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Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

3/5. Sequel novella about Penric, the accidental host to a demon. An inquirer from the Father's Order sweeps Pen (and company) into his investigation of a shamanic ritual gone wrong.

More interesting than the prior novella, largely because Penric is more interesting with several years of demonic and scholarly experience to his name. At first blush this was some pretty typical LMB ground about a young person in the wreck left after he did something young and stupid. But there's a bit more to it, to the question of being late when you are needed, to the difficulties of trusting in providence when it sounds like just noise. So there's more here, and it's a pleasant read.

I do think that she is . . . growing overly attached to some of her pet techniques. She has a particular fondness for propagating paired adjective/adverbs to repeat and alter through a chain of sentences, usually with a touch of ironic humor. But it's so distinctive and specific – it's the sort of wordplay that makes you very particularly conscious of reading a story, not just of experiencing it – and it only works when it's, you know . . . well done. It isn't always, these days. I found myself flipping back through a few passages in this novella and shaking my head at the misfires. We all need to update our favorite writerly tics sometimes, it's okay!

I bring this up not to be picky about technique, but also because of the bigger sense that a lot of her writing is of a sameness these days: pleasant and predictable, never surprising.
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Black Wolves

3/5. First in an epic fantasy trilogy. Three generations of kings and their queens and mistresses and children, and the "demons" stalking the land, and a brewing religious conflict, and ethnic conflict, and and.

I don't remember who was raving about this book – several people, IIRC – so I apologize, whoever you are, but oh.my.god. How much do I not care about this, let me count the ways. I mean, it actually is what people said, which is epic fantasy with feminist underpinnings (though you wouldn't know that by the publisher's summary, which is all "men men men!"). But there is just something a little flabby, a little stuffy, just something about Kate Elliott's writing that makes my brain slide right off it. I put this book down no fewer than five times to read something else, and had to make myself come back each time.

IDK, maybe it's actually epic fantasy that I can't stomach anymore. That would figure. Urban fantasy has always been so much more vital to me, more concerned with things I'm concerned with, and maybe that's extra true right now.

Um, nice things. There's a scene in which a bunch of people sing very loudly while a woman is vigorously trying to get pregnant by her husband who is about to be abducted to a labor camp, and it is genuinely funny/sad. If only the other twenty-eight odd hours of recorded run-time in this book could have been so alive, so specific, so personal.
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The Hanging Tree

4/5. Book six, delayed but worth the wait. First because it's good, second because it might actually have gotten me into these books as a fandom. It's been coming, but I wasn't quite there before.

Anyway, about the book. It's thematically expanding on familiar ground in that its concerned with faces, real and metaphorical. Spoilers ).

This is not as much a Tyburn book as the title might leave one to hope, but she is there. I continue to really enjoy what she and Peter are textually and subtextually arguing about. On the surface it's purely political. Underneath…it reads to me like an argument on the different modes of being black and being a force for change in a white institution. Because there are different modes of doing that, and I don't think either of them actively dislike the ways the other has chosen. They're just orthogonal and, sometimes, at cross-purposes.

Anyway, predictions. I've said it before and I still think that we're heading towards something semi-apocalyptic, at least on a local level. If the Folly is still physically standing at the end of this, I will be shocked. Also, Peter, thank you for finally stopping to follow the same chain of speculative logic that [personal profile] gnomad and I did after, like, book four.
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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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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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3/5. Book *pauses to look it up* nine. Urban fantasy *gestures* stuff, but let's talk about babymaking.

So they get married in this one, and there's a couple prophecies about their kid, and then [spoiler, except come on, it's totally not] at the very end she's surprise! Pregnant. And because I'm me I am stuck on whether they were using birth control. I guess we're supposed to assume not, based on the pregnancy (though in reality, birth control accidents happen all the damn time). And I don't remember if we know anything about how birth control works in this mixed magic/tech post apocalypse world anyway. But can we just –

If you are a couple people with the requisite parts and the ladyparts are, like, less than say 43 years old, and you aren't using protection, you are trying to have a baby. Like, there is no 'oh we weren't preventing but we weren't really trying either' – no. That is not a real thing. That does not exist. Babymaking does not depend on, like, deciding that this month you really mean it. And more pointedly, not using birth control is a specific choice to get pregnant, because 90% of couples will conceive within six months of dropping birth control.* That is, like, why there are billions of us crawling around this planet. This shit is supposed to be easy, and just because it wasn't easy for me and it was in fact impossible for several people I care about doesn't change that.

I am just sick unto death of books of all genres – romance, urban fantasy, general lit – treating pregnancy as a surprise random occurrence. As if not getting pregnant was equally – if not more – likely, and really who could have expected this! Who the fuck are these people who go around banging unprotected and don't expect the outcome?

Write me books about people who actually plan their family-building. Who have conversations about the nitty gritty of it like adults. You know, not just the vague will-we-won't-we, but all the actual shit you talk about like doing the math and realizing that having a baby nine months from right now would be super terrible so let's use a condom for these two weeks. Accidents happen, sure, but funny how they seem to account for 90% of the stories about conceiving I read. And for god's sake, let's stop pretending a lot of these pregnancies are accidents at all when they fucking aren't. It's your body, fucking own what you decided to do with it.

Ugh.

*There's a lot more nuance to this, but you get me.
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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

4/5. The story of September, who climbs out her kitchen window and rides the wind to fairyland, then comes home, and goes back, and comes home, and goes back, and gets stuck.

So I generally do not do well with books that get popularly described as "lush." E.g., I recently twice failed out of Sofia Samatar's first book because oh god, the boredom. Lush and me, it's not so good. And it seems like everyone calls Valente's work "lush." So I've avoided it for over a decade.

But these books? These books are wonderful. Intricate and dense; full of appropriately fairyland whimsy that has a lot of weight behind it. As if the ever-proliferating fairyland rules are each the ingredient to a magic spell of byzantine complexity, and it will only make sense if you twist your brain around 270 degrees and stand on one foot and think about it in the moonlight. But in a good way!

I've already talked about these books a bit by way of disliking Seanan McGuire, who was doing some of the same stuff but not nearly so well. But I want to say, more directly, that this series is principally about being a child out of place and subject to inexplicable forces – a child displaced to fairy, or a troll displaced to Chicago. It matters, very much, that this book is set in the 1940's when our heroine's mother, like the other women of her generation, is going to work for perhaps the first time. It matters that September knows she should not eat in fairyland, but manages to complicate and muddle the rule beyond recognition. It matters that the displaced troll becomes a hero among his schoolyard peers for discerning the rules of their world and writing them down. "All children are changelings," this series says near the end, encapsulating five books into one thematic statement. Yes. That.

These are beautiful and wonderful and wise and sad and weird and I really love them. And fine, they're fucking "lush" okay.
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Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)

2/5. The one about the school for kids who went to a fantasy realm and then got sent home and who are really upset about it.

I picked this up – despite my . . . lackluster response to other McGuire – because I'm working my way through Kat Valente's tremendous Fairyland series, about a girl who goes there and comes home repeatedly. Thematic, y'see.

And that was a mistake, because comparing these writers and these books, uh. They're just a different class of talent doing a different class of thing. So after the density of Valente's thorny whimsy, Mcguire's straightforward – and so painfully obvious, the characters should be considered accomplices for not solving it sooner – murder mystery simply thudded. And after Valente's playful, stylish, tricky, complicit, kind, cruel, lovely narrator, who stitches those books together so beautifully. After that, the random and inexplicable swerves Mcguire's book takes into the omniscient view seem pointless. And in one case, where we get a girl's backstory and then she is killed and the omniscient voice pops in just long enough to tell us where the doorway back into her realm that she had been living and dying to find actually was, it seems simply mean for the sake of being mean.

So yeah. Did not fare well by comparison. Might be better on its own? It's a novella with a lot of interesting stuff going on – axes of classification for fantasy realms, an explanation as to why the school is mostly populated with girls that made me grimly nod, a transkid who got kicked out of his adventure because his tale did not respect his identity. And the title is great. But yeah. Not a good comparison.

Also, the ending. Can someone who liked this tell me whether you were okay with the ending, because it bugged me a lot.
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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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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 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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A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel

3/5. There are four Londons in four worlds, and only a few can travel between. One of those who can takes the opportunity to smuggle, and gets caught up in a complicated magical scheme.

Overhyped. This was entertaining enough, but you know I'm kind of bored when one of the main characters is a cross-dressing lady pickpocket who dreams of being a ship captain, and I find it overbaked and kind of tiresome. Points for later establishing that she likes menswear just for the sake of wearing a good suit, though, rather than the usual fantasy bait-and-switch where the lady cross-dresses but in the end just wants to be "herself" again or whatever.

Lots of people thought the hype was called for, so maybe I'm just cranky. Or maybe this is, at its heart, just bland.

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