Tantalizing Tales — July 2024 — Part One

I honestly can’t believe that it’s the second Friday of July already! I feel like the start of this year absolutely dragged, but no time at all has passed since March. What’s up with that?

As usual, I’m behind with my work reading and am frantically going through what Hugo nominees I can before the voting deadline on Friday the 19th. I also had the misfortune of being afflicted with a migraine partway through the half day I took off yesterday to take my kids out for general enrichment. Luckily, it was Free Slurpee Day — as my kids would not stop reminding me — and the brain freeze from the frozen beverage (as well as the Excedrin Migraine the sympathetic store clerk sold me) really helped me get through the pain so that I could get the kids through their list of promised activities: sushi, a matinee screening of Inside Out 2, then trips to 7-11, the park and the library, phew! But it did put a significant crimp in my productivity otherwise, which always makes me feel like I’m floundering. Did I 100% identify and cry with Anxiety during yesterday’s movie? You absolutely betcha.

But at least I have this column to help round up the terrific titles that have just come out that I don’t yet have the time to read! First up, we have Lo Patrick’s The Night The River Wept. After months of mourning her miscarriage, puttering around and becoming increasingly irked by her husband (relatable, tbh,) Arlene seizes the change of pace that comes with accepting a job at her local police precinct. When she takes to poking around old case files, she unearths the cold case known as the Deck River Tragedy. Three children were murdered, with the prime suspect committing suicide days later. Arlene recruits the suspect’s prickly, investigative-minded aunt and the station’s straight-laced, tight-lipped receptionist to help her as she reopens the case. This one came to me highly recommended, and I’m super eager to find time to dive in.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/12/tantalizing-tales-july-2024-part-one/

Rose/House by Arkady Martine

Once upon a time, I used to give authors 900 pages before I decided whether I was done with them, probably forever. That, ofc, was before I became a professional book critic and found myself inundated with more books than I have time for. In the before times, I might have extended that courtesy towards Arkady Martine. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and cultural themes of her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, but my God the writing. As memories (heh) of her fictional empire fade, I’m mostly left with the feeling of how deeply irritating her writing style was, with its overuse of italics and em dashes. And that’s even before thinking about the incredibly pedestrian mystery element of that novel.

So when I saw that she had a sci-fi noir nominated in the category of Best Novella for the 2024 Hugos, I girded my loins before diving in. I had no doubt that her strengths would remain strengths, but I worried that, without the rigor of an editor working over a debut, her faults would only grow harder to ignore.

Fortunately for me, the writing wasn’t even that bad here. There were a lot fewer italics than in AMCE, for a start, and while there were several pretentious paragraph breakages, it was nothing I couldn’t overcome with a grimace and an eye roll. The sci-fi wasn’t bad either, even if I did feel that this novella felt like an excuse for a recent monomania for architecture. And I get it, I love good construction, too. I enjoyed reading a lot of the philosophy of building design included in this novella, and even tho I absolutely think that the bedroom over a chasm is a wildly impractical construct that appeals only to certain types of people — and not necessarily the ones who share the protagonist’s point of view on it — I mostly agreed with Dr Selene Gisil on the utility of her chosen field.

But I also felt like the book fails from the very first conceit of having Selene tied to Rose House to begin with. Here’s the deal: years ago, Selene denounced her famous mentor, architect Basit Deniau, and moved half the world away from him to open her own practice. Basit was renowned for designing and constructing buildings infused with Artificial Intelligence, the most famous of which is Rose House, out in the Mojave Desert. When he died, he willed the house and its contents, which include pretty much his entire repository of knowledge, to Selene. She views the bequest as an anvil, as a twisted way to keep her entangled with him even in death.

So, why, I wondered, did she just not give the place up?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/11/rose-house-by-arkady-martine/

Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons Vol 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Jimenez, Gene Ha & Nicola Scott

OKAY, I am still inordinately pissed at the absurd, regressive, anti-feminist retcon that DC Comics gave Wonder Woman’s origins with the New 52. I know that people say that comic book back stories are like changeable weather: if you don’t like it, wait a short period of time and it’ll change again. But between the increasingly more ridiculous attempts at codifying Emma Frost’s back story over at Marvel, and the fact that the Kuberts’ boring ass mini series is STILL the accepted origin story for Wolverine, I had no hope of the Distinguished Competition returning one of my favorite comic book characters to her sui generis roots.

But then I read this volume and holy shit, y’all! HOLY SHIT! Idk if this is canon but this is 100% a step back in the correct direction, a return to George Perez’ excellent interpretation. In fact, Wonder Woman Historia gives one of the best comic book characters of all time the kind of 21st century update that would never have passed the restrictions of the Comics Code era in which Mr Perez worked. Honestly, I hope this book would make him proud. It certainly made my heart beat faster, and my soul sing with both recognition and glee.

Wonder Woman herself only shows up in the very last pages of this book, but to a very large extent, learning about the origins of the Amazons is very much an important part of learning about the heroic character. Insofar as Diana is the manifestation of a long chain of mythology brought into the modern world, it seems only right that the women who birthed (after a fashion) and parented her should also have their stories told.

This storytelling team — and I deliberately use that term here for reasons I’ll explain later in this review — begins with a tale of the goddesses of Olympus rebelling against their male counterparts, demanding satisfaction for the myriad ways in which their female and not-male worshippers are being continually abused by the male. Zeus, unsurprisingly, laughs off their concerns. The six goddesses, minus watchful Hera, decide to take matters into their own hands, and create a line of women who will avenge the wrongs done against the innocent by cruel, selfish men who are secure in their privilege from any prosecution, worldly or divine.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/10/wonder-woman-historia-the-amazons-vol-1-by-kelly-sue-deconnick-phil-jimenez-gene-ha-nicola-scott/

Mammoths At The Gates by Nghi Vo

For all that each novella in this series is touted as a standalone, I do very much think that readers would benefit from reading at least a few of the earlier books first. I was struck with Nghi Vo’s propensity for giving almost no backstory to readers in Book One, preferring to immerse us directly in the action instead. That’s forgivable in a first book, but by Book Four, it feels less intentional than lazy, especially given the assurances that each book can be read on its own. I wonder if critical eyes that were fresh to this series were ever applied to this novella: that would definitely help with the standalone claim.

Anyway, Mammoths At The Gates starts with series protagonist Cleric Chih finally making it home to the Singing Hills Abbey, to find a literal pair of mammoths at the gates. A straitlaced, pissed off advocate is camped out by the abbey walls, while her younger sister, the actual commander of the battle steeds, is trying to keep her calm. They don’t attempt to block Chih’s entry into the abbey compound but do warn the returning cleric that they won’t leave without what they came for.

Chih enters the compound to discover that their beloved mentor Cleric Thien has recently died. The sisters camped outside are Thien’s granddaughters, who insist on taking their body home to be buried with the honors due to Thien’s prior existence as a renowned advocate from a prominent family. The few clerics in the abbey are aghast: to give up Thien’s body would be the equivalent of disrespecting their choice to forsake their old life in order to embrace the simpler ways of the Singing Hills. The abbey is thus trapped in an uncomfortable detente with the sisters, who refuse to take no for an answer.

As Chih and the acting Abbot attempt a delicate negotiation with the sisters, the neixin — the sentient, talking hoopoes with perfect recall who serve as each cleric’s companion in recording everything they come across without fear or favor — are enduring turmoil of their own. Myriad Virtues, Thien’s neixin, is in grievous mourning, and demands a place at Thien’s upcoming memorial service. With disaster looming on the doorstep, the acting Abbot doesn’t have time for this disruption of etiquette. Will Chih be able to smoothe everything over before the unthinkable happens?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/09/mammoths-at-the-gates-by-nghi-vo/

Unbecoming by Seema Yasmin

Every so often, the publicist Alex Kelleher-Nagorski (hi, Alex!) sends me a book and starts firmly (but gently) persuading me to read it. This is one of those books. I was genuinely afraid that I wouldn’t have time to get into it but Alex assured me that it would be totally worth my time. After cracking the book open and plunging into the very first pages over the weekend, I was hooked. He was absolutely right, and I will never doubt his recommendations again.

(Separately from Alex but related to my reading in general: it was also really nice to just tear through this book in a matter of hours. I’ve been in that reader’s malaise where I start wondering “Is it me? Am I just bad at reading?” when I’m struggling to get through 300-odd pages over the course of several days. But then I come across a book like this that reassures me that I am not the problem. Seema Yasmin’s writing just draws you in and doesn’t let go, and I loved every minute of it.)

Anyhoo, Unbecoming is set in a near-future America where abortion has not only been criminalized but anyone found to be aiding an abortion, even if it’s just by walking with someone seeking the medical procedure towards the premises providing it, can face serious criminal charges. Two Muslim teenagers in the heart of Texas decide to fight back against this clear injustice by writing an underground, online guide to getting an abortion — and not just because first-trimester abortions are entirely legal in Islamic jurisprudence.

Layla is a hijaab-wearing, mosque-loving perfectionist who’s obsessively planned her life out so that she can go to med school on the East Coast and become an ob-gyn like the one who helped her mother. Noor is a pansexual crusading journalist who’s already won prestigious awards for her high school paper but has a weakness for pillow talk. Together, they’ve been meticulously researching their guide in anticipation of launch while juggling their school work, extracurriculars and relationships.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/08/unbecoming-by-seema-yasmin/

The Witches of World War II by Paul Cornell, Valeria Burzo & Jordie Bellaire

Quite the trip to be reading my second book in a row with a prominent character who shares my unusual name!

The Doreen in question here is Doreen Valiente, who at the time of the events depicted in this graphic novel was still going by her maiden name, Doreen Dominy. Considered the Mother of Modern Witchcraft, she was highly influential in the development of English Wicca in the Gardnerian tradition. In fact, she and Gerald Gardner, founder of that tradition, are both featured in this speculative history title that depicts a fascinating “what if” story of the efforts of British witches to defeat Hitler in World War II.

It begins with nineteen year-old Doreen’s boss at Bletchley Park, where she works as a translator, asking her to take on an unusual brief. It’s become well known that Hitler is into occultism, and Bletchley would like to take advantage of this. Knowing that Doreen has significant contacts in the occult world due to her interest in folklore, her boss tasks her with coming up with a plan to recruit magicians to bamboozle the Fuhrer.

To this end, Doreen’s boss points her in the direction of “the most evil man in the world”, as Aleister Crowley is more than happy to dub himself. The world’s most famous practitioner of magic is also a British intelligence asset, making himself out to be a Nazi sympathizer in order to collect valuable information for his government. In his usual maladjusted way, he helps Doreen recruit her team and come up with an audacious plan to gain the trust of one of Hitler’s most trusted lieutenants. Their aim is to bring the war criminal to justice while striking a significant blow against Nazi plans.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/05/the-witches-of-world-war-ii-by-paul-cornell-valeria-burzo-jordie-bellaire/

Seeds Of Mercury by Wang Jinkang

translated into English by Alex Woodend.

This is a weird little novella that definitely feels very old-fashioned old school, almost as if it was lifted entirely from the cutting edge of the mid-20th century. It’s also on the shorter side — never a bad thing — but it definitely felt a little more sketched in than I expected from a nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2024. Honestly, I’m a little puzzled as to how this got to the short list: surely there were other, more worthy works that came out this past year? Especially given that this story was originally published in either 2015 or 2002, depending on who you ask.

The story itself revolves around Chen Yizhe, a rich Chinese businessman who inherits a mind-boggling legacy from his scientist aunt Sha Wu. She’s managed to create an entirely new, metal-based lifeform, which currently wriggles around as “amoebas” in a special high-temperature smelter she’s constructed. Sha is confident that, given a hundred million years, this lifeform will evolve into something approaching the same kind of sentience and intelligence humanity displays. The first catch isn’t only that it’ll take a hundred million years, but that the most habitable place for her creatures is on the surface of the planet Mercury. The second, and perhaps most important, is that they only have the funding to keep the smelter going for another thirty years. Chen will have to figure out a way to get his charges to Mercury before then, raising funds and overcoming any public outcry in the process.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/03/seeds-of-mercury-by-wang-jinkang/

Camouflage Mom by Sarah Hovorka & Elif Balta Parks

subtitled A Story About Staying Connected.

Wow, this is a weird one for me to review. Coming at it from the perspective of a (theoretical) child whose parent has entered the military, I absolutely appreciate having a book like this, to console a kid who’s missing their parent and to assure them that the bond they have with said parent isn’t at all endangered by distance. This is especially important for kids whose parents have only recently enlisted. I also like that the parent in question here is specifically a mom, as women enter the military in substantial numbers too. I find it particularly meaningful that this story is based on Sarah Hovorka’s own childhood experience of having her mother enlist in the army back in 1987.

It’s always important to emphasize to kids that just because their parents’ work takes them far away from home, the bond between parent and child is not easily breakable, especially when the parent puts in the effort. And it’s just as important for parents to acknowledge that the child is doing hard emotional work in adapting — kids might be resilient, but parents need to understand that change of this magnitude isn’t easy or painless. This is the kind of book that’s perfect in helping to bridge that gap between parent and child, in making emotions clear for each part of the relationship.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/02/camouflage-mom-by-sarah-hovorka-elif-balta-parks/

Saga Vol 11 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

collecting issues 61-66 of the long-running comic book series.

It has been a long ass time since I read the first Saga collection, and I have apparently not read anything else of it since, despite quite liking the first book. So when I saw that Volume 11 was nominated for the Hugos, I was super excited to dive in, despite having only the faintest remembrance of what had transpired in Volume 1. That vague memory proved to be only marginally helpful, as I spent most of this volume hanging on for dear life as I tried to figure out who everyone was, why they were where they were and what might have happened in the nine books that I hadn’t read. I definitely would not recommend jumping into this volume if you haven’t read any of the prior books, and think this would likely work best for those who’ve actually read all of the others. Some volumes in long-running series are terrific jumping-on points for new readers: this, alas, is not one of them.

I was actually a little surprised that no introductory material was included with this for the Hugo packet, but I get it. It’s a lot of stuff, and not all authors/publishers are as generous with their backlist as, say, Seanan McGuire or Kieron Gillen. But there is decidedly no “previously on” material here either, which makes me believe that the intent with this series overall is for readers to start at the beginning before getting here. I actually found that reading the back blurb helped me get a better idea of what I’d just read — I don’t usually read back matter on books I’m about to review because I have very little time for that nowadays — as it was super helpful in situating the characters in time and circumstance.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/07/01/saga-vol-11-by-brian-k-vaughan-fiona-staples/

Hugo Awards 2024: Best Related Work

The Hugo Award category that’s presently known as Best Related Work began in 1980 as Best Non-Fiction Book, and in 1999 became Best Related Book. In 2010 the name took its modern form, as fans recognized that the field of science fiction and fantasy is a diverse one, and sometimes award-worthy work comes in an unusual shape or form. In a way, Best Related Work has become the Hugo Award for Everything Else. In the last five years, winners in this category have included the whole project of an Archive of Our Own, an acceptance speech at the previous year’s Worldcon and a translation of a thousand-year-old poem, as well as two non-fiction books. Finalists took an even more expansive view of both “work” and “related.” Over the same period, they have included documentary films, a convention, a convention “fringe,” critical examination of an animated series presented in video form, and a translation project, all in addition to the more expected books and essays.

City on Mars by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

This admirable creativity and inclusiveness has led to at least two tensions. First, whether the books for which the category was originally created would get crowded out by works that potentially had a wider appeal. Biographies, book-length collections of critical essays, and in-depth examinations of specific topics (e.g., Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It, a 2014 finalist) are less likely to find large audiences than an online essay on controversies of the day. Would Hugo nominators lean on the “related” to such an extent non-fiction books might need their own category again? Second, how are voters to choose the best among such disparate finalists? When I was a voter for the 2021 awards, the category included one non-fiction book, two conventions (well, one and whatever an unauthorized fringe of Worldcon counts as), a long video of criticism, an online essay, and a translation of Beowulf. That was not so much comparing apples and oranges as it was apples and cumulonimbus cloud formations.

The answer to the first is to wait and see, I suppose. The evolution of the Hugos is like any other kind: slow. Since the low ebb of 2021, more non-fiction books have made it into the list of finalists. Last year, four of six finalists including the winner were books. This year it’s five of six, though one is almost entirely pictures. The answer to the second is idiosyncratically, as the voters do for every other category. It’s silly to pretend there’s one set of criteria for Best Novel or Best Short Story; it’s hopeless to pretend that there could be one way of selecting the best among so many different kinds of work. The only course is to trust to the voters and their ability to recognize excellence when they see it. For my part, I am glad that no more conventions have been selected as finalists, and I am glad that projects or documentation of projects have become sporadic rather than perennial. My votes reflect my idiosyncratic approach to topics and media; if I am shortchanging something amazing, I hope the other voters will make up for it.

Which brings me to 2024, with notes on each Related Work finalist in order of my ascending preference.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/06/30/hugo-awards-2024-best-related-work/