westminster Hive, who are thoroughly interesting characters. Carriger’s vampires have some interesting bits of mythology to them that you don’t see much elsewhere, such as that a vampire queen is permanently tethered to her home, and will only leave in grave danger—a practice called swarming—in which she will take all her vampires and drones with her and must find a new home posthaste or she will die. Ultimately, Carriger’s vampire social structure seems to be based off bees.
There is also a good deal of Ivy Tunstell being very Ivy but also very awesome and useful, which made me very happy, because I like it when we get to like Ivy. Possibly the most hysterical scene in the whole books is Ivy’s on-the-fly introduction to the newly official Parasol Protectorate, Alexia’s private spy network. Ivy insists upon ritual and theatrics, and she gets them, and so does the reader.
In other news, I like Conall better this time around, if only because he has the same attitudes about Victorian melodrama as I do (i.e. that it is THE FUNNIEST SHIT IN THE WORLD). Also we see him being a genuinely good Alpha, rather than Lyall having to cover his ass the whole book.
My biggest issue with the book is that the climax of the plot relies upon Genevieve Lefoux doing something that is somewhat unsubtle and basically just plain stupid, which I don’t feel is very Genevieve. The ramifications of the stupid thing are fabulous, though, neatly upending a lot of the social dramas in the book, and Alexia rearranges everything in a way that would make Flora Poste proud.
The new baby also promises to be a thoroughly interesting addition to the series, being a “skin-stealer,” and I am quite looking forward to learning more about “skin-stealing” and what kind of havoc it can cause.
I do not regret this decision at all.
Range of Ghosts is a political fantasy and it’s based largely on the medieval Middle East and Asia. A major theme is the rise and fall of empires; the empire that owns most of the known world at the time of this story is the Qersnyk Khaganate, which is largely based off the Mongol Empire—the Qersnyk are a culture made up of a number of nomadic horse tribes from the steppe. The Khaganate is facing civil war after the death of the Great Khagan. Other kingdoms, empires, and former empires—some subject to the Khaganate; some on its borders—have their own cultures and their own reactions to the war within the Khaganate. How closely these other kingdoms seem to be based on other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures varies, or possibly my familiarity with the cultures in question does. The different cultures and the different factions within the political houses are all well-characterized and clearly differentiated. As far as I can tell, there are no white people in the entire book.
My familiarity with Mongol history is very limited, so around the time I began reading this book I also listened to a five-part Hardcore History podcast called “The Wrath of the Khans,” and learned stuff about Genghis Khan and his heirs. It was both educational and disturbing, because welcome to history.
One of our protagonists is Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, and now the heir with the most legitimate claim to the throne, as his cousin has killed off his elder brothers while trying to seize the position. The cousin is named Qori Buqa, which personally frustrates me, since I noticed that Qori Buqa seems like it would be pronounced close to Cory Booker and I am like “Noooo Cory Booker is awesome; this cannot be the bad guy” but that’s all me. (I voted for Cory Booker TODAY. Yay!)
Our other main viewpoint character is the Once-Princess Samarkar, who, after arranging to be widowed, tries to remove herself from the vicious political situation in the Rasan Empire by becoming a wizard. The process for becoming a wizard of Tsarepheth involves a surgery to remove her ovaries; wizards must be infertile for their magic to manifest. Samarkar is awesome; more on that later.
The worldbuilding in this book is often really creepy, in a good way. The skies are different over each country, and change to reflect changes in political borders and leadership—so when the Khaganate takes over another land, their sky changes to the Qersnyk sky, which features a personal moon for each member of the ruling family (this provides a handy guide for who is still alive at the end of every day). The magic that can be wielded by humans comes in ways that require high costs and intense training—wizardry can only come when the body has lost its ability to procreate, and seems to be largely based on manipulating elements with one’s will. Sorcery, which is much more sinister, seems to be mostly blood magic, and frequently involves killing people. In addition, objects can be cursed or ensorcelled. The dead must be sent along to the afterlife with whatever prayers and rituals are required by their culture, or else their ghosts stick around and can be manipulated with sorcery, which is bad news, because when ghosts attack you they can suck out your life/warmth/energy, and they can only be repelled with salt.
After surviving an absolute massacre of a battle (even by battle standards), Temur hides his identity for a bit as he and his awesome horse take up with a bunch of refugees, and he develops a relationship with a badass young Qersnyk woman named Edene, who also has an awesome horse. When Edene is abducted by a huge army of scary-ass blood ghosts, because she is too badass to get abducted by anything less, Temur, accompanied by his and Edene’s awesome horses, goes in search of her. It is on this quest that he meets Samarkar, out on her first real wizarding assignment to the city of Qeshqer, which, it turns out, has been completely depopulated and its people’s bodies used for more creepy sorcery. Everything beyond this is entirely too complicated for me to sum up but suffice to say that there is a creepy blood-magic murder cult that is trying to deliberately sow war and kill people, including Temur, and they have Edene.
Edene gives us more insight into the creepy murder cult as she becomes a viewpoint character. I almost just wrote that she is my favorite viewpoint character except that’s not true—no one character is my favorite viewpoint character because the really great use of viewpoints here is in the way they all play off each other. So we get the inside view of the creepy murder cult from both Edene, the outsider, and a guy known as Al-Sepehr, the sorcerer who seems to be our main villain (one of them, anyway. It’s complicated). And when Temur and Samarkar are travelling together, which is for a pretty big section of the book, the narrative keeps switching back and forth between both their viewpoints. All the viewpoints are very distinct and shaped strongly not just by their narrator’s individual personalities (the way we think of personalities, in terms of traits and general attitudes) but are also very clearly rooted in their personal experience, particularly in terms of their knowledge of and experience of different geographies and cultural practices, etc.—some characters have seen oceans before and some haven’t; some have never seen desert; the Qersnyk do not have the custom of kissing so this is a weird foreign custom to them (it is apparently true in the real world that some cultures do not have kissing, at least according to a bunch of the anthro texts I used to read for Pearson; this is one of the things I cannot get over thinking is really weird); the steppe characters feel claustrophobic in enclosed mountain holdfasts and the mountain characters feel lost and exposed on the steppe. It helps that the characters are very well-realized, and often fairly sympathetic to modern reader biases in terms of their values and priorities, so it’s easy to get into their headspaces, and then it cramps your poor modern brain to be in the headspace of someone who is thinking about all sorts of complicated, advanced political scheming one minute and, like, boggling over the existence of pillows the next. I love it.
I have the book in trade paperback, but I strongly suggest buying it in hardcover so the next time you run into an asshole who claims that “politically correct” fantasy about anyone-other-than-white-dudes is boring, you can more easily beat them to death with it. I have no idea where this series is going except that I am pretty sure somebody will die at some point because so far this book doesn’t pussyfoot around, and I don’t want anyone to die because everybody is awesome. (Seriously, I am Mark Does Stuff levels of unprepared.) I will probably pick up the second book in October when I will be attending a book signing for Elizabeth Bear and her adorkable boyfriend Scott Lynch (author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read in August). Then I will have all the awesome signed books and everyone had better be jealous.
Since I am eternally behind the times, I have been reading The Graveyard Book instead. This was published five years ago. I picked up a beautiful but sadly unsigned copy at Porter Square Books, because I
I got the one with this sexy, Gothy cover:
Ahem. Anyway. The Graveyard Book is essentially a retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which I have not read, because I win at being an English major. (I have read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And “White Men’s Burden,” which, um.) Except, since it is a Neil Gaiman book, it has ghosts instead of animals.
The protagonist of our story is Nobody Owens, known as Bod, whose entire family is murdered when he is a toddler. The baby survives by wandering into the nearby graveyard, where he is adopted by some ghosts and given the Freedom of the Graveyard. In addition to ghost parents, he also gets a Guardian, a mysterious being named Silas who is neither living nor dead, and who can leave the graveyard in order to get Bod food and other stuff he needs, what with not being a ghost himself. Most of the book is pretty episodic, which makes sense since it based on a short story collection. The main plotline, however, has to do with Bod growing up, and, of course, with finding out who killed his family and why, and stopping him from finishing the job. (The man is still planning on finding the baby that got away and killing him. But he is prepared to wait.) (He is kind of a sick fuck. There are reasons for this.)
One of the main strengths in the book is the same thing that is one of the main strengths in pretty much all of Neil Gaiman’s books, namely, awesome creepy supernatural creatures. The ghouls are both scary and adorable, with hilarious names like “the Bishop of Bath and Wells” and “the 33rd President of the United States” (NOT Harry S. Truman. Just the 33rd President of the United States). There’s also a very, very, very old entity, that may be a single being or may be a group, which guards the very oldest pagan tomb under the graveyard, known as the Sleer. The Sleer is hard to describe without giving stuff away, but be assured that they are very creepy and very important to the plot, and also kind of cute and sad? Poor Sleer, stuck guarding an empty tomb for centuries. They must be so bored.
There are also illustrations, because Neil Gaiman books are fancy like that.
I highly recommend this book, not like anybody needs me to recommend it, since we all already know that Neil Gaiman books are generally pretty awesome. I laughed, I cried, I got tingly-crawly feelings on my skin, although some of those turned out to be carpenter ants actually crawling on me. (And this is after I put down two different kinds of ant bait. Le sigh.) I really should have read it five years ago.