A Month of Books: March

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: This is my second attempt on Ancillary Justice. The first one, I hadn’t been in the right mood to enjoy it, and the shifting between timelines frustrated me more than it enticed me. Second attempt, and I devoured it in a few days. The world-building in this is spectacular, though there is a bit of a learning curve. You’re dropped in the middle of things and the story just goes, filling in the world-building as it becomes necessary and, even then, not all of it. Some things remain vague, some things go unexplained, and I personally delighted in having a world (well, worlds) that I could puzzle over. However, that “drop you in the middle” is honestly why my first attempt at this book didn’t go much beyond the first flashback. Which brings up the other potential hurdle: it’s told in a split-timeline structure with the past and the present trading off chapters between them. In some ways, it helped make the past (and betrayals of the past) more immediate; in others, I’m fairly certain that structure is the reason it took me almost a week to read to the point that the past timeline falls off and the narrative remains entirely in the present. Once it narrowed down to one timeline, the rest of the book zipped by (true, there’s also the investment element in there; by that point, I needed to know what happened next). Now, I’m not sure if I truly called the betrayal, or if I’d somehow absorbed knowledge of it when it’d been nominated, but I didn’t find the past storyline as compelling since I knew where it was going, though I didn’t see the why behind the betrayal. The eventual payoff is worth the wait, though.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: The scope narrows here, going from a massive quest for revenge across an empire to a single space station in orbit around a single planet, though with a much larger cast of characters than the first book. I will be entirely honest, this review isn’t much of a review because I read this one weeks ago and failed to write a review immediately upon finishing, and then COVID-19 happened and my perception of time has turned into dripping molasses, while simultaneously making everything that happened prior to two weeks ago feel like it happened last year. The thing I remember most clearly in this was how so many of the secondary characters on the ship go by title/rank rather than by name and yet, I could tell them apart so easily, the characterization of them was so strong. More and more, however, I do wonder if, perhaps, the guessing of the characters’ gender/sex might be the wrong approach; the more I read, the more I started to feel that the singular pronoun freed characters to act in stereotypical gendered ways without it being a reflection (or subversion) of gender, and the more I read, the more my mental image of the characters flowed. It was an intriguing experience, and though it took me two books to get used to it, I appreciate the approach.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: Ah, and the conclusion. One highlight was definitely Seivarden’s outrage over the suppurating cuticles oath. That, and how brilliant Station is and its way of leveraging Anaander in order to keep its citizens safe. Spoilers perhaps, but the end is a bit more open-ended than I’d prefer for a trilogy. The main conflict set up in Ancillary Justice doesn’t, precisely, get resolved. The civil war is still waging. Hypothetically, it might become more difficult for said civil war to continue quite the same way as it did before a certain event at the end of Ancillary Mercy, but it isn’t resolved. I was also a bit surprised that the concept of cloning ancillaries didn’t come up before the very end and it was…not so much dealt with as tabled for later discussion…except, this is the final book, so I suppose it’s up to us, the readers, to decide how that turns out?

A Conjuring of Assassins by Cate Glass: Oooooh, I’ve been waiting for this one for months! And then, when it arrived, I was in the middle of reading a trilogy, so set it aside to finish the Ancillary series first, ’cause I’m not blessed with one of those minds that does well with multiple immersive speculative novels being read at once. Much like the first book, A Conjuring of Assassins takes a little bit to get going, and there is some recap sections that if you’re reading the two back-to-back, might tempt one to skim, but once the mystery of Cinque is answered, the pace picks up and it’s spies and magic and grand con games in order to get closer to the Chimera’s target (the Assassins List). There is also more of a hint of the epic in this one. In the first book, there’s an unanswered mystery that could lend itself to epic fantasy, but here, it’s more overt, and the introduction of Teo (and Teo’s mystery) feels very much reminiscent (and pleasantly so) of the writer’s other epic fantasy series under the name Carol Berg (that hint of the epic, of the almost divine, of magic being otherworldly and beyond human understanding, of parallel worlds, of mind-speech). I look forward to seeing where things go in the next book, and what exactly is magic, and how does it tie in with the long-vanished gods? As a side note, it was both weird and unnerving to read a book so heavily based on Renaissance Italy while simultaneously watching news of the epidemic in Italy as it unfolded.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig: Confession: one trope that I absolutely adore is the one of the old and possibly world-weary immortal/near immortal with centuries of memory interacting with the modern (or near modern) world*–bonus points if there’s a love story (not necessarily romantic love; found family love or platonic love are under-explored with this trope, in my opinion). How to Stop Time somehow managed to slip by under my radar until now, and it’s an exemplar of the trope. I did find the major twist somewhat predictable, but didn’t mind it so much. The romance angle is a great deal more downplayed than what the back cover blurb promised (which was fine). It’s more a story of Tim engaging with the world, realizing that his pattern of isolation and being a recluse isn’t working for him anymore, and that his will to live is slowly, but surely, becoming walled in by fear (of discovery, of death, of change), stoked by Henrich, another alba (or very long lived individual). Much like Ancillary Justice, How to Stop Time uses a dual-timeline structure, though this one is aided by the time period being firmly set in Earth historical past. There is, as a note, far more “past” flashback chapters than “present,” and much of the present is quieter, more introspective. The final resolution of the book’s external conflict is a little ho-hum, but then, it wasn’t really about the external conflict, but the internal one. A small warning, but much of the book has a low-key hum of depression throughout, even though it ends on a rather hopeful note. I, personally, found this resonated with me, but others might find it triggering.

* As much as I claim to be a vampire-junky, it’s not the vampire that engages me, necessarily, but rather this trope of immortal/near immortal, and it just so happens that the most common subgenre containing it is the vampire one, which is why I don’t like all vampire stories, but a very particular subset.

A Month of Books: September

Swordheart by T. Kingfisher: Another recommendation from someone (else) I know, and I have found a new favorite writer! It reminded me fondly of both The Paladin of Souls and the Penric and Desdemona series by Lois McMaster Bujold, mixed with the laugh-out-loud humor of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and the whimsy of Princess Bride (the movie more than the book), while being something entirely of itself. And, oh, was this hilarious. To the point that, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I self-banned myself from reading this while at work. Because I have a very loud laugh and I work in a very small library. It’s got romance! And laughs! And swords! And property lawyers (who are heroes)! And some very disturbing things hanging out in trees…

Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher: Because of Swordheart, I needed more by T. Kingfisher. I’m siding with the author and saying this is a kid’s book. Albeit, a somewhat dark kid’s book, but kids tend to like dark anyway (or, at least, I did when I was a kid, so…). Honestly, it’s a cute read. I’d been anticipating funny based off of Swordheart, and this is less laugh-out-loud funny, more wry, but the magic is wonderfully whimsical and I love the idea of an armadillo as a familiar.

All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy by Martha Wells: I’m on a novella-spree here it seems, this time, skittering over into sci-fi. I just love the inversion of the idea that if humans were to create sufficiently intelligent AI, that AI would undoubtedly kill us. In All Systems Red, said sufficiently intelligent AI…mostly just wants to be left alone to watch its entertainment dramas. Humans are strange and stressful and difficult to anticipate (and yet, as much as it insists it doesn’t care, SecBot/Murderbot…does; truly, it’s fascinating to pick apart how Wells wrote a character who, ostensibly, desires a bare minimum of human contact and whose only goals are to watch the next episode of its soaps, and yet, manages to make that character extremely compelling). Also, there’s an echo of horror in these (especially All Systems Red and Rogue Protocol, more adventure-thriller for Artificial Condition and Exit Strategy), that eerie kind that I associate more with the creepier Doctor Who episodes, which I very much enjoyed. All Systems Red is an easy novella to binge-read. What am I saying? They’re all easy to binge-read! Case in point, while dog-sitting, I devoured the other three books in the series in a day and a half and am hyped for Network Effect’s release in May of next year. Can’t wait, can’t wait! And, oh, Exit Strategy was an excellent conclusion, though I’m thrilled to learn there will be more.

Why Kill the Innocent by C. S. Harris: While typically I range toward the speculative in my reading tastes, I do so enjoy historical mysteries set pre-modern forensics era*, and this one is a series that I’ve been following for a few years now. The thing I so enjoy about this particular series is the author note at the end, where Harris discusses what parts of the novel were drawn from historical fact, what was supposition, what was entirely fiction, and what was amalgamations of real historical events or people crunched together. This fascinates me. The mystery was one of those where there are so few suspects I kept casting around for that someone that didn’t fit, and though I worked out who was behind it before Sebastian (mostly because of a single development where, if you thought about it, only one character would know that other character intimately enough to successfully frame him), I utterly failed to work out the “why” so it was still a satisfactory mystery.

Who Slays the Wicked by C. S. Harris: And because I’m on a historical mystery kick, book 14 of the series! I’m very behind on these. Anyway, this one is almost an opposite of the previous. With Why Kill the Innocent there was a dearth of suspects, in Who Slays the Wicked, they’re practically teeming. While I wish the red herring suspect wasn’t so obviously a red herring (that Sebastian insisted on suspected for no other reason than it served the plot), the final twist was ultimately satisfying and made a disturbing amount of sense. I’m pleased it went that route, and looking forward to the next one (Who Speaks for the Damned, April 2020).

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett: On a whim, I watched the BBC mini-series adaptation on Amazon, and had the sudden urge to compare/contrast the book to the show (because that’s how my mind works?). BUT I realized I hadn’t read the book in years so cue reread! I hadn’t realized just how subtle stuff is in this one, particularly the sections with Vetinari and the business meetings. I see why, for the show, they gave Adora Belle Dearheart more emotional beats, and transferred some of Moist’s a-hah! moments to other characters. I also see why some of the side-plots with the clacks towers were lessened or removed, so for a more in-depth viewing, definitely read the book (in some ways, it’s like Lord of the Rings; the adaptation alone works wonderfully, but reading the book adds a whole ‘nother layer of nuance). As for the end, the show is more cinematic and dramatic (which, of course) and the book, less so. But the book brings up character conflict right at the end that I hadn’t been expecting and, I think, forgot was there. Still. It’s Discworld, therefore, Sir Terry Pratchett, therefore, absolutely brilliant. Still one of my favorites.

Finder by Suzanne Palmer: More sci-fi! This time, with overtones of a western with an almost Macgyver-esque way of approaching problems (How do you disable space security drones? Answer: vibrating dildos, tennis balls, sticky candy, and foil. How do you fool a gangster into flying a spaceship in your path? Answer: a very fancy suit and a bundle of junk covered in lots of lights). Midway through, the story took a somewhat unexpected jink and there was an extended almost-side quest that didn’t, initially, seem to fit BUT it all comes together rather neatly in the end, and the final bit of trickery Fergus uses is brilliant. Trust that the middle does, in fact, link up with everything else is all I can say. I’m hoping there’s a book two (which it seems like there is; it’s labeled as book one), but Finder also stands alone fairly well. There’s a lot of unanswered questions at the end, which feels like setup for a series (a trilogy, at least).

*My theory for my favoring mysteries set pre-modern forensics is that it tends to be more about talking to people and putting together clues than necessarily putting together evidence. Also, I like reading fair-play mysteries more than mysterious thrillers, personally, because I like to try to work it out myself (I’m usually right about half the time but rarely work out the underlying motive before the characters do). I also love speculative mysteries, but those are a bit rarer to find (especially ones where the murder isn’t a stepping stone to a more traditionally epic plot).

Two Months of Books: June & July

An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass: *Inarticulate squealing noise* READ IT. Read it now. Okay, so this is by one of my all-time favorite writers, though under her pen name, and I have been waiting for a new book from her for years. And it was definitely worth the wait and then some! As a caveat, I do note that it starts off slowly, building the characters and showing them gaining the skills they’ll need later for the heist, but it means I got to enjoy Romy’s voice and narration that much longer. The world is richly detailed and a joy to submerge myself into, the characters are a fascinating delight to get to know and magnificently flawed, and there’s a lining of hope trimming this magic-heist adventure fantasy. Also, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to read. Counting down the months to the release of book two, A Conjuring of Assassins! (As a side-note, the cover art for book two was just released and it’s as gorgeous as the art on book one.)

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon: The more I read this, the more I came to the realization that this book wasn’t for current-me. Teenager-me would’ve not only have devoured this book in days, but it would’ve gone down as one of my ultimate favorites that I’d carry with me well into adulthood. Adult-me is, unfortunately, too genre-savvy: I called too many of the twists, the conventions, the setups, and I was very rarely surprised, but because of the natural distance of an epic narration, I wasn’t emotionally invested enough that I didn’t care. It’s a very long book to feel ‘meh’ over. Perhaps this is a side-effect of being a writer and a student of story structure, perhaps epic fantasy of a traditional, Tolkien-esque style no longer interests me the way it once did. I would, however, recommend this to readers who love the epic fantasy structure, who adore the genre and its tropes, and want something different (because this book with it’s many female characters subverts that worn, tired “men on a quest to save the world, the only women are servants and walk-ons and maybe that princess” story that is so, so common) OR readers who are just coming to epic fantasy, and aren’t well-versed in the expectations and characterizations of the genre.

A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell: This is a fascinating re-imagining of Holmes and Watson that takes the original source material and (brilliantly) turns it on its head. In A Study in Honor, civil war has broken out in a near-future USA, and Captain Janet Watson, after losing her left arm (a problem if you’re a surgeon), has been discharged and sent, unmoored, into civilian life in Washington D.C. with a fritzy robotic arm that doesn’t fit and few prospects. One thing leads to another, and she encounters Sara Holmes, who is brilliant, baffling, and has an air of secrets and danger. I usually don’t read near-future sci-fi, preferring mine space-faring and operatic in scope, but as disturbingly possible a future as O’Dell paints, it’s also not entirely dystopic (though, erm, leans more heavily in that direction). It’s fantastic, and I look forward to reading book two (The Hound of Justice). Highly recommended.

Swift for the Sun by Karen Bovenmyer: Pirates! Swashbuckling! Romance! Adventure! Also, I find it fascinating to look at how romances differ for their marketing demographic. In a straight HEA romance, it’s usually marriage that’s the end goal. In this M/M HEA romance, it’s not just marriage. It’s also acceptance, discovering others who are like yourself, and finding a safe space to be. That’s what makes this a HEA end. Similarly to the contemporary romance a few months ago, historical romance is usually not my jam, BUT I appreciated how much diversity there is in this. It’s a pleasant change to most romances, especially historical romances that are usually viewed through a straight, white (almost always female) lens. My one minor quibble (and seriously, it’s minor) is how much the two characters who look like brothers remark on this similarity, and I quibble this only because (I want to say) most people do not have an accurate mental picture of what they themselves look like, particularly facial features and maybe hair. I can see comparing skin color just ’cause you can hold your arm up next to the other person, but not faces. It’s an observation I would’ve personally preferred be something only other characters remarked on, but this is a quibble.