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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. Ninefox Gambit focuses on Captain Kel Cheris, a military woman in a star-spanning regime that relies on particular expressions of social indoctrination for "exotic effects" (handwavey space opera technologies), indoctrination that is threatened by a rebellion in one part of the empire. She's breveted General and sent off with a fleet to subdue the rebels when she agrees to be the host or anchor for the undead ghost of Shuos Jedao, the greatest general in the history of the hexarchate, and its greatest traitor, who went mad at his last battle and killed everyone on the field of his last battle, including his own troops and command staff. Cheris spends the novel trying to outwit the rebels with Jedao's advice, adsorbing as many lessons as he's willing to share; and also trying to figure out what mad Jedao's agenda might be, any time he comes up with an unconventional (but often quite clever and successful) plan; while also worrying about the eroding division between the living Cheris and the ghost Jedao. The question of who to trust doesn't really come up, directly, because Cheris knows enough to know she can trust her superiors to save the hexarchate first, their own skins second, and care for her survival somewhere far down the list; and Jedao is a dead madman who lives in her head, where very few other people can see him. So trust becomes something of a mire, especially when anchoring for a ghost scrambles the anchor's body sense right off the bat.

(It's interesting to note that recent space opera is really engaged in physical bodies; people are fragments of a larger whole or timesharing with ghosts or otherwise not quite comfortable in their skin, in a way that old school space opera doesn't always grapple with. Anyway!)

Space opera, especially space opera that shades into military science fiction, isn't exactly known for its stellar prose. Ninefox Gambit earned its spot on the Hugo ballot because it's a competent story of uncertain allies and deadly enemies, with clever plot-twisting reveals, in wonderful evocative prose. The novel is a bit light on fleshing out anything not directly related to the author's throughline, a tight focus that helps make the parsimonious reveals and fish-out-of-water nature of the exotic effects feel organic, unforced. "Little do you know this small, almost insignificant, piece of information is a game-changer because I haven't told you almost anything at all, ha ha ha!" I love this sort of plot. I love the way the tight focus keeps the novel moving at a steady clip, and keeps it from turning into a 600 page monster. Cheris doesn't start out as a perfect solider of the hexarchate, and then she's maneuvered into teaming up with Jedao, willfully ignoring that doing her duty is most likely to end in her destruction and equally willfully ignoring that the hexarchate might not be all that nice of a place. This is a wonderful space opera. I wouldn't point to it as doing any one thing that nothing else is doing, but all the elements it's doing, it's doing really well, so I am pleased to see it on the Hugo ballot for the year.

Actually, there's one thing it's doing that no one else is doing: Cheris gets to be a women who is mentored by a man, and there is nothing romantic in the relationship. From the limited information available, Kel seems to prefer women as romantic partners, and this is background froth (if the novel has anything that could be classified as background). It's little things like this - and Cheris gets to be the math genius, in a setting where math can be life or death - and the occasional moment of shouting, "oh Cheris, no! Do you see what Jedao just maneuvered you into doing?" - that have me very much looking forward to the sequel.

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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