Favorite science fiction from the last five years

I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my favorite SF from the last few years. These are not necessarily books published in the last five years, but ones that I’ve read in that time span. (I feel like I’ve read less SF this year than normal, but I know there are also several I haven’t gotten around to yet.)

ancillary mercyscorpion rulesconservation of shadows

Ambassador by William Alexander: I read Ambassador for the Cybils back in 2014 and loved it. It’s nice to have an SF book about a Latino boy, and Alexander does a great job of incorporating Gabe’s identity and culture into the story. The concept that drives the book works well as a way to combine kids and politics.

Quicksilver and Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson: This is a really fascinating SF duology from one of my favorite authors. I’m never sure what to say about these books, because they have some great twists I don’t want to spoil. But I loved the main characters a lot, and I enjoy the way they have an SF plot with kind of a fantasy sensibility–if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: I read this YA for the Cybils last year, and it’s really stuck with me. Less the plot (I just had to Google because I couldn’t remember) and more the characters and worldbuilding Bao was doing. I really liked Phaet, and I felt like her outlook on life is one we don’t get very often in YA.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book. THIS BOOK. It’s terrifying and tense and smart and every time I drink apple cider, I wince. Terrible things happen in it, and yet I also cried because it’s so hopeful and affirming. I can’t say how much I love Greta, and Xie, and all the Children of Peace.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold:  I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in its entirety, as I’ve documented here many times, but I was really fascinated by some of the turns and choices she made in the latest installment. It was also really lovely to have another story from Cordelia’s point of view.

The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you’ll know that I’ve been glomping my way through Cherryh’s massive series. I love the way she writes the atevi and the political and social customs and issues that arise. While I occasionally quibble with the depiction of the human women, overall the characters are really engaging and wonderful as well.

Promised Land by Cynthia DeFelice and Connie Willis: This is a lighter SF romance, which has turned out to be one of my comfort reads. It’s kind of a space western, but in a very different vein than Firefly.

Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry: A fun middle-grade space adventure about a family of space privateers. Tycho and his siblings have to compete to win the captain’s seat, but there are also bigger contests going on. Fry has written a number of Star Wars chapter books, and he clearly knows what he’s doing.

And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst: I love Höst’s books, and this was the first one I read. It’s an intimate story, almost quiet, even though it’s about a terrifying world-wide event. Rather than a sweeping epic, Höst keeps the scale on a human level, and makes me care so much about Madeleine and her friends and the outcome of their story.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: I basically always want to be reading this trilogy; Leckie writes ambitiously about identity, loyalty, families, and imperialism. She also pulls it off, mostly because of her rich characters and worldbuilding which also give an emotional core to the big concepts she’s engaging with.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: I was really impressed by this short story collection, which features so many fascinating and strange worlds, as well as some really striking characters. The prose itself is also beautiful, even when the subject matter is not. I can’t wait till I get a chance to read Nine Fox Gambit.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it turns out that near-future socio-political thrillers are very much my thing when Valentine is writing them. Persona is smart and sleek and tense. If UN + red carpet + spies sounds intriguing, this book is probably for you.

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The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

invisible libraryI have to admit that I tend towards books that are on the intense and emotion-heavy side, especially with speculative fiction. So it’s fun to every so often read a lighter book. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman is a great one to turn to in those moods. It’s a light and fun fantasy, with some cool worldbuilding and interesting mystery elements. It’s also Cogman’s debut, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Invisible Library is narrated by Irene, an agent of the Library, which collects fictions from across different realities and worlds. I liked Irene a lot–she’s capable and has a lot of strength and knowledge. In some ways, she’s not very confident, but these mostly stem from the hierarchies and politics of the Library itself, rather than internal doubts.

I also enjoyed the central conceit of the story, and I thought Cogman did a nice job of making it internally consistent. While the Library bears basically no resemblance to the living, breathing libraries I’ve worked in, Cogman also generally avoids being precious about the sacred value of learning. (Public libraries in particular are weird and wonderful places that aren’t exactly sacred sanctums of Knowledge.)

I thought the mystery element was pretty well played out–it can be tricky to balance a mystery when there are lots of extra fantastical bits going on at the same time. There were a couple of moments that were genuinely horrifying, although they never overwhelmed the overall tone of the book. I certainly didn’t guess the ending, and I thought the book did a good job of showing Irene and Kai as competent without being superhuman.

I’ll also note that the main Inspector in the alternate world is Indian. Irene herself seems to be canonically bisexual (although that term is never used); she’s been romantically interested in women in the past, but describes her type as dark and dangerous, and seems into at least one male character. I can’t say whether those representations are done well–there was one moment I have some questions about.

Some books end with everything neatly wrapped up and resolved. Others end with things mostly resolved. And still others end with new revelations and questions. The Invisible Library is definitely in the third category, which unfortunately is my least favorite of the three. However, I do genuinely want to know how it will play out. To the extent this works for me, it’s because the set up had been becoming more complicated throughout the whole book, rather than having a Surprise!Info dump ending.

All in all, despite a few minor quibbles, this was a really enjoyable fantasy, with some cool elements and nice characters. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading the next one.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Roc (in the US); adult fantasy

Other reviews: The Guardian; Li @ Book Daze; Supernaut; you?

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Josephine Tey reading notes: A Shilling for Candles

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). This post is about her 1936 book, A Shilling for Candles, which features Inspector Grant. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)

a shilling for candlesI reread almost all of Tey’s books while working on this series (I skipped The Franchise Affair, which I have vague memories of disliking), and I was surprised by how much I liked A Shilling for Candles, given that I had no real recollection of it. For me, it’s the most successful of the more traditional mystery books that Tey wrote. While it certainly never reached the level of affection that I have for either Brat Farrar or The Daughter of Time, I did find it engrossing and enjoyable.

I think this is partly because Tey relies a little less on Grant as the center of the book. He’s certainly very much the main character, and good chunks of the book are devoted to his finding out information and setting up the twists and turns of the story. But we also get perspective from other characters, notably Erica Burgoyne, which opens everything up beyond Grant’s own thoughts and reactions.

As usual, Tey really shines in her descriptions of character and place. A lot of this book in particular rests on whether the reader buys Grant’s instinctive liking of Robin Tisdall, despite later events. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but this reader did buy it. Perhaps this is partly because Grant has been shown to be a shrewd judge of character in other books, but I think it’s also because Tey is so good at quick, vivid character sketches. And there are some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of the countryside as well.

Like To Love and Be Wise, which revolves around an absent character, A Shilling for Candles partly relies on how much the reader is interested in and believes in the picture of Christine Clay we’re given. Tey is remarkably good at this, considering that she pulls it off in two separate books. Christine emerges as a complex, warm, vivid character, and Grant’s commitment to solving the mystery of her death makes sense.

Unlike most of her Grant books, Tey chooses to give us another point-of-view character. Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the Chief Constable and a formidable character in her own right, who also acts as a bit of a leavening agent. It’s nice to see a character who is a little less cerebral and inward-turning that Grant himself. And while there’s a bit of exceptionalism and not-like-the-other-girls going on, I also found myself charmed by Erica and the strength of her inward compass.

Some of the more minor threads (Edward Champenis, for example) are wrapped up in a somewhat haphazard way, but this did bother me less than in other books. And it’s fair to say that Tey readers in general aren’t there for the whodunnit anyway. And there’s the kind of insularity and distrust of Other that runs through all of Tey to the point that it becomes, distressingly, almost standard.

Still, I do think this is one of her more successful mysteries as mysteries. The characters are rich and warmly drawn, the puzzle is convoluted and engaging, and I really liked the addition of another point of view to Grant’s. If it didn’t touch me as much as Brat Farrar or Daughter of Time, it is an book I enjoyed reading.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1936, adult mystery

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books set in royal courts

top-ten-tuesday
This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

For whatever reason, I realized that I love a lot of books set in royal courts. This is a bit weird, since I’m mostly very liberal in real life politics. But fictional courts often include some great opportunities for character interaction and conflict. So here are some favorites! If you have one I haven’t included, let me know.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

The Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

The Medair duology by Andrea K. Höst

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

A Coalition of Lions by Elizabeth Wein

* honorable mention *

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The Element of Fire by Martha Wells

The Palace of Spies series by Sarah Zettel

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“One the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope”: why I love Galadriel

I have talked in the past about integrity and some of my favorite female characters. One of the characters I mentioned in passing there is Galadriel, and I thought I would come back and talk a little more about why I find her so important and valuable.

To begin with, I wanted to point to who Galadriel is. Within Tolkien’s mythology–which includes but is by no means limited to The Lord of the Rings–she is one of the most powerful Elves in Middle-Earth. She was born in Valinor and after the rebellion of the Noldor was exiled to Middle-earth, where she became the ruler of Lothlorien (earlier Laurelindórenan) and the grandmother of Arwen Undomiel. In addition to all of this, she is the bearer of one of the Three Rings, Nenya.

Both Galadriel herself and the realms over which she has power (Lothlorien and Nenya) are shown to be seats of quiet, centered power. Their strength is often hidden, but it is not diminished by that. I haven’t gone looking for readings of Galadriel, but I suppose it’s possible to see her as passive or isolationist; what I myself see is someone who is secure enough in her own strength to not shout it abroad.

So, before I talk about the moment where Galadriel shows her integrity most openly, let me say what I mean by integrity to begin with. What I mean is acting and living in a way that keeps your self–the core of who you are, as opposed to anyone else–whole. As I said in my earlier post, this often means choices that aren’t easy, that require some sort of sacrifice which isn’t loss of self.

In terms of Galadriel, we see this most clearly in the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo offers her the One Ring. It’s a scene that I’ve always found really powerful, because of the opposing images she presents: “I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea an the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning!…All shall love me and despair!”

It’s interesting to note that rather than simply being another Sauron, all of the images Galadriel presents here are visions of her own power, twisted. If she sets no limits on herself, if she takes the One Ring and the power it holds, she will be bright and terrible. But she will have also lost what makes her essentially herself. Rather than being a great light of strength and refuge, she becomes “a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark.”

And so, when she refuses the Ring, she returns to herself and says, “I pass the test…I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

When I first read Lord of the Rings in middle school, I didn’t think of myself as having much power at all. And even now, it’s not necessarily how I think of myself. But rereading these passages it strikes me how clearly Galadriel, out of all the characters in LotR, shows the way that our own talents and strengths can be twisted. By refusing that path, she acts with integrity and remains herself. It’s not an easy thing, but it’s a true thing.

And I also hadn’t quite put two and two together to realize that perhaps for her going into the West is a true reward. Valinor was her home and she has been exiled from it for two Ages. Now she is finally leaving Middle-earth with many who she loves and returning home. I have complicated feelings about Valinor and the multiple ways Tolkien uses it, and yet it remains a powerful symbol, and here it shines a light on another aspect of Galadriel’s journey.

Speaking of complicated feelings, I won’t get into all of my thoughts about Tolkien’s female characters at this point. Suffice it to say that I know there aren’t many, and at the same time they have been very important to me at times, as different ways to be a woman. Galadriel’s quiet strength and clear sightedness, her integrity and her care for others have all made her a character who has informed a lot of who I want to learn to be.

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Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

lady byronThis post is in two parts. The first part is my personal reaction to reading this book, and the second part is a rumination on history and who tells it. They bleed together; it’s true that the personal is political, but it’s equally true that the political is personal. I am thinking about history and biography because of my personal reaction, and vice versa. However, for the purposes of structuring this review, two parts it is.

****

I have an ongoing interest in women’s stories, which is only intensifying as I grow older, crabbier, and more feminist. I also have a specific interest in Ada Byron Lovelace* and read Sydney Padua’s lovely The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace last year. Then this year my librarian book club, which is the best book club, decided to read Padua’s book together. Lady Byron, Ada’s mother, is a shadowy figure throughout the book and in the middle of rereading I decided to see if there was a biography of her; there was. I put it on hold and read it in about two days straight, with lots of burning anger towards Lord Byron and tears for everyone else.

Annabella Milbanke Byron is a fascinating, complex figure, and Markus does a great job of treating her with respect while also not overlooking her flaws. Rather than either put her on a pedestal or vilify her, Markus attempts to paint a picture of a woman who was both progressive and conservative, both generous and selfish. At the same time, she uses this particular case to make some well-deserved points about who we decide is worthy of praise and remembrance.

I also just flat out cried quarts and quarts, particularly but not limited to the part of the book dealing with Ada’s final illness and death. I am getting teary THINKING about it. It seems like something out of a novel: a deathbed reconciliation between the brilliant, troubled child and the stern, loving mother. But it’s also a scene that modern readers may distrust, and Markus handles it carefully, with care for both Ada and Annabella.

Also, let me tell you how many feelings I had about this: “Lady Byron was a woman who had many close female friends, a loyal band, actually…” (SO MANY. Ladies being friends forever!) Lady Byron is presented throughout the book as a woman who cared a great deal about other women, who had complex and thorny relationships with several of them, and who spent much of her life engaging with their concerns and activities.

Fundamentally, I think, this is a biography that I loved, because it’s a biography written for readers like me. Readers who are interested in the stories we tell and who they’re about, who are interested in women’s stories. We think and talk about this a lot with regards to fiction, but it is just as important, if not more so, when we discuss biographies.

****

Several times during this book, I thought about one of my favorite lines from Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” This is a book that is significantly about who tells your story, because Lady Byron’s story has been told largely, both during and after her life, by men. By men who assume that male geniuses must be right, and that women telling a different story must be wrong. Not only wrong. They must be discounted and discredited.

In the Foreword, Markus writes: “The good she did, however, lies interred under the barrage of Lord Byron’s brilliant poetic spite and later critics’ overwhelming devotion to male genius.” She later quotes several times from older biographies, both of Lord Byron and of Lady Byron herself, which paint her in the worst possible light, wholesale repeating outright slander from Lord Byron. Who, of course, can hardly be supposed to be in any way an objective source, and yet for some reason is considered entirely trustworthy.

But in fact, as Markus lays out in the beginning of the book, Byron was not only extremely untrustworthy and biased. He was also a terrible person, an abusive husband (mentally, emotionally, and possibly physically), and a manipulative jerk. (I am not objective on the subject of Lord Byron.) He passionately hated Annabella, especially after the end of their marriage. And yet, because he is a Great (Male) Poet, he must be right.

Oddly enough, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe who mounted one of the earliest and most strident defenses of Lady Byron. Stowe points out that “The world may finally forgive the man of genius anything; but for a woman there is no mercy and no redemption.” (Dorothy Sayers would echo this almost a century later: “Women geniuses don’t get coddled…so they learn not to expect it.” Which is all too apt when we consider, for instance, Ada Byron Lovelace herself.) For her pains, Stowe’s reputation was torn to shreds.

This biography itself is not objective, but it is also not meant to be. It is meant to be a revelation and defense of Lady Byron, asking us to revisit the old assumptions and look at the evidence with fresh eyes, and also an excoriation of the older biographers who were so little able to see past those assumptions. It is partisan, but it is also open about being partisan, rather than pretending to being unbiased. If it’s a choice between Markus and, say, Malcolm Elwin, I know who I would pick.

****

Markus ends with a short paean to Lady Byron, which I don’t think I could possibly top: “Lady Byron took her own advice. She made no attempt to censure records and never attempted to shape her life in order to find favor with the world. She was herself. She remained herself.” I am very glad that this biography exists, and that it shines a light on a woman who was complex, brilliant, flawed, and utterly human.

* not in actual fact her name, but the one by which she’s most recognized

Book source: public library

Book information: 2015, W.W. Norton & Company; adult biography

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Josephine Tey Reading Notes: all the other ones

In this month’s Reading Notes series, I’m looking at books by Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacKintosh). While I enjoy all of the Tey books I’ve read to varying degrees, I just don’t have much to say about several of them. So I’m combining those books into one post here. There are definitely spoilers below!

the singing sands man in the queue miss pym to love and be wise

The Singing Sands

Tey Writes a Thriller–except, being Tey, it’s a very cerebral thriller and not really one at all. (Despite the hopeful suggestiveness of the cover on the Scribner edition.) However, The Singing Sands is arguably more of a Proper Mystery than some, even if Grant is technically on sick leave for overwork and claustrophobia. (Poor Grant is surely the most sickly detective of the Golden Age.) This one takes place in Scotland, and despite all the negative things Tey likes to say about the Scottish, her descriptions of the countryside are so lovely.

Despite the fact that this is a bit more of a traditional mystery than some, Grant is very much at the center of the book. I don’t believe we get any other points of view here, and we see his reactions to the events. So as long as you care about Grant, then it works. I will say that when I first read this book, I found the mystery element pretty thrilling. So perhaps I am merely growing old and crotchety.

The Man in the Queue

This was the first Grant book, published in 1929 under the Gordon Daviot pen-name. It’s a bit unusual among Tey books because it begins with a murder! To be fair, A Shilling for Candles and The Singing Sands start with deaths that are later shown to be murders, but in The Man in the Queue, someone is just plain stabbed. The fact that it is a first book shows in some ways; the Grant here is not the Grant of Daughter of Time, or even The Singing Sands. These books are never particularly interested in continuity of character, but here he doesn’t really have any personality aside from a vague flair and an almost unbelievable obsession with the case. There’s also no mention of his Scottish connections, which by rights there should be.

Anyway, that’s all to say why I don’t find this one particularly memorable. It’s also a perfect case of a writer coming up with a mystery that’s so strong the detective can’t solve it and the denouement only comes about because the real killer confesses. I believe this is the only time that happens in Tey’s books, but it’s an odd sort of beginning to Grant’s fictional career.

Miss Pym Disposes

Miss Pym Disposes is a non-Grant mystery, published in 1946*. It takes place at a physical training college, which Wikipedia informs me is the kind of school Tey herself went to. It’s a peculiar kind of mystery (I find myself saying that about almost every Tey book) in that Lucy Pym, the main character, is on the scene almost by chance, and doesn’t really do much detecting. In fact, despite the book’s title, she’s overall quite passive. I have a lot of questions about the outcome–she really just decides to not say anything and go back to London? Leaving Mary Innes to do penance for a crime she didn’t commit? And Beau free to just keep on murdering people every time she doesn’t get her way? Come on, Lucy!

Also, sadly, the racism and xenophobia that run through several of Tey’s books are very much present here.

I have also just finished rereading Gaudy Night, and it’s interesting to compare these two books. They’re both mysteries that take place at women’s colleges, and which have at their center questions of female community and the responsibility and wisdom of learning. However, they also have a very different tone and outcome. (Lucy is no Harriet, sorry Lucy.) In some ways, Miss Pym Disposes is more challenging, since the wrongness is at the heart of the college, rather than Gaudy Night’s solution. However, I think it also doesn’t engage as fully or complexly with the questions it raises. Between Harriet and Sayers’ marvelous take on the careful balance between heart and brain, Miss Pym looks a little pale.

* tantalizingly, Miss Pym refers to an Alan that she almost married, but surely not!

To Love and Be Wise

To Love and Be Wise is a somewhat odd book, even for Tey. I think it only really works because her characters are so effective. She can create sympathy for situations and people who would seem boring or terrible in other hands. In any case, it’s not clear for large portions of the book whether an actual crime as occurred. And when the solution is revealed, it’s one that couldn’t be predicted or guessed at. I think there are some similarities with A Shilling for Candles, in the sense that the missing Leslie Searle comes to life through everyone else’s impressions of him. In one sense it’s a very masterful showing-off sort of book, but the ending left me a bit cheated. (I do like Grant’s acceptance of the reveal, but solutions to mysteries where the detective knows something the reader doesn’t will never be my favorite.)

In any case, I read this one less than a week ago and the details are already starting to fade, aside from the gentle send up of various literary genres. I believe there are some nice descriptions of the countryside and houses as well, which Tey usually did have an eye for. But by and large it’s not one that’s really stuck with me, either the first time I read it or now.

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