Book Review: SHADOWSHAPER

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Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is a triumph. It is a seamless and engaging YA urban fantasy that feels real and immediate and urgent. Sierra Santiago, the main character, is a revelation: an Afro-Latina with agency, with consciousness, replete with unrelenting badassery. The pacing never stops. The prose never hitches. And the cover is gorgeous. I literally have nothing bad to say about this book.

Shadowshaper follows Sierra, a burgeoning muralist in Brooklyn, as she discovers that she is part of a line of spiritual artists called shadowshapers—and that the other shadowshapers are getting hunted down and murdered. With the help of Robbie, her classmate and fellow emerging muralist, she has to uncover who is hunting the shadowshapers and put a stop to it.

Everything that follows is gold, from her clever interludes with her godfather Neville, who uses the racist assumptions society holds against Black men to his advantage to help her infiltrate Columbia, to Sierra’s realization that it is, ultimately, it was her Puerto Rican grandfather’s machismo that kept her from knowing her own power for so long. This book is steeped in race and gender; Older never flinches and never shies away from portraying the ways in which these axes of oppression shape his characters’ lives. For young readers of color, especially girls of color who yearn to see their experiences acknowledged in literature, this will be powerful1. As a queer reader, I loved that Older included right at the start a pair of lesbians in Sierra’s friend group. Tee and Izzy were just there, just hanging out, treated as normal. It made me feel safe in his world.

The worldbuilding is lovely, and its supported by Older’s ability to highly visual storytelling style. His prose is extremely sensual—there is a scene which takes place in a Haitian night club that succeeds on the strength of his ability to evoke the richness of the mural in the club and the way the mural shimmers and shifts with the music played by the nightclub’s live band. It’s a strong demand of the written word to make you see that mural, to hear that music, to see the relationship between those two things, but Older pulls it off. He employs that device over and over through the course of the book, which is why Shadowshaper is so immersive and rich: it’s a five-sense experience as you read it because it’s so fascinated with so many different kinds of art.

Shadowshaper, like all my favorite spec fic books, is political, too. It has a lot to say about whiteness and white supremacy. Ultimately what Sierra is fighting against is gentrification, appropriation, white entitlement. I won’t spoil it, but I read the book and I read Sierra as a statement about the importance of communities of color banding together to preserve themselves and their culture from sublimation into the maw of Whiteness. There is a scene, fairly early in the book, where Sierra and her friends go to a coffee shop that has appeared in their neighborhood only to find that it’s overpriced and full of white hipsters. At first, they make fun of it. But then:

It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides—as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought.
And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.

Looking back from the end of the book, this scene is eerie in its foreshadowing of Sierra will fight against.

5 stars

1I CANNOT WAIT until my partner Sam reads this book. Sam is Latina and has talked to me at length about how hard it was for her to find things to read as a kid growing up and how much she disliked the Old Dead White Dude Canon that was pushed on her in English classes. This is exactly the kind of book that she will love and that she should have been able to find as a kid in a school library, and I sincerely hope that Shadowshaper finds its way onto middle school and high school English curricula for that reason.

Book Review: HILD

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Nicola Griffith’s HILD manages at once to have all the sweep of The Lord of the Rings and all the interiority of The Bell Jar. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

Set in a war-torn 6th century England, the book follows Hild, a girl at the court of Edwin, overking of the Anglisc. Hild is trained by her mother to be Edwin’s seer, and the narrative follows Hild through childhood to adulthood as she adopts that role and uses it to keep herself and her loved ones safe in uncertain times. In the background, England changes as Christianity spreads across the island.

There is so much to rave about in this book. The characters are drawn with an immense amount of depth—most notably Hild, but this extends to virtually everyone who appears on the page. More than that, the characters’ relationships to each others are written with a depth that is remarkable. The web of interactions between the characters is intricate in a way that adds texture to the book, enriches it, instead of ever feeling confusing or distracting.

I was most fascinated by Hild’s triangulated relationship to her mother, Breguswith, her role as the king’s seer, and the way this role seemed to, for lack of a better word, queer her gender within the confines of her society. Hild’s capability as a seer is posited externally as a kind of magic, but neither Hild herself or Breguswith seems to regard it as such. Rather, Hild is just exceptionally observant and astute—something which Breguswith actively cultivates in her from a very young age.

Her role as seer—the mystique it brings, the isolation the mystique brings with it—helps Hild gather information. It makes her clear-headed. By design she is less distracted by personal social obligations. Her position as a seer keeps her family and loved ones safe. But it also means that she is alone. For much of her childhood and adolescence, she is almost completely alone. She is given a kind of elusive voice and freedom, but a peculiar cost, and the tension it causes between her and her mother, who carved this role out for her, was beautifully written. Those few times that Hild begins to invest in her own personal life, in her own self, and let her get distracted are the exact times she misses something. Those are the times she fails to make a ‘prediction’, that something surprises her. Hild is very quick to course correct—she tries to detach, to become the seer again, but it hurts her to do it.

Part of that elusive freedom is that Hild inhabits both feminine and masculine roles throughout the book—she is called a freemartin (defined in the book’s glossary as “a female calf masculinized in the womb by its male twin”) more than once, often disparagingly. She refers to herself as both sword and skirt, which is both literal and symbolic given that she fights with a huge knife. She weaves with the women, and then she takes a band of warriors out to clear bandits in a section of the book that is graphic and haunting and chilling and leaves her with the nickname the Butcher-bird. Hild, because she has always inhabited both and neither gender sphere, has always been a liminal creature of odd gender, seems to watch others’ reactions to her gendered movements with a detachment. She seems to have little yearning to anchor herself to one point or another. But then again, Breguswith has bred into Hild detachment from such an early age that detachment is Hild’s go-to. Hild has never really been allowed to want.

There is also, in Griffith’s writing, an immersiveness of a very foreign world. The trick is that it’s a world that once existed but one incredibly different than what we live in now. Things we take for granted, like the rapture of hearing music for the first time, or the sheer political power of being the only faction on an entire island who is literate.

I have so much more to say about this book. I loved it. I loved reading it, and I look forward to a year or two or three from now when I can’t remember all the details and it’s time to read it again.

5 stars

Book Review: EMBASSYTOWN

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Embassytown, by China Mieville, is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ll give you a sense of the plot, but it won’t do the book justice. Avice Benner Cho hails from a tiny outpost on a far-flung planet. Arieka is a backwater notable only for the oddness of its sentient indigenous life-forms, the Ariekei. Mieville does a wonderful job creating aliens who are truly alien—this is my second time reading the book and I still can’t quite picture the Ariekei. They have wings and hooves and chitinous shells and eye stalks. They have two mouths, and use their double-layered voices to speak pure truth. Everything they say is literal. As contact with the humans increases and the Ariekei need more and more foreign things to say, they turn to the creation of similes. Avice Benner Cho is tapped in her childhood to become one such simile—the scene is minutely prepared, and so must have been envisioned somehow by the Ariekei, but cannot be spoken until it’s happened. This tension between wanting to break free of literalness and their inability to do so pops up again in the Festival of Lies—this amounts to an Ariekei extreme sport as one after another tries and fails to lie.

The story revolves around a crisis moment on Arieka where Language is put into dire jeopardy due to the political machinations of humans far removed from the day-to-day life of Embassytowners. The purity of language becomes first a philosophical and then a physically violent war. Avice, in part due to her status as a particularly flexible simile, leads the charge to break the Ariekei free of the literal bounds of Language; in essence, she sees their survival and her own as dependent on teaching them how to lie. Her estranged husband, Scile, is willing to see everyone on Arieka (human or otherwise) die to protect the purity of Ariekene Language.

Embassytown tells a story about epic, revolutionary change. It does so with an unflinching gaze and an outright refusal to sugarcoat just how horrifying and how brutal such a change, by necessity, is. Paradoxically (though I believe intentionally), for a book about the importance of lies and near-lies, it’s an extraordinarily honest book. The fact that the book itself is a work of fiction striving to uncover and articulate a truth about our modern world is not lost on me. Mieville is a Marxist, and in rereading the book it seems that the entire novel is a comment on false consciousness. Lies are a form of truth, he argues, if they can be used to break you from the way you’ve been forced to see the world. When we envision a better future, a different future, a future with no precedent, that is a kind of willful lying. When we attempt to reconfigure our place in society and the way in which we interface with the world around us, that is a kind of lie and a kind of truth at once. Near the end of the book an Ariekei character gives a beautiful, tender speech about this tension—before the ability to lie, it claims, it did not truly speak. All it did was describe the confines, the parameters, of its existence. It couldn’t create; it could only describe. And that is at the heart of the idea of hegemony and false consciousness—under the yoke of capitalism we can only describe what exists now, how we are now. It takes a fundamental, painful break from life as we’ve lived it to construct an alternative. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say Mieville’s understanding of revolution and dialectics extends past this. The Ariekei, like Marx’s working class, have to literally break themselves down to rebuild themselves and their society. It is a violent, desperate, brutal process.

The other themes present in the book—the nature of addiction, the nature of the individual self vs the collective self, the parasitic element of bureaucracy—all tie back into these Marxism-tinged ideas about language. It is a book full to the brim with ideas, with careful and attentive thought. That Mieville manages to imbue all these thoughts into a book that is also packed with plot and characterization is amazing. Avice Benner Cho, who serves as our viewpoint into this world, is a wonderfully rich and fully realized character. Her voice is clear and never once does it ring false. There is a real economy of language here, but we feel it when her marriage falls apart even as she herself can’t quite articulate why it’s happening. And given the plot of the book, Avice is precisely the right character to tell the story: just insider enough to carry it, but outsider enough to allow for questions and inference. Just similar enough to the reader to feel familiar in this strange, unfamiliar setting.

Truly, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Embassytown is a brilliant, moving novel. It’s a book that sticks with you long after you finish it. As much as Railsea meant to me personally, Embassytown is my favorite of Mieville’s works.

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Book Review: THE GHOST MAP

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The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is very close to a perfect book. The book describes the birth of modern epidemiology as it arose in response to a virulent outbreak of cholera in a particular 1854 London neighborhood. If you, unlike me, are not horribly enthralled by cholera or nerdily swoon at epidemiology, this has the potential to be a very dry read. And, in fact, going into this book I already knew the story of this particular outbreak of cholera because I’d read about it in much less gripping books about Victorian medicine*. What makes The Ghost Map different, and what makes it the kind of book that I now want to thrust into the unsuspecting hands of everyone I know, is that it does a remarkable job contextualizing the outbreak such that you, as a modern reader who likely has no direct experience of cholera, understands the absolute terror the Londoners felt in this outbreak. You feel the visceral urgency that comes with that terror, the awful need to unravel what the horrible riddle that was cholera.

Much of the book follows Dr. Jon Snow**, who is an interesting historical figure in his own right. A pioneer of anesthesiology, Jon Snow also had a fascination with cholera. It was he who, without the aid of developed germ theory, deduced that cholera must be waterborne and traced the outbreak back to a particular water pump on Broad Street. The Ghost Map has shades of narrative non-fiction, just enough to draw Jon Snow and the other players as real people, complete people with thoughts and tragic flaws and beating hearts. The book never tips fully over into narrative non-fiction, restraining itself enough that it does not speak for these historical figures, which I appreciated.

But to say that this is a book about Jon Snow’s prodigious scientific contributions is to give it short shrift. The real strength of the book is that it takes this single narrative thread—Jon Snow’s proto-epidemiological investigations into the 1854 cholera outbreak—and locates it in a myriad of nested lenses. This narrative thread is explored from the lens of the microbial cholera itself, describing cholera’s life cycle and the way cholera adapted to the new context of a dense and dirty human metropolis. This narrative thread is explored from the sociological lens of why Snow’s waterborne theory had to fight so hard to gain traction against the classist and Social Darwinist competing miasmatic theory of cholera transmission. Ultimately, the unifying element of the book is that Stevenson frames the 1854 cholera outbreak in terms of waste recycling—he starts the book with descriptions of the London underclasses who survived by compiling and moving and disposing of the mountains of human waste that Victorian London produced. He frames microbes as creatures whose waste products ultimately gave rise to multicellular creatures like ourselves. It is a fascinating, cyclical framing device that allows the reader to understand just how smoothly all the pieces fit together.

If you are interested in medicine, or the human body, or biological systems, or cityscapes, or Victorian England or just really good non-fiction I cannot recommend this book enough.

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*I told you I was into this stuff. I will not apologize for who I am, reader.

**Full disclosure, I read A Song of Ice and Fire before my interest in Victorian cholera outbreaks asserted itself, so every time I read about the illustrious Dr. Jon Snow I have a hard time imagining him as the small, proper Englishman he was. Instead Jon Snow as portrayed by Kit Harrington from the Game of Thrones TV show pops into my head in improbable full costume stalking around Victorian London doing science. Here is an illustration so you, too, can experience this:

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Book Review: THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about a man named Jack Joseph caught first metaphorically and then literally between his past and future. When I say beautifully drawn I mean it—the art has a sketch-like quality, an impressionistic rendering that has a surprising fullness in the details. It’s rough and encompassing, much like the story itself. Lemire is a gifted visual storyteller (something I admire as I myself am so dependent on words); he makes great use of changes in the level of detail to signal disturbance. He uses the traditional panel structure of a comic to great effect and plays with it, too, stretching one scene across twelve panels on one page and using the crossbars of a window to mimic the boundaries of the panel in the next.

To understand Jack is to understand his father: a man named Pete who made his living by diving for odds and ends he sold at a pawn shop. A man who drove his wife away by drinking too much. Like a lot of alcoholics who find themselves embedded in families, Pete Joseph is desperately sad, desperately out of control, and makes a lot of promises to his son which he can’t keep. He goes diving one Halloween night when Jack is a kid and disappears; the town presumes him dead but Jack can’t shake the feeling his father is still out there somewhere.

Jack Joseph is thirty-three, the same age his father was when his father disappeared. Jack makes his way as an underwater welder on an offshore oil rig, diving just like his father used to, and he’s married to a woman named Susan. They are expecting their first child any day. Jack can handle the immense pressures and darkness of the ocean floor, but he can’t handle the looming pressure of his impending fatherhood or the dark shadow of his own father’s disappearance. One day while diving he sees something that can’t possibly be there. He fights with Susan and winds up diving again only to end up in a space that seems ripped out of time, a sort of purgatory-like holding tank of his own memories.

This book hit me very hard. I grew up with negligent, promise-breaking alcoholic parents. The imminent birth of my own kid sent me head-first into a maelstrom of Unresolved Childhood Issues, too. Like Jack, I had to make the choice between wallowing in the past and embracing the future. I, too, was haunted by the specter of turning into my parents. I didn’t go into the book blind—the back copy talks about parenthood and the ghost of a father, etc—but I didn’t expect Jack’s story to mirror my own so closely. I wonder how much of this is drawn from Jeff Lemire’s personal experiences. The book explores these feelings and themes so deftly, with such pitch-perfect resonance, that I wonder if it’s possible for someone who hasn’t lived through it to capture it so well. I can already see I will fpoist this book on people who are having difficulty navigating the tricky waters of becoming a parent. I can already see it’s a book I’ll return to over and over. I give it five stars out of five stars, but if you are not a parent who has grappled with the demons of your own unreliable parents your mileage may vary.

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