A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Lsel Station has been trying to stave off the advances of the Teixcalaanli Empire for a long time. But with the request for a new Ambassador and the appointment of Mahit Dzmare–young, inexperienced, with an imago fifteen years out of date–the balance of power is shifting. When Mahit arrives in the capital of the Empire, she discovers a world she is fascinated and repulsed by, people she wants to and cannot trust. The previous Ambassador is dead, and his imago, which should help guide her, is malfunctioning. All she knows is that she is in over her head.

Given that A Memory Called Empire has been getting a ton of buzz from SF critics I trust, that I love potlical space opera, that amazing cover, and that it has some very obvious Ann Leckie influences (she contributed a front cover blurb, this is not a secret), I expected to love it from page one. But actually, it took me some time to ease in.

I mean, I liked Mahit immediately, and the culture of Teixcalaan is fascinating and beautiful. But I liked it more intellectually than emotionally, I kept thinking. This is all very mannered and interesting and tense, and I should like it. There’s poetry, and food, and complicated relationships to ambiguous and powerful people (Nineteen Adze) and the flashes of Yskandr are delightful and ridiculous. The world is rich and jarring and clearly the story thinks about empire and its effects far more than a lot of stories about empires do.

And yet, I really didn’t feel it in my spine or in my heart the way I did with Leckie or even Cherryh’s Foreigner books (another obvious influence! Mahit and Bren Cameron are definitely cousins of some sort). Or so I thought.

And then.

Things happened.

And all of a sudden, I felt this wave of emotion: anguish and horror and sorrow. All images and details that Martine had carefully woven into the story over the last few hundred pages, the rituals and customs and relationships and the weight of power and history and revolution and revolution’s limits. They crystallized into feeling and it all hurt. Even more so because it was Mahit’s emotion, but also Yskandr’s. And Nineteen Adze’s. And Three Seagrass’s.

So ultimately I’m not quite sure what to say about this book! I saw echoes of so many favorite authors–not only Leckie and Cherryh, but also Katherine Addison and Lois McMaster Bujold. Like all of them, A Memory Called Empire is telling a story about politics and diplomacy and what it means when two cultures are intertwined. Like Maia in Goblin Emperor or Bren, Mahit’s struggle centers around who to trust, and whether she truly can trust anyone. In some ways her actions come across as almost passive, and yet she is actually making active choices all the time. Sometimes it’s choosing to look like an uncivilized barbarian, sometimes it’s choosing to share information. Sometimes it’s [EXTREME SPOILER BUT YOU KNOW WHICH SCENE I MEAN, ARE ALL LSEL AMBASSADORS ADRENALINE SEEKERS, I MEAN COME ON, MAHIT].

But it’s telling a different kind of story as well. It deals much more closely with the simultaneous weight and danger of empire. (It’s also a lot more queer.) How can you love something that is also actively trying to destroy you? How can you form relationships when you’re not sure the other people even see you as a person? I think it’s a book that will reward rereading. And it looks like there’s a sequel coming next year, so rereading will definitely be in order before then.

Other reviews and reading:
Martin Cahill for Tor.com
Arkady Martine answers questions at NPR
James David Nicoll
Alana Joli Abbott at Den of Geek

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Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

The hook of Comics Will Break Your Heart is pretty obvious. Miriam, the granddaughter of one of the co-creators of the famous TomorrowMen has grown up in the shadow of her grandfather’s legacy, the knowledge that things could have been different. As it is, her small Nova Scotia town sometimes feels like a trap she will never be able to escape. Then Weldon Warrick, the grandson of the other creator of the TomorrowMen shows up for the summer, and old family hurts come to the surface. Will Weldon and Miriam be able to find another way, or are they doomed to repeat their families’ past?

Anyone who knows basically anything about the tumultuous relationships between comics co-creators, from Bob Kane and Bill Finger to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby will see the pretty obvious reference here! The title is even a quote attributed to Jack Kirby himself! And Hicks, a seasoned graphic novel writer and artist, weaves in a lot of fun superhero comics moments, like the perennial debate about capes. However, the novel itself is much less about comics than I expected, so it should be relatively accessible even if you are not a fan yourself.

Instead, the story she tells develops in a different direction. Rather than packing it full of comics lore, Hicks chooses to focus on the weight of family history. Miriam and Weldon are confronted by their grandfathers’ collaboration and later falling-out, and the fall-out from that, which left Miriam’s family with a small settlement and Weldon’s father in control of a vast fortune and empire. One which is about to grow even more with the release of the long-anticipated TomorrowMen movie. When it comes down to it, Hicks seems to say, it’s all about choice. Will they keep enacting the same pain that has plagued the previous generations? Or will they find their own way? That’s a theme that resonated with me quite a bit, and I appreciated the way the family history aspect was handled.

In addition, Hicks really uses the small town Nova Scotia backdrop. Miriam is also one of three close friends, but the only one who has a real plan and chance at getting out of their town. It’s a bittersweet look at the way class and social mobility can affect friendship. What does it mean when one person gets to move on? Can you still be friends knowing your paths will diverge?

I went into Comics Will Break Your Heart expecting one kind of story and found one very different. And yet, I appreciated a lot about the story that I found. Miriam’s sweet, slightly eccentric family, Weldon’s relationship to his mother, the way almost all the characters are treated generously. I was only so-so on the romance thread, but I enjoyed the rest thoroughly enough to still recommend it if you have an interest in comics, or slightly melancholy coming-of-age stories.

Other reviews:
Alethea Kontis at NPR
Literary Treats

 

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April 2019 reading

Tender by Sofia Samatar [review]
A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland [review]
The Silver Mask by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin [review]
Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks [review coming tomorrow]
The Hidden Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag
Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine [review coming Friday]
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke: listened to the audiobook again
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas [review coming Monday]
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon [review coming Monday]
Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw [review coming Monday]
Attucks! by Phillip Hoose [review coming Monday]
Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

Totals:

  • Books read: 14
  • rereads: 1 (Jonathan Strange)

Favorites:

  • Tender
  • A Conspiracy of Truths
  • A Memory Called Empire
  • On the Come Up
  • Attucks!
  • Maresi

Other posts:

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May and June 2019 releases I’m excited for

May

There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon

Jade War by Fonda Lee

Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany Jackson

Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Symptoms of a Heartbreak by Sona Charaipotra

The Dark Fantastic by Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

June

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

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A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

In  A Life of My Own (Penguin, 2017), biographer Claire Tomalin turns the focus onto her own life. Originally a journalist by trade, Tomalin also focuses on her family life and marriage to Nick Tomalin, a fellow journalist.

I will be brutally honest here: I read this book by mistake. For some reason, I always, always mix up Claire Tomalin and Claire Harman. I mean, they’re both British biographers of literary people, so maybe it’s a bit understandable. But anyway, I saw this on the shelf at my local library branch and was like, “OOOH, I loved that Charlotte Bronte book!” And the idea of a biographer then writing about their own life was interesting to me.

So, yeah. I was a good chunk of the way through the book when I realized my mistake. I could have set it down there, but I was interested enough and it was a fast enough read to keep going.

Having actually not read any of Claire Tomalin’s biographies, I can’t really compare A LIfe of My Own. I was on occasion frustrated because the moments that could actually have used some closer examination tended to be breezed by instead. Her first husband’s infidelities and abuse, the trauma of some of her childbirth experiences, her relationship with her sister, the harassment she received as a female journalist–all these were brought up, but also summed up quickly and without really looking at them.

And yet, I don’t know how much to blame her for this. After all, it is harder to turn the lens of detachment on your own life and lay out the minute details of your own trauma, especially when (as I suspect) you have spent a long time refusing to acknowledge that it was really that bad. And in Tomalin’s case, people affected by these events are still alive.

On the other hand, that might be an understandable human reaction, but is it then worth a book deal from a major publisher and international publication of what is almost a family memoir? I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe it’s helpful to remember that Tomalin’s father also wrote a memoir and published it, revealing details that were deeply hurtful to Tomalin herself. I can understand her wishing to avoid doing the same to her own children and grandchildren.

I will say that there’s a deeply upsetting chapter about the suicide of one of Tomalin’s daughters that I found pretty wrong-headed in its approach to discussing the subject. I am not an expert! But if you read this book and know that’s a tough subject for you, I suggest  just skipping it altogether.

I don’t want to make it sound as if this is a bad book. Tomalin’s experiences as a journalist and editor who was also trying to negotiate family life are interesting in their own right. But even there, a description of sexual comments in her direction is almost always followed by “But Biffy and Squinty* didn’t really mean anything by it!” I’m sure in many ways it is a generational gap, a reflection of a shift in overall attitudes and language. And yet! This is still a book published in 2017–granted, just before the force of the latest anti-harrassment movement began–and it grated on me. Gesturing toward a feminist reclaiming of your own life and story and then not actually completing the gesture is almost worse than not making it at all. 

So all in all, a somewhat mixed reaction to this one, and a reinforced feeling that I almost always prefer to read biographies over memoirs. As a side note, I noticed that the US cover is a stack of books, while the UK cover is a photograph of Tomalin herself. Very different marketing, which I assume is driven by name recognition vs a general interest in literary biographies.

* These are not real names; they are Wodehousian inventions of my own

______

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Exit, Pursued by A Bear by E.K. Johnston (2016)
“Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” and the disappearance of Else Holmelund Minarik (2014)
Two Biographies: Vera Atkins and Georgette Heyer (2013)
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (2012)

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A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland

A Conspiracy of Truths opens with a farce of a trial, a wandering storyteller called Chant accused of witchcraft in the country of Nuryevet. Chant does not exactly take this charge seriously, and he has never been good at keeping his mouth shut. So naturally, things snowball out of control until he ends up an accused spy pinballing back and forth between the jurisdictions of the country’s leaders. To all appearances, he is a helpless old man without friends or resources. But stories have power, and Chant is full of stories.

I personally feel, when surveying the current fantasy landscape, that so many awesome books are being published right now. And yet, not enough of them are funny! We’re in a moment of political fantasy and emotional anguish, with the feels – o – meter turned up to 500%. Which isn’t really a complaint because I tend to like exactly those books, just that I would also like a funny book or two to balance them out. So I am happy to say that Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths (2018, Saga Press) is a breath of fresh air.

Okay, fine, there are also plenty of political shenanigans and some emotional anguish here. There are lots of stories and reflections on storytelling and human nature. But Rowland pulls off a tricky narration where her main character claims that he is not invested in the people around him and is very amusingly petty about the things that happen to him. And yet we start to see that this ironic air is in some ways a story he is telling himself. It is perhaps Chant’s curse to start caring.

If you are a plot-driven reader, or someone who gets impatient when characters are passive, this is probably not a book for you. I even started to wish that Chant would do something, and I certainly tend to like books on the “people sit around and drink tea and talk” end of the spectrum. However, I also guessed that he was in effect setting up a cascade of events that would happen all at once, and so I was willing to wait around and see what happened. And again, the light and humorous tone helped make even this part of the book a pleasure to read.

Chant himself is an interesting character–Chant is a title rather than a name. He has given up the name he was born with in order to become a Chant. But Chants are not simply wandering storytellers. They also influence events and tend to be there when moments of historical significance are about to happen. Without exactly lying, Chant is certainly not telling the entire truth when he plays up how much of a decrepit old man he is.

I will say that A Conspiracy of Truths suffers from a similar problem as The Goblin Emperor: the women here are fascinating and I have a sense of their off-screen lives being rich and wonderful, but the actual plot of the story is very focused on men. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book and didn’t see this as a deal-breaker, but I do wish for more books in this vein that are about women’s stories.

This has been a bit of a hard book to review, especially in a hurry and several weeks after I actually read it, because it’s operating on different levels. There’s Chant’s story about what happened, which he’s telling. There’s the political upheaval in Nuryevet. There’s Chant’s apprentice and friend Ylfing, who is always falling in love. There are all of the stories they tell to other people and to each other. There are big questions about complicity and the limits of being a good person in a morally corrupt system. This is a lot to juggle, but Rowland does it well. Ylfing’s book, A Choir of Lies, is coming out soon and I will certainly be planning to read it!

Other reviews:
Fantasy Literature
Electra Pritchett at Strange Horizons
The Speculative Shelf

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Jinx by Sage Blackwood (2013)
Death Sworn by Leah Cypess (2014)
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee (2015)
Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis (2016)
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (2018)

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Tender by Sofia Samatar

I knew right away that I had to read this anthology. Sofia Samatar’s work is always amazing: unexpected, brilliant, beautiful. It’s been almost two years since I first read The Winged Histories, which turned out to be an important book for me. In Tender (Small Beer Press, 2017), Samatar has collected twenty pieces of short fiction, most of them published elsewhere previously. They are grouped into two sections: tender bodies and tender landscapes. It’s up to the reader to determine the way these two ideas interact with each other across the divide of the grouping, and the way they take on different shades of emotion and inflection in each story.

Short fiction collections can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when the pieces are uneven in quality. In addition, some collections lack coherence and end up feeling like the pieces have nothing to say to each other. Or the pieces begin to feel too much the same, as if the writer only has one real idea.

For me, Tender struck a nice balance between these two problems. There are similarities of theme–connection and loss, personal resistance to injustice, belonging–and even of tone. Many of the stories strike a melancholy and even elegiac note. However, Samatar’s seemingly endless inventiveness when it comes to setting and the crystal clarity with which she draws her characters keeps these similarities from dominating. What emerges is instead a set of stories that are in conversation with each other across the boundaries of genre and setting.

Because of this, and because it’s a strong collection, it’s difficult to pick favorites. “Selkie Stories are For Losers” as the opener is fascinating; I had read it before and while it’s not my gut-level favorite, it establishes the kind of narrative gaps that Samatar loves to play with. The tension between hope that the future will be brighter and the knowledge that it may not be. Within the first section, I also loved “The Ogres of East Africa,” which starts engaging with racism and colonialism, and ways of holding your self true in the midst of their pressures. This thread weaves through a number of the stories in the collection, approached in different ways but always with thoughtfulness and hope.

If I had to pick one favorite story out of this collection, it would probably be “Honey Bear,” which acts as a class in playing with the expectations of genre readers. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was delighted at how deftly Samatar took my sense of where the story was headed and turned it on its head.

In the second part, tender landscapes, “An Account of the Land of Witches” was especially delightful to me. I loved the way dreams are played with, and it’s an epistolary short story! I love those. “Request for an Extension on the Clarity” also shows how well Samatar can evoke setting and character, even in a very brief form. I’m still not sure what I thought of “Fallow,” the long story that makes up the bulk of the second section. The images and writing are vivid and lovely, but it felt a little bit pat. However, I loved “The Red Thread,” the last story of the collection. With its post-apocalyptic feel and haunting ending, it felt like the perfect conclusion for this set of stories.

All in all, no surprises here, I loved Tender and certainly want to revisit this collection of stories again. Given the depth and richness of Samatar’s writing, I’m sure rereading them will be like revisiting a familiar landscape and finding something in it that had never been seen before.

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Monday Moment

A unidentified weed growing in a garden bed

(A Monday Moment is when I meant to do a Sunday Snapshot and ran out of time)

I semi-participated in my first Readathon event on Saturday! I ended up stopping earlier than I meant to and didn’t keep up with the posts, etc. But it was really good to have a more focused time for reading and engaging with other readers and I’m hoping that my schedule will line up again soon.

What I’m reading

Right now I’m still working on Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire which I am liking a lot but in a more intellectual vs emotional way. I’m curious to see if/when that shifts. I haven’t quite decided what to read after that, partly because I picked up 12 (twelve!) holds from the library Saturday. Too many options!

What I’m doing

As seen above, gardening has started. We planted a few seeds before we went on vacation and now I’m waiting to see if they come up or if we need to replant (it might have been a bit too early? we’re still new at this). We have a plot in some friends’ garden for the second year, which is a nice way to have a garden while we’re still renting.

What I’m thinking about

This Twitter thread about Captain Marvel’s arc and why some dudes are Not Getting It is exactly why I loved the movie.

I’ve seen some amorphous discussions about trigger warnings and how we process trauma through making and consuming art in the last few days. I’m thinking about them and reading along but not saying much. It’s a multi-faceted subject, but I suppose my ultimate sense is that, despite their flaws, trigger warnings do have an important function and–even if they’re not very useful for you–being dismissive of that isn’t great.

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2019 Hugo Award Finalists reaction post

I am and probably always have been something of a book awards geek. When it comes to SFF, I have a particular soft spot for the Hugo Awards. Although they’re not the only SFF awards out there, they definitely have a prominent place in the field. The 2019 finalists have now been announced and I have thoughts!

Of the Best Novel category, I have only read Spinning Silver, which I loved. I have a bunch of complicated thoughts about the genre of story it’s a part of, but the actual book itself was absolutely one of my favorites from last year. I have read and loved the first two books in Yoon Ha Lee’s series but didn’t actually finish Revenant Gun. Space Opera I tried and bounced off pretty hard, but I know it has a loving fanbase. I’ll be really curious to see what the winner is in this category!

Interestingly, I’ve read more of the Best Novella finalists. The Binti trilogy is astounding and lovely, so of course I’d be really pleased if Okorafor won. And you all probably know how I feel about Murderbot (I love it in a way that would really displease the actual, you know, Murderbot.) The Black God’s Drums is a fine novella, but I felt it was a bit hampered by lack of space in the format. Of the other nominees, I’ve read the earlier novellas in the Wayward Children series but not Beneath the Sugar Sky; I’ve heard really great things about The Tea Master but have not picked it up yet; Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach somehow passed completely under my radar. Interesting to note that Tor.com’s novella line has once again almost completely dominated this category!

I have only read The Only Harmless Great Thing out of the Best Novelette category. It’s a dark, beautiful, radiant gut punch of a story and I’d be pleased if it did win. However, I do also love Zen Cho’s writing, and need to check out the other finalists asap.

I haven’t read any of the Best Short Story nominees (maybe I will manage to get myself in gear with regards to short story reading soon??).

Of the Best Series finalists, I am by far most invested in the Machineries of Empire, since I’m a longtime Yoon Ha Lee fangirl and am very pleased that the trilogy has been a hit. I know October Daye is a staple of the urban fantasy genre, although I bounced off of it. And I’m aware that Aliette de Bodard and Becky Chambers are both writing some interesting SFF, although I haven’t read enough of their series to feel really on board with them at this moment.

But then we come to Best Related Work, and oh, beloveds! What an interesting set of finalists we have this year. First, there is AO3, whose inclusion here I totally support and which I would love to see win! I’ve already broken down my thoughts about its importance and place in SFF in a Twitter thread here, so I won’t repeat myself at length. But suffice it to say that AO3 absolutely has a place as both platform and work itself. There’s also The Hobbit Duology, which I haven’t seen in its entirety but which is a great examination of The Hobbit movies and what went wrong with them from a female fan (which imo feels really important when it comes to Tolkien Discourse). I’m not super familiar with The Mexicanx Initiative, but from what I know it is a really fascinating way to document a fan experience from voices that are often marginalized. Then, of course, you have Jo Walton writing about the Hugos and Ursula K Le Guin writing about writing, which seem like they have a nostalgic nerd cachet. I would love for AO3, The Mexicanx Initiative, or The Hobbit Duology to win; while I love both Jo Walton and UKL, I would also like to see some newer voices recognized here.

Sometimes the Hugos are fun as a way to demonstrate just how far behind I am in certain categories. This definitely includes Best Graphic Story! I have to say that if you’re not a Brian K Vaughan fan (I’m not, sorry everyone), it can feel a bit like he’s dominating the SFF graphic novel lineup. But I’m pleased to see a nod for Tillie Walden, and the other finalists seem like solid picks.

I’ve seen a lot more of the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form finalists than I sometimes do. I’m really curious about the winner here; although I love Black Panther and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse, like, a whole lot, I’d also be pleased if Annihilation won.

I’m going to skip over a couple of awards here, because I don’t have much to say about them and/or they’re for personal professional excellence. The Best Art Book  (a 2019 only award) seems like a super cool idea and I’ll be curious to see what the results are. I do love Julie Dillon’s work a lot.

So now we have arrived at the Lodestar, which is the newish YA award. The slate of nominees generally seems pretty solid: The Belles, Children of Blood and Bone, The Cruel Prince, Dread Nation, Tess of the Road. Then there’s The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin, who looks like a local Irish author. I have never heard of the book, which is the second in a series, and I’m…well, let’s just say that I suspect that the local angle + possibly a small voting pool for the Lodestars is the reason it’s on the finalist list. It’s probably a fine book! But also! I’ll be very curious to see the data on nominations when it comes out. Of these, I’ve read all but The Invasion and would be happy to see any of those I’ve read win, although the book of my heart is absolutely Tess of the Road and I will happy-cry-scream if it does get the award. Anyway, I am still  fascinated/defensive/nervous about the longterm history and effect of this award and how it will play out in the future.

I’m skipping the Campbell Award, because it’s also for a specific person. So that concludes my thoughts on the 2019 Hugo Finalists. Of course because it’s the Hugos, it tends towards broadly popular names with some recognition behind them already. I understand why this frustrates people sometimes, but that is quite literally the nature of a popular fan-based award like this one! I have a few strong opinions about specific categories, but generally feel pleased with the finalists as a whole. 

Do you have thoughts? Let me know!

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March 2019 reading

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Two Naomis by Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Salt by Hannah Moskowitz
The Bronze Key by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Total books read: 9

Favorite books:

  • The Raven Tower
  • Always Coming Home
  • Salt

I’ll be honest, February and March have been really disappointing reading months. I keep trying to tell myself that I was DNFing a ton of books and catching up on the books I didn’t get to last year. And that’s true. But it’s also just frustrating to have a run of less-than-satisfying reading experiences. Really, really hoping April goes a little better! (I’ve already finished two books and am close to finishing a third so….maybe?)

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