Aug 232022

My favorite book club meeting of every year is the one were we read the Hugo nominated short stories and novelettes. Here’s my reviews of this year’s crop. Note that the reviews are all FULL SPOILERS. If you don’t want to read them all, but want to read the (IMO) best ones without being spoiled, go read:
“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”, by Sarah Pinsker (short story)
“L’Esprit de L’Escalier”, by Catherynne M. Valente (novelette)
“Colors of the Immortal Palette”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (novelette)

Short Stories

“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”, by Sarah Pinsker

I’m an absolute sucker for good structure play, and this is fantastic structure play! A story told in the format of a wikipedia entry on the history of a folk song, where the story unfolds as editors comments. It’s a sort of archeological-horror of the Lovecraftian style, meaning that a terrible and supernatural thing happened in the past, and a group of investigators is slowly uncovering just what the heck happened, and end up enmeshed in it themselves. The answers are never spelled out, but the reader can infer every major detail.

Three things I loved:

I grew up as an outcast, and much of my peer group was people I never saw IRL scattered across the very early internet. This reminded me of having that sort of virtual community.

The ambiguity of the song’s lyrics and possible alternate lyrics gave a richness and depth to the narrative and the passage of time that I don’t often see elsewhere.

The fact that the narrative isn’t directly given to the reader, but is instead a number of evocative scenes and clues, which we then stitch into a full story individually, made this story into a sort of puzzle. It is an extremely satisfying feeling to have that puzzle come together as you’re reading.

Loved this story, my favorite of the year, highly recommended!


“Unknown Number”, by Blue Neustifter

I read this when it was first tweeted, and I understand the appeal. It’s the hundredth iteration of a story that’s been on the internet for who-knows how many years, and most people anywhere in social justice circles have read nearly word-for-word versions of this many times.

But it’s not really a story. It’s a way for closeted people to encourage each other to come out, and to be supportive and uplift each other. Which is great! But lots of great things aren’t stories. It’s kinda dumb that this was nominated, and the nominators should examine their life choices.


“Tangles”, by Seanan McGuire

Speaking of which… I have come to accept that McGuire’s works will be with us for the rest of Hugo history, much like the common cold. I don’t bother to read them.


“The Sin of America”, by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente is a literary virtuoso. Just hands down one of the best writers alive. Everything she does with words is breath-taking. I would recommend this on the strength of her craft alone. Come here, read beautiful things.

The story itself is a little bare in this one, it’s basically The Lottery with a biblical scapegoat take. I’m not sure that matter much, it is a short story after all, and its so masterfully told that it’s hard to be upset by it. But its simplistic nature doesn’t leave one with the deeper feelings Valente’s more subtle and complicated works do.

An interesting aspect of the story is its openness to interpretation. The most straightforward interpretation is “Americans are disgusting awful people who should be ashamed of themselves.” It’s likely that this interpretation is what got it the Hugo nod. But a slightly deeper reading reveals the message of “Hey, you know this thing where we daily summon all the guilt and sins of hundreds of millions of humans and heap it all on one person and revel in their destruction? Maybe that’s fucking awful. Maybe we shouldn’t do that. And spreading that to everyone? That could be even worse! Maybe heaping infinite guilt upon everyone all the time could lead to some truly fucking deranged behavior in the population. This is inhuman and disgusting.”

Of course I was wrong when I thought Emergency Skin was a satire, so maybe not. But it’s hard not to see this as a thinly-veiled indictment of woke purity culture. Recommended by me, at any rate.


“Proof by Induction”, by José Pablo Iriarte

A perfectly serviceable story about coming to peace with losing a distant father. I liked it, and I really liked the strong characterization of a stoic father figure. It didn’t do anything innovative or exceptional, though. I’ve already forgotten half of it in the past week, and a couple months from now I won’t remember it at all. It’s fine, it’s just not special.


“Mr. Death”, by Alix E. Harrow

Like Proof by Induction, a serviceable story about refusing to accept bad things that you can change. Someone who’s terrible as a grim reaper gets to be a guardian angel instead, so we get a happy upbeat ending. Again, a fine story! Better than Induction IMO, though still not astounding. I would normally also forget this one quickly, except for the blatant racism.

It’s pretty jarring. Right in the middle of the story there’s a couple lines of just blatant, undisguised racism. I guess that’s why the story got a Hugo nod. And I kinda understand putting that sort of thing in a story, if you want a Hugo. It needs to be in there to even be considered by today’s nominators. But, Jesus, that was uncomfortable. This is gonna age like Jerry Lewis in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s an embarrassment.



“Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.”, by Fran Wilde

Again, a fine story about stuff. For quite a while I kept wondering “Why do I care about any of these people and their quest to buy very expensive dresses?” But I persevered because it was a Hugo nominee, and thus there had to be something interesting here. Plus the title lets us know the fae will be involved in some way. :)

And yeah, it turns into an interesting story. It feels like the author lost interest after a while and rushed the ending so she could be done with it. Kinda ridiculous to think a fae wouldn’t read a contract, their legalism is one of the most famous things about them. But the story needed to end and it had to be a happy ending, so there we go. I would’ve preferred something more contemplative, but this works. Whimsical and kinda fun.


“That Story Isn’t the Story”, by John Wiswell

Ah, now here’s something with a bit more meat! A great exploration of surviving abuse, and what it takes to break out of a victim mentality. It demonstrates the terror and control that an effective abuser employs, and it shows how ultimately it’s all psychological manipulation. Behind the bared teeth there is a tiger made of paper, with only the power you grant him with your fear.

It’s enriching and uplifting in a way I like, by showing someone persevering and overcoming their fears. Clawing back control through struggle and strength of character. And along the way, he even helps others to break free too. It’s great. :)

Also, this is one of those maybe-it’s-real maybe-it’s-not stories. Our narrator may be very deluded as to the nature of reality. It’s awesome how he discovers in the course of the story that his supernatural thinking has given power to someone without any actual powers. We’re left to wonder if ANY of the supernatural things we’ve seen are real, or if they’re all entirely in the narrator’s head. We never seen independent confirmation of anything beyond the mundane in the story. I prefer the reading that makes Mr Bird an actual vampire, but the story is intentionally ambivalent, and that works very well.

It feels a bit rough around the edges. The story isn’t the polished masterwork that someone like Valente writes. But still, Recommended.


“O2 Arena”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki


Just, wow.

This is the literary equivalent of an eight-year-old grabbing a crayon and scribbling madly. It’s… it’s bad. There’s no other way to put it. The prose is crap, the execution is crap, the plot is lifted wholesale from popular works of the last decade, it’s simplistic…

I mean, I understand writing this sort of thing. Every single writer wrote this sort of thing. We all had to start somewhere. Most of us wrote this sort of thing when we were tweens, but some people are late bloomers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs to scribble with a crayon to find out how crayons work and what you can do with the medium, after all. And there’s joy in scribbling.

But for it to get a Hugo nomination? That’s beyond embarrassing. It’s actively insulting. This is the sort of thing that makes outside observers think “I am justified in thinking genre is childish crap.” It’s harmful to the Hugo’s themselves for this to get on the short list. It patronizing and infantilizing to the author. Now he’ll have to live this down for the rest of his life. I can’t even.


“L’Esprit de L’Escalier”, by Catherynne M. Valente

Another work from Valente that leaves me awe-struck. I cannot get over how good she is. Orpheus & Eurydice in the modern day, but still fully gods. They made it back to the living world, but she’s still a rotting corpse. It tears your heart out slowly and subtly. It’s about a relationship dissolving as two people grow apart, and neither one has the introspective ability or communication skills or stop this. It’s about two extremely attractive people that were drawn together due to that attraction, but who had nothing else binding them together and were never a good pairing, and how they disintegrated when that attraction is no longer enough. It’s about aging and struggling to deny the entropy of life. It’s probably about even more things, depending on the reader. It’s one of those works that speaks to every reader in a slightly different way, because it encompasses such deep emotions without telling you exactly how and what to feel.

I will remember this story for a long time, one of the best I’ve read in years. Highly Recommended.


“Colors of the Immortal Palette”, by Caroline M. Yoachim

Also a beautiful piece, about artistic ambition and the unfairness of chaotic social realities. Mixed in is a contemplation on aging, and how we trade our life for our desires. This is one that ended up sticking with me long after I read it, more than I expected it to. That’s always a good sign, and makes me appreciate things even more. It’s particularly striking that the inherent unfairness of circumstance is such a big theme in this, because in almost any other year I think this would easily leave all competitors for the Hugo in the dust. The unfairness of Valente’s “L’Esprit” being published the same year feels like exactly the same spiteful hand of fate that would be found within the story, manifesting in real life. But tastes vary, I’m notoriously out of touch with the average Hugo voter, and perhaps the voters will prefer “Colors” overall. Again, Highly Recommended.


“Bots of the Lost Ark”, by Suzanne Palmer

This is a sequel to Palmer’s 2017 story “The Secret Life of Bots.” I absolutely adored the 2017 story. Go read it, it won the Hugo that year, and rightly so. Afterwards, you can read this story if you want to. This one is fun, it’s a sequel that delivers in all the ways you’d expect a sequel to — we see our favorite characters again, the feel and style is the same, and it satisfies the desire to see more. But like almost all sequels, it doesn’t do much else.

In our book club, everyone who read the original story really liked this. It feels so good to see Bot 9 again. Most of those who had not read the original (ie: members that joined after 2018) didn’t really like it. It leans strongly on nostalgia, and without that, it’s nice but unexceptional. So, read it if you want more Bot 9. :) But pass otherwise.

Jul 182022

Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki

Synopsis: Alien refugees sell donuts in the Bay area, one falls in love with a woman who sells souls to hell, as that woman begins grooming a runaway trans girl with world-class violin skills to be her next soul sacrifice.

Book Review: FYI, despite how I had to phrase the synopsis, the primary focus of the novel is on the violinist girl, with a strong secondary focus on the soul-seller, and only a tertiary focus on the aliens.

This book is an absolute delight. Maybe you wouldn’t work this sort of genre mashup would work, but it works so well it’s ridiculous. It’s a modern Cinderella story, which honestly would be a better synopsis, but wouldn’t really give a fair impression of what you’ll be reading. How do I put this?

A recent tweet asked “So many fiction writers seem eager to have us connect with their despair, listlessness, rage, or cynicism. Who are the ones who seem to be saying, “Connect with my joy?”

This novel is a prime answer to that tweet. Yes, really bad things happen to Katrina (the protagonist). We meet her at her absolute lowest point in life. But every page of this book vibrates with optimism and wonder. You can feel the author’s joy in writing, and love for these characters, in every word. The book is a romp, of the kind you normally only see in fanfic or webserials.

I don’t know anything about the background of this author or book, but it feels like it was written as a webserial. Not just due to the emotion tenor of the work either. There are several instances of the author wandering off to explore an interesting side-quest shiny, writing it for a while, and then returning to the main storyline. There’s unusual formatting that suggests places where there were pauses between updates. There’s at least one very brief scene that appears to be patching to address all the commenters saying “Hey, all her problems can be solved with this one easy trick the aliens can do, why is it being ignored?”

To be very clear, this is praise from me, two of the most impactful works in my life are webserials. I love them.

Also this novel is basically a cartoon. And again, this is not a diss. The best works of the modern day are all animated. It allows a freedom to explore ideas that most live-action doesn’t have. The silliness this allows for helps with the fun/joy of the book. This book very much feels like a Steven Universe AU fanfic, <3.

The cartoonishness make ups for the rather glaring problem of “there are only ten beings of moral weight in the universe” that crops up a couple times. It’s a little disorienting, and in a “this is srs bizness” story it would be absolutely fatal. In something cartoony like this it’s easy to gloss over. Discussing it is a spoiler though, so there is a separate post about that.

Against my expectations, this is also a great trans story. I say “against my expectations” because in the current awards environment, to be award-eligible one has to be confronting current social issues. This often results in works where social issues feel crammed-in, or inauthentic. Not uncommonly it results in works that are laser-focused on being performatively outraged to a ludicrous degree. In Light From Uncommon Stars, Katrina is a trans girl with big problems. Many of the problems stem from being trans. But it’s not about the Struggle of Being Trans In An Oppressive Regime. It’s about Katrina. It’s about her personal problems as a teenager, and how she overcomes them. And it’s about aliens and demons and violins. And it’s about finding yourself after securing a nurturing home life.


Book Club Review: Another great novel for book clubs. The energetic writing kept everyone engaged, and there were several really bizarre things that got the group talking. With so much being thrown into the mix, there’s no shortage of items that one can pick up and say “What about this thing, what was all that about?” We had a great turnout. Recommended.

Light From Uncommon Stars on Amazon (sponsor link)

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Jul 012022

The School For Good Mothers, by Jessamine Chan

Synopsis: Women who aren’t “good enough” mothers — as determined by a completely arbitrary and ultimately random process — are sent to a re-education camp to be psychologically tortured.

Book Review: Boy, this is such a mixed bag. Let’s go over some highlights/lowlights and see where it gets us.

Highlight: This is extremely good outrage porn. The injustice of the situation, the sheer fist-clenching fury it creates, is absolutely exquisite. This sort of shit should not happen to anyone. Yes, the protag did a bad thing. Yes, she’s highly neurotic and unlikable. But no one deserves to be put through the torture she is subjected to. If anything, the neurosis makes her more pitiable. The fact that it sounds like she’s never had an enjoyable sexual experience in her lifetime is tragic.

A system that randomly tortures people for minor negligence to this extent is corrupt and deserves to be burned to the ground. In this way, Good Mothers also really highlights the vileness of woke cancel culture, without ever being literally “about” that. One of the strengths of SF/F!

Lowlight: It’s written by an MFA. MFA programs cripple writers in a myriad of ways, but here’s the two major ones that apply to Good Mothers:

  1. They teach people how to craft beautiful sentences while neglecting the skill of telling a compelling story. The result is beautiful prose that is scattered and unfocused. Chan manages to overcome this through the sheer power of the raw outrage she pulls from us. But replacing craft with emotional brute force only goes so far.
  2. They smother an author’s voice in favor of imitating a fashionable high-brow flair. The previous generation of LitFic authors had a unique sound that set them apart, and now if you don’t sound enough like that then you aren’t serious fiction. It saps the life from a novel when it’s forced to walk in shoes that don’t fit it, and Good Mothers felt like it was chaffing at the seams often.

Highlight: It gets progressively better as it goes on. The first 20% of it is pure LitFic, to the point that I was about ready to quit, when at last we get to the School. The deeper into the novel we go, the more it embraces satire and absurdism. The Mothers are forced to chant debasements as shows of loyalty. They are taught that A Good Mother Is Never Lonely. A Good Mother Never Fails. A Good Mother can literally lift a car if she needs to. Affection is taught as a series of physical techniques similar to police submission-holds, which mothers must master and deploy on command. By the end of the novel… well, that’s a spoiler. The descent into madness is great.

Lowlight: It is set in the present day. “Handmaid’s Tale” is in the future, where we can believe something horrible happened to create such a vile society. “Brazil” is set in an alternative-world present-day, where we can believe something bizarre happened to remake the world into this mess. “The Metamorphosis” starts out with the protag turning into a cockroach, so we know we’re not in real reality.

“Good Mothers” is just the real world, today. The android children are a plot device introduced a fair distance into the story, and they explicitly had no effect upon greater society (since they were secret). This makes “Good Mothers” incredibly hard to swallow. So hard, in fact, that this was a major complaint of every single member of our book club. Not a single one of us could get over the fact that this is supposed to be close to the world we actually inhabit. The strain on suspension of disbelief is too great. Yes, we all know that some states have bad agencies, and there really are a few social workers this callous, some judges this ignorant, some moralist-scolds this evil.

But what we’re reading isn’t an insane fluke of everything lining up just right to screw one innocent person. This is a deliberate choice by a lot of people in power. There is constant contact with the outside world, and many people with the means and motivation to contact the media. There is no way that this could happen in the US in the present day. The professional outrage would be overwhelming. The public outrage would be overwhelming. There would be major political and social repercussions. I mean hell, the outrage is the whole point of the novel! Human-level AI without rights in nearly perfectly-human android bodies I can buy. But torture camps for parents that let their children walk home from the library? And there’s no media circuses and major legal crusades? Come on now.

If the absurdist satire elements had been present from the beginning, this would have been far more believable and enjoyable.

Highlight: It’s a good reminder that everyone should own at least one gun.

Highlight: I was being literal when I said it’s outrage porn. Like sex-porn, it relies entirely on supernormal stimulation of basic biological urges. Controversially, I like porn. I like the blast of stimulus when it’s tuned just right to really grab a drive and push it past the redline. As long as the viewer/reader remembers that this is not how human biology actually works, this is not how humans actually behave, that none of this is remotely real, it’s great fun!

Highlight: The ending is fucking awesome, and super satisfying.

Lowlight: Whenever something interesting was about to happen, the novel would always cut away and then pick up after the action, so the characters could process their feelings about what just happened. The thing we didn’t see, and are simply told the resolution of in 1-2 sentences. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It completely removed the “Scene” part of the Scene And Sequel structure. I don’t know if this is another MFA-created issue, but boy was it irritating. The only exception is the very very end, which may be why the ending was so satisfying. After being edged for 300 pages, we finally get to see some actual action.

Honestly, I think much of the problem with this book is the marketing, combined with a weak start that clings too tightly to LitFic sensibilities. If you’re down for some good outrage porn, totally Recommended. :)

Book Club Review: Our book club fell into two groups – those who are turned off by outrage porn, and those who aren’t. The first group bounced quickly, and didn’t particularly like it. The second group was compelled by the power of porn to read it all the way through, despite complaints. The conversation was pretty darn fun, which is what I would expect from this sort of thing. If most of your book club is down for some good ol’ outrage, Recommended.

The School For Good Mothers on Amazon (sponsor link)

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Jun 092022

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark 

Synopsis: A paranormal murder mystery set in steampunk Egypt, 1912, after Djinn and other magical creatures have been reintroduced into the world a few decades back.

Book Review: This is a great romp, and really fun! The plot keeps moving at a good clip, there’s a lot of interconnectivity between the players and set pieces, and it’s very well written. The two biggest strengths of Master of Djinn are worldbuilding and colorful characters.

The worldbuilding is absolutely top-notch. Every bit of this feels like it has a rich history, and deep connections, crafted with love and enthusiasm. It feels lived in. It calls for you to come back and inhabit it.

The characters are distinctive, and they pop. Each has a unique and interesting voice. And everyone one of them is really damn cool, in their own way. You want to spend time with these people.

In addition to all that, it stars a strong female protagonist. I kinda feel embarrassed saying this, because it’s such a cliché, but dammit, I really love strong female characters. I always have, and I’m not gonna stop just cuz it’s a meme now.

In addition, the action is fun, frequent, and very cinematic. All things considered, as I was reading this I felt like I was watching a good Marvel movie. Something in the top quintile of Marvel.

That being said… reading this was a lot like watching a Marvel movie. It was a lot of awesome style without much substance. No deeper themes, no exploration of the human condition, no revelatory character arc.

It’s also somewhat simplistic. A couple times characters are a little too slow on the uptake. The mystery is too obvious for the reader’s side (although that’s not the protagonists fault, she doesn’t know she’s in a novel, so she doesn’t know to steer clear of the basic tropes). It’s designed so that a distracted teen or a dad two beers in can follow along and have a great time.

This is fine, because fun is good. :) But in a few months I probably won’t remember anything about this novel. If you’re just looking for a great, fun adventure, then I would recommend this! But if (like me) you never have enough time to read everything and try to focus on the exceptional stuff, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: For book clubs, this is a better than average book. Because of how fun it is, there’s a lot of fun things to talk about, and some fun things to gripe about, and no one was upset they wasted their time on it or anything. It makes for good light conversation on a nice summer day. It doesn’t lend itself to deeper discussions, due to the reasons mentioned above. On the other hand, this was a significantly better book than several we’ve read recently, and it’s always fun watching a Marvel movie with friends. Take all this into consideration for your particular book club, of course, but overall for book clubs – Recommended.

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May 192022

Rich Man’s Sky, by Wil McCarthy
Poor Man’s Sky, by Wil McCarthy

Synopsis:  In the near future, humanity takes the first steps to creating off-Earth colonies. In Rich Man’s Sky, government agents are sent to infiltrate (and possibly capture) a rapidly-expanding solar-harvesting factory at L1. In Poor Man’s Sky, a detective (and ex-Navy Seal) is sent to the toe-hold Lunar Station to investigate the first off-Earth murder.

Books Review: This is a single review because these novels aren’t just stories, they are a thorough exploration of how, actually literally in real life, we might get off this planet. They take place in the very near future (RMS opens in 2051, less than 30 years from now). All the tech used is either already available, already in prototype, or a single-step extrapolation of such and realistically possible. Wil McCarthy is an actual rocket scientist, formerly from Lockheed Martin.

The primary movers in Rich Man’s Sky are mega-wealthy entrepenuers. There is an obvious Elon Musk stand-in, having taken the SpaceX stand-in to its final form. There’s a Richard Branson equivalent, trying to keep up but aging out. There’s a ruthless Russian oligarch that controls the off-world Helium-3 trade, who I’m sure has a current-day analog that I would recognize if I knew anything about IRL Russian oligarchs. I, too, think the most likely way we’ll get humans living off-planet is via private actors.

The political ramifications of these expansions into space are a major source of narrative conflict. The governments of the world are pissed off, but they don’t have the ability to do much expanding of their own. They do, however, have the power to really bring the hammer down planet-side, and to send elite agents into space. This also seems like an extremely plausible forecast.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church has a stake in a small Lunar station/monestary. The really fascinating part is how convincingly McCarthy portrays the Church’s motivations for doing this, and how they’d execute on it. A nice touch!

The first book (Rich Man’s Sky) has a main plot line of spy-thriller espionage. The second book (Poor Man’s Sky) is a murder-mystery. They share quite a few characters in common, but each one can be read completely stand alone without needing to read the other. They are fully self-contained stories. In this way, they remind me a lot of the early MCU, when each movie stood on its own merits and didn’t assume any outside knowledge from the viewer, but which all existed in a single internally-consistent universe which grew richer with each addition. I really like this model. Come to think of it, it reminds me of Discworld as well, in that structure.

While both of the books have strong primary plots, and likable protagonists with real depth, they have a quirk to their structure. Probably over a third of the page count of both these novels isn’t really focused on the primary plot or protagonist. This is because they aren’t just novels telling a story… they really are thorough explorations of how we might get off this planet. This means there are many short side-chapters that focus on how current tech could mature to make space travel feasible. Or the social impacts these advancements bring. Or how the economy of off-world energy trade finds an equilibrium, and then how it reacts to sudden supply shocks. Or how the most powerful people in the world interact with menial laborors when they live next door to each other.

For me, and for people like me who are really excited into seeing a possible road to off-world colonization actually being fully thought through and put on paper, this is absolutely fantastic. It answers “OK, but how the hell do we get to Star Trek from here? How can I see myself personally, or my friends and neighbors, actually doing this?” It’s wonderful and inspiring, and I love it. But for anyone who isn’t into all that stuff, this will be a drag. It’ll probably be very boring for them, and feel like meaningless world-building that doesn’t advance the plot or develop character. These books are probably not for people like them, and so I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who thinks this sounds lame.

For myself, and people like me, though — Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review? n/a. This was not read in book club, I was reading it in my spare time. Please see Conflict of Interest, below.

Potential Conflict of Interest: I know Wil McCarthy personally. I think he’s a great guy. He’s also in my monthly Writer’s Workshop group, which is why I have already read Poor Man’s Sky — I was a beta reader for it. PMS isn’t in print yet, and you can’t buy it at the time of this publication. I know that this colors my reading of his books, it would be impossible for it not to, and I would laugh at anyone who claimed otherwise.

That being said, I really do think these are very good novels, and people who are also excited about current tech advances and about getting us off this rock would really like them as well. I do still have some ability to see bad writing, even when it comes from my friends, and in those cases I don’t write blog posts saying otherwise. I do value my reputation a little. :) Also I can’t be too terribly off track, because Rich Man’s Sky is a finalist for the 2022 Prometheus Award For Best Novel. So there.

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May 052022

She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

Synopsis:  A novelization of the rise of the Ming Dynasty, but the founding emperor is reimagined as a woman living in secret as a man.

Book Review: A fascinating read that focuses on the Will To Power, and sexual dynamics in a pre-modern society. The POV alternates between Zhu (the rising emperor) and Ouyang (a eunuch slave-turned-general with intense self-loathing issues).

1 – The Will To Power. The novel is a great dramatization of the kind of mindset that is required to do something as history-altering as becoming the founding emperor of a world power. There is never anything in Zhu’s mind that rivals the driving importance of securing her rise to greatness. The sheer, burning desire is overwhelming and awesome to behold. It is self-justifying, and it leads her to commit ever-increasing atrocities and sacrifice ever-greater parts of herself to this ambition. It does a great job of making one realize that the vast majority of us would never want to be the kind of person who could take over the world. That level of commitment and mono-focus is just too breaking.

Ouyang has a similar drive, although his Will To Power is in the pursuit of revenge. Watching his dedication is perhaps even more astounding than Zhu’s. His final sacrifice to achieve it is either absolutely inspiring or absolutely chilling, and I’m still not sure which. If someone were to seek revenge for my death, I think I’d want them to be like Ouyang — it’s crazy romantic in its tragedy. Goth turned up to 11, TBH. :)

2 – Sexual Dynamics. I love how many different angles this is attacked from. Most obviously, Zhu is a woman pretending to be a man, because a woman would never be allowed to be at the head of an army, and Zhu wants Power above all else. The vulnerability this creates — where a simple, irrelevant fact about you could be used to cripple you if your enemies knew it — really drives home how fucking stupid it is that this vulnerability exists at all. It is a vulnerability imposed entirely by social convention, and it’s a vulnerability that would cripple your own side, because it deprives your side of their best general and only your own side can enforce it! Madness!

But it doesn’t stop there.
The eunuch general is likewise fettered because he isn’t man enough (due to the castration, you see).
The straight, cis, younger brother of the Mongol Prince is even less of a man than the eunuch, due to focusing on “womanly” responsibilities like administration rather than war! Being a straight cis male is no defense in a patriarchy, you have to be an aggro warrior or it doesn’t count.
A very powerful woman is the defacto ruler of a wealthy province, everyone knows it and deals with her as basically an equal, but she has no formal power. She rules only because she picked a husband who is useless and doesn’t care to rule as long as he gets pussy and wine on tap. So while one can be great as a woman, one can only do so in specific unusual circumstances, and only if one has the personality that can tolerate a life with that sort of spouse. This is no way to run a government!

In contrast to all this is Mongol Prince.  He’s charismatic, attractive, a great warrior, kind, caring – basically a good-natured jock. He’s the epitome of positive masculinity, and he never realizes all the bullshit that all the non-jocks suffer through. Unfortunately as a kind-hearted doofus, he is exploited like hell by those who aren’t so naïve.

The past really sucked, guys.

On it’s face, this novel looks like it should be an absolute home-run with me. It explores a lot of fantastic themes, in a depressing world, filled with conflicted characters, and the writing is excellent! But somehow, it doesn’t really work. What happened?

First, it kinda cheated by calling itself a Fantasy novel. This is historical fiction. There is basically no Fantasy in it. The two brief intrusions of Fantasy aspects have no relevance and can be interpreted as delusion and/or removed entirely without changing the story. That’s OK I guess, I don’t mind historical fiction. I just feel like I was lied to, and I’m not sure why. Does historical fiction not sell well, or something? I think this would have been just as popular if it was labeled correctly.

But that’s a very minor gripe. Far more importantly — there is very little emotion in the novel. There is some great desperation at the beginning. The further into the novel we go, the more emotion drains out of it. There isn’t any emotional arc that any character goes through. Zhu keeps hitting us with desperation and will to power over and over, and it gets old. Ouyang keeps hitting us with self-loathing and resentment over and over, and it gets old. A good novel takes the reader on an emotional journey, IMO. This novel, while being historically fascinating, doesn’t have much else.

I kept having to remind myself “Hey, this is grimdark, these people are destroying themselves in pursuit of lost purposes, it’s exactly the kind of story I love!”, until eventually I wasn’t able to convince myself any longer. In a good grimdark/goth tale, we are allowed to ruminate on the darker emotions, and process them, and watch them transmogrify into other emotions. That’s Good Brooding! The plot elements that allow for Good Brooding are all here, but there is never any emotional payoff. There is never deeper twistings of the soul, or radical shifts, or whatever.

I think one of the most important functions of fiction is to allow an audience to feel emotions they don’t get enough of IRL. While exceptions exist, generally if a work of fiction doesn’t make me feel emotions, it’s failing it’s primary purpose. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s a fair bit to talk about here. All the themes I mentioned above provide good fodder for conversation. Furthermore, we felt the victory of New Insight Gained after spending a bit of time trying to figure out why, on paper, this looks awesome, but in practice none of us really liked it and we didn’t know why! Figuring out something like that feels good. It was also a heckin’ neat history lesson. And, as a Hugo nominee, it gets a bit of a bump for being of current interest. Recommended.

Apr 222022

Worth The Candle, by Alexander Wales

Synopsis:  A D&D nerd is warped into an RPG video game (maybe?) where he has to survive, level up, and figure out what the heck is going on.

Book Review: This is one of my favorite books ever.

I put off reading this for a long time, because it was Lit-RPG, and I thought Lit-RPG was embarrassing and self-indulgent and couldn’t be taken seriously. I eventually realized I was being a tremendous elitist prick, and I really hate elitist pricks, and I love everything else Alexander Wales has written, so I should at least give it a shot. I then did little else with my free time for the next few months as I read this non-stop, because I fell in love right away.

To start with, the protagonist is emotionally damaged from page 1 in a way that I love my protagonists to be. I like seeing people on the edge of falling apart. He’s also a total nerd, and the portrayal of nerdom here is authentic and perfect. He talks the way my people talk, and thinks the way they think. He is immersed in late 20-teens culture. He immediately recognizes the tropes of modern story telling and modern gaming. He uses the fact that he’s in a video game, and he knows it, to manipulate the world to good effect. He’s sarcastic, enthusiastic, jaded, and funny, in exactly the right proportions.

Wales himself, of course, continues to be a master of storytelling, making it impossible to stop turning pages.

But the thing that really draws me in, the thing that cements this as a book I’ll never forget, and which has prompted me to create a 100+ hour podcast about it, is that this story is extremely meta. Joon was a DM for his friends’ RPG group back on Earth. He knows a lot about storytelling, and the conventions of storytelling. When he realizes he’s within a video game, that comes with the knowledge that RPGs are story-driven video games. Worth The Candle is a story about a storyteller trapped inside someone else’s story, who knows that this is what’s happening. Between all the killing of zombies and daring escapes through sewers and rescuing of princesses, there is also a continuous commentary on the nature of story telling. What it means to be inside a story, and how this can be used to your advantage if you are the main character. What the purpose of a story is, and how that is reflected in the monsters/challenges he is being faced with.

And of course hanging over all this is the knowledge that we ourselves are reading a novel, and all such commentary reflects on the text we are reading as well. It’s not just exhilarating and funny, it’s also intellectual and meta as hell. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Turns out, not everyone can relate to being an emotionally damaged teenage male nerd. I had assumed that the shared nerd culture of all the SF/F geeks in our book club would be enough, and that the intense meta-commentary aspects of the work would win over any stragglers. This was not the case. The protagonist can be rather unlikable at first. He has issues, and he’s not the outgoing, charismatic hero type. He’s the depressed, anxious teen that’s isolated himself by lashing out type. That, combined with the fact that Lit-RPG is actually still looked at with some prejudice, meant that half our book club didn’t like this at all, and didn’t stick it out through all 613 pages.

I think this is a shame, but it did serve as a check on my hubris. Just because I think something is great, doesn’t mean even half the SF-reading world will agree. So, a caveat with this one. If your book club has a bunch of people into internet pop culture, that are well-versed with gaming conventions and tropes, and doesn’t mind a broody teenager getting super-powers by Authorial Fait because that sounds cool, Definitely Recommended! But the online culture and gaming culture are strong requirements to enjoyment — if your group doesn’t have a decent chunk of that, Not Recommended.

Apr 082022

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis:  Two outcast orphans come of age on a small European island, bound to their community and traditions via the mystical, vicious horse-monsters that can exist only here.

Book Review: I was wary at first. A book about orphaned teenagers? Coming of age? With a strong focus on horses? This sounded suspiciously like the sort of 80s preteen lit that had been done absolutely to death. I felt like Fred Savage asking “Is this a kissing book?” But it was for book club, so I did my due diligence.

By the fifth page I was intrigued. By the tenth page I was hooked. After that, it was all over for me. The Scorpio Races is excellent. I had forgotten that a million knock-offs are launched in imitation of an actual great originator. And sometimes, after forty years have passed and only the ancient ones still remember the faded fads of yore, a true devotee of the progenitor genre will spend a decade refining all her dreams into a successor that captures that greatness once again for a new generation.

The Scorpio Races reads like a labor of love. The island state captures life in a small, isolated community with striking fidelity. The closeness to history, the depth of the communities roots and traditions that hold one tight, and the stifling economic realities that drive the young and ambitious away. Even the smallest of supporting characters is many-layered, with complexities that can often only be seen by subtle implication (with the possible exception of Mutt). The plot is straight-forward but not simplistic — our heroes’ problems are easy to identify but difficult to navigate. The horse-monsters are religion made manifest, the sort of deep magic that tap into spiritual traditions rather than high fantasy spell-slinging.

I’m not sure the novel has a Statement that it is Making. It’s not the sort of thing I usually am taken in by. But it has immense amounts of heart. In a more subtle way than I’m used to, it is commenting on the nature of love. A strong, vivid style of love. Not the sappy, lovey-dovey stuff. It’s the loyal love of one’s homeland, the awe and fear of nature’s majesty, and the fierce love of two survivors finding mutual respect and respite. Very different from what I normally read, and I am happy to have read it. Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s something here for everyone. I don’t think this will spark a lot of fiery debate or provocative takes, it’s not that kind of book. But there’s substance here, enough to give anyone something to reflect and expound upon. Recommended.

Mar 192022

Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell

Synopsis:  A gay(?) teen romance in spaaaaaaace

Book Review: This is basically wish-fulfillment fanfic with original charecters, and I am so here for it. It’s adorable and twee and they are so fumbling and flustered I could just die. I grinned the whole way through.

You have to know what you’re in for, of course. If you get annoyed by teens constantly being self-conscious, misreading obvious cues, and tripping all over themselves, you’ll hate this. But they just love each other so much, and are so perfect for each other, and we know they’re gonna end up together, that it’s unironically a treat to read. The whole novel could be summed up with:


Every now and then some plot stuff happens, which diverts word-count from the romance, which is kinda annoying. But it’s easy enough to skim until you get back to the adorable romance. :)

Two things!

First, my synopsis says this is a gay(?) romance. The (?) is because these charecters use he/him pronouns, but pronouns aren’t related to sex or presentation in this book’s universe, and there are no gender roles or expectations. It is literally a description of their jewelry preference (stone/wood/glass), and has nothing to do with sex. So they could, in fact, be a male/female couple. Honestly, since they both act a lot like teen girls, I pictured them as a lesbian couple the whole time I was reading. XD (Yes, I know that’s a common portrayal of male gay lovers in slashfic). Once I started down that road, I swapped a lot of characters in my mind. The ultra-competant assistant became Batman’s Alfred in my mind, for example.

Once you start reading it this way, you begin looking for counter-evidence, just to see how long you can keep it up. And the thing is, it lasts through the whole book! The author conspicuosly avoids using descriptions that are sex-specific. Even during the freakin’ sex scene there isn’t any mention of any thing that would rule out either sex! I think Maxwell was in on it, and did this on purpose. :) There are a couple references to one having a “solidity” to him, which is male-coded, and a couple mentions of “chests” without any reference to “breasts,” which also implies male. However neither one is definitive, and is exactly the sort of thing you’d do if you were trying to preserve deniability! So, if you want, they can be a straight, gay, or lesbian couple.

Second, my synopsis says this is a teen romance. The book explicitly puts both lovers in their 20s. However, this is a society where gender is based on jewelry preference and has nothing to do with sexual charecteristics. It’s entirely possible that age is equally fluid, and has nothing to do with chronology. It’s sorta hinted at, when one of the lovers is talking about his past, and gets kinda flustered about the ages and yadda-yadda’s past the details. And it’s STRONGLY hinted at by the fact that they act like goofy teenagers the whole damn time. I’m confident enough in the teenage thing that I didn’t even bother to append a (?) their ages in my synopsis.

In summary, this is a fantastic book if you want to read a heartfelt and cheerful bumbling romance of the type I just described. It has the heart of a Chuck Tingle work, but is far longer, and doesn’t have any explicit sex. If you’re as chuffed by this sort of thing as I am, Recommended!

Book Club Review: The only problem with this book for book clubs is that not everyone wants to read a cheerful bumbling romance. If you’re in a romance book club, maybe this is a good fit? I dunno, I’m not in one of those, I don’t know what their standards or expectations are. I admit, it doesn’t really fit into an SF book club. So, if you’re looking for an SF novel rather than a romance, Not Recommended.

(But hey, every now and then it’s good to streach a bit and read other stuff, right? This was so fun!)

Mar 102022

The Memory Theater, by Karin Tidbeck

Synopsis:  A series of fairytale vingettes linked via a narrative thread

Book Review: For what it is, this is a pretty good book. The fairytales are distinctive and imaginative, while being solidly in the traditional fae aesthetic. Each individual vignette is strongly focused visually and thematically on its particular scene. They are really neat snapshots that I’m sure will stick with me for quite a while. I enjoyed all of them.

There is even a theater troupe within the book (the titular “Memory Theater”) that goes around recreating such vignettes within the text, which is a neat touch!

The fae themselves are fantastic. They are exactly how you’d think of 2-year-olds with nigh-infinite power. They are completely innocent, because they are so unaware of the internal experiences of others. This makes them absolutely evil, of course, much like 2-year-olds would be if they weren’t tiny and helpless. It’s easy to hate their evil, but it’s hard to hate them specifically, because they are ultimately so innocent that they can’t even BE evil, they can just DO evil. It makes their atrocities all the more shocking.

That being said, in a collection of vignettes, I think aesthetic is extremely important. In general, I consider aesthetic important in most things, and very important in art. You can get away with a LOT as long as it’s beautiful. Conversely, writing something good is marred if it’s ugly. Vignettes tend to have little in the way of plot/characters, and are primarily about creating a feeling, so they lean on aesthetic even more than most stories. Unfortunately, the writing in the vignettes from the POV of Dora is… unpleasant.

I think this is intentional. When vignettes are told from the POV of the fairy, we get standard sentence structure, sometimes with twists and intricacies. We get fancier phrasing, and words with flourish. It’s not outstanding, but it doesn’t interfere with the reading. Dora, on the other hand, is a very simple person. I believe she is written as someone with functional autism, and it’s done pretty well. As part of this, all her vignettes are written with a particular style. The sentences are short and plain. The words are simple, the descriptions are flat, the prose is matter-of-fact without embellishment or care for presentation. It is, to be honest, very ugly prose. It’s hard to read, because of how ugly it is. Again, I think this is intentional, and it was a bold strategy. But it significantly detracted from my enjoyment.

And since this is a series of vignettes, there isn’t much to the overall narrative that ties them together. This is fine, for this type of book. It is a very short novel, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t need to have an overarching storyline, or character development, or thematic purpose. But when you don’t have the lyrical beauty of words to bask in, it makes the lack of a strong narrative more conspicuous. I ended the book wondering “what was the point?”

I’m not sure about recommendation here. It was cool, but not gorgeous, and without a drive behind it. This, to me, is ideal beach reading. Light and enjoyable, without asking major emotional investment. So… Not Recommended if you’re only looking for the hard stuff, but Recommended for the inbetween-times in life.

Book Club Review: Another one of those books were everyone came in saying “Well, this seems like it should be good, but it’s unsatisfying, what went wrong?” and we hashed it out as a group. A fun exercise, and its super short, so not a huge reading commitment. Definitely better than Machinehood for this purpose. While maybe not ideal for Serious Business, I think I would recommend it for a high-stress time in life when lower stakes and investment would be a welcome relief. Recommended with Caveats.