In an Absent Dream: A Parable of Wanting to Keep Your Pie and Eat it Too

I’m still making my way through the list of 2021 Hugo contenders (I’ve reviewed these Hugo contenders already), but this week I’m reviewing a novella which isn’t on that list, but is part of the same series as an entry for Best Novella, so I guess I’m kinda making progress towards getting a another title crossed off the list (which is soooo long).

Unfortunately, I read the previous three Wayward Children books long before I decided to start blogging again, so at this point there are no reviews for them, but if I ever do a reread, I’ll make sure to drop the links here.

Anywho, In an Absent Dream (IAAD) is the fourth book in the aforementioned Wayward Children series, which in general terms, seeks to answer the question: “What happens to (portal fantasy) children, when they come back from their quest?”

As we have seen in each of the previous installments, there is still plenty of story left to tell.

For the main character of IAAD, Kathrine Lundy (though she decidedly prefers just Lundy) that even means (many) returns through the series’ pivotal “doors”. If I’m remembering correctly, we actually spend a lot more time in the portal world, called The Goblin Market, than we have in other Wayward Children books which is interesting, but of course, as with each book in this series, it is still time spent after whatever quest a more stereotypical fantasy would have been written about. In this case, the usurping of an evil wasp queen, and a tragic run-in with some baddies called The Bone Wraiths.

I understand that these details are absolutely NOT what these books are about, but I can’t help but still sometimes wish that I could read about these events somewhere, even if it is just a “boring ol fantasy story”. I like those too.

Anyway, if you have read the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway, you’ll recognize Lundy (or recognize that you should recognize Lundy) and so while this title is a standalone, it ties in with the other books, and gives more backstory to their history which is always fun. I’ll admit that I hope we’ll get to see an adventure from Lundy’s father as it’s mentioned many times that he also did a tour in the Goblin Market.

In terms of prose and language, IAAD is extremely well crafted, as are most books I’ve read by Seanan McGuire. She always manages to turn at least one well-worn phrase subtly on its head so that it evokes some new meaning to suit the story.

OK. Ok. Skip to the part about the pies . . .

Yes! The pies! Specifically, wanting to both keep and eat them simultaneously. This is essentially the main theme of the story (at least for me). Some things you just can’t have both ways. What I found interesting about this novella was the way McGuire uses the setting to express this theme, and what she uses it to say, or at the very least question.

Now, in IAAD, The Goblin Market is really quite an awe-inspiring place, filled with magic, adventure (sadly offscreen), fun and glory, but each of these thrills has a cost which cannot be deferred or delayed. It is expected of the Market’s denizens to each pay “fair value” for any goods or services they require, but things like friendship or love, also seem to have their costs as well.

It’s a strange place which seems to be both better and worse than the real world we live in. In the Market people can work hard and avoid debt, but nobody can really “get ahead”. What’s strangest about the whole thing, is that people can’t really offer charity either for doing so just puts another person in debt to the would-be philanthropist.

In the course of trying to understand “what debt is”, Lundy discusses all kinds of things like prices which are based off the proportion one makes (although perhaps difficult to figure out in the Market’s bartering society), and how a system like this could still provide for the sick and elderly. The implications of such a system seem to be infinite.

So what’s the pie we can’t both eat and keep?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. For Lundy, it is living in two worlds, wanting to both be a part of her life with her family, and also with her friends in The Goblin Market. For us, it seems to be something to do with late-stage capitalism.

We know from experience IRL that what we have now doesn’t seem to be working to everyone’s benefit, and so The Market presented in IAAD calls to us as an ideal of something we could strive for. With enough rules and moderation in place, perhaps we could build something which would be fair to everyone.

Although, as Ruthanna Emrys notes for Tor.com, The Market has:

. . . gone so far into capitalism that it’s come out the other side into “to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability.”

https://www.tor.com/2019/01/10/fairness-and-feathers-reading-seanan-mcguires-in-an-absent-dream/

Essentially The Market has become communism (I had to look up Emrys’ quote). And as we see in the novella, fair isn’t fair either. So perhaps — and this is rather a downer — the novella shows us that we can’t have a form of capitalism that is moderated enough to actually benefit everyone without it being the communism we all loathe and fear.

We can’t have capitalism without all the stuff we don’t like about it, because then there’s nothing left. The good things we like about it are also the bad things we hate about it and so to get rid of those things means it wouldn’t be capitalism anymore?

If we get rid of the pie (yummm) then we no longer have pie . . .

Let me know your thoughts in the comments! For only like 180 pages, I think this story still gave a LOT to chew on.

See you next time!

Should Harrow the Ninth Win the Hugo?

THIS book. What a ride. Gonna go ahead and announce now that pretty much this entire review is going to be a SPOILER because I’m not sure how to talk about it without doing so. If you’re looking for a quick (spoilerless) opinion on whether or not you should read it, I would say:

Yes. Read it, but don’t drop anything you’re super excited about to do so. There is a lot to appreciate in Harrow the Ninth, but personally, it was a bit of a slog. If you’re expecting to enjoy it for any of the reasons you liked Gideon the Ninth, you will probably be disappointed. Harrow, it seems, goes decidedly her own way (we should expect nothing less).

All of that said, I feel it was worthy of the accolades it’s received, but it probably won’t be my pick for the Best Novel Hugo Award. To explain why, we’ll have to get spoilery . . .

— Entering Spoilerland —

— Look out! —

Ok. Now that I’m done having fun, what’s the deal with this book and how can I think it a slog, but a good enough slog to win an award?

Essentially, Harrow the Ninth is a (mostly) well written book that expects a lot from its readers, and pushes a lot of boundaries all at once. Personally, I feel as if this should have been right up my alley, as I pretty much go all in for things any time they get weird or unexpected. This book did all of that in droves, but I believe it suffered mainly from expectations set up by the first book, Gideon the Ninth.

Gideon the Ninth was a gem which seemingly we all could admire. My review described it as both fun and provoking. Down to its simplest elements, it was a mystery, and an adventure. Start accounting for some of its complexity, and it was a prompt on the nature of abusive relationships and what kinds of things we’re ‘allowed’ to show in our fiction . . .

Harrow, in many ways, left all of that behind for a rumination on grief, loss, and mental health. It traded in a somewhat (enthusiastically) crass but ultimately consistent narration for shifting types of POV (mostly 2nd person, and 3rd person, but some 1st person too) along a non-linear narrative and alternative reality dream sequences. It shattered any trust we had in ourselves as readers to a) remember past events in the story (aka book 1) and b) understand at any given moment what the hell is actually going on.

Too put it simply, reading Harrow the Ninth felt like being gaslit for 400 pages.

This in fact, makes perfect sense for the novel since we’re reading AS a main character who is trying so hard to repress any feelings of grief or loss, that she literally gives herself a lobotomy (I suppose Ianthe helps) to wipe out all memory of what she fears to lose.

That Muir is able to manage this weird sort of readers-are-so-deep-into-the-character-we’re-essentially-method-acting is, from a technical standpoint, quite incredible. And as a writer, I’m in awe and hope that I will someday be able to pull off something half so complicated.

Being gaslit, however, isn’t exactly pleasant, and I found that I was somewhat eager to distract myself from this book, and often reluctant to pick it back up.

So why do so many consider this book so good?

Obviously, it’s impossible to say for sure, but I would point to the following:

Humor:

Considering how serious everything in the Locked Tomb series seems to be, there is a surprising amount of humor within the series. In Harrow the Ninth, it’s often Ianthe’s frank wit (and unapologetically misplaced morals) or Harrow’s general hatred and reluctance for everything that do most of the heavy lifting. We aren’t given any Gideon lines until the last quarter of the book.

Personally, I was most often chuckling at the seemingly normal (and quite frankly bureaucratic) nature of The Necrolord Prime, aka God, aka John.

And of course, the almost nonsensical naming conventions (reminiscent of Ian M. Banks’ Culture Series), which apparently can and do include Eminem lyrics.

For some complexity is beautiful

Reread everything I wrote a little bit ago about the shifting (and unreliable) POV, non-linear narrative, and alternate realities. From a technical standpoint this is amazing to see unfold.

Women Being Badasses

I feel like this is where the rubber meets the road for most people, and is one of the main draws to the series. Harrow the Ninth, as with Gideon the Ninth, is still a story about women who defy expectations. Who want more than whatever bullshit they’ve been given, and are ready to rain hellfire upon the world until they get it.

I think this quote from a Vox interview with Tamsyn Muir really put it in perspective for me (emphasis my own):

“As anybody else who was born in and around 1985 will know, a lot of the stories we got fed, even in a time where women were out in the battlefield more, was that at the end of the day, being angry and fighting actually wasn’t great. And so what the real takeaway at the end of the day was, the love of your friends and hugs is the greatest thing that a woman can have. So being able to repudiate that and give a middle finger to the “a woman’s place is actually the peacemaker and the heart of the group” has undeniably set the tone of the books.”

https://www.vox.com/culture/22266652/tamsyn-muir-interview-locked-tomb-gideon-the-ninth-harrow-the-ninth-vox-book-club

There still isn’t enough of this in fiction, even in this, the year of our lord (necrolord? John?), 2021. We’re still fighting old ways of thinking, and despite all of the confusion of this story’s structure, these characters (Harrow, Gideon, Ianthe) are powerful.

So . . . Should it get the Hugo?

It is certainly worthy of one, but it won’t be my choice. While I can appreciate everything that his book was able to accomplish, I just can’t shake the fact that while reading it, I had almost no desire to complete it. Harrow the Ninth is in many ways a masterpiece, but it wasn’t the one I was led to believe I’d be reading, and the entire time I read it, I was just waiting for it to be different. By the time it started to become the book I wanted (aka when we finally get Gideon back), it felt like my order got lost at a restaurant. The food was cold, and I was already too upset at the wait to enjoy it anyway . . .

Oof, I hate writing negative reviews. If you think I’m wrong about this one (or even if you think I’m right), let me know in the comments section. Also, some things I learned about while writing this review which I couldn’t figure out how to squeeze into the review, but that Muir squeezed into the book:

Coffee Shop / Barista AU
The Denial of Peter
Draco in leather pants
Evil Vizier

Anywho, see you next time. Thanks for reading!

Review of ‘Remote Control’ by Nnedi Okorafor

This was supposed to be my beach read last week. Something short which wouldn’t take too much investment as I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with family, and it would be hard to squeeze in time for reading.

Wow did that plan fail.

I finished up another library book just before my trip, and was still waiting for my next hold to come in so I figured I could read a little of this, and then finish it while at the beach.

Two days later, I was posting four stars to goodreads and wondering what the heck I was going to read now. I finished this that quickly. I suppose I should have known . . .

Ever since I read Binti, back in 2017, Okorafor has been like pizza for me. I tell myself just one more slice (chapter), ok maybe two more but then that’s it! Only to realize later that I’ve crushed the whole thing in a sitting (send help about the pizza . . . the problem is getting out of control!).

I’m still getting caught up on everything she’s written (Broken Spaces & Outer Spaces, and Who Fears Death currently next in line), but I’ve managed to get a couple of her stories read, and have loved every one of them.

Anyway, this story was not different. Right from page one, I was already smiling as the book opens with a quote from Omar Little . . .

Yes, Omar Little from The Wire.

And it set the scene perfectly. As members of the town flee the presence of Sankofa, the “adopted Granddaughter of Death”, I could just hear them saying her name as they ran, much to the cadence of “Omar is coming!”

Another of Okorafor’s strong suits is worldbuilding.

It’s no surprise then that the world of Remote Control simply shines. Those who have read Okorafor before, will see a lot of new elements, but also recognize things from her previous stories.

For instance spiders seem to be a common occurrence, and in past books have always felt like some kind of unknowable architect, moving through the world with their own agenda, weaving a web of fate in which humankind is merely an unsuspecting fly.

After a quick google, I thought that perhaps this constant occurrence was meant to be Anansi, a popular figure in Akan folklore. A second google revealed:

Okorafor has spoken on Udide — and generally seems to have cornered the SEO on the term — during her TED Talk about Afrofuturism and how it is different and unique from Western, mostly white and male, Science Fiction.

In her novel, Lagoon, Udide the spider artist, is a vast spider who lives underneath the city of Lagos and is responsible for weaving the past, present, and future into the lives of the city. For Okorafor, Udide seems to be a metaphor for Science Fiction itself, and the socio-political power of stories. Science Fiction is a will-to-power. The question: What if?

Assuming her tweet holds true for the Remote Control as well, then it would seem Udide (or some aspect of Udide) is the large black spider Sankofa encounters in the very first chapter as she enters town:

“Good evening,” Sankofa said in Mampruli as she stepped up to the gate’s door. The spider paused, seeming to acknowledge and greet her back. Then it continued on its way up, into the forest of broken glass on top of the gate. Sankofa smiled. Spiders always had better things to do. She wondered what story it would weave about her and how far the story would carry.

Okorafor, Nnedi, Remote Control, pg. 10

We aren’t told its purpose, nor are we sure what business it has in the town, but it seems to give the weight of this moment some emphasis. Fate is at work here, or was, and is now scurrying onward toward whatever’s next.

In that same scene, we also see a grasshopper (prominent in Akata Witch and Akata Warrior), though I haven’t taken the time yet to familiarize myself with any symbolism related to it and what its appearance could mean.

A later scene shows us a wall filled with masks, which seems meant to invoke the Night Masquerade of Binti, or something similar in the Akata Witch/Warrior books.

In this way, all of Okorafor’s stories seem to take place in a kind of mythic African universe, but I don’t believe that they are the ‘same universe’ as we would say about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere . . .

To me, this is incredibly refreshing, as I don’t feel the need to read every one of Okorafor’s novels, afraid I may miss something, but it does add a bit of added enjoyment to the stories I have read.

But considering I compared my compulsion to read her stories as equal to that of stuffing my face full of pizza . . . I will probably end up reading them all anyway.

Conclusion?

Go read this one. Probably read it twice. I’ve only begun to unpack everything that is packed into this relatively short novella, and I’m sure that upon second and third reads I will think about and discover even more. That seems to be the nature of things when reading Nnedi . . .

Anyway, that’s all for now. If you’ve got thoughts and opinions, please leave em in the comment section. I hope to hear from you there! See you next time!

(Book Review of) The Poppy War: Context is Everything

Oooh nice cover. I’m assuming this is Qara? I don’t remember Rin picking up a bow.

Oooof. This was not a light read. But I think perhaps it is an important one. I picked it up because it is the first installment in The Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang which has been nominated for the Hugo Award category ‘Best Series’ (also take a look at the other Hugo Finalists I’ve reviewed).

I didn’t really do much other research into it than that. I vaguely remember when it was nominated for the 2018 Nebula Award and the 2019 World Fantasy Award, but for whatever reason I hadn’t really been following the coverage, and so I didn’t know what to expect.

As such, my blind (and perhaps rather ignorant) first impression of the book was that it was set in a truly intricate (if grim) world which was expertly realized and beautifully written, but the meandering plot was at times confusing and frustrating, mostly when large periods of time would pass mid chapter or without some kind of climatic event that would clue the reader that we were coming to a new phase of the book.

The Fantasy Hive writes that The Poppy War is . . .

“A coming of age epic that leads on to a magic school section of mayhem and mysticism, before spiraling into a grimdark no-holds-barred military fantasy that’d make Sun Tzu roll over in his grave to rewrite The Art of War, with Joe Abercrombie writing the foreword. The Poppy War delivers what most trilogies aspire to – in ONE BOOK.”

https://fantasy-hive.co.uk/2018/11/the-poppy-war-by-r-f-kuang-book-review/

To me, it was too much. As soon as I felt like I was beginning to understand Rin’s struggles at Sinegard (the “magic” school) we were off joining the Cike in a kind of ensemble-style cast which seemed like it was about to set up for a heist, only to be thrown into an all out war which is when the book got exceedingly dark and gruesome.

But through all of this, I think what I was failing to understand, was the context needed to really see what this book was trying to do, namely, use a fantasy setting to explore the violence and brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Opium Wars which followed, and reflect on some of the darkest parts of Chinese history.

(I want to say a quick thank you and shoutout to Read By Tiffany who did a deep dive and explained all of this context in her post: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Truly an amazing post. If you haven’t read it, please do!)

Looking at the book in this light, and with this context, it seems quite remarkable in its achievement. If the book’s motivation was to capture the elements of history I mentioned above, then it really did so in a way that was compelling and interesting.

And so that’s why I feel this book was an important read if not a light one. It got me questioning. At first, those questions were simply: “What is everyone else taking away from this book that I’m not?” But now that I’ve found that answer, it’s become “Well what really happened during that period in history?” or “What is Investiture of the Gods as opposed to Journey to the West?”

With these questions rattling around in my brain, I’m now looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Dragon Republic.

Although, I must admit, I will probably do some more research before continuing on. I’m assuming it can only help.

Anyway, that’s it for the review. If you read this one, please let me know what you thought in the comments. If you haven’t? Well still let me know your thoughts, I’m always up for chatting book things. See you next time!

Should ‘Cemetery Boys’ win the Lodestar Award?

I think so far this is my front runner for the award (though I still have four more nominees to read).

I’ll admit up front that (I think) Yadriel is the first openly trans character I’ve read in fiction, SFF or otherwise. Certainly, one of the most interesting and prescient elements of the novel is the way in which Yadriel has to navigate life with this identity, despite a world which — whether intentionally or unintentionally — just doesn’t understand him.

The author mentions in an interview for NPR, that “[Very often] … teaching falls onto the shoulders of queer/trans kids, which can be exhausting.”

I FELT THIS constantly while reading Cemetery Boys (so great execution there). At times it seemed there was enough tension and suspense in just this one aspect of the plot that it was almost cruel to have a magical murder mystery to solve on top of it.

But heroes do hard things and Yadriel is no exception. I enjoyed rooting for him and watching him grow. That he often had so few reasons to grin like a fool, only made me grin that much wider when he finally cracked a smile.

Another strength of the novel is Yadriel’s crew. Julian was perhaps my favorite. Even though he’s technically dead (a ghost), the kid is bursting with life. Energetic, confident, and enthusiastic about seemingly everything, Julian at first appears not to have a care in the world. We see later, that life has not been easy for him either, and that he has his own struggles and issues to contend with . . . which only makes his no-holds-barred approach to life (unlife?) even more impressive and inspiring. He doesn’t always know the right thing to say, and he basically never knows the right thing to do, but he’s honest and caring, and true to himself, in a way that gets him forgiven for his missteps. He’s a perfect companion for Yadriel on this adventure, a true yin to Yad’s yang (try saying that ten times fast).

Maritza also should get an honorable mention as well. She’s a badass and super supportive to everyone in a kind of I-am-rolling-my-eyes-at-you way (as in she’s rolling her eyes, not the reader). Plus she has two adorable pitbulls which provide a shot of much needed laughter and cheerfulness when things are in danger of getting too intense.

Essentially, this story is about its characters, and the author, Aiden Thomas, just nails them seemingly effortlessly.

The last element in the ‘awesome’ category is the book’s milieu (I probably should just say worldbuilding). We’re in Los Angeles, but mostly we’re in this Latinx community of Brujx. There’s so much to delve into here, but I won’t because I’d rather you just read it and experience it for yourself. What I really admired most though, was how tethered (in the case of freeing a soul literally) the magic was to the identity of the community and the protagonist specifically. Everything revolved around it, and there was no shortage of detail to really immerse (welcome us) into the community. Whether it was painting sugar skulls while discussing ancient gods, or simply eating delicious food at relative’s house, it all felt real, and wonderful.

And in the case of an aunt or grandmother constantly trying to push food on you as a teen, somewhat nostalgic?

I had only one gripe with the book and it was pacing. There were a few points which I felt we were getting information we had already seen or heard, or a few times — after learning some new clue or info — we’d have to go home or sit through school. Perhaps I was just identifying too much with Julian who can’t sit still for longer than a few moments. However, none of these moments took me out of the story for long.

Conclusion?

I’m going to say optimistically (as of 6/22/2021) that this will be my vote for the Lodestar Award. A Deadly Education was really great, but marred by too many insensitivities. This book just seemed to shine, so unless the one of the other four nominees shines brighter somehow, I think this will be the one.

Thanks for reading all this. Please let me know your thoughts on the book, and what your favorite parts were in the comments section. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Should A Deadly Education win the Lodestar Award?

Image of Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education cover
An awesome cover . . . not an awesome pic of my closet

This answer ended up being way harder than I expected it would be . . .

I really thought there was no chance this wouldn’t be my front runner for the Lodestar Award. On May 17th, it was even my ‘Can’t wait to read!’ pick for #WyrdAndWonder, and I was more or less bursting at the seams to tear it open and see what it had in store for me. As I discussed in my Hugo Finalist Reaction post, I had enjoyed Uprooted and Spinning Silver, but was excited that Novik was treading different territory here.

And while my initial reactions were extremely positive, I’m glad I looked around on the internet a bit, because there was a lot I had not yet considered.

Initial Reactions:

Pretty positive in the extreme. The main character, El (short for Galadriel), has an engaging voice, and is fun in her extreme antisocial outlook and behavior. There is plenty of snark, but somehow it never made me bristle like most snarky characters I’ve read.

Second, there’s a lot of pop culture references (like the MC’s name for instance) and winks at the reader. One of my favorite winks was a reference to spell writing as ‘creative writing’ and something about how anything she tried to write stream-of-consciousness turned into a super volcano. Any time I’ve tried to ‘pants’ something in my own writing (or even just write ANYTHING) has certainly felt this way.

I’ve seen the book marketed as “a darker Harry Potter”, and it would be willful ignorance to say that Rowling’s work did not influence A Deadly Education, and I think it’s no stretch to say that the Scholomance is an extreme and interesting (certainly terrifying) take on Hogwarts.

(Indeed, the Scholomance was perhaps this book’s most fascinating element for me, and I’d like to do a second post for Friday about how it reminded me of a kind of evil riff on the educational ideal of the Eudaimonia Machine. Hopefully I’ll have enough to warrant its own post.)

In the realm of theme, I felt the novel had clear and prescient messaging in terms of the dichotomy between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and I really enjoyed the way this novel actually seemed to have a hopeful outlook on those divisions becoming at the very least, less significant if not disappearing entirely.

In essence, there was much to love in this book and many will find it a complete delight to read. After all, any book that uses the term ‘glom’ to describe how a stepfather attaches to one’s mother is hitting a lot of buttons in the ‘fun’ category.

So What Gives? (Some Other Considerations):

Much like when I was trying to review Gideon the Ninth, I found that this seemingly lovely book also had some controversy swirling around it since it’s publication.

Namely, claims of racist representation (which the author has since apologized for), and also themes of sexual assault which were handled improperly. For both topics, I’m going to provide links as other people have written about them much more eloquently then I every could:

Now, I can’t really say I have much more to offer, except I felt it important to boost these articles as their authors have done some hard work and critical thinking on our behalf. I definitely advise anyone reading this to give them a read and consider their arguments.

It’s been a good reminder for me to slow down and really consider what I’m reading. I hope I can be more aware of stuff like this on my own in the future.

So . . . Should it get the Award?

At this point, I’m going to say that even though there is a lot of things to love about A Deadly Education, the strikes made against it have still managed to lower my opinion of the work in general. I give Novik kudos for attempting to be more diverse with her characters, but I do not think enough work was put in to make that attempt a success.

If the other Lodestar candidates evoke similar positive feelings, but avoid the controversies pointed out by so many online, I will almost certainly raise them above A Deadly Education.

I’m still looking forward to the release of the sequel next month. If Novik can remediate any of the issues this first book had, and keep that same dazzle and fun that it also achieved, perhaps her own education will not have been so deadly after all.

Thanks for reading all this! Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Silver Medal for Empire of Gold

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a little while because it’s been hard to bring myself to say that The Empire of Gold is probably the weakest part of this trilogy. I thought The City of Brass was totes badass, and The Kingdom of Copper was brilliant!

But The Empire of Gold just didn’t surpass the bar set by its two amazing predecessors.

Perhaps the main draw (for me) of this series is the intricate and thoroughly magical world which Chakraborty has imagined. It feels new and astonishing, and is equal parts mysterious and delightful. That sense of wonder is only slightly dimmed by the fact that this is our third rodeo in Daevabad. After all, magical djinn, shedu, karkadann, and peri, are never going to fully lose their luster when compared to our real lives of (in the pandemic) Zoom calls and homemade lunches . . .

(I’m also getting slightly distracted by the World of Daevabad website which includes a definition of a creature called Ishtas, which I don’t remember from the book but is apparently “A small, scaled creature obsessed with organization and footwear.” Lolz! Ok back to the review . . .)

This complex and immersive experience has been delivered to us on two previous occasions and it is what we expect from a Daevabad book. I can’t say that the novel fails to deliver on this promise, because it doesn’t. The Empire of Gold is stuffed full of new and exciting bits of this world which are completely unexpected, or have been so thoroughly teased that we’re essentially frothing to find out what they actually are (for me this was the Marid and how this world related to that of Ancient Egypt).

Another key strength of the book, is that all of the cast we’ve come to know and love return, and they too are just as fun and delightful as they have been in previous books in the series. We finally get to see the resolutions of their arcs, and for me, everything came to a satisfying conclusion (which I won’t spoil for you here).

But only a silver medal?

Yep! Despite all of the praise I’ve showered on the book so far, I still felt it suffered from two fatal flaws (which are possibly the same flaw so maybe only one). Namely, this book was TOO LONG, and (in my opinion) failed to fully deliver on its promises (and maybe even over-delivered on a few that were less than relevant). There were many points during this book in which I felt we were making little to no progress towards the main goal of the novel.

I credit the length issue (784 pages and almost 29hrs in audio) to powers that were perhaps beyond the author’s control (although I’ve done no actual research to test my hypothesis). It is pretty standard practice in the Fantasy genre to write in trilogies (although there are plenty of series that go for way longer). I definitely had the sense reading this, that the author knew this was her last chance reveal all the many things she’d hinted at over the previous two books, and so I felt that our characters wandered the map tying up loose ends which in many cases I had forgotten about and did not seem to bring us any further down our main plot thread.

The second issue, that of failed promises, I’m not entirely sure how to quantify or explain. Simply, I was just disappointed in the way certain resolutions took place.

Slight spoilers ahead . . .

I had been waiting for connections to Ancient Egypt (Nahri is from Cairo and grew up in the shadow of pyramids, discovering clues on papyrus scrolls with Ali in the library, mentions of Sobek, an Ancient Egyptian crocodile god . . .) to be made clear and was curious how their vast and intricate culture would be pulled into the mythos of Daevabad, but when it was, I almost wished it had stayed separate. Like the pieces didn’t really fit together somehow.

And while I was so curious about the Marid after reading The Kingdom of Copper, I was disappointed with what we ended up getting. In the previous books, the Marid seemed to have a single nefarious and unknowable purpose, but after meeting no less than three marid ‘gods’, it was quite clear that they were not the grand conspiracy they appeared, and we still had issues in Daevabad which we needed to solve. Basically I grew impatient with our side quest in Ta Ntry (the name of which is suspiciously close to Ta Netjer, which in ancient Egyptian would have translated to “God’s Land”, also called Punt. It’s kinda neat that they are sorta in the same spot on the map, but ultimately, I’m unsure exactly what connection is to be made.)

TLDR and Hugo award considerations:

The Empire of Gold is still a great book, filled with magic and wonder; however, I felt it suffered slightly from its overwhelming scope and (in my opinion) a failure to deliver on it’s most interesting promises. It is somewhat sad that the final book was marred with these flaws, but in general, I’m happy with the ending, and feel this is a great series. I was surprised that this individual volume was not a Hugo Best Novel finalist at first, but after reading it, I can see now how it might not have earned enough votes.

The series is still my top contender for best series though, even with a bit of a flubbed landing. I think I’ll do a Best series post later on if I’m able to finish each of the series on that shortlist.

Thanks all for reading this! Please let me know what your thoughts are in the comments!

Should ‘Silver In the Wood’ win Emily Tesh an Astounding Award? (aka best debut) #WyrdAndWonder

A hard question to answer. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh is a great novella for many reasons.

The first reason, is its up close-and-personal interpretation of the ‘Green man’ myth. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with the folklore surrounding this figure, so I can’t really comment on Tesh’s interpretation.

The impression I have though, using really only this story as a reference point, is that The Green Man is a kind of tree spirit, similar to a Dryad from classical mythology (indeed there is a dryad that follows our main character around and is very protective of him), which protects the forest and keeps out all the bad stuff that wants to come in. However, a few things set our main character apart:

  • he is male and most dryads are female in the book
  • he lives near a big oak tree which might make him something like a Hamadryad but I’m not sure

This sort of mythic existence puts him in a sort of tenuous relationship with the rest of the wood’s inhabitants. At first, humans see him as wild and scary, but ultimately get over it as the story progresses.

Whatever the folklore textbooks have to say, the interpretation written here feels simultaneously personal, and mythic in a way which is really engaging and is probably the first thing I noticed about the book.

I feel this mythic quality is accomplished by the second awesome part about this novella: Tesh’s prose. They’re lovely, and seem to rely on some seemingly impossible phrases (how exactly does time pass “slow and green”) which don’t hang up the reader, but give us our own freedom to imagine their implications. Throughout the entire work, we’re in a place where things don’t quite make sense but are nevertheless mystical and fantastic.

This novella’s final and perhaps most endearing quality is its romance arc. It seems to try and hide itself behind the thickets of legend and worldbuilding, but the reality is that this story does not start until Tobias meets Harry Silver, and can’t end until . . . well I won’t spoil it. Needless to say, it is the thread that pulls us through.

My only gripe, is that I felt like I was left wondering in a few too many places. The story seems to have complex character relationships based on a complex and long history, but I felt like we never got enough of that history to understand why the action we were taking would bring about the end we desired. Even in a scant 100 pages, there was at least two moments in which I wondered why we where seeing something and ultimately felt the scene could have been pruned away.

Astounding Award?

I suppose the answer to this question will ultimately come down to how it stacks up against the competition.

This title is a great read, and there is much to love within this bite-sized package. There is a clever mythology at play here, a genuinely enjoyable romance, and beautiful prose, but I also felt that some key information was missing, while other sections seemed to provide things which weren’t relevant.

Looking back at my review of The Vanished Birds, I seemed to have similar complaints, although I feel it’s longer page count might give it some more leniency than Silver in the Wood. Short works don’t have as much time for extra material. Every word counts.

Micaiah Johnson’s debut is probably still the story I’ve enjoyed most in my Hugo Contender read-through (though I’m not going to look back through all the posts to make sure I didn’t contradict myself). My review of The Space Between Worlds cites strong characters, and a well-developed setting as it’s strong points, and I believe that in these categories, it simply out-performs Silver in the Wood.

No Astounding Award for Tesh this year (in my rankings at least), though I’m sure she’ll contend for other awards in the future. If you’ve made it this far in the post, I’m hoping you’ll still go read Silver in the Wood as it is a great book!

If you have questions comments or gripes, leave em in the comments. Thanks all!

Song of Achilles: Still a Song Worth Singing #WyrdAndWonder

My Preconceived Notions

I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t have some conception of Achilles’ legend. It’s the kind of story that you feel you’ve always known, even though you can hardly remember the first time you’ve heard it. Certainly it has influenced tons of media (a personal favorite of mine being Led Zeppelin’s Achilles’ Last Stand which apparently is more about tax evasion than Greek warriors), and will continue to do so for eternities to come.

But for me, I think my first look at the Iliad was probably in the sixth grade although I’m not certain how much of it we actually read, or whether or not it was just summary. At some point I had a paperback of it on my shelf, but which edition or when I actually read it, is as shrouded in my mind as the facts surrounding the ancient city of Troy itself.

In college, I read more pieces of it for a Western Literature class. The thing I remember most is that according to whichever translation we were reading, the very first line of the poem is simply the exclamation to rage! I was newly accepted into a fraternity that semester, and it seemed a very “Greek” thing to yell. Especially when listening to the speaker busting dial-up modem that is (was?) Dub-Step.

It was probably during that course that I was starting to put together my first inklings that Patroclus and Achilles may have had something more going on than friendship, but I can’t say that I really gave it much thought.

But even with all of that floating around in my mind, the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom — and I feel like I should hate to admit this, because in general everyone hates the movie Troy (especially Roger Ebert), but I absolutely love it — is probably the strongest image thus far in my mind, of who Achilles was and how his story went.

My only other entry into this comparison is Jesse Beeson-Tate’s Achilles vs Mecha-Hector which I will continue to talk about fondly on this blog, but will probably never re-read to do an actual post about. That it exists at all is half of what makes it so wonderful . . . I digress.

All of this to say, by 2021, I did not think there would be much I could glean from another retelling of the Trojan Myth. Surely I’ve heard every telling conceivable, or if not, the nuance between the next retelling and what I already knew would be so similar as to be nearly imperceptible. In fact, I need no longer waste my time with tired old Achilles and his stupid pride. I had wrung every last drop from that myth, and could better use the time elsewhere, with newer, more modern stories.

Obviously, I was wrong.

Enter Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles . . .

Told from the perspective of Achilles’ best friend and lover, Patroclus, Miller sings a song that sounds familiar, but feels completely new. It’s as if I know the notes, but not in which order they will come, or how fast they will go.

Each moment I was reading this book, I could feel myself checking the scenes before me against the story as I believed it should go, but instead of Patroclus’ beautiful catchphrase when describing Achilles – This and this and this – I found myself asking: What’s this? And what’s this and this and this?

Somehow, this book manages to buck so many assumptions at once, that there is a temptation while reading to become hung up, to want to stop and check whether or not the legend of Hercules really included him going mad, and killing his wife and children (because the Disney version did not; and now I’m also wondering if this core element of our beloved Greek God slayer Kratos, was ripped from Hercules’ myth who in-game is supposed to be his brother but again I digress. Yeesh!)

Resist this temptation! And also resist the urge to try and figure out how and when the parts that you know are gonna happen, will happen, and how. Because it’s a Greek Tragedy, those parts will come. They will get that same effect from you they always have, but you’ll be so busy worrying about it, that you will not enjoy the parts you weren’t expecting.

Like Achilles playing the lute, and Patroclus being awkward, bony, and terrible at fighting (although he does pretty well for himself a few times). Or the two of them being happy together and not caring what others thought about them, for these things truly are what make the book so enjoyable to read.

Final thoughts

To put it shortly, this book is a beautiful, if somewhat (expectedly) sad love story. It is well told and engaging through and through. I highly recommend it to anyone, but especially those whose conception of the Achilles, Troy, and the Trojan War matched anything I talked about at the beginning of my post.

Anyway, thanks for reading this, and give Song of Achilles a shot!

Should ‘Black Sun’ Get A Hugo? #WyrdAndWonder

For new viewers from the #WyrdAndWonder crowd (also check out my previous Wyrd And Wonder Posts), I’ve been working my way through a really long list of Hugo contenders and asking the question: “Should [book title] get a Hugo?”

Obviously, my priorities changed slightly once the Hugo Finalists were announced, but I’m still going to be blogging as many of the original list as I can until the award is given sometime in December.

Luckily for me, this book fits squarely into the Fantasy genre, and I’m not going to have any qualms reviewing it as part of Wyrd And Wonder.

Now, this is only the second book on the finalist list that I’ve finished, and for me, it is the front runner for the award right now. I reviewed Network Effect by Martha Wells, a while back, and concluded that while it was a great book (and I love me some Murderbot!), it was not the right choice for the Hugo this year, as I decided it wasn’t ‘new’ enough to really reflect the genre at this moment.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first entry in (what I assume) will be a trilogy (or maybe a series), and there is very little here that I would not consider ‘new’, at least to me.

The first thing I noticed about the book (other than its harrowing first chapter), was the depth of the world in which the story takes place. In an interview with Roanhorse on NPR, the author says she’d been:

“. . . reading about Pre-Columbian cultures for decades. But for this book I really dug into everything from Polynesian sailing methods to what we know of the Maritime Maya to the habits of corvids. I also read a lot about crows.”

https://www.npr.org/2020/10/17/924734316/i-longed-to-see-something-different-so-i-wrote-it-questions-for-rebecca-roanhors

All of that is used to awe inspiring effect in Black Sun, whether it be out in the sea, sailing the mother waters under a Teek captain, or crossing the Holy City of Tova’s suspension bridges to be closer to the sky. And after 464 pages (well almost 13 hrs for me on audio), there is still so much more of this world I would like to see.

I also really enjoyed the role that crows played in this story. Our black feathery friends (or maybe enemies) are never skimped upon when it comes to depictions in literature – renown as tricksters, harbingers (of fate or death), and companions to the gods of many cultures – the crows in Black Sun felt fresh and different, and I’m anxiously awaiting more stories like it.

Also important, I learned a new (to me) pronoun. Shey/shem/sheir/shemselves. It’s no secret that people learn from the books we read, it is perhaps one of the most important reasons to read in the first place, to expand our horizons. I’m thankful to Rebecca Roanhorse for including this detail in her work.

Finally, the book felt like it had a story to tell that was more than just the events that happened in the plot (I suppose in English classes they call that theme). In particular, the book deals with prejudice in many varieties, but I felt that despite the darkness of the events that were taking place, I still held hope that perhaps those prejudices could be overcome.

So Hugo?

Yup! This one is the one for me so far (and actually a bit of a surprise since I did not much enjoy Roanhoarse’s other Hugo contender Trail of Lightning). I think what sold it for me (say over Network Effect I mentioned earlier), was the themes which seem so prescient, and of this moment, as to be a worthy representation of what the genre is considering during 2021 (well 2020 I guess but these lines are fuzzy).

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about Black Sun. Please let me know what you thought of the book in the comments! Thanks for reading!