The Arena of Galch

Mad Galch, the wizard-architect of Jous, was commissioned to construct an arena for the Imperial City at the height of the Jousian Empire’s second peak. He did so, after laboring for a year and a day without rest, finishing it with a crack of thunder that shattered the heavens. All who saw the Arena of Galch praised it, once they had recovered their senses.

It was a towering stadium, the deep bowl of its structure revealing a marvelous field at its heart. The field was widely recognized as a triumph in itself; no gladiator who fought upon it could call it anything else, and even the audience marveled at the way it shed blood and stains into gutters around its edges. Every whisper from the dying-ground could be heard anywhere in the stadium, and the structure quickly became a favorite venue for things besides blood sport—much to Mad Galch’s consternation.

By Mad Galch’s sternest warning, no one was permitted to dig below the stadium for any reason. This caused some trouble several years into the next Emperox’s reign, delaying the implementation of a comprehensive sewer system in the neighborhood surrounding the Arena. Mad Galch did not care, and refused to assist or permit any bending of his rules. His threats as to what would happen should anyone dig below were fierce enough to etch themselves in citizen’s minds for centuries after his death.

In accordance with his will, upon Mad Galch’s death he was laid in state in the center of his Arena’s field. The gathered audience of dignitaries, potentates, and commoners watched in shock as the field enveloped him, leaving only his shroud behind. Though many now regarded the Arena with fear, it was still constantly put to use.

After the Jousian Empire’s third decline, the Arena no longer held death matches of any kind. The gutters’ thirst was not slaked, and the Arena began to lose its sheen. Increasingly, attendees felt that the Arena’s doorways held themselves open as a matter of tightly bound restraint, a considerable exercise of will. It was not until the sack of Jous (and the execution of the imperial court on the Arena’s field) that the Arena was restored to its former glory. Those who took the city declared it a holy place, feeding it blood according to their sacred calendar.

These nights, though the sacrifices have not been made regularly for some time, the field illuminates the entire building from within. Its light pulses. The few miserable or crazed enough to still live nearby swear that they have heard whispers in the night air; some of them swear that Mad Galch visits their dreams, promising greatness soon to come.

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

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I’ve seen Max Gladstone in person several times now, at Pandemonium Games and at Arisia, and I’ve enjoyed hearing him speak… and now I’ve finally read one of his books (besides the wonderful stuff he has on Serial Box). I’m glad to say that Continue reading

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

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.