bookish posts reviews

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)

bookish posts reviews

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
Reader Voracious


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)