Tag Archives: Windwitch

The SF Bluestocking Winter 2017 Reading List Wrap-Up

Spring has already sprung here in Ohio, both technically and actually, judging from the amount of allergy trouble I’ve been having the last couple of weeks, and I’m working on getting together my reading list for the next three months (look for it this week!), but I thought first I’d take a look at what I’ve read in the first three months of 2017. Last year was such a terrible year for me that I ended up struggling a lot to write much about what I read, though I read quite a bit. The good news is that this year I’ve been off to a pretty strong start, getting through most of my Winter Reading List and even reading a couple of things that weren’t on there. I’ve even written about almost everything I’ve read, even if it was just a short blurb and a star rating on Goodreads, although I am still finishing up my last few reviews of titles from my winter list.

This post, however, is about celebrating the best and most exciting of what I’ve read in the last three months.

29939303Best Fantasy Novel – Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Crossroads of Canopy is a gorgeously imagined book about a young woman’s political awakening when she’s forced to question everything she knows about her society and herself. It’s set in a marvelously unique fantasy world in which people live in cities built in the tops of trees in an enormous rain forest, and it’s worth reading for the inventive worldbuilding alone, but it’s also got a wonderfully difficult and complex protagonist in Unar. Crossroads is a story about the roots of a revolution, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in Thoraiya Dyer’s Titan’s Forest series. While it’s not as thrillingly groundbreaking as, say, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth SeasonCrossroads of Canopy is, for me, similar in the the sense that it’s exactly the sort of thing I think of when looking towards the future of the genre, especially as it broadens to include epic fantasy that isn’t set in some analogue or other of medieval Europe.

29939160Best Science Fiction Novel – The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

This book was a complete surprise to me in every way. I’ve always rather intended to pick up something by John Scalzi, but I’ve never quite gotten around to it as I seldom read work by white men and have been mostly interested in new books, standalone titles, and debut authors in the last couple of years. Tons of people I know love Scalzi’s work, though, and since The Collapsing Empire is his newest book and the first in a series, it seemed like as good a time as any to check him out, especially when I got a surprise early copy in the mail from the publisher. It’s really good and hands down the most enjoyable thing I’ve read so far this year, smartly plotted and fast-paced, with lots of snappy dialogue and a great sense of humor. I couldn’t put it down.

33775885Best Magazine – FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 1, Rebirth

The first issue of FIYAH is excellent from its beautiful cover art to its collection of perfectly curated short fiction. With evidence mounting up that black readers and writers aren’t being served and included the way they should be in genre publishing, FIYAH is a uniquely valuable space for stories by, for and about black people. My favorite story in this issue was “Chesirah” by L.D. Lewis, but “The Shade Caller” by DaVaun Sanders and “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber” by Malon Edwards were also standouts. If I have any complaint about the magazine, it’s that I’d love to see more nonfiction content in it, but that’s purely a personal preference. Issue 2 will be out on April 1.

marapr17_issue15covermed-340x510Best Novella – “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

I at least try to read all of Tor.com’s novellas as a matter of course, and they’re pretty prolific, so I would have expected one of those to be my favorite so far. However, the fine folks at Uncanny just published their first ever (short) novella in #15, and it’s wonderful. Sarah Pinsker’s story of a convention–SarahCon–for Sarah’s from thousands of alternate reality might be my favorite novella of the last several years, to be honest. It’s smart and funny and thoughtful in perfect proportions. It was enchanting from page one, and it’s a story and concept that has been often on my mind ever since I read it. “And Then There Were (N-One)” will be available to read for free online on April 4.

33964649Best Comic Book – Ladycastle #1 by Delilah S. Dawson and Ashley A. Woods

I only read one comic in the last three months, but it was a good one. Since the sad/infuriating circumstances that led to the indefinite hiatus of Rat Queens, I’ve had a definitively medieval-fantasy-comic-shaped hole in my life, and Ladycastle is the perfect thing to fill it with. The art is slightly more cartoonish than I usually prefer, but it grew on me as I fell in love with the story and characters. The only problem with it is that there isn’t more of it, and they seem to be working on a slow production schedule with a couple months between issues. I want it all now.

31216072Best Sin du Jour Novella – Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace

Okay, so it’s the only Sin du Jour book published so far this year, but it’s awesome. And look at that cover! I always buy these as ebooks to save space, but the covers just keep getting better and better and I know I’m going to have to have them for my shelf. And this is why my dreams of getting rid of all my stuff and living some kind of minimalist backpacker lifestyle will always stay just dreams. Seriously, though you should be reading this series. They’re sharply written, laugh-out-loud funny, and have some of the best action scenes you’re going to find in print. This volume went a little heavier on character development, but in the last one a dude fought an evil Easter Bunny demon thing and it was rad.

31707853Best Non-SFF Thing I Read – Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ll just quote from my own review of this title to explain why I loved it so much: “The stories in this volume are, from start to finish, thoughtful, clever, funny, tragic and hopeful in turn. These stories are a rage-filled paean to the strength and resilience and weakness and fragility and everything in between of women. This is an ugly, heart-wrenching, beautiful book, and if Roxane Gay wrote three hundred forty-four more stories like this I would treat them like a devotional and reread them every year for the rest of my life.” There are a couple of stories in this collection that are slightly SFF, but for the most part this collection is deeply rooted in the real world and real women’s experiences.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Borderline and Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker – I skipped the first book in this series last year, but I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it now.
  • Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty – A riveting locked-door mystery in space, with clones.
  • Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman – I loved this first book in a new gaslamp fantasy series by the author of Planetfall. Probably my favorite thing I’ve read yet by Emma Newman.
  • Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – This makes me feel about sci-fi the way that Crossroads of Canopy and The Fifth Season make me feel about fantasy.
  • Tor.com’s “Nevertheless, She Persisted” Short Fiction Event – This is well worth reading, but it just didn’t fit into any of my other categories here.

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Windwitch by Susan Dennard – I liked Truthwitch quite a lot last year, but this book only magnified all the problems of worldbuilding and character that were only minor plagues on the first one.
  • Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey – I was hyped to finally read something by this author, but this book felt unnecessary and self-indulgent, without much to say for itself or about Shakespeare or The Tempest.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – I wanted to like this much-buzzed-about book more than I did, but I had a hard time getting past the casual normalization of marital rape, the villainization of the rape victim, and the trivialization of her eventual sad fate.

Book Review: Windwitch by Susan Dennard

I read Truthwitch around this time last year and enjoyed it in spite of its flaws, which were, well, many. But it was the start of a new series, and it featured a great friendship between two young women and had an interesting idea for a system of magic. Plus, while my tastes certainly skew towards the literary end of SFF, I appreciate some light reading to break up my routine from time to time. So I was pretty excited about Windwitch after enjoying its predecessor so much. Unfortunately, it turned out to be my biggest reading disappointment in a long while. Windwitch is the absolute worst sort of boring, insipid, YA claptrap I’ve read in years.

In Truthwitch, the story revolved primarily around Safi and Iseult, but Windwitch finds the two girls separated entirely. Obviously, based on the title, readers of the first book could expect Merik to feature largely in this one, and he does, but he is also disconnected from Safi and Iseult so that none of the primary characters from the last book actually interact with each other in any significant way. Instead, they’re shuffled around and paired off with others–Safi with Vaness and then both of them with a group of Hell-Bards, Iseult with Aeduan, and Merik with Cam and then sort of with his sister Vivia (who has been upgraded to a POV role)–but none of these interactions are very compelling, and very little actually happens at all, in spite of the book feeling fast-paced for most of its page count.

Safi and Vaness go on a journey, get captured a couple of times, and have to escape, only to learn that they don’t actually know what they’re doing. Iseult and Aeduan are also going on a journey, but they never get anywhere and then end up learning that they have to do something different from what they thought they were doing for the whole rest of the book. And Merik is trying to do something in Nubrevna but then finds out that he didn’t actually know anything about anything. Which, I guess, is supposed to be the main theme of the book–this whole no one knowing anything–but by the end of the book I found I simply didn’t care. It’s not even that the characters make foolish decisions or that everything feels so contrived and senselessly convoluted. Frankly, it’s all just so boring that I ended up just skimming whole chapters to get through it faster, and don’t think I missed out on anything.

None of this is helped by the fact that major aspects of the Witchlands’ magic system are still not very well-explained. It was only about halfway through this book that I finally decided that I’m just going to understand people who are “Cleaved” to be something like zombies, for example, even though I don’t think it’s at all conclusive from the text that this is the case. The magic of all the various characters continues to feel poorly defined, and the way Dennard uses it in the story is inconsistent. I’m sure that she has rules for how she’s writing the Witchlands magic, but whatever they are they’re basically incomprehensible to the reader. This was true enough in Truthwitch, and I called it forgivable because it was a first book in a new series and I otherwise enjoyed it. I thought that surely some of the fuzzier details of things would come into focus in this second book. They did not.

To add to these problems, none of the relationships or character arcs in Windwitch are at all interesting or entertaining except for Vivia’s and hers is subordinated to her brother Merik’s. Vivia didn’t figure largely in Truthwitch, but here she becomes a POV character with an interesting motivation–she’s trying to run her country while her father is ill, and she’s facing sexism in Nubrevnan society while also struggling with her ongoing grief over her mother’s death and her feelings of rather well-justified resentment toward her brother for the way that he has been given choices, responsibilities, and power that Vivia has had to work hard for. In the whole book, Vivia is the only character who has clearly defined and sensible motivations that are complex enough to generate real interest in her story, but she’s not given much page space and much of it is wasted on her almost obsessive thinking about her unspoken and possibly unrequited romantic feelings for another woman. I love women who love women, and goodness knows we could use more lesbians in fantasy, but this sort of relentless pining with no progression in the relationship is tiresome under normal circumstances. Here, where Vivia is legit dealing with a crisis situation as her country starves while being on the brink of war, her constant thoughts about the object of her affection are just plain intrusive–for Vivia and the reader.

Elsewhere, Iseult and Aeduan’s interactions are a study in what I guess passes for romantic/sexual tension. The difference here is that neither of them seem to have the least bit of self-awareness about their burgeoning attraction. I’m sure all this barely contained wanting to bone is great fuel for shippers and fanfic writers, but again there’s very little forward progress on that front. The revelation that Aeduan shares Nomatsi heritage with Iseult starts off feeling significant, but it never bears any actual fruit in terms of a deeper understanding or fellowship between them. Their physical interactions are too PG to ever be truly sexy, all written with a weirdly puritanical coyness that I found actively unpleasant to read.

They could have been worse, though. They could have been more like the interactions between Merik and his sidekick Cam or between Safi and the hell-bard (and by the way, I don’t think Susan Dennard actually knows what a bard is) Caden. The thing is, while I hate the dull, predictable chemistry between Safi and Caden, and I hate the way that Vaness is allowed to fade into the background of Safi’s POV sections, and I hate Safi’s sort of generalized insouciance and her terrible jokes… I despise Merik and his treatment of Cam.

Cam is a trans boy with what sounds like vitiligo, and he’s clever and brave and loyal and long-suffering. Because Merik is pretty much an asshole to Cam through the whole book about everything. The worst part, however, is just how much time Merik (well, Susan Dennard, really) spends commenting on Cam’s transness. It’s as if Dennard decided to make Merik the mouthpiece for her to work through all her own confused feelings about trans people, and Cam spends most of the book being misgendered inside Merik’s head–until the very end of the book when Merik magnanimously decides that he needs to focus on thinking about Cam with the proper pronouns. It’s not good enough. Cam is obviously trans from the beginning of the book, and Merik’s inability to either understand or accept that for almost four hundred pages doesn’t reflect well on him. It’s only when Merik meets someone who know’s Cam’s original name that things seem to click for Merik, and a ridiculous amount of page space is dedicated to Merik essentially marveling that being trans is a thing.

Being cis myself, I don’t feel qualified to fully unpack all this, but it seems like a particularly ham-handed way of including a trans character. Without any scenes from Cam’s POV, there’s very little insight into how he feels about any of this. The disconnect between the way Merik talks to Cam and the way he thinks about Cam is messed up as well. He’s very particular about calling Cam “boy” throughout the book–which has a weird racial dynamic as well, since Merik codes white and Cam is described as being dark-skinned with lighter patches–but he consistently thinks of Cam as “girl” even though he first knew Cam only as a boy. It’s just a huge mess of a well-meaning (I think) but ultimately insufficient attempt at inclusiveness.

Which is pretty par for the course with this book, which is, overall, a big mess in which almost nothing really works. The things that do work–Vivia’s storyline, Aeduan (though not Aeduan with Iseult)–seem to work almost be accident, not through any particular skill or intention of the author. Honestly, I’m not quite sure anymore what Susan Dennard is trying to do with this series. I might come back for Bloodwitch next year, because I do like Aeduan and am mildly interested to see if anything gets any better, but Windwitch honestly made me question every positive feeling I had about Truthwitch.