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The Whitefire Crossing

2/5. Fantasy about the smuggler hired to get a runaway mage across the mountains to the sort of rival magical city.

Meh. It's not just that this book alternates between first person and close third, which is one of those things you can totally do . . . if you have a reason for it. There is no reason here.

It's not just that. It's mostly that there's a pattern to the women in this book, such as they are. They're either tortured and murdered to fuel male angst . . . or kept as an unwitting hostage by one man to control another . . . or lied to and shuffled offstage the moment the plot starts happening to keep them safe or . . . actually, I think I've run out of women.
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When the Moon Was Ours

2/5. A girl with a complicated past grows roses from a wound in her wrist; the local "witch" girls want the roses for their own ends.

Well, on the plus side, this is a great example of a book where representation works so much better when it's not done on the 'one and only' model. There are two trans characters in this book who are in very different places in re their identities, their bodies, and their transitions. And because there are two of them, it is so much easier to take each of them where they are, as a person, rather than – unfairly but inevitably – as some sort of comment on trans people in general, or transition in general, or or or.

On the other hand, this book is 70% symbolism by volume, with a plot tossed over top. These are not the proportions I like my fiction to have. I spent this whole book like, "Wait, that wasn't a metaphor, the pumpkin literally turned to glass? Oh-kay . . . what does that mean? What do the paper moons mean? What about the – oh, for fuck's sake."

Either this novel really ought to have been novelette length, at most, or it is so so so so not for me. Or both.
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The Iron Hunt

3/5. Urban fantasy about the loner woman with demons who live in her tattoos trying to slot herself into a life with a partner and friends while the potential apocalypse comes.

Yeah, so, most people probably know Liu now through her comics, but I knew her from a long-ago series of recs from several different people that left me with the strong impression that she writes delightfully batshit stuff with, like, hot gargoyle-on-lady action. So I finally grabbed this book – being one of the few options available in audio – and. I am saddened to report there is no hot gargoyle-on-lady action here. I mean, it's nice? There's lots of plot and cool worldbuilding and oodles of backstory barely hinted at. And a central relationship that is established and quietly awesome (he's so respectful of her, it's actually confusing!)

So I went and looked at Liu's website and it turns out this series is listed as "urban fantasy," and she has another series listed as "paranormal romance" which I suspect is what was recced to me.

And here's my question: why oh why oh why can't I have lots of plot and worldbuilding and interesting backstory and hot gargoyle-on-lady action? This does not seem so hard!*

And yet. Genre rules, kids.

*Aside from the gargoyle dick.
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Amberlough

4/5. Alt universe that I'm calling fantasy for lack of a better label. A queer intelligence operative reluctantly turns traitor against his government and supports the rise of a conservative coup, partly in an attempt to get a way out for himself and his not-really-ex, the burlesque-dancing drug smuggler.

Oof, this is good. It has the ugly brutality of a really good spy novel (the only sort of spy novel I can generally stomach). And, well. It miiiiiight not have been my best idea to read this book – about the things freaks and queers do to survive the fall of democracy and the rise of fascism – on the train every morning on my way to work. But I did, and in the end I'm not sorry.

This is sad and angry, and it has a big dose of if only they'd talk to each other, and I have complicated feelings about the ending, which is spoiler ). But I'm not mad about it because it turns out this will be a trilogy, and also it was . . . earned. In several different senses.

One of the smartest things this book does is introduce Cordelia – the desperately poor former prostitute – as a POV character. She's brought in as a beard at one point, and in most spy stories she'd be disposable. In this one her arc is towards increasing agency, increasing anger, increasing righteousness, increasing courage. She brings a really good angle to this book, which would otherwise be far too much about well-connected, very rich men moving chess pieces around a board.

Recommended. Not for the faint of heart.

Content notes: Torture. Written in a style that, were it filmed, would manage to be disturbing without actually showing you much.
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All the Birds in the Sky

4/5. She's a witch; he's an engineer. They find each other in the pressure cooker of junior high, lose each other, then come together again as adults in the weird petri dish of San Francisco on the brink of climate? Apocalypse.

My pick for the Hugo. (The Jemisin is also great, but it's middle-book-of-a-trilogy great, so). This is just weird and not quite like anything else and prickly. And surprisingly sincere. I tried to describe it and was deeply irritated to hear myself saying "it's sort of about genre," which is true in only the least interesting sense of this book. I mean, yeah, she lives in a fantasy novel and he lives in a science fiction novel, and their stories bleed together, but whatever, that's not interesting. And yeah, this book is slippery as a fish – it eels through a sort of grimly humorous A Series of Unfortunate Events phase, and then does this incredibly and specifically San Francisco twenty-something romance thing, oh and then there's an apocalypse, but whatever, lots of books change their spots. So then I asked myself what exactly I meant by "genre," and.

This book is about different modes of not just nerdiness, but of freakishness. And it's about different ways of approaching the big problems of humanity. Those are both pretty good definitions of genre, in this instance.
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Iron Cast

3/5. Boston on the brink of prohibition. Two girls – one black, one white, one the poor daughter of immigrants, one the daughter of wealthy socialites, one an empath through her music, the other able to bend reality with poetry – exercise their powers for good and for profit as the political tides turn against them.

I liked this. And, unusually, I liked it more the more I thought about it. I did spend the first third grumbling to myself about why this wasn't the queer romance it so clearly should be, but ultimately both of the male love interests turned out to be acceptable. Well . . . 1.5 of the love interests turned out to be acceptable.

This is jazzy and a bit flimsy to start, with more speakeasy! Gangster! Atmosphere than, you know, actual book. But it grows and turns and deepens as our heroines start to question themselves and the things they do. I mean, it could have deepened a lot more – for a book partly about bigotry, this one comes down awfully hard on the personal responsibility side of the scales, without giving adequate shrift to the role being the object of discrimination plays in a person's choices. But. I liked this.

Content notes: Some frankly disturbing depictions of institutionalization, medical torture, medical experimentation, etc.
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The Naming

3/5. Epic fantasy. Young girl is rescued from slavery and turns out to not only be magical but also the key to defeating the rising dark.

Things this book has:
• Original poetry by the author as epigraphs
• An interest in tracking when the heroine gets her period
• Swords with names
• Evil people whose evil is marked by their gender politics
• A prophecy.

And I liked it? IDK, here I was just speculating that I can't read epic fantasy anymore, and along comes this, so straight-faced, so Lord of the Rings with menstruation, so thematically significant weather and loving descriptions of the stones in everyone's magical rings, and I liked it.

Also published as The Gift
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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

4/5. Middle grade novel prequel to the popular comic. My wife loves the comic but hasn't read this. Below is a rough transcript of my commentary to her:

Ahaha, Squirrel Girl has just happened to a bunch of LARPers. . . . Aw, her parents are adorable. So supportive! They remind me of your parents when you came out*. . . . Aw, her deaf new best friend is crabby and adorable. . . . For the record, the villain's name is The Micromanager, just so you know. . . . Aw, she is adorable. . . . Oh now she's chatting with a bad guy about his poor life choices and how he really should be wearing a seatbelt when he's driving like that. . . . Ahahaha, she is texting with The Winter Soldier. Oh, now she's texting with Tony Stark about how she needs help from someone smart and resourceful, and she asked him for Bruce Banner's number, I'm dying, I'm dead. Ahaha she is trash-talking and her trash talk is that the villain "is going downtown without a bus pass."

There was also a longer conversation in there about how it seems that Squirrel Girl exists in a different genre than most of the other people around her. It's actually really interesting – the closer a person gets to her like her parents or her bestie, the more they become realized in Squirrel Girl's genre. That is, aggressively, unstoppably cheerful with a streak of zany. Whereas people in the background – like the mean girls at school – exist in a more typical high school novel whose rules Squirrel Girl doesn't so much ignore as just never notice. My wife says the comic has a similar function in the wider comics universe – Squirrel Girl is a streak of off-beat color in a grimdark sea. And that's the joke. And the not joke.

I loved this.

*She came out when she went home over her first winter break in college and when she got back to her dorm there were congratulations flowers waiting for her. How cute is that?
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Borderline

3/5. Millie, a double amputee, is recruited out of the psych facility where she is being treated in order to work for the organization monitoring the flow of fairies into Los Angeles.

This surprised and challenged me in a good way. For one thing, when you have a lot of friends with disabilities, as I do, you can't help but notice how often disability abhors a vacuum. It brings friends. And, yeah, no shit living in this world with a physical disability can precipitate a psychological disability, too. In Millie's case it's the other way around – her injuries are the result of a failed suicide attempt – but people don't like to write about multiple disability. It's "too much." But reading about Millie felt very familiar to me, particularly how the Nexis of oppression for her could shift from the physical to the psychological depending on the circumstances. I know this girl. I've known this girl a lot. She's had a hard life, every version of her. Her narrator voice does have an unpleasant tendency to 'splain Borderline Personality Disorder in such sweeping terms that she seems to reduce herself to her diagnosis, but it's in the service of explaining a lot of the things she does to readers who would mostly really not understand her, otherwise.

The challenging part is, well. Confronting my own internalized ableism as I read about Millie and screamed internally at her a lot and just wanted her to get her shit together, oh my god woman. But she can't. That's the point. And that was hard for me, whose presentation to the able-bodied world depends so heavily on having my shit together epically. I'm working on it.

Anyway. It's a good, surprising urban fantasy. The plot sort of runs on rails and you can, like, see where the author was working through her index cards or whatever, but it's good. And there's something rich to this world, to the link between fairy and the inspiration of creative work in Los Angeles. I will be interested to see where this goes.
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Signal to Noise

2/5. In 2009, Meche goes home to Mexico City upon her father's death. In 1988, Meche and her friends discovered that she could do magic with her father's record collection.

Oh man, I so wish I could recommend this, because parts of it are really good – the portrayal of several different and contrasting kinds of poverty, for one. But the structure here so completely did not work, I feel like it should be an example in someone's class. The 1988 story is tense and mean; Meche's parents' marriage is imploding, and her friend group is splintering around teenage hormones and bad decisions, and the magic takes Meche to some pretty dark places. She does things – everyone does things – that are scary and awful (I actually kind of hoped at one point that the twist of this book would be that it was Meche's villain origin story). And the 2009 story moves in the opposite direction, to a slow kind of grace and forgiveness. Except that turn to hope at the end is structurally placed right along side the destruction at the end of the 1988 strand and it just . . . nope. It does not work. The two strands slide off each other, and the gulf of years in between is a blank. Could it have worked? Oh yeah. It could have been good, too. But it doesn't, and I was so frustrated by the structure that it dulled the enjoyment of so many of the small vignettes in this book, and the love of music.
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The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

4/5. A strange, rather inexplicable short short novel about a trade caravan passing through a jungle where, if you leave the path, you could end up in another time or another universe.

Which is only the palest description of this weird, frustrating book. It's a queer love story whose queerness is part in gender, part in the alienness of the protagonists with their "godlike" heritage. It's an exercise in code-switching from the trappings of epic fantasy to a very specific kind of scientific discourse to a range of equally specific dialects, most particularly African-American slang. It's playful and deliberately dislocating – there's this great joke that Wilson plays where the reader is caught out with all of their startled attention on the word "nigga" in a sentence, while the narrative lays attention on a completely different word. It plays games like that with language and the code-switching, and it is beautiful and playful and interesting.

Reviewers have said this is a novella questioning the underpinnings of traditional fantasy – its whiteness in a linguistic and cultural sense. I think that's right, but I also think there's a broader genre playfulness going on here. If you go off the path, who knows where you could end up, and this book goes way off the path.

And it ends ambiguously in exactly the way that I hate, but I'll let it go this time because this was otherwise such a unique trip.
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The Invisible Library

3/5. Irene works for a transdimensional library, which tasks her with retrieving a unique manuscript from a steampunk Britain with magic and fae and a Sherlock Holmes analog.

I liked this! I needed something uncomplicated – protip: don't read Illuminae when you are having a bad month – and this hit the spot. Bonus points for a protagonist who is some kind of queer, as yet unspecified; minus points for doing a lot of telling about the development of an unlikely friendship and not enough showing. But more bonus points for the actually terrible villain; minus points for the really really obvious setup for a later reveal which is going to be deeply wearisome Spoiler )no idea so mysterious gosh.
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The Memory Garden

3/5. In her late seventies, Nan orchestrates a reunion with her childhood friends. They have ghosts that need to be put to rest, and there are things Nan's daughter needs to know.

A deceptive book. I was impatient with the first third. Yes yes, I thought, they have dark secrets, their friend died under mysterious circumstances, Nan and her daughter both have a magical power, the garden is a symbol, yes. And all of those things are true, but none of them are quite what I expected. Yes, they have secrets, but they're much more complicated than the mere facts of what happened. And yes there are witches in this book, and they have a certain power, but the place where that power most readily intersects with the world is in supplying access to abortions. And yes, the garden is a symbol.

This book complexified and ramified as it went, and swerved into weird and back out into domestic, and over the other direction into scary, and then back to a quiet bittersweetness. It is exactly what I guessed it to be when I was impatient with it, but much more interesting and quietly rich. Lovely.

Content note: spoilers )
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Everfair

2/5. Alt history turn of the twentieth century story of a nation state founded in the Belgian Congo by a mixed bag of black and white socialists and proselytizers, and how they aim for "utopia" and . . . miss.

Yeah, it's inadequate to say that this book did not get my attention. More accurately, this is the book I read on the cross-country flight I took a week after the Inauguration in spite of the metaphorical trashfire in my work inbox out to see my parents, from whom I have been estranged for years, and specifically to say goodbye to my father, who went from having a bit of pain to being told he is dying in the course of a week. So like. There's some stuff going on.

This book is okay? I think? It's not to my taste – it is written in hundreds of tiny fragments loosely strung over thirty years. Not so much a tapestry as a bunch of carefully placed but unwoven pieces of thread. The fantasy elements are strange and, as they are rooted in religious practice and conflict, somewhat off-putting to me. Oh, and there's a long, painful central lesbian romance between AU E. Nesbit and AU Colette which would probably have meant more to me if I knew anything about either of them. I wanted to like their conflict over not!E. Nesbit's racism, but I found its resolution unsatisfactory.

Basically I described this book to my wife, who got more and more excited the more I complained about the bits I didn't get, so clearly there is an audience for this who is not me. But mostly, let's be fair: I read this two weeks ago and for the life of me can't clearly remember a damn thing that happened in it now, so. Don't take my word on anything.
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Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

3/5. Sweet young adult about the princess born with a clubfoot who goes on the run with her handmaiden and an apprentice dragonslayer after her cousin tries to take control of her tiny holdings.

Perfectly middle grade, which means pitched just right for the age range and a little too simple for my complete enjoyment. And I object a little bit to the heroine's journey in this. She is ready to give up her kingdom because so many of her subjects dislike her disability and treat her badly because of it, and the book takes her on a journey to discover that she was wrong and some of them really do love her anyway. And I just . . . I'm not really interested in these (extremely popular) narratives. I mean, if a person with disabilities perceives ableism in her community and is harmed by it, I don't think she's the one who needs to go on a journey of self-discovery, you know?

But this book surprised me in the last third. Dragons lurk throughout its pages, alternately frightening and pathetic, but I wasn't sure what the dragons were really for. Then they were for something, and that something was a metaphor about feminism and power and anger and restraint. Nice landing, is what I mean.
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Serpentine by Cindy Pon

2/5. YA about the sixteen-year-old foundling girl serving as handmaiden in a wealthy household, except whoops she's half serpent demon.

Dislike. I should have liked this – it's an Asian setting rather than medieval europe, there's a secondary lesbian romance subplot! – but I just . . . didn't. But it's the sort of dislike where I sighed a lot in boredom and kept asking questions about the paper thin worldbuilding, and not the sort that would, say, make me not want teenage girls to read this.
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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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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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