The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

I’ve deeply enjoyed reading Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series. I’ve recommended it to many people. And now, having finished it, I’m going to recommend it to you again.

This is how I started my review for the first book in the series:

“[W]hat if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

The Golden Enclaves delivers a solid close to that story. It is the third and final book in the series and—while the book ends with room available for more sequels if Novik changes her mind—the story is definitely concluded here in ways that will satisfy most readers. “Most,” because I know some folks will just want the story to keep going with these characters forever, which I believe is all according to plan for Novik (or at least a feature rather than a bug).

This book does what I wanted it to do. It resolves many hanging plot threads, it answers a series of questions I’d had since the first book, and—maybe most importantly—it dreams up a future in which people are able to make the world a better place, by hook or by crook. It has hope.

*That’s* the bit I’m most impressed by. That hope.

This book is full of a lot of struggle. It’s full of lots of traumatized kids. People die, or are hurt in awful ways.

But it’s hopeful. And it’s not hopeful in the Harry Potter “let’s go back to the world as it was, and pretend that without resolving any of the issues we’ve discovered everything will be fine” kind of way. It’s hopeful in the “let’s do our damndest to make the world a better place, without destroying it in the meantime” kind of way. The whole series has been hopeful like that, but this book really sticks the landing. And I love it for that.

So many YA and YA-adjacent stories are dystopian, and the resolutions to their dystopian problems rarely feel hopeful or real to me. Either the dystopian world remains awful, or the attempted fix doesn’t work, or the fix works but reeks of deus ex machina and only works because the author says it does.

Novik set up a whole bevy of problems in the first two books and made it clear that the world was an unfair and often awful place. She offered (difficult, dangerous) ways for her characters to work around those problems.And this book, like its series as a whole, manages to follow that thread through to the end without either disappointing me with a total lack of plausibility or falling into hopelessness.

Annnnnnd I hadn’t realized until now that I never reviewed The Last Graduate, the second book in this trilogy. That was an oversight. I’m not going to rectify it before I finish this post though, so here goes.

A warning: if you didn’t like El’s voice as the narrator in the first two books, this series might not be for you. Novik was extremely successful with her creation of her narrator’s voice. She does a good job of keeping everything inside El’s head, and of maintaining El’s voice as a consistent thing. Novik also manages to weave her story and world through El’s unreliability as a narrator without leaving us, her readers, totally bereft of clues that El might not be the most objective and reliable observer. I really admire that. It’s one of the things I love about these books. If that bothers you… you’re out of luck. Try a different series.

A separate warning: one of my friends mentioned El knowing or narrating a few things in this book that seemed outside of her scope of knowledge. I didn’t notice those as I was reading—I was quite caught up in the story and may have missed them. You might stub your toe on them though.

I’m not planning to dive deep into the plot of this book, but I will say that reading more will probably spoil you for the previous books with implications if nothing else. I’ll also casually drop in a few spoilers after this paragraph without further warning. If you care about that, I suggest giving the first book a go. I loved all three, I recommend them, and Novik has done a good job of starting this series as she meant to continue it. The series isn’t bereft of twists, but it’s very thematically consistent—if you like the first book you’ll probably like the rest, and vice versa.

The Golden Enclaves picks up precisely where The Last Graduate leaves off. Very precisely. And the rest of the story doesn’t honestly take all that much time as the setting reckons it. There’s a little slow period near the beginning as El tries to recover from her time in the Scholomance (more or less a machine for traumatizing children until they’ve survived hell). But after that, things move a bit faster. And they snowball wildly out of control, as El finds out what’s been going on outside the Scholomance while she and all the other kids were locked in hell.

Despite this—or actually because of it—there’s still plenty of time for Novik to ladle in several more hefty servings of revolution and commentary on inequality, until they become a driving factor of the story. That’s perfect, because it’s part of what I’m here for. She also adds more queerness, as she did in The Last Graduate, but where it felt unforced in The Last Graduate here it feels more like a surprise.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still here for it. I’m glad that Novik added more queerness, I’m glad to see it in this story. And next time I would love to see her do more of that earlier in a series. Having El find out that she’s surprise-bi in book three, however, felt a bit like a curveball given how carefully Novik sets up almost every other story element, like Novik improvised that element where she’d planned all the rest. Or maybe I was too oblivious, because one of my friends was shipping El and Chloe really hard at the end of book one.

Anyways. My words and thoughts are wandering.

If you want to read about wizard revolutions, or about magically obstinate people warping the world around them into a less destructive and more just place, this is for you.

I love this book. I love this series. I recommend them both. I hope that you enjoy them too.

p.s. my partner pointed out that I gushed more about this book in person than I did here, and I’ve made a couple edits following that. Don’t hold my gray brain weather’s bland tone against this series, I really did delight in these books, and in sharing them by reading them aloud to my partner.

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The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang

The author’s name has changed since initial publication, hence the different name on some hard copies and publicity images

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang, left me feeling a little narratively unmoored.

I suspect that the biggest cause for that was my own fault: I put the book down about halfway through, and then took over a month to return to it and finish it. But that means that I’m writing this from an odd place. I’m not sure how much my perspective has been shaped by that prolonged delay, and I can only recommend that you take my review with a grain of salt or three. The book certainly seems to have worked better for other people than it did for me.

Part of my sense of being narratively adrift grew from the way in which the book is divided into sections, with each section separated from the last by a big temporal gap. Each section felt like an extended short story about that time period in our POV character’s life. But chaining those extended short stories together into one novel didn’t feel like it created the narrative cohesion I wanted.

In some ways, this is the opposite of the cool technique that Martha Wells used for her first four Murderbot novellas. Where Wells wrote a series of four stories that each gave a snapshot of emotional development and then kept them in separate novellas to let them stand on their own and build on each other, Yang has written those separate stories and put them all in one book. It didn’t work as well for me.

Writing is all about adding just enough to let your audience fill in the rest, without adding so much that they get tired of it. I think Yang went just a little too light for me. I could sketch out the narrative arc and tell you what the points of growth and resolution were, but it didn’t feel like there was quite as much connective tissue between the narrative dots as I would have liked.

Maybe, if I’d expected the book to consist of those discrete mini-stories beforehand, I’d have a different opinion of it now. Maybe, if I hadn’t put the book down halfway through, I’d feel like Yang cut out just the right amount of material. Instead, none of the smaller segments individually brought me the kind of narrative movement or growth that I wanted. And the individual segments didn’t quite gel together to make the larger whole feel quite right either.

But…

Maybe I’m still looking at this the wrong way. There are several other books out by Yang, all in the same series, at least one of which looks like it’s supposed to be semi-contemporaneous with or closely following this book. Perhaps those, in connection with this one, would give me the more complete perspective and narrative arc that I’m looking for. I’ll probably pick those up and read them just to find out. Maybe not right away.

Having said all that, I should add that The Black Tides of Heaven has solid child-parent struggles, a setting that feels refreshingly distinct from standard Western fantasy, and lots of good queer content. And it’s well-written! I feel bad complaining so much above when the fault may be my own. Whoops.

So, if any of those things sound interesting to you I suggest checking the book out. And I recommend reading it all in one go, or at least not stopping for over a month right in the middle. That was definitely a mistake on my part.

The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz

I’ve been meaning to read Sarah Jean Horwitz’s The Dark Lord Clementine for years, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s charming. Extremely charming.

I have complicated feelings about how the main character is constrained by forces outside her control, and how that creates what I felt was a gendered portrayal of empowerment, but… that’s what the story is all about. And on reflection, the feelings I had about the gendered story conventions were both correct and missed the point. The story beats which evoked those conventions are crucial to the course of the story, and crucial to the way its conclusion works so well and feels so good.

I don’t think the story could create the same excellence without them.

The Dark Lord Clementine is about Clementine, sole child of Dark Lord Elithor and heir to the family’s title and responsibilities: crushing witches and competitors, vying with other Dark Lords while maintaining evil status, and making the local peasants’ lives miserable. It’s about Clementine’s need to live up to her father’s expectations—as well as her own expectations, and those of her society. And it’s about her need to save her father from the terrible curses of his enemies, when he’s struggling to save himself.

It’s about more than that too, about relationships and manipulation and abuse, and friendship and betrayal. It’s about growing into yourself, and finding your way in the world on your own terms. It’s full of classic upper middle grade goodness.

I recommend it heartily. That goes double if you like middle grade fantasy at all, and it’s still true even if you don’t.

Now I’m going to pontificate about gender and genre fiction for a minute, before segueing into potential spoilers. Don’t worry, I’ll mark them clearly.

I should note, the Folding Ideas video on empowerment in Jupiter Ascending was very helpful to me in reflecting on this. The key question asked there is “do the characters take action within the story, on their own terms? Or are they solely acted upon by the story?” That was a useful framing device for me.

Classic adventure stories, the genre that I’m used to thinking of as my measuring stick for empowerment, don’t do a good job of encompassing social expectations and the way they impinge on characters’ lives. Protagonists in those adventure stories rarely have to explicitly juggle others’ perceptions of them (or their perceptions of themselves). More often, they’re forging new paths outside the traditional bounds of society, or casting off their expected roles—but doing so in a way that is expected by the genre, and by cultural expectations of (usu. male) heroes. They’re nearly always archetypically “manly,” and certainly not “weak.” Whatever that means.

Yes, those stories—presented as being ungendered—are culturally extremely male-gendered.

So when reading adventure stories, or genre fiction in general, I have several constantly running questions in the back of my mind: what social pressures are exerted on the protagonists? How aware is the protagonist of the social pressures they’re under? And do they question or act against or (usually in the academic sense) queer those pressures? 

Slight digression: in my anecdotal experience, the less aware the protagonists are of these pressures, and the less aware the story is of these pressures, the more likely the story is to regurgitate and not question those old gender conventions. Relatedly, those stories are also more likely to be written by a man who hasn’t spent much time examining gender roles and their social impact, and generally hasn’t had a good critical think about how gender roles constrict people (of all sorts) in negative ways. For that matter, those authors are also more likely to be white or to have some other kind of unexamined privilege. Basically, it’s a solid clue that the author hasn’t had a good think about feminism, and the way in which cultural expectations constrain everyone—which is painfully obvious when those authors’ male characters are seemingly unaware of the constraints of the system while knowing deep in their gut that they must be “manly” at all times.

Moving on.

This (the unexamined-ness, or a story’s lack of awareness of gender roles) isn’t universally a sign of the author being unaware. Sometimes people write stories where those pressures aren’t as present explicitly because they want to imagine a different world, or don’t want to spend their brain power on our world’s conventions. It’s just a tendency I’ve noted, and which I continue to keep tabs on.

Tying that back into the previous thread…

When stories deeply invest lots of attention in social pressures and expectations, and constrain their characters with those things, they also often read to me—with my assumptions trained by old (male-centric) adventure genre fiction—as being gendered (gendered female, that is). And the empowerment that I see in those (”female“) stories often feels less empowering to me than the empowerment in old adventure fiction. It’s a whole noodle-y mess of ingrained cultural assumptions. And my narrative palate was well trained; for a long time, I appreciated stories that empowered characters by allowing them to do all those typically-gendered-male things far more than I appreciated the ones that showed protagonists working carefully within their social constraints. It’s been long slow work to counteract: expanding my narrative palate has taken time.

What’s more, expanding my palate hasn’t changed my fundamental issues with these gendered expectations around different flavors of genre stories. I’m still wrestling with how to write genre fiction that feels appealing and empowering, and which queers those gendered conventions of empowerment. I want to be able to write good stories that play with all sides of those gendered narrative expectations, and then go new places too.

Maybe that’s part of what I love about Clementine’s story.

Okay, now we risk some *SPOILERS*. I’ll keep things general, but… I’m giving away the narrative arc without giving precise details.

See, Clementine is extremely aware of her responsibilities, and feels the constraints on her life quite keenly (though she doesn’t question them much at first). She acts, taking initiative as best she can, but flounders in the process. And who can blame her? She’s trying to do the work of an adult (several adults, really) and is balancing far too many duties all at once.

All of these constraints wrap Clementine up tight. They felt suffocating to read. It was both awful and extremely effective storytelling.

And unlike the adventure stories I read when I was young, this story is less about our protagonist going out and forging some brilliant new path or performing acts of derring-do, and more about our protagonist finding the wherewithal to escape those constraints and reach the freedom to forge her own new path. Those oppressive constraints are key to her emotional journey. Without them, her struggle and growth would feel less meaningful and consequential. This is why my internal judgements—about how the story wasn’t empowering Clementine enough—withered by the time the story finished.

Clementine doesn’t go out and “do adventures” in the same classic (male-gendered) genre fiction way. She isn’t empowered in the same ways. But she absolutely is an empowered character. She’s able to choose and make decisions, and isn’t simply shuffled around by the plot without an opportunity to make her own decisions and try to act as she sees fit. Others have power over her at times, and she’s certainly not in control of everything, but she can steer herself and ultimately arrives at a place that feels more empowered because of her own choices, more able to engage with the world and its expectations on her own terms.

In some ways, this story feels like an exploration of the edge between two classically gendered narrative structures, moving from one to the other. It’s great.

I recommend it.

Paladin’s Hope, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Hope is the queer continuation of Ursula Vernon’s paladin romances (written as T. Kingfisher). It does finally deliver the gay romance I’d asked for previously, and now I’m wondering what other stories we’ll get next given that I know there are a few paladins remaining without books about them.

For personal reasons, I enjoyed reading this one less than I enjoyed the others (Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength). I’ll try to dig into that, but I should add: if you liked the previous books in the series and still want “paladin romance,” this will still give you that and do it well. My personal discomfort has more to do with my own history than with some bigger critique of the book or series.

These books are all about paladins (often along with their potential romantic partners) being—in the words of friends who also read and enjoy these books—“total goobers.” The paladins these books revolve around all have lots of reasons for telling themselves why they’re not good enough for a romantic partner, or telling themselves that they’re doing everyone a favor by not pursuing or committing to a relationship, or etc. They are, in short, goobers. This goober-ness almost always drives the core of the relationship drama at the heart of each novel’s romance plot. There’s always other plot too, good fun stuff, often with intrigue and murder playing off the romantic tension to draw the story out and let everything feel right, narrative-wise. It’s well-written and does the expected romance novel thing, and it’s all fun.

But with Paladin’s Hope, Vernon very evocatively wrote some goober-ness that reminded me—painfully, powerfully—of my own previous episodes of goober-ness. And that hurt a lot. It hurt enough, was evocative enough, that I had to stop reading for a while and just meditate to keep myself from spiraling.

That’s the reason I liked reading this one less.

It’s still a good fantasy romance with murder and intrigue, like the others in the series. It’s certainly got some solid characterization and a good portrayal of relationship dynamics (healthy and unhealthy).

It wasn’t comfortable for me, and that’s okay. With any luck, you won’t have the same issues that I did.

The book also establishes the next step for the larger story world’s plot. I’m quite excited about that. I think the next few books in the setting and series will be fun, and big, and open up bigger overarching plot elements again. Those felt a little lacking with this novel, though I can’t say I noticed the lack until I reflected on it after the fact. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one.

Dune (2021)

Dune (2021) reminded me why I like seeing movies in theaters. It was CINEMA, in an incredibly all-caps fashion. It was larger than life: it pulled me out of my socially distanced seat, even made me forget that I was wearing a mask, and caught me up in its vastness.

There are certainly movies that benefit from being seen on the big screen, movies that benefit from having a good sound system. So many MCU blockbusters fit that description. I’m sure I’ve said that of other movies here before.

But it’s rare that I watch a movie that feels designed for that largeness every step of the way. It’s rare to watch something that so welcomes dwarfing its human actors against massive backdrops, that feels ready to swallow up everyone on screen at once. It’s even more rare for these movies to go beyond dazzling spectacle, and to evoke awe.

I really liked watching Dune. I LOVED it.

I’m not yet talking about the story, or the characters, or any of that (though I do have thoughts there). I’m not covering the soundtrack at all, which deserves its own essay. Nor am I talking yet about how Dune is problematic, and one of my problematic faves. I’m just talking about the experience of watching Dune on a big screen, with a proper 7.1 sound system that I could feel in my chest. And part of that, part of the magnificence of the movie and how it drew me in, comes down to a set of decisions they made that (I think) were brilliant.

First of all the camera work, and especially the groundedness of the camera, keeps the viewer in the scene. The camera never moves in ways that feel unreal, even when its location is obviously impossible: the vacuum of space is graced with a slow pan, while an ornithopter in flight is followed either from the ground, or with what feels like remarkably steady helicopter work. Like David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, scale and distance and perspective still play a crucial role as we see just how small the characters are in their setting—a visual cue that parallels the ways in which so many people in this movie, full of hopes and dreams, are rendered insignificant and cast aside.

This movie’s visuals say, loud and clear, that the world is bigger than any human. It’s bigger, and it doesn’t care. Arrakis doesn’t care about you. The Padishah Emperor doesn’t care about you… and if he does, he may simply wish you dead or broken. The story is Shakespearean, as Stephen McKinley Henderson (Thufir Hawat in Dune 2021) points out. I agree, though perhaps a little differently: it’s a vast tragedy, with many people who die on the sidelines without ever achieving what they’d wished. Few people are as large as they might think themselves, few as important. The movie’s visual language hammers this home.

But the visuals also feel incredibly real. That feels unusual for a big genre movie with showy fantastical elements. So often, those big “wow” moments are both impressive and just slightly off. Dune manages to convey a sense of reality and presence that I can only compare to seeing the original Jurassic Park in theaters. As I discovered when I dug deeper, this is because the Dune production team (like the JP team) paid attention to minute detail, working extremely hard to make every little bit fit together—and work together—into a greater whole. It paid off.

For one, Dune paid incredible attention to lighting color and quality. They developed a new background screen which the production team called a “sand screen,” replacing the common blue and green ones. A warm brown, the sand screen better matched the lighting-color of their set locations, and allowed reflected background lighting to paint the proper colors on the actors’ faces, thereby enhancing the visual immersion (at the cost of slightly harder work for the CG artists). This meant that even when working with CG’d-in sets, the actors were still lit more like they were shooting on location.

Speaking of shooting on location: Dune captured their outdoor shots with real sunlight, even when working in front of screens. And when they had explosions in dark scenes, they filmed in darkness and cued pre-positioned lights to illuminate the actors’ faces in time with the explosions. What’s more, they used literal tons of real sand in many of their blowing-sand shots (material that gave their CG artists something to work with while touching up the scenes) and took footage of helicopters blowing up desert dust clouds for additional reference.

Heck, they also weren’t afraid to let those dust clouds obscure their (beautiful, intricate) prop and set designs. There were shots where I could barely make out the vast scenery, only see hints of it by well chosen lighting and inference. The production team understood the value of not showing everything, of letting the viewers fill the gaps. And while they may have covered up some of the gorgeous art they’d created for the film, the effect was magnificently immersive. Watching a lone figure buffeted by wind and rain below the landing lights of an otherwise pitch black ship, or seeing Harkonnen combat vehicles hidden by billowing sand and lit only by the flares of their own missiles, I felt more pulled into the scene. And the movie pulled my focus to the elements it really wanted to show, rather than overwhelming me with too much detail.

They did an excellent job.

Okay, now for some of the other stuff.

First, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what’s happening. If you haven’t, I can’t help you. It’s been so long since I read the book, this story has wormed its way through my brain. I doubt I can judge whether it does a good enough job of including an uninformed audience.

That immediately opens many cans of worms. Dune, the novel, was published in 1965. That age, and the divergence in social assumptions that go with it, is palpable when you think about the book. And despite the little ways they’ve changed things, the movie is pretty faithful to the original text.

But in a lot of ways, the 2021 film does a good job of concealing the cultural temporal disconnect. While it (like the source material) is painted up like science fiction, the movie’s genre feels far more like grim feudal intrigue fantasy, in space. That gives it some cultural leeway I think it might otherwise lack. Like an interstellar Game of Thrones, with some technology that reads like magic (or an excuse to follow Frank Herbert’s personal Rule of Cool), it’s clear that this world has some different cultural conventions than our own. And, of course, we return to it being a Shakespearean story—murderous feudal politicking in space.

Now, I feel the movie made the right choice by leaning into the fantasy intrigue genre, because I think the book was there all along. For me, the book fits far better into the genre conventions of epic fantasy a la grim feudal political intrigue than the genre conventions of science fiction. (I feel similarly about Star Wars: it’s space fantasy, rather than sci fi). It feels like the movie is being even more faithful to the text than I’d realized was possible.

I don’t think this will save them from all the ways in which Dune is problematic. I think it already hasn’t. This movie is less problematic than its source text, but not without issues of its own.

But it does look like they’ve backed off some of the ways the original text was troublesome, and laid some groundwork (that I don’t recall from the books) that builds context for other ways in which the original story was problematic. I have no idea to what extent that will cushion the blow, though, because… this was just Dune: Part One. Time to wait another two years, probably.

I’ve now written enough without a clear outline that I’m losing track of my thoughts. Suffice to say I think this is an awesome movie, in the archaic and classical “awe-inspiring“ sense of the word. It’s absolutely worth watching if you can see it on a big screen with big sound. If you can’t, and you’re a Dune fan, you should still watch it. If you’re not a Dune fan… yeah, I’d still recommend it, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into (I’m not going to write about that here and now, this is already too long). But do try to find a safe way to see it on something large. And ready yourself for taking in visual and auditory spectacle.

Because wow. This movie is a lot.

Blade Singer, by Aaron de Orive and Martha Wells

This isn’t Murderbot.

It’s really not fair to compare the two. But because I found this book by looking for other things involving Martha Wells—that felt like Murderbot—I’m afraid it’s doomed to comparison. This was the available book, with Martha Wells’ name attached. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I did finish it.

Blade Singer isn’t Murderbot. It’s straightforward portal fiction, with a powerful fey three musketeers vibe. All genres I like. Clearly intended for that awkward threshold between middle grade and young adult, where the plot is very middle grade but the writing is a tad more complex, Blade Singer has a mix of genres (and a target audience marketing category) that I have strong opinions about.

Honestly, this book is fine. I enjoyed it. My quibbles with it are perhaps unreasonable.

Leaving aside my desire for more Murderbot, I think this is actually a solid book to give to a younger reader who enjoys fantasy, fey and faeries, swashbuckling and musketeers, or portal fiction. And it’s a solid choice for any younger reader who might like those things and hasn’t gotten deep into books yet. It isn’t as immediately accessible as other simpler reads (it’s no Warrior Cats), but it’s not especially difficult either. On that front, it lands the upper middle grade rating pretty solidly.

However… as someone who’s quite familiar with (and enjoys) all the genres involved, this book also doesn’t offer any big surprises or new takes. It isn’t transforming the genres, or at least not in a way that offers a story more complex and nuanced and to my taste. It doesn’t succeed where other ostensibly-for-children fiction has thrived, with the depth required for cross age-market appeal (think She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, most Pixar movies, or Nnedi Okorafor’s middle grade work like Akata Witch or Shadow Speaker).

Blade Singer’s stumbling blocks for me, I think, were its moral and emotional plots. They were present, all the requisite structure was there, but they felt almost bland. Like I could see the action on the page, and I knew how it would or should play out, but I never felt pulled into it, into feeling it. And I know this book could have done that. All the puzzle pieces were there.

Part of that could have been the close over-the-shoulder third person narration, but I know other close third stories have succeeded for me where this book didn’t. And while adding more filigrees to the moral and emotional plots might have helped make them less straightforward, I don’t think that would have solved the issue for me—I don’t feel pulled in just because something’s complex, I enjoy something being complex when I’ve already been pulled in. I think it came down to something about the characterization, and the fact that I simply bounced off of fully connecting with the narrator, Manny.

Your mileage may vary.

But that emotional bounce, and having a solid physical plot while struggling with the emotional and moral plot, reminds me of my own experience first writing fiction. With most of my preceding storytelling experience coming from running RPGs, I struggled to make stories with emotional connection or character depth. I’ve written about all that on this blog before.

And maybe I’m reading too closely here, but I think Aaron de Orive had a similar starting point (both in terms of games and the fiction he consumed). He’s involved in writing for RPGs and video games, and the authors he mentions on his personal site aren’t known for their excellent depictions of relatable complex emotional people, not like the modern authors I’d compare them to. Many are the same authors I read as a kid.

For me at least, writing linear fiction was a puzzle that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t solving. Most adventure fiction I’d read as a kid didn’t have much emotional depth or nuance. And while I knew how to elicit reactions from my players, that was all about setting up the stage with the right plot pieces and then letting them complete all the robust internal character struggle in their own heads. I didn’t know how to show that on the page. Sometimes, I still don’t.

But I wanted Aaron de Orive (and Martha Wells, she’s credited as a co-author even though this doesn’t feel anything like her other work I’ve read so far) to yank on my heartstrings. I wanted these authors to reel me in deep and leave me really feeling the joys and sorrows of the characters involved. That didn’t happen. And I didn’t feel attached enough (as I did with Murderbot) to complete the loop myself.

But as I said above, my quibbles are probably unreasonable. Blade Singer has more emotional depth than those adventure stories I read as a kid. It’s not a bad book! It’s perfectly fine, and I do recommend it to anyone who likes the relevant genres. And, to really enjoy it, I think you’re best off reading it as a kid who doesn’t have as much experience with these stories.

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.

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.