The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor was my first introduction to Katherine Addison (pen name for Sarah Monette). As I mentioned when I wrote about that book, I admire the way in which Addison creates meaningful, real characters, people who feel like they have tangible depth even when I don’t like them (and don’t want to like them) at all.

The Witness for the Dead does it again. I don’t feel quite as uplifted or warmed with hope as I did after the first book—possibly because the main character is in such a low place himself, and somehow slogging his way through that without making the book feel depressing—but this one still feels good and truthful. It’s still peaceful in a way that I appreciate, bringing resolution to the important things while allowing the less important things to pass along. And the main character, once again, feels like a decent person who retains his decency through everything that this story (full of other people’s intrigue, and others’ dislike for the main character) has to offer. This book is, to borrow a word from John Scalzi’s review, intimate.

Oh, and this book follows a different main character than the first. It’s a sequel insofar as it follows someone who shows up in the first book, is in the same setting, and occurs after the first book’s events. But otherwise, little of the first book’s story matters all that much here.

I suppose, if you haven’t read The Goblin Emperor and don’t know much about the setting, this might be a bit of a shock to your system. Addison doesn’t bother to explain any of the in-setting terminology that she uses (modes of address, important morphemes denoting gender, class, familial relationship). As such, understanding who’s who and getting over that initial hurdle of comprehension might be a little rough. I know enough about my preferences to realize that many readers want a little more context, a slightly less abrupt introduction to a complicated setting, than I do. This book might not offer that.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that Addison did that much to explain the setting’s conventions in The Goblin Emperor either. But that book had a slightly slower introduction to more complicated social dynamics—and had a main character who constantly thought about the social cues involved—and thereby made more room for the reader to gain expertise before being thrown into the deep end. That’s less the case here. There are still small contextual cues, e.g. thoughts from the narrator which reflect on terms of address, but (based solely on old memories) I think there’s a slightly steeper learning curve to this book than the previous one.

That does not mean that this book is bad. I really liked it. I strongly recommend it, especially for those who want heartfelt fantasy that gives more attention to characters’ internal worlds, and which takes time to make people feel like people instead of plot-relevant cardboard cut-outs. In that way it has many similarities to Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, except that The Witness for the Dead, like The Goblin Emperor before it, has more external plot and intrigue.

So if you’re looking for fantasy intrigue with well-written characters, or stories that include external plot but give more weight to a character’s personal journey, The Witness for the Dead might be for you. Enjoy.

Clockwork Boys, by T. Kingfisher

It seems that I’m on an Ursula Vernon kick. I knew I wanted more stuff in the same setting, and I knew that this book (this series, actually) had also been recommended to me, so…

Look, Clockwork Boys is more of the same. It’s very reliably the same.

Not the same characters, not all the same dynamics or storylines or what-have-you, but genre-wise it’s still the same. Clockwork Boys is still fantasy, and romance, and adventure. Plus it has some other genre tidbits that are atypical for most romance stories but which fit well with a fantasy adventure RPG—murder, subterfuge, demons, the usual. It has the same drawbacks I’ve already mentioned in my pieces on Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength (still no queer romance here, it came before the others), but the book is solid.

And I like it. I knew what I was getting; I liked the flavor before, I like the flavor now. Vernon is good at what she does, and if you think you might enjoy a fantasy adventure story with some romance and a dash of subterfuge and demons, she’s the person to follow.

For extra context: I’m amused but not at all surprised that Vernon decided to write these books (and presumably the Saint of Steel books) out of frustration with the writing for male romantic leads in several CRPGs. She says as much in her Acknowledgements section. And while this book isn’t a novelization of a CRPG, you can taste the similarities and parallels. I’d say Vernon accomplished her goal: these characters (and their relationships) feel more compelling and plausible than the source material.

Oh, also, this book ends abruptly. Like, extremely abruptly. It’s very clearly the first half of a larger book, and it’s very clearly split here because this is close enough to half way and there’s a little narrative closure immediately before the cut. This is another thing Vernon mentions in her Acknowledgements, and it surprised me even less than the CRPG source material.

I don’t think the sudden end is bad; the sequel is already out, and if I’d known about the cut ahead of time I would have placed a hold on the second book. So this is my warning to you. If you like the book when you pick it up, get your hands on the sequel too. Don’t be like me. I didn’t plan far enough ahead, and now I have to wait.

Another side note, I suppose… if you’re here for the romance specifically, you might be a little disappointed. Some vague *SPOILERS* follow. The romance plot here is clearly being developed and teased. You can tell (if you’re not entirely unfamiliar with romance plots) almost immediately. But the meat of the romance plot doesn’t happen in this book. This one’s just build up, and pushes the external plot along. Honestly, I’d be a little surprised if the next book doesn’t feel like it’s strapped to a rocket, given how much has been established here already. *END SPOILERS*

So. If some mixture of these genres is your jam, or if you like fantasy CRPGs and were always a little disappointed by the writing of their romance plots, this book is probably for you. And while I haven’t read the sequel yet, you should probably get your hands on it along with the first book so you don’t have to wait like I do.

Paladin’s Strength, by T. Kingfisher

I enjoyed Paladin’s Strength. I knew what I was getting into this time. It’s still fantasy and romance with a few other genre bits tossed in. It’s still good, I still like all the genres in play here—or at least don’t dislike any of them enough to turn me off enjoying the rest of them.

Specifically, romance is kind of hit or miss for me. It’s not my popcorn genre. I don’t feel sucked into it or compelled or fed by it in the same way that I do with other genres, I don’t delight in it the same way. But when it’s well done, and especially when it doesn’t exist on its own, I’m down.

And it turns out that Ursula Vernon (pen name: T. Kingfisher) is good at her job. She’s good at writing characters that I enjoy. She knows the beats for a romance, and she’s happy to improvise around them with other interesting genre material. I don’t think I want to read more of her romances right now—I could use a palate cleanser, a break—but I like the world she’s established enough to want more of that, and if that requires reading romance I guess I’m down.

I just wish the romance were more queer.

Queer romance isn’t a necessity for me, but it does feel like a big boon. I’m not sure precisely what about it appeals most to me. Maybe it’s just the way in which queer romance seems more likely to diverge from classic gendered expectations of romantic relationships and interactions? Maybe I’d be down with het romance if it hewed less closely to conventional gender roles for its development.

Unfortunately, that queerness is not very present in this story. For all that Vernon does an excellent job making her characters feel like people, the central romance still feels fairly conventional to me (though I should note that Vernon continues to do fun things with healthier and more interesting relationships than I usually see in romances). There are certainly queer folks around, and there are queer characters baked into the background of the world in such a way that they are both unignorable and totally normal. That’s good. A big plus. But I’ve been hoping that this series would diverge further from conventions, and it hasn’t yet.

Apparently, from the blurb I’ve read, the next book in the series will have queer romantic leads. It should come out next year, Paladin’s Hope, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s about two characters I’ve liked in smaller roles in these first two books, so I’m very ready for it. Hopefully that romance feels less conventional too.

Despite my complaints, I think I’m learning. I’m certainly getting a better handle on how a genre + romance combo works. The romance is broadcast early on, usually through a meet-cute or some sufficiently distinctive interaction to anchor the pair’s dynamic for the reader, and then there’s a tremendous pile of will-they-won’t-they and yearning lustful thoughts before some kind of more satisfying release (ahem) close to the denouement, often just before the climax (AHEM) comes to a head (god, everything is sexual, this is like high school).

Obviously, there’s some room for variation, and for stylings around the edges. Novik and Vernon (and Bujold) don’t structure their romances exactly the same way… but they’re close enough to each other, for the most part.

I don’t plan on writing much in the romance genre per se, but it’s nice to know the structure and conventions to be able to play around with it on the sides of other stories.

Anyway, yes, much like with the previous book, Paladin’s Grace, if you like romance and don’t mind fantasy, mystery, and intrigue—or if you like fantasy, mystery, and intrigue and don’t mind romance—you’ll probably enjoy this book. This book might not be for you if any of those things is unpalatable for you. But if you’re not sure, or you’ve only read bad examples of those genres previously, give these books a try. Vernon is good at her craft.

Three Ordinary Girls, by Tim Brady

Reading Three Ordinary Girls was an odd experience for me. I both enjoyed and actively disliked this book. Complaints first.

When a nonfiction book cites Wikipedia, I cringe. It conjures memories of my teachers telling me that Wikipedia wasn’t an acceptable source for my papers (despite being better on average than most encyclopedias, which my teachers did accept as source material). Maybe I’m stuck in the past’s paper-writing habits, but surely Tim Brady can hunt down whatever sources the Wiki editor used, and reference those instead? I think what bothered me most was that nearly all of the referenced sources in this book boil down to just a few pieces, referenced over and over again. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I should have read those books instead. I would have liked more depth and breadth of source material.

Now, that may be empty quibbling: those few referenced pieces are the extant primary and secondary sources, in most cases sourced directly from the people involved. They include interview material from the “ordinary girls” in question. But… I would expect someone writing a nonfiction book to at least cite original sources for the material cribbed from Wikipedia. Maybe I’d feel differently if the book read less like someone had simply punched up a previously existing secondary source and slathered it with in-the-moment details cribbed from a primary. Or maybe this is just Tim Brady’s style (I haven’t read any of his other books). Either way, I don’t like it. Maybe you won’t mind.

All that said…

Three Ordinary Girls is gripping. The lives of these young Dutch women during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and the actions they take as members of the resistance, are exciting and frightening. Their story is painful and dramatic and evocative. It’s bloody. It’s scary. It’s a potent reminder of the banality of human cruelty, and of the messy and complicated ways in which people act when their world is tossed upside down. It’s another example of how occupation, revolution, collaboration, and resistance are overlapping and confusing and violent, with few places of certainty or security. And it’s a testament to the bravery and convictions of the three young women whose stories this book tells.

To its credit, Three Ordinary Girls doesn’t try to reassure the reader with a sanitized, polished, or clear cut glamorous war story. That may be what I admire most about it. There are many admirable stories about how people stood up and did the right thing to oppose the Nazis. But those often ignore the painful truths of how that resistance was hard, and confusing, and traumatizing, and sometimes resulted in bloody mistakes, internal conflict, and power struggles. I appreciate the way in which this book captures all of that.

For those reasons, I’d probably recommend this even if it were less well written and researched. Well, maybe not less well researched… I do prefer my historical nonfiction to remain nonfiction. But yeah, it’s good as long as you’re ready, willing, and able to stomach the awfulness.

But… there’s a lot of awfulness. Be ready to be distressed. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was violent, cruel, and bad in just about every way you can imagine the Nazis being. The only redeeming quality to it was that they (the Nazis) didn’t engage in quite as much wholesale murder as they did in Eastern Europe. Scant comfort.

If you don’t already know enough about teenagers in the Dutch resistance during World War Two, and want to know more, check this out. If you aren’t up for reading about brutality and murder in uncertain times, you should probably look for something else.

Paladin’s Grace, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Grace went by quickly. I was hooked early, and pulled right on through. The many good things I’d heard about Ursula Vernon’s work feel like they apply here too.

Side note: T. Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon are the same person, T. Kingfisher is the pen name used for a whole suite of Ursula Vernon’s projects. I’ve meant to read Ursula Vernon’s work, especially Digger, for a while now. When I learned about her pen name, I signed up for these books right away. Easier to get them as ebooks from the library than to find a good, physical omnibus of the comic.

I was a little surprised, however. I hadn’t realized this would be romance. I think I might have enjoyed Paladin’s Grace more if I’d known beforehand that it was. But I did enjoy it, and it’s my own fault for not reading any of the book’s theming data—besides which, the fact that the story is romance is pretty abundantly obvious when, soon after the cishet meet-awkward, the narration is overtaken by constant thoughts about the other party.

My genre-revelation wasn’t a problem. I already knew that I enjoyed some fantasy romance (thanks Naomi Novik & Lois McMaster Bujold). If you actively dislike romance (in this case, lots of wistful thoughts and mostly-unfulfilled lusting), you may not like this book. If you can tolerate romance, this book has a bunch of other good stuff in it too, things that usually don’t end up in romance stories. After all, as Ursula Vernon acknowledges in her author’s note, most romance doesn’t accompany grisly fantasy murder mystery, dead gods, and legal drama. The perfume and frequent discussion of scents is perhaps the most normal detail. The fact that one of the leads is a perfumer may be a little less normal, as are her frequent attempts to mentally reconstruct nearly every smell she comes across, no matter how foul.

Anyway.

I absolutely recommend this book if you want solid fantasy fun. If you hate romance, that’s more complicated. If, like some of my friends, you only find romance palatable when it’s queer… I’m sorry, this book will not satisfy you.

But if you’re as intrigued as I was by a story about a paladin whose god has died, have at it. I had a good time.

Kate (2021)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is cast as Keanu Reeves in Kate, a movie with fewer characters than John Wick (both in the title and in the story).

I couldn’t resist that sassy intro, but I fear it does the movie injustice. I enjoyed Kate quite a bit.

It’s not quite as incredible as the John Wick movies have been, whether in choreography, cinematography, or world building (John Wick’s world building is literally incredible—I struggle to believe it even as I enjoy it). But unlike the Wick movies this one actually wraps up its story. What’s more, Kate has interesting interpersonal, emotional drama that exists as more than the excuse for new on-screen violence.

Both of those go beyond anything I expect from John Wick movies.

A little context before I go further. I’m fond of action movies, and have a deep appreciation for stunt work, choreography, and cinematography (especially around fight scenes). I’m fully aware that many action movies are poorly written. I cringe at their clunky exposition, their trite plots, their wooden acting. But I appreciate them.

I also very strongly believe that we should celebrate “perfectly fine” movies more than we do, and recognize when movies are “perfectly fine” overall but have some stand out features. There’s space for movies to exist between being magnificent and being garbage.

Back to Kate: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great as the lead. She takes a cliche and acts the hell out of it, feeling emotionally honest the whole way through. I was surprised to find myself tearing up. Perhaps she caught me off guard.

She also sells the action, passing a crucial test for this genre. And Kate does a respectable job of following some of John Wick’s lead, with solid (and gruesome) choreography and filming. This despite the fact that Kate does not, and I think cannot, do exactly what the John Wick movies do; Kate doesn’t have action sequence shots as long as John Wick’s, nor does Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s action look quite as completely convincing as Keanu Reeves’.

Quick aside: why do I say cannot? Well… Mary Elizabeth Winstead has done some action previously, but she doesn’t have the same background as Keanu Reeves (who has been doing martial arts regularly since the 90s). Furthermore, from what I could find she was cast in April, started filming in September, and finished in November, all of the same year—and lost her preferred stunt double to an injury at the beginning of shooting. I’d be shocked if anyone in that time frame, even with previous stunt training, could have built up the same obsessively in-depth repertoire that Keanu Reeves has developed over his career and honed for the Wick movies. The fact that she and her doubles sell the action, make it feel convincing, make it feel like it belongs in the same space as the John Wick movies, is good enough for me.

And yet.

The few reviews I’ve seen involved critics complaining that the plot is trite and the film is too much like other femme assassin movies. They sometimes acknowledge that Mary Elizabeth Winstead has done a good job, but don’t admit that the genre they’re panning (for being too same-y or overplayed, no less) makes up a tiny slice of action movies overall… nor that the movie is absolutely better than many comparable action films with male leads.

It’s a double standard, or it’s lazy. Or both.

Kate isn’t perfect. It isn’t the best of its genre (I’d probably still give that to Atomic Blonde). But it’s better than several other femme assassin movies I’ve seen, and a damn sight better than plenty of action movies with male leads. If you like action movies, and appreciate some of the aesthetics and attention to high-quality stage violence highlighted by the John Wick movies, you’ll probably enjoy Kate.

One last thing though: I have no idea how well Kate deals with Japanese culture. It isn’t blatantly awful to my woefully uninformed eye, but I’m not the expert here.

Okay, that’s it. Kate was engaging. I liked it. I recommend it. Don’t expect perfection, just go ahead and enjoy it for what it is: a perfectly good action movie with a solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I’d absolutely watch more action movies with her as a lead. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris

This reminded me strongly of The Poisoner’s Handbook, another semi-biographical history of medical science (forensic medical science, in that case). Much like with The Poisoner’s Handbook, I can’t recommend this book if you’re not comfortable with reading about gore. If you don’t know what gangrene looks like, maybe you’ll feel better reading about it than I did (don’t look that up casually).

That said, I finished the book in the course of slightly more than a day. Clearly reading about evocatively gruesome and painful medical history does not deter me.

But a huge part of what makes this book so excellent, in my mind, is the way in which it clearly conveys the total transformation in the technology and technique of surgery over the course of the 1800s. That the book does so while also giving us a window into the personal life of the man who worked so hard to transform medicine is a lovely added bonus.

The Butchering Art opens with the grim realities of surgery in the early nineteenth century, in which each operation—usually an amputation—was sudden, painful, and likely to result in post-operative infection. Speed was vital in part because patients were not anesthetized, and they often struggled under the blades and saws of their surgeons. Even if a surgeon operated successfully, patients often died of post-operative infection afterwards due to the frequent foulness of surgeons’ hands, instruments, and operating conditions. These infections were so common and expected, and so frequent in hospitals, that the collection of diseases and infections were simply called “hospitalism.”

Yet by the close of the book, we’ve seen the development and spread of modern antiseptic (and eventually aseptic) technique, the spread of anesthesia, and the complete transformation of the butchering art (excellent title choice).

It’s really quite wonderful seeing the way in which Dr. Lister (the main focus for most of the book) finally comes to his realizations about post-operative infections. His fight to convince others of his discoveries is both encouraging and disheartening at turns, but not surprising. I’m not sure to what degree my appreciation comes from my love of nerdery, and to what degree it comes from Fitzharris doing a good job of walking us through Lister’s explorations, realizations, and struggles. Either way, it works well.

I should also note: I’m not an expert in the relevant historical period, and I found checking Fitzharris’ sourcing difficult in the ebook version I read. But she makes frequent use of primary sources, including a plethora of personal letters and Dr. Lister’s case notes, and manages to do so in a way that feels far more convincingly researched (and more widely sourced) than some other historical non-fiction I’ve read recently.

If you’re looking for historical non-fiction and you’re intrigued by the growth of modern medical science, I absolutely recommend this book.

Enjoy.

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.

Lupin (Netflix, 2021)

Months ago I wrote about Lupin, and the course of its narrative arc. Having now finished part 2, I’ll just say it’s been a heck of a trip… and a fun one. It’s absolutely true to its genre, absolutely delivers on my expectations, and still manages all the tension and rollercoaster-ride feel that you’d want from a duplicitous and intricate master-thief drama.

I was able to call many of the narrative beats ahead of time as my partner and I neared the end of the show, enough so that I barely felt surprised. This might seem like a failing in a show that’s supposed to be twisty and surprising—but by that point in the show, I wasn’t watching it for a surprise. I’d been won over by the personal drama and the characters. I knew what was expected, I knew the primary twists that would come, but what I wanted most was to see the show land its finish and wrap things up neatly with my preferred resolutions for everyone involved. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t surprised, because the show was satisfying.

It feels good to watch a show so deeply embedded in its genre, to know and appreciate the ways in which it delivers all the required beats… and to fall for the characters in the process. Yes, I recommend it. I doubt that comes as a surprise at this point.

Lupin does an excellent job of showcasing everything you need to know about its story in the first episode. Reminiscent of what Seth Dickinson does in the first chapter of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Lupin simply holds up its hands and says “I promise you this, and more of it.” And then it gives that. It does, of course, add more emotional depth and greater context in some truly wonderful ways, but it stays true to its promise.

If you watch the first episode and decide you don’t want more, don’t worry about it. If you’re on the fence I suggest a couple more episodes; some of the show’s emotional background is only visible with a little more context. But if you saw that first episode and were hooked, I’m glad to say you’ve got another nine to enjoy (and even more some day soon, given the confirmation of a third season).

Have fun.

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.