Books, December 2019

Finally, the solstice has passed and the days of reading outside are no longer getting further away!

Book of the month: The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday, Saad Z. Hossain *

The Lord of Tuesday is a djinn who has just awoken from a thousand year cursed sleep to find most other djinn have died out. The Ghurka, the first person he encounters, is a hermit in an environmental apocalypse where living among other humans is crucial for protective technology to work. They immediately see a partnership, head to nearby Kathmandu, and Tuesday starts a bar fight because he’s bored and it would be fun. (He’s right.) And that all happens even before we get to the (almost-)all-powerful artificial intelligence Karma that runs the city, rating all actions and assigning them a point value, keeping the city running like a very literal machine. Ghurka scratched much of the same itch as The Good Place for me, in the moral questions it interrogates and the barrage of surprises that make so much sense once they’ve happened. Both deserve equally to be experienced unspoiled, because the unfolding of the plot is so central to its delightfulness.

Incidentally, I’m always delighted to find a work that is both fantasy AND science fiction, working from the distinction that fantasy has chosen ones and supernatural forces, and science fiction doesn’t. (Yes, Star Wars is fantasy, and I will die on this hill.) The djinns (definitely fantasy) exist in the same reality as artificial intelligence and a human-caused environmental apocalypse (definitely science fiction). And it’s not just window dressing – Hossain plays the fantasy and science fiction elements and expectations off each other quite deliberately and creatively, and not just in a past vs. future breakdown.

This will be one of the books I throw at everyone I talk to in 2020, because of its intense relevance and its genuine novelty, and also as a consolation for everyone as forking heartbroken as I will be over the end of The Good Place.

Story genre: specfic, high concept, commentary, mystery. Story setting: science fiction AND fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

The Sixth World series: Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse *

If you are suffering from The Dresden Files hiatus, have I got the thing for you. Roanhorse’s debut and second novel are kicking off what looks to be becoming an epic similar in scope and stakes. Maggie is a monster hunter with supernatural monster hunting powers (berserker super strength, speed, intuitive fighting, etc.) given her by the Navajo gods, who have come back to the world in the wake of climate change-related flooding that devastates much of the continent. She’s backed up by Kai, whose super healing and charm/persuasion are considerably more flexible in their application than hers, but who isn’t the narrator so he’s the backup despite being substantially more powerful. (I strongly suspect that Maggie has some additional powers she hasn’t learned to use yet, but right now we’re in a serious linear fighters, quadratic wizards situation with their skills.) Lightning takes pains to set up the larger war that will encompass the series, introducing lore alongside the monster of the week, but it’s not just a pilot setting up later payoff – it’s a satisfying episode in its own right. I appreciate that Roanhorse doesn’t leave us wondering too long on Maggie’s traumatic backstory – the powers she, Kai, and some supporting characters literally require life-threatening trauma to become active – and she doesn’t gloss over the violence, racism, deprivation, and isolation Maggie and the Navajo nation face.

Locusts, interestingly, read to me like a third book in the series. SPOILERS FOR LIGHTNING. As of the end of Lightning, Kai is barely established as Maggie’s love interest and as a main character when he’s promptly kidnapped (well, that’s what Maggie thinks) and is completely absent for the first 2/3ish of the plot. He had already been quickly established as a cinnamon roll at this point, and as a reader I was certainly invested in his rescue and subsequent return to main character status, but to knock the most important non-narrator character out of the plot for so long so early in the series was an odd choice, especially because his absence and return hinges on understanding this behavior is out of character for him. Maybe in another three or four books down the road I’ll look back at his absence as important establishing time for the other, less charismatic supporting players (and that’s no knock on them – his magic is literally superhuman charisma), but for now I wish we’d had more time with him before this story.

Only the first two books out so far: I will be waiting at the bookstore door for #3.

Story genre: character study, relationship. Setting genre: fantasy. Format: novels. Reason I read: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman

I never regret it when I carve out time to reread a childhood favorite (which is almost always before it’s made into a tv show/movie). With my to-read stack as towering as it is, it’s hard to justify to myself, even though I know this. But it is especially valuable to return and return again to His Dark Materials, which is literally about growing up. I read the trilogy in around fourth grade when the Amber Spyglass had just come out, again around late high school, and this is my first time returning to it as an adult. I have been very fortunate that I happened to pick three great ages to return to Pullman’s absolute masterpiece – a little younger than Lyra and Will the first time, young enough to look up to them but old enough they were my peers. A little older than them the second time, young enough that their revelations about growing up, and the loss that comes with growing knowledge, were fully realized for me but still fresh. And now I am fully among the adults, and I particularly connected with Mary Malone. She is a young scientist, with a vested interest in another field as well (for her religion, for me theater), who grapples with building her career in a turbulent time. Who and what will speak to me in another ten years? I am absolutely certain that I will find new wisdom then.

Story genre: high concept, quest, allegory, relationship. Setting genre: fantasy. Format: novels. Reason I (re)read: before I watch the show. Rating: 3/3

Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, Kevin Wilson

A welcome recovery from November‘s swing-and-a-miss at book club (can’t love em all). Each of these short stories starts with a premise (the stories are all fundamentally about families and relationships) almost sitcom-like in its absurdity, and then turns it over to find the pathos in it. I don’t think I can pick a favorite story of the set, but my favorite premise is the sole magical realism entry, in which the protagonist finds a mysterious straight razor that promises to send its bearer back to the beginning of the day that day… if he slits his throat. A great many time travel stories are about regret, but this was an especially effective contrast between varying levels of regret, between tiny misfires to life-shattering incidents, and a single, blunt instrument for coping (or rather, not coping and re-playing instead) with it. A special note from my theater nerd heart on the last story of the collection, which SPOILER calls strongly on the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but with ambiguity, rather than horrible clarity, at the end. Some of the stories spoke to me far more than others, mainly by how interesting I found the protagonists (I just don’t find fecklessness to be as interesting as a character flaw as a lot of authors apparently do), but across the board I could be invested in them at least for a few pages. Coincidentally, Wilson just released a new novel about kids who catch on fire when upset, and while I was (obviously) intrigued before, I’m even more so now that I’ve enjoyed his lovely writing.

Story genre: character study, relationship. Story setting: mostly realism, except one magical realism. Format: short stories. Reason I read: book club. Rating: 2/3

Sex Criminals, Vol 1-2, Matt Fraction (words) and Chip Zdarsky (art) *

Our two heroes each independently discover they have the power to stop time for a few minutes when they have sex. When they meet, they find another with that power for the first time. And naturally, quickly are drawn into robbing a bank while time is stopped. (At least in Vol 1-2, there is no sex crime, just robbing the bank crime.) There’s a bigger mythology unfolding of… organized sex crime? It’s fun, it’s wacky, and like all good comedy, it knows when to stop being funny. It is definitely a graphic novel, though, so one to be polite about where you read it (well, it’s compiled comics issues, but let me have this joke).

Story genre: high concept, commentary, specfic, thriller, allegory. Setting: fantasy. Format: comics. Reason I read: recommendation. Rating: 2/3

A Cup of Holiday Fear and Beyond a Reasonable Stout, Ellie Alexander

It’s cold. It’s rainy. It’s generally winter crappy out there, and yet, despite proof to the contrary outside my window, Alexander makes winter cozy anyway in these two wintery installments in her respective bakery and beer series. Stout is only #3 in its series so you can catch up over the course of just one good storm. Fear, however, is #10, so you have plenty to keep looking forward to as you catch up.

Story genre: mystery. Story setting: realism. Reason I read: to continue feeling cozy. Rating: 3/3

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Science fiction (well, good scifi) has always been about how technology changes the way we live, and Chambers is a master at developing and interrogating her vision of the technological future. In Long Way, it was (among other topics) the way space travel and multispecies society causes shifts in families and relationships. In Orbit, it was (in part) about the identity and rights of beings deemed “lesser” – artificial intelligence, slaves, and clones. In Spaceborn, she weaves together separated stories of humans struggling with lack of opportunity on their now-parked colony ships, becoming anthropological curiosities with no real economic prospects, a range of mental health side effects, and ultimately, our practical and emotional coping mechanisms for death. It’s tempting to become permanently pessimistic these days, but Chambers doesn’t just warn about the bad future, she hopes for the best future too. I’m glad to be reminded of the genuine good we’re capable of.

Story genre: specfic, commentary, character studies. Story setting: science fiction. Reason I read: series continuation. Rating: 3/3

* better for readers 13 and up

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  1. Pingback: A year in books, 2019 – Dr. Kaitlyn Casimo

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