So that happened!
For whatever reason, I ending up being assigned a bunch of Jewish science fiction (or science fiction written by Jewish writers, if you prefer) by my editor, which ended up being a fun mini-class. I picked this up as it's edited by the fabulous Lavie Tidhar. His A Man Lies Dreaming is one of those most bananas alt-history pulp meltdowns; it must be seen to be believed.
I only read Jews vs Zombies, but BL doesn't have anything but the omnibus listed. Like most short story collections, it's a mix of better and worse. "Zayinim" by Adam Roberts is a standout, a sly alt-history that could easily keep going to novel length, given the richness of the detail. "The Scapegoat Factory" is funny, which one does not expect from zombie fiction, as is "the Friday People", but there the humor is black as pitch. The real Talmudic ones didn't work for me, too abstruse, but they may work for others. Definitely a better collection than the silly name implies.
Mr Ceridwen and I have been listening to audiobooks on our (somewhat long) drive up to the cabin, which has been generally enjoyable. We got through the entire "Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire" series, which was absolutely a great time. Good narrators, very interesting alt-history, a semi-twist ending I didn't see coming, very astute observations about gender, and on. Well recommended all around. So then we cased around for the next steampunkery to fill the hours.
I downloaded A Conspiracy of Alchemists first, but holy God was the narrator bad. We just couldn't stop laughing at her hiccoughing reading style. Then we moved on to Phoenix Rising, which opens with a relatively fun rescue sequence, and then settles into ... a whole lot of not so very clever bickering. The main characters, named Books & Braun (gag), are a fussy librarian and a stabby brute, but, get this, the DUDE is the fussy pepperpot and the LADY loves explosives. Oh ho, I bet you thought the lady was the librarian, but you would be wrong! See our fascinating gender reversal!
I actually fell asleep while listening.
Which, look, I generally think whether I like this sort of pulp mid-list disposable reading is more dependent on the angle of the sun or the barometric pressure than, say, actual merit. Because this stuff is all more or less the same -- somewhat formulaic, dependent on action, sometimes quippy, little bit of romance for the ladies, etc -- so I wonder sometimes why I bother reading (or writing) reviews. Something called Conspiracy of Alchemists is going to be a three-star outing, shitty narrators notwithstanding, and that I thought Phoenix Rising boring and trite might because I ate something like all the doughnuts when I stopped in Hinckley and hit Toby's bakery. Noms.
If you've been mainlining Stranger Things, do yourself a favor and pick up Paper Girls. It's set in 1988, on Halloween morning, as the titular paper girls bike through their subdivision delivering papers. At which point all manner of wtfery ensues. I liked Stranger Things fine, but it does really speak to a boy's experience. Paper Girls speaks more to a girl's experience, so it's a good companion piece. It's nice when you can balance your nostalgia.
I got super sick last week and read a half dozen trashy and less trashy PNR/UF books to salve my soul. Also, I managed to tear through all of the Mercy Thompson books, so I'm a little at loose ends as far as light reading goes. I hit a lot of different series to try them out, and the last is Nalini Singh's Guardians series.
So, I've read me all of Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling series, because she totally hits me somewhere strange. The background of that world, which is set in the late 2070s, is that there are three races of humans on the planet: regular humans, like you or I; changelings, who can turn into everything from birds to rats to leopards; and the Psy, who are basically psychic Vulcans. The Psy, who have a variety of psychic gifts, embraced something called Silence in the late 1970s, a conditioning designed to suppress all emotions, and bring their sometimes terrifying psychic powers under rigid control. A hundred years later, and Silence is breaking, a failed experiment.
The series of over a dozen novels follows various pairings of Psy, changelings, and only very occasionally humans. The changelings are invariably predatory animals like wolves or big cats, I think because deer changelings, or squid changelings, are totally ridiculous. Also, because she seems to have a lady-boner for predatory alpha types; I cannot think of a single male character who isn't described as dominant.
The mythology in the background mostly deals with the Psy's breaking Silence, and it's fucking fascinating. My personal predictions do not run to the alpha type, but even that aside, the Psy characters are something like a million times more interesting than the changelings puffing up at each other in various dominance displays. The Psy, without an exception, are brutalized, damaged people, just as a baseline, and then those characters often carry other scars because Silence makes people into sociopaths.
The narratives of the Psy discovering emotion, healing, and their humanity are often slowly sensual and emotionally touching, this odd, metaphorical narrative of people working through bad childhoods and hideous betrayals toward a resonant, complete emotional connection. Or not: some of the more interesting stories, like the one about Kaleb Krycheck, deal with people who can only heal so far, and that one emotional relationship is all he can manage. Which is interesting too, a strange kind of acknowledgement that some damage is permanent.
Anyway, blah blah, not what I'm here to say. I decided to try out her Guardians series, partially because her most recent Psy-Changeling collection kinda sucked. And what a weird series. The Guardians takes place in an alternate present, where angels and archangels rule the world. They create vampires as their lackeys, and divvy up the world amongst themselves. Angels are not the warriors for the Lord from the bible, but magical creatures with wings and immortality. And, like the PSy, they are pretty much universally brutalized and brutalizing, their immortality tending towards a murderous sociopathy.
The first three novels deal with a woman, a hunter, who works for the angels by contract to bring rogue vamps back into line. She gets involved with a big bad archangel; she's turned into an angel herself; various psychotic angels and archangels try to kill everyone. Pretty much every single character has a history steeped in blood and death, and often really inventively bloody and horrifying traumas. I can't think of anyone who isn't horrifically scarred, often to the point of either loving pain or hating touch. Eesh. But we have three books of the hunter and the angel, and that's unusual because typically PNR follows a single pair each outing. By the fourth, we turn our attention to a different couple. So here we go.
Archangel's Blade follows a thousand year old vampire who's really awful, and a hunter who was taken by other awful vampires and brutalized and raped for two months. She's, you know, super fucking traumatized, but finally pulls herself up to do a job for the angels. Which is when she meets vamp dude, who immediately starts sexually harassing her and trying to assault her. He's the romantic lead.
I kind of don't know how, but it gets worse from there. There is so, so much bloody carnage in this novel I find the romance sticker a little hilarious. Several years ago, I wondered aloud if there was horror romance, because there seems to be romance novel versions of just about every genre under the sun. There's beheadings and loving descriptions of torture, castrations, murdered children, people getting their hearts pulled out still beating, et fucking cetera. I just, I don't even know.
And I want to be clear, I'm not trying to high horse this one, passing judgement. Singh is doing something really strange with this series, something I don't understand, but I feel like it's not coming from some place of misogyny. It's just, the emotional reckonings are so left-handed, the hunter woman allowed to lash out and rage and hate her sexual responses like someone who has been sexually brutalized, and then this romantic lead who seems to reenact so much of that brutalization, or at least the mindset behind it.
It's like it has a realness at the center of some kind of wish fulfillment exercise of the bloodiest sort, but the juxtaposition is so, so much more stark than usual in this sort of thing. Fucking bizarre. It was definitely a weird novel to pick as my last book coming out of a horror cold, and I'm pretty sure I'm done with this series, whatever it's doing. It's funny that something that's ostensibly romantic can bug me out way more than most horror novels, even those that trade in sexual violence for kicks. Those are just boring and done to death, this is something much more intimately fucked. Happy Halloween.
I got super sick last week and read a half dozen trashy and less trashy PNR/UF books to salve my soul. Also, I managed to tear through all of the Mercy Thompson books, so I'm a little at loose ends as far as light reading goes. I hit a lot of different series to try them out, and next up is Ilona Andrews.
Turns out, Ilona Andrews a husband and wife writing team, which is fascinating, because they do an amazing fucking job. I started with Burn for Me, because it was on my ereader for some reason (see, a theme!) Burn for Me is the start of a new series, different from the Kate Daniels series that put them on the map. In this world, people who took a serum to activate magical talents a hundred years ago have been intermarrying to shore up the money and power amongst themselves. They are basically unaccountable to anyone, for anything. You know, like our world, but slightly more metaphorical. The main girl is a PI, who is called in to take the fall for a son of wealth and power gone rogue.
I rarely actually laugh while reading, because I have a black black heart, but I did here, multiple times. Andrews is clever and funny, and utilizes a vocabulary typically unseen in urban fantasy. Burn for Me is definitely more on the urban fantasy end, so the growly love interest person isn't anywhere near the most important character, more's the better. The PI has a complex, loving, and exasperating family who are in the business with her, and they get in the way and help out in equal measure.
I'm also fairly confident that Burn for Me pretty much smashes the Bechdel test, which is also notable for a lot of paranormal romance (or actually just regular romance.) So, the Bechdel test is this thing where you ask if 1) there are two women with names and 2) if they talk to each other 3) about anything other than a man. There's a lot of problems with how the Bechdel test gets used, not the least of which is that of course failing the test is not an indicator of either poor quality or anti-feminist writing. I think its main utility is in broad genre statistics: how often does a particular set of writings tell the stories of women that do not hinge on the men in their lives?
PNR fails this test a lot, a lot, partially for the very obvious and understandable reason that mainstream romance by its very definition deals with romantic relationships mostly between heterosexual couples. (Of course there's M/M romance, but that has its own issues I'm not getting into right now.) So of course ladies talk to dudes, and when they talk to their lady friends, they talk about dudes. So far so good.
But really, PNR often takes this one step further, where there is often only one female character in dozens of guys (which you can see in everything from Mercy Thompson to the Black Dagger Brotherhood). If there is another female character, she's slagged as a slut or something, in opposition to the shiny, shiny perfection of the heroine. So it was just lovely to see a family unit of mostly women enacting real relationships that didn't necessarily have anything to do with the love interest. They had money problems and argued about who got the car and who was going to set the table. About how they were going to do their jobs. Just, my heart swells.
Next I hit Magic Bites, which has to be one of Andrews's first novels (weirdly, a theme in my reading recently: start with later stuff and work back.) Not as accomplished as Burn for Me in terms of prose style, but still a damn fine novel, with an absolutely dynamite world to play around in. Kate Daniels lives in an alternate present where magic is swinging back into dominance, and the ascendance of either tech or magic happens randomly and without warning. The vacillation toward magic in the last 15 whatever years means that skyscrapers are falling down, and all of our magical technology is going dark. It's technically a mid-apocalyptic world, which O, baby.
Kate is something between a PI and a bounty hunter, magically inclined. A father figure from her childhood, who works for the magical Order keeping magical shit in check, turns up dead, and she drives into a crumbling Atlanta to find his killer. It's one of those stories where she keeps getting the shit kicked out of her and running down blind alleys, but her general competence and grit gets her through. Something like magic noir. Reader, I enjoyed it greatly. I'm definitely gulping down the rest of this.
I got super sick last week and read a half dozen trashy and less trashy PNR/UF books to salve my soul. Also, I managed to tear through all of the Mercy Thompson books, so I'm a little at loose ends as far as light reading goes. I hit a lot of different series to try them out, and next up is Marjorie M. Liu.
I'm pretty sure Tiger Eye is Liu's first novel (or close to it) and it suffers from the usual panoply of first novel woes: weird pacing, a tendency toward repetition, and an absolutely energetic mess of a mythology. Main girl picks up a puzzle box in a Beijing market, and out pops a thousand year old shapeshifter. (The Chinese setting is actually really well done, which is a plus in a genre which is often tragically white.)
He's not a djinn, more's the pity, but just a tiger-dude stuck in a box by an evil wizard. He expects her to use him like his other masters, for sex or warfare, but she's like, ick, that's gross, I'm a modern person who doesn't particularly enjoy slavery, magical or otherwise. They fall in love. Also, some people try to kill her, and they end up in LA. Oh, and she's got magical powers and belongs to a company of mercenaries who have magical powers, like you do. The usual.
Two things set this apart. First, Liu's prose is almost overheated, very tactile and prone to lovely flights of acute observation. It made me realize how rarely one sees actual Gothic style prose in these sorts of novels, and how bizarre that is. PNR owes a lot to the Gothic novel, and the sentimental novel, but mostly the prose is grimly pedestrian. You have all these oversized emotions described with all the paste of a cereal box. (I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer.) It was charming to see someone punch it up a bit.
Second, well, this is going to be a little weird, but I think the heroine gave the shapeshifter guy a blow job while he was in his tiger form. The situation is a little vague, but he turns into a tiger, she's all into stroking his fur, then there's a blowjob, after which the text says something like, he changed back into a man and then they had sex. I know! Another thing I've noticed when reading PNR involving shapeshifters is that the authors never NEVER describe sex between the animal forms, or between one human and one animal. Which makes total sense and I'm not really complaining, thanks, just observing. So when someone crosses that line, I'm all astonishment.
I told this to my husband, and he was like, yeah, can you imagine a wereduck coming at you with his curly wereduck penis? You should never be a wereduck. After long conversation about the various animal penises out there, we tried to figure if tiger-man in his tiger form had a tiger dick or a person one, after which I started laughing so much I had coughing jag and almost died. PNR is not for the weak! I'm not sure I have a point, but my husband did say something that made me think a bit. He was like, if it's a furry fantasy, why isn't there more yiffing? And I was like, shapeshifter romance generally isn't a furry fantasy; that's a whole other ball of wax.
Shapeshifter tropes seem bundled more with biological determinism and domination/submission play, with a sideline in mate-for-life. Often these shifters are massive alpha types, hewing to a vision of pack hierarchies that are both Victorian as fuck, and heavily discredited, scientifically speaking. So you have a dude who is often described as dangerously domineering, but with this biological safety valve that makes him literally incapable of being abusive. After helping a second friend this year make a midnight dash out of her house after her partner had put his hands on her, I can see the appeal of a fantasy dude who can get his alpha on without fucking punching you and breaking your cheekbone.
So that escalated quickly!
Anyway, I liked Tiger Eye, tiger blow jobs and all, and given the strength of her prose (if not her worldbuilding) I'd try her stuff out again.
But honestly mostly because of the tiger blow job.
I got super sick last week and read a half dozen trashy and less trashy PNR/UF books to salve my soul. Also, I managed to tear through all of the Mercy Thompson books, so I'm a little at loose ends as far as light reading goes. I hit a lot of different series to try them out, and first up is my accounting of Alyssa Day.
I started with The Cursed, because I think I had a copy already on my ereader (this will become a theme.) I've seen her name in conjunction with other writers I like (specifically Meljean Brook) and I was hoping it would be a readalike. The Cursed ended up being really fun, set in a pocket universe place on the edge of a bunch of other demonic and elvish realms, I like this sort of word, folded into and on the edges of our world, just a stop off the wrong street in Manhattan.
The main dude was a rugged wizard detective type, all powerful and broody, but the text poked a fair amount of fun at him. The humor was solid, and not entirely dependent on "banter", which I find generally tiresome. All in all, a fun ride, and I was full bummed to find that this was the first in a series that doesn't seem to have any other books. Given that it's been a couple years (and the breakneck publishing speed of these kinds of books), I suspect it must not have done well, and that's that. Drag.
So I then moved on to Atlantis Rising, which was Day's very first novel, and successful enough to spawn a solid series. Frankly, I thought it was awful: clunky characterization and cliche everything, with a raft of unlikable assholes and dodgy enough theology to get me going in a very serious way. Apparently, Atlantis is real, as is Poseidon, but they've dropped out of the world because reasons. Meanwhile, vampires and shifters are also real, and they've come out of the closet, so to speak, and are now running Congress and the like.
The dick prince of Atlantic ends up coming ashore and falling instantly in lust with some girl with heretofore unknown powers. He's been held and tortured for the last couple years by a vampire queen, and this is his first foray out into the world. He's followed by his complaining compliment of dudes, the worst of which is a priest. I couldn't possibly conjure the ins and outs of the plot, but I found just about everything about Atlantis awful, from the bitching leadership to the plot-expedient whims of the god of the sea.
Not to invoke the dread voice of cultural critic Harold Bloom too loudly (and for sure he'd absolutely choke on his Manischewitz if he heard me say this), but Day's first novel has all of the earmarks of the anxiety of influence. The Atlanteans appear to be modeled on the Black Dagger Brotherhood, all black leather and bulging muscles. But the BDB can produce just pages of funny dialogue, and here the repartee was more along the lines of the single entente.
Set against the later The Cursed, you can see Day in Atlantis Rising working off the books and characters that influenced her writing, trying (and failing) to produce the the things she enjoys to read, but isn't particularly gifted at producing. The world of The Cursed is way more sensible than anything in the BDB, and her humor more situational than quipping. It was cool to see that she has found her voice, and also a downer to think that maybe it wasn't as successful as her earlier, shakier writing. Alas, the whims of the market are jerks.
A lot of these quasi-feminist icons are, as they say, problematic. Wonder Woman solidly formed my childhood notions of the expanse and limits of female empowerment: you can save the day, absolutely, but you're going to need a patsy/beard to pin all the credit on. She was also the bondage fantasy of the dude who invented the lie detector.
Likewise, there's a lot of fuckery in Howard's Hyborian books, way moreso than in Wonder Woman. That WW's creator was into bondage and polyamory feels quaint and sweet compared to Howard's literally barbaric escapades, with sexual violence lurking around every corner. I'm not sure that anything Howard wrote is reclaimable, because his stuff (like Kipling) is just too damned entrenched in the mores of the day.
Ms Sonja stands out in such a place, revenge playing her way through grubsome slavers and bandits. You go girl! Etc. But she stands out precisely because every other woman is backdrop or victim, and I don't have a lot of time for fictions that posit a single woman in the "strong female character" role, not including villains, who are just domme fantasies anyway.
So, point being, taking on such a creature as Red Sonja is going to be no easy feat. I see her appeal, which hits me in much the same place as, say, Slave Leia does: good lord that's hot, but also, ish. In fact, I think probably the hotness is a function of the recoil, a sort of attraction/repulsion. You've got to put in enough transgression to get the blood running, but not so much you get all grossed out and overwhelmed.
I was excited about Gail Simone taking this on, because I like her stuff. But, alas, this just felt a little wan. The narrative slips around through Sonja's life, a retrospective of How We Got Here. There's a fair amount of killing and revenge killing. Some of it treads real lightly into crazy lesbian tropes, which didn't so much make me mad as bore me: if you're going to go there, then by god go there. I feel like so much that makes a character like Sonja compelling/infuriating was just skipped over, and we end up with this stock badass.
Which is fine. I like stock badasses; we could use more of them. First volumes are often kinda wobbly, and maybe this character will tighten up as the writers learn to write for her. So a success of a sort, considering how difficult it is the thread the needle of this kind of character.
Eh. I like Lemire, and I have all the praises for Descender, but this is a bust. The story just strikes me as dumb and simplistic. Part of Descender's charm, of course, is Ngyuen's just ravishing artwork. The art here is good, Lemire's trademark black and white, now with slashes of red, but like the story, if feels a little unformed.
Beth Cato really has a skill with furious pacing, and she's gotten even better with her latest novel. The alt-history setting is novel, which I appreciate, because there's only so many times the Axis powers can win the war. Well, or that's not true -- I like a United States of Japan -- which is what we have in this novel, but it's not because the US conquered Japan or vice versa.
Oof, I can heartily say that I am l.o.v.i.n.g. this series so hard right now.
My latest at B&N SciFi.
The publisher used a line from my review on the blurb page for Obelisk Gate! Squeal! (It's credited to B&N Scifi, because that's who I write for.) Super exciting, especially because I adore the Broken Earth series.
Such an enjoyable book, especially if you like libraries, Sherlock Holmes, and steampunk. My latest at B&N Scifi.
After I was done screaming and freaking out, I wrote up my experience at the MST3K reunion show last night for B&N SciFi.
Might I begin by saying that Booklikes not having a cover for this novel is weak as fuck. I've recently been assigned a bunch of Jewish science fiction to read for my B&N gig, partially because of my own interest, certainly. It's been an illuminating couple of books, grounding myself in the terminology and world view of a real world people set into fictional worlds.
Judenstaat is an alternate history in which Israel does not exist. Instead the Jewish state encompasses Saxony in Germany, bordered between East and West. It's a murder mystery of sorts (and writ large), beginning with the almost long ago murder of a Saxon conductor. Slow moving and (honestly) hard to get into, Judenstaat eventually rewards the patient. But you're going to have to do a dozen googles and struggle to remember your hazy Soviet history, because the author is not going to fuck around and hold your hand. Good. The way it should be.
If high fantasy mechanics are your bag, there are way too many "but, wait" moments here to make you happy. The evil, possibly immortal mom should be way more effective; the neighbors slash rivals shouldn't fall in line as fast as they do; &c. But the central romantic relationship is something I'm not sure I've seen before, and it's very well done.
A human girl and a Kai prince are joined in a political marriage. Both are superfluous -- a second son and the niece of the king -- only useful as chips in a game of thrones. The Kai are something bestial: grey-skinned, with fangs and black claws, nocturnal. Humans are, well, human. The pair meet before the marriage, unknowing of who the other is, and are charmed by the other's candor: They both think the other is physically repulsive.
Which, whoa. Romantic leads who are emotionally compatible yet not at all turned on by the other? Who even does that? I've seen the opposite many, many times, often to skeevy, repugnant ends, because two people are young, hot, and turned on by each other, but otherwise dangerously incompatible. This is the playbook for a lot of alpha sociopaths who make it with the good girl: Hotness overrides all.
Instead here we have a slow, sweet meeting of minds, one that starts immediately, and isn't undercut by some second act histrionics based on a Threes Company style misunderstanding. The human and the Kai get to know each other, work carefully and thoughtfully to understand the other's culture, and grow to love and desire one another. It's just, it makes me a little mushy in a way my black heart doesn't allow a lot of the time. A damn fine job.