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The SF Bluestocking 2015 Summer Reading List Report

Well, perhaps predictably, I have not managed to finish my own summer reading list. Best laid plans, and all.

Breaking my foot back in May and being laid up with that most of the summer sounds like the sort of thing that would have given me all kinds of extra time to read, but instead I’ve found myself in a bit of a reading slump and spent most of the first half wallowing in pain and self-pity. The last month or so since getting my cast removed has been a significant improvement. Though I’m still not 100% better, I’ve started working out again, and this week I think I’m going to start walking daily to try and work back up to doing 2-3 miles a day like I was before the broken foot–ideally before it gets too cold and unpleasant for me to be out. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to enjoy the last bits of summer that are left, going to outdoor plays, checking out food festivals, hitting farmer’s markets, and just generally trying to be out of doors as much as I can.

The good news is that I think I’m coming out of the funk I was in most of the summer. The bad news is that I’ve so far been doing other stuff besides reading, and I’m also behind on some writing stuff as well. While I’m finally catching up on my reading some, I’ve not yet gotten back on track with writing book reviews, though that’s changing as well. I should have reviews coming out this week and next for The Fifth SeasonNimonaRat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery, and The House of Shattered Wings. By then, I should also be done with The Dark Forest, and hopefully that will get me more or less back on track with what I’d like to be doing in terms of output.

So, here’s what I did manage this summer:

  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – This one was on my list, and I finished it. Review here.
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – List, finished. Review here.
  • The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton – List, finished. Review here.
  • Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older – List, finished. Review here.
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – List, finished. Review here.
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – List, finished. Review here.
  • The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán – List, finished. Review here.
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – List, finished. Review here.
  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard – List, finished. Review soon.
  • The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu – List. Currently reading.
  • Spindle by W.R. Gingell – Self-published by the author. ARC received through NetGalley. Finished. Review here.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – NetGalley ARC. Finished. Review here.
  • Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley – NetGalley ARC. Finished. Review here.
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson – Borrowed from my 12-year-old. Review here.
  • Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery – Not on my original list. Review soon.

I actually didn’t do too bad, all things considered. Fifteen books in the last two months. Ten of the fifteen from my original reading list, plus five that weren’t on there. Of the five books that I didn’t get to, one I’ve sort of lost interest in due to mediocre reviews (The Invasion of the Tearling), one is an ARC that I will definitely be reading within the next month (The Heart Goes Last), two are more literary works that I really could read anytime (Station Eleven and The Buried Giant) and one (The Magicians) is the basis of a tv show that I’m looking forward to, but that won’t be starting until at least February of 2016, so it’ll keep, too.

Probably a couple of these will make it on to my fall reading list, which can be looked for this week as well. It looks like I probably won’t be as lucky with ARCs this fall as I was over the summer, but there are plenty of upcoming releases that I’m pretty excited about that I’m sure will keep me busy. Which doesn’t even touch on the new fall shows I plan on checking out, which will be another separate post in the next week.

Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

an-ember-in-the-ashes-by-sabaa-tahirAn Ember in the Ashes was a surprise. I was looking for (and expected) a fast, easy read that would help get me out of the reading slump I’d been in since breaking my foot in May. I don’t read much YA these days, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention and I could have sworn that I heard somewhere that it was basically a standalone, which would have been nice since I’m not looking to get into any more uncompleted series. I figured this would be a quick, shallow, fun read that I’d never have to think about again.

It turns out I was super wrong about everything except it being a fast read. I did manage to race through it in about a day, but that was because it was really, really good, not because it was light reading.

This book is not light reading.

An Ember in the Ashes opens with a gut punch and then kicks the reader while they’re down, for over four hundred glorious pages. It’s a wild ride from the very beginning, and it’s definitely the best YA novel I’ve read in a couple of years.

At the same time, Ember is a sort of strange book for me to review. It has several glaring flaws that would ordinarily be dealbreakers for for me, but that Sabaa Tahir manages to make work.

First, I don’t love the names of the main characters, Laia and Elias. They’re just too close to each other, too many L’s and A’s, and though I never found them confusing, these names are just a little too match-y for my taste. They’re also part of a general lack of consistent naming conventions throughout the novel. The fantasy world of the book is ostensibly based upon ancient Rome, but the character names are a mix of Greek, English, Gaelic, and other origins. This could work as a way to differentiate between different cultures in the book, but that’s not how it’s done here. Instead, it’s just a mishmash of names, some of which make sense, some which don’t.

This sort of naming convention mess is increasingly characteristic of YA fiction in general, and it always turns me off a bit. It’s only tolerable here because the story Tahir tells is so well-crafted and because, while the names are sloppy, they don’t inhabit the realm of just plain silly and absurd that some YA character names do.

My second major criticism is also sort of about names, but in the general worldbuilding sense. Frankly, if it didn’t all manage to somehow work, I’d think that Tahir had used this humorous article at The Toast as a serious writing advice. Everything is just awfully generic.

There are the Scholar people, who are peaceful artisans and intellectuals who were easily overpowered and enslaved by the warlike Martial people. Aside from these two major groups, there are also Tribesmen, Barbarians, Lake People and Wildmen, The live in places like “The Empire,” “The Southern Lands,” and “The Tribal Deserts.” The one major holiday we see in the book is just called the “Moon Festival,” another extremely vague and generic piece of the world Tahir has created.

Even the prophesying Augurs seem generic when surrounded by so many other generic groups of people, and this isn’t helped much by the use of the name “Cain” for the main Augur. It’s a name that is so loaded with hackneyed connotations of antiquity, mystery and villainy (or occasional anti-heroism) that it should basically never be used unless an author is literally referring to the biblical Cain. I have a special loathing for the use of mythologically significant names in lieu of actual characterization.

All that said, there’s a lot to like about this fantasy world. There are definitely some bits of ancient Rome in here, but this isn’t Rome the great empire and foundation of western society. The Martials are Rome the violent colonizing juggernaut, and the Scholars and Tribespeople are clearly representative of the great civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa. While I think that the conflict between the Scholars and Martials is a little simplistic, it also offers a refreshingly different and much-needed perspective than the pro-imperialist ones that are more common in high fantasy.

Though there is much about this fantasy world that is bland and generic, there is still enough detail to make it stand out from more standard fare. The incorporation of creatures from Arab mythology is nice and helps to solidify the reader’s sense of the story world as vaguely Middle Eastern as opposed to the usual vaguely Medieval European fantasy.

The one really original fantastical element Tahir introduces is the masks worn by the uncreatively named Masks, and I would have liked to see this explained and explored a little more. Because Elias’s mask hasn’t bonded to him, we don’t get any firsthand details on what it’s like for any of the characters to have a mask permanently affixed to their faces. The masks are also mentioned inconsistently throughout the book, and it’s never quite clear exactly what the masks look like. It’s too bad that we don’t learn more about the masks because they’re probably the most unique worldbuilding aspect we’re shown.

The things that make all of the above-listed mediocrity okay and turn An Ember in the Ashes into a highly readable piece of work are the well-drawn main characters and a meticulously planned and beautifully realized plot. It also helps that Tahir avoids some of the more obnoxious YA tropes and what tropes she does utilize are smartly chosen. Finally, I really appreciate that Tahir isn’t afraid to hurt her characters. The stakes feel high and the danger feels real throughout the book, but at the same time I never felt like the suffering was gratuitous or overdone. 

This book feels like it shouldn’t work as well as it does, and there are any number of things I can pick out of it that I ordinarily don’t care for. However, I really enjoyed it, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading its sequel. An Ember in the Ashes is a sprawling, challenging young adult fantasy that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The SF Bluestocking 2015 Summer Reading List

I feel like breaking my foot in May derailed everything I’d planned for the summer, and I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump ever since that wasn’t helped by dealing with Game of Thrones and a nice bout of straight up depression that has left me just constantly exhausted. However, I think that’s mostly over now. The cast should be coming off my foot soon, I’m mostly recovered from Game of Thrones, and I’m ready to get back to some of what I had planned to accomplish.

This is still a slightly tentative list that might change order or expand if I get through things faster than expected, but here’s what I’ve got in my queue right now.

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
I finished this one today, so it’s not technically “in the queue” I suppose. A proper review will be incoming in the next day or two. Annihilation won the Nebula for Best Novel a few weeks ago, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you follow awards. I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I sat down to read it, but it’s definitely something special.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
I just got approved for an ARC of The Heart Goes Last from NetGalley, and I’m super stoked about it. I love Margaret Atwood with a deep and abiding passion, but I never did get around to reading her Positron shorts on Byliner before it went bust. This is apparently those, but rewritten and with more. However, I’ve got til its release date (Sept 29) to read and review it, so I’m not in a huge rush. I figure it will end up filling in sometime this summer when I’m in between other things.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tabir
I’ve mostly gotten away from reading much YA stuff, but this book has gotten a good deal of positive buzz. It’s apparently a standalone novel, although I see that there is a sequel in the works. I’m hoping to burn through it in a day or two so I can move along to some of the more exciting new releases that are coming up.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
Jo Walton’s The Just City was one of the first books I read this year, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating its sequel since January. It comes out tomorrow, but I probably won’t reasonably get started on it until the weekend. Apparently there is also a third book planned in this series, which has me all aflutter, even though there’s no cover or release date for it yet.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
This is the second of the very few YA works I intend to read this year, and it’s another book that has been getting a ton of advance praise. Urban fantasy isn’t my usual thing, and I’m a little skeptical of anything that is being so heavily compared to Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, but I try not to put too much stock in that sort of thing. Promising Caribbean magic in Brooklyn and with an absolutely gorgeous cover, there’s basically no way that I ever wasn’t going to read this book. It comes out tomorrow along with The Philosopher Kings, which means I have a tough decision to make about which to read first.

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
I had a hell of a time dealing with the ridiculous name of the heroine (“Kelsea”) in The Queen of the Tearling, but I ended up rather liking the book in the end. I won’t say I’m particularly excited to dive back into this series, but I have a hard time leaving any series unfinished. I figure this will also be a nice, easy read in between some of the more difficult stuff on this list.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke and was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. It also comes highly recommended by George R.R. Martin. It’s got a ridiculously long description on Goodreads, which would normally make me think that it’s either going to be big and beautiful and complex or an overambitious mess. With its awards nominations and general critical success, though, my expectation is very much that it will be the former.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke, I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. As part of my general wanting to become more well read in the genre, I’ve begun sort of slowly working through the SF and Fantasy Masterworks collections. While my progress in this has really been very slow, Childhood’s End became a priority when SyFy announced their miniseries adaptation of it. While there’s no air date yet for the show, I want to be sure to finish the book before then, so I can’t put it off too much longer.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I’ve been putting off reading this series for years, mostly because I, frankly, haven’t been that excited about it in spite of all the attention it’s gotten. It just sounds like a hipper, edgier Harry Potter for adults. I’m a little old to have ever really gotten into the Harry Potter phenomenon, so that’s always been more unappealing than otherwise to me. However, this is another book that’s being adapted for television (SyFy again!), and the first trailer looks pretty good.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
I liked Never Let Me Go quite a bit, and I find it fascinating when more mainstream literary authors dabble in genre fiction. As a longtime fan of Arthuriana, I’m also very interested in the post-Arthurian premise for the story.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
I read this self-published gem earlier this year already, but I loved it so much that I’d like to reread it and give it a proper review in time for the hardcover release of it on August 13. I still can’t decide if I love or hate the new cover, though. It’s very pretty, but it looks so serious for a book that is actually quite funny. I really think I prefer the sort of pulpy charm of the original’s spaceship illustration, but the book is so great that I’m mostly just happy to see it getting a bigger release.

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán
This book has a knight riding a dinosaur on the cover, and it’s a medieval fantasy based on 14th century Europe. It’s a book by a man who is known for writing libertarian science fiction, which would normally be a huge turn off for me. However, there is no universe in which I’m not going to always read a medieval fantasy called The Dinosaur Lords with a dinosaur-riding knight on the cover, because that is rad as hell. If you agree about the total radness of this cover and the book’s premise, it comes out on July 28.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this book forever, even though it’s probably only been a year. N.K. Jemisin has been one of my favorite authors since I first read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I can’t wait to see what she’s got for us this time around. Just judging from the book description, it sounds pretty epic. The Fifth Season hits shelves on August 4.

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
I really liked The Three-Body Problem, so of course I will be reading the second book in the trilogy. I don’t read much translated fiction, and The Dark Forest has a different translator than the first book did so I’m curious to see how much difference that makes. I’m also looking forward to the promise of more action in The Dark Forest as that’s basically the one thing The Three-Body Problem could be said to lack. The Dark Forest will be available on August 11.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
I think I read something that Aliette de Bodard wrote a couple of years ago, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. So I was thrilled to rediscover her this year when I read her fantastic On a Red Station Drifting. I followed that up with her Obsidian and Blood trilogy, a sort of noir detective story in 16th century Mexica, which was a ton of fun and a really refreshingly original setting. I’m very excited about The House of Shattered Wings, which will  be released on August 20.