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Illuminae

3/5. Is anyone else old enough to remember the documentation challenge from SGA Flashfic way back in the day? That's what this is. A story of two teenagers, who happen to be exes, who survive the destruction of their illegal colony and flee the planet with the evil corporate ships chasing them, but then the zombie plague starts running through their ships like wildfire. Except this is told entirely in documents – interview transcripts, chatlogs, various military files, intelligence summaries, AI data, etc.

This is about 80% extremely effective space horror/fight-for-your-life and about 20% facepalmy teenager terribleness. I do, however, want to pause to say that the commercial audio of this is excellent. It's a multi-voice production, with people playing parts so the chat logs sound like conversations. But the real power of the production is in a few, tiny sections, put in purely for the emotional impact. Like the excerpts from a casualty list near the beginning, or fragments of the messages a couple dozen people we never actually meet send out into the dark when they know they are about to die. The audio bleeds one voice into the next for the reading, so it's just this wall of – yeah. It works.

Much of the book works. It's awful and scary and grim as our heroine begins to suspect she is being lied to, and the plague heats up, and the ship AI starts to go . . . a little weird. But it's sprinkled through with such poor choices. Like blurring out the profanity – it's supposed to be an ironic commentary on the blah blah blah. It's mostly just irritating. And the teenagers are so cringily teenagers. Like, I kept telling myself it was good writing that they're so melodramatic and emo and ridic, but that didn't mean I rolled my eyes any less.

Still. This book got me in the end. The last quarter is so … harrowing is the only word I have. This is what young adult is allowed to be now, after Hunger Games. I do think that massive spoilers for the end )
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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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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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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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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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