Books: 2019-06

June was long, and hot, and not terribly filled with reading. I managed to read six books, and then I got stuck on Delany's Dhalgren. That one might take up a complete month …

Reading list length: 468

The Bear and the Nightingale

In The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden tells a Russian fairytale, and she does it with a lot of feeling. The atmosphere is wonderful and a great mix of fairytale logic: everything is slightly off, belief and patterns carry more weight than logic, and if you're clever, you'll pick the right one of the two.

But the story plodded on and on. I felt like the author's goal was to mix fairytales with realism (you get the spirits, but you also get the politics and the starvation), but it didn't quite work. Ironically, the real-life parts were painted at least as black-and-white as the fairytale, and I didn't enjoy the predictable and one-dimensional characters all that much.

That being said, the atmosphere makes the book still worth reading, even if I think that Naomi Novik did the Russian fairytale retelling quite a bit better.

The Thief

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is a pretty short fantasy novel placed in a fictional world that feels fairly Mediterranean-medieval. We follow a young thief, who is retrieved from prison to steal something for (and with) the King's Magus. The world is fleshed out in an organic way when you read it – the author takes occasions like passing a certain kind of field or tree to tell us about the general state of the country, agriculture, etc. Evening meals are vehicles to tell us about legends and the general state of mind of people. But looking back, I know only bits and pieces of the world, and that's not a satisfying feeling.

The book meandered quite a bit, I feel, and the big ending didn't pay off for me emotionally as much as I would have liked it to. All characters were either extremely annoying or at least sufficiently annoying for me to decide that I won't continue this series.

Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft is unexpected in many ways, and at least some of them are charming. It takes place in the Tower of Babel, so that's one. We are definitely in a fantastic world, because we have trains, and airships, and guns, so that's another. The book never really discusses the world outside the tower too much, except as a character backdrop, which worked extremely well.

Our protagonist, a village teacher, is an uptight and dour little man who spent most of his life learning and thinking about the Tower, as his pupils can attest. When he finds himself married, he decides on a honeymoon in the place of his dreams. Only it turns out that the Tower is a kafkaesque abyss of human nature, and our protagonist is wholly unprepared.

As you may gather, I disliked this character from the beginning, even though I noticed that this was intended. He was just too uptight, too little-minded, too … cringy. A disaster waiting to happen. The transformation he undergoes starts off slow, but once it starts – oh boy! We get some real character growth, borne out of a lot of suffering, and a bit of intellect. I was very impressed how plausible and at the same time absurd the story developed. The kafkaesque depressive elements felt a bit much sometimes, but I've always been a bit sensitive with those, so that may be just me. Looking forward to further books on this front!

Red, White & Royal Blue

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is a rom-com, pure and simple. It's light-hearted, it's witty, it doesn't feel like "Hello, fellow kids" – what more do you want?

Teenage drama, heartbreak, obtuse protagonists, this book has everything. The son of the (female) President of the US hates his nemesis, a highly placed Prince of UK royalty. Only, since this is a rom-com – you know what happens with a nemesis pairing, it's inevitable. We get good political commentary in there, though, discussing consequences of what would happen with a President with a gay son, and the different ways of navigating these problems – breaking up, hiding, out'n'proud, etc. Coming from Senlin Ascends, this was exactly the book I needed. An enjoyable read if this genre is an option for you!

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is exactly the kind of sci-fi that I like reading. All people in this novel are human – but they don't necessarily see each other this way. Our protagonist is the ambassador to a sprawling, huge empire that has a terribly lyrical culture, where everything is an allusion or a poem or a reference, and probably all of these rolled together. She has to come to grips with her new posting, and find her way in this world, while figuring out why her predecessor is dead, and … well, the empire kind of collapses.

This on its own would be fascinating, but we don't only get to see the culture clash between our protagonist and her empire assistant, oh no – without giving away too much, this story is also about neural implants, and self-modifications, and different definitions of being human. And as if that wasn't enough, we also get to think about the further reaching implications. What if my culture says that your culture does hideously brutal things that make it barely human at all – but I have to choose between allying with you and potentially dooming all thinking galactic life? Yeah, that.

In one or two places, the book takes the easy way out of these moral quandries, but then again, that's fair: We do the same in every-day life. We break problems down, or circumvent them, and don't always meet them with intellectual curiosity and honesty head on. I enjoyed this book very much, and I'm extremely impressed that this was the first published book by this author. Apparently a second volume is in the making, which I'm very much looking forward to.

The Tea Master and the Detective

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a nice short scifi novella in a world where different sorts of teas can have a profound impact on how the human brain works, there is deep space that behaves entirely different from normal space, and we have sentient ships.

I can't really give you an objective review (even less than usually, I mean) because I'm a sucker for sentient space ships. These ones are very well done, I felt, and the duo of the Tea Master and the Detective worked very well. And if it feels like Sherlock Holmes coupled with an Ann Leckie world – so what? I would've read and enjoyed a full novel of this instead of just a novella (though it was very well-paced).