A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light is magic society intrigue set in early 1900s Britain, with a heaping serving of gay romance on top.

I knew I was reading something very gay before I started, given what little I’d heard about the book beforehand. I *hadn’t* realized I was going to be reading lurid sex scenes. Fortunately, I was able to avoid reading those scenes in public (something I’ve tried to be cautious about since a few awkward experiences in high school—Covid has actually been helpful there), and I was able to just relax and enjoy the book.

If you read the things I had to say about Ursula Vernon’s books, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this book delivered all the gay romance I’d felt was lacking in the first two Saint of Steel books. Also, I just realized that I read the newest one (Paladin’s Hope) and didn’t write about it here. I’ll try to rectify that.

But I’m distracting myself. This book is good stuff. And it opens with an excellent dramatic scene that sets the stakes for all that is to follow.

In fact, thinking about it from a composition perspective, I wonder when Marske decided to use that as the opening scene; it’s the right choice, I think, and does a marvelous job of creating tension for the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the obvious jumping off point for the next set of scenes. It feels like the teaser intro used to open a spy movie and showcase the future badness our heroes will face. That’s not the wrong choice or the wrong genre for the rest of the story, it’s just not the surface genre for the next step of the story. And I really want to know what inspired Marske to thread these pieces together this way.

Backing up…

Freya Marske has combined several genres here, as I mentioned up top. There’s gay romance, there’s magical fantasy, there’s historical society intrigue and drama (subgenre: British, early 1900s), and there’s the related spy genre. I tie those last two together because, in many ways, spy stories (more le Carré, less Fleming) feel like a reduction of society intrigue: concentrated, cooked down over some higher stakes to something more piquant, seasoned with a dash of paranoia and murderousness. The ultimate dish here is less twisty than an actual le Carré story, but with some of the same flavors and machinations.

So. Back to the novel (heh) genre blending of the book’s first chapters…

When the first scene of the book feels like the opening to a spy story, turning up the pressure and letting us know that something dire is afoot, that’s great. Then the story segues into something that feels more like society drama and leaves the threat lurking under the surface, like a shark too deep to show the reader its fin. And that works too. But, as a tonal shift, I don’t think the choice to do things that way is immediately self-evident. Or, it wasn’t an obvious option to me until I read this.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that all those elements work well together. What’s more, the genres feel well-blended; I’m really looking forward to the (clearly intended) sequel(s) and how they play with this mixture, because I suspect this story’s continuation will give me even more of the magical intrigue and spy fiction that I desperately want. If there’s more queer romance in it, all the better.

All of which is to say, if this blend of genres sounds like your cup of tea then you should hop to and find yourself a copy. It’s good stuff.

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.

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.

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.

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 Nice Guys

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The tag line really shouldn’t surprise you. I certainly wasn’t surprised by the fact that the same director (Shane Black) did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I wasn’t surprised because The Nice Guys is a fundamentally similar movie: grim and irreverent, full of dark humor, with heroes who just aren’t that heroic. The intrigue our protagonists investigate is convoluted and seedy, they wind up in trouble way above their pay grade, and nobody comes up smelling like roses. Like I said, they’re very similar movies. Whatever its faults may have been, I liked Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I can say the same thing about The Nice Guys.

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Won’t Break Your Heart: Sorcery & Cecelia, by Wrede and Stevermer

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I hadn’t quite expected this to be so good.  In fact, I futzed around and failed to really start it for about four weeks (or maybe longer).  But there was some point, maybe around page 80, when I seem to have flipped a switch; suddenly all I wanted to do was finish the book.  It’s lovely and wonderful, and I would certainly recommend it to pretty much anyone who has any interest in epistolary novels, or female protagonists in post-Napoleonic Wars England, or magic, or even just fun stories.  To be clear, given how readily I’ve bounced off of other similar characters before, I had no idea how much fun they could be.

Sorcery & Cecelia (which I have learned, much to my delight, is part of a series) was written back in the 80’s as a Letter Game.  Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer decided to write letters to each other in the voice of their two respective characters, relating gossip and intrigue, and telling each other about the fabulous and exciting things which they were each getting up to.  When they’d finished their game, they looked at their collection of letters and realized that they’d basically already written a novel.  With some editing for details, continuity, and pacing, they found that they had a perfectly acceptable manuscript, and then managed to get it published.  I am exceedingly glad that they did.

Look, I don’t want to ruin any of the book for you by mentioning things.  Suffice it to say that the two main characters’ adventures and intrigues make excellent reading, and Kate and Cecilia are absolutely brilliant as heroines who must vanquish their antagonists, while carefully acting within the constraints imposed on them by society.  Do yourself a favor and pick up this book.  It’s really quite good.

p.s. Thank you to the visitor who recommended this to me one morning in Mama Dorr’s kitchen.  I wish I could remember your name to thank you properly, especially after the excellent conversation we had about epistolary stories and your research into the subject. [Edit: The visitor was Naomi, but I appear to have misattributed the recommendation!  It was still an awesome conversation, but Thomas may have been the original source.  I might manage to get to the bottom of this.  Maybe.]

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

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In my case, Lee Child’s cover blurb is highly inaccurate.  Assuming that he includes himself in the group he describes, I’d guess Lee Child hasn’t read many superhero stories; he certainly should be familiar with a number of the other elements involved in Sakey‘s Brilliance.  The book is an excellent combination of superhero fiction, “spy” thriller, and semi-dystopian intrigue, and while I haven’t read many books that combine all of those elements at once, I’m certainly familiar with each of them individually.  That familiarity leaves me well positioned to appreciate the skill with which Sakey unwinds his plot.

The story is set in a world in which some people (1% of the population, more or less) are extremely capable at pattern recognition, generally focusing on a specific subset of their environment.  Our protagonist, for example, is able to read people’s immediate intent through their body language, making him fabulously good at telling where people are going to move within the next few seconds, and at telling whether or not someone believes what they are saying to be true.  This basis for superpowers is simultaneously remarkably constrained and very wide-ranging.  It doesn’t make people superhuman in immediately noticeable ways, and Sakey does an excellent job of keeping to his original concept without breaking the plausibility of the setting.

This is a fast and fun book, and an easy read.  The main character is a quintessential representation of The Man, and the story offers pulpy action goodness, with a thick helping of intrigue, implicit duplicity, and lies.  If you enjoy quick reads that deal with a moderately dystopian alternate present filled with superhumans who are indistinguishable from the rest of us, and all the problems that entails, then I suggest you pick up this book.  You may want to pick it up even if those keywords don’t set your Must Read alarms buzzing, but I’ll save any more description for after the break, where I keep all my spoilers.

Also, just to warn you, this book definitely deals with racism and the abuse of authority.  I think it does it decently, you may think differently.  I don’t think you’d mind it, Stephanie, but I also don’t know that you’d identify with the narrator at all.

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The Quiller Memorandum, by Adam Hall

Ah, pseudonyms.  Adam Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by the author Elleston Trevor (which was itself not the author’s original name).  It seems entirely appropriate to me that such an excellent spy novel should come from someone who felt so compelled to shroud and change their own identity.  If you like spy stories and intrigue, or would like to try dabbling in them for the very first time, look no further.  Quiller is a far better Cold War spy than the cinematic Mr. Bond ever was, more deeply focused on the details of spycraft, practicing intimate information war as a metaphoric knife fight where you’re never truly certain as to who holds the advantage.  Drawing blood is rarely the point of the duel, and secrets are more valuable than lives.  The Quiller Memorandum, as you might have guessed, is a very exciting book.

Does the title feel achingly familiar?  Just like something that you’ve read before?  Well…

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Crown of Slaves and Torch of Freedom, by Eric Flint and David Weber

Take one of my favorite writers and give him license to contribute to the phenomenally successful Honor Harrington series, and what do you get?  You get Eric Flint working with David Weber on the short-stories-turned-novels, Crown of Slaves and Torch of Freedom.

Do you like space opera?  How about great characters engaged in spy games and intrigue?  Or maybe true badasses going up against incredible odds?  All of them?  Good.  I’ve got some books to recommend to you.

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