Dec 10 2017

Stand Still, Stay Silent: Book 1 by Minna Sundberg

Again, I’m somewhat mystified by why my husband thought this book would be my kind of thing.

I mean, it’s definitely entertaining! This first volume provides an intriguing set-up: a horrifying virus causes the Scandinavian countries to shut their borders, often violently, against all comers. Ninety years later, a ragtag team is sent out from the “safe zones” into a land filled with monsters (really horribly mutated creatures, some of which were possibly once human) in order to salvage books. Stand Still, Stay Silent is filled with quirky characters, gentle humor, terrific art and some genuine scares. That said, the full cast has yet to assemble by the end of the book, which is a weird editorial decision (tho I haven’t read the webcomic, so maybe it takes chapters and chapters more for the girl with the long braid to actually join the team: it’s just weird that she figures so prominently on the cover and in the promo art but only shows up as a silent figure in dream sequences in this volume.) Anyway, it’s an interesting post-apocalyptic story that has a lot of cool Scandinavian elements and themes.

What it doesn’t have is non-white people, and not even non-white people but non-ethnically-Scandinavian people. “But, Doreen,” I can hear some of you say. “It’s set in Scandinavia! That’s mostly white people!” Well, yeah, but it’s not a completely homogeneous region any more. There are plenty of ethnically Eastern European, Middle Eastern and African citizens there now, and have been for at least two generations. The idea that only ethnic Scandinavians survive the virus, in the future no less, is an erasure that bothers me. If it doesn’t bother you, then you’ll likely enjoy this book without reservations, but I’m uninterested in reading a post-apocalyptic fantasy world populated solely by white people, no matter how charming they are. Someone let me know if the rest of the webcomic deals with this issue, as otherwise I won’t be returning to this title: there are so many more interesting things to read out there right now that I don’t have time to spend on a book that has obliterated everything but Nordic whiteness in its characters.

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Dec 08 2017

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

What has stayed with me in the months since I read The Ballad of Black Tom? The sense of teeming New York in the 1920s, the deft characterizations of the divides among black and white, the delicious irony of seeing an H.P. Lovecraft tale told from a black point of view.

The story is eventually one of cosmic horror and personal tragedy, but there is plenty of humor along the way. “Dad played guitar and Mother could really stroll on a piano. It was only natural that Tommy Tester ended up drawn to performing, the only tragedy being that he lacked talent. He thought of himself as an entertainer. There were others who would have called him a scammer, a swindler, a con, but he never thought of himself this way. No good charlatan ever does.” One of the many ironies of this novella being that he is brought into a role because he is a good charlatan and winds up doing things that are far more real than either he or his hirers expect.

Tommy’s con is that he doesn’t play the guitar very well, but he definitely looks the part. Looking the part gets him hired to play a very special party thrown by an eccentric but wealthy elderly white man who lives far out in Queens. Riding out to that borough, Tommy increasingly stands out among the passengers, and draws extra attention from the conductors. Fellow riders pretend not to hear his exchanges with the conductor, but he can tell from their nonchalant alertness that they are in fact very interested in what he is up to. The walk from the station to his would-be benefactor’s house is another obstacle course for Tommy to navigate, and that fact says plenty about race relations then and now. “Becoming unremarkable, invisible, compliant — these were useful tricks for a black man in an all-white neighborhood.” Mm-hmm.

Tommy picks up a little money in more esoteric matters, too. “This is how you hustle the arcane. Skirt the rules but don’t break them.” The combination connects him to Robert Suydam, who lives “in a mansion hidden within a disorder of trees.” As the story progresses, there is more hiding, and more disorder, and more than almost anyone bargained for. By the end, readers have plenty to chew on about monsters and justice, cosmic presences and simple human dignity.

The Ballad of Black Tom was the first bit of Hugo reading I completed this year, and the last one I will be writing about as such. I am looking forward to finishing Too Like the Lightning and Words Are My Matter, both of which I ranked very highly on my ballot because I could see where they were going and where they stood compared to the other finalists. I was pleased, honored, and satisfied to be a Hugo voter this year, to give back a very small part of what the works recognized by the award have given to me over the years.

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Dec 07 2017

Conversations with Stalin by Milovan Djilas

Listening in on Conversations with Stalin involves stepping back into numerous vanished worlds: one in which Communists were imprisoned by kings’ secret police forces; where Communism is new and for large numbers of people a source of hope; where the inner workings of the Soviet Union are largely unknown; where Yugoslavia exists as both a country and an ideal; one in which the Second World War still rages across Europe and a delegation from Belgrade has to travel to Moscow by way of Bari in Allied-liberated southern Italy, British-ruled Cairo, and Teheran. It is also a world in which the official gifts for Stalin from the delegation of Yugoslav Communists reflected the state of the country they planned to rule:

“The Supreme Command was located at the time in Drvar, in Bosnia. The immediate surroundings consisted almost entirely of gutted villages and pillaged, desolated little towns. Nevertheless a solution was found: to take Stalin one of the rifles manufactured in the Partisan factory in Uzice in 1941. It was quite a job to find one. Then gifts began to come in from the villages — pouches, towels, peasant clothing and footwear. We selected the best among these — some sandals of untanned leather and other things that were just as poor primitive. Precisely because they were of this character, we concluded that we ought to take them as tokens of popular good will.” (p. 10)

When the delegation eventually arrives in Moscow, they find that the high levels of the Party surround themselves with plenty — plenty of vodka, plenty of meat, plenty of caviar, plenty of everything that was in such short supply in Yugoslav poverty, where the delegation’s new uniforms had had to be made from the cloth of uniforms of captured Italian officers. The contrast in living is one of the first among many such gaps between Soviet rhetoric and practice. Far from finding fellow fighters for a common future, the Yugoslavs in Moscow discover the rulers of a great power, jealous that a small country has made revolution with out its assistance, and incredulous that the smaller land should have the temerity to make demands on the larger.

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Dec 07 2017

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

In A Taste of Honey Kai Ashante Wilson tells a love story spanning decades in a fantastic world that looks much like the ancient Mediterranean. One of the lovers is a soldier from an empire that resembles Rome, the other is a young member of a noble house in a North African polity. (I don’t know Maghrebi history well enough to say if Wilson is using a particular model.) The African society is rich and cultured; the imperial visitors from across the sea represent a rough, almost barbaric society, but one that is pragmatic above all. Both are men.

In Daluz (the not-Rome) such a relationship is not unusual. In Olorum, it is distinctly frowned on, to the extent of endangering the protagonists’ lives. A Taste of Honey is thus also a story of star-crossed lovers, constrained by the people around them and forced to show their love in secret. Aqib’s high position in Olorumi society and Lucrio’s as a soldier in an embassy mean that exposure would have diplomatic consequences as well.

It’s a lovely tale, briskly told. The contrasting societies are only sketched, but it is clear that there are layers supporting this and other stories in the same world. There are various kinds of magic that are neither extravagant nor uncommon, but simply shaping the way the world works. It’s a setting that feels fully lived in, one that shapes the protagonists rather than being bent to their story’s needs. Aqib and Lucrio start as an unlikely pair, as is to be expected when the relationship starts with a soldier calling out to someone he thinks is pretty, but there is quickly more than just physical attraction at work.

The magic of this world also plays an important part in the novella’s ending. I did not expect A Taste of Honey to end the way it did, yet it makes logical sense is emotionally satisfying, causing me to reflect on all of what had gone before and see it in a different light. I liked A Taste of Honey enough that I immediately bought Wilson’s other novella set in this world, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

A Taste of Honey was the twelfth bit of Hugo reading that I completed this year, and the eleventh I have written about.

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Dec 06 2017

Premature Evaluation: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

I first came to Vasily Grossman via excerpts in Ivan’s War, Catherine Merridale‘s amazing book about how ordinary Soviet soldiers experienced the Second World War. That prompted me to pick up A Writer at War, dispatches and stories that he wrote while working as a journalist near the front. I thought it was one of the best non-fiction works I read in 2006. Some years after that, I decided to pick up one of his major works, and this year I finally plucked Life and Fate off of the to-be-read shelves. No need to hurry with a gigantic Russian novel, right?

The title, size, sweep and subject matter all invite comparisons with War and Peace, and in my view, halfway through the book, Grossman more than holds his own with Tolstoy. Grossman chose the battle of Stalingrad as the centerpoint of his novel, and he evokes the months of devastation leading up to the turn of the tide, showing what relentless combat has done to both city and soldiers. He spends considerable narrative time in a house near the legendary Tractor Factory, where the Wehrmacht wave finally broke against Soviet resistance. Grossman details the soldiers holding out in a house that is surrounded by the German army, yet never gives in. He shows how little their resistance had to do with any great ideals, let alone Soviet ones (a political commissar sent to instill Bolshevik discipline is sent back wounded in a stretcher after just one night, with Grossman strongly implying that the Soviet soldiers grazed his head with a bullet) and far more to do with stubbornness and not letting one’s immediate comrades down. He shows how both cruelty and unexpected humanity existed side by side, sometimes mere moments apart in the same person at the front.

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Dec 06 2017

The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

Y’all that was messed up.

I’m a fan of mysteries from way back and have read or watched nearly every type of depravity imaginable, and the reason why Cora Bender, innocuous middle-class housewife, slashes the throat of a stranger on a crowded beach still strikes me as fuuuuuuucked up, even as it is thoroughly convincing. I can totally see why Petra Hammesfahr is considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith: there is a savagery in their prose and their plots that is morbidly fascinating. I cannot imagine how the USA network (and Jessica Biel! Milquetoast Jessica Biel! I’ll spare you my gossipy opinion of her otherwise, but it has definitely improved after learning that she read this book and wanted to bring it to the screen as executive producer and star) managed to bring this story to life for the consumption of American audiences. From the trailers, you can tell that Cora’s husband treats her a hell of a lot better than he does in the book, and I’m kinda… not cool with that. This book is shocking and perfect as it is, and dumbing it down, making it prettier for Americans, just makes me think less of our general viewing public.

Tho, perhaps, it isn’t just our viewing public I have a dim view of now given how, according to Ms Hammesfahr, the German justice system is shockingly more humane than our own. According to the chief investigator:

“The law obliged him not only to investigate Cora Bender but also to gather any evidence that might exonerate her.”

I cannot imagine that happening in America, and that is a tragedy, that this sort of zeal for truth (and its inevitably accompanying belief in compassion) isn’t institutionalized into our justice system. The Sinner was an eye-opener both for this and for how much human depravity I still hadn’t been exposed to. It isn’t the best-written book in the world — there’s a lot of unnecessarily opaque prose about two-thirds of the way through — but it’s a compelling murder mystery that I just could not put down.

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Dec 04 2017

Morning Star (Red Rising #3) by Pierce Brown

This book was so great that I spent long stretches of it messaging a friend who’d also just finished it my reaction gifs (I haven’t yet figured out how to include same in these reviews, so lucky you.) I had so many feelings about how emotionally vulnerable and grand and brave this book is, how it looks at revolution and rule and war and combat and politics and love with clear eyes and a generous heart, and I loved it all. Well, except the ending.

I don’t even know if it’s because of the book itself or my instinctive reaction to recoil when a series franchise brings in a child, though thankfully this one was too young to spout improbably precocious quips or, as in the Whedonverse, to be bratty accessories that the main character needs to protect, forcing us to care about said Bratty Accessory by the transitive property of caring for our MC. Which always resulted in me disliking the MC and even moreso the creator who’d shoehorned in the Bratty Accessory in the first place. Pierce Brown fortunately avoids that latter fate, but I still felt, I dunno, uncomfortable at how baby-mad Darrow wound up being? And this coming from someone who’s pretty baby-mad herself. If I could, I’d insert a gif from the recent Wonder Woman movie where Diana gets sidetracked, squealing “Baby!” at a particularly winsome infant she’s walking by. It me, y’all.

As to Darrow + babies, it felt less like he was interested in the baby as a person as in the baby as part of a package. He’s got this idea of a Happily Ever After with a wife and kids but doesn’t actually have to do any of the work involved and I’m all, um, I get that after successfully leading a planet-spanning revolution, the minutiae of being an involved family man is small in comparison but it’s still a lot of hard work and not just a reward. Maybe it’s different for the rich who get to foist their kids and other household duties off on staff — and it’s definitely different for dudes from Darrow’s background who apparently left most of the child-rearing to their wives — but it felt like a really flawed ending to an otherwise terrific book. And in Mr Brown’s defense, he doesn’t have kids himself, so his romantic view of the situation is understandable but not, for this harried middle-class mom of three at least, sympathetic .

Anyway, that’s all probably incredibly petty given how excellent the rest of the book is. Darrow does some truly terrible things in the course of the book, particularly in his dealings with the Moon Lords of Jupiter, but I really loved how Mr Brown refused to either absolve him of his guilt or demonize him over them. This book is so perfect on so many levels that the ending felt more like a letdown than it likely really is, and I’m sure other people will swoon over it altogether. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Iron Gold after it comes out next month and am rather hoping that it addresses my issues with Morning Star and knocks some of that silliness out of Darrow’s head.

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Nov 29 2017

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

In a long-running series there is often a problem with escalation. Characters that started in a low station move up in the world. They face new challenges as they rise; the stakes are implicitly higher for the fictional world, as their actions can now affect more people. At some point, though, the character rises as high as the author is willing to allow, and character development has to come about in another fashion. Pratchett has already faced this set of questions with Granny Weatherwax. She has grown in power from Equal Rites to Carpe Jugulum, and challenges to her are now no longer likely to come from the outside. The Sam Vimes of Guards! Guards! — drunkard captain of the disreputable Night Watch — has become the Duke of Ankh, Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Night Watch, an organization that has become a model of effective policing, so effective that coppers from Ankh-Morpork are in demand across the Disc and are commonly known as Sammies.

As Night Watch opens, Vimes is caught up in management of the growing Watch, in negotiations with the city’s leadership about budgets and powers, and in general wishing for simpler days when he was out walking the streets and either chasing criminals or being chased by them. Vimes has never been one for politics, and has always relished what he sees as straightforward police work, so this development is not necessarily new. On the other hand, it’s also easy to see an author looking back fondly on simpler situations and more straightforward action. In a setting teeming with magic, it’s not difficult for the character’s yearnings to be fulfilled, if not quite in the way he expects.

A sorcerous conflagration blasts Vimes thirty years backwards in time. A ruthless killer goes back with him. Both survive an initial attempt at arrest and murder, and make their separate ways into the city. Vimes joins the Watch, taking the identity of a new Watchman who was killed in the tussle that accompanied Vimes’ time travel. Carcer, the killer, joins the Unmentionables, the secret political police that operated in Ankh-Morpork at that time, seizing the apparent power of law to support his own vendettas.

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Nov 27 2017

Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor

Definitely enjoyed this better than Akata Witch, especially since the magic is explained a step better than in AWitch. I really wish Nnedi Okorafor wasn’t so laser-focused on having the third-person narrative stay strictly from Sunny’s point of view, though. I felt like Akata Warrior missed out on so many cool dramatic scenes, particularly in Osisi, because of Ms Okorafor’s commitment to this. It’s kinda dull to have Sunny just being told what happened after the fact instead of shifting our readers’ perspective to one of the other members of her, oh shoot, I’ve forgotten the name they have for it. Let’s go with “coven”, because I’m too lazy to look it up. I’m definitely interested enough to see the trilogy through, but I’m not sure I get why Ms Okorafor is so highly rated as a writer. The ideas are terrific, but the writing itself rarely rises above the average, and that’s being generous when accounting for the pacing issues. The series still feels under-written, and I’m starting to believe that the enthusiasm for world-building doesn’t make up for the lack of description, whether it be of feeling or action.

But hey, the Nwazue family are Gooners, so that papers over a whole lot of faults for me.

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Nov 26 2017

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Ganymede, the third of Cherie Priest’s five Clockwork Century novels, follows the efforts of some free people of color to tip the scales of the American Civil War, ongoing for more than 20 years at the time of the book’s events, in favor of the Union by bringing it an experimental Confederate submarine that sank in Lake Ponchartrain. Of course there are obstacles: the Ganymede itself is at the bottom of the lake; when it was operational, it had a tendency (like real Civil War submarine prototypes) to kill its own crew as readily as any enemy forces; New Orleans is a Confederate city, although the Republic of Texas takes care of most of the occupation; the Union’s new aircraft carrier (zeppelins, this is alt-history among other things) is stationed off the Louisiana coast and willing to receive the Ganymede but can’t hang about forever; nobody really knows how to pilot a submarine. Not to mention the zombies.

Josephine Early, brothel owner and a leader of the enterprise to raise the Ganymede and bring it to the Union, believes she has a solution to the pilot problem: Andan Cly is an airship captain and an old flame of hers. She believes that a submarine is more like an airship than anything else. Captain Cly might have just the right combination of derring-do, foolhardiness and lingering regard for her to take on the job that numerous others have turned down. Cly is presently based in Seattle, a settlement with its own considerable zombie problem, as detailed in the first two Clockwork Century novels, Boneshaker and Dreadnought.

In the world that Priest has set up, an experiment gone wrong in Seattle unleashed a mysterious gas, Blight, that turns humans into zombies and has unpredictable effects on other wildlife. To contain the Blight, the people who survived the initial onslaught built an enormous wall around the center of town. Distilled essence of the Blight yields a powerful intoxicant and stimulant, generally known by the street name of “sap.” Sap, in turn, is much in demand among soldiers in the war, casualties, and others willing to play around with their consciousness regardless of the price. Captain Cly has previously run sap to the east and supplies back to Seattle, but he has become uneasy with the bargain and is trying to go more or less straight.

Early’s telegram, vaguely seeking help, catches him at an opportune moment. He is willing to come to New Orleans with his ship and crew, and find out what Early wants from him.

Of course things do not run like clockwork. An unfortunate encounter between an important Texian officer and a delegation from the local zombie population leads to lots more military attention from the Republic than the would-be sub smugglers prefer. Early’s brother is seriously wounded in a firefight that was bad enough before the Texians sent in reinforcements. (One of the field doctors in this novel is Leonidas Polk. In Ganymede, he’s a washed-up Union man, and a drunk. In our timeline, Polk was an Episcopal bishop, a Confederate general, and a principal founder of my undergraduate alma mater. Encountering this version of him is deeply weird.)

Soon, Early and her allies along with Cly and his crew are racing time and Texas to try to bring the Ganymede from the lake to the Mississippi River, and thence to the sea. It’s an adventure almost without pause, told with style and verve. One of the best aspects of the novel is that Early and Cly split because neither could yield to the other, at least not enough to make a life together. Working together in a fraught and secret, neither of them finds it any easier than before to let the other take the lead. As Priest handles their conflicting tendencies, both characters remain true to themselves and work their way toward resolution, or at least accommodation. This relationship could easily have fallen into cliché, but in my view did not.

The rest is good, solid adventure writing. Readers learn a bit more about how the world of the Clockwork Century works; Priest lets on about how there are coming to be zombies in places other than Seattle; Marie Laveau has a couple of guest appearances and teaches Early a little bit of zombie lore. There are spies, there may be betrayals, there are certainly fireworks. Ganymede promises a taut tale in a strange nearby world, and delivers.

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