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: (oh noes)
I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
bloodygranuaile: (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)
For BSpec's book club this season I read Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a classic of YA fantasy that I think I read once when I was wee but didn't end up taking to. I think it was because it was a little too '80s and I didn't know things about the '80s, so I found the Manhattan setting more difficult to understand than I should have considering I grew up like an hour outside of New York City. But now I am an ADULT and I know what the Pan Am building is (mainly, that it isn't the Pan Am building anymore), so I was ready to take another stab at it.

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

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

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

I can definitely see why this really spoke to a lot of kids in the age range it's targeted toward, and why it seems to have had the same effects on its fandom as the Alanna books or the Wrinkle in Time series or Ella Enchanted. I'm not going to get that same level of sucked into it, probably, since my formative years have passed, but I'd definitely be interested in reading the sequels.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It has been a while since I have read an entire novel in one day, but that is what I did today, after picking up Zen Cho's debut fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown this morning from Gillian. (I had it on hold at the library, but it didn't look as if it would get to me in time for book club on Saturday, and I didn't want to start the new year off with anything resembling last year's spectacular performance at failing at book clubs.) Since I have had such an epically productive new year thus far, I rewarded myself by drinking tea and reading for the entire afternoon. It was very satisfying.
The book itself was also very satisfying, being right up my alley in a number of different ways. It's got a lot of the elements I like in Gail Carriger's books Mary Robinette Kowal's books and in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, namely, that it takes place in an alternate version of sometime in imperial England (in this case, it seems to be during the Napoleonic wars) where magic is not hidden; it's got strong comedy-of-manners elements; there is convoluted political intrigue; and it deals with some of imperial England's assorted oppressive social issues.
It also has two leads of color, out of a total of two leads--a black man and a half-white, half-Indian (I think) woman. Or rather, teenage girl. With very strong magical powers. Hyperpowered teenage girl sorceresses are a fav trope of mine going back to my early Tamora Pierce-reading days, so YAY. And I'm trying to seek out more books with men of color as point of view characters or narrators, because I read very few of those--I think I've been more likely to find books with WOC POVs than MOC POVs because I deliberately seek out books by and about women but I've never really specifically sought out books by or about men because, y'know, I really didn't have to, with the result that it was usually books about white men that crossed my path.
Lead character number one is Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of England, a manumitted slave and the adopted son of the former Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias is not the most popular Sorcerer Royal ever; indeed, he is probably the least popular Sorcerer Royal ever, considering he was trained by his adopted father basically as an experiment to prove that black people could learn thaumaturgy too, and the old guard of comfortable British gentleman with plummy accents and bad whiskers (the accents and whiskers not actually mentioned in the book, but c'mon, you know the type) is not very happy that he ended up outranking all of them. Despite being a polite, quiet, conscientious, intelligent, usually even-tempered sort of dude, Zacharias' racist good-old-boy rivals are happy to accuse him of whatever crimes pop into their heads, including having murdered his adopted father and his father's familiar. Zacharias has all of about two friends in the formerly glorious Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, both of whom are Drone Club-type dandies who are smarter than they look.
Lead character number two is the hilariously named Prunella Gentleman, an orphan girl living at a school for gentlewitches, where, in true British fashion, young girls of gentle birth and magical ability are taught how to not do magic, because magic is terribly dangerous and their little female bodies and brains are obviously too frail to handle it. The fact that there are clearly girls of such magical ability that they have to be trained out of doing it is, of course, absolutely no obstacle whatsoever to people continuing to believe this, nor are all the female magic users in other countries, since of course, people in other countries aren't British and therefore aren't really regular people anyway. Prunella has really quite a lot of magical ability even by the standards of the girls sequestered at this school; she also has no family, no money, and no prospects. Fortunately for her, she also has no scruples, no dependents, no romantic notions of the world, and no doubts about her own abilities. She's delightfully ambitious and calculating, leaving poor Zacharias to be entire conscience and moral center of the story.
Zacharias is mostly busy trying not to get assassinated and attempting to figure out why Britain's supply of atmospheric magic is dwindling, but he takes a brief detour on his way to the border between England and Faerie (where the magic is supposed to come from) to make a speech at Prunella's school, as a special favor to one of his two friends, who was supposed to make the speech originally but insists that he is too useless to pull it off. It is here that he meets Prunella and, after a series of unfortunate mishaps, takes her on as an apprentice. What he doesn't know is that, in addition to her considerable powers, Prunella has a couple of mysterious family treasures that are also probably of great sorcerous power, only she doesn't really know what they are or how to use them. To top everything off, some dipshit sultan from halfway across the world is attempting to prevail upon Britain to subdue a bunch of cranky vampire ladies who are causing trouble over in his kingdom.
At first, the more Zacharias and Prunella attempt to solve their respective mysteries, the most confusing everything gets. But eventually, a convoluted web of human and Faerie politics begins to emerge, suggesting that all these disparate issues might be connected--which means in order to fix it, everyone's secrets will eventually have to come out. Nobody is particularly happy about that.
Most of the conflicts in the plot are deeply rooted in Britain's oppressive social structures. In college, I took at class on British Romanticism, and we pretty much analyzed each book along the lines of what I've come to think of as England's Four Pillars of Fuckery: race, class, gender, and imperialism. These are not exclusive to English history, of course, but almost all of the history and art out of England from about 1500 onward can be understood in light of these four specific traditions of othering and oppressing people, which shaped English society in almost every aspect. In this book, rivalries and scheming arise as a result of white magicians' racism against Zacharias (and sometimes Prunella); male magicians' taboo against women practicing magic; the "gentlemen's" refusal to admit magic really existed in the lower orders (and an interesting intersection of class and gender in Prunella's mercenary concern for landing herself a husband in order to establish herself); and the results of the British Empire pissing off the sorcerers and sorceresses of the lands they conquered without really understanding how magic works there or admitting that it could rival British thaumaturgy in any real way. Apart from the magic angle, this fits in well with all the best actual British literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were also all about the various ways in which British society sucked and was oppressive. It also fits in well with a long tradition of hilarious secondary characters, but that could be a whole paper in and of itself.
(Note: Supposedly there's a plague of historical fiction about Regency and Victorian England that romanticizes it and doesn't address all the ways in which it was terrible, and I admit I've never really read any because I guess my recommendations-gathering system is too good? But hearing about its existence baffles me, because stuff like Jane Austen's books and the Bronte sisters' books and everything by Dickens and like all classic Britlit books are all pretty much about how English society sucked and was oppressive. I am mildly curious as to what non-"message fiction" about imperial England could possibly look like, but not enough to seek out any of it and read it. Hell, even Downton Abbey tries to deal with this stuff, even if it ends up pulling most of its punches 3/4 of the way through any given plotline.)
Anyway, I'm very, very much looking forward to deconstructing the hell out of this book next weekend.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Do you ever, like . . . read a book wrong? Because that's sort of what I felt I did with Kai Ashante Wilson's short but intricate debut novel, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Though it's less than 250 pages long, it took me nearly three weeks to read, mostly in small chunks of 10 pages or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and the librarian character was the best, because librarians are the best. Except for sometimes when Sierra's friends are the best, because they are all full of hilarious one-liners.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
When I heard N.J. Jemisin speak at Arisia, she mentioned that she had written her Dreamblood duology before the Inheritance trilogy, but hadn't been able to sell it. She gave two reasons for this: one, that it was "too weird," and two, that there weren't any white people in it.

To the second point, I say: There were so white people in it! There were two; they both died tragically for plot-furthering reasons in the first 10% of the book. That counts, right?

Anyway. Now that that's out of my system, on to the first objection: the weirdness.

Yes, The Killing Moon is weird. It's very weird. And I loved it for its weirdness. It's thoroughly imaginative and highly original, drawing from a lot of real-world mythological and religious stuff and recombining and extrapolating it into nothing remotely resembling anyone's D&D campaign. The main civilization in it, Gujaareh, is very loosely based on ancient Egypt, mainly in that it floods once a year and death is a huge part of the religion and it's in the desert. And there's some stylistic "McEgypt" flavoring, as Jemisin put it.

In this world, there are four humors in the human body: dreamblood, dreamseed, dreambile, and dreamichor. They all have magical properties if you know how to use them, and they are all secreted during dreaming.

In Gujaareh, dreaming is very serious magical and religious business. The various orders of the religion harvest these dream-humors and can do magic with them. Mostly healing. But a few priests, the most revered and important, are called Gatherers, and what they gather is dreamblood. To heretics and outsiders, they kill people. The view from inside Gujaareh is more complex: Gatherers usher people into Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams, and help them construct what I in my utter lack of Jemisinian poeticism can only describe as their "happy place," where their soul will be at peace; then they cut the cord between their soul and their body so they die peacefully. The cost for this service is merely the tithe of dreamblood.

Gujaareh faithful believe this is an awesome system; predictably, it creeps basically everyone else the fuck out. Especially when you consider that there are two ways someone can be marked to be Gathered--one is if they request it, due to injury or disease or some other pain they wish to not endure any longer; the other is if the holy orders deem them corrupt. Corruption is not tolerated in Gujaareh. Or so it is believed.

The plot of this book is about four Gatherers--well, three Gatherers and a Gatherer-Apprentice--and a badass lady diplomat from neighboring Kisua exposing a tangled web of lies, secrets, and coverups that may indicate that corruption in Gujaareh goes right to the top, and war may be right around the corner.

If that sounds all too insubstantial and shadowy and political for you, here's the fun part: They're tipped off that something is rotten in the state of not-at-all-McDenmark because there's a Reaper running around, Reaping souls. A Reaper is basically what happens when a Gatherer goes corrupt and scraps all the peace and providing a service bit of Gathering and just rips people's souls out of their bodies and eats them. It is bad times all around.

So that's all I'm going to say about the plot.

Since the magic in this system is predominantly done mentally (there are a few physical props they use, but not many) and takes place literally in dreamland, and is so heavily intertwined with religious faith, the fantasy aspect of this book and the psychological novel/character-driven aspect of the book must be closely intertwined, and Jemisin pulls it off beautifully. The characters feel real and even relatable, and very human, even as their psychologies are clearly shaped so much by these forces and powers and beliefs that we don't have in our world. This is hard to do and very impressive, I think. And it means, for me at least, that the world was able to really suck me into it, becoming rich and real-feeling without a lot of pages of scene-setting info-dumping descriptions. The language helped too--the whole book is written in a distinctly nonmodern register, although not so flowery or stylized that it slows down the way reading actual ancient texts does. Although I did end up reading a lot slower than I often do with big epic fantasy books, because I did want to stop and savor the language and think about what was going on, since it's definitely far enough off the usual beaten path of familiar fantasy tropes that I think if I'd just ripped through it the way I rip through, say, Discworld books (which are all about the familiar fantasy tropes), I'd miss a lot and get confused.

I want to talk more about the specific characters but I'm not sure how to do that in a way that's not enormously spoilery. Sunandi, the Kisua diplomat, is a great, great character--flawed, mostly by being enormously judgy of the Gujaareh religion, but smart and powerful and full of agency, and also one of the more "normal" viewpoint characters for a modern reader, probably, in that she's not an adherent of a wacky death cult. Nijiri, the Gatherer-Apprentice, is a fierce protagonist--I feel like I want to peg him as the protagonist because the storyline turns out to be a sort of terrifying coming-of-age narrative for him, and I read so many YA/coming-of-age stories that it's easy for me to latch on to seeing that as the central narrative character arc, but I think you could probably make a good case that he and Sunandi are co-protagonists. Nijiri was born servant-caste before he was taken into the priesthood and he's extremely strong-willed, which could have been a bad combination in the outside world but generally serves him well throughout this story: he refuses to give up no matter what monsters are roaming around the city or how screwed up his mentor Ehiru gets.

I feel like I'm doing an awful job talking about this book. It deserves a much more careful review than I can give now. Maybe when I finish the duology I can offer more complete and coherent thoughts on the series as a unit.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang for a book club where, predictably, I missed the meeting because I hadn’t finished the book in time. This happens entirely too often. Oh well.

The book, published in the early ‘90s, is a sort of cyberpunky near-future thing in which Chinese communism beats out Western capitalism as the dominant world system, where China is the world’s only superpower and the U.S. has become a sort of backwater-y semi-colonial state after something called the Cleansing Winds campaign. The book is structured as a series of vignettes detailing the lives of a loosely connected network of characters, of whom the central and most-frequently-recurring one is a half-Chinese, half-Latino American man named Rafael Luis or Zhang Zhong Shan. Zhang looks purely Chinese due to some now-illegal gene splicing stuff, which gives him an advantage in a China-centric society; he is also gay, which gives him some disadvantages, since in this version of the future gay rights have not advanced one whit since 1992. The book follows Zhang from his beginnings as a construction tech in Brooklyn through a series of career and personal events, including a contract job on an Arctic research base, a stint as an engineering student in China, and attempts to get work in New York again now that he is basically overqualified for everything there.

Other characters include some kite fliers, a pair of colonists on Mars, and Zhang’s former boss’s daughter who has a bone disease that disfigures her face. All of their stories are seamlessly worked in with the technological advances of the world—kite racing a sort of flying-bodysuit sport where the audience “jacks in” to fliers to experience what they experience; the colonists on Mars are having issues with the systems that keep their colony livable; the daughter gets an advanced medical treatment that regrows all the bones in her face and discovers how different life is for pretty girls than ugly ones (somewhat predictably, she gets assaulted on a date). Zhang becomes something called an “organic engineer,” which is apparently like a cross between systems engineering and architecture, except more Daoist. (It makes sense in the book.)

Characterization and worldbuilding are key here, so the book only works because they’re both so very well done and so very well-integrated with one another. There’s not a huge amount of plot; Zhang has a sort of coming-of-age arc thing going on but it’s a slowly developing career path, not a “Saves the world and finds out who he really is at the same time” action-adventure story. And apart from a creepily accurate prediction of a Second Great Depression in the U.S. at the beginning of the twenty-first century—although this one supposedly had something to do with trade balances—I can’t really weigh in on how plausible a vision of the future it is. But it feels plausible, and real, and immersive, and for that it’s a good read. Everything—fashion, technology, language, setting—is very detailed, except the beer, which is always just described as “beer” and on the rare occasions it is a type of beer the characters drinking it don’t care, which sounds weird to me but that might be a quirk of when and where I live.
I was worried going into this that it would end up with some flavor of the paranoid Cold War propaganda that infests a lot of older sci-fi—instead, life under Chinese communism appears to have a lot in common with life under punitively-minded Western capitalism in an economic slump. Zhang deals with unemployment, the difficulties of gaining an education, problems of then being overqualified once the education is obtained, government bureaucracies, gentrification, housing instability, officially-nonexistent class issues, running out of money—all the usual stressful BS of being a young, single urbanite. In this way it was a little depressing, because, man, I do not need to read books to experience being unemployed and scrambling to pay rent in a crappy shoebox apartment in a gritty city. Although at least Zhang lives alone most of the time.

I liked this book, but I think I’m gonna read something a bit more escapist next.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix back when I was dropping lots of money on e-books, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until just now. I didn’t know much about it going in except that it was Chinese-inspired fantasy and it was girl-led YA, which, honestly, were pretty much the only things I needed to know. I went in expecting probably a fun sort of adventure fantasy romance thingy, and that is exactly what I got.

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

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

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

I could see this getting a movie adaptation if the live-action Mulan does well, although sadly I could also see it getting a really bad movie adaptation even though the book itself has a lot of strong cinematic elements, because YA adaptations.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The elevator pitch for Elizabeth Bear’s new novel Karen Memory is colorful enough that you can pretty much be certain that if you like the elevator pitch, you will like the book, and if you don’t, you won’t. The elevator pitch is: Heroic prostitutes versus disaster capitalists in the steampunk Old West.

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

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

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

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

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

I strongly recommend this book to everyone who likes badass ladies, steampunk, stories about lesbians that aren’t tragic death coming-out novels, historical figures you haven’t learned of in school, seeing abusive assholes get what they deserve, the Old West, big diverse ensemble casts, luxuriant mustaches, characters exhibiting genre-savviness (the genre in question being dime novels), and fun.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Daniel José Older’s Salsa Nocturna pretty much the second I put down Half-Resurrection Blues, although I probably should have picked it up earlier, considering it was published a few years ago and I bought it in July. But I am a philistine and am terrible about actually reading short story collections, which is dumb, because I often enjoy them when I do pick them up.

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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

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.

P1501272255302

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.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

I finally caught up with Mark Oshiro in reading Discworld, which means I just finished rereading Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids. I didn’t remember much of what happened in this one, except that it was parodying Ancient Egypt, and the parody Egypt country was called Djelibeybi, which is the best name ever, except that I think at the time I first read it, it was easy for me to cater to any cravings for Jelly Babies since they sold them at my local Stop & Shop at the time. I should see if they have any at Fort Point Market. I really like Jelly Babies.

Anyway.

Djelibeybi is an old kingdom, and a kingdom proud of its history. Its extremely well-preserved history. Honestly, at this point, Djelibeybi’s incessant preserving of its history is about all it's got going for it, as the elaborate funerary structures it builds for all its pharaohs have bankrupted the country, and everyone’s so in thrall to tradition that they haven’t invented anything in centuries, not even mattresses or plumbing. King Pteppicymon, a forward-thinking sort of pharaoh who hates pyramids, sends his son Pteppic off to Ankh-Morpork to become an assassin, so that he can make some money.

When Pteppic has to come back to Djelibeybi and be king, then, he is full of all sorts of non-Djelibeybian ideas from forn parts, which leads to chaos and mayhem. It would probably have just led to plumbing and mattresses if he'd been allowed to do what he wanted, but ironically, he butts heads with his extremely traditionalist advisor Dios, who is deathly afraid that any degree of change constitutes chaos and mayhem, and the result of their antagonistic interactions result in the construction of a pyramid for King Pteppicymon that's so big it bends space and time--and that causes ACTUAL chaos and mayhem. Joke's on you, Dios.

While much of this book is a bit chaotic even by Discworld standards, it's still quite a work of art--there are layers upon layers of puns, some excellent trope subversion on the part of the handmaiden Ptraci, Pratchett's signature literalism about the power of belief, and some very clever digs at both actual and popular imaginings of ancient Egyptian history. (There are "walk like an Egyptian" jokes that I had somehow forgotten about.) It even has some heartwarming smart bits about identity worked in around all the mathematically inclined camels and quantum.

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