Books in Review, September 2016

It’s all sequels or things that will eventually have sequels this month. The genres I tend to read – fantasy/scifi/specfic (the boundaries are increasingly blurry), mysteries – seem to have a higher proportion of series than literary fiction does.

On a related side note, I really do not like the term “genre fiction,” which means basically anything other than literary fiction. It’s generally applied as a derogatory, implying that anything that has an easily identifiable genre other than literary fiction is somehow lesser, hacky, gimmicky, or not deserving of serious attention. Basically, that “fun” stories about wizards and space ships, as detractors generalize such works, are too fun to be meritorious. This, clearly, is elitist crap, as anyone who has bothered read the many, many good works in these genres will find (though Sturgeon’s Law applies to these genres as much as anyone else!). Not that there’s anything wrong with literary fiction – but other genres are not somehow their inferior imitators, and in fact have inherent, unique value of their own. (Me, a “genre lit” fan, @ lit fiction purists: why can’t our genres be friends, why can’t weeeeee be frieeeeeends?)

Someday I’m going to write the neuroscience equivalent of Contact and it’s going to be awesome genre fiction. Awesome, I tell you!

(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)

The Aeronaut’s Windlass, Jim Butcher

If I wasn’t remembering that every minute poured into meticulous world building and series establishment in this monster tome could have been put into getting Dresden 16 sooner, I would probably have been much more enthused about this book. If I didn’t also know that Butcher was capable of far subtler and more compelling characters and character development, I probably would have gotten much more attached to this gang. That said, Bridget and Benedict in particular are delightful and I cannot possibly help but love a talking cat that perfectly captures the imperial surety of feline-dom. (I have to wonder whether the inspiration for this set of characters was a household feline, because the combination of regal disinterest and cuddles was too real. Possibly the most accurate talking cat I have read, certainly the most accurate in a long time.)

But really I was left with more questions than answers and a detailed, lovingly painted world that just didn’t make any darn sense. Ok, so people live in these spires, which are basically Space Needles on steroids, and are terrified of vague surface creatures. But – how did the spires get built? How are literally any of their resources sustainable? They don’t seem to get much sunlight inside the structures. The only resource definitely from the surface shown is wood, which is a luxury good. (Plus, of course, the inevitable surface invaders.) So does everything run on magic? But then, only a very small number of people, it’s stated, can use the ambient magic. Who maintains the whole thing? (Not just getting rid of surface and other vermin – that’s delightfully addressed. You never see the pest control people play a central role in the plot!) And who governs it, since the nominal ruler is explicitly powerless? And finally, why do the Aurorans have a giant stick up their asses? I can only hope that I’ll get answers in later installations. It’s fine – expected, normal, engaging – for the first book in a series to not answer all the worldbuilding questions. I’d be concerned if it did, since why have more books then? But when I’m left with so many details unanswered that I’m left wondering why certain plot points work the way they do, or surprise powers pop up that maybe I should have known about instead of them seeming like deus ex machinae, then I start to lose the thread. Especially when I’m dealing with an author I KNOW has a superb ability to craft a detailed world that makes sense, where new elements don’t feel like gotchas or devices, and I can fit character to ability to action to setting coherently, this was… just ok. I’d still recommend it, as I found myself sucked in despite all my complaints, and definitely enjoyed myself.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy, maybe scifi on account of the density of steampunk. Story genre: mystery, specfic, quest. Format: novel. Rating: if this had been any other author, I’d probably be saying 3/3 looking forward to the rest of the series, but a) where is Dresden 16?? and b) this could have been so much more

Stiletto, Daniel O’Malley

I already sang the praises of The Rook last month, and I will continue to do so here with its follow-up. Unfortunately, I can’t actually tell you ANYTHING about the plot of Stiletto, because it blows literally 100% of the plot of its predecessor – character loyalties, the identity and motivations of the primary antagonists, the source of the central mystery of Myfanwy’s amnesia, EVERYTHING. But what I will say intrigued me about Stiletto was that common literary strategy of switching perspectives – here, between two new characters, both of whom interact with Myfanwy herself and who observed, but were not involved in, the events of The Rook. Perspective switching is an exceedingly common strategy – famously applied in A Song of Ice and Fire to handle its spatially separated plot lines – but what caught my attention in this use was that both of our new perspective characters observed but were not at all involved in the earlier events, while our old perspective character is still highly involved but we lose our window into her thoughts.

I am so curious what happens next and we don’t even know yet whether we get a third book. Pretty please?

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: adventure, thriller, mystery, specfic. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3 and I so hope there are more soon pleeeeeease

A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Diana Gabaldon

If you’re not already riding the Outlander Express, there’s little point in me trying to say anything about book 6 that isn’t a giant spoiler, and if you are, then you already know what’s up. So I want to address a relatively background plot point that started 3 books ago and has finally paid off. Spoilers follow!! Several books ago an old newspaper clipping emerged (in the 1960s) that reported Claire and Jamie had died in a fire (in 1776). Brianna brought it back in time with her and it started being treated as a prophecy of sorts, though everyone treated the fire as more-or-less unavoidable and the deaths as definitely avoidable and misreported by the news. Obviously, as the books continue to be released, and Jamie and Claire are still in them, they aren’t dead. But the fact remained that the newspaper reported a fire, and this was understandably cause for concern – especially on the reported day! Jamie and Claire, knowing of this prophecy of sorts, tried to play it cool while also keeping everyone safe. To everyone’s surprise and alarm, the cabin did not in fact burn that day. And then, just when we’d written it off as an altered timeline – it did burn down almost a year later! It was all wrong because of crap journalism. The newspapermen received notice of the cabin burning down much after the fact and wrote it up with erroneously attributed deaths (as predicted) and with entirely the wrong date (December instead of January!). As far as I can recall, I have never encountered a newspaper “prophecy” in a time travel plot that failed to come to pass because of hilariously lazy journalism leading to an incorrect story. So that’s a new one!

Traditional: literary fiction, romance, or fantasy, depending who you ask. Setting: historical fiction, with a bit of fantasy still lurking in the background. Story genre: ensemble cast, relationship. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3 but only if you’ve been along for the ride for the last 5000 pages

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies; Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide; and Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics, and Pesky Poltergeists, JK Rowling

2020 update: Trans rights are human rights. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and nonbinary/genderqueer people are the gender or lack thereof that they say they are. JK Rowling needs to reexamine her assumptions, biases, and sources.

What magic hath 2016 wrought that bringeth not one, but two, caches of new Harry Potter material? It’s brought my early teen years rushing back AND HOW. I’ve vacillated between nostalgic delight (grown-up Hermione continues to be the role model I needed as a kid) and the slightly appalled sense that comes with a story overstaying its proper ending, and I’ve been downright unsatisfied with Rowling’s under-researched depictions of American culture and history (most notably, the fact that any American school of the age she describes would definitely have been segregated for some amount of its history). Anyway, I’m going to tackle these three booklets at once – at ~70 pages each they barely add up to one whole book together, and that’s even before the fact that only a fraction of the material is new. Much of it already appeared on Pottermore – which is great, and these books will probably reach a wider audience than the fan-unfavorite site ever did – but it would have been nice to have some new material. This is an unsatisfying replacement for the Potterworld encyclopedia we’ve dreamed of for years, and especially fails to satisfy the continued glaring omission of any mechanism of how magic works. (How are spells developed? What is the nature of magic and magical objects? What are conjured objects made of???) But if little dribbles of information are all we’re going to get, and if it means I still can experience even a fraction of the delight I experienced as a kid still young enough to ignore these quibbles (see what I did there), then I guess I’ll take it.

Traditional genre: fantasy or children’s. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, in-universe nonfiction. Format: short stories. Rating: 2/3 but really only on the basis of nostalgia

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