When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
by Nghi Vo
2020

This is a companion novella to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, not a sequel or a prequel, but a companion: another experience of Cleric Chih. It doesn’t have the same calm mood of the other, and I didn’t enjoy it quiet as much, but it’s still really very good and a fascinating story that deals more directly in the magical realism of this world. It’s also another beautifully crafted example of complex story telling with both a framing story and an interior story. It felt like a combination of Scheherazade and Rashomon, as it deals with the use of storytelling as a way to survive the night and with conflicting versions of the same story.

I definitely recommend it.

Also, a minor spoiler:

Continue reading

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

The Empress of Salt and Fortune
by Nghi Vo
2020

I can’t remember how this book got onto my to-read list, and it was there for a while before I got around to starting, but I’m glad I did. It’s lovely. It’s quite short – only 120 pages – but it’s beautifully, almost lyrically written. It’s also really interesting as an example of story crafting. The tone and the content of the book are in such stark contrast.

The tone of the book is very calm and quiet — contemplative, almost dreamlike. The world is a casually magic ancient China: there’s magic and mysticism, but it’s not the point of the story and it’s not particularly relevant, it’s just how the world is. An archivist cleric with a bird companion arrives at an old estate to make records of it, before moving on to their next assignment. The only other person there is an old servant woman. That’s the story.

In contrast, the topic of the book is the Empress of Salt and Fortune. She has recently died after a long and successful reign, but this old estate that the cleric is taking records of is the place of exile where she had lived for six years as a young woman before she came to power. The old servant woman, Rabbit, was her companion in those years. The empress is an amazing character: delightful and complex and ruthless and clever, and her plotting is dangerous and deadly. And the reader and the cleric learn about her from seeing the estate and hearing Rabbit’s stories.

In some ways this book reminds me of The Hands of the Emperor in that all the massive political upheavals happened in the past, all the anxiety gone and all the grief muted by time. In some ways it reminds me of Iron Widow in the way the empress is ruthless and vicious and hurting and victorious. And of course all three of them are about taking power and surviving. But it is also very much it’s own story and a fascinating read. I definitely recommend it.

Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold

Knot of Shadows
a Penric & Desdemona novella, part 11
by Lois McMaster Bujold
October 21, 2021

I check in on Bujold’s Amazon page every few weeks because these novellas she writes drop without any warning or fanfare and are a completely wonderful surprise each time there’s a new one. This one is no exception. I bought and read it as soon as I discovered it.

One of the (many) things I enjoy about Bujold is the range of genres and moods she’s able to write while still staying true to her characters. In a series that delights and fascinates, makes me laugh and blush and wait with baited breath to see how the latest adventure turns out, this is the first to leave me feeling very somber.

It reminds me of her Vorkosigan short stories, “The Flowers of Vashnoi” and “The Mountains of Mourning”. Sometimes our protagonists arrive too late by far to solve the problems but must instead do their best to clean up the results and try to pull together some clarity out of tragedy. This story is wonderful, I adore both Penric and Desdemona, and the world building remains incredible, but the situation is complex and difficult and the best solution is the one that mitigates the harm because there’s no avoiding it.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

The Last Graduate
Lesson Two of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
September 28, 2021

I loved the first book in this series, A Deadly Education, which was listed as book one of two, and I loved this one which is listed as book two of three, and I cannot wait until book three comes out! Because this book was a game changer and then ended immediately after the climax, so there’s none of the fall-out. It’s not exactly a cliff-hanger in the normal sense of it, because it does come to a successful conclusion, but oh man, what happens next???

In the previous book, our main character El, had finally started to make a few rare friends and form alliances. Her magic affinity is for large-scale destruction which makes the growing up process really difficult and in a school with a 1-in-7 survival rate, life is already extremely difficult. But when your school is much coveted for it’s survival rate which is so much higher than the 1-in-100 rate of anywhere else for adolescent magicians, clearly some large scale destruction to change the whole situation would not necessarily be a bad thing, if only it were properly directed.

There’s a pattern that I don’t see nearly often enough in books of having the resolution fundamentally change the world (preferably for the better, but really, at all.) Most conflicts get shown against an encroaching evil that is threatening the status quo, or alternately fighting against an evil that is currently in power so as to revert to a previous status quo. There’s something very freeing for the reader and impressive from the author to saying: the current situation is bad and the previous situation was bad too and we’re going to aim for something entirely new and different and better than anything before.

I imagine it doubles the amount of world-building that the author has to figure out, but it’s worth it! Plus, Novik is absolutely fabulous at world-building both in the large scale issues and in the constant little details of real world living that is both delightful and hilarious. Seeing the characters struggling to figure out how to live in the current situation but also find the space to think about how to change and what to change is so good and inspiring. After years of learning to accept a constant attrition rate of deaths, it’s hard for the students to learn to care again, not to mention embarrassing to admit that caring to a population just as trained against it. But they manage! And it is glorious!

This book is just so good on so many levels and made me so giddy that I had to immediately go back and reread the first book and then reread this one again. Just, so good!

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow
by Xiran Jay Zhao
October 7, 2021

O.O

Wowza.

This book.

The main character is kind of the embodiment of “Are you tired of being nice? don’t you just wanna go apeshit?” Yes. Yes, she does. And thus, so she does.

The book was described as a re-imagining of the life of the only ruling empress of China, Wu Zetian, in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy China that merges Pacific Rim with The Handmaid’s Tale.* There are giant mecha robots piloted by male pilots and powered by female concubines… who don’t tend to survive the process. Wu Zetian is a pretty peasant girl filled with rage. Her older sister was already sold to the army as a concubine and she’s going next, but she’s planning a revenge assassination rather than dutiful self-sacrifice.

In a society telling her that girls and women are naturally gentle and soft, appeasing and submissive, Wu Zetian knows that’s wrong from her own personality. As the book progresses, she peals back more and more layers of her own assumptions, revealing how aspects of the world that seemed like natural laws are instead very much man-made. What seems like basic history, is instead thick layers of propaganda difficult to even find the edges of. With lies and manipulations twisting any understanding of the world, moral decisions are nearly impossible. And the prize after every victory is a more difficult battle.

The whole book is a series of dramatic battles — mental, emotional, physical, you name it — that build to greater and greater heights, and the end is less a conclusion as it is a launching point. It’s extremely satisfying, so I wouldn’t call it a cliff hanger, but there’s no resting on one’s laurels in this universe. I really hope there’s a sequel and I also have no idea how the author will manage to write a sequel to this.

This is Xiran Jay Zhao’s first book, but I was first introduced to their twitter account and the very good, very funny analysis of various movies set in China and what they get horribly wrong, or occasionally right, examples: Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998).

I highly recommend this book, but also just wow: this character is amazing and she pulls absolutely no punches. And also her whole relationship situation is fabulous, summed up by her statement, “Love doesn’t solve problems; solving problems solves problems.” And she is out here to solve some @#$@%ing problems!

* Without having read The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m still going to assume it (much like Jane Eyre) would be vastly improved by the main character being more murderous. And Wu Zetian is here for that murderous response to subjugation.

Adventure Cats by Laura J. Moss

Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest
by Laura J. Moss
2017

This is a fun and inspiring book that I ran across at some point well after I’d already started taking my cat on walks with a halter and leash.* I thought to myself: this is a nonfiction book about adventure cats, my cat would definitely like to go on more adventures, so this might give me ideas.

And it did. Sort of. Maybe I’ll like outside adventures more if I have my cat with me. But as I’ve stated before, I find the concept of long walks a lot more interesting than the practice of it.

It turns out that I’m pretty much the exact opposite of the intended audience for this book. The intended audience is made up of adventurous people who are interested in seeing if they can get their cat involved in their lifestyle. My situation is that I am a standard couch-potato cat-owner who has stumbled across ownership of an adventure cat and now needs to figure out how to keep his life suitably enriched while also keeping him safe and me sane.

About half the book is made of short bios of various adventure cats and their people and what all is involved in their lifestyle. I adored these parts! So cute! There are cats who go hiking and camping and sailing and surfing and skiing and rock climbing and so much more. Awesome!

The other half of the book is focused on how-to instructions and lists of important information on how to safely go adventuring with a cat. It seems very useful and also highlighting that this is not my preferred method of relaxing or enjoying the world.

The directions on how to train a cat are also so slow and careful that it struck me as more of a deterrent than an inspiration to actually follow the method, but again: I’m not the audience of people who are adventurous and want a cat to match. I expect the written method is the correct way to train a cat, but my relationship with my cat is a lot more mutual training as I figure out how to accommodate his desires as much as I train him to accommodate mine.**

This book also ran into my standard pet peeve with pretty much all self-help books: they tend to talk to the reader with broad assertions (“you think”, “you feel”, “you respond”) that always make me feel particularly contrary (“you don’t know me!”), and I was getting that with this book as it simplified cat body language and responses in a way that was absolutely necessary for the scope of the book, but didn’t match my cat at all.***

A final warning: Every couple of pages this author uses a cutesy pun (being “purrpared”; anything being “pawsible”) and it’s way too cutesy for me.

Despite the various caveats, I do recommend this book. It is an inspiration to see about pushing the boundaries of what I do for my cat’s enrichment and maybe for my own enrichment too.

* As a kitten, my cat was extremely curious and completely fearless and had to be held back from stalking a flock of Canadian geese, and he doesn’t appear to have gained much sense of self-preservation since then.

** I didn’t have to lure my cat into liking the halter and leash: He wanted to go outside so I made wearing a halter and leash a condition of that, and it wasn’t so much leash training as it was compromise negotiation. If he came near the door, I would put the halter/leash on him, and he’d be allowed out. If he didn’t want the halter leash on him, then he shouldn’t come near the door as I was going out.

*** Yes, my cat got startled and poofed out with a full bottle-brush tail on a walk this weekend, but he also continued to explore and had absolutely no interest in returning to the safety of the house. Yes, at another point he froze absolutely still and then had to slowly approach and cautiously whack a fallen leaf like a dangerous enemy, but again, no interest in retreating to safety.

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!