the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

This is an amazing and side-splittingly funny competition to write the worst opening sentence of a novel that would immediately make the reader walk away. (Which is good, not only for our sanity, but also because there are no full novels, just opening sentences.)

You can read all the winning entries here: Winners!
but to give you a sample, the 2021 grand prize was well-earned by this doozie of a sentence:

A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare.

Stu Duval, Auckland, New Zealand

If you feel inspired to try to compete, you can also enter your best attempt at a worst sentence here: Submit!

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

The Hands of the Emperor
by Victoria Goddard
2019

This book is amazing! I blasted through the nearly 1,000 pages over the course of maybe three days and by halfway through was sure that I had another author to follow.

First of all: the world building is amazing. It’s a fantasy setting with elaborate magical issues and multiple cultures – one of which is based off traditional Hawaiian culture, others based off African and/or Asian cultures that I don’t really recognize well enough to fully identify.

It’s a story of legendary events and fairytales happenings – the Empire has fallen, the emperor slept for a hundred years before awakening as the Last Emperor – but all of this has happened and been survived by those who remain and who now must figure out how to carry on afterwards. The background events that we gain more detail of as the book progresses are fascinating, but it’s the people and the personal relationships that are the focus.

Our main character Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Emperor. He has lived through these events and accomplished his life goals, and now finds himself in a position where power dynamics are severely stressing his personal relationships in both directions: he loves the Emperor but it’s hard to manage a friendship with someone who has god-like powers over him; he loves his family back home in the distant islands but they think he spent years as a secretary in the capital rather than, to all practical purposes, the head of the world government as the go-between between the bureaucracy of government and the god-king emperor.

There are several delightful scenes that involve Cliopher’s extended family being presented with the evidence of what all Cliopher has accomplished. This is the type of scene that is often a climactic reveal in other books, but isn’t here. One of the themes that is addressed in both the political achievements that are slowly revealed in retrospect and the personal achievements that are accomplished as the story progresses, is how everything takes on-going effort: nothing permanent is truly accomplished by a single event – no matter how dramatic. Both relationships and social change take repeated and continuing effort to create and maintain.

It’s also a deeply optimistic book: the Empire has fallen and for all the disasters and deaths that were involved in that, it provided the opportunity to build something better in its place. Cliopher Mdang has spent years working to dismantle the colonial systems of the Empire and create freedom and social safety networks and he has succeeded!

The book is a wonderful thing to read in this time when I am stressed with: a global pandemic, a global climate crisis, a number of humanitarian crisis, and general political disasters. In this world, the highest members of government are working to help people and fix the world and they are succeeding. There’s very little tension in that, no worries that they’ll fail. The driving force to see what happens next is not fear but curiosity as the events get revealed, and the ongoing effort that’s put into creating and maintaining friendships.

The Return of Fitzroy Angursell
by Victoria Goddard
2020

This book continues on just hours after the final events of The Hands of the Emperor, but switches point-of-view characters and also switches tones: it’s wildly hilarious. The theme very much remains the work that has to go into maintaining friendships and how “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”

In many ways, it reminds me of TV show Galavant (even to the songs!) but particularly around the way that magic and the power of fairy tales and main characters creates wildly improbable coincidences. But the in-universe explanation of how magic and legend and stories work, makes it all make sense, at least to the point of letting the reader enjoy the ride.

Trying to avoid any spoilers for The Hands of the Emperor, the main character of this book is also particularly hilarious as it highlights the difference between how a person looks from the external perspective and how they look from the internal. Externally, this main character was very regal and reserved; internally, he’s a massive doofus. The whole thing is a delight.

This is definitely an author I’ll be following in the future.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

This is a tricky review to write because this book was fascinating and well-written, but I didn’t care for it and I don’t think it quite managed to pull off what it had intended to.

I have a great deal of respect for Natasha Pulley as an author, and really enjoyed her previous three books. She always has really interesting concepts and does amazing things with timey-wimey stuff, and this book is no exception. The Kingdoms is unrelated to the previous series, with its own world and characters, mostly around an alternate history of the Napoleonic War (1805 – 1807), but also in “Londres” some 93 years later (1898 – 1900).

Not to include too many spoilers, but as you might guess, this delves into time manipulation and changing timelines and people changing because of changing timelines even more than any of the previous books had. Unfortunately, I think this is the first time she didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The chapters skip around in time a lot, and I often had to just go with the flow rather than completely understand how the parts interconnected, and there are some parts that I don’t think make sense based on the internal world-building. I considered reading the book a second time to more fully track the course of events, but that brought me to my second problem: I found all of the characters vaguely unpleasant in a wide variety of ways. For good and valid reasons: they’re all horribly traumatized in a variety of ways too, but that just makes reading about them even less pleasant. A mixed blessing was how low-key they all were about the horrifying circumstances and the even more horrifying adaptive behaviors.

The only part that I really enjoyed was the last 50 pages or so in which everything came together and a variety of explanations clicked into place and there’s a couple of impressive feats. There’s even a mostly happy ending (as long as you don’t think about it too much.)

So, to sum up: I didn’t enjoy it but I hope that there are other readers who did. And I’m impressed with the writing that tried to do something really difficult. I’ll still keep an eye out for anything else that Pulley writes.

The Assassins of Thasalon by Bujold

The Assassins of Thasalon
Penric & Desdemona series, part 10
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2021

I love that Bujold decided to retire, and then, in her retirement, continue to write but without the pressure of working with a publisher or a timeline. Thus the titles come out with absolutely no fanfare or marketing and I have to google search her name periodically to make sure I catch them. Amazon is letting me down: I follow her author’s page but I still haven’t received any notification that a new book is available. And this is a book, too! The first of the Penric & Desdemona stories to have the word count of a full-length novel rather than a novella. Yay!

I love this whole series and this particular one is a delight as it brings back some fascinating characters that had been introduced in The Prisoner of Limnos who I love seeing more of. It also introduces a couple of fabulous new characters as well. The plot is an amazing balancing act between complex political conspiracies and straight-forward cut-through-the-knot focus.

Another thing that really impresses me about Bujold is how she manages to show her characters aging and maturing over the course of a series and Penric is a wonderful example of this skill. We first met him in Penric’s Demon as a nineteen-year-old and now he’s a thirty-something-year-old: the same character and yet with more depth and experience. He and Desdemona remain an absolute delight.

I expect this book actually can be read as a stand-alone but why deprive yourself of the joy of the whole series? Go read it all!

Murderbot by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells were originally an (amazingly wonderful) four-part series of novellas that I already posted about here and here. But since then, there have been developments!

A stand-alone novel: Network Effect (2020)
A fifth novella: Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

I have been a bit off from reading books recently, just feeling sluggish and unable to focus, and then I was reminded that the newest book in this series was being published on April 27, 2021. So I started reading the previous book, Network Effect, that I had bought and loaded on my kindle when it first came out in May 2020 but never read (because sluggish and unable to focus), and it was a great! Are you living in a dystopia and just want to watch fiction all day? Well, Murderbot does too but they still have friends (some of whom are assholes, which is probably for the best because Murderbot is also an asshole) and then plot and events happen and it all works out, more or less, and there’s uncomfortable character growth and development that is hilarious and awkward and so exciting! It left me extremely excited about the new release.

Then I had to re-read the others in order to prepare for the latest.

I was a bit disappointed at first that Fugitive Telemetry was set before Network Effect rather than after, but then I discovered that it was a straight up murder mystery and there’s no room for disappointment. (Also, I can hope that when there is a sequel to Network Effect, it will be another novel instead of a novella!) I bought this story as soon as it was available and finished it within a day and it was fabulous! Murder mystery on a space station! Murderbot is suspicious about assassination attempts on their people! Station security is suspicious of Murderbot! They must work together to find out what happened!

As I was thinking about writing this post, I discovered two short stories that I had completely missed the existence of:

Compulsory” (2019), a single scene set before all of the previous stories, while Murderbot was still doing their regular assigned job and only on episode 44 of their favorite soap opera, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, watching it for the first time!
home: habitat, range, niche, territory” (2020), set before Fugitive Telemetry and, for the first time, following a different perspective, showing a slice of life of Dr. Ayda Mensah

So just, in general, I love this series so much!

It was also fun to discover, the day after Fugitive Telemetry came out, that I had curated my tumblr account well enough that I was seeing other fan responses to the release, and it made me so happy. Examples here and here and here.

Who Is Ana Mendieta? by Redfern & Caron

Who Is Ana Mendieta?
by Christine Redfern & Caro Caron
introduction by Lucy R. Lippard
2011

This is a relatively short but extremely full and dense graphic novel. It’s a biography of an artist, but also a window into an artistic movement, and also a true crime tragedy, and also a demonstration of how systemic prejudice works to keep a whole demographic down. The particular art styles of both the book and the art movement that it describes are not ones that I particularly enjoy (a lot of shock value and intentionally disturbing imagery), and yet, I still highly recommend the book. It was a reminder to me of what second-wave feminism was trying to accomplish and the context it was working in.

Ana Mendieta was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, moved to the US in 1961, and died violently in 1985 (her husband was indicted for murder three times by a jury, and acquitted three times by a judge who then sealed the records.) During her life, Mendieta was a rising star in the art world and making waves. But the book also points out that she, like so many women before her, had to be their own firsts, breaking the glass ceiling, not because there hadn’t been women before her, but because the existence of those women was and is so regularly denied. This book itself is an effort to not have Ana Mendieta suffer the same fate, not just of death but of being quietly brushed aside, leaving art history to continue as a history of male artists.

So all of this to say: this book is educational, distasteful, enraging, and important.

illustrated travelogues

These books make me yearn for the open road. I don’t really enjoy hiking and I haven’t traveled much in a while even before the whole world went into various levels of quarantine but having read/looked through these two beautiful books about traveling the countryside by bicycle and by foot, I yearn. The complete impossibility of doing this myself makes the yearning all the stronger, since it doesn’t have to confront the fact that I like my creature comforts a bit too much for camping.

You & A Bike & A Road
by Eleanor Davis
2017

I received this book as a Christmas present in 2020 and read it within days. It’s basically a copy of the author’s sketch-pad/diary that she kept while making a cross-country bicycle trip from Tuscan, Arizona where her parents live to her home with her husband in Athens, Georgia. The pages are little illustrations of her experiences with short descriptions to show her thoughts. She’s struggling with depression and this is a way for her to get out of her head and try something new and difficult. While the main plot, such as it is, is her personal journey – both physical and emotional – it’s also dotted with stories of the people she comes across at the various resting points. As much as the journey works for Davis, it works for the reader too, to vicariously experience the weirdness, exhaustion, and exhilaration of making this attempt, and get out of my own head too.

The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido
by Hiroshige
1833-1834
published by Heibonsha Ltd, 1960

I received this book for Christmas in 2019, and worked though it in its and starts over the course of a year. The 55 illustrations in this series, showing images from Edo to Kyoto with the 53 stages of the Tokaido in between, are enchanting and lure me into thinking it’s a journey I would like to take. The Tokaido is a 320-mile-long road in Japan that the governments have maintained for centuries, connecting two of the country’s major cities. This set of woodblock prints by Hiroshige romanticizes each stage of the trip – the gorgeous vistas, the exciting markets, the specialized restaurants, and even the uncertain weather – and establishes his reputation as an artist at the same time. The scenes are both gorgeous and fascinating and the way they show calm water and raging storms and mountains both near and far just makes something in my mind un-tense for a little bit.

This specific publication of the illustrations also comes with short descriptions of each which were both helpfully informative and occasionally unintentionally funny. These captions vary between describing the locations (how the stages worked and which services and resources were there), describing the subject matter (what type of people were being shown and what interactions were taking place), and describing the artwork itself (letting me know which ones I should appreciate more than others, in case I wasn’t appreciating them correctly). What I considered particularly funny was the contrast between the detailed discussion regarding exactly when a particular image was set based on the presence of famous travelers versus how casually the descriptions discuss the artistic license used with both the events being shown and even the physical geography of other images that rearranged, removed, or created whole mountains for the aesthetic. But regardless of how much or little accuracy they may have, they are all lovely and intriguing.

In a time when it’s been nearly a full year of staying in my house with a single exciting trip to a grocery store every other week, these books were a chance to imagine a freedom of movement that comes with its own pros and cons, but feels so refreshing just to think about.

Uncommon Echoes by Sharon Shinn

echoinonyxUncommon Echoes
by Sharon Shinn
2019

Echo in Onyx (Book 1)echoinemerald
Echo in Emerald
(Book 2)
Echo in Amethyst (Book 3)

I have a somewhat odd perspective on Sharon Shinn because while I really like some of her books and don’t care for others, I am fully aware that it’s a matter of personal preference because I trust her as an author: echoinamethystI trust that she’s going to write really well and that scenarios and tropes that other authors wouldn’t be able to pull off, she can and does. The quality of her writing is always high, but the tone fluctuates enough that I enjoy some of hers and don’t others. These I really enjoyed.

This particular series is also fascinating because the fantasy element is one I’ve never seen before: that some people have “echoes”, ie physical copies of their bodies that give them an automatic entourage. From a practical standpoint, it’s both impressive and ridiculous unwieldy. Each book is a romance plot set in this relatively generic royal fantasy land during a time of unrest… except that there are added complications of all these extra bodies just hanging around. Each person is their own crowd (at least among the nobility.)

Shinn also does an amazing job of showing how conflicted civil wars are: the current monarchy vs the rebel factions, and there’s significant in-fighting on both sides and sympathetic and idiotic aspects of both sides as well. And I, as the reader, am also conflicted, because both sides are being awful in many ways and both sides of trying to make things better for people in many ways, too.

An amusing aspect is how bad all of the characters are at actual physical fighting. I feel like that’s probably a lot more realistic than a lot of fantasy novels: the high ranked nobles are not used to having to actually defend themselves from physical attack so when it happens, they’re incredibly bad at it.

But as the greater political situation continues to be fraught in a variety of ways, the main characters get their happy endings. And I really needed that.

Note: I read these books about a year ago, and enjoyed them, and was writing this review when the national news broke about another young black man who had been killed by the police. And here I was enjoying fantasy romance about wealthy nobility. And there’s a line between enjoying some escapism versus being disconnected from society, and I felt like I had fallen over that line. Now, a year later, with the constant grinding news cycle, my take away is: enjoy what I can, when I can, but don’t lose track of the work that needs to be done in the real world.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education
Lesson One of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
2020

Naomi Novik is awesome so I always perk up when I hear a new book being promoted and this one is a delight. Although also clearly a two parter and the next part isn’t due out until late June. Hmph!

The Scholomance is a magic school that’s more along the lines of The Magicians than of Harry Potter, but also with a strong influence of Battle Royale/Hunger Games although the students are not pitted against each other exactly. The school itself is deadly and dangerous and the students struggle to maintain alliances that might help them survive both the daily (and nightly) dangers, but also prepare for the horrific battle of graduation. This is not a situation of a malicious authoritarian government, which would be bad enough, but the best answer developed so far to get magically inclined kids to survive the hideously dangerous adolescent years where they are most tasty to the monsters that want to eat them. The school is essentially under siege and subject to constant invasions but at least the students aren’t easy pickings like they would be outside of it. The world-building is amazing and complex with fascinating implications.

The main character, Galadriel, known as El, has the additional problem of having an affinity for devastating magic of mass destruction. Friends aren’t really an option when people assume you’re a serial killer just biding time till you can become a mass murder and harder still to learn practical life skills when the school syllabus assumes you’re more interested in slave armies and supervolcanoes.

It’s like Novik asked: how could an already fraught middle-school/high-school of cliques and miserable adolescence be made even worse and then went with it. And it makes the wins all the more triumphant and the friendships all the more satisfying.

This book was the second half of Junior year and it was amazing. Next up: senior year! (aka, The Last Graduate, Lesson Two of The Scholomance, to be published June 29, 2021, in theory book 2 of 2, but this world is so fascinating that I’m already hoping for a book 3 as well.)

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow
by Natasha Pulley
2020

According to Amazon, this is the second book in the series, but I would have put it as the third book, even if it does continue on directly from the events of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street with the same characters. But the author wrote The Bedlam Stacks in between and set it in the same world with references back and forth.

The whole series is really good and this book might even be my favorite but now I need to go back and re-read all of them just to see. One of the things that I really enjoyed even as it ratcheted up the tension so much, was the exploration of the edges of power: how individuals can have immense power, but it is never infinite and there are always going to be points where it ends. In some ways, it also seemed very thematic with the last book I reviewed, Return of the Thief, as there is one protagonist who is doing their best to manipulate events, and you want them to succeed but not only is that not guaranteed, but sometimes you can’t even tell if it’s working or not because some of the long term successes depend on failures. But Pulley make’s this all the more fraught because our primary point of view character, Thaniel, isn’t even sure what Mori’s goal is. I also just love reading the love and devotion that has Thaniel follow along, trying to be supportive even as he’s also struggling to figure out what being supportive would even be. It just gives me so many feels.

Like all the books in the series, there’s a theme of clockwork: of seeing gears interact with on another and only slowly tracing those interactions and putting together all the pieces to figure out what the complete work is intended for. It comes to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion even as the process is fraught and made me realize how much I trusted Pulley as an author to have an excellent plot and how little I trusted her to keep her characters alive and well.

I very much recommend this book, but I’m kind of curious to know if it can be read as a stand-alone. So much of the book is already wading through uncertainty that I’m not sure if not having read the previous two would make it any worse. But in general, I definitely recommend it as a full series.