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Thawn: Alliances (2018) (Timothy Zahn): I will paraphrase for the masses:

Thrawn: It's too bad about Anakin Skywalker.
Thrawn: He was pretty cool, you know.
Darth Vader: *breathes ominously*

The novel is not 100% Thrawn trolling Vader, but it's certainly a recurring theme of Operation Imperial Shenangians In the Unknown Regions. Said shenanigans are intercut with flashbacks to the Clone Wars, when Thrawn teamed up with Anakin Skywalker, who was chasing down Secret Wife Padme, who dropped out of sight while tracking down a missing operative. The time cuts don't do fantastic things for the pacing, but do pay off at the end, when a planet's Imperial-era devastation is shown to be caused by one of Anakin's short-sighted Clone Wars-era decisions. It's very in character for Anakin. That attention to getting plot and character to move together is one reason I keep picking up Zahn's Star Wars novels. Zahn also does good worldbuilding. Some of the fanboys gnash their teeth about Zahn putting limits on what you can do with Jedi powers, the horror! I like that, it's much more interesting to work around limits and use all powers at your disposal - Jedi powers, observation, intelligence, teamwork - to solve a plot problem.

Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon (2001) (Michael P. Ghiglieri, Thomas M. Myers) is exactly what the title says. Death by river, death by falling off the rim, death by heat exhaustion, death by hypothermia, etc. Even discounting the catastrophic 1956 mid-air collision of two commercial flights, which directly lead to the FAA's creation, there's a surprising number of aviation related fatalities. Note to self: never get in a prop plane or a helicopter around the Grand Canyon.

Alliance Rising (2019) (C. J. Cherryh, Jane S. Fancher): I am all for presenting the same data from different characters' PoVs to show differences between sundry factions: in this case the Alpha Station residents; the local FTL spacers who are the lifeblood of the station, but separate from it; the Earth Company corporate execs who look to the time-lagged motherworld as the source of all good and right things; and the merchanters arriving from deep space and foreign ports with news of change. However. It's a technique best used in limited doses, or the reader will say, "well, somewhere in this 352 page hardcover there is a cracking good 150 page story."

So: Finity's End pops into Alpha Station, with a proposal for a new alliance between merchanters, in a period of Alliance-Union canon predating the rest of the canon novels so far. There's some awkward nods at trying to diversify and update what has been a very white-bread future. It's nice to see the attempt, but trying to retrofit a canon that was roughed out in the late '70s invites questions about what else needs to be updated as well (ahem computers), and how that meshes with the rest of canon.

Knife Children (2019) (Lois McMaster Bujold): Novella? Short novel? in the Sharing Knife world. Barr Foxbrush's youthful indiscretions catch up to him in the form of a fourteen year old daughter who has run off from her farmer family, under a cloud of suspicion, and possibly with her biological father's Lakewalker powers.

The Sharing Knife series, which foregrounds romance tropes, especially ones that are Not My Cuppa, has never been my favorite of Bujold's works. Knife Children is about the consequences of Barr's failure to keep it in his pants, in the context of two ethnic groups that neither understand nor trust each other, with a romance that happens 90% offscreen, and so does not drive me nuts in the same way. The difficulties of Lily's half-and-half status are Authorially Softened, making this more comfy than insightful.
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L. A. Hall's Comfortable Courtesan series: these were the perfect travel stories for me! I read the first three novels, The Comfortable Courtesan, Rustick Exile, and A Change of Station while exploring Oxford and London. The fictional memoirs of a Regency era courtesan, Madame Clorinda Cathcart, who gradually enters into a stable triad with her two darlings, the Scottish F-s, helps a number of her circle out of troubles via social contrivances, has need of a contrivance or two herself, and records these incidences and others in a delightful and unique voice that was very appealing when I was both enjoying and afflicted by travel brain. I wanted to bawl when [spoiler] [redacted] in the most sudden and shocking fashion. It was excellent! The fourth and fifth novels, Old Enemies, New Problems and Dramatick Rivalry, I read once I was back in the States. I'm holding off on the rest of the series until I'm in need of a soothing and relatively sensible read. The series was (is?) posted as a serial at [personal profile] the_comfortable_courtesan; if ebook is more your speed, DRM-free copies are cheaply available.

My hold on an electronic copy of Rogue Protocol, the third Murderbot novella (2018), came in while I was traveling, and thanks to the miracle of wifi, I was able to download and read it on the way home. A month later, Exit Strategy (2018) (Martha Wells) came to me in hardcover. Rogue Protocol features Murderbot exploring another sketchy GrayCris site, and interacting with humans who had a human bot; Exit Strategy has Murderbot trying to deliver the info it's found to Dr. Mensah and the humans of Preservation.

Because I am predictable, I will share my favorite exchange in Exit Strategy:

That was Gurathin. I don't like him. "I don't like you."
"I know."
He sounded like he thought it was funny. "That is not funny."
"I'm going to mark your cognition level at fifty-five percent."
"Fuck you."
"Let's make that sixty percent."

Ah, Gurathin, continuing my long tradition of "funny sarcastic fictional characters who I would hate in real life."

If you haven't read the first two novellas, I would start with All Systems Red. The four novellas are fast reads, and if you like the first, it's very likely you'll like them all. If you are all caught up, it's reliably stated Wells has been signed for a Murderbot novel, so watch for that sometime down the road.

My search for a romance novel I like, versus a story with a romance on the side, continues with a stop for In for a Penny (Rose Lerner) (2010). Well! That was certainly a 21st century take on the Regency romance. Young woman of the merchant class marries the first impoverished rake who asks. The author tries to convince me a previously repressed young woman is discovering sensuality in her marriage, while the rake strives to reform. The Evil Village Vicar, the Rake's Former Mistress, Benthal Green, and a number of other Regency romance hallmarks make an appearance. If you like regency romances, but find this unpolished, apparently Lerner's later novels improve.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two: The Official Playscript of the Original West End Production (J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany) (2017): the time-tripping adventures of Harry and Draco's sons, who are touched by the ongoing grief of Amos Diggory, get their hands on a super-Time-Turner, and resolve to fix Cedric Diggory's death. It does not go to plan; not the boys', not the person using them for their own family ends; and not the parents who struggle to give their children what they need (or, in Harry's case, what they think they need). Reading the playscript satisfied my completionist streak and did not ignite in me a great need to see the five hours of live performance. I am certain the onstage special effects are amazing, but five hours is a lot of theater time.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel) (2006): Coming out, closeted parent... the title is a play on the obvious and on a shortening of "funeral home", the author's father's family business. The narrative loops around Alison Bechdel's father's death, strongly felt by most around him to be suicide; bouncing back to the author's childhood, and up to college, and through themes of gender, identity & etc along the way. This was recommended to me way back in the day, and given my own experiences with complex family relationships, I can see why, but this didn't speak too directly to my own family challenges. Rather, it powerfully illuminated one specific family and one experience of identity.

Intensive Care: A Doctor's Journal (John F. Murray, MD) (2000): Nonfiction. A diary of one month of morning rounds in San Francisco General Hospital's Intensive Care Unit. AZT is a thing, but HIV's still a killer. Electronic medical records are a thing of the future, as indirectly nodded to by an anaphylaxis screwup. Lack of advance directives is a challenge. Drug use among the marginal members of society is a problem. ICU patients are intubated and extubated; sometimes reintubated. Infections start, spread, are battled with antibiotics; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. And more often than anyone would like, patients die, sometimes after drawn-out interventions. The matter-of-fact tone interspersed with extended thoughts from the author on the cases he sees mixes his observations with his feelings about the patients and families he cares for and interacts with; the nurses, residents, interns, and volunteers he works with; and the state of the hospital, and health care in general. It's a mashup that makes me want to reread the book with more attention to how medical decisions helped and didn't help patients. I did appreciate the contrast of surgeons ("often wrong, but never in doubt") with internists ("don't just do something, stand there"). The brief history of the medical ventilator - linked to polio outbreaks, and paralyzed lungs - was enlightening to me, as I'd never thought to ask about the development of ventilators, or their impact on intensive care.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (Janet Mock) (2014): Memoir of a Hawaiian trans woman of color. Mock's journey through transitioning is the frame of this memoir, but the narrative is woven through her experiences as a mixed-race Hawaiian, growing up in poverty, moving between different parents and homes, and the relationships that she experienced. There's a striking compassion for a younger Janet Mock, and for the people around her, trying to make the best of their own sometimes difficult situations. It's intelligently written, though I took my sweet time getting through it, which makes me wonder whether Mock's gift might be essay length. I'm excited to read more of her work and find out.
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Unearthed in a gmail draft! Books I read a year ago:

Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing (Victoria Sweet) (2017): Nonfiction memoir / call to consider that American health care is good at crisis intervention and terrible at creating situations where patients avoid crisis, especially in the era of managed care. Sweet traces her path from college through her early practice of medicine, with anecdotes of the encroachment of modern health care on the doctor's ability to provide cohesive long term care for the most vulnerable patients. An enjoyable stop on my path seeking a history of 20th and 21st century medicine.

Spinning (Tillie Walden) (2017): Graphic novel / memoir mostly about figure skating. The focus is on the author's experiences with singles?/synchro figure skating, while dealing with the other forces of adolescence: family, friendships (and loneliness), and love, emphasis on lesbians. Spinning does a good job expressing the feeling of the author's experiences. It's more a narrative of experience than a reflection on those feelings and events. Which isn't a bad thing, it's important to testify that things happened in your life. But the narrative voice doesn't have a lot of interest in doing the big picture: the homogeneity of synchro costumes and the girlfriend's mother who breaks up the young couple; the SAT tutor who assaults Tillie and the sexualization inherent in women's (girls') skintight, short-skirted staking costumes, the makeup masks on the ice and the sense of disconnection or isolation. They're there, they're stated. The overwhelming impression is of disconnection, even of event from event.

Not Your Sidekick (C.B. Lee) (2016): YA with LGBT and superpowers. Jess Tran's parents are heroes, her sister is in hero school, her brother is a budding mad scientist. But by 17, Jess hasn't manifested any powers, and at her age is unlikely to. What she does with this leads to her entanglement in the mystery of disappearing villains, a discovery about one of her closest friends, a lot of yearning for longtime crush Abby Jones, and the discovery that some of the comforting truths of her life might not be all that true.

Spoilers. )
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I'm going to Oxford and London for a short overseas vacation. Since this is my ex-Americas trip, I would be Most Interested in advice and common pitfalls I should try to avoid. For example, what is different about US international departures versus US domestic departures? Is this "arrive three hours before your flight" advice in deadly earnest, and should procrastinators of the world budget their time accordingly? What can I expect at immigration at the other end? I'm bringing one carry-on, and my passport is good for more than six months out. Also, how bad should I expect the US customs experience to be on the return trip?

If one of these pitfalls is "don't book the bare-bones airline", sadly, it's too late. The money saved on airfare is being rolled into noise-cancelling headphones (not earbuds).

Book Log

Sep. 18th, 2018 02:05 pm
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Paired reading suggestion: All the Birds in the Sky and The Goblin Emperor, yes?

Fool Moon (Jim Butcher) (2001): Second Dresden Files novel, in audiobook narrated by James Marsters. Harry's woman issues something werewolves something something mafia boss trussed up for werewolf bait something Harry's savior complex something. The gender politics are antiquated, but Butcher is a born storyteller.

Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik) (2018): By women, about women. )

The Traitor Baru Comorant (Seth Dickinson) (2014): Bogs down in collaboration and sacrifice. )

Since I also finished the Machineries of Empire trilogy this summer, which I felt also bogged down in the collaboration question, I'm a little burned out on protagonists tortured by their choice to sacrifice people on the pyre of a Greater Cause. It's particularly notable in contrast to my other recent fiction: I tripped and fell into rereading Jo Walton's My Real Children (2014), which is one of those very Walton "let's have an interesting idea and run it a couple of hundred pages" novels. Family matters a lot, suffering for the sake of suffering is generally avoided (though suffering because of your terrible marriage, well, sometimes you are young and commit to obnoxious guilt-ridden gay closeted Catholic men). It's not a big sweeping novel, but it doesn't want to be.

"The Levin-Gad" (Diane Duane) (2018): ~20k novelette in the Tale of the Five series. Herewiss goes out to nurse a quiet drink and pick a fight with the Shadow, as you do. This isn't a standalone: an attentive reader can probably pick up the essential backstory from context, but the story thoroughly spoils the closing action of The Door Into Sunset, and will take a lot less puzzling-over to understand if you've read the three novels that precede The Levin-Gad.

"Lior and the Sea" (Diane Duane) (1986): Standalone Middle Kingdoms novella about a Rodmistress who falls in love with the sea. The sea falls in love right back. That's it, that's the story.

Artificial Condition (Martha Wells) (2018): Second Murderbot novella. )

Skin Game (Jim Butcher) (2015): Meh. )
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1.) Baru Comorant and Earl Horseriver would be a fascinating crossover.

2.) If all Seth Dickinson's novels end with dead lesbians, I'm making someone else prescreen for me.
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The Magician King (Lev Grossman) (2011): Quentin something something Julia! I knew how Julia's story would end because I had watched the TV show first, but wow, Quentin is so... so... he frames every woman in terms of bangability! I want less Quentin in favor of magic and Fillory and other people's stories. There's some smart concepts floating around, and the prose is as good as the first novel, but... Quentin. Meh.

The Magician's Land (Lev Grossman) (2014): Readers who also have read C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle may recall how it collapses under the weight of the Book of Revelations. The Magician's Land avoids that by playing Quentin's third fictional outing dead straight. Spoilers. )

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser) (2017): A new biography of the "Little House" author. As a reader not steeped in Little House scholarship, this didn't seem to add a lot of new info to our knowledge of the series, or of Wilder's life, but it put known information in one place. The Ingalls were very poor, Federal land management of the West was not that great, the novels' attitude toward non-whites was being questioned not long after their initial publication, etc. Rose Wilder Lane was kind of a disaster of a human being, sadly.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou) (2018): Or, how not to run a startup; and in later chapters, how not to run a lab that claims to be FDA- and CLIA-compliant. Late in the book, Carreyrou describes a meeting with a Theranos exec, and the lawyers that accompany him, with language that makes me wonder how many drafts it took to tone the sense of journalistic detachment peeling away under the blasts from the Theranos legal team down to something that the editors would okay. Because all indications suggest that the Theranos C-suite was a hot mess who spent more on lawyers than science, then used the lawyers as bully-sticks against anyone who dared suggest they needed to do more science. It's easy to kick the company now that it's down, but there are lessons about fraud and how to avoid people trying to mislead you (and your money).

Revenant Gun (Yoon Ha Lee) (2018): Third in the Machineries of Empire trilogy. The alternative title could be "Kujen Must Die." Though, "And You Thought Ari Emory Had an Ego Problem" might work too. RG opens with a disoriented Garach Jedao Shkan wondering what he and Ruo have gotten up to this time. For the players paying attention, Ruo has been dead for more than four hundred years, so there's your first hint Something Is Going On.

Many spoilers, discussion of consent, tread with caution. )

If you can get past that, the servitor characters are a delight; Brezan and Tseya needed about fifty pages more of their engagement negotiations (and huh, how does Tseya really feel about this marriage deal?); various groups teaming up against Kujen is the sort of thing that is right up my alley. I wish we'd gotten more Cheris, but don't I always.

Storm Front (Jim Butcher) (2000): Wisecracking wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden solves a murder and does magic. I'm only here because of the fandom occasionally leaks into my friends-of page, and because summer reading happens.

There is no way to take this on its own merits, because Harry is That Guy. You know, the one who thinks that holding doors for women is "chivalrous" (can holding doors be gender-irrelevant common courtesy? Please?) and can't see a woman without commenting on her attractiveness, even if the woman is gruesomely dead when he first sees her. The one who is a self-taught expert and will bend every room party conversation back to their area of interest. That guy.

On the plus side, Butcher is compulsively readable. Some people are gifted with storytelling talent, and figure out how to write later, if ever; Butcher's one of them.
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Spoilers abound! Novel comments to follow separately if/when I finish the nominees.

Best Novella: Gailey, McGuire, Okorafor, Pinsker, Wells, Yang )

Tentative voting order: All Systems Red (Wells), Binti:Home (Okorafor), Sticks (McGuire), N-1 (Pinsker), Teeth (Gailey), Black Tides (Yang), No Award. Though No Award may get bumped up a bit, the not-death in Teeth annoyed me a lot.

Best Novelette: de Bodard, Lee, Palmer, Pinsker, Prasad, Szpara )

Tentative voting order: Steaks (Prasad), Children (de Bodard), Extracurricular (Lee), Bots (Palmer), Wind (Pinsker), No Award, Small Changes (Szpara)

Best Short Story: Nagata, Prasad, Roanhorse, Vernon, Wilde, Yoachim )

Tentative order: Fandom (Prasad), a long gap, Carnival (Yoachim), Sun (Vernon), another gap, Authentic (Roanhorse), Martian (Nagata), Clearly Lettered (Wilde), No Award. Though I may bump No Award up a bit.

Book Log

Nov. 7th, 2017 09:30 pm
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Me, early 2017: I will be better about reading and writing about what I've read!
Me, November 2017: So that's going to be a 2018 goal, as well as a 2017 effort.

God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine (Victoria Sweet) (2012): A memoir of practicing medicine at Laguna Honda Hospital, one of San Francisco's last-ditch facilities for long term care. The memoir is infused with Sweet's research into the medical practice of Hildegard of Bingen.

I opened this with a vague idea I'd get a look into one facet of San Francisco's health care history. That's not what God's Hotel is most interested in. Its focus is on the human face of doctoring, as experienced by Dr. Sweet during her tenure at Laguna Honda, and how her approach to medicine was influenced by her doctoral research on Hildegard. It's a topic that needs periodic reinforcement: the myriad tools available for medical intervention are secondary to healing the sick. Sweet emphasizes cutting back on dramatic intervention and letting time and the human body do their work. It's the same lesson Shem wrote down forty years ago: the delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible. Sweet emphasizes the more positive interpretation: the delivery of good medical care is to figure out what's blocking the path to health, and get rid of the blocks, including the egos of the doctors, nurses, and other people involved with caring for the patient.

Provenance (Ann Leckie) (2017): standalone in the same universe as the Imperial Radch trilogy, set shortly after the trilogy, but essentially unrelated. Ingrey Aughskold, daughter of ambitious and politically connected Netano Aughskold, takes a daring course to challenge her brother for inheritance of Netano's name and position. This gets complicated by Hwae politics, an upset Geck ambassador on her way to the Conclave, and the provenance, or lack of provenance, of Hwae's most revered cultural artifacts. If you've read the Foreigner series, the the complicated political dynamics muddied by personal concerns, and the personal relationships muddled up by the political situation, are going to feel pretty familiar. Provenance takes that muddling in directions that feel pretty homey if you've read the Imperial Radch trilogy.

I was lucky enough to attend a reading when Leckie was on book tour for Provenance's release, and got to hear her say - I'm paraphrasing - that she'd learned some things about gender and gender presentation during or after writing the Ancillary trilogy which got put into Provenance. Hwae society has three genders, thrown in as part of the worldbuilding along with the family and inheritance structures. Those social constructs that have profound implications for Ingrey and her family, and tie into the thematic questions about where things come from and how are they - ha! - made significant.

All this, and aliens too. The Geck ambassador's involvement brings with it a pervasive fear of breaking the Treaty. The Geck angle brings with it questions of humanity and identity that thematically ties back to the previous three novels in the universe. Provenance is a lighter and faster read than the Imperial Radch trilogy, but very preoccupying for the characters and enjoyable as a lighter thing.

All Systems Red (Martha Wells) (2017): first novella in the Murderbot series.

Murderbot is the chosen identification of the protagonist, a self-proclaimed cheap security droid whose defining traits are being responsible for a mass casualty event and later hacking the governor module that made it kill 55 people. Secretly free of its override protocols, Muderbot's most significant change in habit is its unrestricted space!TV addiction. All Systems Red covers a contract job gone sideways, which forces Murderbot to reveal its self-actualization to a group of softhearted humans.

Murderbot is... not necessarily the most reliable narrator? Wells has a fondness for a certain type of isolated, distrustful protagonist who is convinced revealing their true nature will end with rejection, more isolation, and maybe death. Murderbot follows the trend, with bonus self-deprecation and psuedo-indifference to the governor module incident that is totally over, cough, which has nothing to do with why it calls itself Murderbot. Ahem.

I suspect this will come up again in the future novellas, which I look forward to reading.

After many years and several tries I finally got through Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993). When I first tried to read it I had a vague assumption it would focus on the mechanics of comics, and it does that, but it goes much deeper into how comics function as art and also into the hows and whys of symbolism in comics. A tougher read than expected but very rewarding.

Raven Stratagem (Yoon Ha Lee) (2017): does one of my favorite things in fiction, the late-story plot twist that is a wonderful surprise and also totally fits with everything that came before. There's limits to that strategy, but Lee hasn't reached them yet.

Thrawn (Timothy Zahn) (2017): Months after reading this I can say it was reasonably clever, it was as good as I expect from Zahn, and the Pryce backstory was nice, but it made me terrifically nostalgic for The Last Command.

Binti (2015) and Binti:Home (2016) (Nnedi Okorafor): young woman defies tradition to attend space university, has adventures. If you've read Okorafor, these novellas will feel very much in her style.

Three Parts Dead (Max Gladstone) (2012): Craftswoman Tara Abernathy, cast out of the Hidden Schools of the Craft, is recruited by Elayne Kevarian, of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to deal with a tricky case of Craft whose roots trace back to the God Wars that changed the world, and cut through a tangle of Craft and personal relationships.

If that summary is a mess, well, the novel is ambitious to a fault. The PoV is tight-ish third noir-ish in a D&D-ish fantasy world. But it most reminds me of old school science fiction, the sort where the clever plot turns on the writer explaining the way everything works except for the pivot-element that swings the final twist into action. In the epilogue, Elayne remarks, engineers: they spend so much time solving physical problems and obeying physical rules, they forget that nonphysical phenomena obey rules every bit as strict.

A couple of years ago the Legion of Honor hosted an exhibit of Breguet watches, fancypants high-end timepieces of the last three or four centuries. The plot of Three Parts Dead reminded me of the tiny interlocked gears powering the conventional hour, minute, and second hands, as well as all the complications that could be imagined and packed into a handheld device. Like some of the honological complications on display, I didn't quite see the appeal of the threads of history and action connecting the deaths of Judge Cabot and Kos Everburning to Tara, Elayne, Novice Technician Abelard of the Church of Kos Everburning, addict and agent of Justice Catherine Elle, Shale of the Guardians (gargoyles), Craftsman Alexander Denovo, and the vampire Raz Pelham. There is a point where piling on history, secondary worldbuilding, personal backstory, and red herrings turns a cats-cradle plot from a tense interconnected story to a mess.

The book does a number of things "right" - women as protagonists, Bechdel test pass, people of color as characters with agency - but the execution it felt bloodless, clockwork, to me.

On a really petty, petty note, every time someone talked about the city of Alt Coulumb I had college physics flashbacks. It was really, really distracting.

A Closed and Common Orbit (Becky Chambers) (2016): Hugo nominee. Double timeline story about AI fish-out-of-water Sidra's first steps into personhood played against young Jane 24 (aka Jane, aka Pepper) and shuttle-AI-slash-parent-ish Owl teaming up to fix a junked spacecraft.

Orbit is a character book. If you're interested in the characters and their personal journeys, you're going to enjoy this book. The plot acts in service of time with the characters, winding through there's Sidra's challenges as an AI stuck in an un-AI body, with attendant dysphoria; an exploration of Port Coriol's people and cultures; and Pepper's history, topped off with a Leverage-esque shuttle heist / family reunion at the end of the novel, because this is a novel about identity, found family, and not leaving people behind.

There's a sense of a lot of influences, not that far under the surface. That doesn't always work to Orbit's benefit. The Dispossessed has a memorable, tightly structured, thematically resonant double timeline narrative. The other double timeline narrative that has rocked my world is Ancillary Justice. There are interleaved usenet-slash-irc-slash-reddit-ish excerpts with people being people, with AIs on the table, accidentally evoking A Fire Upon the Deep. Orbit includes a glancing interest in how to make a person, which is right up my thematic alley, but that's secondary to its focus on self-actualization, see "focus on characters". Orbit is a competent but not brilliant or definitive take on the tropes and ideas in play.

This year I finally finished The House of God (Samuel Shen) (1978), a semiautobiographical novel of a first year medical intern's trial by fire, gomer, and administrivia. It's dated, raunchy in the least erotic way possible - there is an awful lot of kind of objectification and doctor/nurse sex - and yet the issues of patient care raised are still painfully relevant to American health care almost forty years later.

Thick As Thieves (Megan Whalen Turner) (2017): Slave Kamet escapes the calamitous death of his owner in the Mede Empire. Since this is a King's Thief novel, there is a big, plot-changing twist, perhaps even several. If one builds a reputation on surprising readers, there's a point where the readers know the story isn't being told straight and start to question closely the statements the characters take for fact, which works against that element of surprise. There's a limit to the strategy of plot twists for the sake of plot twists, which Turner might be starting to bump up against.
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For reasons we're not going to look at too closely, but may include moving, a work February that would not end - the first week of March certainly felt like Extended February - and hanging out with people who found these things relevant to our mutual interests,I read or reread rather a lot of Star Wars novels in February and March. I read Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel (James Luceno) (2016), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Alexander Freed) (2016), and Star Wars: A New Dawn (John Jackson Miller) (2014). The first two made me ask, "were Star Wars novels better when I was younger because I had no judgement?" Catalyst made some really weird copy-editing choices; or wasn't edited that closely, take your pick. Incidentally, all the main characters annoyed me. The narrative fails to evoke the incredible sense of dislocation that one would associate with the Clone Wars or your nominal college best friend raining destruction on a planet you just left, or taking you to a war zone "so you can see what's going on" and seriously, there was a huge disjunct between action and emotional heft. The novelization was a novelization. I have very mixed feelings about it... okay, I'm mostly stuck on Freed's attempts to bring emotional depths to hardened characters, which I don't think evoked the reactions I think he aimed for. (Teardrops on my sniper rifle! That's... not how I would have gotten to that emotional beat.) A New Dawn was cute! Aimless drifter Kanaan Jarrus meets proto-Rebel with a cause Hera Syndulla. Banter and explosions follow. Miller did a good job evoking the swashbuckling mood of Star Wars, not bad for a novel based on a kid's animated TV show, and grounding the plot in the specifics of the mining planet Gorse and its moon Cynda.

I also reread Zahn's Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future. Specter is an awful lot of setup, and I've never been terrifically fond of the Thrawn impersonation arc, but the duology does a lot of clever little worldbuilding tricks. Zahn has several narrative quirks that I noticed more than usual this time. After a few rounds of someone using Mystryl-honed muscle to do a thing, I may have muttered something about shifting the moving boxes with yoga-trained strength. It really was that sort of February.

For the March vacation roadtrip, I got The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher) (2016) on audiobook. It was like bringing a friend on a long drive (and even I'm figuring out that San Francisco to Los Angeles is a really long drive), one who really wants to talk about this guy she banged, and whether they're still hooking up, or not, and oh my gosh, this is so awkward, and you really want to ask, "but, about the other ten things you just glanced by - your family, going to acting school, working on your mother's road show - can I hear about any of that? Those sound very interesting too." I didn't finish the audiobook before the end of vacation, and let it expire unfinished. Incidentally, I checked this out from the SFPL using the Axis 360 app. As of the time of writing, if the Axis 360 app has playback speed controls, I haven't found them. This is a huge minus for my audiobook experience.

The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches For Its Leader (Stephen Fried) (2002): What it says on the cover. The rabbi of a prominent Philadelphia area synagogue; replacing him takes three years and a lot of turns.

The narrative is How Beth Shalom Searched For The New Rabbi, but Fried is a skilled journalist, so many other elements come out. The history of the Beth Shalom community. The retiring Rabbi Wolpe's history. The relationships between various fathers and sons: Fried's reconnection with Judaism after his father's death, the family Wolpe and the men who became rabbis in different eras of American Judaism, the mentor-mentee relationship between the senior rabbi and the junior rabbi at Beth Shalom.

Ninefox Gambit (Yoon Ha Lee) (2016): It's an unfortunate truth that space opera with a compelling protagonist who sometimes has great difficulty recalling who they are today, let alone who they were before they landed in the plot soup, is the sort of thing I am terribly fond of reading. Getting all that in prose that rises above utilitarian is indeed Christmas come early. Cut for space, no more explicit spoilers than the jacket text. )

The Book of Phoenix (Nnedi Okorafor) (2015): The story-in-a-story of the woman Phoenix, a speciMen, an artificially created being who calls herself the villain of the story. The framing story takes place in a future where the old world was destroyed by fire, and ends with the old man who finds the story of Phoenix choosing to bend it to his interpretation and worldview. The bulk of the story is Pheonix seeking freedom from the corporate scientists who made her, and who experiment on and coerce speciMens, until she reaches a breaking point.

This isn't the first work of Okorafor's fiction I read, so I noticed similarities to her other work: spiritual or magical powers, especially with plants; a focus on Africa; powerful women taking center stage. The framing story didn't quite work for me; other than chronology, and possibly one offstage character, there's very little that connects the framing story to the story Phoenix tells. The closest connection I can offer is the framing character bending Pheonix's story to his ends, as her creators and captors tried to shape her life to their goals. Since reading this, I've learned it's a prequel for Who Fears Death, so maybe reading these in publication order would have better informed the framing story.

I also tripped and reread Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion (1995), Catch the Lightning (1996), and The Radiant Seas (1999). On a good day, the series is wildly uneven, with a lot of ideas not fully worked out, but face it, I am always going to have a soft spot for The Radiant Seas, which can be loosely described as "the one where someone steals a woman's husband, so she assumes military leadership of a star-spanning empire and launches a thousand ships to get him back".

Mira's Last Dance (2017) (Lois McMaster Bujold), the fourth Penric novella, also came my way. If you've read the first three you know what you're in for; if you haven't, I'd read them more or less in order. The Penric novellas are entertaining little stories, but I think I'd like them more if Penric got fewer superpowers from Desdemona.
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I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Rent today, on the 20th Anniversary tour. I did not feel a great desire to see Rent in the '90s, but decided in the '00s I had been an idiot. Today I fixed that.

I'm no theater connoisseur, but this seemed like an easy-ish house, to judge from the cheering after almost every number.

I went with K, who has heard the soundtrack and seen the movie, but isn't a musical person. I have some serious reservations about the movie version, most significantly the choice of Chris Colombus as director. Columbus has absolutely no idea how to convert between media, which is why the first two HP movies are awful and the third convinced me that anything with Alfonso Cuarón's involvement is worth my time and money.

I had a good time. I'm not expert enough to say whether the individual performers did a good or just okay job, but I found it a good use of my Sunday afternoon.

A few notes: I have listened to this soundtrack for almost 20 years without seeing the musical staged. )
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I think it's time to admit I am never cleaning up any of the 2016 book log, post, and move on.

League of Dragons (2016) (Naomi Novik): The concluding novel in the Temeraire series. Napoleon is finally finished off, various disputes are disposed of, and Temeraire and Iskierka's egg hatches.

On romance and Romance; characterization; and worldbuilding. )

Uprooted (Naomi Novik) (2015): Reread, picked up for plane distract during an October vacation. It's very likeable, even if it feels like it's trying to be three novels. It's three novels I'm happy to read! Not The Chosen Girl is a good story, Fairy Tales Meet Realpolitik has its moments, Young Woman Defeats Ancient Evil is good times. The only thing I don't like is the romance, because there's a point where your mixed feelings about the older mentoring wizard and his relationship with the younger witch in training run smack into your memories of Harry Potter fandom and you want to gouge your eyes out, because student/teacher has never ever been your thing, and that's... not how the author feels.

Necessity (Jo Walton) (2016): The concluding novel of Walton's Thessaly trilogy. Spoilers. )

Bring Down the Sun (Judith Tarr) (2008): Swag bag freebie. A novel of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, mixing history and fantasy. Olympia, known by various names as she departs from the path of an alcolyte to a fading Goddess religion to pursue power, magic, and lustful romance among the politics of Epirus and Macedonia.

Holy erotica, Batman! Tarr mixes history, fantasy, and romance in a short novel. Olympias wrestles with the dark magic of Thessaly's witches, learns about political power, struggles to understand and master her magical gifts, and meets and marries Philip of Macedon. A slight novel in word count, the mix of setting and genres is an interesting study in satisfying divergent trope demands. The tensions of those demands sometimes make the characters a bit wooden, and the length contributes a sketchy feeling to the worldbuilding, elements which keep the novel a bit slight in impact.

A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) (2015):

INTERNET BUZZ: It's a fantasy novel about London, written by a YA novelist.
ME: Meh.
INTERNET: It's got a multiverse.

Yet I found myself underwhelmed. Spoilers under the cut. ) The emotional highs and gory lows should have compelled my attention, but instead I found myself disengaging to poke at the underpinnings. The multiverse conceit is interesting, but I might have liked this more if I'd been able to accept the rest of the premise without so many questions about whether it could hold up to the narrative promises.

Penric's Mission (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Third in the Penric series. Penric and the demon of chaos he's named Desdemona fail miserably at espionage and succeed at healing another character caught up by intrigue. The first two Penric stories are not required to understand this short novel, but they're fun reading. I think this could have used one more editing pass, to balance some of the events between the end of the last story and the start of this one, unless I was supposed to think, "well, that offstage crisis was not in-clued".

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Anne Fadiman) (1997 / 2012): Nonfiction account that places miscommunication between one set of doctors and parents in the larger forces of Hmong experience and immigration. In the 2012 edition's new afterward, Fadiman writes: I hope The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is settling into its proper place not as the book about the Hmong but as a book about communication and miscommunication across cultures. That's very much the light in which I read this. And in that light, I found it an easy, clear read. Fadiman takes pains to explain to readers the historic and cultural contexts that drove Lia Lee's parents decisions, balanced against the more familiar medical imperatives driving her doctors.

Death's End (Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu, 2010/2016) HOLY SCIENCE FICTION MADNESS. This is serious end of the world times. End of the universe times.

Spoilers. )

I made a sincere attempt to read Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning (2016) based on promising reviews and made it all of two pages before losing empathy for the narrative voice.
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Every Heart A Doorway (Seanan McGuire) (2016): My library's now offers multiple apps which support electronic audiobooks, and critically, the ability to change the readback speed.

Less than five minutes into Heart I said, "you have got to be kidding me," and kicked it up to 1.2x speed. This at least kept the narrative flowing fast enough the worldbuilding issues accumulated faster than I could argue with them.

The premise: teenage girl returns from adventures in a portal fantasy world, gets sent to boarding school for other children like her. Her first, oh, week, at Ms. West's School for Wayward Children coincides with a Shocking Murder.

Nope. Spoilers. )

tl;dr this novel has an interesting concept it does not execute on very well at all and I am formally done trying to like Seanan McGuire's fiction. I am glad her work is well received and loved by others, but my experiences with her fiction have consistently been an exercise in Not For Me.
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Highly relevant to my tiny fandom interests, exhibits one and two. We’re officially ready to start writing the actual Alliance Rising book, and along with it, we’re going to put Finity’s End into Closed-Circle. That’s a hundred or so years on…some of the same bunch. It's a little fuzzy which end of canon the new novel is set in, and I don't care, I'd cheerfully read anything Alliance-Union. Can it be publication time now?

Moving Day

Oct. 21st, 2016 12:07 pm
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Last night my landlord emailed that he wants his house back for an entirely legitimate owner move-in eviction. So my roommates and I are looking for another place to live. Send good vibes, and if you know someone renting out a 3 bed 1.5 bath inside San Francisco's city limits, for roughly market or a bit under, maybe put us in touch. Or a studio, but it would be nice to keep the household together.
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I reread In the Garden of Iden (Kage Baker) (1997) in the run-up to vacation, because sometimes what you really need is some slapstick with tragedy. It's been... a decade? More than a decade? Since I originally read this, so I'd forgotten some of the set pieces: the "unicorn", the Christmas celebration, the dubious consequences of Sir Walter's deal with the Company. Iden has most elements of the Company series, in a nutshell, including that pompous git Mendoza's boyfriend. It's so good! The writing is fluid and smart and funny and the plot flows together wonderfully. Baker's early death was a great loss to the SF/F writing community.

The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar) (2016): Samatar's second novel, set in the same universe as her first, A Stranger in Olondria. It's Samatar's take on epic fantasy. Histories is divided into four parts, presenting four POVs on a civil war in Olondria. I bogged down at the opening of the third part, almost exactly halfway though, which opened with second person present tense. (And by "bogged down" I said, "oh, no," and pulled the next book in the to-read queue.) This is nominally standalone, but I struggled to assemble a sense of the characters, their relationships, and what made their stories sufficiently compelling that I should keep reading. Histories also suffered from the tension of being epic fantasy and being critical of epic fantasy. It's hard to reach for an affecting touchstone Crowing Moment of Awesome while taking a hard look at the assumptions that make that Crowing Moment of Awesome so affecting. Also, epic fantasy just isn't my genre. On the outside, it looks like it should be. It's a genre that runs long in wordcount and intricate in worldbuilding. But epic fantasy rarely digs into the spin-off of the worldbuilding assumptions, the second order assumptions. GRRM unintentionally nailed it: The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play. I want to know what causes the Westeros wacky seasonal variation, how that impacts the society - I want some impact on society - and I really don't care about a bunch of people fighting over power. Power is boring, limitations set the state for interesting stories. Histories has the right idea - the characters have limits - but again, the execution is almost there.

Also, there's an xkcd graph that is relevant to this novel. I thought the plethora of fictional plants, animals, trade goods, what have you, was a Le Guin style ethnographic argument on cultural contextualization and atomization or something, but it's an example of epic fantasy imitating the forms of the genre's founders while forgetting that one of the founding giants was an obsessive philologist whose smash hit was a spin-off of his conlang projects (note the projects multiple). Okay, I exaggerate? But to make my point that the outward shape is reproduced, not the inner truths readers found in the reading experience.

Points for ambition. I want to like The Winged Histories, but the execution didn't do it for me on this pass. But apparently I want to talk in detail about its ambitious failure, which might get me to try other fiction by Samatar, or even grit my teeth and finish the second half. Eventually.

Lab Girl (Hope Jahren) (2016): I think this might have been an NPR book? It paid off very well for an NPR read, if so. Memoir by a die-hard plant nerd, focusing on the adventures of life in pursuit of the tenure track and also on the awesomeness of plants. It's a 304 page account of a lifelong love affair with green things. There's a relaxing effect of the writer skimming across her experiences, touching on the tenure track struggle, the desperate state of research funding, the experience of being a woman in academia and a field research science, adventures and misadventures in mental health, family relationships, and not delving too deeply into any one of these, except maybe the awesomeness of Jahren's partner in crime and research.

The City of Bones (Martha Wells) (1995): Scrappy loner with wacky survival abilities thanks to long-vanished Ancients - and his partner in dealing Ancient relics - are reluctantly drafted to save the world. Scrappy loners are one of Wells' go-to character types, which is useful for talking about societies, and the odd things that make up the culture, like burning people's bones to prophesy, or trading their sanity for mage powers, or engaging in high risk trades in Ancient relics, because money, against a backdrop of postapocalyptic desert scarcity. It's a bit Mad Max, minus the cars. And also with the strong female protagonists - loner Khat and his partner Sagai are drawn into high level intrigue by Elen, a junior Warder of the city-state Charisat. Elen and Khat have contrasting emotional arcs: Khat struggles to keep his distance from Sagai and Sagai's family, Elen struggles with stepping out of her mentor's shadow. If you like Wells' other fiction, you'll probably like this too.


May. 22nd, 2016 10:53 pm
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I cleverly scheduled my trip to friends in Wisconsin to coincide with Wiscon. If anyone else will be at Wiscon and would like to hang out, ping me. I should be there Saturday and Sunday. If you would like something from my vacation - post cards, for example - leave a comment! Comments are screened.

Now I just need to address the really fraught packing questions, like what books pack along in hardcopy and which are acceptable in ebook.
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Games Wizards Play (Diane Duane) (2016): Nita, Kit, and Dairine mentor younger wizards in a wizardly science fair: Dairine's mentee presents a spell that can stop earthquakes... if she can work through a few issues with her large and wizardly connected family... while Nita and Kit struggle with a mentee whose personality is even more flamboyant and flawed than his ambitious solar spell.

Climax destroying spoilers. )

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (David Talbot) (2012): Popular history of San Francisco from the Summer of Love through the HIV crisis. The focus is the welter of conflict that gripped the city through the '70s, culminating in the devastating two weeks of November 1978 when the Jonestown deaths rippled through the Bay area and Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Milk's fellow supervisor Dan White in city hall.

Talbot's uplifting redemptive finish is Feinstein's nine-year mayoralty. The HIV crisis is presented as San Francisco getting its act together, compared to what came before, which strikes me as a little off-base.

The Martian (Andy Weir) (2011): Fictional account of the survival of an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Spoilers, I suppose. Spoilers of meh. )

Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home (Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, 1990) (trans. Aliyu Kamal, 2012): a littattafai na soyayya novel, one of the occasional series I think of as "NPR books", ie, books I read becuase NPR made it sound interesting. This is a story of virtue rewarded and misdeeds punished: the wife and mother Rabi is thrown out of her husband's home at the insistence of a new wife, and must support herself and her nine children in Kano, Nigeria. The bad behavior of spouses is the recurring theme of this novel, as Rabi's oldest daughter Saudatu catches the eye of a wealthy businessman and finds her virtue rewarded with a loving and wealthy husband, Abubakar. Alhaji Abubakar casts off his previous wives as their flaws come to light. Greed, selfishness, and irreligiosity play their roles in revealing who is moral and upstanding and who is not. Ultimately, Abdu's fortunes crumble and he is forced to take back the hardworking Rabi, though now Rabi is in charge. "She was the one who handed out the day's provisions, who distributed the detergent and soap. She was the one responsible for giving the house a lick of paint when needed, and deciding what should go where."

To say this is outside my usual reading is an understatement. And I love that! Sin is a bit of a soap opera and a bit of a romance and perhaps a bit chicklit, or at least the story of dense community. Rabi appeals to her siblings for support, her brother-in-law chastises her husband, her children pitch in, her neighbors are part of her support network. Saudatu is able to catch Abubakar's eye when she is visiting with an aunt. But it's also threaded through with profoundly Islamic and Nigerian ideas: routine polygamy, separate spaces for men and women - when Rabi begins selling food from her house, the novel casually mentions her sons helping to take food outside to adult male customers, since of course these men cannot step foot in her house, it would violate purdah - the routine Islamic prayers, woven into the fabric of the characters' lives. It's a short, fascinating look into someone else's culture.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Nathalia Holt) (2016): Pop sci history. The JPL computer department, founding to its transition from "computer" to "engineer".

This is a little more memoir than I like my pop sci. Rise of the Rocket girls is descriptive. It's subjective. It recounts women coming to JPL, their experiences in and outside the computer department. It doesn't go the extra step to correlate this to wider trends. It mentions that the JPL computers hired a black women, it doesn't explore the link that to a century of racial discrimination in the sciences. It passes over the the hiring of a first generation Chinese woman without thought. It mentions that the JPL computer department consciously and consistently hired only women for decades, from almost its inception until its dissolution, and treats this lightly, rather than turning it around from all its fascinating angles: is this a form of affirmative action? Is this a variation of reverse discrimination? Did this impact the payment, the structure, the labor assigned to computers at JPL, compared to mixed or male-only computer groups? There's recounting that women left to get married, left for their first child, came back because they missed working, came back and got divorced, left to salvage their marriages, and the creeping change from "babies end careers" to "single mother supporting her family" happens utterly unremarked, it's just another variation in anecdotes. JPL launched a rocket, so and so got hired, JPL proposed a space mission, so and so left right before the birth of her child, and so forth and so on. It doesn't put in the work to step from fluffy to significant. And that's a shame. This book about these women, and this moment in the history of space exploration, of women's involvement in the military-industrial complex, of women as computer programmers and engineers and mentors and advocates for their junior colleagues, is so slight it's going to slip right out from notice and take these stories with it. Rise suffers a lot from failing my hopes; it disappointing and frustrating that such an interesting topic is not assayed with more rigor and depth.
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In December and over the holidays I read a number of Damon Runyon's short stories collected in The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories (1981). A writing giant of the 1930's, Runyon has a wonderfully distinctive fictional voice and smashing comedic timing.

A coworker lent me Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (1983), which is a brick-long love story to New York City, in the mode of magical realism. Amazing prose, inconclusive plot. )

It's a hot mess and I like it. The plot is a mess with absurd resolution, when any thread resolves at all, and the prose is over the top, and it doesn't matter, it's so bizarre it takes the reader right out of the world into the world of the story.

I tripped and reread Martha Wells' Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy (2004-2005), some of the Ile-Rien and Cineth short stories collected in an ebook in 2015. It's hard to succinctly talk about why I enjoy these so much. I love the way The Wizard Hunters drops the reader into the troubles Ile-Rien and Cineth face and gets the multiworld ensemble working together against their common enemies, and against the frictions individual characters face with "their" people. The Ships of Air develops the cultural blind spots both sides discover alongside a breakneck action plot. The Gate of Gods almost sticks the landing; there's a lot of landing to stick (Tremaine and Ilias! The reason for the Gardier invasions! Giliead and sorcery! Ixion! Florian and Ixion! What's going to happen to Arisilde! And oh yes, defeating the Gardier.)

And there is snark. So much snark and sarcastic humor.

"It's a grend," Tremaine explained, keeping her voice low. "It's got Gerard trapped."

"You saw him?" she demanded. "What's a grend?"

"A big... thing." Tremaine flapped her arms in a vague gesture. "We didn't see him, but he's got to be there. If it had already eaten him, surely it wouldn't still be hanging around."

Florian stared, taken aback. "You know, when you're optimistic you have a strange way of phrasing things."

Then I read The Death of the Necromancer (1998) for the first time. The Death of the Necromancer is set a generation earlier, focusing on the adventures of the previous generation as Nicholas Valiarde's attempt to avenge his foster-father's murder is derailed by someone else's plot, one that smells of banned magics. One of the joys of The Death of the Necromancer is seeing Nicholas surrounded by characters in his weight class. Co-conspirators Madeleine and Reynard have their own histories, ambitions, and agency - Madeleine's particular defiance of family tradition plays a role, as do Reynard's disavowed military connections - and mad brilliant drug-addled Ari, repeatedly called the greatest or most powerful sorcerer in Ile-Rien, is least as much a problem as a sorcerous help. I love the sense of place the descriptions of Vienne evoke. I also like Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, whose antecedents are fairly obvious and I do not care at all.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Being the latest in the Vorkosiverse, this time focusing on Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and her burning desire for six daughters; and also the start of a post-Aral romantic relationship with Admiral Oliver Jole, who has some life decisions of his own to make.

The e-ARC hit my smartphone on October 21st of last year, and I wasn't able to bring myself to open the book until March, when time and the tenor of other readers' spoiler-cuts had given some hints about how to adjust my expectations. And then I had lots of feelings that assume you've read the novel. )


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