Tag Archives: adult

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

It kind of seems like everyone has either already read this book or already intends to, but I still want to talk about it because WOW.

Actually, I’m going to instantly contradict myself and say that this book probably works best for a particular kind of reader, one who has a strong tolerance for gory stuff and a willingness to trust the narrative a bit. Lee throws us right into the world and the characters, and both are complicated and demanding. In particular, the system of magicky science, or sciencey magic, is confuddling at first.

However! I also think that all of the disclaimers about the difficulty of this book, my own included, probably make it sound more daunting than it needs to be. If you are a reasonably astute genre reader, who’s comfortable with worldbuilding and weirdness, this shouldn’t be necessarily a tricky read. I certainly didn’t find it easy, but neither did it make me so utterly confounded that I wanted to scream (unlike, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another recent read).

And ultimately this ends up being a very rewarding story. The characters and world are complex and compelling–while most of the characters aren’t exactly likeable, they certainly command attention. The exception here is Cheris, the main character: thoughtful and kind and competent as well as out of her depth through most of the book. The fact that she’s not completely overshadowed by Jedao, the murderous ghost that she’s forced into, uh, let’s say partnership, with shows Lee’s ability to write different kinds of characters convincingly.

I don’t want to be spoilery, but I do want to talk a bit about what I found to be a very impressive trick, which may give some things away. So if you absolutely don’t want to know anything about the rest of the book, here’s the place to stop. (For what it’s worth, this is one I completely avoided spoilers for and was glad I did.)

Okay.

The thing is, Ninefox Gambit is all about trust and who we trust and who we don’t. And it’s also very much about Cheris’s relationship with Jedao–not an overtly romantic one, but incredibly, awfully intimate. Their dynamics as well as the world and the questions the story raises were so immersive that it’s not until I finished the book that I realized something. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, the reading experience mirrored Cheris’s own arc with regard to Jedao in a fascinating and entirely disturbing way. That is quite a trick to pull off, but Lee managed it so smoothly that I didn’t even notice.

In short, this book has a lot to recommend itself, and I’ll absolutely be back for the sequel.

Yoon Ha Lee previously:

  • A short story collection, Conservation of Shadows, which I HIGHLY recommend if you liked Ninefox Gambit and want more before Raven Strategem is out.

Other reviews of Ninefox Gambit:

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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

There are lots of fine books in the world, but every so often there’s a book that just reaches out and grabs me in a very particular way: from start to finish, in a way that lingers long afterwards. The Winged Histories was one of those books, a thing so lovely that I’m still amazed by it, and moved by it in ways that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate.

I read Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria back in 2015 and I was excited when I heard there was a sequel coming out. The Winged Histories is actually a loose companion; it has a different feel and concern than the first book, but takes place in the same world and (if I’m right about this) about the same time as well. But whereas Jevick’s story is obviously about a stranger, and about a man, The Winged Histories is about four women in Olondria itself–though the issue of what is and is not Olondrian actually lies at the heart of the book.

The Winged Histories is divided into four sections, four books, four narratives from four different women. Each narrative has a different voice and perspective; they all sit near each other with the tension of stanzas in a poem, clearly connected and in conversation with each other, but not simply a continuation. The formality of the structure (each book has its own title, an epigraph which comes from within the narrative, and an impersonal relation of relevant history) contrasts with the incredibly personal nature of the narratives themselves.

Samatar is a poet, so it’s not surprising that I thought of poetic structure here, or that just now I thought of the connection between this kind of narrative and confessional poetry. That poetic quality is also very much on display in the sentence level writing which is so astonishingly beautiful in places that I can hardly stand it.

Also, the sense of history and politics and the way the personal and political interact with each other adds up to a world that feels so lived in and real. I believed in Kestenya and its desire for freedom; in the religion of the Stone and the complicated motivations of those who follow it; in the family dynamics that haunt the different stories. The balance of detail and scope can be a hard one to get right, but here it seemed right.

I know I pointed about above that this is a story about four women, but one of the things that I adored here is that it’s not just a story about these four women. There are men here, certainly, but there are women everywhere: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers. And they all have different views about the world and themselves and their place. One advantage of this overlapping narrative is the ability to show the tensions within a society, where the fault lines lie. This is not a story of simple female solidarity, by any means, but it is a story that’s centered on women and their lives, showing them in relationship to each other in a way that feel really true.

I kept putting this book down while reading it, not because I was bored, but because it was so much that I wanted to absorb it slowly. And I think the beginning could be a bit confusing, because Samatar drops us down into the middle of the world as Tavis herself experiences it. (There is a glossary in the back, which can help.) But mostly, I encourage setting the confusion aside and reading a little further, because the story here is wild and sweet and sharp and beautiful, with a sense of place and characters who make the work of reading entirely worthwhile.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

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Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I was hovering on the edge of a reading slump when I read this one (symptoms of a reading slump: picking up and setting down a number of books, trying books you expect to like and finishing them with a grim sense of ennui, the inability to pinpoint exactly what you actually want to read) and I wasn’t really expecting this book to be the one to pull me out of it, but I was wrong.

This is a far-future scifi set on a group of distant planets belonging to the Coromina Group, an all-powerful corporation that operates a corpocracy. It controls everything about its citizen-employees and in turn supposedly ensures their lives are smooth and they have everything they need. Esme Coromina, the main character of Star’s  End, is the oldest daughter of the founder of the Coromina Group and his assumed successor. As the book opens, her father calls her in and reveals that he’s dying, asking her to find her estranged sisters. The story unfolds in alternating chapters between Esme’s third person current life and first person past narration.

Star’s End does a couple of that I found interesting and liked quite a bit. Although it’s definitely science fiction and I found the SF elements plausible and interesting, it’s main focus is on the family dynamics and their ripples across the world. For all the planets, and technological innovation, and scifi warfare, it’s a very intimate story; at the same time, because everything the Coromina family does carries power with it, that very intimacy lies in an unresolvable tension with the wider implications and effects on the world.

It can’t be denied that in his family life as well as the planet, Phillip Coromina is a driving force. And yet the true heart of this books is Esme and her three sisters. In a way that reminded me of my beloved Girls at the Kingfisher Club*, Clarke shows a sisterhood that is complex and fraught, full of distance and tensions and misunderstandings, but which is for all of that as vitally real as can be. We can see Esme’s strengths and her flaws most clearly in the ways she deals with her sisters, and it’s in these moments that her struggle becomes the most palpable.

While I love books that talk about working against a system from inside of it (the Imperial Raadch books, for instance), Star’s End has a lot to say about the limits of that possibility. Esme’s desire in working to achieve her current status in the company has always been to become unlike her father, and to take the company in a different direction. She’s committed to that course already, in the changes she made while working in Planetary Management. But at the same time, the book lays her failures out starkly. And although the end is hopeful, the fact remains that the corpocracy is still in place; the system has not been demolished so much as made benign. Esme is not her father, and she learns over the course of the book how to be even less like him and more truly herself. The ending is hopeful and feels earned and true. But I think, quite deliberately, Clarke also wants us to see the gaps.

All in all, the combination of themes and concerns in this one really struck me, and I’m glad I read it! I really like intimate scifi, especially when it also has some interesting SF elements, and I’d like to read more of it.

* Obligatory, Jooooooooo, my heart

Book source: public library

Book information: 2017; Saga Press, adult scifi

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Complex and haunting adult SFF: Oyeyemi and Jemisin

Spoilers for The Fifth Season below!

I wanted to take a look at two books which fall on the literary end of speculative fiction, but which are also very aware of the genre’s conventions and influences. Which is to say, that they are both complex and sophisticated, while remaining very much a part of SF. Also, I am still thinking about them two months after first reading them.

To begin with, I have now read two books by Helen Oyeyemi, and both were bewildering and beautiful. I started with White is For Witching and then read Mr. Fox, and let me say that I have no idea what is happening in Mr. Fox and I love it.

Except that this isn’t quite true. I do know what is happening, but Oyeyemi is writing in a non-linear way, trusting the reader to make connections between disparate times and places and characters. So the text feels both impenetrable and exactly right. I understand it in the way I understand difficult poetry: I can’t say what it means, but I know what it means. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, to steal a line from Yeats.

In this case, Oyeyemi is circling around several related ideas. Mr. Fox is about stories: the stories we tell, the stories we’re a part of, the stories we consume. And it’s about fairy tales, which of course are stories with extra power. It’s about patterns: who gets to tell the stories, who is featured in them, and how they are portrayed. At the center, the tangled heart of this book, is the relationship between the male novelist and his muse. The book uses this relationship to talk about male consumption of women, in the sense of fictional portrayals but also emotional labor. And it talks about women and their relationship to each other, their resistance and/or non-resistance to what men ask of them.

In short, this is a book that demands attention and energy to give up its meaning. It is coherent, but it doesn’t boil down to a simple argument or theory. It takes delight in taking you by surprise, especially in the moments when you think you finally have a grasp on what’s going on.

The second book I wanted to talk about is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Many people have already talked about this book’s strengths, so on a certain level I feel like anything I say is just a matter of “me too!” However, I’ve been reading Jemisin’s books for a few years now, and I remain fascinated by how deftly she plays with big concepts and assumptions about story.

In The Fifth Season one of the big twists is the revelation that the three main characters–Essen, Syen, and the “you” of the second person narration–are all the same person at different times in her life. There’s a convention in epic fantasy that the story feature lots of different characters and viewpoints. Here, Jemisin trades on that convention brilliantly, as the reader slowly realizes the truth. The question of how these three parts of the same person fit together propelled me through the second half of the book.

But on a larger scale, Jemisin starts off with the end of the world, the act that causes this world to fall apart. I keep thinking about the end of the prologue:

But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

Not only does it set the stakes for the rest of the story, but it’s a brilliant almost-echo of Eliot. And indeed, part of what’s agonizingly effective in this book is the extent to which it’s all a whimper. The revelations of the last chapter or so change that to a certain extent, but most of the story is fueled by this tension between knowledge and ignorance. Who knows that something bad is coming, and who believes this is just another Season. Jemisin shows us her hand and then unfolds all the decisions, all the little moment which lead up to the cataclysm.

It would be easy for all these different parts–the narrators, the structure of the narrative itself, the looming apocalyptic threat–to end up feeling like tricks. But they don’t. Instead, they deepen and enrich the story, so that when you reach the end, it feels real and raw and devastating.

In fact, this is a large part of what I admire about both Mr. Fox and The Fifth Season is the way in which the authorial choices are made in service to the story that’s being told. Neither books are easy; both books ask something of the reader; attention, sympathy for difficult people, patience to unravel the pattern. But on the other hand, neither book has style with no purpose. It’s the marriage of story and style that I’ve found myself returning to since I finished reading, because it’s somewhat rare but also so lovely when it’s pulled off.

Other reviews:

 

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Thornyhold

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, finishing up with Thornyhold. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

thornyholdThornyhold is one of Stewart’s late books, published in 1988. Interestingly, she sets it earlier, with Gilly writing down the story of her youth as a grandmother. I think this is a wise choice, as it lets her write the kind of old fashioned story she seems more comfortable with. I’m quite fond of this book–it’s actually the only Stewart I own, though that’s mostly by accident. It’s not exactly memorable in the sense of Things Happening. It’s a quiet, gentle story about a young girl and her cousin and their possibly magical house.

Actually, as I was reading this, I said on Twitter that this was a strong case of “do I like this book, or do I just want to live in this house.” I do like the book, quite genuinely, but I DEFINITELY want to live in that house. I am convinced that if I lived in Thornyhold I would do the dishes every single day and never leave all my stuff everywhere and magically do all the preserving I dream about and in short how do I make this happen?

I should also mention right away that as with Nine Coaches Waiting, this book is VERY BAD as far as disability representation goes. Really, truly bad. 0/10, Mary Stewart! I am able to enjoy the book regardless, but I completely understand if others aren’t able to.

The main character of Thornyhold is a young woman named Gilly Ramsey, whose major love in early life is her cousin Geillis. Her mother is disappointed in life and fairly cruel, Gilly herself is shy and wants more than anything to have animals and a place of her own. Neither of these seem at all possible until Cousin Geillis dies and leaves Gilly her house, Thornyhold. It’s with the entrance of Thornyhold that the plot, such as it is, kicks in, but I do like the beginning and its sense of wonder and childhood.

I’m aware that Mary Stewart wrote some fantasy books as well as romantic suspense, and I may have even tried one of them. But I haven’t searched them out because I suspect they wouldn’t be at all my cup of tea. Rather than straight fantasy, here there’s a quiet story with a little bit of magic underlying everything. (The first line, after all, is “I suppose my mother could have been a witch if she had wanted to.”) It’s the small magic of hearth and home, beautifully depicted.

Here there’s also a lovely sense of continuity and the past history of the house. In my opinion, Stewart is more successful here at weaving in the past than in Touch Not the Cat. I love the idea of the continuity of women who are the guardians of this domain, and I also love the sense of warmth and the (odd but real) relationship that Gilly has with them. The house and land are imbued with a sense of quiet history. Thornyhold is small, but it’s not unimportant; in its own way, it’s a kind of torch against the dark.

I wish, really, that Stewart had felt able to just leave a romance out of the story altogether. While Christopher John is nowhere near as annoying as Raoul (or even Adam), he also just doesn’t add much. I do like William (his son) but the whole falling into each other’s arms thing just seems forced here. I do think Stewart was trying to write a romance that fits Gilly, that’s about someone quiet, someone who’s a “late bloomer” (blech). But I also don’t think it’s really quite successful, although I appreciate that we see Cousin Geillis live a happy and full life without any need for romance at all.

In the end, this isn’t one of Stewart’s most memorable books, but it is perhaps her most comforting. And in its own quiet way, it’s trying to show–however flawed–a different kind of strength.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1988, adult fantasy/romance

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: The Ivy Tree

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, continuing with The Ivy Tree. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

the ivy treeThe Ivy Tree was published seven years into Mary Stewart’s career, in 1961, and in some ways it’s one of her strongest books. (Also one of my favorites.) It’s set in Northumberland, and weaves together some of the strands that Stewart returned to frequently. It’s an interesting one to reread, because the clues to the mystery are RIGHT THERE, I mean they are NOT HARD TO SPOT. And yet, the characters and their tangled relationships, and the vivid descriptions of the land and the farm are compelling enough that I didn’t even really mind. (Although I did notice.)

One of Stewart’s hallmarks is a well-read heroine, and she often opens with some sort of literary allusion. The Ivy Tree is no different–we start off with an old folk song for an epigraph and each chapter is headed with another bit of a folk song. There’s also a Shakespeare reference right on the first page.

But as I mentioned before, Stewart seems particularly fascinated by Jane Eyre and prone to include references in different ways. In Nine Coaches Waiting, it was the governess motif, but here it’s coming home to a burnt house (Thornfield/Forrest Hall) and an absent and scarred former lover. (Adam was even trying to save his wife, who had set a fire. I am not reading too much into this.)

She also includes hidden Roman ruins at least twice–here and in Touch Not the Cat. There seems to be a thread, at least in the English-set books, of the history of the landscape. The past is never that far from the present, whether it’s ancient, or more recent. In The Ivy Tree, family history is also important–it’s why Annabel left home, why Con makes the choices he does, and to a certain extent it’s why Annabel returns.

That’s the spoiler: Mary is totally Annabel. Now, it may be just because I read Brat Farrar again for last month’s series, but I kept wondering if Stewart was influenced by Tey at all. This story and Brat Farrar are kind of inverses of each other. Both main characters pretend to be someone they’re not. Brat pretends to be Patrick coming home; Annabel pretends that she is Mary Grey, but also that she is herself coming home. (This makes more sense in context.) I can’t say for sure, obviously, but regardless of Stewart’s intent, the echoes between the two are really interesting.

Now, to be fair, any mention of the Pennines is going to get me right away (thanks to both Code Name Verity and The Winter Prince). But also the opening of this book is just lovely: vivid descriptions of the landscape that somehow also give an instant sense of Mary/Annabel. There are other clues later in the book–her knowledge of Forrest Hall, of horse cant, of Adam–that give her away if you know what you’re looking for. I think, though, that the opening is where it starts. No stranger, however interested, could give such a detail and loving sense of the land.

And I do think that Stewart handles the emotional side of Annabel’s relationship to Whitescar and her family well. She’s playing a tricky game and we get to see just enough of it for the whole thing to work. I also liked the way Stewart uses Annabel’s cousin Julie as a foil, but also as someone that Annabel has an uncomplicated and warm relationship to. This can’t be said of any of the men in the picture, from Matthew right down to Con and Adam.

Stewart’s heroines have an unfortunate tendency to lose their backbone as soon as the romantic interest arrives. Annabel is really the least woolly of them all, in my opinion. She remains pretty self-reliant, although there are a few lapses into nonsense from time to time. And Adam, while not at all my cup of tea, is at least less annoying that Raoul. (Actually the man I like most in this one is Donald!) I did get a sense that there was a possibility of Adam and Annabel working through their past to a happy future together.

Still, for me the strengths of this one are much less the romance and much more Annabel’s common sense and strength. Combined with the texture of the family and landscape, it’s a story that I find quite compelling and enjoyable.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1961, adult romance/mystery

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Icon by Genevieve Valentine

icon(Orthodox readers, this is not an Orthodox book, despite the title! I’ll talk about this a bit more below but I wanted to make it clear right away.) (Everyone: There are spoilers for Icon below. I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to in this book without spoiling it, I’m sorry, please don’t read any more if this bothers you!)

Oh, friends. This book. However this review turns out, please understand that the temptation to just add that Community “MY EMOTIONS” gif and hit schedule is going to be super high. Genevieve Valentine is really good at making me feel lots of things, it turns out. Also, she writes books that I possibly would not read from anyone else but which are so good that I consider her an auto-read author at this point. I’m pretty sure she could imbue the phone book with strong characters and a tense plot, also that I would like it.

In this case, Icon is a sequel to last year’s Persona. Both are near-future political thrillers, about the same main characters, Suyana and Daniel. I finished Persona and was astonished that both of them made it out of the book alive.

Well, they don’t both make it out of Icon alive.

Icon has a sense of narrative inevitability from page one, and a sense of tension and doom that increases to an almost unbearable extent over the course of the book. I both knew and felt that things were gong to end badly. I kept finding myself holding my breath until the most immediate danger had passed. And yet, I kept reading, even knowing I was going to cry.

I cried so much.

Suyana and Daniel are completely compelling, partly because Valentine has a keen sense for what to tell us and what to leave out. Asking the reader to fill in the blank spaces makes us more invested, keeps us caring, keeps us turning the page. In Persona, we had a sense of them as unlikely partners. Here they’re separated. But they keep fighting and fighting, for the soul of the IA, for the people they care about, for each other. They never get a break or a rest, they hardly have a single moment alone together, and yet their relationship is so potent that it becomes the center around which the story turns.

(I also love that Suyana gets to be calculating without being heartless.)

But Valentine is also excellent at throwing her characters into tense, impossible situations. In Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Persona, they manage to win some sort of space, peace, love. Icon, on the other hand, refuses any way out. I have always thought that West Side Story is more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, because one of them lives and has to go on living. In Icon, not only does Daniel die, and in dying save them, but Suyana “wins” at a horrific personal cost. She ends the book almost entirely alone, muddied by politics. She has done the right thing for the IA and therefore the world. It’s not exactly a bleak ending. But it is a hard one.

Now, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of the title. I understand what Valentine is trying to conjure–the complexity boiled down into a symbol. But since I am Orthodox and the word icon has a primarily religious connotation for me, and since that religious understanding is quite different than Valentine’s usage, it just…doesn’t work for me. I realize this is a personal issue, and one not every reader will share.

I’d recommend this book for people at the unlikely intersection of: invested in Hiddleswift (I have not even gotten into Suyana’s fake relationship with Ethan!), interested in politics, and the red carpet, and into Code Name Verity. (Weirdly enough, I feel like I know multiple people who fit that profile.) Actually, you don’t have to be interested in all of those things, or maybe even any of them. You just have to be willing to let these characters in and then let them break your heart a little.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Saga Press; adult science fiction

 

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Mahvesh Murad at Tor.com; Bridget Keown @ RT; you?

 

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