Tag Archives: reading diversely

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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Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall

I actually can’t remember exactly how I ended up with Iris and the Tiger on my to-read bookshelf. I’m not sure, in fact, that I know anyone else who’s read it. And that’s a pity, because it’s a delightful book: a marvelous little surreal fantasy that I enjoyed very much and highly recommend.

Iris Chen-Taylor has been sent by her parents from her home in Australia to her great-aunt’s house in Spain. Sadly, their motives are not pure: they are hoping to convince her aunt to leave Iris her house once and for all. So Iris is supposed to be agreeable and charm Aunt Urusla. But when she arrives at Bosque de Nubes, all her expectations are turned upside down and things take several dramatic turns.

Despite her parents’ machinations, Iris is a sympathetic character, who quickly becomes attached to the house, her aunt, and her new friend Jordi. She’s certainly conflicted, but Hall does a nice job of making her struggle believable while also reassuring young readers that things will probably turn out okay.

I also absolutely loved the descriptions of the house and its environs–Hall really has a gift for showing the magical and conveying Iris’s wonder and the enchanting and terrifying aspects of Basque de Nubes. Although I saw a comp to Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse–and that does make sense–I also thought of Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series, which I think is slightly closer in the real sense of danger pervading the book.

Finally, I’ll mention that Iris’s dad is from Hong Kong and that Iris deals with some casual racism in very realistic ways (I believe Hall is herself Asian-Australian). It’s nice to see a book with both a wonderful sense of magic and adventure, and a more diverse cast. All in all, this is just a lovely middle grade fantasy/mystery. And now I want to check out Hall’s backlist, as she’s apparently written a couple of YA in Australia!

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016; middle grade fantasy

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairEverfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

 

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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 inĀ 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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Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina

burn_baby_burn_coverI read this book last month in the midst of a reading slump, when all I wanted to do was reread old favorites but the pressure of all the new books sitting on my library shelf was too much. I picked it up after getting home from work and read it in one evening, completely ignoring everything else I meant to do. I liked Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass a lot–in fact, I was on the Cybils panel that shortlisted it the year it came out. But Burn, Baby, Burn is even stronger, in my opinion. It does so much so well that the only challenge is which of the threads to talk about.

For instance, there’s been a spate of YA set in the 1980s & 90s which seems to have no reason for that setting aside from nostalgia on the part of the author. By contrast, Burn, Baby, Burn not only engages with its historical setting, it could not possibly have been set in any other moment. Medina writes out of personal memory and experience, as her backmatter notes make clear, but she doesn’t stop there. The atmosphere of the summer of 1977 is woven into every scene and character.

There’s also a kind of mythologized, idealized NYC that exists in a lot of YA, as in a lot of other media. Medina resists that as well, pushing back against the idea of the glittering city full of a thousand possibilities. Nora’s city is on the edge of something, full of danger, full of people trying to make their way in a difficult world. It would be easy to say that it’s gritty, and I think that is wrong: it’s also full of hope and excitement. But it’s not smooth; when Nora visits her father and his new family, we see briefly the kind of NYC that usually appears in YA and feel the same relief that Nora does when she returns to her neighborhood.

Most of all, though, the setting here underlies and informs the characters. Medina draws everyone with understanding and complexity, but at the heart of the book is always Nora. Like her neighborhood, Nora is not smooth: she’s prickly, both self-assured and self-doubting, brimming over with hope and joy and fear. Medina shows a very specific Latina girl growing up in a particular neighborhood in NYC at a particular time in a particular family. But at the same time, Nora’s journey towards becoming a young woman resonates deeply.

I’m also grateful for the way that Nora’s story includes other girls and women on their own journeys. While she does navigate falling for a boy, the story starts and ends with Nora and her best friend Kathleen. We see their similarities and differences, but we also see the older generation. Kathleen’s mother and her black best friend (one of Nora’s neighbors) are both feminists, but we see the differences in their experiences as well. Without being the History of Feminism, we’re also given a picture of what the struggle for equal rights looked like in that moment, which doesn’t erase the experiences and legacy of women of color.

The final strand I wanted to note is the depiction of Nora’s family. Over the course of the book we see Nora slowly, slowly coming to terms with the fact that her brother Hector is truly dangerous to himself and to others. And once she realizes that, she also has to decide what she’ll do with that knowledge, in the face of her mother’s determination to not see. It’s a tricky thing to show that undercurrent of things not being okay, and Medina does it really well. Nora’s final decisions and determination in keeping herself and others safe is a really great and powerful way to tell this story. More teens than we sometimes realize or want to admit have families where things are broken, and a lot of growing up is learning to acknowledge this and find your own path.

This is definitely a book where difficult things happen, where the hard parts of being a teen aren’t shied away from. But there’s also a tremendous sense of hope and joy. There are second chances and learning to find your own place to stand and grow. There’s so much more to talk about here, but the heart of it–what’s stuck with me in the last month–is Nora’s courage and determination to do the best she can, by herself and by other people.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Candlewick; YA historical fiction

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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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