Tag Archives: science fiction

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the request for a new Ambassador and the appointment of Mahit Dzmare–young, inexperienced, with an imago fifteen years out of date–the balance of power is shifting.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

4 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Marguerite Angelica Taishen, Marghe, is being sent by a Company she distrusts to a frozen and hostile world where a virus kills all men and many of the women who try to settle there. The Company employees live in a small enclosure, while descendants of the earlier settlers have become tribal and cling to their traditions. But Marghe’s discoveries will challenge herself and the status quo. Can she help create a better life for everyone on Jeep, or will chaos and apathy win?

It was coincidence that I read Ammonite (Random House, 1992) just after Always Coming Home, but interestingly I found that they share some similar interests and themes–and similar shortcomings. Having read and loved Griffith’s Hild, I wanted to try some of her backlist while waiting for the potential sequel.

Marghe is a clearly drawn, sympathetic protagonist, who is competent and thoughtful. She’s clearly traumatized by a past violent attack, but she neither magically overcomes her fears nor are they only visible when it’s convenient to the plot. Her journey into assurance, testing her selfhood and abilities, was lovely and resonant. If you want a book where people largely are trying their best, this is a nice example.

The prose absolutely shines when it comes to the descriptions of Jeep itself. They create a sense of the world far beyond sight, evoking the smell and feel of an alien planet vividly. I think this really helped me understand Marghe’s changing perspectives of the planet. At first it is a foe to be beaten, but over the course of the book she and we begin to see the variety of life and the beauty of the landscape and its inhabitants. It’s a nice way to reinforce Marghe’s outward transformation.

This is a book about a planet full of women, but Griffith pushes back on stereotypical ideas of what this might look like. On the one hand, I appreciated this a lot. It’s a world that feels queer even when all the characters don’t necessarily identify this way–in a way that I can only call lived in. I think that Griffith approached this idea thoughtfully and with an attempt to include many different experiences and expressions. On the other hand, it doesn’t include non-binary or trans experiences at all. Here, biology and identity seem to be unmarkedly the same. Obviously, this is not great!

I was also really concerned by the position Marghe herself takes within the narrative. As I said, I found her personal journey very resonant, and the themes that Griffith is playing with are fascinating to me. But Marghe is an outsider who comes into a native culture and is adopted by them, who pushes them to change their way of life and ultimately ‘saves’ them. While race doesn’t seem to play a deciding role in power structures in this world, I still found the implications troubling within a real world context.

So, I’m not quite sure how to react to Ammonite in the end. For this cis white lady, the story was immersive and engaging. But I also see how it could very easily be hurtful and othering for readers. The beautiful prose and interesting world don’t outweigh that. With those heavy caveats, I would recommend this for fans of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series and Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, both specfic stories about competent adult women.

Other reviews:
Kate MacDonald
Alix Harrow
Niki @ The Lesbian Review

1 Comment

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

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.

8 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Overlooked favorite books

 

Since reading and reviewing A Spark of White Fire, I’ve really been thinking about books that are a bit overlooked but that I really enjoyed.  Of course “overlooked” can be hard to quantify. What if my corner of the internet vocally adores a book, but the public at large never picks it up? So I made a list and then checked it against the number of Goodreads ratings–even though this isn’t a truly scientific approach, it gives a broad sense of the size of a book’s audience. Here are ten books published in the past two years that I loved and think more people should pick up (links go to my reviews where applicable).

 

Company Town by Madeline Ashby: A futuristic scifi thriller that also manages to be extremely progressive. And despite the gritty backdrop, the main character is competent and engaging. 

Peas & Carrots by Tanita S. Davis: Oh, I loved this realistic YA about two foster sisters who struggle to get along. Davis has a great ear for voice and Dess and Hope leapt off the page for me. 

Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall: A marvelous surreal fantasy for the middle grade crowd. I don’t know how many people will get this reference, but if you loved The Children of Green Knowe, it has a bit of the same sense of wonder and danger and beauty all combined. 

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig: The first in a trilogy, this YA fantasy takes the rebellion/revolution theme that’s so common in YA and really engages with what that would mean. The narrative style is unique and really cool, and I appreciated the representation of mental illness a lot.

Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: I will just quote my original review: ” Essentially, this book takes an SF premise, the discovery of Terra Nova, and uses it to tell a quiet, thoughtful story of family, friendship, and identity.” I loved the way Khorana uses SF as a backdrop for a story that digs into some deep themes. 

Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon: I read this book, thought to myself, “I bet a bunch of reviewers on Goodreads called Rilla unlikeable” and I was right. So if you’re a fan of books about unlikeable girls who are good at things, fraught friendships or sibling bonds, and learning to write your own story about yourself, check it out. 

A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna: I’ve been talking this one up on different platforms a lot so I won’t go on and on here, but basically it’s a fantastically twisty political scifi/fantasy genre-bending YA with gods and curses and a really awesome, competent main character. 

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier: I’m a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s books anyway, but this one was sharp and clear with a fascinating political and social dynamic. It’s another twisty political fantasy that asks big questions about family relationships and the limits of agency. I also loved Oressa a lot–she’s a resourceful and strategic character. 

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera: This is a sweeping story, narrated by an older version of one of the main characters. It’s the kind of book that looks seriously at fate and love and how much of our lives we choose for ourselves. It’s historical fantasy but not quite as I usually think of it. I have the sequel out right now and I can’t wait!

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar: I’ve been shouting my love for this book from the rooftops since I read it in 2017, but it literally has everything I love. Amazingly beautiful prose, a really thoughtful and deep look at history and politics and religion all cast through the lens of women’s voices and experiences. It is rich and dense and layered and I cannot stop thinking about it. 

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I love all of Genevieve Valentine’s novels a lot, but Persona stands out because it takes an interesting near future premise and uses it to say interesting things about public facing personas, the intricacies of identity, and what it means to be perceived as powerless. The follow-up book, Icon, is also great. 

Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein: I love Elizabeth Wein’s books, as probably any long-time reader of the blog knows. And here she wrote a middle grade Star Wars book giving us Rose’s backstory before The Last Jedi! It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and has a fantastic Leia moment in the middle. 

7 Comments

Filed under book lists, bookish posts

January 2019 reading

I did not read as much as I wanted to this month, but I read some really awesome books. A few of these I suspect will end up on my end-of-year favorites list! As I mentioned the other day, I’m trying out a new system for my active TBR, and I’m hoping it will result in getting more books either read or passed on.

The Winged Histories –  Sofia Samatar [review]
Sawkill Girls  – Claire Legrand [review]
The Prince & the Dressmaker – Jen Wang
Nate Expectations – Tim Federle
I, Claudia – Mary McCoy [review]
Frederica – Georgette Heyer
Begone the Raggedy Witches – Celine Kiernan [review]
Merci Suarez Changes Gears – Meg Medina
The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams
Sanity and Tallulah – Molly Brooks
A Spark of White Fire – Sangu Mandanna [review]
The Girl with the Dragon Heart – Stephanie Burgis

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 2

Favorites:

  • The Winged Histories
  • I, Claudia
  • Begone the Raggedy Witches
  • Merci Suarez Changes Gears
  • Sanity & Tallulah
  • A Spark of White Fire
  • The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Other posts:

6 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list

December 2018 reading

I was in the middle of a reading slump for most of December, so I really didn’t get as many books finished as I wanted. But I did go out with some pretty strong titles!

Also, some of you know that I had surgery last December–I finally wrote up everything that happened and shared it. If you’d like to learn more, that document is here.

Mistletoe and Murder Robin Stevens 12.27 175

Arabella Georgette Heyer 12.25 174

For a Muse of Fire Heidi Heilig 12.24 173

The Song of Achilles Madeleine Miller 12.22 172

Cousin Kate Georgette Heyer 12.18 171

The Word for World is Forest Ursula K Le Guin 12.18 170

Keeper of the Isis Light Monica Hughes 12.12 169

The House on Chicken Legs Sophie Anderson 12.11 168

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead 12.7 167

Lumberjanes v. 7 12.6  164-166

Lumberjanes v. 8

Lumberjanes v. 9

 

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 3 (When You Reach Me; Cousin Kate; Arabella)

Favorites:

  • For a Muse of Fire
  • The Song of Achilles

1 Comment

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list