Books, October 2020

How odd, I am actually done at the beginning of the month! Return in a month to find out why.

Book of the month: The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal

I previously crowned the prior two Lady Astronaut books as my 2018 series of the year, and I am delighted that Relentless only makes the case stronger. We shift focus from Elma, the narrator of the first two books and presently on a spaceship to Mars, to Nicole, one of her fellow women astronauts and the wife of the governor of Kansas (now the home of the US capitol, post-meteor). Nicole is a regular on the moon base and a pilot, and thanks to her political ties, is now involved in investigating sabotage on the moon thought to be the work of an anti-space terrorist group. I rarely read books I’d describe as thrillers, but that’s exactly what this was: a race against the clock and the sabotage, with only a few people she could trust and a shrinking list of resources to call on. I was on a knife’s edge the whole time, and staying up way too late totally engrossed, wondering what would go wrong next, who might not survive (space is serious business!), and whether they would catch the saboteur(s?), which was far from a given. There are more books to come in the series, and the guilty party could easily have gotten away. In fact, the organization the traitor was part of is still at large, so the threat is not gone! Kowal’s alternate history-driven insights into extremism, racism and sexism, and climate change – all extremely topical – continue to be perfectly sharp and exactly relevant to both the story and the current moment. There’s a reason she’s one of only a few writers that I’ve read every single book from.

Interestingly, Relentless takes place at the same time as the second book, Fated Sky, and Nicole discovers the reason behind some incidents left unexplained from Elma’s perspective. I can’t recall another instance (I’m sure it’s happened though) where a series covers the same span of time in two separate novels to show two different locations and perspectives – it’s common in separate chapters in the same novel, or even a tie-in story or novella, but not an entire novel. Please tell me other examples you can think of.

Traditional genre: science fiction. Setting: science fiction and alternate history. Story genre: thriller, specfic, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: continuing series. Rating: 3/3

Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

This was the first book in well over a year that everyone in my book club liked (yes, I am frequently the holdout). A major point of agreement was the effectiveness of Colson’s spare writing in conveying the despair, ever-present threat of violence, and depravity of the Nickel Academy, a boy’s reform school in Florida. Many books that want to convey brutality lean on gore and shock value, which can end up masking the more abstract horror of an unjust system because the violence draws the attention. The stark writing lays bare the forces that enabled violent and abusive people to become and remain teachers, the effects of their abuse, and the stories on the boys who got sucked into the system. I saw a lot of parallels between this and recently-reread Holes, specifically in the punitive juvenile “reform schools” and Elwood and Turner’s and Stanley and Zero’s friendships. But while Holes touches on similar themes of injustice directed towards children and the powerlessness of children at reform school-like institutions, Holes is for children, so Stanley and the boys get justice in the end. The Nickel Boys do not. All they can do is find a way to carry on.

While much of the widespread learning energy surrounding racial justice has been directed towards nonfiction reading, fiction plays an equally important role in sharing narratives and personal journeys that help us interpret those facts. In fact, Nickel Academy is based on the real Dozier School in Florida, which closed in 2011, at which the abuses depicted in the book really happened.

Traditional genre: historical fiction or literary fiction. Setting: historical. Story genre: commentary, relationship. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 3/3

Mouse Guard, Winter 1152; The Black Axe; and Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales, David Petersen

Continuing with these delightful mouse tales, not two volumes (as I had thought) but three! (And actually a few more short stories still to read.) The Mouse Guard themselves are an elite corps of mice with tiny lil swords who protect the fortified mouse towns and the dangerous roads between them. In the first volume, Fall 1152, the mice uncovered and defeated a traitor attempting a coup, but their victory came at the cost of mouse lives and vital supplies as they head into winter. Winter 1152 picks up right where fall left off with our mice dispatched to other settlements to bring back desperately needed medicine and more, but the return journey is not so smooth. (Yes, I cried over a mouse. No, it’s not just covid stress, it was really sad.) The setting this time around includes a whole lot more architecture, which made for some stunning background art with the cute and ferocious mousies that I would absolutely hang on a wall. Because the mice are, well, prey, teamwork is a recurring theme through the stories, and one I rarely see illustrated – literally or figuratively – so clearly. Winter splintered the desperate mice into small groups or sole wanderers and pushed them past their limits. They are only victorious when they work together and use their smarts. (Not that they weren’t trying, just that they were out of options!)

Winter also explains the Black Axe, a mythical weapon and superpowered wielder Celanwe (love the Welsh-inspired names) who quietly protects mousekind from threats. I thought that Black Axe was going to follow its wielder beyond the end of Winter, but it’s actually a prequel explaining how Celanwe got the axe in the first place, and gives a really enticing taste of the broader mouse world. (There’s stoats, who are predators but willing to work with prey when it suits them, and foxes, who for once are not portrayed as cunning. I cried over both foxes and mice this time around.)

Winter and Black Axe are both serious adventure stories with beautifully illustrated but graphic violence and terribly sad deaths. Baldwin, however, illustrates in-universe children’s stories, and is simply adorable. It was a good relief after the heaviness of the prior two. It also included infant and child mice, who are just THE CUTEST miniature versions of adult mice, which is not at all what actual baby mice look like. I appreciate the artistic license.

Traditional genre: graphic, or fantasy. Setting: tiny mousy fantasy. Story genre: quest, ensemble. Reason I read them: continuing series. Rating: 3/3

Well Played, Jen DeLuca

I kind of rushed through reviewing DeLuca’s Well Met due to it coming up in a bumper crop month, and did not properly communicate just how adorable, wholesome, and surprisingly deep it was. I am delighted that she has now gone two for two (Met was her debut). The series is centered on the cast of a renaissance fair in suburban Maryland, many of whom were also classmates at the local high school about ten years previously. Two books in, plus the bit of preview for the third, I can now say with confidence that the recurring theme of the series is officially breaking out of a rut. (Ironic in 2020, where being stuck in a rut is now mandatory. Stay home and wear a mask, everyone.) Stacey’s career path was thrown off following a family medical emergency, and she’s felt stuck ever since. When her annual ren faire meaningless fling partner in a traveling band starts up a text conversation during the year between gigs in their town, revealing hidden depths, she thinks she’s finally broken out of being stuck and this relationship might actually go somewhere. SPOILER, it turns out to be his quieter, sweeter, much smarter cousin, the manager of the band. I never thought a writer could get me to cheer for a person who was catfishing for a whole year, but she brought such empathy to his character (who was also stuck in a rut of a very different kind) that he eventually won my, and also Stacey’s, forgiveness. Also I would love to hear also from a ren faire person how accurate it is – to my theater person eye, it seems pretty good.

Traditional genre: romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: commentary, relationship. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 3/3

Peace Talks and Battle Ground, Jim Butcher

I was so excited for the end of the six year Dresden Files drought that I was prepared to forgive the publisher for splitting what was clearly originally one very long book into two average length books, but I am withholding my forgiveness of the content until further notice. Nothing but spoilers here follow for these two books and all fifteen leading up to them.

Peace Talks was actually interesting for its focus on, well, peace talks. The politics of the magical world have always taken more of a backseat to Harry’s personal crisis of the moment, and as he’s a first-person narrator, our attention and understanding is mostly directed elsewhere. This time, he’s having to play two sides in the talks as a wizard of the White Council and the knight of the fae Winter Court, plus there’s rumor that a faction of wizards is trying to expel him from the council, which will leave him with less protection from the many enemies he’s made. As he will admit himself, he tends to punch up and then get himself tangled in forces beyond his knowledge, and has done so in top form here. Then, of course, once he does bother to get a good handle on the political forces at play, it’s entirely so he can plan a heist to steal his own, imprisoned for a bizarre crime with unclear motives. Reintroducing the enormous cast of other magical nations and parking them in one place seemed like a terrible idea, but only at the end do we realize it’s actually a lethally terrible idea, when an ancient Titan comes out of basically nowhere to threaten the whole of humanity with the superweapon she’s dug up. It’s sudden, but coming out of nowhere was also good strategy for her, so I’ll allow it.

Where I had more of a problem was in Battle Ground, which true to its word, is one long action sequence fighting openly across the streets of Chicago. The problem here was not the extended battle – which was technically quite a feat of writing and the fighting was well choreographed as always, though it felt somewhat rushed. However, it never paused long enough for Harry to reflect on his generous but stupid liberation of Thomas, his threatened expulsion from the wizard’s council, and most importantly Murph’s senseless death. She’d been a main character since day one and was the only remaining non-magical main character (everyone else is either dead or got powers). She was upgraded from love interest to actual partner at the end of book 15 only to be sidelined due to serious injuries sustained in book 15 for most of book 16, and then return with a grenade launcher and a motorcycle just long enough to be killed by an idiot with a gun. Now, this is a fantasy novel, so there is a distinct possibility that while she’s dead she’s not out of the story. I’m also hoping that Harry takes the time to process her death properly in the next book when he’s no longer fighting for his life. But I’m afraid Butcher just wrote himself into a linear fighters, quadratic wizards corner, didn’t know what to do with her anymore, and used the extended battle to give her a badass if rushed sendoff, and that’s a bummer of a reason to lose one of my favorite characters. On the plus side though, I am always delighted to see more Carlos and (literal sasquatch) River Shoulders, two criminally underused characters who have mostly had their moment to shine in short stories until now. I hope we’ll see more of them from now on.

Traditional genre (both): fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre (Peace): thriller, specfic, quest. Format: novels. Reason I read it: series continuation, FINALLY. Rating: 3/3 and 2/3.

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