Well! It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these, mostly due to grad school and work devouring the whole of my attention, but even while I was doing said grad school and work, I did manage to read quite a few books new to me (I try not to feature too many rereads on this, since I tend to reread when stressed, and I have been quite stressed). You may also see a certain trend of the kind of book I’ve been consuming lately. Mostly “cozy.” A lot of cozy.
This shall be a very long post. Please keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times.
The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard: My favorite, favorite book discovery this year is, hands down, The Hands of the Emperor. It is THE most delightful, wholesome doorstopper of a book. It’s the Goblin Emperor but, like, leveled up, and a thousand-ish pages of heart-warming, with amazing characters, relationships, and people who are in government bureaucracy who are…actually and actively trying to make the world a better place in tiny increments. It’s also the only fantasy novel where you have radical communist communes and tax auditing right next to flying sky-trees that can be turned into sky-ships and the literal god of the sun incarnate, where magic and myth and mysticism are just as real as grant applications. It’s also about culture and family and work and trauma and healing from trauma and deep, deep friendships that exist in defiance of taboos and—oh, so many things. I admit, the beginning is a bit, all right, not sure where this is going, but the second Cliopher sees that summer mansion and makes his plan to invite his emperor on vacation, I was utterly hooked. And then I loved it so much, I read it twice! It’s a beautiful book. I absolutely cannot wait for At the Feet of the Sun*.
Petty Treasons by Victoria Goddard: A companion/prequel to The Hands of the Emperor that adds the delightful (and often aw-inducing) context from the emperor’s perspective. Highly recommended, but definitely to be read after reading THotE, otherwise, it’ll make only a marginal amount of sense, and it’s really designed as a supplement—the moments that made me gasp with recognition and realization wouldn’t quite have the same punch without seeing those same moments from Cliopher’s mildly unreliable point of view (he really does downplay things). But! I would say read this one before Return, if only to get used to this other narrative style.
The Return of Fitzroy Angursell by Victoria Goddard: AKA, The Return of Spoiler Spoiler. While technically it can be read alone, it has far more significance when read after THotE. Like THotE, this was an absolute delight, but for different reasons, and it’s wonderful to finally have a viewpoint character who is able to experience the magic, and I adore the idea of a wild mage being the reason narrative conveniences occur—because they’re wild mages, wild coincidence just happens, and that conceit is delightful. This one sort of has the feeling like a retired D&D group is coming together again, but they were adventurers in their twenties and thirties, and now they’re in their fifties and sixties, and have lives and careers and spouses and children, but want to have just one more adventure together. And they will, it just might take some time, because they’re still trying to fit each other into those thirty-year-out-of-date versions of themselves, and haven’t quite got a handle on who everyone has become. I also have theories for why this one is in first person.
The Redoubtable Pali Avramapul by Victoria Goddard: I devoured this one in a day, then went back and read it again. Ooooh, what Goddard does that is amazing is having the same scene told from two points of view, and realizing that, um, yeeeeeah, from another vantage, that had a totally different result. I look forward so much to Pali meeting Cliopher again, I really do. And whether or not she’s gonna murder him. But that’s neither here no there. Really, the character work in this series is extraordinary. These people could just sit in empty rooms and talk and I’d be riveted. And there are so many moments where, as a reader who has read the others, I knew why one character was doing something, or what they might’ve been thinking, and oh, the heart-wincing I endured as Pali…couldn’t pick up on the subtext. Also, Tor needs a hug. But. Um. Maybe with a lot of advanced warning…
The Assassins of Thasalon by Lois McMaster Bujold: Wow, it’s been a-while since I’ve done a Month of Books post. This one came out ages ago, but it would appear, I never featured it on this mini-series of blogs. Unlike the rest of the series, this one is novel-length! A short novel, but still a novel! It also ties together so many of the dangling threads laid out in the other novellas, and feels, half the time, like the end of the series (it isn’t though!). The other half of the time, there’s a bit of a recap on how demons and sorcerers and saints work, but as it centers on a very intriguing abuse of the demon-sorcerer system and the powers of a saint, the retread isn’t unwelcome though if, like me, you chose to reread the whole series in preparation for Assassins, you might find yourself skimming a little of the education-during-the-carriage-ride scenes, but I still enjoyed them. Also, there’s quite a few familiar faces, which are always a treat, and a few characters whose names we’ve heard but never met being onscreen.
Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold: This one was the surprise gift. I totally thought Assassins was the end of the series, and then, ‘lo and behold, Knot of Shadows is released, which ties the Penric and Desdemona novellas to The Curse of Chalion in a way that it hadn’t before (Pen and Des are more obviously connected with The Paladin of Souls, for obvious, demonic reasons) and re-explores that central concept of death magic/the miracle of justice (along with a threat/concern introduced in TCoC which was a source of tension but not, er, something that came to pass). It also makes me cry. I’ve read it twice now. I still cry. As always, anything by Lois McMaster Bujold is gold.
Paladin’s Hope by T. Kingfisher: Another paladin book! This time, it’s a romance between a berserker paladin with night terrors and a coroner with the ability to touch a dead body and experience their death (there’s a reason he’s a strict vegetarian) as they work together to escape a trap-filled dungeon, and is just filled with those tiny references to RPG-related logic holes…like why would you have lethal traps in a place people walk around in? Unless, of course, it was never designed for people… Also, the developing tensions and relationships between humans and gnolls are fascinating to me, and I thoroughly enjoy how the world shifts and changes as the series(es) progress. Another absolute delightful installment of the series, and routinely laugh-out-loud funny.
The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison: So I appear to have a thing for protagonists that understate the situation a tad, and Celehar very much understates. But now he has a partner! Who is marginally more emotive than he is (though there’s this delightful moment where he has a moment of weakness and laughs and…everyone else is like, “…I’ve worked with you for years. You have never laughed.” “I’m a little stressed.”) The slow-burn relationship continues to be very slow-burn. It’s possible in a book or two, they might even hold hands! Maybe. But I am a sucker for the “shift from last names to personal names” trope. The mysteries weave together nicely, and I devoured the whole of it in a day. And that one development! It was both surprising but inevitable, and leaves me hungering for the next to see how this plays out. (Trying not to spoil!)
Sword Dance by A. J. Demas: I stumbled across these in a “Books Like” list as I was looking for cozies to scratch the itch left by The Hands of Emperor, and ended up falling in love with this series of very queer, classic era-Greece analogue fantasy that almost, almost reads like historical fiction except…not. There’s some nice echoes here of Swordspoint, but also locked-room historical mysteries (murder! in a villa! but the murder doesn’t happen till the 1/3 mark and the first third is setting the stage and letting you get to know the players and the suspects) and romance (and these two people who are awkward around each other work together to solve the mystery and end up falling in love!). This one hit so many of my personal “favorite tropes,” and I love that it’s so casually queer, with a romance between a bisexual man (Damiskos) and a genderfluid enby (Varazda).
Saffron Alley by A. J. Demas: Book 2! Varazda invites his lover to his home to meet his family–and his family, er, have a range of reactions. Like Sword Dance, there is a mystery element, though unlike the first book, there isn’t a, ah, body, so to speak. More delightful coziness of the two’s deepening relationship as Damiskos is vetted by Varazda’s family, and still so wonderfully casually queer (especially with the found-family and adoption aspects). Mostly, everything here is still just sweet and makes me smile. (Also, just as a note, for all of these books, there’s a massive content warning for slavery and trauma and questions of consent; A. J. Demas’ website lists the content warnings for each book, which is both helpful and considerate.)
Strong Wine by A. J. Demas: And the conclusion of the series. Book 3 alternates from Varazda’s and Dami’s viewpoints, and Varazda now gets to meet Damiskos’ family (who are…odd). Once more, it has that combination of murder mystery, romance, and historical fiction-textured secondary world fantasy which works so very well—but now with courtroom drama! And you have no idea how refreshing it is to have a character introduce his boyfriend (sometimes girlfriend) to his family, and they’re just like, “Oh, you usually don’t bring your lovers by to meet us,” and that’s it, that’s the extent of the drama. Although, I do have to warn, there are some unpleasant insults thrown Varazda’s away about his gender presentation (but by the book’s antagonists, so I feel like that’s a given?) Oh! And quiet autism rep, which is also refreshing (the parents are vile about it, but are the disapproved-of minority). I enjoyed these three so much, I read them twice.
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree: You may have noticed a trend to my reading lately, and that is cozy fantasy, and if you spend any time in cozy fantasy circles, you will hear of Legends & Lattes, and for good reason. It is the epitome of cozy. It also is full of RPG references (I mean, even the title is riffing off of Dungeons & Dragons) and coffee shop AU tropes, and is just, frankly, wholesome and pleasant to read. Yeah, sure, you kind of suspect the conflict and, like me, you might catch early on what’s going to happen to that coffee shop, but it’s the kind of comfortable predictability of a romcom; you know it’s coming, and that’s part of the pleasure of it.
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows: This one…I’m a little conflicted about, but I think the root of it is that I went in expecting one thing (political-leaning fantasy with rich world-building, assassination plots, and a slow-burn MLM arranged-marriage romance) but got something very different different (light world-building, political-leaning but in the background, an assassination plot that ran tangentially to the romance, but the two seemed a bit…disconnected? Not as enmeshed as I would have preferred). I was very committed to the first 30%, but the general feel started to shift around the 40% mark, and by the end, I wasn’t as invested as I would have liked. However, a friend of mine adored it (for many of the reasons I didn’t!). The hardcover edition, by the way, is gorgeous. I do recommend it for fans of Winter’s Orbit who are looking for that same MLM arranged-marriage, sweet slow-burn romance with a backdrop of politics and a central mystery, but fantasy rather than space opera. CW, though, there is an onscreen rape of a viewpoint character within the first 30 pages**.
* All right, yes, I can wait, and will wait as much as necessary, but the anticipation! Aaaaah! Also, I’ve been foisting this book and the rest of the series and parallel serieses on anyone foolish enough to get me on my new favorite topic. Consider it foisted on you.
** Honestly, what is it with MLM romances and rape? I can name half a dozen off the top of my head where this is either a plot point or a backstory element.