Category Archives: Books

Recent Reads: Comics and Graphic Novels

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer
Issues 2 and 3
by Victor LaValle and
Dietrich Smith

The first issue of Destroyer was all promise, with it’s compelling and timely premise and gorgeous artwork. Issues 2 and 3 deliver on a lot of that promise. There’s a lot more action in these issues as well as a lot more depth of feeling as we delve into the real meat of the story. The literary allusions are a little on the nose, especially in a work that’s a little too serious to fall under the category of pastiche, but as the story gets darker I find these humorous nods to the book’s inspirations to be a welcome bit of lightheartedness. Also, and probably because I’m not a great reader of comic books, my favorite thing about this series so far is Victor LaValle’s essay at the end of Issue 3 where he writes about how the two different endings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein led him to write this comic.

Kim & Kim Vol. 1
by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam, and Katy Rex

Full disclosure: Kim & Kim was an impulse buy because I happened to see someone mention it on Twitter right when I was looking for something to put me over the $25 threshold for free shipping. It sounded cute, but it turned out to be even more fun than expected, a nice balance of sci-fi bounty hunting adventures and character-driven drama with a bright, punk rock aesthetic. The only downside of the book is that Issue 4 ends on a little bit of a sad note, and it’s not clear if/when there’s going to be an Issue 5. In the meantime, however, Kim & Kim creator Magdalene Visaggio is currently offering free pdf copies of Volume 1 to anyone who donates at least $20 to The Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline through Friday, August 4, 2017:

Monstress Volume 2: The Blood
by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

The second trade paper installment of Monstress is, like the first, a true thing of beauty. Every page is filled with Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork, which is in turn full of gorgeous details, erudite flourishes that reference numerous artistic inspirations, and subtly lovely colors that marvelously convey setting and mood. With a title like “The Blood” I was rather expecting more of the same unflinching brutality as in the first book, but that’s not so much the case. Instead, this volume combines Maika’s continued search for answers about her identity, the increasing danger posed by the Monstrum that lives inside her, and a seafaring journey with a fascinating and visually distinctive new cast of minor characters.

Angel Catbird, Vol. 3:
The Catbird Roars
by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain

Angel Catbird has never been more than a light, fun likely-vanity project of Margaret Atwood’s, and it didn’t suddenly transform to something more profound in its final volume. The Catbird Roars has the same deliciously silly verbal puns and visual gags that characterized the first two volumes, the same occasional side-barred cat facts encouraging readers to keep their pets indoors, and the same fast-paced absurdist plot that has our heroes dealing with the evil rat army once and for all. The biggest thing that sets this volume apart from the rest is the excellent foreword by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which tells us more of the inspirations and thought process behind Angel Catbird and to put it into a historical context that explains some of its quirks. As someone who is only lately getting into reading comics and doesn’t have a wide knowledge of the longer and broader history of the form, this information really helped me to understand and enjoy the book more fully.

Recent Reads: Some Tor.com Novellas You Should Be Reading and/or Pre-ordering

While I’m still working out how I want to do book reviews at SF Bluestocking going forward, I’ve managed to accumulate a pretty sizable backlog of stuff that I’ve been reading while too depressed to do much else. The good news, of course, is that I’ve read some great stuff, and I’ll be talking about it over the next week or two as a work to get back to the level of productivity I’d like to be maintaining here.

I’ve been reading almost all the novellas released by Tor.com Publishing since they first started doing novellas, and they continue to deliver consistently compelling and entertaining books two-to-five times a month. While I’m by no means caught up on everything coming out over the next couple of months, I’m caught up on recent releases and I’ve made some inroads on some of the upcoming releases I’m most excited about.

35664957The Ghost Line
by Andrew Neil Gray and
J.S. Herbison

Tor.com has had a whole series of excellent space opera stories coming out this summer, which came at a perfect time for me, as I’ve been in the mood for science fiction more than fantasy these last few months. The Ghost Line finds a small group of salvagers exploring a vast abandoned luxury cruise ship and discovering more than any of them bargained for. The book’s best quality is its lovely, thoughtful descriptions of the abandoned ship and the way in which it allows the reader to become immersed in the exploration of the haunted ship. It’s not the strongest of Tor.com’s 2017 lineup, and it feels slight and a little uninspired (while at the same time owing perhaps a little too much of what inspiration it has to The Expanse) in comparison to gems like All Systems Red or even Killing Gravity, but The Ghost Line is nevertheless a solidly entertaining read worthy of a lazy afternoon.

The Ghost Line is available now.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion
by Margaret Killjoy

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is the first book in the queer anarchist punk demon hunter series you didn’t know you needed. Danielle Cain is a smart, resourceful heroine, and I am looking forward to the further adventures of her and the friends she makes in this book. However, the real star of The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is its unique setting–a utopian squatters’ community in the imaginary Freedom, Iowa–and the magic with which Margaret Killjoy has infused it. The three-antlered deer spirit summoned by some of the town’s residents to assert order in a crisis has begun to turn on its summoners, and the debate over what to do about it has created deep divides in the community. Killjoy’s cast of characters must wrestle with ideas at the core of their beliefs and deal with a situation that threatens the very foundations of the home and families they’ve built for themselves, and the setting of Freedom is a cleverly crafted heightened reality in which to do so.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion will be available August 15.

The Five Daughters of the Moon and
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress
by Leena Likitalo

Jacqueline Carey’s cover blurb for The Five Daughters of the Moon calls the book “a lyrical elegy to the fall of an empire,” and the book description is clear that this duology is inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution and the final days of the Romanov sisters, so you must know going in that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. In alternating chapters told in first person from the perspective of each of the titular five daughters–ranging in age from six to twenty-two–Leena Likitalo brings each girl to vivid life and lets them tell their own stories. Fifteen-year-old Sibilia (whose chapters are excerpts from her diary) and sixteen-year-old Elise have the strongest voices of the five, and Sibilia’s journey and coming of age is perhaps the most profound and deeply-felt story of any of the girls. However, Likitalo also does a lovely job of portraying the little girls, Alina and Merile, though the author’s vocabulary is far better than any six- or eleven-year-old’s would be. Eldest sister Celestia is a more difficult character to get to know and love; she’s often distant from her sisters, focused on her own trauma and still trying to bear up under the weight of her responsibilities in a situation that is far different and more dangerous than anything she was ever prepared for.

The best part of this duology, however, is the way that Likitalo manages to capture the ambivalence of revolution. There’s tragedy here, for sure, and there’s a definite villain, but there’s also a recognition of the hope the revolution offered to many people and some meditation on the idea that there’s always a human cost in any system; the question is just who has to pay it and who benefits from it. The Waning Moon duology is a gorgeously written and deeply humane meditation on this question and its answers.

The Five Daughters of the Moon is available now, and The Sisters of the Crescent Empress will be out November 7.

Acadie
by Dave Hutchinson

Acadie describes a future in which a colony of genetically modified and enhanced humans has been on the lam for several hundred years after fleeing restrictive regulations on Earth. It’s a smart, snappy and often very funny space opera with some neat ideas, an entertaining POV character, a load of crowd-pleasing pop culture references and a genuinely unexpected ending. I’m a huge fan of shorter, rather than longer, novellas, and Acadie clocks in at under a hundred pages, which combines with Hutchinson’s engaging, conversational prose style to make for a fast read, but it’s also a book that will keep you thinking well after you close it. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading Hutchinson’s longer Fractured Europe Sequence, but I can say with certainty that I’ll be snatching up any more shorter work he puts out as soon as I see it.

Acadie will be out September 5.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune
by J.Y. Yang

Listen. There’s basically a 100% chance that anything Kate Elliott calls “effortlessly fascinating” is going to be wonderful, so it’s no surprise that this pair of novellas by J.Y. Yang are pretty close to perfect. Yang has crafted a meticulously beautiful fantasy world that cleverly melds science and magic together with a central sibling relationship that sustains the heart of both books. Much will surely be made of Yang’s treatment of gender and sexuality, and any accolades on that score are well-deserved; in Yang’s Protectorate, sexuality is fluid and gender is self-chosen, confirmed or not as the individual decides, and gender-neutral pronouns are commonplace. That said, Yang’s worldbuilding in general is marvelously executed, and they do a great job of managing the expansion of the world readers are exposed to between The Black Tides of Heaven, which really ought to be read first even if the books are being sold as standalone companions, and The Red Threads of Fortune, which takes place several years later and has an emotional arc that provides a resolution to a major subplot in Tides, albeit from a different perspective. That said, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy such a marvelously balanced mix of magic, romance, revolution and dinosaurs.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune will both be out September 26.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 27-31

In a book full of strangeness, perhaps the weirdest part of today’s reading is how disparate its chapters are. Previous sections have had unifying themes or dealt with the same characters throughout or with a short period of time, but these chapters each stand apart from the others. They also each advance the story in the most linear fashion that has occurred so far in Titus Groan. There’s still a lot of worldbuilding exposition, but in this section that is accompanied by copious character work and not just one but several actual events. It’s the most normative section of the book so far, in terms of construction, but it’s a weird turn that I’m curious to see is sustained. After waiting all this time for a proper plot to develop and finally giving up on that ever happening, I’m obviously leery of getting my hopes up.

The section begins with a chapter that feels somewhat out of place and is something of a speedbump. Chapter 27, “While the Old Nurse Dozes,” is primarily devoted to Keda’s story, and we learn something about her life before coming to Gormenghast. A forced marriage according to the customs of the people of the Mud Dwellings, a dead husband and child, and two men in love with her at the same time are the stuff of high drama, but the tale is told quietly and calmly by Keda herself to Nannie Slagg, who falls asleep during the story. It’s an interesting background for Keda and some fascinating exposition on the lives of those who live in the Mud Dwellings and the culture built around the veneration of the Bright Carvers, though it’s also a very generously favorable portrayal of forced marriage and rape. Keda seems more affected by the anxiety of being involved in a love triangle than by being treated like chattel and married off to a much older man.

To be honest, there’s very little about Keda’s characterization in this chapter that feels true. Though Keda makes a somewhat impassioned speech to Nannie Slagg—“I feared my future, and my past was sorrow, and in my present you had need of me and I had need of refuge so I came”—even that is delivered “quietly,” a word used both at the beginning and end of the paragraph that contains this speech. In fact, words like “still” and “quiet” are used many times in Chapter 27 to describe Keda, and she even describes herself in such terms, which is at odds with her more general passion and the impulsiveness of her decision to come to the castle as Titus’s nurse. It’s possible that in the seventy years since its original publication, the book has become dated; perhaps women like Keda were more numerous in the 1940s. However, I’m more inclined to think that an eccentric and often isolated male author just didn’t have enough interactions with real women to convincingly write an adult woman’s pathos.

Keda’s stoicism rings false, and her final, definitive (albeit whispered) statement, “I must have love,” feels hollow in a book that consistently depicts love as anything but desirable. Love in Gormenghast, to the degree that it exists at all, can be fierce and obsessive and often violent, but the only particularly positive example of love that we’ve seen so far is Keda’s own tenderness for the infant Titus. Nannie Slagg’s love for Fuchsia and Titus may be seen as positive, but it’s also self-serving; she loves their nobility and the position that grants her (such as it is) in Gormenghast, which she uses her inflated sense of self-importance to lord over Keda and to imagine herself as superior to the other servants, with whom she rarely interacts. Fuchsia has been shown to love things fiercely, but inconstantly; she’s young and strange and self-absorbed enough that she doesn’t know what love even is, as evidenced by her own fantasies in the previous chapters. This is certainly explicable in light of Fuchsia’s parents’ cold marriage, which is no kind of example for a young girl, but there’s an altogether cynical and unromantic tone that suffuses the whole book and all Mervyn Peake’s depictions of its characters. Keda isn’t treated with quite the same satirical eye as the rest of Peake’s cast, but the earnestness of her portrayal only serves to highlight the ways in which Peake doesn’t really understand her.

Chapter 28, “Flay Brings a Message,” begins with the advent of autumn in Gormenghast. Autumn—or just the change of seasons more generally—is often symbolically significant, and that is the case here as well. Fuchsia is, at least ostensibly, on the verge of running away. Keda has gone. Nannie Slagg is worried. Flay is anxious. Sepulchrave, at long last, wants to see his son. The real star of this chapter, though, is Gormenghast itself and Peake’s superbly beautiful prose as he describes it:

“Autumn returned to Gormenghast like a dark spirit reentering its stronghold. Its breath could be felt in forgotten corridors—Gormenghast had itself become autumn. Even the denizens of this fastness were its shadows.”

And:

“The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out. The tortured trees by the dark lake burned and dripped, and their leaves snatched by the wind were whirled in wild circles through the towers. The clouds moldered as they lay coiled, or shifted themselves uneasily upon the stone sky-field, sending up wreaths that drifted through the turrets and swarmed up the hidden walls.”

And:

“From high in the Tower of Flints the owls inviolate in their stone galleries cried inhumanly, or falling into the windy darkness set sail on muffled courses for their hunting grounds.”

I am a total sucker for alliteration, and I’m further enamored of anthropomorphic metaphors, so I adore these descriptive passages. But in addition to being lovely in isolation, these passages also reiterate some of the earliest motifs I identified when I first embarked on my reading and further develop some more recently introduced ideas about Gormenghast the place. The emptiness and the sense of haunting and unholiness are palpable, and early motifs are evident in Peake’s word choices. The profane is succinctly contained in terms like “dark spirit” and images like those of the “tortured trees” that “[burn] and [drip]” and in the inhuman voices of Gormenghast’s owls. The whole place comes alive with words like “become” and “exhaled” and “breathed,” while the pathological weirdness of the castle is shown in word choices like “moldered” and “swarmed” that suggest illness and infestation.

In Chapter 29, “The Library,” we get even more description of Gormenghast—further expanding upon the off-kilter feel of the place and with sumptuous paragraphs about the castle’s Gothic architecture. The main focus of the chapter, however, is Sepulchrave. In a slightly surprisingly modern turn, it’s made clear that Sepulchrave’s malaise is in fact a “native depression” with a history that stretches back to his youth. We learn something about Sepulchrave’s unhappy (albeit fruitful) marriage to Gertrude, which certainly doesn’t improve the earl’s state of mind, but ultimately Peake writes that “…compared with the dull forest of his inherent melancholy it was but a tree from a foreign region that had been transplanted and absorbed.” In today’s terms, of course, it seems obvious that what Peake is describing about Sepulchrave is a clinical depression, with no cause and no easy cure, but what feels most surprising about the portrayal of Sepulchrave’s depression is how sensitively-crafted it is. Sepulchrave’s depression is certainly extreme, and it’s his defining trait, but it’s treated seriously and humanely, without the satirical gaze Peake turns on so many of the book’s other characters. That said, Sepulchrave’s depression is still pathologized in the text: “His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side.” Throughout the book there has been a sense of sickness about Gormenghast, and it would be easy to interpret Sepulchrave—Lord of Gormenghast and the theoretical head of the Groan family and their household—as the source of that sickness based upon passages like this if there weren’t so many other competing potential sources of rot in the place. The next couple chapters explore several of these possibilities.

At the end of Chapter 29, Flay takes a short detour on his journey to request Titus’s presence in the library, and he’s appalled to observe Swelter doing, well, something. Chapter 30, “In a Lime-Green Light,” elaborates a bit upon what Mr. Flay finds so horrifying about the cook. There’s something almost Lovecraftian about the nameless, inarticulable fear and antipathy Flay has for Swelter, the scenes of Flay spying on Swelter as Swelter seemingly plots Flay’s murder see Gormenghast at its worst and most hellish. The green light of Swelter’s underground room and the descriptions of his honing the cleaver and practicing stealth are positively demonic in tone, and Flays utter terror by the end of the chapter feels entirely earned.

Finally, Chapter 30, “Reintroducing the Twins,” returns to Steerpike and the Prunesquallors, who have sat down to a dinner of—perhaps significantly, given the ongoing bird motifs in the novel—chicken. Steerpike’s social climbing has been as successful so far as he could have hoped, and he seems to have made himself quite indispensable to the Prunesquallor siblings, especially Irma, whose vanity has only increased in light of Steerpike’s solicitousness of her. After this dinner, the Prunesquallors are visited by Cora and Clarice Groan, who take an immediate interest in Steerpike, who, for his part, jumps at the opportunity to advance himself still more. He listens to the twins’ grievances (mainly that “[Gertrude] steals our birds”), strokes their egos, and escorts them home with the suggestion that he may be able to serve them and return them to their former glory. The chapter ends with a monologue-ish account of Steerpike’s scheming and a hopeful and powerfully symbolic image of the sky clearing: “…the sky had emptied itself of cloud and was glittering fiercely with a hundred thousand stars.”

Miscellany:

  • Fuchsia’s eccentricity has taken an interestingly almost-scientific turn. I love the idea of her as a collector and cataloguer of the natural world, though I also think this may be verging on an almost Hardy-esque ideal of the girl as a sort of pure nature or earth spirit, untouched by the corruption of the world around her, especially in the way Fuchsia’s innocence and wildness is set in opposition to the strictures of life within the castle. She seems ripe for corruption or tragedy, and I don’t know if I can bear it if anything terrible happens to her. Still, she remains a fascinatingly trope-defying character. There could be something manic pixie-ish about her in other circumstances, but Fuchsia’s narrative so far is in service to nothing and no one but herself.
  • I’m going to riot if I don’t get to read at least one chapter about Gertrude that’s as informative about her as Chapter 29 is about Sepulchrave.
  • So far, though at least some of Peake’s influences are obvious (Shakespeare, Gothic romances, Dickens, Carroll, Poe), he’s steered clear of any direct literary allusions, but he alludes to Washington Irving in Chapter 29 when he writes of the east wing past the Tower of Flints as “an Ichabod of masonry that filed silently along an avenue of dreary pine whose needles hid the sky.” I was so surprised I had to Google it just to make certain it wasn’t a more obscure Biblical allusion instead. The Irving allusion makes me wonder how much American literature Peake was familiar with. There are definite shades of Poe, but perhaps Peake also read Hawthorne. And Peake’s fixation on the pathology of place and the quiet horror of ancient spaces suggests he might even have read some Lovecraft, but the book is so far free of any of Lovecraft’s virulent prejudices. Indeed, Peake’s interest seems to be particularly in the foibles and failings of the antiquated system of English nobility, a peculiarly English sort of introspection that doesn’t have much in common with the oeuvres of popular early American writers.
  • I guess Steerpike is going to wear black after all.

Let’s Read Gormenghast! Titus Groan, Chapters 22-26

These chapters begin with yet another flashback in the story, this time to focus on Fuchsia Groan’s reaction to her brother’s birth before setting her on a trajectory that has her meet Steerpike, who talks her into introducing him to Doctor Prunesquallor, who eventually takes Steerpike into his service. To the degree that Titus Groan has any plot at all, this constitutes a significant development, and these chapters seem to mark the end of the introductory saga of Titus Groan’s birth and christening, the immediate reactions to those events, and Steerpike’s rebirth as something other than a kitchen boy. The overall impression of the first two hundred pages of Titus Groan is of a season of change within Gormenghast, but within these few chapters, the story is focused on the contrasts between Fuchsia, the scion of a strange and ancient nobility, and Steerpike, the ambitious interloper who might as well have sprung fully formed from the bowels of Gormenghast itself for all we know of his history.

Chapter 22, “The Body by the Window,” finds Fuchsia absolutely distraught over her brother’s birth, and this offers us some insight into her psychology. Fuchsia is passionate in her hatred, which extends to everything: “I hate things! I hate all things! I hate and hate every single tiniest thing. I hate the world!” In her next breath, Fuchsia expresses a desire to live alone: “Always alone. In a house or in a tree.” And she fantasizes about a man who will come and rescue her from her exile. She sees herself as separate and different from the rest of those around her, and she hopes for “someone from another kind of world—a new world” who will fall in love with her because she lives alone, because of her differentness and, she says, because of her pride. Further requirements for this imaginary lover include great height—“taller than Mr. Flay”—strength and yellow hair “like a lion” and big feet—to make Fuchsia’s own big feet seem smaller. Fuchsia’s fantasy man is also clever, and he must wear dark clothes to enhance the brightness of her own.

On the one hand, Fuchsia’s outburst and her fantasies may be typical of a spoiled and sheltered fifteen-year-old. On the other hand, they are the beginning of a great deal of work in these chapters to show us who Fuchsia is and explain her place in Gormenghast and its narrative. Fuchsia’s place in the story of Gormenghast—both in her understanding and the reader’s—is deeply tied to her sense of self, which is in turn deeply tied to her connection to the place of Gormenghast. For all that Fuchsia verbally expresses feelings of alienation and a desire to be left alone, she doesn’t fantasize about leaving Gormenghast. Indeed, just a page after she dreams of a lover who will come fall in love with her where she lives alone, she writes herself onto the very walls of the castle: “I am Fuchsia. I must always be.” We’ve already had an inkling of Fuchsia’s feelings about her hidden attic rooms, and in Chapter 23, “Ullage of Sunflower,” there is even more evidence of the way that Fuchsia’s identity and sense of self are intimately connected with the places she considers her own. Her feelings of violation when she finds Steerpike in her rooms are palpable and vividly conveyed; Fuchsia has a visceral reaction to Steerpike and his transgression on her space, which is only a couple uses of the word “penetrate” away from being an obvious rape metaphor.

Instead, the interactions between Fuchsia and Steerpike in Chapters 23 and 24 (“Soap for Greasepaint”) could perhaps generously be interpreted as a seduction of sorts, as the cold, calculating Steerpike tries to charm Fuchsia into helping him rise above his present station. At the same time, there’s something decidedly unsexual—certainly unsexy—about all of this. While Fuchsia is a girl who has entertained romantic ideals, there’s no evidence that Steerpike ever has, and it’s quickly revealed that Steerpike’s grasp on the workings of Fuchsia’s mind is shaky at best. They are set up as opposites—Fuchsia’s imagination and passion versus Steerpike’s base cunning—but not in the way of opposites that attract. Fuchsia in fact finds Steerpike repellant; though she’s charmed by his clowning, she never trusts him and has an almost instinctual suspicion of the boy, who she pegged immediately as cleverer than herself. Steerpike’s instincts serve him well enough, however, as he does manage to achieve his objective of an introduction to someone who might give him different employment. In a different novel, I might suggest that Steerpike’s failure to fully understand Fuchsia—and his subsequent failure to even suspect that he might have failed—might be the seeds of his undoing. In this novel, peculiarly non-linear and plotless as it is, it’s hard to say.

What seems most important about these chapters is the illustration of contrasts between Steerpike and Fuchsia and the way these contrasts serve as an illustration of the class and station dynamics within Gormenghast. In the absence of a strong plot, it’s easier and more rewarding to interpret Titus Groan as a book about Gormenghast the place rather than as a story about Gormenghast’s people. Rather, the characters are all simply ancillaries to the setting, which actually has very few characters when you think about it. The Groans and their servants inhabit vast empty spaces within the walls of Gormenghast, even going years without seeing each other at times. The Mud Dwellings outside the castle are inhabited by unnamed crowds, and Swelter’s kitchen, while a veritable hive of activity, is a hellish place and once again mostly filled with nameless masses.

It’s an emptiness that is both literal—there just aren’t very many people in Gormenghast—and metaphorical—the lives of the family of Groan and their closest retainers are variously empty of employment or meaning, filled with nonsense and absurdity and hollow traditions. It’s this world that alienates Fuchsia, who escapes into a fantasy world in which she imagines being rescued through marriage, perhaps the only ambition a sheltered and neglected girl of her station can imagine or, perhaps, the only ambition the author could imagine for her. It’s also this world that the outsider, Steerpike, wants to infiltrate, but one can’t help but feel that he is going to be sorely disappointed by what he finds. In the end of this section, it’s this empty, lonely world of Gormenghast that leads the Doctor and Irma Prunesquallor to employ Steerpike at all; they’re educated, relatively lively people who are hungry for intelligent and stimulating society of a kind that doesn’t exist within Gormenghast, and they hope that Steerpike will fill that void in their lives.

Miscellany:

  • There are some lovely turns of phrase in these chapters. Personal favorites include Steerpike’s “clever imitation of a smile” and the description of the Doctor’s gift to Fuchsia as “a ruby like a lump of anger.”
  • I would be fine, just fine, if I never had to read another description, ever, of the awakening of an adult man’s sexual interest in a barely-pubescent girl. Just saying.
  • These chapters were almost entirely devoid of most of the descriptive and thematic motifs I’d identified so far, but the bird motif comes back at the end of Chapter 26 when Irma Prunesquallor is describing her plans to dress Steerpike in grey: “the hue of doves.” With Steerpike having been both specifically described as predatory and then shown to have a rapacious ambition, the connotations of this description are clear. Within the broader bird motif, if Steerpike is a predator, then to dress him in “the hue of doves” paints him as the avian equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Review + Giveaway: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above is a whip-smart, fast-paced, and surprisingly funny military fantasy. I didn’t think that I was interested in reading stories about a woman having to overcome systematic sexism anymore, and I was double not interested in reading anything like a redemption arc for that woman’s sexist antagonist, but Bennis manages to breathe some new life into both of those stories. I’m very glad that I was interested enough in airships to read this book despite my misgivings, as it turned out to be a wonderfully readable, remarkably fun and ultimately optimistic (but not cloyingly so) take on its subject matter.

After an act of combat heroism, Josette Dupris gets a promotion that makes her the first woman to captain an airship in a military with strict limits on women’s service. This would be a tough enough challenge on its own, but Josette is also saddled with a spy, Bernat, a spoiled nobleman with no military or airship experience to speak of, but whose job is nonetheless to report back to his powerful uncle on any of Josette’s failings, real or imagined. It’s definitely the sort of thing that one needs to be in the mood to read, especially since there aren’t easy answers to Josette’s problems, but it’s also definitely worth reading. This isn’t a book about one woman smashing the patriarchy single-handedly, and in fact Josette is largely unconcerned with doing so; she just wants to do her job like she knows she’s capable of. The Guns Above is about the way in which an ambitious woman can exist and find ways to thrive in a sexist society, and it’s about the incremental changes and personal fights that slowly push the needle of progress forward. It’s also about gritty, action packed airship battles and snarky humor, which makes it a perfect light-ish summer read.

You need this book for the beach or next to the pool or out on the porch or inside an air-conditioned building or wherever else you’re reading this summer.

Luckily, courtesy of the publisher, I have a hardcover copy of The Guns Above that I’m giving away.

CLICK HERE ENTER THE GIVEAWAY – Ends July 16

The SF Bluestocking 2017 Summer Reading List

It’s that time again, where I list all the things I wish I could be more certain I would have time and energy to read over the coming months. July, August and September are full of exciting new releases, a little light on sci-fi and heavier on fantasy than my recent tastes have been, but exciting nonetheless. Here’s what’s on my radar for the rest of the summer.

Tor.com Publishing

As always, I plan to read most of what Tor.com will be publishing. I always enjoy their novellas, though I will be skipping a couple of novels that are sequels in series I haven’t read yet (unless I somehow manage to read the rest of their respective series). Probably the titles I’m most looking forward to from Tor.com right now are that pair of JY Yang novellas at the end of September, but I’m also really hoping to finally get around to reading Infomocracy so I can read Null States when it comes out. I am bummed that there’s not another Sin du Jour book until November, though.

  • The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison – 7/11
    The concept on this one is a little ho hum, but I’m always down for another short space opera.
  • The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross – 7/11
    I won’t be reading this one because it’s about eight books deep into a series I haven’t read and am not interested in reading back that many books to get into.
  • The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo – 7/25
  • The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy – 8/15
    “…pits utopian anarchists against rogue demon deer” is relevant to all of my interests.
  • Starfire: A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth – 8/22
  • A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw – 8/29
  • The Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone – 9/5 
    I keep trying, anytime I have downtime, to get into the Craft Sequence, but I’ve been unsuccessful so far. I’m not sure if I want to just skip this one or give up on reading the earlier ones and just start here since my understanding is that The Ruin of Angels stands alone just fine.
  • Acadie by Dave Hutchinson – 9/5
  • Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey – 9/12
    We seem to be living in an age of sequels surpassing their predecessors, so I have high hopes for this title.
  • The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford – 9/12
  • Null States by Malka Older – 9/19
    will finish Infomocracy in time to read this before release.
  • The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang – 9/26
  • The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang – 9/26

Magazines

  • FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 3, SUNDOWN TOWNS – 7/1
    Every issue of FIYAH is more beautiful than the one before. Just look at this gorgeous cover. I’m not familiar with any of the names on the table of contents for this one, but that only makes it more exciting.
  • Uncanny Magazine #17, July/August 2017
    I’ve already got my hands on Uncanny #17 because I’m a Kickstarter backer, and even though I haven’t dug into it yet, I can already tell it’s going to be a-MAZING. You can see the cover and table of contents at the Uncanny blog.
  • Uncanny Magazine #18, September/October 2017
  • POC Take Over Fantastic Stories
    This is, as far as I know, the final issue ever of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, guest edited by Nisi Shawl and overflowing with stuff I am looking forward to reading.

Anthologies

2017 has been a year of trying to read more short fiction, and with that in mind I backed several anthologies on Kickstarter in the last year or so that should be coming out in the next couple of months.

  • Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists edited by Adrian Collins – Currently available.
    I backed this on Kickstarter because it sounded fun. The final product is a little white-dude-heavy, but I’m thinking it will work well for some light-ish reading at some point
  • Hath No Fury edited by Melanie R. Meadors and J.M. Martin – August?
    There’s not a firm release date for this Kickstarted anthology but I’m thinking mid-to-late summer.
  • Strange California edited by Jaym Gates and J. Daniel Blatt – August?
    Another kickstarted anthology with an interesting theme. I’m not from California, but my partner lived in the Bay Area for years and he was pretty interested in this book for that reason. I was excited because I’ve enjoyed stuff Jaym Gates has edited before and Strange California has a promising table of contents.
  • 2084: A Science Fiction Anthology from Unsung Stories – July?
    Another Kickstarted title with a great table of contents, although reading about dystopias gets less appealing all the time these days.
  • Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland – 8/29
    I cannot wait to find out what solarpunk and eco-speculation are all about. And look at that gorgeous cover art by Likhain!

Comics and Graphic Novels

  • Victor LaValle’s Destroyer
    I’ll be buying and reading issues more or less as they are released.
  • Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda – 7/11
    Hands down the trade I’m most excited for this year.
  • Angel Catbird, Volume 3: The Catbird Roars by Margaret Atwood, Johnny Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain – 7/4
    I believe this will wrap up the series.

Books

  • An Oath of Dogs by Wendy Wagner – 7/4
  • At the Table of Wolves by Kay Kenyon – 7/11
  • Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw – 7/18
    I will likely be reading all the novellas and short fiction the Book Smugglers publish this year.
  • The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana – 7/18
    I’m not reading much YA these days, but this one sounds good.
  • Sovereign by April Daniels – 7/25
    I really enjoyed Dreadnought earlier this year, but I may have to be in the right mood for this one. I’ve gone off super heroes a bit lately.
  • Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw – 7/25
  • Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter – 8/1
  • The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin – 8/15
    The final book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Much anticipated.
  • The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente – 9/5
    This is a middle grade novel, which chills my interest in it a tiny bit, but I think I will always read literally everything Catherynne Valente publishes.
  • Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust – 9/5
    I’m always down for retold fairy tales, and this one is getting some excellent early reviews from people I trust.
  • An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King – 9/12
  • Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older 9/12
  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz – 9/19
  • Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore – 9/19
    I’ve loved Kristin Cashore since I first read Graceling years ago, and it’s been far too long since I’ve gotten to read anything new by her. I’m still holding out hope for more Graceling Realm books, but this will definitely do in the meantime.
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie – 9/26
    New Ann Leckie. In the same universe as her Imperial Radch trilogy. I am stoked.
  • An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard – 9/26
    This might be my favorite book cover of the season.
  • An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson – 9/26

The SF Bluestocking Spring 2017 Reading List Wrap-Up

Between personal life stuff (my car will not stop breaking down about once a week) and generalized depression and anxiety about the state of the country and the world, I didn’t get around to writing nearly as much as I’d have liked to about what I’ve read in the last three months, so I’ve been looking forward to writing this list and wrapping up this season of stress and frustration so I can move onto other things.

That said, there was so much great stuffed published over the last three months, and I ended up reading most (though by no means all) of my Spring Reading List. It’s been very sad to not have the energy to write about it all, so I’m glad to have begun doing these wrap-up posts so I can squee a bit about everything I’ve missed writing longer posts about.

Best Fantasy Novel – The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

I have unequivocally loved everything I’ve ever read by Catherynne Valente, and The Refrigerator Monologues was always one of my most-anticipated releases of 2017, so it’s no surprise that I adored it. Valente has always had a way with language, and like all of her other work, The Refrigerator Monologues deserves to be read aloud, even if just to yourself. It’s smart and funny and furious and sad, and Valente has crafted a wonderfully original world of superheroes and a marvelous group of heroines with strong voices that are distinctive and familiar in turns.

Best Science Fiction Novel – Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I’ve been following Yoon Ha Lee’s career with interest since picking up Conservation of Shadows a few years ago because I liked the cover and realizing that it was one of the finest SFF short fiction collections I’d ever read. Lee’s first novel, last year’s Ninefox Gambit, was among my favorite books of 2016, but he’s really outdone himself with Raven Stratagem, which is one of those rare second books in trilogies that is better than the first. Even having read some of Lee’s short fiction set in his Hexarchate universe, I sometimes struggled to follow parts of Ninefox Gambit, but that’s not the case with Raven Stratagem, which is all around a stronger book, more character-focused, with a more easily comprehensible plot and a great cathartic payoff at the end that sets things up for a very exciting third installment in the series.

Best Magazine – Uncanny #16, May/June 2017

Uncanny‘s Year Three has been outstanding in general, but this was an especially excellent issue. Sarah Gailey’s essay, “City of Villains: Why I Don’t Trust Batman,” went almost viral (and deservedly so) as soon as it was posted online, but it’s only one great piece in an issue heavy on wonderful nonfiction. My personal favorite essays were “Missive from a Woman in a Room in a City in a Country in a World Not Her Own” by Mimi Mondal and “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Eyeball” by Dongwon Song. This issue is no slouch in the fiction and poetry department, either, with new short stories by Ursula Vernon (“Sun, Moon, Dust”) and Chinelo Onwualu (“Read Before Use”), among others, and a pair of lovely poems by Roshani Chokshi (“Dancing Princesses”) and Theodora Goss (“Seven Shoes”). Honestly, just buy the whole thing, and then think about backing Year Four (which will include a People with Disabilities Destroy Sci-Fi special issue) when the Kickstarter goes live in July.

32758901Best Novella – All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I read an above average number of very good novellas in the last three months, but All Systems Red is a true standout even with stiff competition. A sci-fi adventure written from the point of view of a sentient cyborg/robot who calls itself “Murderbot,” All Systems Red has humor, excitement, a dash of horror, and criticism of capitalism–all things relevant to my interests–combined with a strong and unique narrative voice. The best part is that there are at least three more Murderbot stories forthcoming from Tor.com over the next year or so. I cannot wait.

Best Comic Book – Saga, Volume 7 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

This seems an obvious choice, especially since I’m not a great reader of comics in general, but Saga is really, really good. This volume is full of all the weirdness one can always expect from this series, but it also comes with almost as much heartbreak (including at least one straight up gut punch) as the six previous volumes combined, so be sure to enjoy it with a box of tissues close at hand, possibly after several glasses of wine to preemptively dull the pain this book is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel.

Best Anthology – Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies edited by John Joseph Adams

Listen. You’re almost never going to find any collection of short fiction that you like every bit of, but this anthology comes close for me. From the very funny “A Temporary Embarassment in Spacetime” by Charlie Jane Anders to the sharp and wryly witty “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” by Tobias Buckell to Linda Nagata’s mother/daughter caper, “Diamond and the World Breaker, to a new Yoon Ha Lee Hexarchate story, “The Chameleon’s Gloves,” there’s something here for almost everyone. It’s an anthology with (cosmically) big ideas, a great deal of fun, and an entertainingly retro sensibility without sacrificing forward-thinking messages.

Best Collection – So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories by A. Merc Rustad

I only discovered A. Merc Rustad in January when I read their lovely story, “This is Not a Wardrobe Door,” at Fireside, but I loved that story so much that this collection was at the top of my to-read list as soon as I found out about it. So You Want to be a Robot and Other Stories collects that story and twenty more in a showcase of Rustad’s consistently good ideas and solid execution. Personal favorite stories in the collection include: “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie,” “Where Monsters Dance,” “Finding Home,” and “BATTERIES FOR YOUR DOOMBOT5000 ARE NOT INCLUDED.”

Best Sin du Jour Novella – Greedy Pigs by Matt Wallace

We’re up to book number five in this seven part series, and I am already getting sad about it ending. I’ve enjoyed this series since day one, and each installment continues to be better than the one before. In Greedy Pigs, the Sin du Jour team finds themselves accidentally catering an event for the President of the United States. Things get weird, obviously.

Best Non-SFF Thing – Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 Original Broadway Cast Recording

Not a book, I know, but I’m slightly obsessed with this musical right now. It’s based on about seventy pages from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and it scratches basically all my itches. It’s ambitious. It’s funny. It’s literary. It’s gorgeously written and produced. It’s got accordions. It’s got Helene Kuragina, who is played by Amber Gray, who is a treasure and gives us this earworm:

Honorable Mentions:

  • Reenu-You by Michele Tracy Berger – Not the best written novella I read this spring, and it could have used another pass with a copy editor, but it’s a story that has stuck with me. Even weeks later, I still find myself thinking every couple of days about these characters and the way they bond through a shared trauma.
  • Victor LaValle’s Destroyer #1 – A promising first issue with a fresh take on classic source material.
  • “Beauty, Glory, Thrift” by Alison Tam – A delightful sci-fi adventure novelette.
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire – I only liked Every Heart a Doorway, but I loved Down Among the Sticks and Bones. I think if I’d read this one first, I’d have liked the other better as well.
  • The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis – I didn’t think I was in the mood for a book about a woman having to deal with sexist garbage, but this one is a good, fast read.

Biggest Disappointments: 

  • Ladycastle #4 – After this limited series started off strong, it ends with some baffling plot developments and a too-easy resolution.
  • River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey – This novella was fine. I like the hippos. But I think it’s a case of it being extremely over-hyped. I’m not sure what I expected, but it doesn’t seem near exciting enough on its own merits to earn all the superlative praise I’ve seen for it.
  • The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett – By about five chapters in, I’d predicted the book’s big “twist” and couldn’t even be bothered to finish it.