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Provoked, Beguiled, and Enlightened

3/5. Historical M/M trilogy featuring a Scottish nobleman and a rising young lawyer who have a lot of sex while failing to communicate, until eventually they do.

These are nice, and doing, you know, stuff with class and with the protagonist's different ways of being queer in a hostile historical context. I think the books are a little too interested in deciding which of them is right, when I don't really think there is a right way here. But that's beside the point. The point is, the audios of these are read by a gentleman with the spectacularly Scottish name of Hamish McKinlay, who has the voice and accent of someone named Hamish McKinlay, and who thus lends these a great deal of charm.
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The ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

And here I thought I was getting my epic fantasy mojo back. I gave this doorstop about a hundred thousand words, and it was all teenaged boy carrying a powerful magical artifact also he has mysterious (not really) parental origins, and also he's an accomplished thief, and also also he has a thing for a sex slave who gets fridged, and I was like nah bro. The "twist" in this one is that apparently the prophecy of which he is the subject (because obviously) is about how he's going to destroy everything, not unite the kingdoms, but eh, I'm not gonna read a couple million words just to say good riddance at the end. Book somewhat redeemed by the text being peppered with generally crabby footnotes disputing its accuracy and sense.

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

One of those unusual books that I am abandoning for being too good at what it is doing. This is a dark fairy tale transformative work about the girl rescued from the dragon, which as everyone knows means she is to marry the prince, whether she wants to or not. The world she finds herself in is so stifling and quietly terrifying; I suspect there is a satisfying ending here, but it was just so stressful along the way. Quite a good twisted feminist story if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.
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The Light Brigade

3/5. In a future where corporations have replaced governments, a teenager joins the military to fight in the war against the "aliens" on Mars. This involves speed-of-light travel, which unintentionally sends a few people, including our protagonist, bouncing back and forth along their timeline, experiencing the war completely out of order.

I'm a sucker for time travel, and the ¾ of this book which is nonlinear scratches that itch. But I didn't otherwise like it as much as a lot of the early reviewers. Yeah, maybe it's the relentless brutality and Hurley's compulsive addiction to body horror (I mean, we've all got our writerly things, but jeeeeeeesus). Maybe it's that this book is in conversation with a lot of classic texts – scifi and not – that I either don't like or have never read. Maybe it's the deeply unsubtle anti-capitalist messaging. I mean, I respect the need to scream about these things, which this book does, but that was a lot of screaming with absolutely no subtlety or complexity – there's even speechifying -- and now I have a bit of a headache.

I do like the approach to time travel here. Paradoxes exist, and loops, and different endings depending on whose point-of-view you consult. But can someone explain the ending to me? Specifically, we spent all this time establishing the possibility of paradox and breaking out of a loop, and then spoilers ).

I think it explains this book to say that there are two halves of this story: there's a brutalist nonlinear war half about a person embedded in a system that commands her to perform a series of atrocities, and there's a mostly linear half about a person learning to deprogram herself and get rid of a lot of toxic political baggage. And this book totally skips that second half because that's just not what it's interested in, even though it does want the fruits of that character development.

I dunno, I think I'm realizing that I like Hurley's commentary – her blog and podcast are great – but her fiction is really not for me.

Content notes: Everything. Often twice. With extra bodily fluids and death. Oh, except rape. Refreshingly none of that.
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The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

2/5. Sloppy eighteenth-century fuckboy is a privileged asshole, goes on tour, is tragically in love with his mixed race male best friend, improves minorly as a human being.

On the one hand, I acknowledge that it is important for people to write about assholes when they know they are writing about assholes. And to write about assholes who only improve in the most marginal sense, because that's usually how human beings work in the real world. No grand revelations, no big turnaround. Just a long series of fuckups with slowly improving reasons for the fuckups.

On the other hand, that's not very satisfying or enjoyable.

On the other other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the people who don't like this book don't like it because the protagonist – gasp – sleeps around while being in love with someone, the horror.

On the other etc. hand, I realized I kind of don't like it not because he's an eighteenth-century fuckboy but because he's really, uh. Not bright. Not just uneducated but, um. A very dull spoon. Which probably makes me no better than the above people.

On the other etc. hand, there is something really offputting about how this book frames the child abuse, almost like a character trait. Like his only good character trait, somehow. It's hard to articulate this, but it feels like the points at which we are supposed to decide we like him after all are when he's acting the way a lot of abused kids act.

Basically, I have a lot of problems with the fantasy of wokeness that this book is diverging from. You know, the version where he magically learns self-reflection and consideration for others and an understanding of the race and class and gender and wealth pyramid that he stands on top of. But it turns out I also have problems with this version of the counternarrative, where he continues to be an asshole who gets everything he wants, up to and including the boy, but he's such an asshole that you're like "but why do you like him? For real? Why is this story even about him?"
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The True Queen

3/5. Sequel to her Sorcerer to the Crown. Amnesiac Malaysian sisters need to go to magical regency Britain to deal with a curse; they get entangled in deeply complicated faerie politics.

I had the same reaction to this as to the previous book: I found it delightful in its elements, but unsatisfying in its whole. And I can't figure out why? It's doing all sorts of things I like – sisters and loving difficult people and dealing lightly but not shallowly with the realities of being a person of color in Britain at this time, oh, and there's a cute lesbian romance. But somehow I don't finish these books and sigh in contentment? I just smile vaguely and think about how that one bit was entertaining, and wasn't it charming when.

Still worth reading, because the elements are that charming. Worth it for the dragons alone.
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She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

4/5. Quick, everyone write your erudite yet personal doorstops on genetics! It's apparently what one does now. Luckily, there's a lot to say; this book has remarkably little to no overlap with Mukherjee's, which came out around the same time.

I read this over a . . . complicated few weeks in March while waiting to find out if my 2 in one hundred thousand diagnosis is the 1 in 1.25 million that is now treatable (it's not – don't say your sorry, it's based in ableist assumptions about what I was going to do with this information, and your ableist assumptions are quite possibly wrong) and also while waiting for the amnio results that would likely decide whether my pregnancy is ending in a live birth or not (baby is absolutely fine, exhale, it's okay).* So yeah, an interesting few weeks to be reading about the applications and misapplications of genetics.

It's a good book; less technical than mukherjee's in a lot of ways, and also a bit less philosophical, but with fascinating diversions into mosaicism and how we could probably wipe out mosquito-born malaria in a few years if it weren't so terrifying and possibly unethical. I do have to say that the author is pretty interested in his personal genome which, fair enough. But I've come to realize that listening to someone else talk about their genes is about as interesting as listening to someone else talk about their dreams. Which is to say, 90% of the time, it's of great significance to the speaker and absolutely none to anyone else in the world. Seriously, have you ever had to sit through someone recounting in excruciating detail what percentage of which part of their heritage comes from different parts of Europe? No one cares but you! In the 10% of really interesting discussions might be this fascinating story, which is of course interesting because it only starts with genetics but has to do with so much more.

*Oh yeah, that. Yeah. I'm due at the end of the summer. :D
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Dark Orbit

2/5. Scifi about an expedition to a supposedly uninhabited planet, except whoops it isn't and the natives are a population of all blind people.

No thank you. This would be unexceptional workmanlike scifi if it weren't for the magical disabled people plot. They can do a *handwave* thing with their minds because, like, not seeing has freed up parts of their brains? And a sighted person can learn to do this thing by living in the dark for a long time? Oh, and this unsighted society has no concept of angles or, apparently, of embodiment in the sense that one of them had to have it explained to her that her hand was her hand and that it could reach out to manipulate objects in space once she was learning to see? I'm sorry, I've known a lot of totals in my time, and yeah they sometimes have unusual notions of spatial relations, but honestly. What the screaming hell.
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The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

4/5. Leckie does fantasy. You should know up front that half of this book is in second person, and all of it is narrated by a rock, and it is great. I fuckin' love that rock.

Seriously, this book is wonderful and unusual. It has this poised, restrained quality, right up to the point where it really doesn't anymore. I mentally shrieked at the last line. And Leckie is in such exquisite control of the stuntwriting here, it's just, I finished this and wandered around saying "Damn. Just damn," for a while. This is my favorite of her books so far, hands down.

I'm not really saying what this is about, am I? Um. It's about a very clever trans man accompanying his superior to the city to undertake a complicated magical inheritance, and plots, and international relations, and oh yeah the wars of gods who make things true by speaking them, so they'd better be damned sure they have the power to back up their words. Also a rock. I fuckin' love that rock.
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City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles

4/5. Trilogy spanning twenty years of spies and intrigue and divine plotting in the century after an enslaved nation rose up and killed the gods of their enslavers, tumbling an entire civilization into ruins as the miracles on which it ran disappeared.

I tell you what is miraculous: these are fantasy novels written by a man, and I really enjoyed them. They are complex and creative, with a rich constructed history. And equal streaks of adventuring (funicular battle! Spy nonsense!) and deep melancholy over wrongs done and wars lost and won. Thematically, they are asking questions about the value of suffering, and answering very decisively that there is none, thank you very much.

Also, there are women in these books. Just being there and doing things and, for the most part, driving these books forward. I do get now why some people ding them for a particular treatment of queerness but eh, it didn't ruin these for me.
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I'm really getting into this, it's so freeing.

Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Post apocalypse fantasy California. I remember that this was very concerned with transliterating stereotypical American high school drama onto post apocalypse survivors, down to the mean rich girl. Lost interest.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

I should have known better when everyone described this as "lush," which is the kiss of death for me, but yeah, no. Hated everyone. Boring. Writing prettily about boring things is still boring.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Admittedly I came into this with a bad attitude, having seen the author behaving horribly to someone online once, but I got a third into this is-it-mental-illness-or-is-it-real bit of nonlinear nonsense and meh. I tend not to like that premise anyway, and I've seen it done better.
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Rag and Bone

3/5. Historical M/M. A magician who is trying to learn to live on the right side of ethics after being raised by an evil user navigates a tricky relationship with a paper seller across barriers of race and temperament. This whole series steers far closer to horror than I usually like, but Charles is just so damn good at it. Otherwise, the relationship here didn't do much for me; they are both convinced in different ways that they aren't good enough for the other, which is the sort of thing that makes me deeply unsympathetic and mutter get it together, JFC at the parts which are supposed to be tugging my heartstrings. But I'm basically a reptile, so.
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How Long 'til Black Future Month: Stories

4/5. Short fiction collection ranging from hard SF to dark fairy tales and back again. Jemisin's introduction is about how she taught herself to write short fiction; it made me think about how I might need to teach myself more about reading it, since I'm not very good at that. And since my ability to finish things remains spotty (siiigh), now seems as good a time as any. A few notes (links go to online versions):

"The Evaluators": A deeply creepy epistolary hard SF story about predation and loneliness and population control. Reminded me of Tiptree in the way it uses blank space to fill in the horror. Lingered in my mind.

"The Effluent Engine": This is not the most cutting or most weird or most inventive story in the collection, but it's the most fun for my money. I knew Jemisin was working on a new novel based off a short story in this collection but didn't know which one; I was sad to discover it wasn't this. Steampunk lesbian Haiti freedom fighters in historical New Orleans! Come on!

"The City Born Great": This one is apparently the basis of the new book. I went from 'okay, I'll read it obviously,' to 'ugh, really?' when I found out it has roots in Lovecraft because really? More? Must we? But reporting on where she plans to go does sound enjoyable. Anyway, this is one of several stories in the collection that deal with cities being or coming to life; I can see how rich this soil might be for a novel or a trilogy about New York.

There are many other stories here, most of them barbed or clever or thought-provoking, most about brown people of various sorts, most about power and who has it and who doesn't. It's all great stuff, unsurprisingly.
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4/5. Industrial historical-ish fantasy about a wealthy son of the magic elite run away from magical enslavement to become a doctor; there's also a murder mystery and a queer romance with a not!fae.

Another vacation book. I quite enjoyed this. It had the trick of being about very serious things – murder, discrimination, enslavement – and yet not requiring me to take it particularly seriously. This may not be a virtue in all settings, but in my circumstances, it was. I do think it was overstuffed with things! That need! To happen! Particularly in the last 20%, but whatever, there was smooching and a satisfying resolution to complicated messy family stuff.
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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

3/5. A philosopher and avid diver tells us at length about various cool things regarding octopus and cuttlefish cognition. It's all by way of making the interesting argument that cephalopods have evolved consciousness – with a digression into what that means – on an entirely separate track from us. So they are the closest we will probably ever get to encountering alien sentients. It's cool stuff which I mostly read while lying on assorted Bermudian beaches and poolsides, because this is what I read to relax. This book does not really get into what octopus consciousness tells us about our own, which is what I was hoping for; it's more of the "gee isn't that neat!" school. It is pretty neat, though.
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A few more abandoned books.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Unusual setting for a fantasy novel (I don't think I'd read any set in an actual arab country before, though I've read several since trying this) but I realized I was reading entirely for the setting and wincing my way through putting up with the characters. So much teenaged shouting and pouting, it might as well have been anime. Meh.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

So this is actually really compelling. It's a bunch of oral histories of life before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are stark contrasts here – there are the people who loved the union and whose lives and identities were shattered by its collapse. The profundity of the wound they suffered is extraordinary to read about; they didn't lose a nation, they lost an entire way of being. And then there are the others whose experience of the union was one of violence and terrible deprivation. Their memories are even more complicated. So basically, no one has a happy story to tell here. Content notes for antisemitism, death, torture, mass killing, etc. So yeah, this is a truly compelling book, but I lost my place somewhere in the middle – smack dab in a recollection of a mass execution – and I think I'm good.
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An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

4/5. Aster was born into the slave class on a generation ship centuries into its flight. She is the closest thing her people have to a doctor, and on the spectrum, and she is trying to figure out what her dead mother knew about the ship and its secrets.

This didn't punch me quite as hard as it did many of my friends, but I think that's because I was holding myself carefully back from all the ways this book could hurt me. I got some potentially shatteringly bad news while already halfway through this book, so I simultaneously couldn't take it and also desperately wanted to know what would happen. So I wrapped myself metaphorically in cotton and didn't let this book at where I live. Which it was unerringly aimed at, to be clear.

This book is at its brutal best with its people. One of the secondary characters, whose mental illness is profound and infuriating and maddening and evocative of great tenderness will stay with me for a long time. And the delicacy of the relationship – a little romantic, but that seems too small a word – between the neuroatypical protagonist and a genderqueer person was beautiful. I think this book was less successful in its science fictional elements, and the ending in particular answered some of the practical who-what-where questions, but really none of the more profound questions. So frustrating.

But yes. This is great, and I really want to read Solomon's fourth book, or fifth, or sixth. That one is going to be somewhere unfathomably further along the greatness curve and it is going to knock my socks off.

Content notes: Slavery, brutality of all kinds, medical procedures.
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Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

3/5. *Shows up fifty years later with Starbucks*

Hey, did you guys know that Delany is a kind of brilliant weirdo? Yeah, you probably did. This is a decadently weirdo short novel about a woman who is a famous poet, a code-breaker, and a ship captain (just go with it, I did) trying to teach herself an alien language. It's playing with an old hypothesis of linguistics – about language shaping and circumscribing thought – which has generally fallen out of favor, and it includes such delightful interludes as a conversation between two people where one of them has not grasped the shifting semantics of "you" and "I" so he refers to himself as "you" and his interlocutor as "I" throughout. Look, either you think that's delightful or you don't. Scenes like that one elevated this book for me, whereas otherwise it might have been an inventive but ultimately unengaging story.

You do have to read this a bit as historical document. I'm not just talking about the sexism, but also how our sense of style changes over time, such that Delany's efforts at shoehorning in splainy monologues looks deeply amateurish to the modern eye. And on a different topic, I wanted some in depth criticism looking at the suggestion this book makes that the main character was born autistic and was . . . re-molded? Into a neurotypical-ish person (except she totally isn't). I didn't know what to make of this, and couldn't find anything of real depth about it – if you know of anything, speak up.
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I switched digital book players, which means I still have all my books but I lost my place in everything (seriously! WTF?) so I am admitting defeat on things I can't be bothered to remember where I even left off on. A few notes:

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Lots of people love this jadepunk gangster secondary world fantasy, and I tried, but I just hated all the men and their machismo problems and couldn't hack it beyond the 1/3 mark. I suspect there's some interesting stuff in there re the pointedly off-page woman-led rival gang, but eh.

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Lovely and atmospheric historical YA about a girl who can see ghosts and also there's industrialization and emotional abuse. Nothing wrong with it; just not in the mood and now it's been too long.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

*Stares dead-eyed into camera* I hate Kizzy. Hate. She and her manic pixie wokeness and really this entire book were trying so hard, my teeth hurt.
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Half-Resurrection Blues

2/5. Urban fantasy about Carlos who is half dead and makes various people all-the-way dead for mysterious supernatural forces.

Chalk this one up to an author whose online presence I enjoy but whose book I kinda didn't (see also: Jim Hines, Saladin Ahmed). The best character in this book for my money is New York City; it's colorful and loud and smelly and polyglot. And way more fun to spend time with than the main character, who has total amnesia regarding his life, in his defense. So there's not a lot there. And what is there seems to consist of his penis and the really shitty way he behaves in order to stick it into the woman he wants to stick it into. Yikes. Further books in this series might fill him in more, but eh, I have better things to do than take the chance.
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Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy

3/5. This was a rec from someone at NPR and, uh, oh boy yes it sure was a rec from a person at NPR. I kid with love. Anyway, this is about 60% pregnancy/miscarriage/birth/post-partum memoir written by a woman of color, 20% "science," and 20% cultural commentary from a feminist and sort of intersectional perspective (I don't actually give anyone's intersectionality credit when it doesn't include disabled people, and hers doesn't seem to). I came for the science, and ended up enjoying the memoir. I've read a lot of miscarriage and birth stories, and a good writer – which she is – can make something you've heard a thousand times real again. This turned out to be good, because the science parts of this book are supposed to be the things that women just don't know about their bodies, and, uh, I already did? Maybe it's the circles I move in, but these "revelations" about the prevalence of untreated pelvic injury and the specific mechanisms of immune support via breast milk are not news to me. She's not wrong that they should be more widely understood, though, and in general I'm in favor of this movement towards science-based pregnancy and birth practices (though in the case of this book, underpinned with an amount of woo about trusting women's bodies that I wasn't quite ready for).

Basically, it's an NPR rec book.


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