The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross

It’s been a hot minute since I last read Stross. At least several years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel like I’ve changed significantly since then. Both as a person and (more narrowly) as a reader. It seems that Stross has changed somewhat as a writer as well (between this book and The Delirium Brief) but… in most ways the work is still the same. And given that what I really wanted was another Laundry Files book, that’s okay.

Also, I know I’m writing here about a book published three years ago (and therefore written even longer ago) and comparing it with a book published four years ago (thus written even further into the past). Writers are cursed to be judged on the merits of their old selves, forever. I try to be generous.

It’s weird knowing that I’m now at least five years ahead of where Stross was when he wrote the book, because my subconscious still thinks of this book as “current.” A lot has happened in the past five years. C’est la vie.

Anyway.

Did I enjoy The Labyrinth Index? Yes.

But this isn’t the place to start this series. If you pick up this book without having read a good deal of the preceding series, you’ll be lost. Some of you will no doubt pick up on things fast enough to enjoy it, but you’ll probably have a bit of cognitive whiplash. If, on the other hand, you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in the series… you know what you’re getting yourself into and you’ll probably like this one too.

This series is cosmic horror / grim bureaucratic office comedy / political thriller / spy shenanigans, and it’s the only series I know of which hits all those notes. It’s not as introspective or emotionally investigative as other books I’ve read recently. It doesn’t try to be. I’m not saying it’s merely a cold, unfeeling genre fiction monster ready to crush you beneath its plot, but it’s certainly more about intrigue and external plot than it is about interpersonal (or internal) emotional plot.

If you want something that will scratch those genre-itches, and you need to scratch all of them at once, this is the only back scratcher that I know will do the trick. If you haven’t read anything from the series yet, check out The Atrocity Archives and see whether the genre combination is to your taste. Some things in Stross’ writing will change, others will stay the same.

Relatedly… I can’t tell how much Stross’ writing of (or about) female characters has changed. I’ve been weirded out by it in the past, but that weird-factor is just connected enough to the genres Stross switches between, and just intermittent enough, that I have trouble pinning down exactly what is going on. I think he’s improved, but I haven’t compared his earlier work and his current work side by side. Just be aware that there may be odd or uncomfortable stuff there waiting for you.

Also, I sometimes feel a little weirded out by how Stross wrote the future-past—or past-future, or whatever—and wonder what strange scrying he does for his prognostications. But that quasi-prescience is also part of Stross’ appeal for me, and it’s part of what makes reading his “near-future” based work a few years later so fascinating (even if The Laundry Files aren’t the best example of this). It does tend to date his work more thoroughly.

Oh, and: if you don’t mind spoilers, there’s some good thinking on all of the above from Stross himself, right here.

Amari and the Night Brothers, by B. B. Alston

Some books reshape their genre. Others expand it to include a wider range of voices. Some do both. I often like books that do the first. I believe we as a society and community need books that do the second. For examples of books that reshape their genres, I’d offer up The Ballad Of Black Tom and The Fifth Season. For books that expand their genre, those two still work… but I can also add A Dead Djinn In Cairo, and now B. B. Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers.

Amari and the Night Brothers feels like another step in the same chain as A Dead Djinn In Cairo. It doesn’t, in my eyes, revolutionize the underlying components of the genre (yet), but it’s solid and has a refreshingly different perspective from the usual run of Middle Grade supernatural school protagonists. Amari—the main character—is black (as is B. B. Alston) and in a genre so dominated by white writers and white characters that’s pretty dramatic. It feels sad to say that’s enough, but I think it’s true.

As I said, this book didn’t fundamentally change or subvert anything I expected from the genre. I was able to plot out the tropes and most of the twists pretty well beforehand. But it’s good. Those tropes I saw coming felt right, and their resolutions felt rewarding. This story does everything I’d want a solid book in the MG supernatural school genre to do (with allowance for a little bit of deus ex machina), and it does it with heart and with a different set of assumptions about the world than so many other stories I’ve seen and read. That’s what I love and admire about it, why I’d recommend it.

And unlike A Dead Djinn In Cairo, I’ve seen enough of B. B. Alston’s work here to believe that there are other interesting things coming down the pipe, ways in which this story is going to grow, and tell its story differently. Amari and the Night Brothers already had my interest standing on its own. And I look forward to seeing what new paths B. B. Alston adds to this well-trodden genre.

A Dead Djinn In Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark

Short, fast, fun. A Dead Djinn In Cairo is a good read, with a marvelous setting. It’s also my first time reading any of P. Djèlí Clark’s work.

As a veteran fan of investigative mystery horror, adventure, and Mythos stories, the tropes here feel familiar. That seems intentional. These character and plot tropes are called on to lend the story its structure and familiarity, and they make the story quick and tight when it might otherwise require more explanation and exposition. This works well; it’s an expert’s use of the existing genre shorthand to sketch in structure and conventions, and it lets Clark explore ideas and settings that rarely make it into these genres. It’s skillfully done, and worth admiration.

That exploration is part of why I don’t mind P. Djèlí Clark’s reliance on tropes for narrative stability. He lavishes his attention on novelty elsewhere, with quick splashes of set dressing that seep slowly out of the scenery. The combination of elements is delicious (a turn-of-the-1900s ascendant Egypt, women’s increasing independence, religious turmoil, fantastical creatures and beings in our world following the removal of some of reality’s barriers…). It’s all very good. I love the world he’s created here and will happily read more of it.

But that reliance means I don’t yet have a sense of whether I’ll like P. Djèlí Clark’s other narratives. At some point I’ll want more than my enthusiasm for this cool setting; I’d love for the narrative and its tropes to feel exciting without feeling like they hew so closely to the genre’s conventions, and I’d love for Clark to take the standard tropes and twist them a little more firmly into his own setting’s image. That said, I’d certainly recommend this story over any number of other genre stories. He delivers the expected tropes at least as well as any of the older examples I have to hand, and the trappings of P. Djèlí Clark’s story are more appealing to me. Based on this, I hope he’ll find other ways to exceed those stories as well.

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine has written another excellent book. A Desolation Called Peace branches out from the space covered in A Memory Called Empire, and while I know there’s more that could be squeezed from the first book’s subject matter I think this evolution serves the story (and the reader) well. And don’t worry, Martine doesn’t abandon anything she built before. Instead, she calls forward elements which had been waiting in the wings; it’s more of a shift of focus than a dismissal of the old.

Specifically, where the first book asked “what does it mean to be human, or a person? Who draws the line, and where?” as a running background theme, this book puts that front and center. And I love that. Those questions are important at any time, but they’re integral elements of a totalizing imperial worldview, and as such they’re critical to this story and setting. Honestly, those questions are part of what I love about science fiction in general, and they’re a big part of what I love about this series in particular.

Now, this book felt a little slower to me, more gradual or less heart-in-throat until nearer to the end. But it’s no less fraught. In many ways, the excruciatingly complicated fusion of the personal and political feels more poignant here, even as the book and that fusion explore new themes. And yes, Martine is still good at digging into the ways hegemony wraps itself around everything, strangling like a ligature until conformity (or death) is achieved.

Now, about this book feeling slower… I wasn’t sucked in head first the same way that I was for the first book, not until further into the book than last time. I’ve had a hard time telling how much of that comes from different reading circumstances, like changes in the time I set aside for reading, versus how much comes from differences between the two books. Either way, I’m pretty sure it took me much longer to read A Desolation Called Peace than it took me to read A Memory Called Empire

But the magic that Martine conjures in the first book is still present. A Desolation Called Peace is still full of heartfelt complicatedness, and confusing wants and desires and struggles, and its *really good*. The conflicts brought to the surface here are wonderful. I like seeing them on the page. I haven’t seen them in other books any time recently, and it feels really good to see Martine explore the ways in which hegemony and empire worm their fingers into everything, no matter how intimate or pedestrian.

Unlike with some other series (e.g. Becky Chambers’ books), order matters here; you should absolutely read A Memory Called Empire before you read this one. If the first book wasn’t to your liking, I’m afraid this one probably won’t be either. But if you’re not a light reader, and if you want good intrigue, ethical dilemmas, questions of humanity, interestingly alien aliens, and the baggage of empire… this is your deal.

Facing grief and trauma in genre fiction

I’m a fan of adventure stories and genre fiction. Genre fiction covers a lot of ground, but you can probably guess what I’m talking about: fantasy adventures, intrigue, sci-fi thrillers, that sort of thing. Not, generally, the stories that literary critics make happy noises about and call “art” or “good literature.”

I don’t think genre writers should mould themselves to the expectations of literary critics. The personal tastes of many of those critics don’t match mine very well. They have too little appreciation for plot, for things happening, to really fit my tastes. But there are a few places where I think the general approach of genre fiction feels… emotionally dishonest, stunted, or like it (sometimes) does us as readers a disservice.

This puts me at risk of agreeing with those literary critics on a few points, which makes me (as a long-time ardent genre fiction fan) a little nervous. 

As you might guess from the title, my quibble revolves around characters’ experiences of grief and trauma in genre fiction. The pattern I see is that genre fiction doesn’t deal deeply or honestly with the impact of the traumatic experiences it puts its characters through. It prioritizes the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the problem solving… and leaves healing from one’s wounds—or picking up the pieces of one’s emotional and social life, or facing one’s lasting pain—entirely out of the picture. Facing trauma and grief, to put too-small a name to it.

A general caveat: I think the patterns I’m discussing here have changed somewhat since I was a kid. It is easier now to find exceptions to the pattern I talk about here, and the pattern may be shifting. But the pattern is still visible, and will probably be recognizable to anyone who’s read certain sub-genres (mil-fic is an easy example).

Where this kind of genre fiction does deal with that trauma and grief, it frequently responds with the blaring one-note horn of limited (toxic) masculinity: anger, revenge, and action, with no time set aside for reflection or any other emotional experience (generally regardless of the gender of the characters involved). I’m not surprised, really: I see in this the parallel discomfort modern American society has had with any discussion of emotional experience, or any need for psychological aid, spiritual counseling, meditative practice, or anything else meant to soothe and heal (maybe excepting the use of drugs or sex as an escape).

I don’t want all of my adventure stories to fixate on the main characters’ desperate need for therapy. That’s not the solution I’m looking for. But it would be nice for more of our genre fiction to, as I’ve seen more examples of recently, deal honestly with the impact of going through all of these exciting, interesting times. How is it that our heroes learn to cope? How are they breaking under the pressure of being heroic? Who’s supporting them, and how? Where are the quiet little moments of Frodo leaning on Sam in the face of terrible odds and endless danger?

I want to read stories where the heroes’ struggles in the face of unyielding badness are more palpably human, less opaquely stoic. And if our heroes are stoic, I want to see the work they put into maintaining that stoicism, holding that balance, despite the exceptional lives they live. It’s the failure to show this side of our heroes that feels like a disservice to us as readers.

That’s especially true in anything that isn’t epic or mythological. What I mean by that is, the further from the banalities of life the focus of the story falls, the more leeway I give it—if you’re writing about characters who are more-than-human or even forces of nature, I don’t have beef. But I’ll add that exploring the emotional depth of those characters (even off-handedly, I don’t need whole chapters about someone’s anguish unless that’s what the book is about) nearly always builds more connection for me and gives me a better sense of the character as a person. And I like that. The more I know what characters care about, and the more ways I have of exploring that, the better as far as I’m concerned. Especially if it’s done with a deft hand and subtly incorporated.

I hope that this old pattern will change. I can see ways that it already has, in the books I’ve enjoyed most recently. You can probably see me writing about those books, those stories, elsewhere on here. Let’s see more of that change.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine absolutely knocks this one out of the park. 

A Memory Called Empire is a lot of things, but at its heart is a bittersweet tension of love, admiration, and despair for a culture and civilization which will destroy one’s own. It’s about being caught on the outside, stuck as an outsider despite so much work done to fit in. And it’s a thriller about loyalty and betrayal, both expected and not, from without and within.

It’s an excellent book, as I said when I mentioned it a couple weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to write anything more here, and thrown out a few hundred words that might spoil the book for you. Exploring what Arkady Martine does so well without giving away her story is… challenging for me.

She’s managed to write a compelling culture, one in which I can see traces of several historical imperial courts and practices, and held it up for us the readers as a deep and multi-layered thing tantalizingly out of reach of our own comprehension. The fraught weight of meaning is present and palpable, but just enough is lost in translation for us to experience it mostly as our narrator does, unable to be a full part of it as anything but barbarians.

Speaking as someone who studied linguistics, and specialized in the production of ideology and ideological identity through political speech, this book is a delight. Speaking as someone who loves studying political science, international relations, history, and the rise, fall, and gradual mutations of empire, this book is marvelous. And as someone who deeply appreciates heartfelt stories juxtaposed with intrigue and danger—wow.

I’m trying not to ruin anything for you. Please just go ahead and read the book. It’s really good.

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The fourth and final member of Tor’s Reimagining Lovecraft novella collection, Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan, brings the weird and the uncomfortable home to roost.

Of the four stories, this is the one that felt least complete to me. It left obvious spaces open for the story to continue, implications that want some kind of follow-up… but I think I can see why the story stopped where it did. The novella contained its own neat little arc, even though the completion of the arc didn’t resolve the larger story lines this piece opened. Worth noting: there are sequels to this story, though I haven’t yet read any.

Each of the four novellas in this collection builds on a different part of the Cthulhu Mythos, and I’ve found aspects to appreciate about every one of these reinterpretations. They all draw out facets of Lovecraft’s stories—sometimes things he wrote explicitly, sometimes things he implied but failed to recognize—and I’ve enjoyed them as a return to cosmic horror, a way to engage more with stories that I’ve put aside in distaste but which still hold some good core of fright.

And that good core of fright is precisely what I think CRK captures so well here; its presence is the reason that I don’t feel at all cheated by this story. Despite leaving me wanting more resolution, more progress, Agents of Dreamland absolutely satisfied my desire for the Mythos’ pressing discomfort; Kiernan pulls from multiple pieces of Lovecraft’s work—the sometimes goofy and poorly written bizarre monsters, the fairytale otherness of (mis)understood dreaming—and delivers a horror story that holds together as whole cloth. It’s a reimagining, like it says on the novella collection, that improves on the material it draws from. Just like the other pieces in here do, but in its own distinct way (like, again, the other pieces in here do).

In many ways, I think Agents of Dreamland is the most Lovecraft-ish reimagining of the four novellas. Kiernan improves on the original content in a way that feels most comparable to the source material. Maybe that’s why I kept thinking about Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green games while reading it.

Anyway, yes, it’s another good piece in a good collection. If you like Cthulhu Mythos stories but are tired of / disgusted by Lovecraft, or could never get into those stories because of Lovecraft, I suggest these. They vary a lot from one novella to the next, but I’ve enjoyed them all a great deal.

Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

I’ve finished two good books recently, A Memory Called Empire and Hammers on Bone. They both deserve more than a passing mention, but I’m only going to talk about Hammers on Bone right now—I’ve struggled to find good ways to cover A Memory Called Empire without spoiling things, and I’m taking the easier way out.

I read Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone through the same bundle of four novellas that brought me to The Ballad of Black Tom and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. I’m glad to say that this book deserves its company. Reading this has inspired me to tell my own investigative horror stories again, through its good example and obvious love for the material; for comparison, these days Lovecraft only evokes that kind of reaction for me by way of spite and a fierce desire to do better than he did.

Perhaps that’s what drove Cassandra Khaw. Whatever the case, they succeeded.

Evocative, punchy, and more full of body-horror and gore than I’d expected, this book wears its love for the stylings of noir on its nicotine-stained sleeve. Seriously, I haven’t read about this much smoking in years. But it’s a story that comes with all the scummy details and twists I expect from old PI noir, alongside the horror of the Cthulhu mythos and a grasp of descriptive language that leaves me reeling in envy and admiration. Not everyone should try this style of evocative, nearly synesthetic detail, but DAMN does Khaw make it work for me. Their prose lays on atmosphere so thick it’s like drowning, mashed face first into the yellowed pages of cheap detective pulp.

And it works. The quasi-hallucinatory perspective, with its depth of detail, goes beyond merely fleshing out a character voice; it rapidly told me more than I’d realized about who our narrator was… and how Mr. Persons was not at all what I’d first thought.

It’s not a big book, not a long story. It’s a quick and potent read, much faster for me than most of the other pieces in the Tor.com novella collection. If you like horror and noir it’s practically a must. I definitely recommend it. Get it here. Or buy the whole bundle (which I’ve enjoyed so far) here.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was a slow burn, and a good one.

I admit that it lost its compulsive hold on me part way through. I was distracted. My reading wandered, and I consumed several other tasty books. But when I returned to it after some time away, I finished it in one sitting. And while my hair did not stand on end (much harder now with its covid-length), this story does an excellent job of peeling back the skin and exposing fresh, homemade, very human discomfort.

Another friend of mine absolutely adored this book and inhaled it in one go, unable to put it down. In talking about it, we speculated that my distraction in the middle may have come from gendered differences. Perhaps, we thought, I was less caught up in it because it felt less intimately personal. Your mileage may vary.

Whatever the source of that difference, I absolutely agree with her (and with whomever decided to bundle these books at Tor) that like The Ballad of Black Tom (my review, Goodreads), this book does a beautiful job of reimagining abysmal source material with vibrance, reality, and truth. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe captures the same strange wonder and eeriness of Dreaming that I remember enjoying from Lovecraft’s work, while shedding Lovecraft’s awful baggage. I firmly believe that this story, like The Ballad of Black Tom, is superior to HPL’s work.

Read the originals only if you must, and only if you’re ready for how much worse Lovecraft was.

Speaking of ‘must,’ this story is an adventure of musts and mustn’ts. It’s about being pushed, pressured by society and those with more power. And this story is more concerned with wily survival against the wishes of malignant potentates than with any fulfillment of internal, personal dreams and desires. In fact, it’s about quashing one’s own hopes in order to conform, in hopes that conforming will offer some protection. That is part of what sets this story up so well as a piece of slow horror, but it’s also foundational to why it feels so honest. Our protagonist, Vellitt Boe, struggles against constraints even as she tries to uphold them; she’s caught in a vise, doing her best to protect the little island of home she’s found, the little space for broadening life’s horizons she’s been able to settle into… but to do so, she must drag another woman back from those broadened horizons, back into a constrained life, lest many more lives be lost.

Horrible. Perfect.

Now, some very light, very generalized *SPOILERS*…

The late-in-the-story turnaround leading to the story’s final resolution seems obvious when I think about it now, but it caught me by surprise in the best way. And throughout the story, I loved that Vellitt Boe accomplished more through her own previous experience—and the relationships she’d forged over her well-traveled life—rather than through any personal skill mastery or super-ability. Being experienced in the ways of the world, having old allies, and knowing how to convince people to do what she wanted all did more for her… and that felt perfect. In so many ways, Vellitt Boe is the opposite of the heroes or narrators chosen by Lovecraft, or his contemporary Robert E. Howard. And the fact that Vellitt Boe’s connections to other people are so fundamentally instrumental to her success… it feels to me like a beautiful refusal of the ideologies of the source material.

End *SPOILERS*.

Look, I like this book. I definitely recommend it. More deliberate than fast-paced, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is full of subdued horror, is uncomfortable but rewarding, and is very good.

Rewrites, Dying, and Seeing Beauty

I wrote a scene in my Protectors setting soon after New Years, one that resonated really strongly with me. It felt good. It was obviously either the emotional climax of a story, or one of two emotional climaxes. That scene just as obviously needed more material to support it. It was, in some ways, like finding out that I’d built the middle of a bridge’s span and still needed to build the rest.

As I wrote the rest of the story, I discovered that—to remain honest to the characters and story—I either needed to write something that felt depressing and which I didn’t want, or I had to find a very different way of reaching the conclusion I’d hoped for. My first attempts at this didn’t go well. I tried forcing the conclusion I’d hoped for, and it felt dishonest, jammed into place. Then I mapped out what would happen in the depressing version, and just felt sad.

So, rewrites. Rewrites and talking with my mom (and crit group) about my narrative struggles.

My crit group agreed that I probably had to write out both versions and see what happened. They also noted that writing the depressing version might be more in keeping with the setting. My mom, on the other hand, offered up some observations from a book she’d read recently about mortality and the experience of approaching death and dying (Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, by Sallie Tisdale).

A little context: my mom has done a lot of work with the elderly (and is now reaching elderly herself). When I was a kid she did a good deal of work with patients in hospice—palliative end-of-life care. Her second husband, my stepfather, was a good deal older than she was, and the two of them met because they were both working in hospice. They read many books together, especially about philosophy, meditation, and the experience of growing old and dying. My stepfather died last fall. What I’m trying to say is, it’s hardly new for my mom to share something from her readings about mortality.

If you’ve read any of my stories in my Protectors setting, you’ll understand what I mean when I say those stories are rarely about growing old but often about the experience of encroaching death. My mom’s contribution was pretty on point.

The bit she mentioned was an experience which is sometimes shared by those who are dying, one she said my stepfather had spoken of: the heightening of one’s appreciation for the everyday, and for beauty in the everyday world. Not that the world is itself different, but that—in the process of dying, faced with imminent death—the world’s vibrancy and glory are more evident, more accessible.

And that felt like the missing key.

Thinking on it now, this feels like part of the gratitude and joy, or the quiet meditation on beauty, which I see in some Buddhist meditative tradition. And that experience of beauty, gratitude, and joy was the second step I needed to follow the first emotional climax. The transformative nature of those feelings, the fundamental shift from despair and depression to wonder and awe, is at the heart of the emotional shift I needed.

I still have to write it and make it stick, of course. I’m part way through that. I’ve got to put together another few scenes, replace a few others with new ones, and then print it up and see whether it makes any sense. I don’t expect it to work on the first (second?) attempt, but maybe it will at least look a bit more like a finished bridge… something I can work with.

Thanks Mom.