The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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The Goblin Emperor is strangely soothing. I don’t mean that it will make you feel good the entire way through, nor that nothing bad happens; I mean that it’s touching, fun, feels real, and somehow delivers good political intrigue in a grim situation without being dark or gloomy. Also, it hooked me and kept me excited despite being a tome.

I found this book on a Tor list recommending anti-grimdark stories, and it entirely delivers. Though shelved as YA, I think everyone would like it.

You know how sometimes you don’t want a story to end? You reach the finish and sit in that lingering need to see more, stuck on the idea that surely you could get just a little more story out of the book if you squeezed it just a bit harder. That was this book for me. I wanted more, I wanted to see what came next.

But Addison timed the climax and denouement for this book extremely well: she resolved the central issues, the emotional and political struggles that swirl through the heart of the story. Then, with that resolution still in hand, she ended things; no unecessary time is spent dwelling on anything extra or outside the story. Also, no matter how much I want to read more about the good things that happen to these characters, reading about only good things would probably bore me after a while.

And, unless they launched a whole new story, I’d feel sad when things strayed from that quiet feeling of calm stability.

I have more to say. I won’t give you explicit spoilers, but bear in mind that (if you’re strongly in the anti-spoiler camp) you may glean more from my comments than you wish to know. If you want to stop here you can. You should already know by now that I recommend this book.

Anyway, you spoiler-phobes have been warned.

There’s a lot of grimdark out there. There’s an excess of stories that revel in showing us how gritty and real they are by rubbing our noses in how poorly everyone treats each other. It takes a special kind of attention, a particular exercise of will, to write political intrigue—complete with assassinations, nefarious plotting, and villains aplenty—while still clinging to an underlying optimism, and giving everyone relatable humanity.

I rarely read characters I fall in love with in political intrigue novels, people who are quite simply good. They’re usually narrative fodder, intended to show the reader how characters die. So it is an absolute joy to find that The Goblin Emperor neither ignores the dangers of trusting those who desire your power, nor casts the central character as a manipulative super-human. Instead, The Goblin Emperor allows its main character to be manipulated and suffer for his naivety, learning from his mistakes without losing his honesty and decency or being crushed beneath the novel’s narrative heel—this story doesn’t assume that to be kind one must also be stupid. It allows him to be a good person trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation, even as he struggles with the growing weight of understandable paranoia and the inability to know what choices might be the ‘right’ ones.

It helps that The Goblin Emperor doesn’t bother with irredeemable villains; even the people I came to detest still had their own reasons behind their actions. Whether obviously selfish, well-intentioned, or something else, they always felt complexly human and real.

What I’m saying, really, is that this is a good book. Katherine Addison did a good job, and made a story that I strongly recommend. It’s emotionally real, it’s sometimes grim, but it’s also hopeful. And that matters.

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Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

Ignite the Stars, by Maura Milan

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I struggled my way into this book. Not because the characters or setting didn’t compel me, but because the writing clashed with my expectations. The language of the text did not reliably flow for me, and several early conversations felt stilted or unnatural. It was jarring and distracting where I wanted it to submerge me completely.

But I persevered, and I’m glad that I did. It was the characters, the setting, and their underlying tensions that kept me going. Though it’s clear from my early jarring experience that Maura Milan and I don’t communicate on the same wavelength, her story is marvelous. I happily finished Ignite The Stars, and by the end I felt none of the disjointed language I’d experienced earlier.

Now, I haven’t re-read the start. I don’t know whether there’s simply one piece of the text that is written differently, or whether I became used to Milan’s writing and stopped noticing what had been difficult for me earlier. Other books I’ve read (like Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series) are certainly an acquired taste that take a great deal of work to access and appreciate—and while I know that about them, I’ve lost track of how hard I worked to access them the first time. It’s not clear to me whether I’ve lost track of my difficulty accessing this book as well.

Regardless, I admire what Milan has made here. Few YA sci fi books I’ve read recently do as good a job of incorporating stories of oppression, hate, and exclusion, let alone deal with the consequences of hegemonic expansion or intolerance against refugees and ethnic groups. When they do incorporate these elements, they rarely feel as honest as this—like they’ve been tacked on to add some socially conscious edge to a story, instead of existing as part and parcel of this story’s world. Milan has done the second.

Moreover, she’s done the second while making a good story. Yes, there are some very specific genre story beats that you’ll see coming. If you’re already familiar with the particular tropes, you won’t be surprised (no I won’t spoil them). But Milan has made something that feeds all my genre expectations while still incorporating everything I mentioned above, and I admire it a great deal.

Honestly, I hope that I could do half as good a job as she does.

So yes, I recommend this book. That goes double if you want YA sci fi with a school plot and light romance elements. If you have language trouble early on, stick with it—there’s good story worth reading on the far side.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I like the one on the left more.

I’m a sucker for a good cyclical story, for plot elements interwoven early and revisited at the climax. That’s part of my love for Die Hard and Hot Fuzz. This book is neither of those movies, but it does many of the same structural things.

My feelings for Ship Breaker are slow and warm, less the quick shine of delight than the steady glow of admiration. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I was particularly impressed by the way in which Paolo Bacigalupi built up the feel of coming full circle, and filled it with excellent foreshadowing as he established the struggles to be faced. I also appreciated the book’s explorations of family, loyalty, and love, how they felt etched deep in the text, part of the world that seeped out through every pore. Despite their omnipresence, I never felt as though the book was beating me over the head with its themes; I even ignored them for a while simply because of how completely they merged with the characters and text. Like a shot from a skilled pediatrician—medicine delivered amidst pleasant distraction—they were slipped into the rest of a seamless whole, the needle unnoticed until it was gone. Not perfectly slick, but very well done.

This book is easy to read as a hero’s journey, but Bacigalupi avoids the wish-fulfillment capability-fantasy that periodically crops up in genre stories. People struggle and strive through difficulty and danger, people learn and grow, but they never feel superhuman; the main character’s most fantastical accomplishment is quickly learning to read. This preserves a rough and prosaic taste that grounds everything, making the moments of higher tension even more piquant in contrast. It’s something I like a great deal.

I haven’t even addressed the setting or characters, the way Bacigalupi enmeshes the reader in the world without explaining anything, without needing to explain anything. It’s another thing I admire and aim for in my own stories, and I want you to discover it for yourself if you haven’t already. I wasn’t surprised to see Tobias Buckell thanked in the afterword, and if you like Ship Breaker or its ilk I’d strongly recommend Buckell’s Arctic Rising and Hurricane Fever.

I am sans Internet

I’m moving, and don’t have reliable internet! I’ll be back next week.

South of Ela Cartaz

I’m away Thursday, so here’s a little setting-seed to tide you over:

There is an island on the southern coast of Ela Cartaz, where the winds bluster chill and wet. Under the moss and rot and the hanging vines, beneath the old trees whose roots eat older mortar and clutch at broken foundation-stones like pearls, there is a warm light. This is the light sought by many, the light for which thousands died before the fall of the first Ela Cartaz. It waits in darkness, while around it the remnants of a lost past whir and click and hum.

Legend, by Marie Lu

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I dismissed this book too quickly.

I bounced from the jacket copy and didn’t click with the forecasted tropes. I saw there was a scion of a privileged family falling in love with a street rat with a heart of gold—all wrapped neatly in a dystopian shell—and I absolutely checked out. I only read it because it was still on my list and I felt compelled to finish it before I returned it to the library.

I misjudged Legend.

It’s not that those forecast tropes aren’t present. It’s not that the romance pulled me in (it didn’t).

It was the parallels Lu created between her two lead characters that caught me, her own reformulation of (as she put it) Javert and Valjean from Les Miserables. That was the twist I hadn’t expected, the one that convinced me I had to finish the book. That was what I really liked.

Past-Henry could have reminded me that I loved Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which used the same forecasted tropes. That book blew me away. Maybe then Present-Henry wouldn’t have been so surprised to enjoy Legend.

I must note that Legend is not The Summer Prince. Few books deliver so much beauty, normalized queer representation, and so many deep questions about the role of art and artists in society as The Summer Prince does.

But Legend zeroes in on and plays with two characters who are opposite sides of the same coin, and I had a lot of fun with that. I would certainly recommend it on those grounds. If you also like star-crossed lovers from different social strata, betrayal, intrigue, and murder then this book is definitely for you.

Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

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This is not the kind of book that I read when I was a kid. It’s not quite the kind of book that I prefer to read right now. Despite that, I enjoyed it.

In terms of age range, Cosmic is definitely middle grade. I can see why it is called sci fi, but I think that classification is misleading when compared with other middle grade science fiction. With an allowance made for several advancements beyond current technology, this story is fundamentally about our own world—and the few pieces of advanced technology that are present don’t change that.

The writing honestly made me uncomfortable, and didn’t pull me in right away; the story moves slowly, and from the beginning I felt a looming sense of dread due to the effective foreshadowing. I wonder whether readers of the intended age would feel differently. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, for example, is famously fun for kids and terrifying for adults… perhaps Cosmic is similar?

I don’t mean to say that the book is bad: it’s actually quite good, once you get into it. But it’s slow and meditative, and it took a while to grow on me. Also, when it did finally grow on me, I felt like I was appreciating it very specifically as an adult; that’s quite distinct from how I’ve felt about some other good middle grade sci fi I’ve read recently. Perhaps a reader less invested in the adventure fiction that I loved as a kid would be more interested in Cosmic. Or maybe I’m just not the right kind of kid inside to really enjoy this book.

If you want a meditation on growing up, the arbitrariness of childhood and adulthood, feelings of connection and responsibility, and maybe just a little bit of space, Cosmic is a good book for you. If you want something fast paced and snappy, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult and Middle Grade sci fi over the past few months. A good deal of it has been a grind, predictable material that didn’t excite me but which I knew I had to finish for due diligence. Not so with Illuminae. This is a book I inhaled. It was fun, tense, well-paced, and knew how and when to stab me in the feels.

If you like sci fi, action/thriller stories, and dramatic feels I strongly recommend it. This is solid YA sci fi.

I also strongly recommend reading it in hard copy. I don’t know whether an ebook would deliver the experimental (and effective) layout and formatting, and I’m certain that an audiobook would lose a lot of the value. It’s like Code Name Verity in that way. There are layers of paratextual content that would disappear without the physical book in front of you, and the design itself is worth appreciating.

Though the book is thick, it isn’t dense. The designers’ formatting and layout choices make excellent use of space and spatial alignment to convey the book’s underlying pretext, as the whole piece is found-text: transcripts of chat logs, audio files, video records, and more. There are a few places where the layout and design get even weirder, and most of those spots worked extremely well for me. I won’t spoil them.

Speaking of spoilers, I have some appreciative thoughts which don’t ruin anything but which might be considered *spoiler-ish* by the sensitive. There was a moment a ways in when I realized that there was no guarantee that things would turn out “well” for the primary subjects of the story. I returned to the first pages, re-read the contextualizing introduction, and confirmed my fears. I read on, heart firmly in throat. I was very impressed. I deeply appreciate any book that manages to make such good use of its underlying context to pull the legs out from under the audience, and Illuminae managed that skillfully. *End spoiler-ish*

I don’t think I need to say any more, honestly. Check out the book. If you like the first page, sit back, read on, and enjoy.

Building Engagement in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

This pulls lessons from all over, but especially from Apocalypse World.

Roleplaying games are a conversation. Like any conversation, they’re at their best when the people in them are engaged and present, not distracted. Playing an RPG means sharing a collaboratively created world and holding that mutual fiction in your mind; thus, the conversation suffers when people disengage.

So how can we keep each other engaged, and avoid Continue reading