Tag Archives: fantasy

Recent Reading: Thomas, Shannon, Shaw, Hoose

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Does my Nice White Lady opinion about this book matter at all? Probably not. But sometimes you read something so good that even though it isn’t meant for you, it is worth talking about. And for whatever it’s worth, I loved Bri’s story.

It’s about the pressure of family history and making your own choices, about ambition and achieving your dreams. There were moments when as an adult I was concerned about the choices Bri was making, but I also understood why she was making them and they felt very realistic for a teenager under pressure. Personally, I found the conclusion very satisfying, and I appreciated where Thomas chose to end the story.

Although I’m not someone who tends to listen to rap, I really admired how well Bri’s skill is shown. Having that first person narrative during her rap battles showed her talent and quick wits, and kept it engaging.

Some authors have one great book in them–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–but I think On the Come Up proves that Angie Thomas is here to stay.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I wanted to like this one a lot! But it didn’t quite fulfill my expectations, despite being full of things that I should have, in theory, loved. Dragons! Historical fantasy! Spies! Ladies being friends and/or falling in love. Somehow the characters never quite felt fully inhabited and, in a common failing for epic fantasy, it felt weirdly conservative in its undertones even when it seemed to be about remaking the world. I don’t know! I read the whole doorstopper book, so I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I would also say it never quite reached its full potential. On the other hand, lots of other people loved this one, so it’s entirely possible that this was a me issue.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

This is a great example of a book that I liked and just don’t have much to say about. It’s a supernatural mystery featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to mythical creatures (vampires, gremlins, etc). Meanwhile something bad is happening in London–a murderous cult who worship a mysterious object underground. It’s perfectly fine and competent and I liked the inclusion of some classic vampires who were, the book argues, very misunderstood by Bram Stoker, etc. I will probably read the next one. 

Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

While I kind of wish that this book had not been written by a white guy, I did really appreciate the look at sports and Indianapolis history. Obviously, I have a connection to the location, and I thought Hoose did a good job of laying out the history of the city and state’s racial tensions, as well as the resilience and community of the Black residents during the 1920-1950s.

The text was based heavily on interviews with the surviving players and I felt that overall their voices and memories were showcased. I’ve driven by Crispus Attucks High School many times and been vaguely aware of its history, but now the history of both the high school and area have been really brought to life–in a bittersweet way, since so much of it has now been lost. I’d recommend this for basketball fans, but also for almost anyone from Indianapolis who wants to learn a little more about our history.

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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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Recent Reading: Gran, Moskowitz, Abbott

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran (Atria, 2018)

Book three in a series about Claire DeWitt, private investigator. I have not read the first two and didn’t mind that at all; this functions pretty much as a standalone novel. Claire is a tough character who is fueled by (sometimes barely believable) determination and a desire to find out the truth. It’s a weird foray into the mystery genre and  on paper it’s not a type that would necessarily appeal to me. But for some reason, despite the weird semi-mysticism, violence, and Las Vegas setting, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and intend to read the first two to catch up. I don’t know either! Something about the extremely surreal writing and characters was exactly what I wanted when I read it. We’ll see if the experience can be repeated. 

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz (Chronicle, 2018)

Four orphaned siblings left with a tenuous legacy of a ship and some monster hunting skills try to find the beast that killed their parents. Moskowitz just drops us straight into the world, which is a really fascinating approach. There’s not much in the way of backstory or world-building, but since this book is voicey as can be* it doesn’t really matter. The characters are compelling enough that I wanted to read on and cared deeply about what happened to them. Indi and his siblings operate in a weird sideways version of reality, more full of strange creatures and pirates than school and driving tests. But his desire to find his place, to find a home connects to that yearning that I think a lot of teens have–there’s something right around the corner if they can only just find it. It’s a slim book, but I’ve thought about it a lot since finishing it.

* a technical reviewing term, right?

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown, 2018)

An adult thriller about a woman who is suddenly confronted with her former best friend from high school. It’s been on my TBR for ages and I was in a mystery/thriller mood, so I gave it a try. I felt like it was weird about PMDD, which is a major part of the story but which was treated in a way that felt like it was there for shock value rather than feminist critique? I don’t know, I might be unfair here, but the story seemed in the end to reinforce stereotypes about the destructive power of female friendship rather than resisting them.

 

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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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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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