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The Snow Queen

3/5. On a planet whose only significance is the sea creatures who can grant extended life, winter is drawing to a close. Soon technology will withdraw when the wormhole closes, and power will change hands to the summers. The winter queen does not want that to happen, so she seeds the summers with her clones, hoping that at least one will survive to take her place.

My wife has two enormous framed prints, one of the summer queen, one of winter. They might be the cover art? They're currently in a closet, but they were hanging up in our last place with a lot more wall space (seriously, these things are huge). I said when we hung them that they ought not be across a room facing each other, so we ended up putting them on parallel walls offset to each other. Looking toward the same thing, but from a different place. That was accidentally correct on my part, since I hadn't read this yet.

This book is . . . strange, concerned with the shapes of relationships more than the relationships themselves, if you know what I mean. Concerned with the myth, and pacing out its convolutions with these particular people. This sort of thing usually irritates me. I know better than to read that YA series retelling Cinderella on a moon colony; I know it would not go well for me. I always catch myself so completely not getting the point. Like for the first quarter of this book, which I spent entirely focused on whether there is an Earth in this timeline, and if these are very distant Earth colonists, and if so did those Earth people carry this myth? Because they couldn't have, otherwise everyone would be way more self-conscious. But if they didn't, then –

Totally missing the point on these, that's me.

This did win me over. It's amazingly 80's and it made me laugh where it did not mean to, but at its heart it is about intersecting layers of exploitation; how this interstellar power is using a natural resource in, it turns out, a horrifyingly unethical way, how the queen's efforts to snatch power back make her complicit in that, how she in turn exploits her population as her plans spin out. There are intersecting images of captivity – animals in cages, people in cages, machine intelligences stuck on their tracks. It all ticks through with inevitability, which is a thing you don't see much these days. I did mention 80's.

Glad I read it, but this doesn't really speak to me.
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Wizard's Holiday (Young Wizards Series Book 7), Wizards at War (Young Wizards Series Book 8), A Wizard of Mars: The Ninth Book in the Young Wizards Series

3/5. More Young Wizards, with a definite science fictional turn in these three (well, more interplanetary travel and cosmic whatsits, anyway – the esthetics of the series remain solidly fantasy).

I liked these, but in a measured way. The series matures with our heroes, whose power is settling down into its adult channels after the exuberance of earlier, and they have to learn to live with that and develop the talents they have. I should find this excellent, and I do, but it was around this point in the series that I started really thinking about the philosophical underpinnings.

The enemy – The Lone Power – is supposedly the champion of entropy, of things running down. And the work of wizardry is to fight entropy wherever found. There's a lovely interview with Duane at the end of one of the early audios -- High Wizardry, I think -- in which it becomes clear that this is a reflection of her view of the world. And it's not mine. Entropy in this series wears the face of the Lone Power, who is alternately frightening and pathetic. And who, we know from book one, is ultimately losing. But he is specifically not the face of evil, even if the things he does are appalling. And there is something uncomfortably slippery in this notion of entropy, something very whoops, guess that just happens, which I think ducks the problem of the active evil that so many people choose to put out into the world. Like in one of these books, for example, the world teeters on the brink of war and mass violence, but it all stops when the kids deal with the magic mcguffin evil cloud. Which implies all sorts of things about world history, according to this universe, that I don't like.

I don't know, I can't get this out right. But essentially I think the philosophy of this series is a bit confused about personal responsibility, and for all its time with the Lone Power, it isn't really equipped to grapple with active malice.

It can grapple with other things, though. The philosophy of these books gets more difficult and adult when Nita's mother gets cancer; Nita's reaction to that and to the Lone Power bring a richness to this idea of bad things just happen. But it still doesn't really satisfy me.
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A Wizard Alone (Young Wizards Series Book 6)

1/5. Aaaaand then this happened.

Hoo boy. Plenty of people have taken this book to task over the years, and I was forewarned. But it still left an awful taste in my mouth.

So, in book six, Nita is working through depression after the death of her mother, and Kit is tasked with helping a new young wizard who is autistic. And it's . . . very sincere and trying so hard, and flavored with the usual kindness of this series. And all so absolutely pervaded with toxic ablism that you can't swallow any part of it without choking a bit.

It's not just the overtly ablest ending spoilers ), and it's not just the way the book parallels depression and autism in frankly weird and off-putting ways. It's the whole *gestures* the whole thing. The imagery used to talk about autistic communication. How at first everyone thinks what they're receiving is extra-terrestrial in origin. How this book implicitly and explicitly treats autism as alienness. As not human.

Duane has rewritten this book, too, and to her credit she apparently spent a fair amount of time absorbing the criticisms of autistic and adjacent readers. But given certain events in the rest of the series, I have a hard time believing she would be able to extricate the overt ablism from the book. It's just too deep.
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So You Want to Be a Wizard (Young Wizards Series Book 1), Deep Wizardry (Young Wizards Series Book 2), High Wizardry (Young Wizards Series Book 3), A Wizard Abroad (Young Wizards Series Book 4), The Wizard's Dilemma (Young Wizards Series Book 5)

4/5. Adventures of Nita and Kit, pre-teen wizards in suburban New York.

I have been reading this series slowly for six months. I don't really go in for savor when it comes to books – it's just as good going down fast, fight me! – but once in a while I do. The first five are really strong. They're tense, beautifully-imagined stories of young people riding the first wild wave of power, and learning to use it wisely.

The first book is particularly accomplished, which is unusual for a series. It takes Kit and Nita to an alternate, dark AU New York; the creepy creepy image of the nest where the evil sentient helicopter raises its tiny evil helicopter babies has lingered. As has Nita, holding the book of life in which all truths are written, and lifting her pen, and making a mark. The structure serves these books well; Kit and Nita's greatest victory is the thing they accomplish first, and the rest of the books play out the consequences that echo up and down through time and causality.

Note: Apparently Duane has been editing and re-releasing these books with a modern update, since she has been writing them for thirty years and the 80's stuff is very 80's. I read the originals, and do not regret that decision at all. Frankly, I think her insistence on adding, like, cell phones to make these accessible to modern readers is misplaced, and sort of insulting. Are these early books very 80's? Sure. Is it startling to read about parents allowing their pre-teen children to take the train into NYC alone for a day? Uh, yeah. But I think I – and modern teenagers – are capable of understanding.
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The Fire's Stone

3/5. The one where the alcoholic prince, the suicidal thief, and the young lady wizard go on a mission to retrieve the stolen gem that keeps the volcano from erupting under their city.

Ahaha, bless. This is some kwality 1990 fantasy, this is. Written back when Tanya Huff was not, uh. Well, she wasn't very good, you guys. Points for queer romance, though they get taken away again for the way this book is about a poly relationship, but just can't ever, you know, come out and say that.

But the M/M/F triad is sweet, and clearly the heart of this otherwise kind of boring story. Which makes up for the wild overabundance of daddy issues, and the consistent erasure/irrelevance of mothers, and that terrible thing where a book signals to you that one of the heroes is a good guy because he decides not to have sex with a thirteen-year-old, what a good guy, you guys, applause. So all the things you'd expect, really.

Uh, the triad really is cute? And the book is currently $2.99, if any of this is speaking to you.
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Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Book 1)

3/5. Bland paint-by-numbers fantasy about the girl who is taken to court after discovering her hidden power that might save them all. Boy am I glad I read Six of Crows, Bardugo's fourth book, first. That one is complicated and scary. This one – her debut -- is derivative in the dull way, not the fun way. And it's never good when the love interest is in deathly peril and I start vigorously cheering for his death, because that could only improve things.

I mean, I guess it's a demonstration of how fast a person's writing can improve?
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Binti

3/5. Young woman from an insular, impliedly African culture leaves Earth against her parents's wishes to accept a scholarship. On the way, her ship is attacked by aliens.

Scant, interesting novella about the costs and rewards of cultural interchange, and different kinds of cultural violence. Worth reading for that, but I was honestly more interested in the *gestures* more diffuse experience of reading this. When witness to the violent deaths of her new friends, the heroine closes her eyes, holds still, and prays. Which is not the way I am accustomed to the heroines of SF reacting. Binti's heroism is subtler, more complex and interconnected than being able to steal a weapon and shoot back. Which is partly about her as a character, and partly about the cultural milieu of this novella, which is very different than what I'm used to. I liked it.
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The Wig in the Window

3/5. YA about the tween girls playing spy games at night who happen upon their neighbor acting suspicious.

Fair warning, I have had a huge Too Like the Lightning* hangover for a week and no book will satisfy me. This one is cute, and full of women! Like, brim full – every major relationship is between ladies of various ages. But it hit a lot of my embarrassment squick, subcategory kids doing terribly inappropriate things for good reasons that adults loudly disbelieve. Auuuuugh.

Still, if I had a tween girl in my life, I'd get her this. …And subsequently make sure she did not have a rope strategically tied to get out her window at night.

*Yes, yes, I read it. I have thoughts! …Someday.
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Bloodline (Star Wars)

3/5. Star Wars. Leia-centric Prequel to the new movie, telling the story of her loss of faith in the New Republic.

On the one hand, it's a Star Wars novel about a female character! On the other hand, it's clear that Gray was ordered from on high to hardly mention Luke, Ben, etc. to keep the slate completely blank for the next movie. That's, uh, really noticeable.

Anyway, I liked this, though I think Gray isn't entirely clear on how to write an adult novel. This book is about 40% galactic senate politics by volume, and it all has that smoothed over no nuance feel. Politics doesn't work that way. Parties don't work that way. Sentient politicians don't work that way. And more broadly, Leia Organa, veteran of the powerless Imperial Senate, doesn't become an us-or-them ideologue so bent on de-centralized government that she is with little exception incapable of working with those who oppose her views. I almost suspect that this whole thing is supposed to be a ham-handed commentary on the current state of American partisanship, but no, not quite.

Anyway, this is actually enjoyable, and makes sense out of certain things. But I still vastly prefer the Expanded Universe canon, which has a much richer view of the New Republic political scene. Of course, it has a billionty books to do it in, so.

However, props for the hilarious and sneering commentary on those people who "ironically" buy Imperial memorabilia. Empire hipsters. I die.
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Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch)

4/5. Last book in the trilogy. My enduring image from this book, and the series, will I think always be, three formerly-enslaved artificial intelligences sitting around a table genteelly sipping tea and discussing what they're going to do with their self-determination. I mean, there this series is.

I finally really like this series, with this book. I enjoyed the first but didn't go into raptures, and thought the second was oversimplified and disappointing. But this one is truly wonderful. It is deeply concerned with personhood and the functioning of complex power structures, but also flavored with Leckie's unique brand of light absurdist comedy. I mean, this is a book that manages to say things about alienation and outsiderness through an extremely weird running joke regarding fish, fish cakes, and fish sauce. I think I finally tuned my brain to the correct wavelength, or Leckie finally really hit her stride, or both, because this all finally clicked together into the weird, tipsy, anti-imperialist, seethingly furious mechanism that it is.

I still think the linguistic gender work is a bit of a misfire, magnified by the way recording audiobooks of this series requires an implicit commitment to gendering Breq, which is pretty terrible no matter how good the narrator is. But the effect of using the universal 'she' pronoun is lovely, even if it works less on a meta level the more I think about it. It obviously has a useful function in that it prevents the reader from automatically positioning people in relation to each other based on their gender. And I'm not even talking about heterocentrism here – you can't queer this narrative either, because there's no queerness. That's helpful in that it gets a lot of shit out of the way so that this power structure can exist on its own terms. But it could have done a heck of a lot more (why doesn't anti-imperial sentiment manifest in rebelling against the Radch concept of gender? Wouldn't there be radicalism in having binary and trinary and etc. gender paradigms? Just for a random thought).
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Six of Crows

4/5. Fantasy heist caper where the team of lowlifes and outcasts has to break someone out of the unbreakable prison, also politics.

"Caper" seems like the wrong word. Far too cheerful for this tense book that manages to balance grimdark with humaneness better than anything I've read in a while.

One of those books that I think is classified as young adult only because the protagonists are under eighteen. (Well, and because YA is often more lucrative). Because this is otherwise an entirely adult book about adult themes – the costs of survival, the rigged game of life when you don't hold power, being the dupe, being the one duping. I really liked this. The heart of this book is partly the heist, but it's mostly the team, and its interlocking sets of relationships, romantic and otherwise. It would be a wild oversimplification to say that this book is about hardened people coming to care for each other, because it is vastly more messy and satisfying than that. But if simplification you must have, there you go.

Oh, and did I mention half of the team is composed of persons with disabilities? Because it is.
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Finder

2/5. Orient, who can find things just by thinking about them, teams up with a cop in the town between faerie and reality to solve a drug case and murders.

And I'm two for two on finding Emma Bull books deadly boring. This one at least has an interesting setting and cast of quirky background townies; too bad about the main players, the plot, and, you know, everything else. Well, that's not entirely true – the lady cop is competent and layered and interesting, and why the book had to be about some dude instead of her is totally baffling. … No it's not. We all know why the book is about some dude.

Though, to complicate what I just said, I spent the last half of this book reading the narrator as an agender person. It's easy to do – he accepts male pronouns, but has otherwise almost zero internal sense of gender, let alone external gender signals. Is it deliberate? Is it just empty characterization? Who knows, but either way, reading it in did not make this the least bit more interesting.

Uh. It's currently $2.9 9 on Kindle, I feel obliged to mention.
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The Countess Conspiracy (The Brothers Sinister Book 3)

3/5. Historical romance. He's a controversial and successful scientist investigating inheritance patterns! She's the woman whose work is presented under his name because that's the only way it will be accepted!

Oh man, I'll say one thing for Courtney Milan, she always leaves me with a lot to think about.

This is almost awesome. It's full of things I like, including frank discussions of infertility, sex other than penis-in-vagina (this is quite rare in historicals), a network of women looking out for each other, female genius, difficult families.

But I just can't. If I wanted to make a joke out of it, I would say that I've never read a het romance during which I muttered "have these people never heard of anal sex?" so many times. (For real though, endless drama about how she can't ever ever risk pregnancy, so penis-in-vagina sex is really fraught even with birth control, but this is a het historical so even Milan won't go there). I could say that I found the extreme emotional pitch of this book way out of my taste. The hero and heroine have fraught, quavery-voiced conversations from page one to the very end, and it was just too fucking much.

But here's the real heart of it. This book is, as most people will conclude from reading the synopsis, about a kind of coming out. The heroine tells the truth about her work, eventually, to various people in various ways. And while the book does an . . . okay job presenting the social and familial consequences that come down on her head for it, the structure is enraging. It aligns the coming out with the heroine's journey to reclaim her self-worth and identity, and I hate these narratives. You know what I'm talking about, where a piece of media implicitly tells you that being in the closet is about the closeted person's issues, not about, you know, danger or fear of reprisal or privacy or or or. When done in queerness narratives, this sort of framing is poisonous. It's not much better here, in my mind, where a secret is kept to protect a woman from misogyny, but hey it's cool, she can bust the closet door down once she believes in herself. Because, as we all know, that's how you overcome misogyny. Aaaargh.

Whatever. This is a very good historical about mostly feminism, and it will not drive many people bonkers the way it did me. Also, it's on sale right now, if that's relevant.
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Foreigner: (10th Anniversary Edition) (Foreigner series)

4/5. A displaced colonial population of humans is forced to co-exist with aliens on an industrializing pre-spaceflight planet. Only one person is allowed to contact the aliens and act as ambassador and interpreter. He becomes entangled in local alien politics, and bigger things.

Wow, okay. This is my first Cherryh, and I came to it with an uninformed notion that she pumps out a lot of bland space opera. Wrong wrong wrong. This is strange and difficult, with a chilly interior landscape in ways that are hard to describe.

The first three-quarters of this book is, on the surface, very slow, consisting almost entirely of people drinking tea together and having a series of assortedly confused or awkward conversations. Then the book turns into an intense nail-biter of physical and emotional endurance. This turnabout is completely and fairly foreshadowed, mind, but I still wasn't quite ready for it. There's a richness here I did not anticipate. The foreigner of the title is the ambassador, the only human to appear in this book. The book is chiefly concerned with alienness of several kinds, the ambassador from his hosts and, ultimately, from himself. Cherryh is incredibly good at aliens here. She bypasses the physical almost entirely – these people are for the most part physically like humans, as far as we can tell – but that's just so she can put her finger on a more fundamental emotional and linguistic otherness. This book tosses out an alien word for an alien concept early on, and lets the reader come to several incorrect conclusions about what it means as the ambassador imposes his human ideas, catches himself at it, tries again, fails again. I'm not entirely sure I understand all of what happened here, but it was turning a lot of odd gears in unexpected ways, and it is supposed to be dislocating.

Clever, chilly, interesting.
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Faking It (Dempsey Book 2)

2/5. Contemporary romance. She's a gallery-owner and former forger. He's a conman. They meet in a closet while burgling the same house.

I so wanted to like this. And I did like it. Bad sex that gets better with work! People pretending to be law-abiding until they realize that they are both crooked and that makes them super hot for each other! Close communities of women! A cute dog!

But it was all so rape culturey, I just can't. JFC, he has sex with her while knowing she's not enjoying it, then gives her endless shit for faking an orgasm. Crusie has a really bad track record on exactly this issue, and I just. Yick. Clever banter does not make up for rape culture.
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The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth)

4/5. First in a . . . trilogy? About a land periodically destroyed by earthquake and resulting volcanoes, and the population that barely clings to life on it, and the few with the power to control seismic activity who are feared and enslaved for their gifts.

Excellent, depressing as hell. I was never more than lukewarm on the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. You know, those books that broke Jemisin's career open, and that it seemed compulsory to rave about for a few years there. Interesting, but never got me there, was my verdict.

This, though. It's another iteration of enslaved gods, in a way, but this one is tighter, meaner. Thematically, this book is all criss-crossed parent/child pairs of many sorts, actual and metaphorical. It's one of those books that centers women's stories without being about mothering, specifically, if you get me. It's clever and awful and compelling.

Points of interest: Queerness of several varieties, including genderqueerness and polyamory, are represented as part of the fabric of this story, without being particularly remarked upon.

Content notes: Various sorts of child harm, including infanticide by parent and . . . many other horrible things, come to think of it.
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The Blue Sword

2/5. Young woman is abducted by the king of a neighboring nation because magic tells him to, and then she gets a magical horse and then she magically becomes the best fighter ever in the course of six weeks and then she gets a magical sword and then she does magic things, the end.

Yeeeeeah, sorry, no, this bored me thoroughly. And it had me to start with, too; the opening quarter of this book is a slow, absorbing account of this young woman's introduction to a backwater military outpost, and there's a beauty to the way she falls in love with the desert landscape that everyone else just wants to escape. But then all the magic ex machina happens, and meh.

Also, the ethnic politics, yikes. Generalized spoilers )

But Light, you cry, I love this book and I read it a thousand times and you don't understaaaaand it.* Yep. That's right. I don't.

*Well, actually I think it's more like this book is of a different era and esthetic, and I was not in the frame of mind to read it as a historical document. I just wanted a damn book to enjoy.
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Mars Evacuees

5/5. Twelve-year-old girl is evacuated to Mars as the war with the aliens drags on. Then all the adults on the Mars base disappear.

Oh gosh, burble burble, this is woooooonderful. It's about war and fear of loss and actual loss and – go with me here – it is hilarious. The obvious comparison is The True Meaning of Smekday, which I also loved, and yeah, that's valid. Plucky and sarcastic kids accidentally reaching across the gulf of a species war to make a friend. But this book is also doing very different things. Like, in case this is relevant to anyone's interests, girls in space! Female friendship! Lady fighter pilots!

Also, this is going to make people who haven't read this book go "buh?" but the brilliance of this book, and the seriousness of it, are in its lightness. This book makes the education of child soldiers funny and endearing, okay, in a way that lifts you up and breaks your heart. It is this beautifully controlled but pell-mell first person narration, constrained by our narrator's youth and fear, illuminated by her irreverence. And it trips along, making you laugh and worry and laugh again. And then it stops, and takes a breath, a perfectly placed beat that makes you stop and clench your hands and say, oh very quietly.

It is just really, really good.
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Planetfall

4/5. Twenty years after a group of colonists follow a woman's post coma visions to settle on an alien planet, a surprise survivor born after the initial planetfall reaches the settlement. And then things start falling apart.

File this one under it was great. Never ever reading it again.

The narrator of this book – bisexual lady engineer in her seventies – is the sort of unreliable narrator who is mostly unaware of her unreliability. The first third of the book has that slow, creeping quality you get when this is done really well: you are following along, it's interesting, it's scifi, and then once in a while you go "wait…what?" And then you start to put things together, and the narrative pulls tighter and tighter, and the narrator's sense of overwhelming, impending disaster eats you up. This is one of the more terribly skillful renderings of someone with an anxiety disorder that I've ever read. And not just the narrator – her entire colonial society is gripped by it. So much so that I had to put the book down and walk away for two days in order to calm down. (I also nearly noped out of a huge huge public humiliation squick at a climactic moment, so take that under advisement).

So yeah. This is masterful, as psychological work. Psychological horror in some places. Not horror at mental illness, to be clear – the book is in other parts of its mechanism playing with some classic horror tropes, including Poe. The scifi elements are less successful, to my mind; I was frankly disappointed with that resolution in the last 5% of the book. It was reaching for something about the co-existence of religious belief and scientific belief, but it just didn't get there, I don't think.

Happy to supply specific spoilers/content notes in comments if desired.
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How to Howl at the Moon

M/M. A professional horticulturist, refugee from a betrayal, moves into a small town which just happens to be populated by shifters (dogs into people, not the other way around). And the sheriff (border collie, natch) thinks this guy is growing weed, so poses as a dog to investigate. Like…you…do…

DNF. This is fine! Some of you will totally dig it! I…could not.

I'm trying to be more selective about M/M. I mean, I have such a low hit-rate on this stuff, it gets depressing. So I've been trying to go with more friend recs. And this is good! Easton is competent and a little creative and funny in the right ways.

But oh God I cannot with this book. It turned me into a horrible person. It turned me into a victim-blamer. But for real, the horticulturist's backstory of being taken advantage of was pitched in such a way that I snapped, "oh for fuck's sake, how stupid do you have to be to get rolled like that?" Which is on me. What's not on me is the way this book likes his ineptitude, and the way it frames a sort of learned helplessness as attractive to the other hero. That is, like, the opposite of my buttons.

Read if you like dogs and, uh, presumably relationships where one person was briefly the other's pet? This book'll deliver on that.

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