Category Archives: reviews

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Marguerite Angelica Taishen, Marghe, is being sent by a Company she distrusts to a frozen and hostile world where a virus kills all men and many of the women who try to settle there. The Company employees live in a small enclosure, while descendants of the earlier settlers have become tribal and cling to their traditions. But Marghe’s discoveries will challenge herself and the status quo. Can she help create a better life for everyone on Jeep, or will chaos and apathy win?

It was coincidence that I read Ammonite (Random House, 1992) just after Always Coming Home, but interestingly I found that they share some similar interests and themes–and similar shortcomings. Having read and loved Griffith’s Hild, I wanted to try some of her backlist while waiting for the potential sequel.

Marghe is a clearly drawn, sympathetic protagonist, who is competent and thoughtful. She’s clearly traumatized by a past violent attack, but she neither magically overcomes her fears nor are they only visible when it’s convenient to the plot. Her journey into assurance, testing her selfhood and abilities, was lovely and resonant. If you want a book where people largely are trying their best, this is a nice example.

The prose absolutely shines when it comes to the descriptions of Jeep itself. They create a sense of the world far beyond sight, evoking the smell and feel of an alien planet vividly. I think this really helped me understand Marghe’s changing perspectives of the planet. At first it is a foe to be beaten, but over the course of the book she and we begin to see the variety of life and the beauty of the landscape and its inhabitants. It’s a nice way to reinforce Marghe’s outward transformation.

This is a book about a planet full of women, but Griffith pushes back on stereotypical ideas of what this might look like. On the one hand, I appreciated this a lot. It’s a world that feels queer even when all the characters don’t necessarily identify this way–in a way that I can only call lived in. I think that Griffith approached this idea thoughtfully and with an attempt to include many different experiences and expressions. On the other hand, it doesn’t include non-binary or trans experiences at all. Here, biology and identity seem to be unmarkedly the same. Obviously, this is not great!

I was also really concerned by the position Marghe herself takes within the narrative. As I said, I found her personal journey very resonant, and the themes that Griffith is playing with are fascinating to me. But Marghe is an outsider who comes into a native culture and is adopted by them, who pushes them to change their way of life and ultimately ‘saves’ them. While race doesn’t seem to play a deciding role in power structures in this world, I still found the implications troubling within a real world context.

So, I’m not quite sure how to react to Ammonite in the end. For this cis white lady, the story was immersive and engaging. But I also see how it could very easily be hurtful and othering for readers. The beautiful prose and interesting world don’t outweigh that. With those heavy caveats, I would recommend this for fans of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series and Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, both specfic stories about competent adult women.

Other reviews:
Kate MacDonald
Alix Harrow
Niki @ The Lesbian Review

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Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin

I’ve had a previously undeclared quest over the past few years to read as much Ursula K Le Guin as I can. Her more well known and recent works–like Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore–are old friends, but she wrote a lot more. A number of those earlier and more forgotten works are now being reissued, which helps except that it also fills me with rage that these seminal books from a giant figure in SFF are just now being republished after her death.. (I have a lot to say about a system which ignores women writers while they live and rewards them with posthumous praise, which allows them in only when they’re writing in “approved” genres and then slams those genres as immature and less important, #ursulashouldhaveanobel, Joanna Russ was right. Read and recognize women writers.)

SO. I am both really sad at the circumstances and glad to have finally read Always Coming Home. It’s a strange book, a book that’s almost all un-narrative. I called it a book of worldbuilding on Twitter by which I meant that it’s the kind of work SFF writers usually do invisibly to create a world which they then write a narrative in, work which remains largely hidden but without which the world doesn’t come alive. Here, this work makes up most of the book. I didn’t realize until just now that this almost exactly the description of “women’s work” but having realized it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

Le Guin calls Always Coming Home an “archaeology of the future”–a record of the daily life, beliefs, and practices of a people who live in some version of a future California. It’s an idea which I think was important to her understanding of the book and structuring of it. But it made me uneasy, because archaeology is such a fraught and political field, which has often been used in the service of western colonialism and white supremacy. And I don’t know that Le Guin ever fully grapples with the implications of setting her project in that context. If anyone knows of perspectives from Native critics on this, I want to read them.

That unease is real and I don’t want to just lay it down and say that this book is great regardless. But I will say that Always Coming Home succeeds far better than it has any right to. The narrative form is deliberately challenging and asks us to set aside our notions of what a book should be. It asks us to set aside our understanding of books themselves. As one of the Kesh people says, “Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”  I said on Twitter that one of Le Guin’s great gifts is the ability to unsettle and force the reader out of our comfortable patterns of thought. I don’t always agree with her–in fact I often disagree–but I’m always enriched by doing so.

One of her other great gifts is the strength of her language. There’s a way that she wrote which holds so much emotional density and complexity of meaning in a few words. It’s not simply that she was good at stringing words together in a nice-sounding sentence. It’s that she uses these nice-sounding sentences sparingly and effectively, so that they hold more meaning and more emotion than they otherwise would. I can’t really describe this in technical writing terms, but  as a reader I feel it every time.

Perhaps my least favorite parts of the book are the moments when the compiler, the archaeologist, herself speaks. These are all titled “Pandora” and I found them distracting from the main sections of the book, and the places where the archaeology aspect of the project was most troubling. The one exception is the section where Pandora talks with one of the Kesh people about about information, and the flawed systems we have in place for access to it.

Because this book is very long and very rich, I could talk about a lot more. But instead, I will just quote part of one of the poems in the book, meant as an initiation song for the people who leave the Valley that is their home and go out into the wider world.

“Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.”

“Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.”

Other posts about Ursula K Le Guin:
Planet of Exile (2011)
Gifts (2011)
Lavinia (2011)
Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)
Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
Reading Notes: Voices (2016)

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading: non-mysteries (2018)
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier (2016)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2011)

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Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

When Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi E’s dad start seriously dating, neither girl is very happy. After all, who’s ever heard of two Naomis in the same family? And it’s hard to be okay with big changes, especially when it seems like the adults involved don’t realize how tough it is on their kids. As their parents’ relationship develops, the two Naomis have to navigate a new definition of identity and family.

I’ve wanted to read Two Naomis because my friend Brandy has been talking it up basically since it was published in 2016. And with the sequel published last September, I figured I should finally pick it up!

Stories for middle grade readers are sometimes my favorites, because they don’t pull their punches. Sometimes adults think of books for kids as sweet and light–and there is certainly a place for those. But there is also a place for the books that really take a tough topic and look at it seriously from a kid’s perspective. Here, Rhuday-Perkovich and Vernick write a thoughtful and careful story of a blended family and adapting to change.

Naomi Marie and Naomi E do not instantly take to each other, and they both resent the fact that their parents are trying to push them together (or at least that’s how it feels to them). After all, they’re very different girls even if they do share a name. I was expecting a resolution a bit earlier, but as I thought about it, I actually really appreciated the fact that the story allows them the space to be sad and mad about what’s happening. It felt true and respectful to the kids who might need this story, and it gave the eventual resolution more weight.

I also loved how much the neighborhood shapes the setting of the story. I’ve lived in Midwestern cities for most of my life, and your neighborhood does play such an important part of your experience and perception of the city.

It’s worth mentioning that Naomi Marie is Black and Naomi E is white (as are Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick). Most of the plot doesn’t focus on race, but it comes up in a couple of subtle ways, like Naomi Marie’s little sister’s dolls. I don’t know how this would register for kids, especially white kids who aren’t already used to thinking about race, but I’m glad it wasn’t ignored.

All in all, this is a story that’s thoughtful and generous towards its characters and, by extension, its readers. Recommended for fans of The War that Saved My Life, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and Merci Suarez.

Other reviews:
Life Writings of a Reader
Novi books
YA Books Central

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Three Graphic Novels (2018)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (2015)
Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry (2014)
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)

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The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

I usually write up a little blurb for the books I read, but I knew very little about The Raven Tower before I started it, and for this book that felt right. If you want to know more about it, check out the Goodreads description!

Also, quite honestly, I read this book because it was written by Ann Leckie. Had someone tried to explain it to me beforehand, it would have been a bit baffling. But I was super excited for her first novel length foray into fantasy, regardless of what it was about.

(This is mostly because over the course of Leckie’s novel-writing career, I’ve come to trust her as an author. I know she writes books that I like, that touch me deeply, and that stay with me. Not every author gets the same trust from me. This isn’t something we talk about a lot when we review books, but it’s there all the same. And sometimes authors know this enough to use it in really interesting ways–yes, I’m thinking of Megan Whalen Turner. Other times, it can be eroded or broken, by a series of less-resonant books, or by things like bad representation.)

The thing is, I wasn’t instantly on board with The Raven Tower. It’s in second person, which is my least favorite narrative style. And because we’re dropped right in and trusted to keep up, it didn’t immediately have the deep emotional resonance that draws me so much to the Raadchai books. (Another thing we don’t often talk about is how a smart author can build up emotional connections over the course of a series, so that by the later books they can just telegraph a moment and it will hold so much more weight of meaning than it could in the first book.)

But something about the story, the insistence of the narrative voice, the things that didn’t quite line up with what I thought was happening pulled me in. Besides the fact that I trusted Leckie to write a story that ultimately would deliver. And by the end I did feel rewarded in that decision. There are some clever, slippery things that happen in the narration. They reverse assumptions about the shape of the story, even the characters. They kept me on my toes, and made the story so much more interesting than it would have been without them. But they also add in feeling as details are shaded in, as the world becomes clear, as the characters resolve. We begin to see the subtlety of the cruelness but also the strength of the kindness.

This story is the most like Ancillary Justice out of all the other Leckie stories I’ve read. But they’re not the same. As I was writing this review, I remembered James Tiptree Jr writing about Joanna Russ: “It smells revolutionary—no, wait, not “revolutionary.” Not the usual. It smells and smoulders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode. Fantastic anger. Like the writer is watching every word, saying, Cool it, cool it, don’t say it.” That’s what this books feels like. Cool it, cool it. Don’t say it. Fantastic anger.

Until at last, there is that ending, one of those endings that are far more powerful than the simple words on the page, because they are exactly where the story needs to end: still half formed, still with the taste of them in your mind. I still feel almost as though I can taste the last line on my lips, as though I shouted it myself.

I’ve been struggling to think of readalikes for this one. A little bit For a Muse of Fire, a little bit Tess of the Road, a little bit Persona and Icon. But not quite any of them. If you’ve read it and have ideas, please let me know!

Other reviews (for what it’s worth, all of these are more spoilery than this post):
Liz Bourke at Tor.com
The Book Smugglers
Genevieve Valentine at NPR
Amal El-Mohtar at NYT

Other Ann Leckie posts here:
Ancillary Sword
Ancillary Mercy

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Chime by Franny Billingsley (2011)
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (2014)
Jinx’s Fire by Sage Blackwood (2015)
Ursula K Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices (2016)
In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary (2017)
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2018)

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Recent Reading: Yoon Ha Lee, Theodora Goss, and Sara Farizan

Oh boy, it’s been a weird, tough couple of weeks over here. Some sort of late-winter funk hit me pretty hard and I’m just now finding the motivation to write about books again, even though I’ve been reading the whole time. All three of these could easily be their own post but at this point I’m going to wrap them up and move on.

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

The latest release from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint (an endeavor that I have 10,000 thoughts about and am endlessly fascinated by) and it’s by Yoon Ha Lee, whose adult fiction I’ve loved for years, and it’s a middle grade scifi? Obviously I was going to read this!

Initially, I found the story slightly baffling in places–there were several moments where I expected some emotional fallout or repercussions from a plot point that just…didn’t happen. But once I adjusted to that, the second half of the book was really lovely and the end made me choke up a little. There’s a glorious sense of wonder and eeriness that a lot of scifi I like conveys, and that’s present here too. This is science fantasy in a lot of ways, and yet I found the ship scenes and the fox magic equally compelling.

(It’s also all about siblings and friendship, those two eternal middle grade themes that are my favorites!)

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel planned for this one, but I could easily see it working–or letting it be a standalone with a beautiful ending full of love and loss and possibility.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

THIS IS SUCH A LONG BOOK.

Look, I liked the story a lot, and I’ll even say I liked the experience of reading this book, but IT’S SO LONG. And I both love long books and sometimes feel like they could have been edited down a lot. In this case I finished reading and still really think that the length wasn’t entirely earned. Especially in the middle section, there were a lot of “this happened and then this happened” details which moved the characters around the map to the places they needed to be but made the whole effect kind of plodding. I get that this is 1) very consciously hearkening back to the Victorian doorstoppers of yore and 2) very consciously a travelogue where details of traveling make a lot of sense. But still! I would have been fine with a few things not being spelled out and some pages being cut.

That said, I do really like the actual story. The concept of the Athena Club–the daughters and creations of the protagonists of Victorian SFF–is one that could be a bit hokey but is quite powerful in Goss’s hands. She allows the main characters to be brought together by affection, but mostly by circumstances. They have very different attitudes towards their fathers, towards the world, and towards themselves. And so the relationships between them are all complex, with disagreements and sometimes a feeling of almost being trapped together. At the same time, they’re learning how to be protagonists of their own story, rather than passive creations. And I enjoy the asides a lot!

So, despite the length, I’m still planning to read the third (and, I believe, final) volume of the Athena Club when it comes out!

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

I didn’t really have a lot of expectations from this book (sometimes I know exactly when and why I decided to read a book and other times I have no idea) but I ended up liking it quite a bit. It’s a book about race and prejudice, but equally about family and friendship and what it means to be part of a team. Without being a “redeem the racist bully” storyline at all, there are some surprises from a couple of characters and we get to see Bijan’s growth in his relationships as well.

Also, I just liked Bijan a lot. Since it’s a book that’s so focused on big, heavy topics, there’s always a chance that it could feel trite or forced. But Bijan has a nice snark to his narration that keeps the story feeling realistic overall.

I did personally find one aspect of the storyline to be wrapped up a little too simply. But aside from that, Here to Stay does a great job of tackling some really important topics in a way felt thoughtful and genuine, while also being a kind and funny look at one boy’s story.

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Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

(I got hit by the flu briefly last week and have been struggling to catch up ever since! Anyway, here’s Empire of Sand, finally.)

In a world of sand and blood and spirits, Mehr is the daughter of a provincial governor, the sheltered daughter of an Ambhan nobleman. But she is also the daughter of an Amrithi woman and she has inherited the talents of her mother’s people. She has spent her life hiding her abilities until the one time she takes a chance and embraces who she is, which changes her life and the lives of those around her forever.

It’s now been a minute since I finished reading Empire of Sand (Orbit 2018)and some of the details have started to fade a bit. But what’s interesting is that as I’ve had time to consider it, I feel like I can see the book’s strengths and weaknesses a bit more clearly than when I had just put it down.

One of those strengths is the vividness of the descriptions and worldbuilding. This is a fairly sweeping story, taking place across multiple settings, but I didn’t feel confused or uprooted. Suri also considers the way settings and spaces might contain different worlds and facets and uses that to further the storytelling, which I always love. The prose is sometimes a little more on the florid side than I tend to really enjoy, but that’s more of a personal taste than anything else.

The world of Empire of Sand and its systems and factions are complex–multiple cultural and ethnic groups, several approaches to religious belief and political power. I felt that the story deliberately embraces this sense of liminal and fraught identity and background to create something that is more interesting than a standard faux-medieval fantasy world. Mehr’s place within these competing groups is both unique and not, and Suri does a fantastic job of showing the challenges and joys of her identity.

My most negative feelings are about the romantic thread of the story. It’s a storyline that could have been really problematic and I felt that it was approached with a lot of care and consideration. But I still never really bought into the dynamic between the two characters even though I liked the idea of it. I would have been fine had it been left as respect and friendship.

On the plus side, I did really appreciate that throughout the book, consequences are considered. Mehr has to face the results of her choices, not only on her own life but on the lives of those around her. Sometimes fantasy protagonists go through the world leaving devastation in their wake, but here that becomes part of the story as well.

Throughout the book, Mehr has multiple interesting relationships with women of other ages and backgrounds, from her sister to her Amrithi mentor and the Ambhan mystics who are the main antagonists of the story. I loved this, and the fact that they’re not simple sisterhood nor competition and dislike. However, I did not like the characterization of her stepmother, particularly the fact that her poor treatment of Mehr and Arwa is said to be because she’s unable to have children of her own (really!). I felt this unfortunately undercut the strength of the other relationships throughout the book.

Overall, I did find Empire of Sand to have a lot of new and interesting takes on familiar fantasy themes. Mehr is  a strong protagonist who has a lot of innate talent but who also has to face the results of her choices and abilities. Apparently there will be at least one more book to follow which looks like it may focus on Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister.

Other reviews:

Strange Horizons
Liz Bourke @ Tor.com
Fantasy Book Cafe

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Books I could reread forever (2018)
Is this a kissing book(list)? (2017)
Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner (2016)
Favorite Heroines (2015)
Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee (2014)

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The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

girl with the dragon heartSilke may not feel at home in the city of Drachenburg, but she does have a place there. She has a friend who is also a dragon, and she helps in a magical chocolate shop. She tells stories and writes handbills. But then the fairies who stole her parents away arrive and Silke has to confront her past and spy on them if she wants to stop their plots.

I loved the first book in this series, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and I was really curious to see how the shift in perspective would translate. Also, I like Stephanie Burgis a lot as a writer and a person.

Silke has really had some traumatic things happen and the story doesn’t shy away from showing that. Her family has been lost and her place in Drachenburg feels tenuous, always under threat from the established citizens who might turn on her community at any moment. But there are moments of warmth and companionship as well. It felt more serious tonally than we sometimes get in middle grade, without being grim.

Silke herself is a smart, thoughtful character who is competent and knows her own strengths. But she also doesn’t just seem like an adult in disguise. She’s full of competing desires and tensions in a way that seemed very appropriate for someone who has been forced to grow up very quickly but who is still a child.

I loved the fact that Silke is a storyteller, who uses her ability to protect herself and the people she cares about. But that ability is also what brings her to the attention of the Crown Princess who pressures her into spying on the fairy royalty during their visit. Ultimately, Silke will have to find out if she can tell her own story or if it will always be told for her.

The story also asks some big questions about family and home. How do you define your family? How do you know what your true home looks like? But also, what would you do to protect them, and what wouldn’t you do? We see these questions play out across several sets of families within the story, including the Crown Princess and her sister, and the fairy King and Queen. But most of all, we see it in Silke, who has a complicated relationship with her brother and has lost her parents but who also isn’t ready to trust the promise of belonging that the chocolate shop and Aventurine hold out to her.

All in all, I really enjoyed this one and found it an unexpectedly deep look at some big questions of belonging, the tension between expectation and identity, and the importance of diplomacy. While as an adult I could guess that our current geo-political situation prompted some of the storytelling choices, that in no way overwhelmed the integrity of the story. There’s a third book focusing on Princess Sofia that’s coming out next year and I can’t wait!

Other reviews of this book:
The Story Sanctuary
Fantasy Literature
Foreward Reviews

Other Stephanie Burgis reviews here:
Masks and Shadows (2016)
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading Mystery Round Up (2018)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2017)
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (2016)
Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand (2015)
Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier (2014)
Letters from Berlin (2013)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (2011)

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