Book Review: ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders

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All the Birds in the Sky is a love story. A story of redemption. A story of an ideological war for humanity’s soul. And a coming of age story of an AI. The story is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.

Patricia Delfine is a witch. Laurence Armstead is a burgeoning engineering wunderkind obsessed with rockets. Both were outcasts in middle school, and as outcasts are like to do, they banded together. Then they drifted apart—or were torn apart by weird circumstances. Weird circumstances throw them together again as adults, and that’s where the story really begins.

I quite liked All The Birds In The Sky. This is an odd, hard to categorize book—equal parts science fiction and fantasy, which is a difficult trick to pull off. The structure of the book is surprising; I was sure we would see more of Patricia’s Hogwarts-esque magical academy than we did, but I’m glad we skipped it. Learning about her training as she went about her (unpaid) business as a working witch was a smart, clever choice. I loved seeing the practical applications of magic—it helped to interweave the fantastical elements of Anders’ worldbuilding into the world as we know it. Also smart was holding back the descriptions of her odd, magical society until Laurence meets back up with her. This way, we could be brought into the loop about the arcane elements of the world as she saw it along with Laurence. The infodumping had a clear narrative purpose.

I found Patricia to be the more interesting character, but Laurence to have more emotional weight and honesty. Patricia’s life and experiences are naturally more intriguing, since she is a witch. Being a witch, alone, is interesting! She has magic, and with it, untapped potential. But Patricia’s motivations were never quite clear to me the way Laurence’s were. Laurence’s emotional arc is simpler and easier to intuit, maybe, because he is just a guy trying to make his employer happy and find a nice girl, but I would have liked for Anders to demystify Patricia’s motivations, too. That said, Patricia’s evolving relationship with her older sister, Roberta, is a thing of beauty and heartbreak—and Roberta’s moment with the hen is spectacular.

Overall, the book is a touch too twee for me. The names alone—Patricia Delfine, Laurence Armstead, Theodolphus Rose—all sound like characters from a Decemberists song. Some of the tweeness works, like when Bay Area hipsters start singing madrigals as the end of the world approaches, but it often felt like I was reading a Wes Anderson script dressed in genre clothing. Underneath that tweeness, though, there is real grit to the book. Characters die, stakes are high, and I was emotionally engaged throughout. For me, the grit throws the peculiar tweeness in a weird relief. I’m not sure, stylistically, what that sort of forced whimsy was doing there, orwhat Anders was going for, since there is so much natural charm and warmth already embedded in the story and the characters.

I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for a story that blends magic and science, and for people who like writing with a dash of hipster style. Anders brings the twee charm, but grounds it in some thoughtful and gritty questions and careful character work that will leave you thinking.

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Book Review: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab


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Notes on Diversity:
It’s subtle, but it’s there. The ruling family of Red London–Kell’s London–are definitely brown folks. And Rhy Maresh, the crown prince of Red London, seems pretty canonically bisexual. Lila is definitely gender non-conforming. I am not venturing that she’s trans or genderqueer, but she is performing, quite consciously, a very butch and very hard kind of femininity.

Now, that does mean that our leads, Kell and Lila, read as straight-ish and White. The major antagonists are also White. So it’s a decidedly White book, but there are at least queer brown people in power, so there’s that.

Review:
V.E. Schwab has two enormous strength going for here in this book: first, she can write; second, she can fascinate. She constructs effortlessly emotional sentences. The book reads fluidly, quickly, and packs a great number of punches. Schwab is a smooth and evocative writer, which is needed when outlining the nuanced differences between the various Londons.

Which brings me to point two: the story’s hook is great. Four parallel Londons, each linked and locked by magic, each with its own history and relationship with magic. And within all of those worlds, there are only two people–Kell and Holland–who can travel between them. Only two people who can see these other worlds and report back and forth.

The opening scene is masterfully done, and tragic, and beautifully sets the stage for everything to follow. This is a tale of obsession and sacrifice, and all of that is spelled out in those opening interactions Kell has.

We start with Kell as he travels and as he flirts with danger, and then the plot ratchets up when his flirtations get the best of him. But by then, Lila Bard, hungry thief and sharp-tongued street rat, has already linked her fate with his. They cut a blood-soaked trail from one London to the next, plagued by an artifact they only half understand, while hunted by the sadistic rulers of White London–a London hungry for power and dominance.

I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect–the plot took too long to fall into place, which meant the pacing was uneven, but the story and the world was fascinating enough that I kept going anyway. Lila is a deeply fascinating character. The counterpoint of her poverty to Kell’s confused by privileged life bore out interesting moments and conversations throughout.

I’m one of the lucky ones who can read the next book in the series right now.

Book Review: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire


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Notes on Diversity
I confess I read Every Heart A Doorway on the strength of its asexual protagonist, Nancy, and I was not disappointed. But beyond Nancy, there is also a trans character (Kade), and Sumi, an Asian girl. I think Sumi may have been the only non-White character,* and it’s…not great that she essentially gets fridged.

An additional diversity shoutout to the character of Eleanor, who, in running her school finds the word “crazy” problematic and bans it. I really loved this, considering the context, and I also really loved how some characters defiantly used it and reclaimed it anyway.

Review
Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, is a murder mystery, and a coming of age story, and a portal fantasy all neatly wrapped in the same novella. It’s a minor miracle that the novella never feels overstuffed—in fact, I wanted more from it. I didn’t want it to end.

Every Heart A Doorway follows Nancy, a girl who has been to and returned from the Halls of the Dead, and who must find a way to settle back into the mundanities of the normal, regular world again. Luckily for her, she’s not the only such stolen and returned child. There are enough such children that there is an entire boarding school devoted to their treatment and rehabilitation.** Nancy’s parents pack her off, and so her story begins.

Just as Nancy is finding her footing at her new school, students start turning up dead. And not just dead, but mutilated. Nancy understands that as the most recent addition to the school, and as a girl whose portal world has such a close connection with death, she is an easy and likely suspect. She knows clearing her own name means casting suspicion elsewhere, and that means unraveling the mystery at hand.

McGuire is a deft writer. Since this is a novella, space is limited, and the cast of characters is surprisingly large for a novella. But the characters are quickly and deftly drawn. Most of them have excellent depth. The mystery itself has twists and turns and a decent red herring. The plot clipped along, quick but not rushed. I found myself more interested in the worldbuilding, though, than the mystery. There was something more compelling in the way the characters categorized the portal worlds—Wicked and Virtue, Nonsense and Logic—than the inevitable death of the next student, who I was sure was not going to be Nancy.

I was particularly fond of the ending, which wraps things up so neatly emotionally, but quickly and quietly. It made me think. It made me mull things over. I want to talk about it with people, but I can’t here, because spoilers.

As much as I am glad there was representation of a young ace woman and a young trans man, and as well-realized as a I think Nancy and Kade were, respectively, I wish their ace-ness and trans-ness had not been so…clinically written. I couldn’t help but contrast the way McGuire wrote about asexuality and gender identity with the way she wrote about the harms of patriarchy, and how in this world it so easily led to the capture of girls over boys. That section was nuanced and wry. Or compare to the embodiment of smart/pretty in Jack and Jill and how viciously that has gone awry, which is skillfully written throughout. The sections where Kade discusses his gender or where Nancy discusses her asexuality are blunt to the point of earnestness. Still, I am glad the characters were included.

3 stars*I think this is the case? If I am misremembering, please let me know in the comments, and I will amend the review.

**There are, as one character explains, actually two such schools: one school for kids who want to return to their portal worlds, and one school for kids who under no circumstances ever wish to see their portal worlds again. I found this detail particularly interesting.

Book Review: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett

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Notes on Diversity:
Generally excellent diverse sci-fi book. All three major characters are people of color. All three are portrayed, in places, as queer. There are definite scenes/sections that tackle issues of disability.

But. The book, I think, really really fails with trans issues (see below).

Review:
There is Adrianne and Antoine. Or Adrian and Atoinette. Or Adrianne and Antoinette. Or Adrian and Antoine. Anyway, there are two, and they love each other, but there is a trauma, and it tears them apart. Because no matter how much you love someone, sometimes there are forces in life that can still rip you apart. Sometimes the two are lovers. Sometimes they are siblings. Sometimes one is a parent, and the other is a child. But always, always, there is a deep and abiding love, and always, always, there is a horrible loss.

This is a strange little book, and I went into it completely uninformed*. I am finding it, honestly, hard to review it.

Brissett is a writer of scope and specificity, both, which I love. The narrative spins and twists back on itself, coiling and expanding in turns. It starts in a perfectly normal setting, realist, and then adds layer upon layer of weird. The first bit of weird is that in the next scene, the characters who were heterosexual lovers are now gay men. Later, the genders change once more (now they are again a heterosexual couple) but the setting shifts–Adrianne is a sort-of vestal virgin in Roman-esque future world. There is a war. Antoine is a soldier. The narrative shifts again. Wings are involved. The narrative shifts again: an alien invasion.

Throughout, there is a core to Adrianne/Adrian’s character and to Antoine/Atoinette’s character–or, perhaps more precisely, a chain of love between them–that never shifts. It evolves, they evolve, and sometimes they revert, but that fact of their relationship never changes even as it is clear something key is disintegrating around them and breaking down.

This is a lovely book. But something happened about halfway through that made me step away from it and claim some distance.

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*****SPOILERS*****

There is a third character, Hector/Helen, who features as a sometimes friend and sometimes leg of a love triangle. In one of the twists of the narrative, Adrianne winds up institutionalized. At the same mental institution is Helen, apparently institutionalized because she is a trans woman. But in the text, she is consistently referred to as Hector, and referred to using male pronouns. They become friends, and later Helen dies a heroic death to save Adrian (their gender flips again) because he is the only who accepts her for who she is (even though Adrianne/Adrian, too, has been referring to her as ‘he’ and ‘Hector’ in the unspoken elements of the text.).

This is…this is a particular issue of mine. I dislike it when trans people are thrown to the wolves to make cis people heroic and accepting. And I dislike it even more when their (our) transness is made hypervisible by breaking the consonance of how they (we) are referred to in dialogue and how they (we) are referred to in narration. Having a character call Helen by the name she prefers, but think of her as Hector, is a type of misgendering. It is a qualification and a marker of difference.

This is a minor part of the story, that is a fact. But it so disturbed and disappointed me that I had to leave the rest of the book untouched for over a week. As a trans reader, I personally felt misgendered and ignored and small just by reading this treatment of a trans character.

*****END SPOILERS*****

And that is a shame, because this book is really good. Especially the ending. I still can’t shake that piece above, but pushing past it really got to the good stuff. The book has heart, and the book has philosophy. The way the pieces of the book fit together, the fluidity of Brissett’s writing, it’s all a wonder to behold. Except for that. But that, while a small piece of the text, was a huge thing for me as a reader.

I just wish the book didn’t also make me feel like I was a set piece. So, how the hell do you rate a book where you are pretty sure you would have loved it if it hadn’t been for that one part that made you feel like you were a tool for cis people? I guess…I guess you split the difference.

3 stars

*This is, actually, my preferred way to read things. I either want no information about a book except a rec to read it, or I want to be spoiled completely. I like to either let the story unfold with no expectations, or I like to let it unfold knowing what’s going to happen and able to watch for the seams.

Book Review: THERE ONCE LIVED A GIRL WHO SEDUCED HER SISTER’S HUSBAND, AND HE HANGED HIMSELF by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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Notes on Diversity:
Petrushevskaya’s stories are not diverse on the surface. It’s not explicit, but I read most of the characters as white. The stories–love stories, the cover claims–appeared to be hetero in nature.

The bulk of these love stories are focused on women, and what is remarkable about these stories is the great breadth of Russian femininity* that Petrushevskaya tracks through her stories. The stories are pulled from the full spread of her writing career, and across them we have old heroines and very young heroines and heroines settling into middle age. We have hopeful and dour heroines. Beautiful, but mostly homely heroines. Bright and slow heroines. Heroines of virtually every description.

And, also specific to Russia, we have heroines that live in Soviet Russia and heroines that live in a Russia which has once again begun to flirt with capitalism. We see, through Petrushevskaya’s eyes, the great and remarkable changes that Russian society went through while she lived, and how great (or small) an impact those changes made on the daily lives of its citizens.

Review:
Petrushevskaya has a light hand with narration and a uncanny, unflinching eye for vicious detail. These are love stories, but they are horror stories, too. These are stories, almost uniformly, about how completely random and obliterating and destructive love can be. She is a sly, deadpan writer, and the stories are like those told by your aunt who’s seen too much and who is always slightly drunk at holiday dinners, but who is charismatic and fascinating anyway.

The only real fault I have with the collection is repetition. Sixteen stories is a lot to read in one go, especially when the themes are so consistent and similar. I wish the collection had been shorter, that the ten best and brightest had been chosen. But, then again, every anthology is a bit of a shot in the dark, yes? My top ten are probably not your top ten.

Speaking of, stand-outs (for me, anyway) were “Two Deities”, “Tamara’s Baby”, “A Happy Ending,” and especially “Milgrom”.

4 stars

*I would not venture to say that she is somehow speaking to all of womanhood or across all women’s experience. That is certainly not true. But she does seem to speak to a great swath of Russian women’s experience (I would think–I am not Russian).

Book Review: THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

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Notes On Diversity:
Magic might be thick in the air at the Cirque Des Reves, but diversity is thin on the ground.

In the whole of this long, meandering book–a book brimming with characters, a book that stretches across time and distance–there are, perhaps, two characters who are explicitly characters of color (Chandresh, who is half-Indian, and Tsukiko1, who is Japanese). Interestingly, both Chandresh and Tsukiko also happen to play double-diversity-duty: they are also The Night Circus‘s only canonically queer characters, as well.

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why did the people of color *also* have to be the only queer people? Who knows!

As far as I could tell, there were no characters with a disability. The closest we get to discussions of class and poverty is with Marco’s backstory, which is written in broad strokes and passed by quite quickly. There is one interesting and quite telling moment where Marco’s shadowy-named mentor, Alexander H-., mentions that he went looking for a student in an orphanage in the first place on the presumption that the student (Marco) would have a better life at his hands, no matter the consequences, than he would have had should he have been left destitute in the orphanage.2

I’ll get into this in more depth in the review, but I also felt that many of the women characters were not written with as much depth or centricity as the male characters.

Generally speaking, this is book full of lovely language and striking images and wonder. But it is not a book much interested in diversity.

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Review:
In some lucky towns, the Cirque Des Reves springs up unannounced  and opens from dusk until dawn. The circus is black and white – the costumes, the great white-flamed bonfire, the painted dirt, even the food. It is a world of shadow and light wreathed in unknown, unseen magic. The circus is the sight of a contest: the beautiful young illusionist, Celia Bowen, is no illusionist at all. The magic the performs is real. The strange and wondrous creations in the tents are real, too. Some of them are hers, and some of them are her competitors: the circus creator’s unassuming assistant, Marco Alisdair. The pair of them are locked in this competition, and bound to the circus, but neither of them know what they are competing for, or how it will end, or why they were chosen to compete in the first place.

There are many who adore The Night Circus. It is a lovely book. Morgenstern is an entrancing writer, and the plot is threaded together very well. All the loose ends are woven together by the end of the book; there are no extraneous variables. The pacing is such that you have to be floored with Morgenstern’s language and description, or captivated by the story itself, to wait it out to see how the apparently disparate elements of the book unify by the end, but Morgenstern as a writer is sure-handed enough that I felt certain that they would all come together in the end. If you are not engaged with either her style or the plot of the book, though, your patience with the slowly weaving tapestry of The Night Circus may falter.

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like this, but, you know, a book

This was a book I wanted very much to like and didn’t. I appreciated Morgenstern’s skill, and she has it in spades. But for all her luxurious description of the outputs of Celia and Marco’s magic, I ended up with very little understanding of what it actually was to be a magician. For a book ostensibly about two highly talented (if sequestered) magicians, there was very little about the magic itself. What did it feel like to use it? How did it work? What were its limits and scope? How many magicians were out there, and how did that make the world of The Night Circus tangible different from our own? If there were no answers to these questions, why make Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair magicians in the first place? Why not make them, I don’t know, architects, instead?

Really, this is not a book so much about magic. Magic is the backdrop here, sketchily worked out (but very beautifully written about), and the story is about a pair of star-crossed lovers. And this is fine, or rather would have been, if Marco had not been emotionally manipulative and deeply creepy as a character. The love story as it was portrayed was very strange, since it seemed written to be this sweeping grand romantic thing. And yet–Marco was a terrible, callous, desperate person. And Celia was little more than a phantom. We get very little of her in terms of interiority. Their love story is told more than shown. It is obvious that Morgenstern can write a natural, sweet love story, because there is once in the book–Bailey and Poppet–but the central narrative focuses on Marco’s fixation with Celia and Celia’s acquiescence to it, which is passed off here as love.

Again, this is a beautifully written book, and masterfully structured. But it didn’t work for me. The ending was too pat, and the central relationship was too hollow. For a book where the main characters should have been inside the magic, the worldbuilding felt half-realized. The entire book felt too coy by half.

3 stars


1Tsukiko was, to me, by far the most interesting character in the book. She was also one of the few characters who became more interesting as the book went on instead of less interesting. I kept wishing the book had been about her instead.

2When Marco’s mentor said this, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever been poor. It struck me as the kind of things a person who had always lived comfortably says about the presumed horrors of being poor, the unknown shock of lack. I actually can’t imagine that knowing the arcane wonders would be worth unwittingly losing one’s freedom forever. Self-determination is constrained when living in poverty, this is true, but at least there’s a semblance of it.

Book Review: ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
There is a sliver of diversity here, but it’s probably not what you’re looking for.

The Jewish character is smart, but Very Wrong and Stubborn.

Literally the only person of color in the entire book is a voodoo-using evil bogeyman ghost out to kill people. He is Black. And evil. And he eats animals sometimes.

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Review:
Cas Lowood is a ghost hunter, like his father before. He is training, honing the edge of his talents, because he needs to be as good as possible when he goes up against the ghost that took down his dad. He’s only seventeen, but he’s been at this for three years, and he’s nearly ready. This next hunt is his final test: Anna Dressed In Blood. She’s supposed to be vicious. The stories about her are chilling. He can’t wait to go after her.

But when he gets to Thunder Bay Ontario–with his witch mother and their witchy cat in tow–nothing goes according to plan. Anna is a force, and deadly, but there is more to her than he expected. Civilians get involved, and it turns out he needs their help. And then everything goes sideways.

Anna Dressed In Blood is a well-written book that, for me, had several fatal flaws and suffered in comparison to other, better works tackling similar themes. Blake can write, and she has a knack for characterization. The book was well-paced and readable, the characters are generally well-rounded. Carmel, especially, surprises and delights. Blake has talents; this book was not the book for me.

The premise (extremely masculine but very sensitive teenage boy goes ghost-huntin’) bore such a strong resemblance, especially in the opening pages, that I couldn’t help comparing it to Supernatural.

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Supernatural has a lot of problems–the women keep dying. The people of color keep dying. But as a show that explores just how toxic masculinity can be it is pretty damn good. This is clearly a theme Blake was trying to explore in Anna Dressed In Blood; as Cas slowly picks up his entourage, and even more slowly begins to regard them as friends, he opens up new vulnerabilities.

The difference between Cas Lowood and the Winchester brothers is that Cas never actually had to do any of the things he’s doing. He decided to put this pressure on himself. We are told, in the book, that he is very special and must fight all these ghosts with his very special ghost hunting knife to which–maybe, it remains unclear–he is blood-bound. But his mother clearly wishes he wouldn’t do this, even as she enables him.

(Sidebar: Dear Cas’s mom–stop enabling him. Why are you enabling him? Since he was fourteen he has been doing this shit that got your husband killed? You’re just…letting him do this? What the shit, you’re a witch. And a parent. Put your foot down. Do not move him around multiple countries allowing him to murder dead people, which is clearly very dangerous. It is well-established that John Winchester was a shitty parent do you want to be like John Winchester, lady??)

Dean and Sam were forced into this life. They had no choice. There was no normalcy for them, and on top of that, they are not in high school. Watching the show, I do have to navigate around questions like really, though, when do you do your homework if you are out ghost hunting all night. And, having been forced into that life, the Winchesters’ emotional arcs are more defined and starker than Cas’s.

Then it turns out it’s less a Gory Horrible ghost story than this kind of ghost story:

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but gender flipped and they’re in high school

Yeah. The kind with kissin’.

I mean, Anna is still pretty destructive, but not when it comes to Cas1. He uncovers her Tragic Past (of course she has a Tragic Past) and then promptly falls in love with her. And she likes him back. And they canoodle and stuff. And…all his friends and his mom are cool with it.

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Why are they cool with it? How is this a sustainable relationship? Things Go Down at the end, but things would go down one way or the other. Did Cas see himself as a seventy year old man with ghost-Anna on his arm? Was he planning to introduce her to people? What if she was tied to the town–was he going to leave and return occasionally? Just…no one brought up any “hey, friend, your girlfriend is a ghost, that is an interesting life choice” conversations at all.

This part of the book really pales in comparison to Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria. Like Cas, Jevick falls for a ghost. Unlike Cas, he realized very quickly how limiting their different experiences of existence are for their budding relationship. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet portrayal of love. If you are looking for a love story about a man and a ghost, that’s what I would point you to. But it’s an extraordinarily different book than this one (not horror at all, for starters).

With all of this I doubt I ever would have become an Anna Dressed in Blood superfan, but I would have rated it a solid four stars had there not been a few glaring plot holes and dangling plot threads. The worldbuilding felt half fleshed out. The plot moved–but on inspection key pieces just happened and didn’t make much sense. Anna’s murder, especially made little sense to me (specific questions are spoilery and under a cut here). Same with the final Big Bad.

3 stars

1For reasons that are never really explained. Plot threads be hangin’.

Spoilers below Continue reading

Book Review: THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin

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Notes on Diversity:
The real power of diverse literature is that it speaks truth. Essun is a Black woman–a dreadlocked middle-aged woman protagonist. She is a rarity, and she is deeply, fully realized. The world of The Fifth Season is, like our own world, full to the brim with people of color. They outnumber white people. Race in the Stillness still matters, but it is conceptualized and socially constructed along different factors. The way Jemisin breaks this down in the text is remarkable and masterful.

There is also queer representation. Alabaster is clearly gay; Innon is a rare comfortable and loving bisexual man. I had…issues with this, not because of their portrayal, but because of their positioning within the plot. It’s hard to talk about this without giving anything away, spoiler-wise, so I’m sticking things in a footnote. But those who wish to avoid common queer tropes may be chafed.1

And then there are the trans folks.

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Y’all, there is an important secondary character in this book who is a trans woman. She’s just there, and she’s trans. Just hanging out, living her life as a trans woman. And! And! There’s a passing mention of a trans boy, too. It’s just a blip, but it was there. The Stillness had trans people in it. Also, like sentient rock people or whatever, but do you have any idea how rare it is to read a book that just has nonchalant trans people in it being trans? A hell of a lot rarer than books about sentient rock people, that’s for damn sure. I nearly fucking cried. I am not kidding.


Review:
I loved this book. It was immensely hard for me to read, and I still loved it.2
I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people who can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet.

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this, pretty much

And to understand how it happened, you have to understand how many injustices–small and large, premeditated and coincidental–came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.

It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.

There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am white, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here (I am guessing) about what it is to be Black–the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.

But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.

The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.

5 stars
1HERE BE SPOILERS TURN BACK WHILE YE STILL CAN! Again, both Alabaster and Innon were beautifully written characters. But. They were also the two canonically queer characters. And Innon dies, brutally, which I can’t help but read as a Bury Your Gays thing. Then, Alabaster ends up being a Tragic Gay Villain, basically. Yes, it makes sense why he does the things he does. Yes, it makes narrative sense why Innon as to die. But…as a queer person it still felt like a sucker punch that *my* characters were being used this way. They were the disposable ones, the weak ones that turned bad, etc etc, like always, again. For all the wonder and glory of the book, even with the wonder and the glory that is Tonkee herself alone, this left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m rating this 5 stars, but these issues make it a 4.5 star book for me. It gives me pause.

2IT STARTS WITH A DEAD CHILD. Oh, my heart.

ANCIENT, ANCIENT by Kiini Ibura Salaam

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Notes on Diversity:
This is another case where diversity is not really the right word to use here.1. This is a book of stories where, with one or two exceptions, the focus is on Black womanhood. Sometimes those Black women are in space. Sometimes they coexist alongside gods. Sometimes they live in New York and are beset by nostalgia for Louisiana. Sometimes they are aliens who communicate through dance. But unifying the collection of stories is a deep exploration of Black womanhood. It is a book written within a lived experience for others of that lived experience. It reminds me, in that sense, of Constance Burris’ Black Beauty.2

All philosophizing aside, this book is full of characters of color. And women. And it has some queer representation.


Review:
Salaam is a lovely, poetic writer. From her language choice to the actual structure of the stories themselves, most of the stories in this collection are lyrical and haunting.

One of the clearest themes throughout all the stories is sex, which in virtually all cases3 is a powerfully positive and healing force in women’s lives. In stories like “Desire” and the trio of stories featuring the unnamed alien race represented by WaLiLa and MalKai who feast on human nectar (that is drawn out by way of sex), sex and sexuality is arguably coerced–but still, the power of it and the emotional connection it brings proves healing. Or at the very least complicated. The women in the stories remain agentic throughout even when used as vessels.

But I was more drawn to some of the other themes woven through the stories.4 Movement-as-freedom and movement-as-communication comes up again and again. Most clearly in the WaLiLa and MalKai stories, where WaLiLa and MalKai must learn to forsake their original language of movement/dance for spoken human languages, and again in “Battle Royale.” In “Battle Royale”, the narrator’s insistence on engaging in the flashing game/dance of razors leads to the fever-dream punishment meted out by his grandfather. But movement, or the lack of it, and how it can bring a different kind of freedom comes up in “Debris”, too.

There is an openness in Salaam’s resolutions that I enjoyed. Many of the stories were about a change of direction, a decision point, and were other writers would tell you where the characters were going, Salaam refuses to reveal what happens next. The conflict was that there was a decision to make, she seems to suggest. The trick of her stories is that there emotional gratification in knowing that a decision was made, but we don’t know which path was taken.

Salaam’s stories are fascinating. In particular, I liked “Debris”, “Ferret”, and “Ancient, Ancient”. “Rosamojo” was hard for me to read–I found it triggering–but it is a very good story.

4 stars

1I need to write this post already about My Issues With The Word Diversity.
2Although, if you’re into short speculative fiction featuring Black characters you should really check out Black Beauty, too.
3The exception to this is “Rosamojo”. It is a very good story, but if you are triggered by sexual assault, especially as a survivor of childhood trauma, tread with caution.
4I’m ace, man, I’m not getting the same sex-as-rapture thing these characters are getting.

Book Review: FIRE LOGIC by Laurie J. Marks

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Notes on Diversity:
Hey, are you looking for a diverse book? MAYBE YOU SHOULD READ THIS ONE.

Seriously. Zanja, one of the POV characters, is a lesbian woman of color who also experiences an extended period of disability.1 Karis is half-giant and a smoke addict. Her addiction greatly impacts her functioning day in and day out. Emil is a soldier, and continues to be a soldier well into middle-age despite a consistent difficult knee injury. The lot of them are poor; living hand-to-mouth. Emil is classically educated, but many of them are not. And, so many of the characters are queer–and various flavors of queer.2

This book is an everything burrito of thoughtful inclusivity.

 


Review:
When the leader of Shaftal dies without naming a successor, the country falls apart. The Sainnites take advantage of the power vacuum and slaughter the bulk of Shaftal’s remaining leaders, throwing the country into chaos and war overnight. Zanja, a trader in training from the northern mountains, witnesses this and witnesses in the intervening fifteen years the havoc the war wreaks across the land of Shaftal. But she can do little about it until the war comes knocking at her tribe’s door. It isn’t until then, that her own tribe is threatened by the Sainnites, that the story really starts. Because then Zanja’s fate becomes tied to Shaftal’s.

This is a long and complex book. Zanja is not the only narrator–that paragraph is my paltry attempt to summarize the book without giving anything away, but it doesn’t get into the depth of the book. Karis, the half-giant addict is also a narrator. So is Emil, the old paladin commander Zanja winds up befriending. And Medric, a young seer who holds the fate of both the Sainnites and the Shaftalese in his hands. It is a fantasy epic, but instead of kings and castles, it is an epic about farmsteads and ironworkers.

Get ready for an epic ambush.

This is a wonderful, thoughtful book populated by wonderful, thoughtful characters. It could have been tighter, but that’s ok with me. I don’t mind a shaggy book. Your mileage may vary. The thing that most irked me about Fire Logic–and this is a fairly minor point, though it is enough that i am willing to knock it down a star–is an uneveness in the worldbuilding. There was such a fine and deep eye towards some elements, things like the historical use of specific words like porringer and dray horse that lent the book an authenticity I loved. The elements of guerilla warfare were intricately drawn with almost too much detail. And yet I still have little sense of the magical mechanics of the world. It’s stated that elementals are rare, but yet most of the characters I came to know over the course of the book are elementals. And if they are so rare, how are they handled? Would Karis really be left to be a blacksmith? Would Emil really simply be a paladin commander? Perhaps, this makes sense given the current state of disarray in Shaftal, but is there no specific training or guidance for people with these gifts? There was, at least, for Zanja among the Ashawala’i. It was because she was a fire elemental that she was first introduced to Shaftal as a trader, after all. Why are the elementals of Shaftal untrained? Or are they? It was a huge open question for me throughout the whole of the book given how prominent and important elemental magic turned out to be for the plot, and without some of these questions answered, the fire logic that drove the plot felt like contrivance more than once.

I also wanted to know more about the peculiarities of the elemental magic and how they impacted, specifically, the way these gifted people are perceived and embark into relationships with others. Yes, I understand that fire logic makes Zanja and Emil and Medric all very intuitive and prescient. All three of them seemed to be prone to fall in love awfully fast and awfully hard. Is this bad writing? Or is it a trick of the magic? I want to give Marks the benefit of the doubt here, but without some explanation, there is room to lean towards it seeming just like pat instalove. But then again, it could be that fire logic–that weird prescience, a kind of imprinting. I wanted more insight into how that works, if that was the case. How would Zanja or Emil’s prescience work when turned towards a person instead of grand events? Could it be turned towards a person? Is that healthy?

Beyond all of that, it is Marks’ handling of the way the big political shifts of Shaftal impact the formation of this found family that made the book really sing for me. Zanja and Emil and Karis and Norina and Medric and J’Han are all broken, wounded people. They love each other, and they need each other, and they are better and stronger together–and that is, ultimately, what family is. Marks allows for a great deal of space and breathing room for these relationships to develop organically, for this little family to form on its own against all odds. And when it does, it is so emotionally gratifying.

This is what emotional gratification looks like.

Marks has a way of cutting to the heart of the desperate human need for connection, and it’s this that propels the book forward:

Annis talked to Zanja about her experiments with gunpowder and other unstable compounds. It seemed incredible that she had not injured herself when she clearly deserved to be blown to bits. In this community of huge, fantastically intermarried families, Zanja’s loneliness was becoming intolerable. She experimented with touching Annis’s arm, wondering if she herself would be blown to bits.

The characters’ decisions are hinged on their relationships to each other. I was gripped by how they interacted, what they drew from each other, how they pushed and pulled each other. All of the characters, from Zanja down to the antagonists–the xenophobic Willis and the arrogant Mabin–are drawn with depth and clarity and motivation. Each is a joy to read. Norina hit me too close for comfort. Karis is a study in paradoxes. Zanja is the heart that holds the book together.

A book could not ask for a better heart than Zanja. I have rarely seen as fully realized a character as her, or as agentic a character as her. Or one with as much respect for those around her. I love what she tells someone at the end of the book:

Scholars like Emil and Medric will study the obscure history of your life a hundred years from now and never quite make sense of it. So what, so long as it makes sense to you?

4 stars
1Zanja’s physical disabilities are magically healed, but the experience leaves her profoundly shaken. Her life changes absolutely because of her experience of having had a disability. Fire Logic does not fall into the trap of either pretending that being magically cured wipes away forever the experience of ever having been disabled in the first place or that other people with disabilities exist in the world. Other characters with disabilities do continue to exist throughout the book, some of whom are healed, and some of whom are not.

2In the case of one character in particular, Marks does a wonderful job depicting a fluid change in sexuality that is at once honest and heartrending and deeply emotionally gratifying.