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Recent Fiction

Assume plentiful spoilers under all the cuts.

The Philosopher Kings (Jo Walton) (2015): The second of the Thessaly trilogy, about pursuing excellence and creating Plato's Just City - or rejecting the Platonic as profoundly wrong and pursuing other ways of being - the PoV is split between Maia, Apollo incarnate as a mortal, and Arete, the daughter of Simmea and Apollo.

The Just City had the wondderful sort of ending where the author says, "all those cracks in the narrative? Those were setup. Have a twist! Have an end to the story that is technically not a cliffhanger and is a worldbuilding-supported deus ex machina and also happens to leave you crying, 'but what next?! What happens after that?!' "

The Philosopher Kings picks up twenty years later, with Simmea's death in an art raid where the head of the statue Victory is stolen from the City by one of the breakaway groups. It feels strongly of a fridging, as Apollo spends the rest of the novel asking why she died, through a sea voyage to find the first breakaway group, lead by Kebes/Matthias; Maia's flashbacks to her time in one of the breakaway cities; and Arete and her brothers discovering their excellence and inheritances from their divine father and fiercely Platonic mother. The ending of The Philosopher Kings is just as sudden and worldbuilding-supported as the end of The Just City, and promises a fun run in Necessity, out this July. If I had known I would have to wait another month (plus library receipt time) for Necessity I might have waited so I wouldn't be cliffhangered, augh.

Stories of the Raksura, Volume Two (Martha Wells) (2015):
"The Dead City": Moon, pre-main series. In the scramble out of a city overrun by Fell, Moon stumbles into a village with its own little problems. Like zombies andspiders</em>. Zombies. And spiders. Moon is less bugged by this than me, but then, this is post-Saraseil, so Moon's got pretty low standards.
"Mimesis": Slice of life, Jade versus a forest predator with a very compelling bait strategy.
"Trading Lesson": Slice of life, Moon saves Indigo Cloud from trading expensive hard gems for cheap amber.
"The Almost Last Voyage of the Wind-ship Escarpment": Outside of the Reaches, scrappy little clue of a wind-ship tries to make some easy money. (It isn't easy, and they don't get most of the money.)
"The Dark Earth Below": A threat to Indigo Cloud crops up as Jade is in the final turns of a long-desired pregnancy, and Moon and the court must deal with a groundling situation where, as usual, there's more going on than meets the eye.

Savage Creatures (Natalie Wilkinson) (2016): Urban fantasy noir; a London blood mage down on her luck is hired by a North American shapeshifter to find the sister that has fled the backcountry family inheritance. I can take or leave London and werewolves / werewolf-like shapeshifters, but I didn't mind the noir Jamie's backstory swims in. The most interesting idea for me was the gender-ambiguous conclusion of Francis and Catherine's story. Physically short, with some odd pacing, I would've been interested to see the novel fleshed out a bit more.

Juniper Lane (Kady Morrison) (2016): Contemporary lit-ish fiction of the preslash lesbian flavor. Mimosa "Mim" Robinson washes up on her estranged aunt's doorstep on Juniper Lane, Ohio flyover country, after a traumatic breakup, and meets Nadia Bahjat, who is failing to work through her own issues. So, basically, none of the things I came for. The first fifth of JL alternates between Mim's depression and isolation and Nadia's anger and isolation, in serviceable prose that didn't counterbalance the narrative tedium. Did not finish.

After bombing out with The Winged Histories, I tried to read a few of Sofia Samatar's short stories. "How to Get Back to the Forest" is not-so-future dystopia, where a rumor that teenagers' emotions are being managed via biochip seems to be borne out by gruesome events in a teen summer-slash-holding-camp. "Honey Bear" is about a family on an Earth which has been colonized by aliens which are reshaping it to fit their needs and not the indigenous life. It's a cuckoo's nest story. Reading this hard on the heels of Wiscon, I was reminded of "Bloodchild" but Butler's stories are deeply rooted in extended family/community, where "Honey Bear" is locked into one nuclear family. It comes down to one family's desire for a child, at notable costs, in a way that made this cross the line from horror-tinged SF to SF-tinged horror. Not my thing. Also not my thing was "The Ogres of East Africa", pseudoresearch fragments, like a tessellated warning this was Not For Me. I put it down before finishing the first page.

The Edge of Worlds (Martha Wells) (2016): Ominous portents and a welcome reunion from an old friend, in surprising company, send Moon and company to investigate the rumor of a Forerunner city.

This is the fourth in the Raksura series, plus two volumes of shorter stories, so I'm not writing this for people who haven't read the earlier novels. If you like secondary fantasy with complicated family dynamics and oh yes, people who can fly and have occasional magic and there's all this worldbuilding and backstory, please start with The Cloud Roads. But for people who are familiar with the previous novels - Delin! Delin is finally back! A bunch of threads from previous novels crop up. Moon and Jade have had a clutch, which really has cemented Moon's place at Indigo Cloud, finally, in Moon's mind. MALACHITE IS BACK. The "oh those crazy Forerunners and their occasionally murderous legacy" problem is back! The Fell's crossbreeding comes back, too. It will surprise very few people that I sort of loved the half-Fell half-Raksura queen, who is trying so hard and has no idea what she's trying to do. One is torn between pity and horror. Poor thing, she almost tried to steal Moon with Malachite in shouting distance, that would not have ended well. Wells set of the Fell as ultimate evil in the first novel and has sort of chipped at the edges of that ever since, especially with Shade and Lithe, so I'm curious to see how this next turn of the theme plays out.

The Edge of Worlds ends on a cliffhanger, and there's already been Wells-typical character death, so I am very worried about some of my favorite secondary characters.

All the Birds in the Sky (Charlie Jane Anders) (2016): Baby mad scientist finds instructions for making a two-second time machine, and meets a baby witch who learns the language of birds. Neither of them keep these things. Instead, Laurence and Patricia bond and help each other survive their wretched middle school existence, which some find unfortunate, as they're prophesied to be at the center of a science-v.-magic throwdown. Separated by circumstances, they run into each other years later, Laurence working for an even more mad scientist, Patricia juggling bill-paying work with witchcraft as the world falls apart around them in a long slow welter of environmental and economic implosion.

I want to make a tvtropes page for this novel! It's a powerful use of tropes. There's Twenty Minutes Into the Future and Technology Will Save Us and The Power Of Nature and Schools of Magic and an AI. (Is there ever an AI.) The misery of middle school is turned to eleven, teetering on the edge of caricature of the social pressures and bullying kids experience - almost - while maintaining sufficient narrative momentum to carry the story past the miseries the characters are trapped in at that moment. The novel has a pretty good grip on how to say what it's interested in. This sometimes backfires: the novel's transitions from a fuzzy-focus suburbia to intimately inhabited descriptions of Cambridge, Massachussetts, and San Francisco are love notes to the urban experience that make the vague descriptions of Patricia and Laurence's home suburb seem ungrounded in comparison. Deliberate? Incidental?

The story teeters on an edge between straight narrative and self-aware self-referential, hyperaware of performance and presentation. So it's really notable when it plays a trope straight, or almost straight, like Boy = Mad Scientist, and Girl = Witchy Nature Connection. Yes, the secondary characters flip the tropes (Isobel the rocket geek / aeronautical engineer, Ernesto's excess nature magic) but it still feels a little... unconsidered.

Where the science fiction tropes get torn up are there they hit the lit tropes. Laurence may read Have Spaceship, Will Travel, but he's no plucky Heinlein protagonist. Laurence can be trusted to screw up human relationships in a way no square-jawed hero would ever let happen. Patricia is a social mess. Their messy personal lives are more than a little similar to how Anders handles the relationship in Six Months, Three Days, and it's also a variation on the Please Stop Marrying Fictional Characters to People They Met as Children, It's Creepy problem: when it happens in one story that your middle school bestie is the one person who stands with you at the end of the world, with bonus sexual pairing-up, it's an emotionally satisfying narrative arc, but when it's one of a series of novels that does that, it feels... uninspired. Maybe it's my personal gripe, but the story didn't sell me on Patricia and Laurence as ready for an adult relationship, or even necessarily ready for a relationship with each other.

All the Birds in the Sky is good. It unfolds logically, it tells a compelling story. But the relationships are a little too clockwork, a little too self-conscious, a little hyperaware that This Is Fiction. Which is different from storytelling. That distance is the difference between appreciating the novel's merits and really loving it.

The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin) (1974): So you know how I am side-eyeing tropes in All The Birds in the Sky? Le Guin's Dispossessed is pretty much a study in exploding tropes. Physicist Shevek from the anarchist planet-moon Anarres visits its sister planet-moon Urras, seeking a path that reflects the search for freedom that Anarres was founded to further.

Anarres was founded as an anarchist utopia, but the narrative chronicles Shevek discovering the failures of "contemporary" Anarres, and his experiences of capitalist and differently flawed Urras, which he unwittingly visits at a key moment of unrest. The sense of evolving social orders brings a modern feeling to this forty year old novel, in contrast with some of the dated material. Shevek gets drunk and misinterprets his hostess' flirting, in a scene that would probably read as straight rape if written today. The Cold War rings through the worldbuilding, in Shevek's attempts to bring Anarres and Urras together through The Power of Pure Science, and in the proxy war that ignites on Urras during his stay on the planet. Another both dated and modern note is the Terran ambassador's reflections on the self-destruction of Earth's civilizations. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot...[Urras] is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. This decade, the terrors of the nuclear decades have ebbed. The radioactive sword of Damocles no longer sways by a hair on each night's news; we've traded it for environmental disaster. Le Guin's forecast of grey hot deserts remains to nag the reader with its resonance.

In contrast to Birds, I really like that Shevek and Takver's relationship is integral to the story and also not a huge source of contention. They meet - twice - they choose each other, they commit to each other and their relationship, and also recognize that relationships mean balancing priorities! How unusual: a romantic relationship that is supportive and nourishing! We should do this more often in science fiction and fantasy. Where are the Takver and Sheveks, the Izumi and Sig Curtises of speculative fiction? Or non-heterosexual non-paired variations on this theme?

Uprooted (Naomi Novik) (2015): Fantasy. Once a decade, a wizard known only as the Dragon takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live in his castle; and at the end of ten years, she is released from service and inevitably leaves the valley our protagonist, Agnieszka, has lived in her entire life. Agnieszka is comfortable in her knowledge that she is safe from the Dragon's attentions, overshadowed by the beautiful, fearless Kasia. It's sad her dear friend Kasia will be chosen, but on the appointed morning Agnieszka knows her fate and Kasia's are set.

Yeah, that would be a short novel.

Uprooted has at least two notable modes: YA fantasy, where Agnieszka is taken to the Dragon's castle, begins learning about her magic, and saves Kasia from the evil Wood; epic fantasy, where Kasia's rescue kicks off the rescue of Queen Hanna, and a whole lot of politics, assassinations, and battles. The deaths of the king, the queen, both sons, and the crown princess are pinned on the evil Wood, which Agnieszka has to Do Something About.

Let me also summarize Uprooted in tumblr meme:

MALE AUTHORITY: That's impossible. You can't do-
Agnieszka: *Does the thing*

Jaga's spells are useless! I the mighty Dragon can't get any of them to work! (Agnieszka makes them work. All of them.) You can't save someone from the Wood's corruption! (Does it.) Magic can't be used to communicate, silly girl, it's all got to be line of sight. (Invents the magical telephone call.) You can't fix the Wood! (Does that, too.)

The novel is stuffed with tropes and wish fulfillment. People who read McKinley at a formative age mention McKillip McKinley a lot. There's a notable Easter egg for fans of The Hero and the Crown. I, er, missed McKinley and most of McKillip's most remembered novels (author mixup - thanks, [personal profile] cahn!) until I was in my 20's, so that aspect slipped past me. I noticed the sort of Beauty and the Beast tinge in Agnieszka's relationsship with the Dragon, except that B&B relies on Beauty gentling the Beast to civilized behavior, and that... really isn't the story here. The plot is built on emotional connections and the way danger to the people and the places you love is a motivator, but romantic love is one of several competing motives. Agnieszka's first big set-pieces place her sense of correct action above the Dragon's orders: defending her home village, then rescuing Kasia from the Wood. Prince Marek's love for his mother drives the middle section, taking Agnieszka and Kasia into kingdom-level politics. Novik does a great job of tying the threats to Agnieszka and the people she loves to the larger political sphere, only losing control a bit around the big battle scene. When Agnieszka confronts the Wood the final time, it's tempting to ask, "well, if this was the answer, why did you have to wait for all those people to slaughter each other to ask the question?" (I do not have a proper appreciation of the Siege of The Magical Castle as a Really Cool Set Piece.)

There's a lot of lovely evocative imagery and vivid set-pieces in Uprooted: the Walkers from the Wood; Agnieszka getting Kasia out of the tree, in the dead of winter; the recurring use of the rose-illusion as Agnieszka and the Dragon figure out how to work together as magicians. The novel is very good at what it does, which is feelings. I'm not sure how well it's going to stand up over time, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Penric and the Shaman (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Novella. Three years after acquiring a demon, Penric and Desdemona must grapple with a particularly bizarre death of Wealding high kin, with a young Wealding shaman at the heart of the trouble. If you like Bujold, it's Bujold; if you're not familiar with Bujold, and like fantasy, you could start here, but I'd suggest reading Penric and the Demon first.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/669089.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2016 01:01 am (UTC)

I couldn't believe Bujold made a redneck joke in Penric and made it work!Definitely comfort reading.

Jul. 8th, 2016 05:01 am (UTC)
I don't remember it off the top of my head, and the Kindle app is wretched for keyword searching, so I'll take your word for it. Bujold is definitely write more comfort reading these days, but even in Penric and the Shaman she manages to make a parallel between the shamans and Penric and Desdemona (unintentionally?). Desdemona has been a Temple demon for generations: is she on her way to being some sort of great demon, like the great animals that make the Wealding shamans?
Jul. 8th, 2016 05:29 am (UTC)

It was the Son of Autumn collecting those whose last words are "hold my ale and behold this"..or words to that effect.  Completely appropriate and totally unexpected (by me)

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )