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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the request for a new Ambassador and the appointment of Mahit Dzmare–young, inexperienced, with an imago fifteen years out of date–the balance of power is shifting.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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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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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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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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A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna

An epic scifi fantasy written across planets and systems. A world where gods and curses have real power. A story of political and personal betrayal and heartbreak, as well as friendship and love. A Spark of White Fire (Skyhorse, 2018) weaves all of these strands together into a complex and engaging story.

I read this one because I heard about it from Mishma at Chasing Faerytales and it sounded really interesting. And having read it, I have one question: why are more people not talking about this one? It ticks so many boxes of things I love, including a sentient spaceship and a trickster god. I had some more thoughts about this on Twitter, but it boils down to being a bit frustrated with the way we all talk about the same few hyped books.

That’s probably too big a topic to really address  in the middle of a review, so going back to A Spark of White Fire! This was a book I just enjoyed reading a lot. Esmae, the main character, might err a bit on the side of hyper-competence–but I kind of feel that if we have a billion hyper-competent male characters in the world of literature, it’s nice to have a girl who’s super good at things too. And it also made sense in this context with both the gods’ gifts and the warrior culture of Kali.

Throughout the book it felt like Mandanna was using some of the usual beats of YA political fantasy–secret identities, last minute betrayals, being torn between family and love–but approaching them in a very fresh way. The story feels like it stands on its own, even though I could see similar patterns to other books when I looked for them. The way it crosses genre lines was fascinating too–there are fantastical elements, like gods and curses, superhuman gifts that act like magic. But it also takes place in space, with a sentient unbeatable spaceship and some interesting approaches to human settlements. It’s a fascinating example of what can happen when two genres are woven together really well. 

I also loved the setting and culture, and the way the physicality of the world was drawn. It’s a sweeping story, moving across a couple of different settings, and it would be easy for them to all blend together a bit. But for me the prose and descriptions were vivid enough that this didn’t happen. And I really appreciated what felt like a depth of worldbuilding. Maybe because this story is based on the part of the Mahabharata, there was just a great sense of a rich and epic background.

I haven’t said much about Esmae herself, but she is the heart of the book.  I thought the balance between competence and mistakes was just right for me. She is smart and strategic, but there are things she doesn’t know, and sometimes her heart betrays her. I loved the relationship between Esmae and her spaceship Titania, and the way even that showed aspects of her character we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. She’s not a truly unreliable narrator, but we certainly see things through her eyes and so we only know what she’s willing to reveal.

All in all, for me this was an incredibly enjoyable read that felt both familiar and fresh. If you like twisty political scifi or fantasy, do check it out! I’d recommend it strongly to both Ann Leckie and Megan Whalen Turner or Elizabeth Wein fans.

Other reviews of A Spark of White Fire:
Alex Brown at Tor.com
Reader Voracious

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Previously, on By Singing Light
Queen’s Thief Week: Myths in The Queen of Attolia (2012)
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood (2014)
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire; Between Silk & Cyanide by Leo Marks (2015)
Making Without Context (2016)

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Zuri Benitez and her sisters have always lived in the same house in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. But now their oldest sister Janae is back from college for the summer and the rich Darcy family is moving into the renovated mansion across the street. And thanks to gentrification, their neighborhood is becoming almost unrecognizable. Zuri must find a way to be sure of her own heart even through everything is shifting around her.

I’ve loved Pride and Prejudice since I was about 12. I’ve seen a lot of adaptations, read a lot of retellings, joined Austen message boards, and even written part of a senior thesis on the book in college. So I was really intrigued by the idea of this story especially since Zoboi’s first book, American Street, got a lot of praise.

I’m so glad I did pick this one up, because I really loved it. A lot of Austen retellings, especially for the YA audience, focus on the romance of the stories and skim over the fact that Austen was a keen observer of power structures and class and how that influences the decisions and worldviews of her characters. But Zoboi pulls on that strand and highlights it, updating the social and economic status of both Darcy and the Bennets in ways that made a lot of sense for her present-day Brooklyn version.

Overall, I just thought that Zoboi made a lot of really smart choices in deciding which parts of the original story to include and which parts to change or ditch. For instance, the Benitez parents are much more loving than the Bennets, but Zuri’s father is still bookish and quiet and her mother is still shamelessly trying to get her daughters together with any rich guy around. I also loved the way Zuri’s neighborhood echos Elizabeth Bennet’s: it’s an insular and small circle of people who all know each other and know their history, until the Darcys arrive.

The language was also delight–Zoboi is really good at writing zingy dialogue and she pays a lot of attention to the way people speak and the front they’re presenting to the world. But she also excels at quietly lovely moments where Zuri’s observation and depth shine through. I loved Zuri herself, who is so stubborn and passionate, but who also knows her own worth and refuses to let herself be made less than she is. 

This book just felt very thoughtful, like Zoboi really reached deep into the heart of Pride and Prejudice and looked at the layers that run underneath the main relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. And then in writing Darius and Zuri’s story, she chose places to echo the heart and beat of the original and places to make their story a new one. I really loved it and appreciated the respect and depth Zoboi brought to Pride.

Other reviews:
YA Book Central
Publisher’s Weekly feature on Pride
Book Page
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan (2012)
E. Wein Special Ops: Being Brave (at Chachic’s Book Nook)

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The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

When Nik’s boyfriend very unexpectedly proposes to her on the Jumbo-Tron at a Dodgers game, a stranger and his sister rescue her from a camera crew. Carlos just wants to do the right thing, but when after they keep meeting, it turns into something more. The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory is a contemporary romance featuring an African-American heroine and a Latino hero. It’s a sequel to The Wedding Date, which came out earlier this year.

I really adored The Wedding Date when I read it, so of course I picked up The Proposal as soon as I could. And it was the perfect light but smart read for the mood I was in.

Public proposals are a Thing, of course, and I’ve always kind of hated them. It turns out I’m not alone! Here’s a whole book whose inciting incident is a very, very botched public proposal. That in and of itself says a lot about the kind of book this is–very aware of the real world while also having that slightly-Technicolor version of reality that is often a feature of romance books.

I appreciated that Guillory didn’t just have Nik get over the proposal instantly. She deals with a very understandable range of emotions, and the anger that her ex-boyfriend throws in her direction for daring to reject him is entirely plausible. The fact that she doesn’t just instantly go back to okay did make it a little tough for me to root for her rebound fling with Carlos at first, but as the story went on, I started to buy their relationship and the way they’re both wary of it becoming something real.

I also loved the food in the book–it was so fun to read about characters who love cooking and eating. It’s a nice touch of grounding and creativity. Also, as with The Wedding Date, there’s a really nice sense of place here which is nice to see.

Carlos’s desire to take care of his family was the only aspect of the story that didn’t quite work for me. I understood the whys of it, and it theoretically made sense, but I didn’t fully buy that he had never had the conversations with his mother and sister that he needed to, and it seemed at odds with his truly supportive attitude towards Nik. So that made it hard to be as invested in his part of the storyline. That said, I truly enjoyed the rest of the book and his relationship with Nik was really fun to read.

Overall, I’d suggest this one for fans of smart contemporary romances, and I hope that we’ll have more books from Guillory soon!

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Previously, on By Singing Light
Complex & Haunting Adult SFF: Oyeyemi & Jemisin (2016)
Favorite Authors: Gillian Bradshaw (2014)
Jane Austen Goes to Hollywood by Abby McDonald (2013)

 

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