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Shadowed Summer

3/5. Fourteen-year-old girl in a tiny Louisiana town accidentally calls up the spirit of a young man who went missing years ago, and she and her friends set out to find out what happened to him.

Slim and quick young adult, notable for a beautiful sense of place. Not just tiny town, not just Louisiana, but also summer as a place. And fourteen as a place; on the brink of sexuality and not particularly thrilled about it. There's a not really love triangle that's zero fun for anybody – our uninterested narrator and her boy crazy best friend and the boy who may like the wrong one of them – and the book is about how hard all of that is, and how to stay friends through it.

Also notable for actually startling/frightening me. The blurb made it sound like a gentle ghost story, but this ghost is not gentle. This ghost is angry.
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Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind

4/5. A three-strand narrative. A young woman in the fourteenth-century learns to paint from her artist father and is sent to a convent. In 2015, a girl goes with her artist father to China on a business trip while mourning her mother and working on her own art – hand-sewed jean jackets. In the twenty-second century, a young woman returns to the parthenogenic household she shares with her sister to take a job at a restitution institution, whose goal is to resurrect the reputations of women artists unfairly suppressed by history.

So I spent the first half of this book a bit bored and confused by it. Someone – I was pretty sure – had told me it was brilliant, but maybe I was misremembering? This writing was so plain, these scenes so straight-faced, these threads so disconnected.

Then a switch flipped and I sat up and said "Oh, it is brilliant."

It is. There is such a complex, folded structure underneath all that simplicity. About women's art and women's work and women's spaces – the convent, the cloistered partho household where multiple generations of women bear children without men's input. It all lines up not directly, but at unexpected angles, creating strange intersections of thought. And these three women, spaced over eight hundred years, are positioned to tell us with the shape of their lives about a change in women's places and spaces over time. It is far from a triumphalist story of women's liberation, but also not quite 'the more things change the more they stay the same.' But something complicated in between.

And over it all, this book is about the mind sliding off women's work and women's art. Dismissing it, downplaying it, ascribing it to men, contextualizing it by men. And to do this, the book's mind slides off women's work, too, in a way. A deliberate, telling way. This incredibly plain writing is so subtle, I very nearly missed it entirely.
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Catalyst

2/5. Star Wars. Prequel to Rogue One with the backstory of Jyn's parents. Given to me by my wife because it was described as "more philosophical" Star Wars, which, yikes. This is supposed to be about having your work and your talents suborned to a cause you oppose. In actuality, it is about Orson Krennic, galactic creeper and sufferer of Tiny Dick Syndrome. He spends this entire book obsessed with Galen Erso, jealous of his intelligence, plotting to control him and, eventually, to kill his wife and kid. I mean that's . . . pretty accurate? But zero fun to read. Also, this whole thing is so clumsy – and Galen Erso is so mountainously stupid – that by the end I was glad that Rogue One spoilers ).
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Radiance

3/5. An indescribably complicated and wonderfully weird palimpsest novel. In an alt history twentieth-century where the pulp scifi vision of the solar system as entirely habitable by humans is true, a documentarian has gone missing while filming on site of a vanished village on Venus. The backbone of the book is the movie her famous director father makes, and scraps, and remakes, and scraps, and remakes about her disappearance, each iteration in a different genre mode. On that skeleton are hung nonlinear fragments of script from both their movies, transcripts of their family movies, letters, diaries, etc. etc. It's about space whales and metaphors and layered stories, and it is great.

And I am a crank who has a hard time getting into this sort of metafiction, so I can appreciate that it's brilliant but also not feel it, you know? It is brilliant, though, and the more I think about it the more convinced of it I am. Some of you guys are going to go bananas over this. If a book that can reasonably be described as "decopunk" appeals to you, you probably know who you are.

Unrelated note: Thus endeth the 2016 reading. As mentioned before, I am going to spend 2017 reading only authors I have not read before. I am excited!
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Body Work and Night Witch

3/5. *trumpets* The first graphic novels to appear on this here reading blog! These are the first two completed interstitial graphic stories set between the Rivers of London books, as read to me alternately by [personal profile] cmshaw and [personal profile] gnomad. They were pretty easy to read out loud, for the curious, given that they are dialogue-heavy and drawn in what was described to me as photorealistic style. So the panels are what they are showing, and not a lot else. Good for trying to be mainstream, I guess, though I do wish from an artistic point of view they'd made other choices, like giving the Nightingale point-of-view sections a different style.

Things that please me: Nightingale wanders around having one-sided conversations with the dog, bless; Molly is a scary motherfucker; we get more insight into the way Nightingale thinks through problems (for better or worse, lol, use your phone, child); we get roughly equal quantities of Peter nudity with lady nudity.

So I liked these, but I continue to be vaguely annoyed that they are included by reference in the books now. IDK, something about that bugs me, and I can't figure out whether I'm being ridiculous about it. I think it's that I kinda feel about different kinds of media the way some people feel about the food on their plate: they are different things and they should not touch!

Something we didn't know going in – the single issue comics have extra material included, like interviews and historical background, that were inexplicably left out of the printed trade paperbacks.
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Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

3/5. Sequel novella about Penric, the accidental host to a demon. An inquirer from the Father's Order sweeps Pen (and company) into his investigation of a shamanic ritual gone wrong.

More interesting than the prior novella, largely because Penric is more interesting with several years of demonic and scholarly experience to his name. At first blush this was some pretty typical LMB ground about a young person in the wreck left after he did something young and stupid. But there's a bit more to it, to the question of being late when you are needed, to the difficulties of trusting in providence when it sounds like just noise. So there's more here, and it's a pleasant read.

I do think that she is . . . growing overly attached to some of her pet techniques. She has a particular fondness for propagating paired adjective/adverbs to repeat and alter through a chain of sentences, usually with a touch of ironic humor. But it's so distinctive and specific – it's the sort of wordplay that makes you very particularly conscious of reading a story, not just of experiencing it – and it only works when it's, you know . . . well done. It isn't always, these days. I found myself flipping back through a few passages in this novella and shaking my head at the misfires. We all need to update our favorite writerly tics sometimes, it's okay!

I bring this up not to be picky about technique, but also because of the bigger sense that a lot of her writing is of a sameness these days: pleasant and predictable, never surprising.
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Black Wolves

3/5. First in an epic fantasy trilogy. Three generations of kings and their queens and mistresses and children, and the "demons" stalking the land, and a brewing religious conflict, and ethnic conflict, and and.

I don't remember who was raving about this book – several people, IIRC – so I apologize, whoever you are, but oh.my.god. How much do I not care about this, let me count the ways. I mean, it actually is what people said, which is epic fantasy with feminist underpinnings (though you wouldn't know that by the publisher's summary, which is all "men men men!"). But there is just something a little flabby, a little stuffy, just something about Kate Elliott's writing that makes my brain slide right off it. I put this book down no fewer than five times to read something else, and had to make myself come back each time.

IDK, maybe it's actually epic fantasy that I can't stomach anymore. That would figure. Urban fantasy has always been so much more vital to me, more concerned with things I'm concerned with, and maybe that's extra true right now.

Um, nice things. There's a scene in which a bunch of people sing very loudly while a woman is vigorously trying to get pregnant by her husband who is about to be abducted to a labor camp, and it is genuinely funny/sad. If only the other twenty-eight odd hours of recorded run-time in this book could have been so alive, so specific, so personal.
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A Gentleman's Position

4/5. M/M historical. He is a titled gentleman of means, he is his ferociously competent valet who shines boots and makes scandals disappear.

This is also great. Admittedly, it hits a lot of my buttons –there's a 'power behind the throne' vibe that, yeah. But also this book inverts and reverts the power dynamics between them in fun and interesting ways. And maybe the foregrounded running argument they have about class difference and pride and the appropriateness of having power over someone you love is not terribly subtle, but it is interesting and to a purpose

So in sum I found the first book in this trilogy uninspiring, but the second and third are great, and I do recommend. And it's that loose 'friends group' structure that romance series use, so you can skip the first one without too much bother.
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A Seditious Affair

4/5. Historical M/M. He is a radical bookseller and pamphleteer, he is a wealthy and conservative Home Office investigator. They have friends in common and meet regularly for sex with power dynamics. No strings. Totally.

Okay, this book does two impressive things. One, it has sex scenes that are, wait for it, actually hot. I do not tell a lie. That is, it turns out, not contractually prohibited in commercial M/M. And even more astonishing, this book has BDSM that is actually hot! Mostly because Charles is smart enough to know the hot is all in the psychology of the thing, and not in the set dressing. This book is just so unapologetically kinky, it's amazing. At one point they dirty talk each other through a fantasy sorta prostitution play scenario involving a stranger, and when they're done there's no "but of course we would never do that" and "of course not" but instead "yeah, that might be fun." Imagine! A book about kink that isn't ashamed of itself!

Second, this book is attempting to do a thing where it plays the consensual power games in the bedroom against the non-consensual power games that constitute the rigid class structure of the time. I actually don't think this is successful, as a literary tactic, but. This book is doing a thing! With, like, nuance and complexity! My bar is pretty low here, but imagine an M/M historical that does that.
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The Hanging Tree

4/5. Book six, delayed but worth the wait. First because it's good, second because it might actually have gotten me into these books as a fandom. It's been coming, but I wasn't quite there before.

Anyway, about the book. It's thematically expanding on familiar ground in that its concerned with faces, real and metaphorical. Spoilers ).

This is not as much a Tyburn book as the title might leave one to hope, but she is there. I continue to really enjoy what she and Peter are textually and subtextually arguing about. On the surface it's purely political. Underneath…it reads to me like an argument on the different modes of being black and being a force for change in a white institution. Because there are different modes of doing that, and I don't think either of them actively dislike the ways the other has chosen. They're just orthogonal and, sometimes, at cross-purposes.

Anyway, predictions. I've said it before and I still think that we're heading towards something semi-apocalyptic, at least on a local level. If the Folly is still physically standing at the end of this, I will be shocked. Also, Peter, thank you for finally stopping to follow the same chain of speculative logic that [personal profile] gnomad and I did after, like, book four.
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The Obelisk Gate

4/5. Sequel to the devastating and disturbing The Fifth Season. Part two – continuing survival in an apocalyptic landscape in the remnants of a civilization that enslaved those with the power to control the earth – is just as devastating! And more disturbing! And, as in the first book, this one rotates around parent/child pairs and teacher/student pairs of various sorts, so, uh, content note for about seven different kinds of child harm.

This is one of those trilogies that is fantasy on the surface, but becomes slowly more science fictional the deeper you get into it. It's an interesting effect, and I was surprised to find myself caring about it so much. I think it matters here not just for genre line-drawing, but because the intertwined modalities – fantasy, science fiction – are looking at the question of wielding power from different perspectives, and have different perspectives on what knowledge is good for. That matters, in books about the slavers and the enslaved.

So. Still really good. Still a zillion content notes (which, as always, I am happy to supply upon request). Book one went to eleven and book two escalated, so who the fuck knows how much book three will screw me up, stay tuned.
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Winter Kill

3/5. M/M. Small town cop meets uptight FBI agent as they investigate serial murder.

This is . . . weird? There's one perfunctory sex scene about one fifth of the way through, when the characters think they are having a one night stand and have only the vaguest of feelings for each other. What ought to be the second sex scene – and a far more interesting one as they are coming complexly and reluctantly together in the middle of a stressful situation – is, get this, fade to black.

I mean, I don't read commercial M/M for the sex scenes. That would be foolish at best, because oh lordy most of these authors drop straight into fanfiction.net territory when it comes to that. But the lack of sex scenes here is just so weird that it made me focus on the other weirdness. How this is a mystery first and foremost, until about 2/3 of the way through when the book is like oh shit, hot gay romance, um hang on, gimme a sec. Which would be fine if the mystery were more interesting, but, uh. You don't read a Josh Lanyon for the mystery. Though TBF this one has a surprisingly big and well-drawn cast.

I don't know, it's not like Lanyon is knew here and doesn't know how to put a book together. This one is just clearly way more interested in the small town cop shop and the arguments over community policing versus federal policing than, like, staying on brand. O…kay?
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The Mermaid Murders (The Art of Murder Book 1)

3/5. M/M mystery romance where the young up-and-coming FBI art crimes specialist tags along – for reasons – with a profiler revisiting a serial killer case that might be active again.

This, on the other hand, I read in a day flat. It's bog-standard Lanyon – serviceable mystery foregrounding a couple where one half is the uptight hardened law enforcement type and the other half is a younger, gentler, more artistic sort. I wanted bog-standard Lanyon for the zing of sexiness and the occasional depth of emotion. This one mostly delivered, but it did leave me wondering, exasperatedly, if Lanyon gets these names out of the freaking phone book. Jason West? Sam Kennedy? The law enforcement types always have these cookie-cutter white guy aggressively American names, which got me scouring my memory for a single Lanyon book featuring a person of color, and I couldn't come up with a single freaking one. Anybody?
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Fellside

3/5. Jess wakes up in a hospital burn unit to the news that, while high, she set a fire that killed her neighbor boy. She ends up in a women's prison and, while doing the slow work of hunger-striking to death and out of her guilt, she begins to see the dead boy, and to hear him enough to know he needs her to help him.

For the record, I started this book on October 15, read no other books alongside it, and did not finish until November 14. That is not my normal reading speed. Work was happening. So you can see how this really didn't have my attention, so when I say that it's good, but it's no The Girl With All the Gifts, who the fuck knows what my judgment is worth.

I do know that this book is made up of a hundred tiny chapters, some only a few hundred words, rotating through a surprisingly large cast of inmates, guards, healthcare professionals, drug dealers, etc. My indelible impression is of this book as a pile of glass shards in the sunlight: each piece reflects light, but at a different angle. That is the mechanism here – each character is so blinkered by his or her own circumstances that they all are coming at the world thinking they understand each other when they almost never do. Jess's search for a scrap of absolution intersects with a drug operation in the prison, intersects with an old murder, intersects with the politics of privatized prisons, intersects with the prison infirmary staff, intersects with – you get it. There are no surprises here – there's a "twist" that even I, giving this book approximately two neurons of attention, spotted half a book before Jess does, but it's not because she's stupid. It's because she can't see it, not until she has to. It's all very skillful, and accomplished. And depressing as hell, punctuated by echoes of a really beautiful, strange, queer love story.

Carey is just going to keep right on being good, though.
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So! I finished that thing where I wasn't reading cis men for a year.

Technically, I finished it back on September 30 and have been meaning to talk about it since, but you may recall that September 30, 2016 was followed immediately by October 2016, and those of you who know what I do for a living will understand that I exist inside a black hole of sleeplessness and obsession and screaming tension right now and that I don't remember what normal is anymore, so there you go. Also, unsurprisingly, this means that I'm barely reading, since my only real reading time is my commute time, and these days I spend that either frantically work triaging on the way in or sitting in complete silence trying not very successfully to become a human being who can talk about something other than work on the way home, which is doubly hard since I mostly can't talk about work at all with muggles.

Sorry, that wasn't supposed to come out.

Anyway, the year of women and trans authors. It was amazing you guys, and I highly, highly recommend it. My overall pleasure in my reading shot way up, I appreciated most things I read even if I didn't love them all, and I felt – "safe" is not the right word, too strong, so let's go with comfortable. I felt comfortable as a reader in ways I am not accustomed to.

I will hopefully have more brain for this later, but two observations that come to mind off the bat. Focusing on women/trans authors freed me from the final trailing sense of canon obligation. You know, 'but it was written by a famous man and it's on all those lists of the most influential scifi of the blah blah blah so--.' Honestly, I thought I was long over that, but it turns out no, it was still lurking back there. So when I took away the ability to read all those male authors, suddenly it was clear to see how much I actually didn't want to read a significant portion of them at all. And from there it was easy to delete them off my reader, and out of my life.

The second thing is that this exercise made me want to find the same satisfaction and the same clarity in other kinds of consumption. I have unsubscribed from so many male-only podcasts in the past year, and my life is better for it (though do you know how hard it is to find sports podcasts featuring all or mostly women?). Same thing with blogs, same thing with a lot of the people I read for professional reasons (though again, kind of hard given the gender balance in my field, ahahahaha ha ha *cries*).

Will I do it again? Definitely, though not right now. Right now I'm barely reading, so it's a moot point. In calendar year 2017, I plan to read only authors that I have never read before, which I'm pretty excited about. But frankly 2017 is on the other side of some epic work for me, so that's all I can manage right now.
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Dogsbody

3/5. The one where Sirius the star is cast down to live as a dog, and gets adopted, and stuff.

Point one: yes, JK Rowling absolutely read this book at a formative time, wow, good to know.

Point two: I read this when I wanted something fluffy and soothing. It's DWJ! It's about a dog! My wife is fond of it! I asked no questions. This was a mistake.

This book is not fluffy. It is, in fact, a study in cruelty, in the overlapping ripples of it as people and creatures are awful to each other in succession. Sirius is mistreated in various ways, as is his nominal owner, a young Irish girl. The book is contrasting various kinds of cruelty – deliberate, absent-minded, childish copycat without understanding – and like. It's a good book! But boy I didn't enjoy any of that.
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Crooked Kingdom: A Sequel to Six of Crows

4/5. Sequel to Six of Crows. More of that – crew of misfits and thieves takes several runs at getting what they're owed.

This is prickly, difficult, very grown up for YA. On the surface it's about these hardened teenagers who have reluctantly come to care about each other, compounding and healing their respective damage as they work through a series of complicated cons. Beneath that, this is a book about consequences. The action and the echo. What grows up in the shadow you cast. How what you put out in the world is what you get back, but twisted. How the wealthy and powerful in that city are no different than the gutter rats trying to swindle them; how the two are an inevitable consequence of each other.

The heart of the book, for me, is a quiet scene, the sort of thing that movie producers like to ruin with music but that ought to be played to silence. Two people – one a girl turned to crime after she escapes the brothel she was sold to at fourteen, one a boy driven by revenge and his screaming touch phobia after he survived a plague in a pile of corpses. The two of them talking quietly and edgily about how they feel about each other and, exquisitely painfully, touching each other just a little bit. This book turns on that holding point.

Audio note: This is a multi-voice production with excellent casting, particularly for the women. And is tragically ruined by the fact that no one thought to coordinate the voice actors so that they pronounce proper names of major characters in remotely the same way aaaaaaargh. Painful.
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3/5. Book *pauses to look it up* nine. Urban fantasy *gestures* stuff, but let's talk about babymaking.

So they get married in this one, and there's a couple prophecies about their kid, and then [spoiler, except come on, it's totally not] at the very end she's surprise! Pregnant. And because I'm me I am stuck on whether they were using birth control. I guess we're supposed to assume not, based on the pregnancy (though in reality, birth control accidents happen all the damn time). And I don't remember if we know anything about how birth control works in this mixed magic/tech post apocalypse world anyway. But can we just –

If you are a couple people with the requisite parts and the ladyparts are, like, less than say 43 years old, and you aren't using protection, you are trying to have a baby. Like, there is no 'oh we weren't preventing but we weren't really trying either' – no. That is not a real thing. That does not exist. Babymaking does not depend on, like, deciding that this month you really mean it. And more pointedly, not using birth control is a specific choice to get pregnant, because 90% of couples will conceive within six months of dropping birth control.* That is, like, why there are billions of us crawling around this planet. This shit is supposed to be easy, and just because it wasn't easy for me and it was in fact impossible for several people I care about doesn't change that.

I am just sick unto death of books of all genres – romance, urban fantasy, general lit – treating pregnancy as a surprise random occurrence. As if not getting pregnant was equally – if not more – likely, and really who could have expected this! Who the fuck are these people who go around banging unprotected and don't expect the outcome?

Write me books about people who actually plan their family-building. Who have conversations about the nitty gritty of it like adults. You know, not just the vague will-we-won't-we, but all the actual shit you talk about like doing the math and realizing that having a baby nine months from right now would be super terrible so let's use a condom for these two weeks. Accidents happen, sure, but funny how they seem to account for 90% of the stories about conceiving I read. And for god's sake, let's stop pretending a lot of these pregnancies are accidents at all when they fucking aren't. It's your body, fucking own what you decided to do with it.

Ugh.

*There's a lot more nuance to this, but you get me.
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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

4/5. The story of September, who climbs out her kitchen window and rides the wind to fairyland, then comes home, and goes back, and comes home, and goes back, and gets stuck.

So I generally do not do well with books that get popularly described as "lush." E.g., I recently twice failed out of Sofia Samatar's first book because oh god, the boredom. Lush and me, it's not so good. And it seems like everyone calls Valente's work "lush." So I've avoided it for over a decade.

But these books? These books are wonderful. Intricate and dense; full of appropriately fairyland whimsy that has a lot of weight behind it. As if the ever-proliferating fairyland rules are each the ingredient to a magic spell of byzantine complexity, and it will only make sense if you twist your brain around 270 degrees and stand on one foot and think about it in the moonlight. But in a good way!

I've already talked about these books a bit by way of disliking Seanan McGuire, who was doing some of the same stuff but not nearly so well. But I want to say, more directly, that this series is principally about being a child out of place and subject to inexplicable forces – a child displaced to fairy, or a troll displaced to Chicago. It matters, very much, that this book is set in the 1940's when our heroine's mother, like the other women of her generation, is going to work for perhaps the first time. It matters that September knows she should not eat in fairyland, but manages to complicate and muddle the rule beyond recognition. It matters that the displaced troll becomes a hero among his schoolyard peers for discerning the rules of their world and writing them down. "All children are changelings," this series says near the end, encapsulating five books into one thematic statement. Yes. That.

These are beautiful and wonderful and wise and sad and weird and I really love them. And fine, they're fucking "lush" okay.
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Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota)

4/5 (this is me leaving some room for the rest of this series). I read this months ago while traveling, and also explaining this book takes many many words, so let me shorthand. Futuristic post nation state post organized religion sorta post gender science fiction about powerbroking and politics and miracles. And really, really awesome. Have some bullet points.

• I think the SF field is going to bend around this series, once it's done. Just a feeling. And I'm personally looking forward to all the books that are going to be fans of this series and arguing with this series and really mad at this series. Not just that I think some of those books are going to be good books, but also that I think it will all take us through some philosophical territory that I'm looking forward to.

• Remember how I complained that the linguistic gender stuff in Ancillary Justice was fun but kinda pointless? Yeah, this book is set in a culture where the polite pronoun for everyone is ungendered, and it is doing so much stuff with that, I probably lost track. Our narrator plays with gender occlusion and disclosure in hilarious and pointed ways. You end up in the end with a pretty clear idea of who is supposed to be what gender, but very little certainty that you are right, but a lot of certainty that being right is so not the point. Because fundamentally, gender in this book is about performance of a gendered role – often a gendered stereotype – and the narrator is therefore generally uninterested in what is actually in people's pants. It's great, and I look forward to future developments, and I also think this Strange Horizons reviewer really did not get it (that review does give a much more detailed picture of the worldbuilding than I do, though, along with what I consider a spoiler).

• This book fucks with genre. It's science fiction that uses the word "miracle" with deliberation. And the miracle in question – animating objects like toy soldiers with a touch – is jarringly weird in this secularized, very sciency future. I struggled with this for a while, until a twist introduced a particular kind of ridiculously terrible, over-the-top violence into the book, into this society that barely knows what murder is anymore, and I went 'ah' and started looking for other pieces that don't fit. That break the pattern in your head, break your assumptions, make you uneasy and unhappy the way the word "miracle" made me uneasy and unhappy. If this society makes it through the whole series intact, I am going to be very very surprised.

• I laughed. Out loud, unexpectedly, and very ungracefully, in the middle of a sidewalk. It was at the word "Jehovah." Oh, how I laughed. You'll know it when you see it.

• A lot of specfic set in the future is anchored unmistakably in the twenty-first century. Like there are two points in history – today and the speculated future – and the only work of worldbuilding is to draw a line from here to there. This book draws its line instead from the nineteenth century (mostly), which makes for an entirely different and richer experience of created history. Not a totally new idea – Robert Charles Wilson tried this in his Julian Comstock, but this is far more successful.

Next book in December, please and thank you.

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