Hey, so, I had to add this book, and for whatever stupid reason, the author autocorrected to somebody called Samantha Bells. That is not who wrote this. The author is H. G. Bells, who is a debut author and therefore not in the system already. I tried to fix it, but no dice.
The Library at Mount Char defies easy labels, something like dark fantasy slash horror with an incredibly black sense of humor, but both more fun and less fun than that sounds. The opening positively crawls along, and it's not until maybe halfway through that I began to make sense of the incredibly complex world. But once the teeth catch, man, that shit really rolls. Mount Char makes an abattoir of various philosophical and religious questions, often literally. Violence is commonplace and bloody, which alternately hit my macabre sense of humor, or fucking grossed me out. Hawkins also manages to pull one of those long cons with the plotting, where he's doing this thing out in the open, but you're not even paying attention until it comes together with a bang.Very enjoyable.
I started reading Alyssa Cole sometime last year. I think I saw her name on a list of women of color writing contemporary romance, and given how tragically white much romance is, I thought I should give her a shot. I read her Off the Grid series, which, in addition to being both science fictional and post-apocalyptic (these things are not necessarily the same things, a distinction I'm happy to fight about), also include a gay romance and one with and Asian dude as the hottie. Oh, and Cole is clearly a nerd and a geek, and she is not afraid of some pop cultural jokes. Really good stuff.
I didn't read more, at the time, because I'm, like, not as interested in modern day princess stories. I once went regularly to this open mic at an Irish bar run by a Welshman, and there was this woman who showed up regularly in full on tartan explosion. (Yes, I recognize that's all very Celticly confused, but this is America; deal). She tended to sit in the booth behind mine, and we were nodding acquaintances. She drove me absolutely fucking bananas with her bullshit.
See, she claimed to be some sort of Scottish royalty, like maybe not a duchess, exactly, but more like a countess? Honestly, I find it hard to give a fig about titles so none of that stuff is going to track for me. Anyway, she had this younger dude who liked to do sweeping bows and a bunch of hand-kissing, probably because he spent too much time at the Ren Fest. Once, he tried to drag me into it, and I was like, sorry, I live in a representational democracy and have zero interest in kowtowing to someone because of who their grandparents are.
There was a record scratch noise and some people got pissed at me, but fuck royalty. Some of my people were hapless drunks, others were fleeing various wars, some just hated their hometowns. I feel neither pride nor shame about my ancestors; they were just people: good, bad, and indifferent.
Point being, I have something of a chip when it comes to the concept of hereditary monarchy. Sure, fine, if they're figureheads like in Denmark (though I'm still not bowing and scraping), but actual ruling dynasties like the al Saud family are monsters, as one recently brutally murdered journalist could attest if he hadn't been dismembered and murdered, not exactly in that order.
Which is to say, I'm a fucking crank about a little subgenre of romance novels with lighthearted wish fulfillment about being a princess. I recognize I have issues.
So, it came as something of a surprise when I actually earnestly enjoyed Duke by Default. Cole dives right into the class issues of the peerage, and doesn't cut those assholes any slack. Her Duke character is actually the child of a Scottish Duke and a refugee, raised by a step-father and with half siblings who are straight up black. He's not some ponce, and more's the better. Oh, and his love interest is coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis, which was sensitively written. All told, well done.
Princess in Theory, less so. (Note: I read these books out of order.) The main character, who has aged out of the foster care system and is struggling to make it in the STEM field as a black woman of no means, was a fucking great character. Prince what's his face from an imaginary African country, him I did not like much at all. Sure, some of this is intentional: he's to have a redemption arc from being a rich dickhead to monarch with a heart of gold. But I just couldn't get on board, though of course some of this is my aforementioned issues. And Princess in Theory is still a well written novel with an admirable heroine, so do not credit my bitching too much.
Anyway! So, one which didn't work so great for me (due mostly to me), and one which knocked it out the park. I would totally read number three. Alyssa Cole is pretty great.
Uff da, that ended with some bleakness. I was half expecting ur usual boarding school matriculation maybe with a little national epic thrown in (and that isn't a bad description of events if you're being literal) but boy, howdy does The Poppy War fuck that shit up. It's like a trick where you're expecting one kind of narrative, but you get another one entirely. But slow burn style.
Rin is a war orphan from a nothing province who nonetheless ends up aceing a national test in a country not dissimilar to early 19th C China, which brings her to a prestigious military academy in the capital. She thinks she's made it, but she hasn't even by half; the teachers are all arrayed against her as a podunk nothing. She falls in with Jian, the professor who teaches Lore, a subject which is basically a joke. Jian is high as fuck most of the time, but in his haphazard way, teaches Rin the ways of shamanism. Shamans are thought of as nutjobs for the most part; these are rational people after all.
But the country falls into conflict with the Federation, which they've been cold warring with for about a generation, since the last of the poppy wars. Rin graduates from her structured school to the chaos of war, while groping through the ugly history of her country, and the arcana of the gods that people largely don't believe in. The war is horrific; the gods more so. Nothing in school prepared Rin for the depravity of war.
Readers are trained, I think, to view a first person narrator as a hero or heroine. It's basic psychology: the "I" of the text is conflated with the personal self. One can't help but interpolate oneself into the action. And Rin is a scrappy, hardscrabble kind of person, one who deserves the sense of hard elation and respect when she overcomes some serious shit through some serious loss. Every choice she makes, makes sense. But hoo boy, are her choices ugly, in serial. She renders the inhuman, the inexcusable, into something legible and understandable. It's the absolute worst, and so much more horrible for its comprehensiveness.
I feel like I'm giving the impression that I didn't like this novel, but that is not it at all. I'm thoroughly impressed at the portraiture of someone who, through no inherent evil or malice, ends up doing unforgivable shit. Rin may not be likable, exactly, but she's admirable ... except for when her actions are not. Seriously impressive writing, all told.
For sure there's going to be a sequel. I'm not even sure I want to see where Rin goes, even while I respect the path she's taken. Sheesh.
*I listened to the audiobook, so I'm not sure I'm spelling names correctly. Sorry.
Though the middle is maybe a little slack, this is an excellent bildungsroman in the alt-history suggested by The Man in the High Castle, run half a century later and into the life of one small boy who aims to pilot one big ass robot.
I've been listening to this sort of rom-com pulp while elbows deep in repetitive tasks that occassionally make my attention wander. I deep six at least half of them halfway due to rank stupidity or weird sexism. This one for both. Main girl is a college student who is also a major fangirl for some actor. The opening bits with her Twitter use were patently ridiculous, but fine, we're not in a novel built on hard realism, whatever.
It was main girl's experiences in a woman's studies class that broke me. First off, it is understood that said woman's studies class is a required class. No. That is not a thing that happens. Second, main girl is a not-until-marriage type, and all the evil feminists who people said required class (why wouldn't it just be a cross section of regular students? This is a required class after all) rag on her for not "owning her sexuality" or whatever. Why aren't you fucking everything that moves to prove you're woke and shit?
Also no. This is written by someone who has never read one page of feminist lit, and doubly hasn't encountered second wave feminist tracts that posit that all sex is rape. Like, I don't think that is the case, but it is not an impossible feminist stance to take. I don't even know what wave of feminism we're on, but most of them include not fucking people if you don't want to, for whatever reason. Feminists are big on bodily autonomy, so any intrusion, without consent, is completely not ok. Consent being the operative. Ragging on the celibate is the kind of dumb bullshit people like to imagine feminists, and especially academic feminists, do for funsies.
Maybe it would be more likely someone would criticize her celibacy as purity ring bullshit based on weird fuck-daddy stuff. Like, if you think of your virginity as some kind of transactional capitalist chit that you only dole out when you've been given a compensatory social prize, i.e. marriage, then maybe you have some fucked up ideas about gender. But no one would be down on her for not having sex, per se.
Maybe if the main relationship had been anything but rote blah I would have soldiered on. Admittedly, it's hard to rally for a character who has irked me with her bullshit, so that may be a factor in my discontent. I ended up listening to an elegiac zombie novel instead, which I have enjoyed immensely. Sex and death, bitches.
You know, it's really beginning to bug me that something like a quarter of the books I read don't even show up on booklikes. I'm not even reading weird shit by unheard of authors either, though I admit sometimes they're very newly published. I just struck out on ALL THREE books I read this week: Alternate Routes by Tim Powers (Tim Powers is pretty well known), Severence by Ling Ma (debut novel published by Macmillan, so not a small press), and You Only Love Twice by Bec McMaster (which is self-published, or close to it, but McMaster has a healthy catalog.) I'm even doing the trick where I look up the book by isbn or asin because sometimes title lookup sucks using natural language. No dice.
I just, I don't have the patience to input every damn book I read into a site where what I'm doing, largely, is just making a record of read books.
I don't know why I pushed through once I started getting irritated with the weird regressive snobbery of the main character -- probably because this is short and maybe she'd pull her head out eventually. An English teacher on her last dime is driving up from the deep South to Chicago to crash on a friend's couch and hopefully find a new job. She doesn't really have anyone in her life: parents are dead, boyfriend took off to Africa to Peace Corps or something. She gets into a car accident on the way to Spooky Gothic Boys Academy, and wakes up in the headmaster's apartment. She hassles him for a job and he puts her on a one week probationary period. Here's where things start to go to shit.
First, main girl starts hitting on the headmaster like it's her damn job. This is unbelievably unprofessional, if not downright unethical. Which fine, this is a Gothic romance, whatever. The real irritation set in when she began outlining her curricula, and I fully own what a dork ass thing that is to say. It's a boys' school, yes? With a very frusty hidebound reading list? And she's like, I won't bother them with Brontës or Austen because boys hate romance. What in the actual fuck.
This is actually, literally a romance novel, and we're going to have to hear a bunch of fucking bullshit about how 1) the Brontës and Austen wrote romance and 2) boys shouldn't have to read writing by women because it's all fucking romance. Jfc does that piss me off. Brontës were Romantics, no question (though Austen was not) but given that the modern romance novel wasn't invented until a century and a half later, they were not writing romance novels. Moreover, if they were somehow writing romance novels, given their position in the actual Western Canon, there is absolutely no justification for keeping them off a reading list for boys, other than boys might get cooties and feel uncomfortable, and their delicate fee-fees must be shielded from women who are apparently only capable of writing romance novels, because that is the only thing that women write. I recognize the run-on nature of the previous sentence, but that is just an indicator of my ire.
This bullshit is repeated when Gwen(?) considers maybe she should include some works by black authors because there is a single black student who, it is assured to us assiduously, is completely extraordinary and the smartest kid in the school. (Black students are never allowed to be average.) Which is why the headmaster went to bat for him the previous year when he was the first black student in the school, and half the parents pulled their kids because they were racist shitheels. There's a (stupid) reason for why the school just integrated in the 21st fucking century, but Gwen does not know that reason. Headmaster gets all the cookies for standing up to racists, but it's full on bullshit that there are only white dudes on the reading list, and Gwen is all la la la maybe I should remedy that lol, instead of asking very pointed questions about what the fuck is wrong with a school that accepted its first black student in 20 fucking 18, let alone why there are only white men are on the reading list. But really she's much more interested in banging her boss before she even gets the job.
The ending is where I blew my top, but I'm not sure I should get into it because of spoilers. I'll just say that the horrible, inert ending of the Twilight saga, which saw Bella and Edward locked into enduring middle class perfection for ever and ever amen is, for me, the worst kind of hell. Aspects of that were replicated here, with an added bonus of the death wish of such a vision made more explicit. There's medieval heresies based on what happens here, and while I'm not usually aligned with religious crackpots high on ergot, we are in accordance here. What a strange world we live in.
I've avoided Dannika Dark forever because that pen name hurts my feelings. I mean, maybe that's her real name -- and I don't have the energy to check the copyright -- but I would be hugely surprised if that were so. I was pleasantly surprised in the beginning. This is first person with a narrator who isn't mean about other women and kinda flailing in her life choices. Her family -- a mother and sister -- are still living with the grief of her brother's death 7 years previous. Brother's bff who totally bailed on them after brother's death returns to town and informs sister lady that her brother died because of shapeshifter politics.
This part is fine. We are reading PNR after all. The opening is really grounded in the girl's life, and there's some nice detail about her co-workers and neighbors -- especially the neighbors. But then it imperceptibly just goes off the tracks, veering into some tragically stupid pack politics and mages and now her sister is some kind of mystical bullshit and oh my God corrupt police officers and absent dad is back and a psycho and on and on. It just completely loses focus. The pack gender dynamics are repellent, though admittedly main girl can see that they are messed up and pushes back. There are way too many near sexual assaults of our main character so shifter dude can swoop in.
I dunno. This is fine, I guess, but I feel like maybe I should have heeded that pen name. Or, that's uncharitable. I did have a good time listening, and the narrative voice was pleasant enough. A credible mess.
Mr. Ceridwen once had a very large public tizzy about how irritating this book was to him, I'm sure made all the more irritating because I had also just publicly declared my enduring love for Mr. Miéville. That was probably like a dozen years ago, which is apparently how long it takes me to get over my amusement at Mr Ceridwen's annoyance. Far be it from me to actually read the book in question, because I might actually agree with him, and then a very good source of bickering would be ruined. That whole anecdote is probably more illuminating of my marriage dynamics than I would prefer.
But then it turns out I earnestly have no idea what his problem was! The eponymous cities of The City and the City are Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are something like Buda and Pest: cities divided by a river and topography, but ultimately bound together into Budapest. Except entirely opposite of that: Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same land, the same space. People can be walking down a street in one city and dodging people in the other. But this seeing and in seeing cannot be done obviously or delibrately; the cities unsee each other. The borders are fiercely maintained even though they are diffuse and internal.
The plot follows Tyador Borlu, a detective from Besźel, who picks up a murder case that appears to be a matter of breach: her murder appears to puncture the inviolate membrane between the city and the city. Breach is one of those things that terrify the denizens of those cities, and it's hard to tell if it's social prescription or semi-mystical woo-woo -- and this is what irritates Mr. Ceridwen. Borlu in his detective plot moves through both cities and between to find the girl's killer.
My take is more ¯_(ツ)_/¯. Why not both? The social contract is rigidly enforced in just about any city, be that city authoritarian or boho. People have hundreds of internal rules -- thousands -- about who they interact with and how, who they see and unsee. Its both entirely mundane and semi-mystical. To misquote a favorite poet: we live in imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
I've been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I've been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I've read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.
Beauty and the Clockwork Beast is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am not opposed to stupid stuff, per se, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor's daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father's killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way.
But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?
The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manor befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It's all pretty sketchy.
Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it's not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl's sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy's sister's illness, and Miles' blackmail.
While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair -- there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC -- I was so in love with Lucy. She's no inventor's daughter, an appendage on a great man, but a scientist in her own right. This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she's also not gadding about in trousers because she's so transgressive, but a careful woman of her class and station.
Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven't earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters (tm) who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she's got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsey. She has good relationships with other women -- not just one, but several -- and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.
Her worth isn't predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy's mettle in this sort of steampunkery.
There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow.
That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.
If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series would be a "guilty pleasure." While I don't believe in guilt-reading -- that's ridiculous -- there are aspects of the series that make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings -- and they are always predatory changelings -- is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that's usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Singh isn't outside the norm, but I know I'm going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she's been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don't have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)
Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they're a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout.
Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we've never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they're not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.
Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth's oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we've encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight's head. We've met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he's tangled with both the Psy and changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys).
The romance largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. It's not particularly compelling. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane's security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, so that plot-line isn't particularly compelling either. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn't exactly action either.
BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.
A Cat Valente novel in the vein of Hitchhiker's Guide, which both works and doesn't work in the ways one would expect from such a thing. Valente's prose has always been extremely ornamental, and she applies this to British-style humor with a trowel. Sometimes this becomes just deliriously, fabulously overdone, and sometimes it collapses from the weight. I hear it's getting a movie treatment (or possibly short series) which will probably be a better medium, especially if it's BBC micro-budget.
I've generally enjoyed the Quinn books I've read, but this is a dud. Mismatched couple, dickish dude, doormatty lady. The first act complication -- love interest abandons Miss Cheever, who must weather an unplanned pregnancy alone -- was so awful I was done with main man completely. Second act complication was just stupid.
While I'm not sure such a thing can exist, I would describe Slowly Fell as a cozy Gothic tale. There's all the earmarks of a Victorian Gothic: lost babes and a crumbling manse, witches and curses, consumption, murder and missing persons. But the central character of the novel, Sarah Wetherby, is such a stalwart and unflappable person that she stares down any spoopy mysteries through sheer force of will. She is Lady Elizabeth's "coping girl", sent all around England to help those in need, as a sort of helpmate to people Elizabeth deems worthy.
Sarah is sent to the town of Slowly Fell to help the parson, whose wife is dying, to help with his copious children and the sickbed. The novel bops around in time, giving us backstories to Sarah, Elizabeth, the town blacksmith, and the history of Slowly Fell itself. Turns out, all those stories are interconnected, often in ways that seem very upsetting to the principles. Much of this just slides off, due to tone, in a way that should have been frustrating, but wasn't? Or not ezactly. I didn't know what to expect from the novel, so it's hard to say. I think I was expecting more Goth and less coziness, but it wasn't a bad way to spend the time. Reminded me a bit of The Thirteenth Tale, in that way. It's half spooking, but safe.