Friday, 20 July 2018

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky was the last of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel that I read, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the last would be best. (Unlike one unfortunate book in this category, I had read the preceding novels and so was not jumping in blind.)  N.K. Jemisin just utterly blew me away with The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, and so I was prepared to be rocked.

What I wasn't prepared for was how hard The Stone Sky was to read. I wasn't expecting it to be easy, but there were sections that hurt so much, so intensely, so specifically, that there were days where I had to let it lie and wait until I felt emotionally stronger. This is not a complaint - I think this book is brilliant, I think this series is just so good, so strong, so powerful...and so painful. And at the end, completely earned, there is a spark of hope. The journey needed to be this painful to get there, but it gets there.

And it's not an easy ending, a pat answer, a way to wrap it all up neatly. It exists within and with the pain that came on this journey, and the pain does not end just because the ending has been reached. We pass traumas down, we perpetuate them, and although cycles can be broken, they cannot simply be waved away.

The book picks up with Essun and her daughter Nassun, still half a world away from each other. Essun wants to reach Nassun, desperately, but Nassun's feelings for her mother are so complicated and rooted in years of abuse done out of fear and love that the same cannot be said in return. Nassun has found someone she loves: horrifyingly, Schaffa. At least, it's horrifying if you've read the other books and know the other things he's done.

Essun, however, much she wants to make it to Nassun, is hampered both by her need to see the comm she joined, however half-heartedly, to relative safety, so that they can continue to try to build a world where orogenes and non-orogenes live side by side. Oh, and also by the fact that her arm has turned to stone during her last, monumental, burst of orogeny. With that new material as an appendage is the knowledge that any further orogeny use will continue her transformation. She is powerful, but cannot use it, unless she accepts a terrible cost.

She struggles with being part of a community when the world has taken so much from her, and caused her to deform herself in so many ways to live in it. But she is part of this one, like it or not, and finding that connection keeps her going on her way.

The story here, though, has a third part - that of Hwa, the stone eater who has accompanied Essun, and has, as it turned out, been around since the world was sundered into the condition it now has. We get flashbacks of what his life was like, as the first generation of what would become orogenes. We see the evil woven into their position from the very beginning, but I don't want to spoil who they were or what they were made for - but the repercussions of othering are there and bring the rest of the world, thousands of years later, into sickening relief.

We find out what the world is as its end draws closer and closer, and that is not metaphorical. Nassun wants to do one thing in reaction to the impending end, Essun another, and, it turns out, the planet has quite an opinion on this too. There are so many layers here, woven together so expertly, that it's mind-blowing. And it's difficult - this is about multi-generational trauma, about cycles of oppression and societies built on exploitation, and the ways in which that infests every aspect of them, whether you realize it or not.

I wasn't sure, all the way through, how bleakly this would end, and it would have earned a bleak ending, had Jemisin chosen that. But the one she did write is earned as well, in all its fragile hope for change, even in a world as hostile as the one Essun and Nassun have experienced.

This is brilliant. The whole series is just fucking brilliant. More than that, it's important, and urgent, and there's nothing else out there like it.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Another heist book! The Heist theme for my SF/F themed cook club is going well - everyone seems to be enjoying the stories we've been reading, and having a lighter topic in the summer was probably the right decision. This was one of two on the list that I hadn't read, but I took a flyer on it and added it anyway, because it had gotten fairly good reviews from people whose judgement I trust.

And it was a lot of fun!  It's an engaging heist story, in a really interesting fantasy world that has almost but not quite steampunky elements, with characters who are deep in the underworld for varying reasons, and want to or don't want to get out, also for varying reasons. It's Young Adult, which we agreed at the book club sometimes skewed the book in ways that we thought might have been better had Bardugo had the freedom to go all out in some areas that felt restrained. Overall, it was a book everyone liked.

One weird thing, though. My husband and I found that while we didn't always think of the characters as teenagers, it wasn't hard to think of them as young adults - early twenties at the latest. Whereas the other two people in our book club both listened to the book on audiobook, and it seems that because of the narrator, they couldn't help but think of Kaz as somewhere in his forties. It's interesting how that perspective can change based on voice versus print.

Kaz is the mastermind of this particular motley crew, a young man who has come up fast through the ranks, earning a name for ruthlessness, dispassion, and always wearing gloves, no matter what. And walking with a cane.

Wait. Before I introduce you to the crew, perhaps I should introduce you to the world?  I was coming to it new, although there is a companion series to this also set in the same milieu, and, I think, published first. It feels vaguely Scandinavian or Eastern European with some aspects of industrialism, although not all. It starts in a port city, rife with crime. Somewhere else in the world, but not too far away, there were a group of people in one particular country called Grisha. (The Grisha have supernatural powers of several sorts, but I couldn't quite tell if this was a genetic heritage or a random one, and the one country just provided sanctuary for them.)

There are another group in another kingdom who hunt down the Grisha and kill or enslave them for the crime of existing. Someone has recently discovered a chemical concoction that greatly increases the powers of the Grisha while being fiendishly addicting.

Okay, world intro over. Back to the characters. Kaz. When he is brought in by the Merchant's Guild to travel to where the man who discovered the parem jurda (the chemical concoction) is being held by the Grisha-hunters, and offered a truly staggering amount of money to do so, he, of course, amasses a team. This could scarcely be a good heist book without one.

So, we have Inej, the young woman known as...on damn, what's she known as? The Shadow? The name has slipped away from me. But she's sneaky and incredibly good at climbing and thieving. There's Jesper, who is very good with guns and has worked with Kaz for a while. There's Wylan, the son of a Merchant, brought on to be good with explosives and as a guarantee his father will pay up when the job is done.

Then there are Matthias and Nina. Nina is a Grisha, one who can manipulate the body to cause emotions. Matthias is one of the Grisha-hunters. They arrived in this city together, and something Nina did right at the beginning got him thrown in prison. She's been trying to get him out since. He thinks he hates her, but we all know how the next part of that sentence goes, right? It feels a little pat, but it's well written and engaging, so I'll give it a pass.

And off they go to break the scientist out of an impenetrable fortress during the middle of the most important religious festival of the year! The heist is well done, even if I was always waiting for the sudden but inevitable betrayal. The characters are enjoyable, the action bomps along nicely, and if the YA means that all the people who obviously want to be smooching don't smooch, it's annoying but not unforgivable. There's a strongly telegraphed attraction between two male characters, but they get to be even less overt about it than the not-very-covert attractions between Matthias and Nina and Kaz and Inej.

While the heist is very satisfying, the book does end on an obvious "rush out and buy the next right away!" cliffhanger. Like, a particularly egregious one. Again, it's a pardonable literary sin, but not giving us a great resolution for one story before launching into the next is a little frustrating. So, in summary, this is a lot of fun, and the things it gets wrong are not so wrong the book becomes unenjoyable.

Monday, 16 July 2018

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Since there is absolutely no way I'm going to get through every book in every series nominated for a Best Series Hugo (as much as I'd like to!), I decided that if I could read at least one book in each series, I'd be happy - and if I end up having more time than I expect in the next month, I'd read more. So, I started the Lady Trent Memoirs series with, cleverly, the first book, avoiding the problem I've had in other categories where I'm starting several books in.

Set in a fantasy version that feels relatively close to our own, but is not, our world, Lady Trent is a Victorian lady in the mold of the lady adventurers who were well-off and went off with or without their husbands to explore distant parts of the world. This world, though, has dragons, and they are the object of Lady Trent's obsession.

She is interested in dragons from a young age, much to her mother's despair, although this obsession accidentally ensnares her a sympathetic husband, when she waxes inappropriately poetic over the captured dragons brought to the throne in front of a young member of the peerage who is similarly smitten with the creatures.

Once married, she eventually convinces her husband, Jacob, to go on an expedition to investigate dragons in what feels like this world's equivalent of Eastern Europe, or maybe Russia. And then convinces him to bring her along as well, as an organizer and artist to draw whatever dragons they may find.

They find that the boyar they were planning to meet is absent, and reluctantly settled into a small village on the edge of mountains. They discover that there have been dragon attacks recently, in a way that is uncharacteristic for the area. The reasons for this are opaque for most of the book, but the solution makes sense when it is revealed.

Lady Trent learns how to cope in less than ideal conditions, with little complaining, since she wants to be here and wants to be brought along on any future endeavours that might come up. She has a frosty relationship with the woman hired to help her out, Dagmira, although Dagmira comes to trust her, if never to like her.

The conceit of these books (or this one, anyway), is that they're being written by a very old Lady Trent, looking back on her life with rather more candour and wisdom than she had as a young women, when, presumably, she released expurgated and less-thought-through travelogues that netted her some notoriety and acclaim.

On the way, Lady Trent helps discover some central and hitherto unknown features of dragons, including that they mourn their own kind, and that there is a way to keep their bones disintegrating after death, which has long stymied scholars. There are dragon attacks, but the people in the mountains may be the more dangerous, as she falls afoul of smugglers, townspeople, and a few others who are not immediately apparent.

The style of this nicely blends travel writing with dragons, and feels very cohesive as a work. I quite enjoyed this book, even if I didn't find it particularly deep. I look forward to reading more of this series.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another book that I think suffers because I read the second book in the series first, due to time constraints and wanting to get all the Hugo books and novellas, etc., read. I was initially hoping to have time to go back and read the first book before starting this one, but with the deadline fast approaching, I had to just go ahead and read Binti: Home on its own.

This was a bit difficult because by itself, Binti: Home doesn't feel like a well-rounded story. It's interesting, absolutely, and I want to know more. But it feels like a way station between whatever happened to make Binti into the human/Meduse mix she now is, and whatever happens next. It's a story of homecoming, as the title suggests, but I don't know enough about what home was to know why Binti was so eager to return, particularly since it seemed like she hadn't been away that long, and people at home were more than happy to make her glad she'd stayed away.

We start with Binti finishing what is, I think, her first semester away at an off-world university, after having suffered an attack and unexpected survival on her way to Oomza U. (I'm gleaning this, but as I said, I haven't read the first book.)  She feels a sharp pull home, and brings with her a Meduse, her friend, but also one of the race who attacked and killed everyone else on the ship she was on on the way to university. She's now part Meduse, with hair that seems to move on its own. I'm not sure of the full implications of these changes, but didn't need to be to get most of the story. I think.

She returns home to go on pilgrimage, but is met with humans who are suspicious of the Meduse, both her own people and another tribe that were traditionally at war with the Meduse. (I presume this is explained more in the first book, and I feel bad that I keep having to say that, but it was true to the experience of reading this. Which is my own damn fault for reading the second book first, but sometimes that's what you have to do.)

She's also met with variations between distance and outright hostility from her family, with her sister telling her (at a party, no less, in front of everyone) how selfish she is and how she's killing their father and that she should come home, while simultaneously telling her she's a freak and doesn't belong. It feels like the very definition of toxic family dynamics, particularly the appealing to a mob in the midst of tearing one's sister down.

There's a lot here about places in a family and family dynamics, but there's so much hostility aimed at Binti, even from those who do seem to truly love her, that the command that she should stay does not have a lot of emotional weight, or maybe just not with me. I could see how it could, if we knew more about this family and the dynamics that led to this place.

Then what was the most interesting part came, near the end. Binti went out into the desert with her father's people, the people he'd been at pains to conceal most of his life, and who Binti's mother looked down on as savages. Binti had imbibed some of these attitudes, but who they are and what their society was, was fascinating, particularly the explanations for some physical habits and their history. Binti becomes something different yet again, further distancing herself from her home even as she wants to return to it.

I really hope I get a chance to read the first novella - I think there's a very good chance I'll be reading the third come Hugo season next year.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

This was a case where I really wished I'd had the time to read the first book in the series before delving into the second - but since this is my first year trying to read all the Hugo nominees *before* the voting deadline, I was trapped. I'd missed Ninefox Gambit when it was nominated last year (I'll read it eventually, I promise!) and had to jump right into Raven Stratagem if I were going to finish everything I needed to by the end of July.

In this book, I was thrown into a world without a lot of context. I was able to glean a lot of it, but it was more in the sense of broad meanings than specifics, and I suspect that if the specifics have been explained, it was in the prior book, and would have been redundant to re-explain. It did mean that I was struggling to catch up a bit, which is partly why this book is not in my top few rankings for this category.

That is not to say that it is bad - the one thing I have been so delighted by is how strong entire Hugo categories are. It's not just one or two good books and then filler, it tends to be six solid books that tie me up in knots trying to figure out my voting rankings.

Still, this is one where I felt most at sea. I was able to get the larger sense of what Lee was going for, but the specifics escaped me. I think I got the outside edges of calendrical issues, but I'm more than a little bewildered as to what that means, precisely, what calendrical heresies are, and why they would give rise to, for lack of a better term, the different magics different sectors of this interstellar Empire have at their disposal. I was able to get past that by just labelling it all magic in my mind, and that worked fine, but I was always curious to find out what it meant in this universe, or to this author.

We are in a universe where the people are dispersed over many planets, and it seems like some or most of the people (I wasn't sure if picking a faction was mandatory or only for a few) join one of the factions and gain the powers thereof. (There are the military, the spies, the inquisitors, and a few more I'm a little vague on.)

Within this, a body is taken over/shares consciousness with a Shuos (the spies, as near as I can tell) who was disembodied and held incorporeal for centuries after he caused a massacre. He comes onto a Kel (military) ship in a, to use the language of the book, womanform, and takes advantage of Kel hierarchical instinct to take over just as they're engaging an enemy force. He's brilliant, and the captain he usurped first tries to assassinate him, and then puts her life on the line to follow him.

But there is more going on here, and it's all fascinating, but it wasn't the deepest characterization I've found in this batch of books. Honestly, the interactions between the leader of the Shuos and his brother/stand-in were probably the most complex and interesting of anything that was on the table here, and I could have read a whole book about them alone. This book tries to find a middle path between being about the plot (but doesn't let me all the way in to understand it) and about the characters (but doesn't give us a ton of time with characterization.)

It's all leading somewhere, and it was interesting along the way, but because there were things I didn't understand about the underlying world, or really, about the characters, it didn't land as strongly as it could have. That's the problem with coming in on the second book of a series, and makes this, for me, not as strong a contender for the Hugo as some of the other books. Yet, I liked it, and might have liked it a whole lot more if I'd read the first book first.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

A little while ago, I was putting together a list for my SF/F book club about heists. My first pass ended up being all male authors, so I frowned and tried to do better. I ended up adding two books I'd never read, and this was one of them, when it was described to me as "Leverage, if the crew were told to steal a lake."  I was in at pretty much that moment.

Then, when it was nominated for a Hugo for novella, I had even more reason to read it. And it was pretty much exactly as advertised - a thoroughly enjoyable alt-U.S. romp, in a world where a crazy plan to import hippos for meat worked, but led to a lake infested with feral hippos that can kill a man in seconds - and do, regularly, which is used by the mustache-twirling bad guy when people cheat on his casino steamship.

The main character used to have own hippo ranch before he lost it and almost all his hippos to a fire, and when he decides to take this job for the U.S. government, to get the hippos out of that lake and disperse them down river, he thinks he'll be able to get revenge on the person who caused the fire.

Of course, we start off with a traditional "getting the crew together" montage, where Winslow Houndstooth, our protagonist, finds the people he's going to need to pull this particular heist off - Archie, a large woman who is a master thief; Hero, a nonbinary person who can blow up anything; Cal, Winslow's former ranch hand who knows the territory, and Adelia, a pregnant hired killer who has more going on than anyone realizes.

These are all delightful characters, and that's another important aspect of a good heist story - you need to care whether or not these people manage to rob the bank or hoodwink the rich, or...blow up a dam and unleash a flood of hippos on the river below the lake. Because that is the plan, with each member of the crew providing a valuable service as they set out to unleash a flood of feral hippos without getting eaten by them.

Which is a bit of a trick - described are many eaten-by-hippos moments, and it sounds like a fairly terrifying way to go. Each of our heroes also has their own hippo (or hop, I think the term is), to which they are greatly attached - one is an albino, all are fiercely loyal to their owners, and seem to be hardy steeds - as long as you are relatively close to water so they don't dry out.

Not everyone on the team is working for the same person, which I'm sure surprises you all tremendously!  There are betrayals, the beginnings (and ends) of love affairs. There are twists and turns. People are eaten by hippos.

I don't have a lot else to say about the book, but I really did enjoy it tremendously. I don't think it's going to top my Hugo ballot, but it was rollicking fun, and I look forward to discussing it in my book club when it rolls around. I'm ahead of the game for once!

Friday, 6 July 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

It is not a small order to make a really good entry into the genre of Russian-folktale-inspired fantasy. I can think of at least one if not two other books that are astoundingly good off the top of my head, so when you're entering an arena that already includes Catherynne Valente's amazing Deathless, you'd better have a damned good story to tell.  There's room here, but it's going to be hard not to be overshadowed. (I'm also sort of counting Naomi Novik's Uprooted, although there's probably a good argument for it being considered Eastern Europe-inspired rather than specifically Russian.)

So, how did we do? Particularly, how did we do when this is also a debut novel? Well, not bad. It's not as good as either of the books listed above, and there are ways in which it deals with a few issues that I think show a more surface reading of fairy tales than a deep-down, stories-that-sing-in-your-blood understanding, but for all that...this is pretty good. I enjoyed it quite a lot, and even teared up at one point. Saying it's not as good as Deathless is saying it's not a masterpiece. It's merely a really freaking good debut effort.

It is the story of Vasya, a Russian girl whose mother dies shortly after she is born, and has about her an air of the uncanny, an inheritance, perhaps, from her maternal grandmother, whom she never met. She grows up not realizing that other people can't see the domovoi or other house and stable spirits that are part of keeping her small village safe from the slumbering force outside.

The book jacket and some of the reviews refer to her incredibly devout stepmother who tries to rein Vasya in, but that's not quite accurate. I'm sure she does believe in Christianity in the form it took in Russia, but she is more motivated by the fact that she is more like Vasya than she wants to be - she also sees the household spirits, and instead of seeing them as fellow dwellers and protectors, she sees them as demons, and wanted to escape them by joining a convent before she was wed to Vasya's father.

When a fervent young priest is sent to Vasya's village as well, to get him out of the power plays in the capitol, the two focus their attentions on Vasya, as a young woman who is obviously different and perhaps dangerous. They try to get her to conform, but other members of her family are content to have her as she is. As she grows, she learns to ride from the horses whose patron creature she helps feed, even as others neglect their care, convinced by the priest that the old ways are evil and must be feared.

Outside the boundaries of the village, the sleeper stirs, and the manifestation of Death may be all that stands between Vasya's village and the fear that is fostered and the desecration after. Vasya's loved ones try to shield her from the Winter King (Death), but if anyone is to survive the battle between he and his brother, Vasya must intervene, no matter the cost.

This is all beautifully woven together, but there are ways in which this is a fairy tale, not a story about how fairy tales can permeate a life. It's at times a little too surface.  Here's an example: there was a moment in the woods, where Vasya almost freezes to death, where the Winter King tells her after she pushes herself to survive, that only cowards die in the snow. The brave survive.

Which is...kind of horseshit. You can be brave as hell, in any circumstances, and no matter how brave you are, you can too fucking die. This is something that I think Valente understands that perhaps Arden does not, or does not yet, or it was a sloppy bit that got left in. I personally bridle and will always do so when books insinuate that only those who choose to die do so. Fuck everyone who believes that.

So this got under my skin, and I could almost see the book beyond the book, the way Deathless might have recognized that sometimes death happens, sometimes it is the kinder path, sometimes intentions don't matter to the story you're in. The Bear and the Nightingale still seems to think stories are all within our control. They're not.

So yeah, this is good. It's very good. But it's not as good as the best there is in this particular little genre. And that bit hurt me. It's a sensitive spot, but trust me, neither of my parents chose to die, so I'm allowed to be hurt when people have philosophies that suggest they must have, since they are dead.

Still, that bit aside...there's a lot to like here.