Here I will mostly house reviews and discussions of books and movies and the like in the SFF genres, with additional musings should they come to mind.
I didn’t think to post this list here last year, but now I have, so here are my absolute favorite books that I read from 2016 and 2017.
-Catherynne Valente’s Under in the Mere
-Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass
-Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought
-Abraham Eraly’s The Mughal World
-Indra Das’s The Devourers
-Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island
-Alex Mar’s Witches of America
-Catherynne Valente’s The Girl who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
-When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
-Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
-The Refridgerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente
-A Stranger in Oolondria by Sofia Samatar
-The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf
-The Museum at Purgatory by Nick Bantock
-The City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
-Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
I will be running an Espionage Party game at Gencon, which runs August 16-20 in Indianapolis, Indiana!
Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers
Magical Realism, Finished
For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.
First of all, I’m adding Anna-Marie McLemore to my list of favorite authors. Second of all, if what you want is to devour everything McLemore has written, go read this book. It’s great. If, however, you are limited in time and and only want the best, go read McLemore’s second novel, When the Moon was Ours. The books tell similar stories, with similar themes, ideas, obstacles, and even the occasional plot point. But When the Moon was Ours has the benefit of being a second novel and it is much, much better. It’s tighter, more imaginative, cleaner, and the emotional weight hits a lot harder.
So, yeah, The Weight of Feathers is, unsurprisingly, a beautifully written book with amazing imagery and a great premise, even if the payoff is lukewarm and comes a little bit out of nowhere. But seriously, just go read When the Moon was Ours.
Short story of the week: Lyndsie Manusos’s The Bells
Science Ficion, Finished
Read it here.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this one. It’s a straightforward tale of the horrors women’s bodies are put through by and for men. The idea is very solidly crystallized in the protagonist, who has been literally turned into a puppet for men’s amusement. It’s harsh and disturbing and leaves us with only more pain and horror.
Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine and Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns
Historical Fantasy/Urban Fantasy, Not completing
Alas, I have picked up and put down two books this week. Viper Wine is set in 1632 during the reign of Charles I. In the pursuit of beauty, many women are taking a mysterious potion with concerning side effects. Between Two Thorns is about a young woman who lives in the Nether, a reflection of England rules by the Fae. At the same time, something is amiss among the Arbiters and Max is the only one who can find out.
Neither of these books really did it for me. While the writing of Viper Wine felt overly stuffy, the writing of Between Two Thorns felt overly formal. I couldn’t really get into either of the worlds because they felt sort of floppy to me, treading territory that I’ve already read about dozens of times. I think ultimately that’s what bothered me the most. I’ve seen the fairies in London many times and no one will ever do it better than Susanna Clarke did it with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I’ve also read a lot of historical fantasy solidly grounded in the real world written a quasi-Enlightenment style and it’s really hard not to make that feel wooden. Viper Wine felt like, given enough time, it would dip into some really bizarre ideas, but I couldn’t get past the writing style.
Short story of the week: Sabrina Vourvoulias’s The Way of Walls and Words
Historical Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
Another absolutely beautiful short story. This is about two girls, who stand opposite sides. One languishes in a prison while the other sweeps the prison halls. One is of a faith that is seen to be blasphemous and the other is not (although she hasn’t been as converted as the monks thinks she has been). This is a wonderful, short exploration of what religion means to a person; what practices are important, what does it mean to, and why do they hold onto it. The characters are both willing and unwilling to participate in the other’s religion, curious about somethings and horrified by others. It’s especially interesting when the characters begin interacting with that religion’s rituals and what exactly that means.
‘Twas a week of non-fiction too dull to even consider summarizing, so I leave you with my closing thoughts on Every Mountain Made Low.
Alex White’s Every Mountain Made Low
Alternative History Fantasy, Finished
Loxley Fiddleback can see the dead,but the problem is… the dead can see her. Living in the bottom of the cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis hasn’t helped much either. When she discovers the body of her best friend, she realizes she’s the only one will do anything about it.
Let me start by making a quick edit to the genre. This is actually alternate history, not secondary world. It looks like the timeline diverged during the Industrial Revolution, resulting in stronger and more damaging monopolies than in our current timeline.
Although character is always in the forefront of Every Mountain Made Low, as the story goes on the plot definitely takes a front seat. By the end we were solidly in a revenge story, with much blood and dashing around various locales. Still, Loxley’s emotional peaks and valleys was amazingly done. The struggle to fit into society and to be kind to those who are important is wonderfully balanced with a desire to be accepted for her way with interacting with the world and allowed to be mean sometimes. The story never tries to suggest that this is a struggle with simply pop out of existence with the happy ending. Loxley’s life is a struggle, but she’s doing what she can to enjoy it and be okay with it for what it is.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti
Science fiction, Finished
Binti is the first of the Himba people to be offered a place at Oomza University. But what begins as a simple journey to overcome the fear and loneliness of leaving her home behind quickly becomes terrifying when the Meduse attack the ship, killing nearly everyone except for Binti.
Binti manages to take the large issue of two warring peoples and distill it into a wonderfully simple story of a young woman struggling first with the decision to leave her family and her home and then with the need to survive those who are only interested in killing her. Plot-wise very little happens. The story is all about Binti, her worries about leaving her family, her determination to follow through, and the absolute terror of watching hundreds die. There’s very little she can physically do to rectify the situation, so we spent a lot of time with her waiting, trying to keep herself together and then trying to figure out what to say to the Meduse so they won’t hurt her.
Science fiction is not my genre and I can’t say Binti has won me over to the genre, but Binti’s character arc is such a lovely journey of a woman who must rise to a trying occasion.
Alex White’s Every Mountain Made Low
Secondary World Fantasy, In Progress
Loxley Fiddleback can see the dead,but the problem is… the dead can see her. Living in the bottom of the cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis hasn’t helped much either.
I’m not very far in yet, but Lox is a great character. She’s specific and developed and wonderfully detailed. I know what she wants and enjoys and the small minutia of how she navigates the world. I know what she likes and what she doesn’t like and I absolutely feel her struggle, even in mundane moments. It’s not a fast start, but I’ve always rather enjoyed spending some time in the world before the plot kicks in.
Short story of the week: Margaret Killjoy’s Men of the Ashen Morrow
Secondary World Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
This is a story about a woman who is so tired. After spending years and years and years expending so much of her energy to raise their god so that winter can come, she’s done. She’s lost too many people to this ritual and she simply can’t handle doing it again. Men of the Ashen Morrow is really about that feeling of loss and exhaustion. Sal is an old woman at the end story, yet she has to keep pushing on, making hard choices when she just wants to stop and lay down her head.
Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz*
Retelling/Fantasy, In Progress
That’s right, I’m at it again! I’m taking on the final book in Gregory Maguire’s Oz series. Loyal Oz is still attempting to reannex Munchinkinland and Glinda finds herself caught in the middle. Deprived of her staff and (increasingly) her manor house, she struggles to discover what General Cherrystone’s plan is, all while slowly uncovering the secrets of the Grimorie.
I have to say, Out of Oz isn’t nearly as exciting as I have made it out to be. The Oz series is about dialogue. It is about characters prowling around each and trying to get in the first nip, clever jab, or what have you. Out of Oz is no different. I’m so happy that Glinda got another shot to be on the page. I think she got shortchanged in Wicked, coming off as something of a cliched and air-headed schoolgirl. What I love so much about this older Glinda is how she manages to be both very clever and very inattentive. She manages to suck at domestic life without coming off as a snooty rich toff. It is oddly easy to sympathize with her as she is pushed further and further into a single room in her house – even though she still has it pretty good. I love how subtly she is able to get information out of Cherrystone, while still always being a little too far behind. She was, of course, once a Throne Minister of Oz and Maguire doesn’t shy away from political and military discourse between the two characters. But, I intend to do longer pieces on this book, so let’s move on.
*I am increasingly impressed at how few people realize there are four books in the Oz series. I myself wouldn’t have known about it had I not ended up in the bedroom of a girl who I never met, perusing her bookshelves. But there is and it’s just as wonderful as the rest of the series. It deals with all of Maguire’s favorite subjects – sex, gender, and mysterious families.
Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion edited by Piyali Bhattacharya
In this collection of autobiographical short stories, immigrant women talk about navigating their relationships with their families and figuring out how they fit into this strange world of western culture.
In one of his books on Mogul Indian, Abraham Early talks about how we approach other cultures. It is very common to look at how a culture is different from our own, rather than recognizing the many similarities that exist. What impressed me most about Good Girls Marry Doctors was its reliability. These were stories of teenagers rebelling against their parents, drinking, smoking, having sex with boys. It was about women struggling with the gender norms society had set for them, about what it means to be a mother or a daughter. It was about trying to fit into their parent’s world while also realizing it was important to have their own identities – sometimes creating unfixable rifts. For that universality alone I would say that this was a wonderful read.
That being said, I do wish these women had been given a little more room to expound upon their stories. Each story was perhaps 5 to 8 pages, which was enough to create an intriguing story, but not enough to really dig deep. I got the sense of the story without really getting a sense of the authors. Marriage was a common theme and I would have liked to get a better sense of how the various authors thought about it – beyond the pain of being pressured to marry simply for the sake of marriage. Some of them were more detailed. One story discussed the economic unfairness of elevating legally married couples over those who have decided to live together as a couple without marrying. The length of the stories similarly didn’t allow me to dig into the richness of Indian and Pakistani culture as I might have liked.
I’m getting over a cold still so the short story will have to be forgone once again. Until next week!
While sick last week, I burned away my days playing a mystery called Firewatch. After reading some great reviews by Ewan Roxburgh and Simon Rankin, I wanted to talk about the ending and how it was both beautiful and not as developed as it could have been.
In an attempt to escape the struggles of living with a wife who has dementia, Henry takes a job in Shoshone National Forest as a fire lookout. He is quickly pulled into what looks like a conspiracy theory of epic proportions. Someone is listening into his radio conversations with Delilah, the only person he has any contact with. A previous fire lookout, Ned, and his son left mysteriously halfway through the job. Henry finds a mysterious fence, someone knocks him out and trashes his lookout, and two girls go missing.
However, when he discovers the body of Ned’s son at the bottom of a cave, the reality of the situation comes crashing down. There is no conspiracy. The fence only holds a research lab, which is watching deer, not him. Ned was only listening in on Henry’s conversations because he was bored hiding out in the woods, too afraid to confront his son’s death. And in the end he’s left with the hollow realization that he has to return to the normal world. Not even his brief fling with Delilah led to anything. She leaves before they can finally meet, just as unable as Ned to face the ruin her life has become.
A lot of people were disappointed with Firewatch’s ending. It was abrupt. It was brutal. It turns out this exciting adventure of conspiracies and strange happenings was just in your head, leaving you very little resolution. I disagree that the ending was disappointing, but I do think the game could have maneuvered us towards it a little better.
Ultimately I think most people were disappointed because they thought they were playing a game about conspiracies and action, a genre that requires a swelling ending with a clear-cut resolution and a joyful first meeting with Delilah. But that is not what this game is about. It’s about a man who is avoiding the reality of his situation, just as we as gamers are avoiding the real world by playing a video game. Both the player and Henry are willing to very quickly jump to the conclusion that something strange and eerie is going on because we’re looking for an adventure. It’s even easy to turn Delilah into a fantasy, a woman who is funny and interesting and, more importantly, interested in us. Even though it’s easy to fight with her and she tells us that she’s a person too, damaged by bad relationships, it’s easy to imagine that at the end of the game we could form a perfect, conflict-free relationship with her.
When considering the game through the lens of an emotional arc, the ending is beautiful. It’s an acknowledgement that Delilah isn’t a flawless, manic pixie dream girl who will solve all your problems. She’s perhaps even worse than you when it comes to relationships. In the end, no matter what you do, she isn’t there for you. And that realization echoes back through the whole game. This was all a fantasy you made up. There’s no great meaning waiting at the end. There’s no resolution. There’s no emotionally-satisfying conclusion. There’s just the pain of three people who are struggling to handle the harshness of reality.
Ned is perhaps the starkest example. He’s lost himself in the woods so he can completely ignore the death of his son. As the player, you actually have the option of taking this route too. Instead of getting in the helicopter at the end and going home, you can stay in Delilah’s tower and watch the helicopter leave without you. You can sink back into the forest and forget about reality – although, of course, it’s never that easy. The tranquil forest has become a raging inferno and ignoring reality might mean your ultimate demise.
That is why I love the ending of Firewatch. But it took me several hours of reading reviews and reddit threads to get there. I wouldn’t say I came out of the game disappointed, but I definitely came out of it confused. At the end, I still thought the research station was Ned’s and I kept struggling with the question of why there were three cots. Why was he studying us? Why would he lead us to the key to the cave if he didn’t want anyone to find out about his son? What was up with those conversations you overhead Delilah having? Even though I realized the answers eventually, the game would have benefited from allowing us to pause for just a moment, so we could realize what’s going on. With the current pacing, the gameplay leading up to the ending felt jumbled and messy, rather than being a tragic letdown to a beautiful emotional arc.
As a player, before you return to the cave to find Brian’s body, you can turn north instead and find the body of a dead elk. You find it because your signal tracker picks it up. This is the first moment when you can start to realize what’s actually going on. The research station was tracking elk, not you. The document that said ‘male refuses to copulate’ was, again, referring to an elk, not you. This is a great moment and I wish there had been a few more moments like this after you find Brian’s body. The ending comes so fast, I wasn’t able to process what was going on. There’s nothing wrong with ending quickly if the point is to leave your players empty and disappointed at the lack of fulfillment and happily ever after, but instead I was left confused and uncertain about some basic things. I wanted to be invested in the final dialogue with Delilah, in the realization that I had been going out of my way to create a non-existent adventure, but instead I was still trying to just get the facts straight, which made the ending less powerful.
On the other hand, there is absolutely merit in allowing the player to stay wrapped up in the conspiracy. It’s been interesting and weirdly meta to see some players get so caught up in the conspiracy, continuing to pick at it and make it even more twisty after gameplay is done. You are allowed to stay in the forest instead of facing reality. You don’t have to find the elk. You don’t even have to find Ned’s bunker or read his notes. Right up until that moment when Delilah says she’s leaving with the helicopters, you can be paranoid and suggest that you might have missed some crucial part of the conspiracy. You can still feel like you’re about to get jumped. I love that that’s an option. But I felt like, for those players who wanted to untangle themselves from the conspiracy on the first playthrough, there weren’t enough chances to do so. I wanted the option to talk more about the research station with Delilah, even if she doesn’t believe you, or further discuss Brian’s death. I wanted another optional event that brought more reality to light.
Firewatch is an amazingly emotional game that confronts the difficulty of reality in an amazing and unique fashion. The ending was perfect and brutal and I love how human Delilah was – frustrating and alcoholic and witty and passionate and desperate for human connection, all while being unable to truly trust and connect with Henry. I just wish we’d been allowed a little more realization within the game before the end.
Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows
Secondary World Fantasy, Finished
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone.
In the end, what this all comes down to is that Six of Crows was a fun romp. The consequences are few and although several characters have several strong journeys and arcs (Inej especially), there’s not much to the learn about the characters after the first 100 pages. This is a high-soaring story about a bunch of misfits and outcasts who crash through the world with their wit and fineness and no one can stop them. I was never particularly concerned for the characters and I was pretty darn sure they were going to succeed the whole way through, which is in part due to the genre and heist-plot we’re working with, but the storytelling certainly never did anything to convince me otherwise. So I can’t call this the most nuanced or exquisitely crafted book, but it wasn’t really meant to be that. It was meant to be a fun story with clever characters and blossoming romances and I would say if that’s what you’re looking for, then this book is perfect.
I’m at Boskone this weekend and it is rather late, so I find myself without the time to fully talk about the short story of the week, but I do want to share it with you anyway because it was a great, tragic story:
Short story of the week: Kay Chronister’s The Lights We Carried Home
Modern Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.