bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
It's been almost two weeks since I read A Conjuring of Light and I kind of forgot what I was initially going to say about this? I've got a really bad habit of starting series and then being so excited for the remaining books in the series that I sort of put them off forever 'cause I want to save them or something, so I'm honestly not sure what to make of the fact that I immediately put in for the next one at the BPL each time I finished one of these. Clearly I was having a lot of fun but not getting too hung up on ~appreciating~ it as ~literature~. It had an extremely high body count, which was fun, and a lot of angst, which was kind of fun too. We get a lot of interesting backstory on Holland, who somehow winds up being the most fascinating and least hateable character. Osaron, the bit of magic inexplicably imbued with consciousness that now thinks its a god, is a great villain, not because he is genius-ly villainous but because he is deeply infuriating to witness, the sort of puffed-up dipshit wrecking ball of a creature that thinks being able to destroy things real good is a sign of strength and not just an acceleration of the natural direction of the universe toward entropy, and who is too undisciplined to notice that maybe the reason his worlds all keep getting wrecked is him. I think he's a metaphor for industrial capitalism or toxic masculinity or something. At any rate, the dynamic is familiar.
 
This book is a bit longer than the others, and it could easily have been trimmed down, but it wasn't, and I'm OK with that? It slows down the pacing a little but I liked a lot of the random side characters who got little bits of perspective. The King and Queen, who were pretty tertiary figures in the earlier books, get a lot of interesting backstory just in time to make it interesting when they die heroically. There are all sorts of fun adventures like a secret black market of incredibly magical objects that is also a ship. Combined goblin market and pirate ship tropes is very up my alley.
 
Rhy also comes into his own with being kingly and useful, especially when he literally rides out to collect his people that have survived the shadowy brainwashing fever thing Osaron is doing. If you survive the shadowy magic brainwashing fever, you are then immune and your veins turn silver, which is another one of those things that would work great on TV if done properly. And might also be a metaphor. Magic stuff is always a political metaphor to me because magic is power and politics is also power. (Some authors write explicitly political fantasy and I think I find those fun to read because it's like, it's already there so I don't have to work too hard on reading it into it.)
 
Anyway, I think I might have messed up on book club tomorrow by reading the whole series, so now I've got to remember what was in which book, wish me luck. Also it's going to be 80 degrees so I can't even wear a fabulous coat to book club. ::sadface::
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
Does anyone else get, like, sympathetic pain/other weird physical sensations when reading about medical stuff? I do, and reading Blitzed the other week basically made all the veins in my arms and legs feel fragile and empty, because I can only read about so many injections. It's an unpleasant feeling, so of course I decided to double down on it and be like "Next I'm going to read a book about RADIUM POISONING!"
 
I found Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women basically by accident; I had gone to Porter Square Books on a Friday night to pick up two books I'd ordered (Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. I had decided to go on a Russia kick), and there was a joint author event with Kate Moore and Nathalia Holt, discussing this book and Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. It was a great discussion; nothing makes me so glad to live in a city like Boston than being able to randomly wander into a surprise women's labor history night.
 
The Radium Girls is the history of the women who worked painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces with radium paint during the World War I and interwar era. There were major radium paint factories—or "studios," as they were called—in Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Ottawa, Illinois. The dial-painters were mostly working-class girls in their late teens or early twenties, although some were older, or even as young as fourteen. The technique used to keep the brush tips nice and fine while painting the numbers was to moisten and point them with one's lips—a technique that meant the young women were constantly ingesting radium paint.
 
Radium, if you didn't know, is fantastically toxic, especially internally.
 
People back then didn't know, mostly. They knew that radium could treat cancer by burning out the cancer, and from this they largely concluded that it was therefore very healthy. There was a great craze for putting radium in everything, such as cosmetics and tonic water. Fortunately, radium was extremely expensive, so most products marketed with radium didn't actually have any radium in it. There were some exceptions, like one rich guy who drank radium tonic every day for years, and then eventually his jaw fell off.
 
The girls who worked at the dial-painting studios had landed one of the most prestigious, best-paid gigs available to working-class women at the time. It was a glamorous job, partly because of radium's mystique, and partly because the job got the girls covered in radium powder all the time, which then made them glow in the dark when they went out at night. The first big radium company whose workers we meet is the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey—incidentally, about twenty minutes from where I grew up, midway along the commuter rail between my town and New York City, on the Morristown line—whose founder, Dr. von Sochocky,  had invented the radioluminescent paint they marketed as Undark. The men who worked in the labs used gloves and masks and aprons and all that normal (for the time) protective gear, since they handled radium in the sort of quantities that would burn skin--but they all thought that was basically just an annoyance. The dial-painters had no protection, since it was assumed that the radium in the pain was of such small quantity that there was no danger.
 
It was a few years before the first girls started to develop tooth problems, and if the teeth were pulled, the wounds refused to heal. The frustrated dentists thought that perhaps the girls had been exposed to phosphorus, since they were showing symptoms of what was ghoulishly known as "phossy jaw," or phosphorus poisoning. It took years before the various doctors, dentists, scientists, and other professionals, pushed along by lawyers, the New Jersey chapter of the National Consumer's League, and the girls themselves figured out that "phossy jaw" is just very similar to "radium jaw," or the hitherto unknown condition of radium necrosis. While doctors and lawyers fought with the company's doctors and lawyers to try to test the paint, to conduct medical tests on the remaining workers, to reexamine the scientific literature on radium and conduct further experiments on it, more and more girls were getting sick and dying. A constellation of symptoms appeared, many of which nobody initially suspected were related: while some girls had tooth issues, others developed arthritis-like conditions, with their legs shortening and joints stiffening. After a few more years, after the first lawsuits had been filed and the legal and scientific fighting was in full swing, the doctors started to see a new symptom—giant, fast-growing, lethal sarcomas, a type of bone cancer, that appeared on jaws or knees or elbows or wherever it wanted to show up. This is because radium is chemically similar to calcium, and when ingested, it does the same thing calcium does and settles into the bones.
 
The Radium Girls, and the tight social networks they had developed while working at the studio, weren't just victims here, although obviously holy God were they victims here; the book has pictures and they're pretty disturbing. But they also were extremely persistent about seeking and demanding help in order to cover their medical bills and let the world know what was happening. The girls and their lawyer worked the media wonderfully, giving lengthy interviews about all the ways the company had evaded responsibility and blamed the girls for their own health problems (the first girl to die of radium necrosis was posthumously said to have died of syphilis; part of the case involved exhuming her and testing her remains for both syphilis and radioactivity); they also gave the press periodic tearjerker updates about how they were doing and what they wanted from the case and for their own lives. When they gave testimony in court, the reporters covering the hearings reported that the girls were brave and stoic, but the reporters themselves cried. Ultimately, the New Jersey case was settled in 1928 for what at the time was many buckets of money, which helped the five women in the lawsuit--or their families, in the cases of the ones who had died over the course of the legal proceedings—pay their medical bills and provided them pensions since they could no longer work. In one of the most infuriating legal decisions I have ever read, the company managed to get it into the settlement terms of their payout to Mae Canfield that the Radium Girls' lawyer, Raymond Berry, could no longer take any action against the U.S. Radium Corporation.
 
This case, understandably, scared the crap out of the dial-painters in Ottawa when it got big enough to start making national newspaper headlines. The studio in Ottawa, run by the Radium Dial Company, assured the girls that they were fine, since the paint used in NJ had mesothelium in it and theirs didn't. Nevertheless, RDC started regularly giving medical tests to all its workers, although it never told them the results. When the girls began to fall sick, they demanded money from the company to cover their medical bills; the company refused to pay and fired several sick workers. The company had basically gone under by the time the workers were able to retain a lawyer who would take their case with the Illinois Industrial Commission; the judges repeatedly found for the women through a humiliating series of appeals, which seemed designed to run out the clock on the women in the hopes that they would die before the company had to pay out any money from the small pot of assets it had left (about $10,000). This case got even more dramatic than the New Jersey one, with one very sick Radium Girl, Katherine--now in her thirties, married with two children, and wasting away before everyone's eyes—giving testimony from the couch in her living room because she was too fragile to be brought into court.
 
The Radium Girls has everything as a drama—legal intrigue, unscrupulous businessmen, plucky underdog heroines, scientific hubris, body horror—it works perfectly as a cautionary fable against scientific hubris and the inhumane incentives of business. But it's all true. I cried on numerous occasions reading it, because I am a sappy old lady now; because I grew up so close to Orange and Newark; because I too almost died once in Waterbury, Connecticut; because my people were also working-class Irish and Italian immigrants crammed into the greater New York metro area around the time of the world wars; because I've had a lot of teeth pulled and had a lot of dreams about them falling out and my whole face splintering apart. Basically, it hit home in a lot of half-assed-but-unexpectedly-powerful-when-all-happening-at-the-same-time ways, and reading it made all the bones in my hands and feet and face hurt.
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic because it was fun tropey nonsense, so I picked up the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, which is even more fun tropey nonsense.
 
The central bit of tropey nonsense in here is that it is a Tournament Book, which is always a fun time. It deviates from the usual expectations a bit in that not one, but two characters enter illegally, and a bit more in that (spoilers) neither of them win. Also, the tournament is structured a little weird. But it is still a magic tournament, and people still wear a lot of fabulous coats.
 
Granted, not all the tropes are fun. Lila has been Spunky Fighter Girl Who Hates Dresses! for a while, which has been done but is fine, but at some point early in the book she literally pulls out a "I'm not like other girls," which is why I was so pleased that she also turned out to be Not Like Other Protagonists and didn't win the tournament. (I am knocking an entire star off my Goodreads rating for this book just for those five words in a 500-page book. I am not fucking around; there is no excuse for anyone to write or type that in earnest ever again. This is basic shit by now.) It was telegraphed pretty heavily in the last book that Lila's an Antari but that doesn't save her ass because it turns out she can't just attitude her way through all the laws of magic, and while a bit of "the rules don't apply to me" can be part of the power fantasy in fantasy books (wouldn't it be nice to have the rules not apply to you?), it's even more satisfying to see someone get a bit of comeuppance when they're all like "I don't have any fucking idea what the rules are; I'm just sure they don't apply to me!"
 
The book also doubles the number of Handsome Rich Flirty Bros by introducing Alucard (yes, ALUCARD) Emery, the captain of the privateer ship Lila steals away on to learn pirating because she's never been on a boat before which is a liability if your dream is to be a pirate, so we have to put up with his overbearingly charming ass in addition to Rhy, the crown prince, who is actually starting to grow up a little and is even more insufferable because of it. This double whammy of Handsome Rich Flirty Bros ought to be a thousand percent insufferable but is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they are gay for each other, which ends up making Kell mad even though they are clearly perfect for each other since they are basically the same person.
 
Kell spends most of this book going through angst like he's trying to win a tournament of angsting (which Rhy would probably win actually). Neither he nor Rhy are dealing well with having to share a life-force; it's apparently very invasive, and they can feel each other's physical pain, which means they each spend way too much time and brainspace fretting over how much they'll hurt the other one if they stub their toe. It's all very heartwarming.
 
Anyway, while everyone is busy being permanently unhappy about everything over in the Red London universe, the White London universe is slowly coming back to life, thanks to its new king: Holland, the Antari who was killed and stuffed into Black London at the end of last book. Yay for White London! Except that while this seems good it is actually Bad, because the Thing that ate Black London is insatiable and is quite hellbent on overdoing things in every London. Holland has also picked up a slightly culty knife-dancing follower with red hair that he's been able to impart magic to and he sends her on some sort of mission to Red London to kidnap Kell. There's a lot of fighting and running through secret corridors and stuff.
 
The Obligatory Romantic Subplot between Kell and Lila that's been telegraphed since the very first second they met finally blooms into existence sometime near the end of this book, so that's out of the way finally. I was not especially rooting for or against this; every human in this book is so massively emotionally damaged that I can't imagine their romantic relationships being in any way healing or functional, but I'm also not sure they can screw them up any more than they already are.
 
In short: Magic tournament, angst, fighting, running through secret corridors, more fabulous coats, disguises, hijinks, capers, rich assholes, boats, moar angst, evil hungry magic threatening to corrupt/take over the world. In other words: tropey but fun.
bloodygranuaile: (bitch please caligari)
 As a longtime pirate aficionado and an even more longtime women's history aficionado, I was pretty stoked to find a copy of Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers who Ruled the Seven Seas at Porter Square Books this summer. I'd missed the author event, which I was bummed to find out about after the fact, but the book was signed, so I happily shelled out for the slim little purple hardcover.
 
I had great hopes for learning a few new things when I brought this book to Maine last weekend, or at least to have some fun revisiting the things I already know. Fifteen years of on-and-off piratical reading means I'm already fairly familiar with the stories of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of Grace O'Malley, and of Cheng Yisao, who are basically the Big Four of female pirates who occasionally get talked about.
 
In respect to the number of lady pirates whose stories are addressed, the book does not disappoint. The author, Laura Sook Duncombe, doesn't want to leave anybody out, and seems of the mind that more pirates are better than fewer, even if some are apocryphal, or outright fictional, or if they stretch the definition of "piracy" a little — for example, most of her ancient world examples are queens for whom raiding was considered a more or less legitimate form of warfare. This is fine and I think it was a good choice, since I also think more lady pirates is better reading than fewer lady pirates. As a result, I learned about a whole bunch of interesting women whose stories I hadn't previously heard of — Mary Wolverston, Lady Killigrew in Cornwall, whose entire family was engaged in piracy and fencing (not the swords kind) in the Elizabethan era; the New York river pirate called Sadie the Goat (a nickname that has only improved with age, as Sadie is indeed the #GOAT); Sayyida al-Hurra, a Barbary Coast pirate queen of the early 16th century; and many others.
 
What is disappointing about this book, though, is that there is still not enough lady pirate history, in that the amount of page space dedicated to actually telling the reader about lady pirate history is heavily diluted with a lot of editorializing, moralizing, and trying to guess at/manage the reader's impressions. This is bad enough when Duncombe's reactions to things align with my own, since there is far too much of it; when we disagree on stuff, it becomes wildly distracting. I found much of Duncombe's editorializing to be frankly quite condescending (albeit condescending in a different way than you'll be condescended to if you're reading books on maritime history by old white dude naval historians who address these figures).
 
The first example that really, really annoyed me was during the recounting of the "War of the Three Jeannes," a conflict in medieval Brittany that I'd inexcusably never heard of but is exactly the sort of vicious war of succession that is exactly what people read about medieval European history for. After her husband is killed, one of the Jeannes, Jeanne de Clisson, brings her sons to Nantes to show them that their father's head had been mounted on a pike for public display. To this, Duncombe says "To a modern reader it seems a bit puzzling, to say the least, that Jeanne would choose to expose her young sons to such violence."
 
Like... actually, lady, as a modern reader, I already got past the sentences where King Philip put the dude's head on a pike for public display, which would expose everyone in Nantes to it, and while I am not a medievalist, I have also not lived under a rock for my whole life and I am familiar with the general concept of the Middle Ages. So no, it's not puzzling to me at all that the nobility of 14th-century Brittany would raise their children under different standards than those used by middle-class 21st-century Americans who have access to knowledge from the field of child development psychology, a field that was established in the 1920s.
 
This is what I mean by condescending. I don't have a problem with Duncombe relating her own opinions — I'd never chastise a woman for expressing her opinion in a book about female pirates — but you come at me trying to feed me my own opinions, you'd better not miss and you'd REALLY better not miss THIS HARD. And frankly, you probably just shouldn't ever try to tell me my own opinions on stuff anyway even if you're correct, because I hate it.
 
But even more awkward than the assumption that the reader has never heard of the Middle Ages are Duncombe's attempts to spin the history of women engaging in piracy as something that is uncomplicatedly FEMINIST AND EMPOWERING AND YAY. There are certainly shades of this in why people are interested in stories about pirates and other outlaws and about why women would be interested in stories of women pirates particularly. But Duncombe has fallen victim to the romance of it too hard to write about historical piracy with any sort of credibility, because when you start writing about piracy as a real thing that has happened, you quickly run up against the complication that, while feminism is good, piracy is actually bad. Duncombe writes things like "The heart of piracy is freedom" and it's like, that word "heart" is doing a lot of work there, because the core concept of piracy is "using boats to steal stuff." Freedom and following your dreams and escaping the confines of society are associations we have with piracy that are a part of why regular people who would probably not enjoy being the victims of crimes are often nonetheless fascinated with stories about criminals, whether it's pirates, gangsters, Western outlaws (not the same thing as cowboys; cowboy is an entirely legal profession that involves herding cattle), bank robbers, or what have you.
 
The constant attempts to get inside historical figures' heads by randomly speculating and imputing high-minded values to them, such as "valuing freedom above all else" and the desire to do your own thing and what have you, are at best heavy-handed and annoying, like, it's OK to admit that they're criminals and that's what we find interesting about them; no need to try to pretend Anne Bonny is Mother Jones. It all comes off a bit "In 18th-century England, women weren't allowed to wear pants or to murder people and steal their stuff, maaan, think about it ::bong rip::". Duncombe seems to want to revel in stories of women transgressing the social boundaries of hundreds of years ago without having to deal with the bit where these women's careers are still transgressive of norms we have today, like that stealing people's boats isn't nice and neither is shooting them, with the result that it sort of ruins the actual transgressive thrill of reading about crime that is why I picked up a book about pirates in the first place and not one about, say, suffragettes or labor activists.
 
The worst offense here comes when Duncombe gets to the end of relating to us the deliciously macabre story of the apocryphal streetwalker-turned-pirate Maria Cobham, a tour de force of over-the-top Gothic brutality in which the young Maria discovers that she LOVES MURDER and is just SO GOOD AT MURDER and gets more and more into committing INCREASINGLY GRUESOME MURDERS, all while her pirate husband who got her into this life is starting to go off the whole murder thing. They eventually get away with all of it and pull off ONE LAST MAJOR HEIST and use the proceeds to settle down in the French countryside and thumb their nose at the entire world by integrating seamlessly into respectable society and never having to account for their deeds. IT IS A GREAT STORY, and if you like reading about wacky morbid criminal shenanigans, you will enjoy it thoroughly. Duncombe promptly laments that Cobham "hits a discordant note in the ballad of pirate women" because she is "hard to root for," what with having been "a vicious, ruthless woman who was not drawn to the freedom or adventure of piracy so much as the murder."
 
Girl. I say this with love, because you are clearly deeply committed to feminism and apparently friends with Jia Tolentino: YOU ARE WRITING THE WRONG BOOK HERE. You are raining on my Reading About Criminals parade with your moralizing, and if you want to put a spin of deep ideological commitment to freedom and liberty on stories of women doing crimes, I would suggest you find a way to get interested in any of the many female political activists and revolutionaries who engaged in violence and terrorism whose stories are also not told nearly enough, instead of dancing awkwardly around the entire idea of what piracy is. I'm sure there's a market for books about female political assassins just as much as there is for female pirates! 'Cause right now, you sound like this:
 
Cartoon children in pirate costumes hold a sign saying "A good pirate never takes another person's property!"
 
Probably the best thing about the whole book is that Duncombe does religiously cite her sources, so it's easy to find further reading on all the many and varied stories that are touched on so shallowly in the book itself. I now know of a lot more interesting female pirate(ish) characters who may or may not have existed, and I have an extensive Further Reading list for all of them, all in one handy bundle with a very attractive purple cover. So that's good to have on hand even if I know I will never read the actual body text of this again.
 
And I agree with the author and with probably every other lover of pirate stories that it's a shame none of these histories have been turned into decent movies. I think I'd love a souped-up costume drama TV series on the Killigrews of Cornwall, especially. Organized crime families make for some of the best TV series out there already; surely someone could pull it off without screwing it up.
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
There come times in the life of every reader where a book contains enough Things Relevant To One’s Interests that it makes them go “Oh, it’s like this author has written this book just for me!” When you have as many things Relevant To One’s Interests as I do, this happens with some regularity, I will admit.

But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.

But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.

This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.



I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.

I was not disappointed.

The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)

The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.

The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.

If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.

With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).

I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.

The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.

I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.

bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
 Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence is too good.
 
Two Readercons ago I got a lovely signed first edition of the fourth book in the series, Last First Snow, after hearing Max talk about getting chased by bees in China (I don't remember what the panel was about, but I went to a panel about bees the following Readercon just to hear him tell it again). I read it in the cabin on the lake in Maine, which is the best place to read anything, and so I always prioritize bringing the books I'm most excited about there.
 
Last First Snow takes place in Dresediel Lex, the creepy mashup of Tenochtitlan and Las Vegas, several years before the events of Two Serpents Rise. The protagonist is the priest Temoc, who as a viewpoint character comes off a little bit more like a functional human and less like Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy than he does in 2SR.
 
The plot of this book hinges on fire insurance, which I suppose is what I get for trying to write a fantasy book where the plot hinges on fire insurance and never finishing it, and now if I do finish it it will be both derivative and nowhere near as good at this one. This book is about gentrification and protest and conspiracy and all that other horrendous neoliberal capitalist crap, and as someone who lives in a rapidly gentrifying city (VERY RAPIDLY) (coincidentally, Max Gladstone lives here too!), I can see echoes of local housing battles and Occupy encampments in the movement to save the Skittersill from developers.
 
Because this is the Craft Sequence, the Skittersill, a slum district in Dresediel Lex, isn't a slum district for any of the normal reasons, like having been cut off by deliberately shitty bridges. Instead, it's under some sort of magical ward that designated the area as a "divine protectorate," which basically seems to be a sort of giant community land trust that keeps it safe and affordable but doesn't provide anyone the resources or authority to stop it from falling apart--land can't be bought or sold, and the gods that protect it are dead. The wards are also decaying, also because the gods are dead, and developers smell an opportunity. One developer, a Skittersill native who made good, got out, and has turned into a real estate bro, hires Elayne Kevarian of the necromantic law firm Kelethres, Albrech, and Ao (Tara Abernathy's future boss, and also just an all-around boss) to help him figure out a land deal that will be acceptable to the city's judges. But the city's judges won't accept any land deal that's not acceptable to the giant protest movement that's sprung up in Chakal Square.
 
This book also features everyone's favorite emotionally immature coffee-drinking skeleton, the King in Red, who despite being a terrifyingly powerful magical skeleton is also every douchebag executive who can't be reasoned with and goes nuclear whenever anyone challenges his authori-tah, making him easily manipulable. There's also several appearances by baby Caleb, who I honestly like better as a small child than I ever did as an adult. You can see why he turned into the sort of adult he did, though.
 
The first half of the book is about negotiations and stuff within a tense but peaceful protest movement, and it all seems to be going relatively well! There are a few insurrectionary-minded assholes on both sides that seem to really want things to get violent, most notably some arsehole known only as The Major on the side of the protestors, but they get talked down every time they go about vomiting their revolutionary vanguardism all over people whose goal is to not have their houses destroyed. A sabotage-via-food-poisoning plot is foiled. But eventually, all this success makes for anticlimactic fiction, so eventually one of the sabotage conspiracies works. An act of violence destroys the entire equilibrium and instantly turns the protest movement into urban warfare. Elayne and Temoc are now in the unenviable position of having to win the battle, protect the citizens of the Skittersill, talk down a bloodthirsty King in Red, and uncover the conspiracy to figure out who Bloody Sundayed the negotiations and why.
 
Final takeaways: Real estate developers are slimeballs, community solidarity is powerful, maintaining nonviolent discipline in a mass movement is harder than besuited TV pundits think it is, and late-stage capitalism is an unnecessarily complicated trashfire of a system so you should be thankful it doesn't literally involve magic. Also, support your local fantasy authors.
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
I finally got around to picking up the third book in Max Gladstone’s excellent Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five. I decided to prioritize this over the other giant pile of stuff I have to read because I am mentally exhausted reading about capitalism and politics and so wanted some nice escapist fantasy. And also because I am apparently stupid and self-sabotaging, since the Craft Sequence is basically all about technocorporate capitalism, just with souls as currency and gods taking the place of… fossil fuels? Basically energy utilities.
 
My favorite thing about Full Fathom Five right off the bat was that one of its viewpoint characters is very poor, which the previous ones have generally not been, so we get some scenes in which poverty is literally soul-sucking. Izza is a street thief, and it is through her that we see the effects of running low on soul—blurred vision, faintness, dizziness, basically what it sounds like it would be—when she has to buy incense when her goddess dies.
 
Full Fathom Five takes place on the small touristy island of Kavekana, the main industry of which, besides tourism, is the creation of idols—rudimentary godlike constructs that can be built upon request and worshiped by Kavekana’s priests, as a stable, safe investment with less sacrifice required than traditional actual deities. There are parallels here to any number of complicated financial hedging products that exist all up on Wall Street and elsewhere, and some other distinct parallels to the economies of assorted lovely small islands in places with nice weather that are referred to by residents of larger jurisdictions as “offshore.” The core of the plot is the core of so many stories of modern finance: a bunch of smart finance bros build products that they think have permanently beaten or ended some element of risk in the market, but the thing they thought they’d eliminated the risk of happens anyway. No one can get one over on capitalism indefinitely. 
 
Our other main viewpoint character is Kai, an idolmaker/priestess who ill-advisedly attempts to save a dying idol, nearly dies herself, is hospitalized and demoted, and winds up uncovering a giant conspiracy involving idols, an insufferable poet, and Cat the drug addict policewoman from Three Parts Dead. By the end it also involves Dickensian street urchin Izza and features a cameo by Teo from Two Serpents Rise, forming a wacky girl gang of priestessy types with terrifying powers. It’s FANTASTIC.
 
After the initial exciting bit with the idol dying and Izza’s goddess dying and Kai almost dying, the plot takes a somewhat leisurely but not too slow pace to really put together a full idea of what’s going on and how urgent it is to fix it, but that’s fine because the backstory and worldbuilding and meandering around Kavekana getting drunk and looking for poets is quite a lot of fun. It’s clear from pretty much the beginning that Izza’s Blue Lady is the idol Kai tried to save even though that’s supposed to be impossible, but this is OK because the real mystery is how the hell that happened, and it’s fun to see when and how the two main characters will finally cross paths (it’s a small island so they run into each other a bunch of times before interacting properly, which is probably a little gimmicky but I liked it?). I figured out who the bad guy was probably a chapter or two ahead of the protagonists; I think it’s pretty heavily telegraphed but only for a little bit, so the period of time you spend basically going “Don’t go into the basement with just a thimble!” is limited. 
 
Kavekana also features a terrifying rock-based police force, although one quite different from the gargoyle-derivative black ops-y Justice agents in Three Parts Dead. These are called Penitents and they are basically big magic geodes/iron maiden type things that criminals are trapped in until their wills are brought in line with the programming of the Penitents. The Penitents basically wander the streets scaring petty thieves, while the rich powerful folks are able to use the Penitents on their enemies to help them cover up crimes. This has no analogies to our current society’s issues of police militarization and their being used by large corporations (like, say the DAPL builders) against regular citizens whatsoever, I am sure.
 
I’m planning on getting to the last two books in this series later in June when I get up to Maine. I’m really, really glad I finally got around to reading this series; it’s just so great to have well-done fantasy that also indulges my love of reading about financial crime. 
 
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: (wall wander)
For BSpec's book club I finally got around to reading the first book in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, which I have been meaning to do for at least two years now. I have the last two books in the sequence signed, but the first one only in paperback, and am missing the second and third. To make it even more complicated, the books take place in a different order than they are published -- they are ordered by the number referenced in the title.

The first book, therefore, is Three Parts Dead, which follows the adventures of young Craftswoman Tara Abernathy as she is hired on probation at the necromantic law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao under the mentorship of terrifyingly efficient senior Craftwoman Elayne Kevarian. Tara graduated from Craft school under dubious circumstances that involved her trying to kill one of her professors and getting thrown out of the school, literally, which is pretty dangerous because the school floats up in the sky, as all the best magic schools do.

Tara's first assignment is in the city of Alt Coulomb, which runs off the power of its god, Kos Everburning. Unfortunately, Kos has died under mysterious circumstances. Tara, with the help of a hilarious sheltered young priest (or Novice Technician, as he is called) named Abelard and his junkie policewoman friend Cat, has to help Elayne figure out who killed Kos and why and how and who benefits and all that stuff and generally unravel the massive conspiracy hidden in the heart of the Church.

While the story is plenty funny, it's not as much of a comedy as one might think from some of its elements -- demon lawyers! a vampire pirate captain! divine contract law! -- and the world of magical techno-corporatocracy that Gladstone builds is convincing, at once both weird and distressingly familiar.

Tara is a great protagonist, driven and talented and badass and definitely in a bit over her head, and Abelard is a great dual lead, being an earnest bumbling weirdo in an arcane religious order who chain-smokes to show religious devotion and doesn't know what a newspaper is. They're a fantastic, fantastic team, especially since the book very sensibly eschews the unnecessary romantic subplot that I think a lot of authors would have found obligatory.  Instead of romance we get, like, shape-shifting gargoyles and blood magic libraries and a nine-story demonic BDSM nightclub and stuff like that.

The philosophical underpinnings of the main conflict ends up having a lot to do with free will and consent and the dangers of clever, talented technolibertarian douchebags being allowed to exploit other people without adult supervision, so suffice it to say that the book is not all fluff and explosions, although like any good urban fantasy it certainly has quite a lot in the way of fluff and explosions, and even an instance of leather pants.

I think we're going to get a really good discussion out of it. I've already started reading the next book in the Sequence, so we'll see how many we get through by the time book club rolls around.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
After the election, I decided to start a book club.

The first meeting is in January, well before inauguration. For our first book, we picked Sarah Jaffe's Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

Necessary Trouble covers a bunch of the different protest/activist movements that have arisen in the U.S. since the financial crisis hit in 2008: Starting with the Tea Party, it moves on chapter by chapter to cover Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Our Homes, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, and a number of climate actions. The section on climate actions, mostly the anti-fracking movement, are kept for the end of the book so that it ends on a maximally apocalyptic note: These are the people fighting government's attempts to literally burn the earth and poison people to make a buck.

Jaffe contextualizes each movement in terms of the events and policies that led up to it being born, often giving recap that go far back into the history of capitalism and of the United States. She ties that in with the stories of activists within each movement, providing in-depth interviews about how and why they got involved and what the movement means to them.

A couple key themes continually emerge. One is that many of these crises have been a long time coming and will not be easily solved. Another is a theme among the activists that so many of them found themselves ashamed of being in the sorts of situations that instigated these movements--of losing their jobs or retirement savings in the financial crash, of being foreclosed on, of holding student debt. Americans really, really want to be hard-working and self-sufficient, and this is part of what's allowed things to get as bad as they have: People will tell themselves that they should individually work harder to overcome whatever's being thrown at them instead of insisting upon being treated fairly, which we tend to believe sounds like petulant whining--that if someone's treating you unfairly, you should be awesome enough to make them treat you fairly, instead of complaining that they're not. The result of this is that the powers that be have been able to tilt the playing field ENORMOUSLY in their own favor before folks who see themselves as average hardworking Americans are willing to admit that they haven't been able to overcome the enormous structural disadvantages they've been put at and maybe you fuckers should just stop stacking the deck. Americans are highly prone to believing that there is still shame in losing even if the other guy was cheating, because you should have been awesome enough to stop the other guy from cheating you.

The book is very hopeful--hopeful that Americans are willing to learn and to organize and to come together in solidarity to get into "good trouble" and demand change. But it also warns of the temptations of the dark side of populism, the scapegoating, tribalist kind illustrated by Trump, who had not yet been, to our eternal shame and possibly to the end of our democracy, barely elected on a technicality with some help via cheating. (And yeah, in true American fashion, I'm pretty ashamed that the Clinton campaign couldn't still beat him even with the cheating, because he's the worst con man ever.) The hopefulness is alternately infectious--Americans have been organizing and fighting; we'll be able to do it more--and depressing. Frankly, the emotional whiplash is a little hard to take.

I learned a lot, though, even as someone who tried to follow these movements relatively closely on social media when they first happened. (For example, I didn't know that Lehman Brothers had gotten its start selling security bonds on slaves--honestly, and this is probably stupid of me, I hadn't realized you could create any sort of financial instruments with slaves as collateral, even though now that I think about it that's precisely what the "chattel" designation means. And I hadn't realized how much of what some of these banks got up to in the mortgage crisis was actually fraud--as in, already illegal--rather than just goddamn stupid.) And the book is so well-written that even though its subject matter is so heavy, it'll make you want to get out into the streets and crash your Congresscritter's next town hall. (My Congressman doesn't have a Town Hall scheduled so I called his office and asked him to have one. Le sigh.)

Highly recommended reading for the resistance. I can't wait to discuss it at book club.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So not a lot of great stuff has been happening since the election, but a brief moment of relief arrived yesterday in the form of a brand-new shiny Shadowshaper novella from Daniel José Older, which only cost $0.99 on Kindle. I promptly cancelled my evening plans to bug out about stuff on Twitter and bought Ghost Girl in the Corner. I then had a lovely evening with Tee and Iz and three glasses of boxed wine and it was the best I’ve felt in three weeks.

Anyway, as for the novella itself: Most of the most-beloved characters from Shadowshaper are here, but the main action surrounds Tee and Izzy, with a big helping of Uncle Neville. The mischief all starts when Tee sees the ghost of a teenage girl in the basement where she’s taken over Manny’s local newspaper after he died in the last book. Tee has acquired some sort of community journalism grant and has a small crew of intrepid teenage reporters, including a white girl from Staten Island whose grandma is the creepy old lady with the creepy dolls from one of the short stories in Salsa Nocturna. There is also a dude who writes about sports, but when he’s first introduced he says “I write about esports” and I thought he meant eSports like competitive video gaming and then got all confused when he was covering local baseball games and not, like, CS:GO tournaments, but no, it’s just that Older writes out people’s accents and I am a huge fucking nerd.

Anyway, the local baseball games are important because, while Tee is trying to figure out who the ghost in the corner is and simultaneously screwing up her relationship with Izzy, one of the local teams’ star players mysteriously disappears. The cops are, predictably, zero help. The ghost girl in the corner, on the other hand, is, as are the giant printing press and Uncle Neville. How do all these things fit together? You can find out for $0.99.

While the plot is very heavy, the characters are delightful. The dialogue is witty and vivid, which will be surprising to no one who has read anything else by Older or heard him speak at a convention or reading. The social commentary is sharp and incisive—mean, yes, but insightful and hilarious with an eye for detail, like Jane Austen except about modern urban Latinx communities instead of 18th century English countryside gentry nonsense. (If you’re thinking “So not like Jane Austen at all, then,” let me know and I will gladly subject you to three hours of rambling about social satire and economics.) It's also full of fun little references to things, from Older's other work (I mentioned the creepy dolls lady above) to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  There is also a brief but very timely and satisfying instance of straight-up Nazi fighting.

Overall, it is a wonderful and much-needed morsel of awesomeness to tide people over until Shadowhouse Fall comes out.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The last book that I kept on the Kindle app on my phone took me over three years to finish. Because of this, I decided the next book I kept on my phone would be shorter, so I settled on Catherynne M. Valente's novella Six-Gun Snow White.

Six-Gun Snow White did not take me nearly as long to get through, although this was less because it was shorter and more because I kept going back to read it more often. I read it in all the usual places I read on my phone--doctors' offices and on the T and at the pharmacist--but I also read it in bars and in casinos, and occasionally even at home surrounded by my fifteen hundred other books. It was that good.

Obviously from the title, it's a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. This one takes place in the Wild West, and Snow White is the half-Crow daughter of a robber baron who runs a mining corporation and a Crow woman that he basically bought and threatened into marrying him. Snow White's mother doesn't last long in captivity, and so the girl is raised by a series of well-intentioned house staff for several years and basically allowed to run wild as long as she doesn't demand her father's attention and nobody really important sees her. She learns to shoot and her father gives her a gun with ruby pearls on it, which she names Rose Red. Everything seems fine enough as far as the girl is concerned until Mr. H remarries. It is the new wife, a scion of a respectable Boston family who had some sort of scandal back East, who nicknames the girl Snow White as a racist taunt to go with the terrifying beauty regimen she imposes.

The new Mrs. H., of course, has a mirror, and this, also of course, is where stuff gets weird. This mirror doesn't talk, but it does seem to have a whole backwards alternate reality version of Mrs. H.'s life in it.

This deviation from the basic plot of Snow White isn't the most important or original thing about the novella. Valente's strengths here lie in her lyrical prose and her dreamlike world building and characterization. After establishing Snow White's character, first in isolation and then as the victim of Mrs. H., what feels like the plot of the novel really kicks off after Snow White runs away and she has to deal with all sorts of other people—we see her navigate the world of the workers in the mines, we see her best the huntsman (or in this case, "the dude," which meant something different back then than it does now), and we see her establish herself among a homestead of outlaw women, neatly obliterating the usual dynamic of being taken in by some cute wacky others because they're so nice and replacing it with a story of grim solidarity.

There is no Prince Charming in this story. Or rather, there is, but that's just the name of Snow White's horse. There is a creature called Deer Boy, who might have had a rougher time of it than Snow White even at the hands of Mrs. H.

Though the piece is relatively short, it is, like most of Valente's work, incredibly dense, and I don't mean that in a difficult-to-read law text way, I mean it as a lot of layers of meaning and connections between things that you'll miss if you don't read carefully and explores a lot of issues of class and race and gender and America and belonging and abuse and all that stuff all at once, and also it's fun to just roll around in the lovely gritty sentences and general gunslinginess. Sometimes. This book is a lot less lighthearted than The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland or even most of Speak Easy; it is extremely violent, with fairly explicit depictions of domestic, industrial, and sexual abuse. The language, even with all its metaphors and its occasional joke, doesn't obscure or romanticize any of this; it heightens it. I've seen a couple people asking if this is a children's/YA book or if it's appropriate for second graders and ahaha nope. High tolerance for the sheer unrelenting awfulness of human history is definitely a prerequisite here. For me, this is one of things I like about this as a fairy tale retelling; fairy tales had a long tradition of being gory and violent and full of torture and stuff before they got bowdlerized and Disneyfied in the twentieth century. Other people's mileage, obviously, may vary.

As for me, I enjoy violent terrible history things, and I really, really enjoy Valente's multilayered writing, even if it's way smarter than me and makes me feel like I don't have anything sufficiently intelligent to say about it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
On my mother's coffee table there is a book.

It is a beautiful, beautiful book, a perfect blending of the best of old and new book styles, with deckle-edged pages and full-color illustrations and a glorious Baskerville-esque font.

It is the Hamiltome.

More properly known as Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter's history/look behind the scenes/giant scrapbook of the making of Hamilton: An American Musical is pretty much everything an obsessed Hamilton fan could want. My mother had this thing pre-ordered almost the second it became available for pre-order. The only thing that would make it better is if it came with a pair of tickets to the show, but alas, that would probably also raise the price several thousand percent.

It contains, obviously, the full lyrics of the show, annotated with goofy good humor by the Internet's wacky uncle himself, Lin-Manuel. It also contains biographical sketches of and interviews with nearly everyone involved in the show -- cast members and producers and designers and choreographers and all the other brilliant, dedicated people who make theater magic happen.

The story it tells is pretty awesome, and it's aware of its own awesomeness, but not in a smug way. It's just full of joy and pride and nerdy LOOK AT THIS COOL THING WE DID and it's great.

I almost cried multiple times, although frankly that happens when I listen to the soundtrack too, so it's not surprising.

If you are not an obsessed Hamilton fan and want to know why everyone else has suddenly become one over the past year, this book will certainly answer that question at length! Although I do also recommend just listening to the soundtrack and letting it eat your soul.

Anyway, book and soundtrack are both recommended for any and all humans who like musical theater, history, hip-hop, weird genre mashups, strange new things, clever wordplay, displays of genius, sass, joy, laughter, crying, or any combination thereof (I am particularly fond of sass + crying), and also for people who do not like or are unfamiliar with any or all of these things, because even if you don't like it normally you'll like it here. Like, I couldn't tell hip-hop from a hole in the wall until I heard Hamilton, and it doesn't matter.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The Raven King is, I think, the most Raven Cycle-y of the Raven Cycle books. It’s also my favorite because my copy is signed by Maggie Stiefvater herself, which is always a plus. But it’s also a really fulfilling end to the series, drawing on all the themes and motifs set up right at the beginning—Blue’s prophecy and the vision of Gansey’s death and the tomb of Glendower and all that stuff—but also introducing wacky new elements and characters right up past where you’d ordinarily think you’d be getting much new information in a story this long. Henry turns out to be pretty important, and while it seems weird to be basically adding a fourth Raven Boy a few hundred pages from the end of a four-volume series, Henry is too awesome for it to matter—as is RoboBee, Henry’s magical robotic bee that functions as something between a familiar and a James Bond spy gadget.

Much of the series thus far has dealt with uncovering family secrets, but there are still more to be discovered, and they’re pretty big ones. Ronan has the most outlandish ones, and you’d think they’d be predictable after a while but they’re somehow not—after finding out in book two that his father dreamed up his mother and in book three that he dreamed up his brother, you wouldn’t think there would be more things to find out that he accidentally dreamed up, but there are. And that’s not even getting into the business end of things. Adam is still in some sort of weird possession/communication with the spirit of Cabeswater, which was getting better for a while as he learned to listen to it, but which is not becoming a problem again as Cabewater gets infested with the demon awakened at the end of the last book, which looks like a giant-ass black hornet (because wasps and bees and stuff are a huge recurring thing in this series and if I’d known I would have insisted the bees panel talk more about it at Readercon) and seems to function a lot like Hexxus from Ferngully. Henry has… well, he has the backstory that gave him RoboBee. Gansey is dealing with all his rich dude legacy problems, plus the having died already once thing, and while this Glendower quest has taken him all over the world, it turns out the answers might lie closer to home than he suspected.

Blue may be having the worst of it, though, because they found her father and brought him home, and he’s been cowering in a broom closet avoiding Gwenllian for the whole time, and it’s kind of sad. And then there’s some stuff where Blue might be basically part tree, and it’s pretty weird, even though Blue already has a lot of experience with being weird. It’s above and beyond weird and Gansey is still going to die.

On top of that, Piper, who has graduated to becoming our main villain after murdering her husband and adopting the demon hornet, might be more knowledgeable about magic shit than her husband was, but still does not seem to really grasp the gravity of what she’s doing when she decides to sell the demon hornet to the magical-object-collecting community. Frankly, the Piper/demon alliance is not the most seamless pairing of personalities, and it’s pretty hilarious. Piper also disses Legal Sea Foods, because she is the worst. Legal is a venerable Boston institution and their food is delicious even if they are functionally a chain now.

While the plot gets darker and weirder and more and more people die and Cabeswater is unmade, the language in the book actually gets funnier and more Stiefvater-y, and somehow it works. Part of this is because there are deceptively goofy-sounding characters like Piper and Henry, who are, respectively, amusingly shallow trash and using humor as a form of camouflage/coping mechanism for all the weird shit he’s part of. But even the third-person narration has gotten even less invisible than it was at the beginning of the series, using all sorts of interesting tricks like repeated lines, words and half-words floating about with no punctuation, stream-of-consciousness description, and jokes. Also, how do you not laugh every time you see “RoboBee” written on the page, no matter how dire the situation? Especially when everything else going on is so medieval?

Overall, it does end up reminding me a bit of the Lynburn Legacy books, with a similar blend of death and jokes, and of the modern and the historical. I’d definitely put it in the “sassy Gothic” subgenre that I wish was larger because it’s basically the sweet spot of Relevant To All My Interests. I can’t wait to see what Stiefvater comes up with next.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I got back up to Maine to finish the Raven Cycle books! Go me!

Technically I started Blue Lily, Lily Blue the last time I was up there but I only got a few pages into it. But this time I splonked down on the porch and pretty much ripped through the whole thing. It was pretty glorious.

In this one, Blue’s mother has disappeared to go look for Blue’s father underground. Blue and the Raven Boys start sort of looking for Blue’s mother, but also looking for some entities known only as the three sleepers. One of them is the king they’re looking for, Owen Glendower. They’ve been warned that one of the sleepers must be woken and another one must not be woken; apparently, there’s no word on the third.

Of course, it’s the third one they end up actually waking first; this is Owen Glendower’s awesome and thoroughly batty witch daughter, Gwenllian. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that. Irish I’m starting to get a hold of but Welsh is still quite beyond me.) This is possibly not even the weirdest thing going on, even though Gwenllian speaks in riddles and songs and wears multiple dresses at a time and has giant curly hair that she keeps things in and generally sounds like a cartoon character drawn up by a disgruntled Disney animator on acid. I heart her.

We meet more bad guys, including the Gray Man’s insufferable former employer, Colin Greenmantle, and his similarly insufferable wife, Piper, who—in a fun twist that I appreciated more than words can say—Colin seems to believe is his trophy wife but who actually knows more about creepy magic shit than he does and has a lot more experience dealing with it and, consequently, can command more power and get up to more nefarious things that Colin doesn’t quite understand. It’s enormously satisfying.

In other news, Gansey and Blue start secretly sort-of dating; Adam is dealing with how to interpret invasive communications from Cabeswater, with help from Persephone; Ronan is doing sketchy dream stuff at the Barns that no one seems to quite understand and that isn’t working anyway; Noah is still dead but having an increasingly bad time of it; and Gansey’s British friend Malory has found a mysterious tapestry featuring three bloody-handed ladies who all look like Blue.

Most of the magical action in this book focuses not on Cabeswater but in a cave on the property of a man named Jesse Dittley, a large farmer who speaks in all caps and only eats Spaghetti-Os. The cave carries a curse on it that results in a Dittley dying in it every couple of decades or so, otherwise the walls of the farmhouse bleed and all that other poltergeist stuff. There are actually multiple caves because there’s also one for the sleeper who must not be woken (guess what happens to that one at the end of the book), but it’s complicated figuring out where they are and how they’re all connected, because magic.

We also meet an amusing Aglionby student named Henry who does not seem very important at first, just very friendly and cheerful with big hair. He drives an electric car. He will be important later.

I’m getting some of the plotlines confused in my memory because this book does quite a large amount of setting up things that are going to explode spectacularly in the next book and I don’t always remember where one book ends and the other one begins, with the exception of the bit with the sleeper who must not be woken. But it doesn’t have that lack of tension that some books that are all setup have. Things are moving along and weaving together in complicated ways that all will probably make sense eventually and everyone is having lots of feelings and there’s some lovely register-switching going on depending on whose head we’re in at the time. Colin Greenmantle has a glib, dismissive, affectedly witty inner voice that’s simultaneously as insufferable as he is and genuinely funny to read. It’s almost painfully modern in the context of all the mythological timeless stuff going on in the rest of the series, even though it’s reminiscent of writing styles that I love when they’re on the Internet, but it does an extremely good job of characterizing Colin as a superficial type who doesn’t really understand what it is that he’s messing with. Meanwhile, the rest of the book is filled with lush, colorful prose interrupted by periodic bouts of swearing, usually from Ronan.

Ronan, by the way, is an underappreciated comic genius. Probably nobody would ever tell him that since he is angry and powerful and all dangerous and stuff, with his pet dream raven and his biker jacket and his fighty attitude and his adorable crush on Adam, but his trolling abilities are top-notch (especially regarding deployment of the murder squash song) and he can do wordplay in both English and Latin. Also, Chainsaw might be my favorite character in the whole series.

The book does end on a massive uh-oh, with a bunch of people dead and bunch of other people who were previously either lost or dead being recovered, so I can understand why fans of the series were very upset about having to wait for the next book to come out. It’s the sort of thing that’s why I waited so long to read this book in the first place, and I am glad I did, because it meant I got to jump right into The Raven King.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Catherynne M. Valente was the Guest of Honor at this year's Readercon, so, although I was trying to be frugal, I just had to get one of her books -- signed, preferably. I've only read two of her other novels and a few short stories, but that's enough to know that she's an absolutely genius storyteller. Her work varies pretty widely in tone and theme, but it's always dense with allusions and myth and the prose is so gorgeous and vivid it makes you want to read it out loud to somebody.

Speak Easy jumped out at me because of its gorgeous cover, which I know you shouldn't judge a book by, but sometimes I do a bit anyway, because that's how book marketing is supposed to work. The Roaring Twenties party vibe is pretty evident right from the get-go, with the font and the art style depicting a short-haired lady smoking a cigarette in front of a pelican what looks like a busy scene of other partying folk, all framed inside a fancy keyhole like the reader is spying on them. It's a pretty perfect representation of the story inside, which is a lushly written novella about the folks living in the magical Hotel Artemesia, loosely adapted from the fairy tale about the twelve dancing princesses (and also referencing it several times), providing a fictional backstory to the tragic marriage of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Our main character is the mysterious Zelda Fair, who came to New York to find out what she is good at, and while everyone else thinks she's perfectly excellent at being Zelda, she's not contented with that. Nearly everyone else at the Hotel Artemesia has a role, sometimes many of them, and Zelda's so far seems to be to turn heads and show up at parties and try a different job every week until she finds the right one. She lives in an apartment in the hotel with three other girls: a dancer, a theater critic, and a costume seamstress. Several of the men in the hotel fancy they're going to marry her, and they're all wrong, at least right up until the end.

Much of this book is an ode to partying -- to dancing and drinking and dressing up and doing outrageous things and meeting outrageous people, and generally to the power of letting loose and having a good time. But it's not shallow at all, and it's not so much that beneath all the dancing on tables and wearing shiny dresses there runs a desire to be seen and to be loved and to create and to be good at things, but that it's all intimately bound up with it. Zelda has some pretty important things to say about the joys of talking when she's sitting around in a silver dress in a bathtub full of gin, eavesdropping on the other partygoers. And Frankie Key ruins the last party in "Canada" (spoiler: it's not Canada) the same way he ruins Zelda's life: by being grasping and entitled and ruining what he loves by holding onto it so hard it breaks, because he's controlling like that even though he seemed so nice at the beginning, just wanting to be good at something just like everyone else did, but he couldn't leave well enough alone when he finally descended into the wintery underground forever-party that belonged to the master of the Hotel Artemesia, a cheerfully awful godlike type of being called, among other things, Al.

The plot seems to get off to a slow and vague start, with a fairly large cast of characters for such a tiny book, but by the time the whole web of drives and desires and attempts at escapism all come together at the end of the story in a deadly, supernatural poker game, it turns out it was all being set up right at the beginning.

I did not know when I picked up this book that the climactic event of the story was going to be a poker game, since I actually read this to take a break from just reading poker books all year, but I was pretty delighted. The game is called Cretaceous Hold'em, which is pretty hilarious to me, and from what I can tell of the gameplay it does seem to be probably a version of five-card draw rather than a hold'em-style game, but that's Al for you. They don't play with chips, instead betting trinkets and personal items that represent bits of their lives. Frankie essentially wins Zelda in the poker game when he wins all her stuff, including her creativity, because in real life F. Scott Fitzgerald basically stole a bunch of Zelda's writing to use in his own novels and then locked her up in a sanatorium.

I do think the absolute best thing about this book is the language, by turns sumptuous and hilarious, and often both. My favorite line in the whole thing is when Frankie is described as not having "the smooth God gave a porcupine," which is something that I will probably find myself using to insult actual people sooner or later. Basically the whole book is like that. If you don't like paying a lot of attention to the actual words on the page you'll probably despise the book, but if you like to roll around in ridiculous '20s slang and steal new ways to insult people from writers smarter and more creative than yourself, like I do, then it's just about the best thing you could read.

The book cost me $40 because it's a signed special edition, number 890 of a run of 1250, with a special flyleaf framing Valente's signature in a purple keyhole so that it doesn't have to go on the title page like when a regular book is signed. It was well worth the $40, as short as it is, because the physical book is a work of art just as much as the words inside.

My only criticism is that it feels vaguely wrong to read it without an adult beverage in hand, and I really just couldn't stand to do that for several days after Readercon, because in real life partying all night leads to hangovers that make you cranky and tired and not want to touch booze again for days, or at least they're starting to with how old I'm getting. But one of these days I'll probably read it again and I'll make sure I have champagne this time, and maybe somebody to read it aloud to.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aight, so I finished The Raven Boys and then picked up The Dream Thieves immediately that same day, so I might be a tiny bit confused about what goes in which book, because they're all one ongoing story anyway.

This book picks up pretty much right after the last one leaves off. The boys and Blue are still looking for Owen Glendower, although they have made what seems to be progress in the form of the thing that happened as the climax of the previous book. But there is also something weird happening with the corpse road/ley line/whatever you want to call the band of magical energy that Glendower is supposedly buried along: it's starting to flicker in and out like an overloaded circuit.

In other news, Ronan, the fighty Irish boy with emotional issues and a pet baby raven named Chainsaw, is working on his own magical powers: He can take things out of dreams. Chainsaw he took out of a dream, although that was before he started getting the hang of doing it on purpose. Also, somebody beat up Ronan's terrible older brother. Also also, a bunch of people are searching for what they believe is an object that allows people to take stuff out of dreams. Also also also, some dbag at Aglionby named Kavinsky keeps taunting Ronan into street racing and making extremely unclever gay jokes at him. Kavinsky is possibly the most unmitigatedly terrible person out of all the terrible people in this series. His terribleness doesn't even have a point, he's just an overpowered twit.

Meanwhile, Gansey and Adam go to an awkward party at Gansey's house, because his mom is running for Congress. Adam's inability to accept charity and simultaneous desire to break into non-poor society causes problems, as usual, because Adam doesn't understand that rich and powerful people stay rich and powerful because they help each other out a lot. Favors are what people trade in when they either don't have enough money to pay for stuff in money, or when they have too much money for the money to be meaningful. TAKE THE FAVORS. YOU'LL PAY THEM BACK LATER.

Also meanwhile, Blue's mom is dating the hit man that beat up Ronan's terrible brother, and she knows he's a hit man, and it's weirdly adorable? And then the hit man has a weird sort of tragic background/redemption arc about his own terrible older brother. Dysfunctional family secrets abound.

If the first book took a nice floral meandering path to getting the story rolling, by this point, it is rolling pretty fast. The Dream Thieves has its quiet moments and its descriptive passages and its teasing bits of backstory, yes, but for the most part, things have gone and turned into HIGH-OCTANE NIGHTMARE FUEL with someone getting beaten up or murdered or chased around by scary dream monsters with beaks and claws nearly every chapter. Cars blow up. Ronan's non-terrible younger brother gets kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a Mitsubishi (which later blows up). Probably some other stuff gets blown up too, I don't even remember. Some people die and some other people weren't even alive to start with. Gansey gets covered in bees. This isn't funny because Gansey is very allergic to bees and has already died of bees once already.

This series is quickly moving up my "Did this author write this series just for me?" list, although it is not likely to dislodge the Lynburn Legacy from the top spot. But that is OK. It might get to #2 if it keeps escalating like this. Especially if tarot cards continue to feature in it as heavily as they do.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
I've been waiting to read The Raven Boys for a long time.

In December of 2013 I read Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, a standalone YA fantasy about water horses on a small island in Ireland. I am pretty sure that at the end of this book there was the first-chapter preview for The Raven Boys. I think. I remember the preview itself pretty vividly, because it sounded very intriguing. There were ghosts and prophecies and creepy aunts and stuff. Then I started following Maggie Stiefvater on Twitter and Tumblr and stuff, because she's hilarious, and since the Raven Cycle is her most popular series of books, I started hearing more about it. Something about Welsh mythology. A lot of stuff about death and cars. I don't know much about cars but it sounded like the sort of demented Gothic stuff I like. I decided I needed to read it, but for a while I didn't get around to it. Then, sometimes after it was announced that the fourth and last book was coming out this year and it was also announced that there would be a Raven Cycle tarot deck designed, I decided I would wait until the last book came out, find a good chunk of time when I could really relax and do the thing properly, and try to read the whole series in one go.

Last weekend I went up to my father's cabin in the woods in Maine by the lake and for two days I sat on the porch and looked at the lake and read the Raven Cycle books. I finished the first two and got a little bit into Book 3 before I had to come back to real life. I'm hoping to get back up there sometime this summer to finish the series.

The Raven Boys is the story of a young lady named Blue, who is the only non-psychic in an all-female family of psychics. Blue can, however, amplify other people's psychic powers, so she is a pretty integral part of the family psychic business. Blue doesn't really have friends at her public school, but she actively avoids the shit out of the boys at Aglionby Academy, a private prep school for rich powerful sons of rich powerful families, where basically the entire student body is as insufferable as Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl except even more insufferable because they have cars since they are in the suburbs and not NYC, and cars amplify rich boys' the-worst-ness by a factor of at least 4.

Anyway, Blue is burdened with a prophecy that if she kisses her true love he will die, so Blue very sensibly does what any independent-minded young lady not gruelingly trained in putting up with teenage boys' bullshit would probably do anyway: She decides to forgo this whole romance thing entirely, which is a decision I approve of, but which honestly can be quite hard to do without cracking at all during one's teen years and young adulthood, if only because that is the time of one's life when one is meeting lots of new people and trying new things and going new places and generally having one's world get bigger, and it takes practice to make one's world bigger without having any boys get into it at least once or twice.

In this case, Blue ends up reluctantly making friends with a quartet of Aglionby boys who are on a quest to find and resuscitate the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and also Blue knows from a vigil she held on St. Mark's Eve that one of the boys, Gansey, is destined to die within the year. Since Blue actually saw his shade herself, it's also likely that either he's Blue's true love or that it's Blue who kills him, or, considering the prophecy, both. Since Gansey is a rich smartass who wears terrible loud polo shirts, Blue is skeptical that he could be her true love, but apparently decides to stick around helping him look for Glendower anyway, even though anyone who's ever watched a movie can see where this is going. PSA: DON'T GO ON MAGICAL QUESTS WITH PEOPLE YOU'RE TRYING TO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH, FOR CHRISSAKE.

The other boys in this friend group are Ronan Lynch, a fighty Irish boy with massive emotional problems stemming from his father's murder and his older brother's total assholery; Adam Parrish, a non-rich scholarship kid from an abusive family who works three jobs to pay the non-scholarship-covered part of his Aglionby tuition; and Noah, who tells Gansey right at the beginning of the book that he's been dead for seven years and everyone kind of treats it like a random lame joke right up until they find Noah's body that's been rotting in the woods for seven years. Seriously, Stiefvater's ability to straight-up dump spoilers into her own books like three hundred pages in advance and have the reader totally blow them off is amazing. No wussy foreshadowing here! The line of dialogue is literally "I've been dead for seven years" and then when they find the body in the woods you're like NO WAY, WHAT A SHOCK, GANSEY MUST BE SO SURPRISED.

Also, Gansey's name is Gansey, which sounds suspiciously like geansaí, the Irish word for "sweater." Blue often measures the likelihood of Gansey dying on any given outing by whether or not he is wearing his Aglionby sweater, since his shade was wearing that when she saw it, which means he's going to die in the sweater. I am 99% sure that Maggie Stiefvater did this on purpose but now I've got to go ask her just to check. *runs to Tumblr*

While the book has many jokes and general scenes of humorous mayhem, it also doesn't fuck around with the stakes: lives are at risk; the sleepy little town of Henrietta and the prestigious stuffy halls of Aglionby Academy are sites of omnipresent violence, secrets and danger; magic is not to be casually fucked around with, even by the psychics. Every character is memorable, if only because all of them could kill you (except for Noah) but all in very different ways. The story starts off slower than is quite usual for YA, and the writing tends toward the poetic and descriptive in a way that will probably annoy a lot of people who don't like to notice the words when they're reading, but since I'm a shameless fan of a well-turned bit of description I think it builds the atmosphere well--beautiful and slow and muggy like the Virginia summer the book takes place in. In short: Excellent lakeside mood reading.

I read it in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately picked up the sequel.

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