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The Tensorate Series: Three novellas

4/5. Series of silkpunk novellas about the twin youngest children of the autocrat leader who are sold to a monastery until it turns out one of them is a prophet. Then things get complicated.

These got a lot of press for their approach to gender, which is not really what they are about but is a thing they are doing. And it's an interesting thing – gender in this universe is the result of a choice made out of a biologically nongendered childhood, which sounds like a more ideal system except, well. It may be a choice, but that doesn't mean it isn't a political or social bargaining chip, and that definitely doesn't mean everyone is happy to make it or interested in making it.

If you want to know what these are about about, that would be different paths to rebellion, and different paths to power – magic versus machinery, and who that empowers and who it doesn't – and family born and made. They are great, and stitched together they tell a story spanning decades that is not actually a novel because the story is unfinished aaaargh. There's a fourth this summer, apparently. I did not know that when I started, thankyouverymuch. Unrelatedly, I find it interesting that each successive novella is shorter. That is not the usual pattern with novella series; I think it speaks to Yang making these tighter, meaner, leaner as they go.

Content notes: Grief, child death, references to institutionalization and experimentation.
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Equal Rites

3/5. Discworld. The Witches books meet the Wizards books, to very . . . CIS gendered effect. Wizard magic is about wiz-boom, you see, and witch magic is about communities and healthcare and childbirth. I am sort of kidding – it is a little more complicated than that – but not by much. This book does half-assedly gesture at the idea that these are the same magic, really, and the gendered rules are stupid. But I'm not convinced Pratchett understood the more fundamental truth: that witch magic is quieter and less flashy and often simply less magic because a woman who acted like a wizard, who displayed that sort of overt power, would be lucky to be stoned to death. Better to be integral to the community quietly, to be feared but not too much. I'm really not sure he got that.
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The Monster Baru Cormorant

3/5. Volume two* in this epic fantasy about a queer woman who climbs the ranks of her imperial colonizers to take them down from within.

Hm, I am less sure about this. Is it dense and prickly and political? Yes. Does it have cut-glass edges that are very pretty and very sharp? Yep. Is it concerned with agency and oppression and other stuff I care about? Ye-es . . .

Are these doorstops going to be worth it in the end? Is all this violence and betrayal and slow flaying of the self to accomplish an impossibly destructive goal going to pay any sort of dividend? That, I'm less sure of.

*Not a novella! …Don't ask how many times I put this down and came back later.
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Iron Hearted Violet

3/5. Warm middle-grade about the funny-looking princess whose parents rule a kingdom in a world under a mirrored sky, except there is something awful lurking in the mirrors, oh and also there's a dragon.

Lovely. I'd give this to most pre-teens, definitely. It does a lot of the expected things with the princess's angst over her lack of beauty, but folds all that in a less usual story about the failings of well-meaning grownups and the bigger failings of gods.
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Murder Between the Pages

3/5. I'm leaning into the thing where I can't focus on anything of significant length, so instead I'm reading a lot of novellas and shorter YA stuff. This is an M/M novella about two best-of-enemies rival mystery writers teaming up to solve a murder at a bookstore in 1948. Insubstantial – there should have been some richness here regarding their mutual war service and the fingerprints it left on both of them, but none of that ever deepens into anything. Still, this is the sort of empty calorie canape my brain wants right now, so okay.
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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

3/5. Lovecraft transformative work about the professor at a women's college who sets out to retrieve a young student who has left with a man for the waking world.

I read a fair amount of fanfic for source texts with which I am unfamiliar. It's a fun brain exercise for me, filling in a (probably wrong) conception based on negative spaces and shadows. This novella convinced me yet again that I don't want to read Lovecraft; it's particular brand of embittered but enduring feminism suggests . . . unpleasant things. And standing on its own, without consideration of the source, this is a strange, twisty tale of a quest across dreamland and into the waking world, in which the odd setting illuminates character. Enjoyable, though as previously with Johnson's work, I don't quite get what all the fuss was about.
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Cards on the Table

3/5. Another M/M novella. This one paint-by-numbers Lanyon about a reporter recovering from an accident and investigating a fifty-year-old Hollywood murder, and his hard-bitten cop neighbor. Quite dull, but elevated by being precisely the sort of dull I was looking for. And also by amusing me through recent anachronisms that feel ancient: the main character here has Netflix . . . which he gets by mail.
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Wanted, A Gentleman

3/5. M/M historical novella about a matrimonial ad publisher (google it, it's interesting) accidentally teaming up with a former slave to retrieve an erring daughter of a wealthy house on a flight north to be married.

I was looking for something light and madcap, which the jacket copy suggested this would be. It's not particularly either of those things. It's not heavy, either, but there is a vein of bitterness and seething resentment running through this story. Our heroes find commonality in the experience of being told they should be grateful that their poor treatment was not worse, and how they both know, down in their guts, how wrong that is. That's not the most comfortable reading material, particularly in the case of the former slave.

So file under interesting story doing things that I wasn't looking for at the time.
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Station Eleven

4/5. Intersecting stories of a few dozen people in the years before and the years after the flu wipes out most of civilization, generally focusing on Kirsten, who travels with a symphony and Shakespeare troop through post-apocalypse America.

I wonder if this book would have worked as well on me when I'm in my usual crispy-fried cynic state, as opposed to my current weird hormone-induced weepy state. But whoever you are, you're you, I guess. I'm a weepy me right now, and this book sure did work on me.

It's a slow meander that spirals in and out of the years before and after the flu. There's something almost meditative in its convolutions. I went in thinking with some weariness, here we go with the Shakespeare, sigh, but actually, this book is not really about Shakespeare at all. There's one significant deployment of Lear, and the fact that it is so singular makes it work. In reality, this book is about the art we carry with us, and living in the wreckage of fallen civilization, and memories and what they are worth. The central text with which the novel is concerned is actually a fictional comicbook that a few of the characters have read. It's about hiding on a space station and living on these tiny, isolated islands, and yeah, it's really very on-the-nose. The whole thing is on-the-nose. But gently, somehow?

And yeah, I basically started leaking tears at the telescope scene, when she looks through and sees lights in a grid, and doesn't understand what she's looking at. And continued to leak periodically through the rest of the book. Oof.
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Mask of Shadows

3/5. Genderfluid street thief joins a hunger games-ish competition to the death to be the queen's next assassin; also, revenge plotting.

The hot-off-the-presses-at-fanfiction.net title gave me concerns, and the start of this book is a bit, well, that. But it gains confidence and momentum, and by the end I was quite enjoying this.

Also, I haven't read that much published fiction about genderfluid people, so maybe this is standard, but I appreciated how this book never bothers to collapse the waveform and tell us what the protag's biological sex is (well, it implies lightly, but you can take that or leave it). This reminded me of a well-meaning but often, uh, interesting friend of mine who read the Ann Leckie books and got obsessed with figuring out what everyone's "real" gender was. Which, yiiiiiikes. Why? And also no. So I think this book would really get under her skin, and that amuses me. Also, it occurs to me that fanfiction about genderfluid people, which I have read a middling amount of, is actually limited in a way, as you generally come to it with a pre-conceived notion of someone's sex.
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The Will to Battle

3/5. Yeah, either you know what Ada Palmer is about by now or none of this is going to make sense.

It took me six months to finish this. To be fair, there has been something increasingly awry in my brain for about that length of time, rendering it difficult for me to start a book and read it straight through. (This is a great trial, let me tell you. I'm genuinely upset by how many books I have in progress at any given time). But also, this isn't really a novel? I mean, this entire series has been couched in enlightenment stylings and structures, rendering it odd to the modern sense of rhythm. But this book in particular flings a lot of science fictional and novelistic conventions out the window and strings together a lot of set pieces and philosophical dialogues with, I am not kidding, increasingly bizarre imagined conversations between the narrator, the reader, and Thomas Hobbes.

Either you're down for that or you're not. I mostly was – this is a kind of diverting batshit erudition that you just don't see every day. But also, it's becoming increasingly clear that the philosophical questions Palmer is interested in may be interesting to me, but only so far as they are an unusual frame for science fictional storytelling. And not because, say, I'm actually interested in thinking deeply about providence.
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The Stone Sky

3/5. Conclusion to this well-decorated trilogy about the earth periodically destroyed from within and the people enslaved to stop it.

This was a little anticlimactic, even as it . . . climaxed and did all of the (mostly wrenching) things I was expecting it to do. I think it's that phenomenon where finally providing the science-fantasy explanation for WTF has been apocalyptically happening sort of . . . undercuts the wonder/horror of it.

But. But this is still thematically lovely, and painful, with interlocked adult/child, slaver/enslaved pairings that shift configuration in unexpected ways. And fundamentally this book is wrestling with some of the basic questions I see my friends wrestling with in a different context: when you live inside an unjust system, is it better to push for change or burn it all down? Better for whom? This trilogy's answers were what I thought they would be, though of course the road to get there, and all its complications, is the point.

Also, for those who care about these things, yes, there is ultimately a Watsonian explanation for the use of the second person POV. It's not just a random structural choice Jemisin made (I mean, it's really not random anyway, it's doing some important load-bearing, but you know what I mean).
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Love, Like Water

DNF. M/M about the severely traumatized law enforcement officer recovering from heroin addiction going off to his relative's horse farm and recovering through the power of animals and love of a good man. This is the sort of thing that used to really push my buttons, and now just bores me. And I'm really tired of that thing where the degree of trauma is somehow a measure of the strength of the love, you know? It leads to authors putting characters in wildly over-the-top traumatic situations, and more to the point, that's not how either trauma or love works.
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Just One Damned Thing After Another, A Symphony of Echoes, A Second Chance, A Trail Through Time, No Time Like the Past, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, Lies, Damned Lies, and History, And the Rest Is History, An Argumentation of Historians

3/5. Tales of Max, historian who is hired by a secretive British outfit that researches history in contemporary time. I.e. time travel.

Ha, okay, so I read all nine of these books in the first two weeks of the year. (Well, I skimmed one of them). They are irritating in a lot of ways*, but did well for my purposes. That is, a snarky, occasionally amusing series that would keep my mind from anxiety-spiraling over something while not actually requiring much commitment or thought on my part. They have a particularly British what-crazy-thing-will-go-wrong-next sense of humor, and in between the swans and melodrama and general shenanigans, they actually taught me a few things about history.

*Hoo boy. How long you got? There's the tragic lesbians (the only queer people in this entire universe, I think?); and the thing where the main couple has at least one Ph.D. to their names but apparently can't manage birth control, twice; and the general lack of structure – half these novels feel like a novella with a second plot slapped on at the end; and how you can tell whenever the author couldn't figure out what to do, she just killed someone you like; oh and the extremely Eurocentric notion of worthwhile history that these books pedal. But detailing all of that would require me to take these more seriously than I did.

Content notes: Miscarriage, childhood sexual trauma, many flavors of historical mass and intimate violence.
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Eternal Life

2/5. Woman who has lived for two thousand years decides she wants to die around the time humanity is seriously investigating immortality technology.

Oh, my father-in-law. I like spec fic; he likes The New Yorker. So, because he is a kind man, he buys me audiobooks of things he reads about in The New Yorker that have a spec fic slant. This is almost never successful.

Case in point. This is one of those litfic novels that probably gets described as "luminous," and "brimming with insights into the human condition." Meanwhile, I found it an uninteresting story about a woman who has lived for two millennia, had many many lives, and yet whose only identities of note are "wife" and "mother," and who has by all appearances spent that entire time failing to get over her loser-creep ex. This book has such a narrow, prescribed notion of women's lives in history, it has to be willful. Right? Right?

I do wonder if someone with a much deeper connection to Jewish spirituality would get more out of this than I did. But otherwise nope nope nope. Stop fucking the loser-creep ex two thousand years later, good God.
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My only reading goal for 2018 was to read more than I did in 2017, and oh boy did I do that, as 80 is a lot more than 45 (I'm counting novellas, not counting anything DNF). So that was a success. And, as I suspected, reading more made me want to read more. I got that compulsive pleasure button for reading back, thank God. There is hope, for those of you who also thought your brains were too tired for this.

I don't have any particular goals for 2019 except, maybe, for a nebulous goal to enjoy things more. Or, to flip it around, to stop finishing things I'm not enjoying. There is a bomb that is going off in my life later in 2019, in a good way? Hopefully? So all I really want to do is treat my time as valuable before I have even less of it than I do now.

Here are some standouts from 2018, in no particular order.

YA fantasy: In Other Lands

Science fiction: Null States

Post apocalypse: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Het romance: The Suffragette Scandal

Queer romance: A Charm of Magpies

Military: The Guns Above

Nonfiction: The Gene: An Intimate History

Fantasy: The Traitor Baru Cormorant
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State Tectonics

3/5. Third book in this series (trilogy?) about a future political system and the upheaval in successive microdemocratic elections.

The last book of 2018, and it's a good one. If you want a book about women – mostly women of color – working together and supporting each other and picking at complex problems from different angles based on their assorted technical and analytical and espionage skills, here you go. And at its heart, this book is having a sustained argument with itself about the value of neutral information in a political system, and what it can and can't do to insulate voters from manipulation. It doesn't come to any conclusions, to be clear, but it's the thought exercise that counts.

Also, points for the title.
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Company Town

2/5. Scifi about the rare unaugmented woman hired as a bodyguard for the child of her town's new corporate owners.

This book may have made more sense? At some point? Before a lot of explanations and connective tissue was edited out, maybe. As it is, it's a whole spaghetti of ideas – some of them interesting – splatted at a wall, and I . . . think? I have a general grasp on what happened.

The whole thing is messy and undercooked, and I include in that the treatment of the main character's disability. There are interesting elements here – such as the augmented eyes of almost everyone skipping over her because the computers don't recognize her face as human (or maybe because disabled people are deliberately edited out? This, as usual, is entirely unclear, even by implication). But I found the general treatment of her view of herself to be predictable and uninteresting. Spare me from the self-hatred mines, and also the effects of the love of a good (able-bodied) man, sigh.
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The Big Short

3/5. Nonfiction account of the very small handful of (mostly outsider) financial types who bet against CDO's in 2005-2008. So a slice of the recession story, for those who don't already know what collateralized debt obligations are. Long on personality and short on big firm perspective (see what I did there? okay okay I'm sorry I'm sorry). So it's kind of an unbalanced story – we get a whole lot of perspective from the people who were like 'obviously this sky is going to fall' and almost none from inside Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, UBS, et al. to explain what the fuck they were thinking. Or not thinking. (TBF this is because of confidentiality agreements and lock-up clauses). So it's easy to think that the 2008 collapse was obvious and inevitable, which is true, but also illusory.

Mostly, this book made me think about the profession of risk management. Which is one I am in, when I wear certain hats. And how that function doesn't fucking work when, oh just for an example, your client lies to you. Ahem. Don't ask. Which is fundamentally what happened inside these firms, I think. In the sense that the traders didn't actually understand the assets they were buying, but no one wanted to admit that, so they booked the assets in a completely inappropriate way and risk management couldn't do its job. Makes me wonder how often someone calls me and tells me a story and gets my advice, and I might as well be advising on cinderella.
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The Girl from Everywhere and The Ship Beyond Time

3/5. Duology about a sixteen-year-old girl whose father can sail his ship to any map, in any time. And he wants to sail to Hawaii in 1868, when his daughter was born and his wife died, and change fate.

Fun, clever time travel. And despite how I just summarized this, it has very little truck with men angsting over dead women. I hesitated over these books for a long time because of those concerns, but then I saw that the author provides (very good) content notes for her work on her website, and took a leap of faith. Glad I did – these books have a rich, fantastical streak, a commitment to myths off the beaten path, and excellent ideas about what a clever person would do with time travel.

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