Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn

This debut fantasy novel has all the things that pique my interest, starting with a motley team of rogues coming together for a daunting heist, each with their own ulterior motives and back stories that unfold as the novel progresses. There’s adventure, romance, multiracial representation and plot twists galore! So I should totally love this book, right?

Alas, reading Among Thieves felt like a chore for me for one reason alone: the pacing was godawful. All the information came in a fevered rush, there was no suspense, no build up, and all the plot twists were dropped in like anvils from heaven. When something genuinely surprised me (which it only did at the end,) I was moved so far as to raise an eyebrow and murmur, “Clever.” And that’s it! The entire reading experience was like lying down in rapidly rushing water, with a big wave at the end: pleasant but rather mindless, and extremely one note.

But, you know, some readers will dig that, and if that’s you then I’m happy for you, because here’s a book you’ll love! The premise, briefly: the port city of Carrowwick is run by its street gangs in the same way that the five kingdoms of Thamorr are run by their monarchies. The Saints, led by the ruthless and potentially mad Callum Clem, have just suffered a rather large reversal, but Callum has a plan for getting his gang back on top of the power structure. This will involve bringing together Ryia (and I really want somebody to tell me how that’s pronounced,) the assassin known as the Butcher of Carrowwick; Tristan, a light-fingered street urchin indebted to Callum; Ivan, the foreign master of disguise; Nash, the smuggler captain who styles herself the Empress of the Three Seas, and Evelyn, the disgraced former captain of the Needle Guard, the security force that patrols Carrowwick for its ruler.

And as the ruler guides the country, so does the Guildmaster rule Thamorr, due to his being the only source for the gifted warriors known as Adepts. Ofc, our team is sent on a heist to steal something extremely valuable from said Guildmaster. But since each of our rogues has their own interests at play here, will they be able to score their prize without betraying and possibly dooming each other to death or worse?

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All Systems Red by Martha Wells

“As a heartless killing machine, I was a total failure.” That’s Murderbot to a T. All Systems Red introduces Murderbot, a part-mechanical part-organic construct more formally known as a Security Unit, one of many produced to keep humans safe in an interstellar civilization. Before the story began, this Security Unit had hacked its governor module — an element that enforced a sort of corporate version of Asimov’s Laws — and become fully independent. Unfortunately for it, if the corporations that run the parts of space shown in this novella discover what it has done, they will have it rendered back to spare parts. So it has to keep pretending that it is a normal Security Unit while it looks for a way to make a break for freedom.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red begins with Murderbot having considered one of the natural reactions a former slave has toward its enslavers: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.” Distracted, maybe redeemed, by the power of stories. “It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a total failure.” (p. 6)

It’s out on a new contract, looking after a scientific team that’s exploring a planet newly opened for possible human exploitation. It’s also half-assing the job, looking forward to getting back to base and episode 397 of the serial it’s currently watching, considering tuning out the humans’ status feeds and tuning in to the music feed without the base computer knowing.

I was looking at the sky and mentally poking at the feed when the bottom of the crater exploded. … [Cross-talk from humans and bots]
In the middle of all that, I hit the bottom of the crater. I have small energy weapons built into both arms, but the one I went for was the big projectile weapon clamped to my back. The hostile that had just exploded up out of the ground had a really big mouth, so I felt I needed a really big gun.
I dragged [Dr.] Bharadwaj out of its mouth and shoved myself in there instead, and discharged my weapon down its throat and then up toward where I hoped the brain would be. I’m not sure if that all happened in that order; I’d have to replay my own field camera feed. All I knew was that I had Bharadwaj, and it didn’t, and it had disappeared back down the tunnel. (pp. 10–11)

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Twenty Years On

This is not real. We’ve seen it all before.
Slow down, you’re screaming. What exploded? When?
I guess this means we’ve got ourselves a war.
And look at — Lord have mercy, not again.
I heard that they went after Air Force One.
Call FAA at once if you can’t land.
They say the bastards got the Pentagon.
The Capitol. The White House. Disneyland.
I was across the river, saw it all.
Down Fifth, the buildings put it in a frame.
Aboard the ferry — we felt awful small.
I didn’t look until I felt the flame. …

That’s the beginning of “110 Stories,” by John M. Ford, the best piece of writing about September 11, 2001 that I know of. He had finished it by that autumn. Read it on something bigger than a phone’s screen; the layout matters.

Introducing the poem when she published it in August 2002, Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote, “Someday I’ll be able to read it without crying.” Today is not that day for me.

Ford passed away in September 2006, much, much too soon. Here is an initial collection of tributes.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/09/11/twenty-years-on/

Never Saw You Coming by Erin Hahn

I admit that I flinched a little when I read the blurb for this on receiving the Wednesday Books circular. How much would I, a progressive Muslim, find in common with a bunch of evangelical Christian church kids? Apparently, quite a lot! I’m glad I put my trust in Wednesday Books on this: when they do “controversial” they do it right.

Meg Hennessey is 18 years-old when she discovers that her entire life has been a lie. Raised and home-schooled by devoutly Christian parents (the kind who would characterize themselves brightly as “Christian!” when asked which denomination, probably without even realizing the cynical marketing behind the turn away from their Pentecostal roots — yes, I have THOUGHTS,) Meg is informed by her mom that the man who raised her isn’t actually her biological father but the best friend Mom married when she found out that she was pregnant and that the guy who’d knocked her up was dead. After this confession, Dad takes off altogether, leaving Meg feeling betrayed, rudderless and alone. When she discovers that her paternal great-grandmother lives ten hours upstate and desperately wants to meet her, she decides to take her gap year up in Marquette, Michigan in order to try to get to know that side of her family better.

Micah Allen used to be the quintessential pastor’s kid until his dad was imprisoned for embezzlement from the church. Between that and the sexual relationships, occasionally coercive, between Micah’s dad and certain church staff, Micah’s completely blind-sided family was shunned and worse. Micah’s mom eventually remarried and had several more kids, but Micah never really recovered. Though his faith in God is still strong, he no longer goes to or believes in the church.

When Meg and Micah meet, they first think the other is an extreme weirdo, but as circumstances keep throwing them together, they find themselves falling in love. But are they each too much of a mess to be able to really connect? Can they come to terms with the past in order to build a better future together? And while they share a deep love of God, will the teachings of the evangelical church tear them apart?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/09/10/never-saw-you-coming-by-erin-hahn/

Malika: Warrior Queen Volume 1 by Roye Okupe, Chima Kalu & Raphael Kazeem

What a fantastic way to kick off the YouNeek YouNiverse, an interrelated set of fantasy, sci-fi and superhero comics and properties from an African perspective! The first volume of Malika: Warrior Queen tells the story of a 15th century ruler, who she was and how she was shaped by the battles that rent and threatened to ultimately destroy her kingdom of Azzaz.

Malika grew up the younger daughter of the royal family, in the shadow of her beloved older sister Nadia. Tho a prodigy, she only became heir the same day that Nadia took a terrible fall and disappeared. With the death of her mother several years later, Malika ascended to the throne, ruling over a scant few years of peace and prosperity before dissension reared its ugly head once more. Now Malika has to preserve the kingdom she fought so hard to unite, not only from internal strife but from the looming threat of General Cheng and his mighty Ming army.

The plot twists nicely (if not necessarily surprisingly to this jaded thriller reader) as Malika has to navigate both military action and political intrigue in her quest to restore peace and affirm a united Azzaz. The rousing speeches are a highlight of the dialog, as Malika must contend with what makes for a fit ruler; kudos to Roye Okupe for some really thoughtful, evocative writing. The supernatural element is also very cool, leaning heavily on a mash-up of African and Chinese mythology. I really enjoyed the ending as well, and how it sets up for the rest of the extended universe. Bonus: this book definitely passes the Bechdel test!

But my favorite part of the book was likely the art, which was pretty darn terrific. Raphael Kazeen’s colors do a wonderful job of breathing life into Chima Kalu’s evocative, expressive illustrations. It’s rare to find someone as good at depicting facial expressions as they are at close combat, mass military maneuvers and supernatural effects, but Mr Kalu fully delivers on everything the script calls for.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/09/09/malika-warrior-queen-volume-1-by-roye-okupe-chima-kalu-raphael-kazeem/

An Interview with Fran Dorricott, author of The Final Child

Q. First off, congratulations on your second book! How was the experience of writing The Final Child different from writing your debut, After The Eclipse?

A. Thank you! Honestly, writing The Final Child was a lot of fun. To me it feels a little grittier, a little slower in terms of tempo, and I liked being able to explore the characters at a difference pace. Writing under a deadline for my second novel was an interesting experience, but I tend to draft fairly quickly so it wasn’t as hard as I thought – but revising a novel under a time pressure is always tricky so there were some elements with this second novel that I found harder. I like to think the work paid off, though!

Q. I love that The Final Child continues to explore several of the themes from After The Eclipse, including a focus on survivors and how people cope with tragedies for which they blame themselves. How do you feel that your themes evolved from one book to the next?

A. I love to think of After the Eclipse and The Final Child as two kind of companion novels. They’re not connected but they are sort of spiritual sisters, and I think this stems from the evolution of ideas from one novel to the next. While I was writing After the Eclipse I found myself thinking a lot about what it means to be a survivor, and how really there is no one way to process that extreme kind of trauma, so I started to think it would be worth exploring that in more detail in my next book. And as for the sibling theme, guilt and anger and loss in sibling relationships is something I often come back to because I have such a strong bond with my own sister.

Q. What motivated you to add a concrete link from The Final Child to its predecessor in the form of the (awesome) aspiring writer Harriet Murphy?

A. I think it’s just a character idea I really love! Writing is such an intrinsic part of my life that I love to include it in my work where I can, and I thought this novel would also benefit from the kind of insight that writers tend to experience. A lot of writers I know seem to have the ability to read people, to feel a strong empathy for them, but that doesn’t make us street smart and that can lead to some interesting problems for characters to unpick. It’s one of my favourite tropes in books I read too.

Q. I really enjoyed the representation in The Final Child. I know you made conscious choices regarding that in After The Eclipse, as well. With different characters at its heart, however, what were you particular about wanting to showcase in this novel?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/09/08/an-interview-with-fran-dorricott-author-of-the-final-child/

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

It’s weird how Silvia Moreno-Garcia is so hit or miss for me. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t start with the books which made her famous, and which I still really want to read. Instead, I’ve hopped around her timeline somewhat, based on what was available to me, and can safely say that her newer works kick ass but her older ones kick only rocks.

Alas, Certain Dark Things falls firmly into that latter category despite being reissued with some extra stuff at the end, including a book club guide and a fun section of drink recipes inspired by the novel. CDT is set in a parallel future, in a world where vampires have been out since the 1960s, to varying but mostly negative receptions. There are at least ten distinct bloodlines, and as restrictions have clamped down in Europe, the native vampires there have spread out to other parts of the world, including Mexico. Now the Necros, who are very much like the traditional Dracula-types common in Western pop culture, are making big plays against the local Tlahuelpuchi. Atl, the last daughter of one of the latter clans, is on the run and hiding in the allegedly vampire-free zone of Mexico City.

Domingo is a young trash picker who lives in the sewers. When he catches the eye of beautiful, mysterious Atl on the subway one night, he thinks his life is about to change. And change it does, but not for the better, as he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between vampire clans, drug dealers and corrupt cops in this bloody, savage neon-noir.

First, I love that name “neon-noir”, which strikes me as a pretty awesome subgenre description, even if there isn’t a whole lot of mystery going on in this novel, just a bunch of brooding criminals circling each other till the final confrontation. But plot is not, seemingly, the point of this book. The greatest strength of CDT lies in the entirely fresh world-building, which reconsiders and reworks your typical urban fantasy scenarios into something vividly new. The different species of vampire are intriguing, and the depiction of an alternate universe Mexico City compelling.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/09/07/certain-dark-things-by-silvia-moreno-garcia/

Enola Holmes And The Black Barouche (Enola Holmes #7) by Nancy Springer

Who’s ready for a brand new story arc in the Enola Holmes universe? As we swiftly discover in the opening pages of this latest installment of the series, Enola has reconciled with her brothers and is living as an independent Consulting Perditologist in London. However, she’s dismayed that her brothers, famous old Sherlock and Mycroft, are all too happy to continue in their prior indifference to family relations. When Dr John Watson comes calling, asking a favor of her in regards to Sherlock’s welfare, she’s more than happy to oblige.

As she’s attempting to twit and cajole Sherlock out of another one of his dark humors, who should come along to 221B Baker Street but a client in need of assistance! Miss Leticia Glover has just received a rather peremptory letter informing her that her twin sister is dead and, shockingly for the time and place, cremated. Tish, as she’s known, insists that if her sister Flossie were dead that she would somehow feel the loss of their bond. Enola is immediately intrigued, with Sherlock also drawn in to assist once he hears Tish’s plea in greater detail.

Apparently, Flossie had been a beauteous young governess who drew the eye of the widowed Lord Dunhench several years hence. Once the Holmes ascertain that His Lordship’s first wife also died abruptly and was subsequently cremated — and that the urn of ashes sent to Tish as the remains of her dear sister do not, as a matter of fact, contain what was advertised — the game, as Sherlock would say, is afoot.

One of the most fun parts of Enola Holmes And The Black Barouche is in contrasting the ways Enola and Sherlock go about investigating. While Sherlock undertakes the humble disguises and solitary rambles that have been his wont since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, Enola is both far more audacious and sociable. Having discovered her love of fashion, she’s more than happy to disguise herself as a number of modish young women making their ways in the world. It’s also lovely to see her make the reacquaintance of her dear old friend Tewky, he of The Case Of The Missing Marquess, and recruit him to her cause.

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Field Work by Seamus Heaney

In contrast to the choice he made for North, Seamus Heaney left the poems in Field Work as a continuous furrow, not divided into parts. Sections still emerge naturally from his arrangement of the poems. The ten “Glenmore Sonnets” give the collection a firm spine running straight up and down the middle of this body of work. Death begins the book, though both elegies and portraits fill its first third. After the sonnets, Heaney turns to the seasons and the natural world before finishing nearly as he began with an elegy and a tale from Dante’s Inferno.

Field Work by Seamus Heaney

Field Work was published in 1979, and although Heaney had been living in the Republic of Ireland for the four years since North was published, the sectarian killings in Northern Island were not far from his pen. Heaney life changed again in those years, too. In the first years of living in the Republic, Heaney and his wife and three children had been living out in the countryside, sustained by the varied incomes of a freelance writer. In 1975, he took another teaching job. “What I’d been after was a separate domain for myself as a poet, a surer sense of a destiny. And the three years in ‘the hedge school’ had given me that. Still, I did feel I was betraying something when we shifted ground to the suburbs; I’d reneged on something I loved, but it was for the sake of other loves. I also felt I was setting up good foundations for the next decade, marking a space within which and out of which I could operate as a poet.” (Stepping Stones, p. 227) The relocation is not apparent to me in the work, though.

The Troubles hit hard in poems such as “The Toome Road” or “Casualty.” The former begins:

One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them?

Though that question is of course the heart of the matter. Whose roads are they? Who speaks this “my,” who is included in its implied “we,” and who are “they”?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/31/field-work-by-seamus-heaney/

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Let me stipulate from the beginning that A Promised Land is not a revelatory book like Dreams from my Father, a book Barack Obama wrote when he had no idea he would be President of the United States one day, when he was finishing figuring out who he was and why anyone who didn’t know him personally might be interested in his life, a book he wrote in part to explain himself to himself, and in part to impress Michelle. Let me also stipulate that A Promised Land is not as relatable as Becoming, not a finely honed work executed with the utmost craftsmanship, designed to show how an ordinary girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow into an extraordinary woman, and to make millions of readers feel they knew Michelle Obama as well as they knew their best friends, and incidentally to think she could easily become a good friend too. As the first half of a presidential memoir, A Promised Land is doing something different from either of those books. It lays out how Barack Obama sees his campaign and his time in office. The constitutional lawyer, the policy maven, and the gifted communicator all work together to make the case for the roads he took, the choices he made, the way that he and his team handled the challenges and crises that inevitably arose.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Obama spells out his goals for the book in the second paragraph of the preface. “First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office.” That includes not just the actions that he and his team took, but the contexts in which they were working, the times in which they were living. “Where possible, I wanted to offers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States; I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the president is still just a job and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other, and the men and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, office friction, screw-ups, and small triumphs as the rest of their fellow citizens.” With these first two, I think he succeeds. “Finally, I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in … and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life.” (pp. xiii–xiv) I’m less certain about that last, but I no longer fit the inspirable young people demographic and thus may not be the best judge.

A Promised Land is never less than elegantly readable, but there is a lot of it (700 page of main text) and it is very Obama: clear, earnest, sometimes funny, and given to both tripartite rhetoric and finely nuanced distinctions. The book begins with a short version of his life growing up, a story he has told better in Dreams from My Father and that David Remnick has told better in The Bridge. A Promised Land ends with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, as seen from the White House. Obama divides the pages in between into seven parts. “The Bet” is that a first-term Senator with a funny name should run for president. Part two, “Yes We Can” covers the campaign; “Renegade” (the title comes from his Secret Service code name) details the first months of Obama’s presidency. Part four, “The Good Fight,” concentrates on domestic matters in the first years, particularly on rescuing the economy from the financial crisis of 2008 and on gaining passage of the Affordable Care Act. In “The World As It Is,” he deals with the world, as it is, and he tells of his efforts to make it more like he would want it to be. “In the Barrel” gives a sense of what a presidency is like away from its signature policies and crucial events. The sixth part of the book shows some of the thousands of items that are life-defining for the people involved but just part of the steady fire hose of decisions that land in the Oval Office. The final part of A Promised Land, “On the High Wire” begins with the Obama administration and the rest of the Democrats picking themselves up from the beating they took in the 2010 elections. It focuses again on international affairs, with special attention to the wider Middle East. It closes with the raid on bin Laden. Success there sets up the forthcoming second part of Obama’s presidential memoirs. The re-election campaign would essentially be waged on two achievements: General Motors (standing for the economy as a whole) was alive and Osama bin Laden was dead. Neither of those would have been a certainty under a Republican administration, or so the 2012 Obama campaign would argue.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/30/a-promised-land-by-barack-obama/