Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

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At least this cover doesn’t make me want to devote another 500 words to critiquing it.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Diana Wynne Jones cribbed from Disney’s 1992 Aladdin, but Castle in the Air came out first (in 1990). Perhaps more strangely, I haven’t found anything about the making of Aladdin that confirms that they were inspired by Castle in the Air… but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cross pollination.

As with Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps even more so, this is a book that I want Continue reading

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Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

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Layers. Layers on layers on layers, ploys on top of ploys, backstabbing all the way down. And somewhere, sandwiched between all those knives, a few people trying to make a tyrannical empire a better place despite itself.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series (of which I’ve read the first two books) feels like a reimagining of the fundamental critiques of Warhammer 40k—but instead of trapping his work beneath cynical satire and Poe’s Law, Yoon Ha Lee renders his critiques of empire transparently and with heart.

Ninefox Gambit is a new presentation of classic sci-fi military fiction, discarding the traditional fetish for the tools of war and replacing it with an exploration of the human cost of imposing and maintaining empire… and of resisting and rectifying it. It does this all with a setting in which the violent and malignant imposition of hegemony is part and parcel of the exotic technological base necessary for interstellar civilization, and in which heretical practice literally erodes the power and capabilities of the empire’s technologies; mathematical and spatial relations, punctuated by suffering and pain, form the bedrock of calendrical technology, and the embrace of this calendrical tech-base has trapped the Hexarchate in a never-ending cycle of violence and subjugation.

With the Hexarchate’s rulers a group of professionally inhumane paranoiacs, determined to retain their power and uphold the stability of their realm with no care for the cost in lives, it takes a very special kind of heretic to oppose them.

If you like science fiction, or military fiction, or anti-imperial explorations in uncomfortably familiar alien settings, this book is for you. If you want your books to explain everything to you and never leave you piecing together elements of a setting or story… I might suggest something else.

Also, if you’ve traditionally avoided sci-fi mil-fic because it’s one long paean to unquestioning support of cis-het male hegemony, don’t worry. This series radically normalizes queered gender and sexuality. I really appreciated that.

In case you couldn’t guess, I think this book (and series) is great. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to experience it for yourself. I strongly recommend Ninefox Gambit.

If you like this book, I’d also recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

Wandering thoughts: Rare Earth Elements, Climate Change, and Fantasy Settings

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I had some grim thoughts about the future of our civilization today, and turned them into a fantastical exploration of alternate worlds… because that’s how my brain works, I guess. Join my escapade, and learn a little bit about Rare Earth Elements, modern technology, and climate change while you’re at it.

Rare Earth Elements are fundamental to Continue reading

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

 

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Howl’s Moving Castle is an excellent book. I’m indebted to my friend for recommending it to me; I knew the book existed, and I already loved the Miyazaki film, but it was her mention of it that finally pushed me over the edge.

Now that I’ve read it, I have to say that Diana Wynne Jones Continue reading

Light Years, by Kass Morgan

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Light Years is a fine book, nestled deep in the readily-identifiable heart of its genre. It never Continue reading

The Beast Player, by Nahoko Uehashi

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To someone well-versed in American (and more generally, Western) narrative expectations, The Beast Player is a bit of an odd duck. It is, however, a good duck.

Some of this oddness can be chalked up to the fact that Continue reading

The Girl Who Drank The Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

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My reading log entry for this book has notes scribbled in the upper left corner: “read this again, read more Barnhill.”

Sometimes I have the pleasure of finding something that feels like it has wafted in through my window, a strangely whole remnant of a dream. It tantalizes, and though it obviously operates on a logic I only comprehend on that precipice between slumber and wakefulness, it holds together. Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank The Moon is one of those books.

This is not to say that The Girl Who Drank The Moon is confusing or inaccessible. Rather the opposite. It is seductive, and it pulled me in as one might fall into reverie: never losing consciousness, but slowly melding from one reality into another without any clear boundaries between the two.

I admire this book.

I love the dreaminess of its fantasy, I love the elegance of its language and the way it presents its stories within stories. I marvel at how well Barnhill has tied conflicting accounts together, like strands of rope twisted against each other until they bind and form a stronger whole. Perhaps most of all, I love the ways in which this story eludes the expectations of a fairy tale while still being a fairy tale through and through.

I did feel that—at the very end—this story lost a little of the breath-taking elegance it had carried so effortlessly throughout. But that cannot detract from the story as a whole for me. It remains too good, and I know for a fact that any semblance of effortlessness is a beautiful lie made of hard work and considerable skill.

That’s why I’ve set this one aside to read again. That’s why I want to read more of Barnhill’s work. That skill, that sense of story, is something I admire and covet. I want to let it soak into my skin, let it become part of me as well.

I strongly recommend this book, especially if you’re looking for middle grade fantasy or fairy tales. I think you could probably delight younger children by reading it aloud. I know that it delighted me.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

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Dang, that cover is gorgeous.

I just realized that I never wrote anything about River of Teeth here.

River of Teeth is a delight. It is compelling, it is exceedingly evocative, and it cemented my tremendous respect for Sarah Gailey. That respect isn’t simply for Gailey’s fabulous what-if—though a heist western about queer hippo-riding cowboys in the swamps of Louisiana wins you lots of points in my book—no, my respect is for Gailey’s obdurate embrace of optimism, hope, and upbeat tone despite nearly every genre expectation insisting otherwise. When I read River of Teeth, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d read a book so fraught with dire struggle, and with emotional conflict, yet which somehow rose above despondency and grimdark. It’s still hard to come up with such titles, but this is one of them.

Gailey’s characters are capable, but merely mortal. They face the impossible. And somehow they never lose heart.

I think it says something that I inhaled River of Teeth, and then immediately inhaled the sequel, and only ever felt better for having done so.

River of Teeth is a small thing, and it’s a marvel that there is so much inside it. I strongly recommend both it and its sequel Taste of Marrow. If you like well-grounded weird historical what-ifs, or westerns, or heists, or stories which adamantly refuse to kill their queers and which hold tight to hope with both hands… this story is for you. If you just want a good time, this story is for you.

Please, go read the book.

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.

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.