They Came to Baghdad

By Agatha Christie

I was first intrigued to read a spy adventure novel by Agatha Christie, rather than her more usual English murder mysteries, but it also turned out to be a disconcertingly timely read. Published in 1951, it is all very Cold War, with tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a planned global summit in Baghdad in an attempt to ease those tensions and prevent a third world war so soon after the second. It’s been a very odd week to read a book with such similarities and equal disparities to current events! (The Iraq of 1951 is also strangely discordant, since it is both through Christie’s blatantly prejudiced eyes, though she in fact loved the country herself, and before many of the subsequent wars that tanked its economy and culture.)

For all the overarching motivation of preventing war between America and Russia, it is really a story of England and Iraq, with the many English expats converging on Baghdad for a madcap variety of reasons. The whole plot has Christie’s classic clues and twists, but has enough screwball comedy to it that I’m very disappointed that no one has adapted it to film yet. Our main protagonist, Victoria, is a mediocre typist recently fired in London, who impulsively follows an attractive young man to Baghdad. She is more gutsy than intelligent (thus her initial poor decision making), but to the detriment of all the espionage around her, she is unexpectedly observant and also a somewhat compulsive liar. Christie’s mastery really shines in the final denouement, when all the smallest clues, including some that I had chalked up to minor writing flaws, came together very quickly in a very satisfactory way.

A very minor spoiler, the central conflict is explained to Victoria midway through the book, and hit me like a flash of familiarity:

Continue reading

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho
2020

This novella is described as a found-family wuxia* fantasy, so obviously I had to read it immediately. It was also a reminder to check in on this author whose previous books I’ve really enjoyed. This novella was really good and fit in quite well with both The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

It’s amusingly laid-back in tone given how action-packed it is. It’s full of twists and turns despite being quite short. The writing is a work of art and also hilarious; the characters and relationships are complex and play with expectations and stereotypes; and the world building is rich without being dense.

Having read it along with the Hugo-nominated novellas that Anna recently reviewed, it’s solidly grouped with them in my mind as also having been nominated since it was just as good and just as distinct. I highly recommend all of them!

* Wuxia is a genre of Chinese martial arts story that I’ve recently watched a lot of.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by El-Mohtar and Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War
by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
2019

This is a fascinating book that has both time travel and a branching universe physics as the background to a war between monolith entities, and all of that as a background to the relationship that builds/grows between Red and Blue, the respective top agents of each side. They are each other’s main foe and foil and the book starts when they begin an unsanctioned correspondence.

The authors make the extremely good decision to not explain how the technology works, or the physics of the universe, since that would simply bog down and distract from the relationship that is the focus. And so the hints and peaks of that background are little teasers that define a rich background and could act as prompts for a hundred other stories. But this story is about two agents who are closer to each other as enemies than they are to their allies, comrades, or commanders.

How, and why, (and when!) that relationship develops has it’s own twists and turns. While this is not a long book (less than 200 pages), there were several points where I thought I knew how it was going to go and then it twisted away in such a manner that was both completely unexpected and yet entirely perfect and how had I not seen that coming?

A good portion of the book consists of the letters that Red and Blue send to each other, so there are also three distinct voices in the text: Red, Blue, and the third-person omniscient narration that alternates which character it’s following. While the letters sometimes get a bit florid for my taste, it’s also interestingly true to the characters who write them.

This is a beautiful and fascinating story and I definitely recommend it.

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.

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Return of the Theif
by Megan Whalen Turner
2020

This is a tricky book to review but first, it is FABULOUS and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT!

Second, however, you need to read the entire series first and I don’t want to tell you anything about any of them because the twists and revelations are just that good. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you all of the twists and turns that happen over the course of this series, because nothing is going to spoil these books, and I can and do reread them with pleasure, however it seems criminally negligent to deprive anyone of their first experience with it.

So I’m going to say, go read The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and enjoy a wonderful light adventure story in a fantasy version of the ancient Mediterranean peninsula, and then read the sequel where consequences start to get real and then every other book after that. And don’t even read the back blurbs of each book until you’ve read the previous books.

One thing I will say about this particular book is that it is the sixth book in the series and a grand finale. I am incredibly impressed with Turner’s ability to stick the landing, because not many authors of series can do that. There are a number of different threads going through the whole series that she not only kept track of but ensured the reader could keep track of too. And in addition to the main conflict, there was a whole secondary thematic build-up that I never even noticed happening until it came to a head in this book. I enjoyed it in the previous books and had sort of noticed it becoming more intense in each book but hadn’t given it much thought until this one and just, ooooh!

This book is also possibly the twistiest of all the books as new revels keep on happening and every character has their own complexities, and themes from previous books have reprisals, and just, my god, this book was amazing and this series was amazing and this is an amazingly worthy climax. 

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

Fanfiction: The Untamed/GoDC edition

I have now read a lot of fanfic for The Untamed / Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I figured it was time to make some recommendations here for some of the best of them. It was extremely hard to weed it down to just four, and I had to struggle to try to keep them solidly distinct from one another (there tends to be a lot of overlap in fanfic) and generally happy (canon gives a lot of opportunity for angst). And not too explicitly graphic, although I compromised that one a bit.

So here are my four recommended fanfics, in order chronologically through events and also in order of humor, from heart-wrenching to hilarious:

   DURING CANON, there’s always going to be a certain amount of angst:

Devoutly to Be Wished
by yunitsa
word count: 3,032

Summary: Five (and half) times Wei Wuxian fantasies about Lan Wangji, and one time he doesn’t have to.

Why I recommend it: I was going to keep this list of recommendations strictly non-graphic and then I realized that I had to include this one because it’s a gorgeous and heart-breaking look at the main character and his desire for his beloved as he grows and changes.

   IN THE MISSING YEARS, there’s a surprisingly less angst:

Scapegoat
by astrobandit
word count: 1,325

Summary: four ridiculous things the Yiling Patriarch was blamed for, and one ridiculous thing that was positively his fault.

Why I recommend it: The canonical storyline switches between the past and the present with a good decade in between the end of the past and the beginning of the present, and in that time Lan WangJi appears to have decided that he has no more fucks to give and it is glorious. This story is a few very short vignettes that show just how done with everyone’s idiocy he is. Glorious!

   IMMEDIATELY POST-CANON, specifically to the TV show

The Absolutely True Story of the Yiling Patriarch: A Manifesto in Many Parts
by aubreyli
word count: 19,692

Summary: In which the junior disciples (namely, Lan Jingyi, Ouyang Zizhen, and a reluctant Lan Sizhui) turn to RPF in an attempt to rehabilitate Wei Wuxian’s reputation so that he and Hanguang-jun can get together and get married and live happily ever after. It’s… surprisingly effective.

Why I recommend it: This is both beautiful and hilarious and does an amazing job of capturing that dichotomy that’s also present in the original story of balancing humor and drama.

   FURTHER POST-CANON, our main couple are an established couple and dealing with other things:

A Civil Combpaign, and it’s companion, Besieged
by Ariaste
word count: 31,015

Summary: “And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what?”
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Why I recommend it: This is side-splittingly funny. I had to struggle through some second-hand embarrassment but it’s worth it because this is the most awkward courtship attempt ever between two of the younger generation with our main couple established and looking on. And Wei Wuxian’s perspective on it all is an utter delight. Also, in some ways, this version of Wei Wuxian reminds me of Eugenidies from The Thief.

 

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

mdzs coverThe Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 
Written by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Translated by: K.san
2018-2019

This is a phenomenon.

I first discovered this because someone I follow on tumblr was posting a steady stream of amazingly beautiful screencaptures of beautiful people and scenes from the show, The Untamed, showing on Netflix.

theuntamed

I convinced Anna to try it out with me, and we were quickly enthralled and had to watch all 50 episodes even though the plot was confusing enough that we had to read the episode summaries before watching each episode and then discuss the events to make sure we understood what was going on.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that we were dealing with names that we weren’t used to, so mostly gave everyone a nickname: Protagonist, Beloved, Beloved’s brother, Protag’s brother, Protag’s sister, Red girl, Red guy, Fan guy, Douche, Psycho, Douche’s Cousin who makes Douche look better in comparison… etc.

It says something about how charismatic the acting is that we were drawn in despite the initial confusion.

So, we watched all 50 episodes and it was done. There was an amazing and beautiful conclusion. But also: what was I going to do with my evenings now????

I mean, the answer is clearly: fanfic. But before that, I discovered was that the tv show was based off a book, Mo Dao Zu Shi, that has a freely available online fan translation, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by K.san, of all 113 chapters plus 13 “extras”.

There is action and adventure and mystery and intrigue and magic and it is so freaking funny. What was funny in the tv show is ten times funnier in the book because we get the internal monologue of our main character. What was subtext in the tv show is very much text in the text. On the other hand, what was known-but-unspoken by the characters in the tv show is dumb-ass boys being absolutely terrible at communication in the book.

Anyway, this is an east asian fantasy world with swords and magic and ghosts and a variety of supernatural spirits that are probably more culturally known in China but easy enough to just go with as an American reader.

The basic premise, is that a much reviled and yet also much respected character was killed some sixteen years before the start, but has been brought back to life as part of a revenge (on someone else) plot. Wei Wuxian finds himself alive again, somewhat insulted that his reputation after death had gotten so bad that someone brought him back to life to kill their family. And things quickly spiral from there, because sixteen years is just long enough for the next generation to start dealing with the world but not enough for the earlier generations to have forgotten Wei Wuxian or moved on.

There’s a lot of flashbacks in the book as we alternate between seeing what’s going on now, with the newly alive Wei Wuxian, and what happened prior to his original death, and how it got the point where he was killed in a coordinated attack. Meanwhile Wei Wuxian and Lan WangJi have the most slow-burn, mutual-pining, idiot-boys-cannot-communicate, romance going on in both time periods.

It also starts off quite funny, and gets progressively darker as it goes along, even as it maintains some of the humor, and finally breaks through into lightness again at the end.

All this goes to say, I loved this and I want to recommend it to everyone who thinks they might like this kind of fantasy action shenanigans, but if the genre is not your thing, then I’m not sure if the book is good enough to break through. But maybe give the tv show a try just to see.

However, a couple of warnings:

Warning #1: the translation is very, very good for an amateur, but is rough for a professional. I did find the translator notes quite interesting as she discussed some of the word choices she made. And since she was posting the translated chapters as she went, it’s also interesting to see how the translations changed and improved over the course of the full book.

Warning #2: there is explicit sex near the end of the book and even more in the “extra” chapters after the story arc is complete. The scenes say more to me about the author’s kinks rather than staying true to the characters. Since the kink in question, playing with consent issues, is kind of my anti-kink, even when it’s clearly desired by both, I didn’t care for it and look forward to fanfic fixing that particular aspect.

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

OrphansOfRaspay1The Orphans of Raspay
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

Yay! Another Penric & Desdemona short story by Bujold! For the first time, Amazon’s update email was actually useful to me despite going out a full week after the novella was published on July 17th. Normally I stalk Bujold’s listing much more carefully but I’ve been busy recently and thus only learned about this title on the 24th when Amazon finally got around to emailing me.

It is a delight! It’s also a novella of extreme self-indulgence, with both plot and character arc being mostly absent, but adventure and swashbuckling in quantity!

This is also an amazing example of what you can get away with if you set up the world-building right. Because in this fantasy world, there are five gods (father, mother, son, daughter, and bastard) and Penric is a devotee of the Bastard: literally the god of luck (good and bad) and all things out of season. And thus, it actually makes perfect in-universe sense for Penric to have amazingly good and bad luck in all things, especially when one takes into account his demon Desdemona who sheds chaos even as she also provides him with extraordinary powers.

The story starts with his ship being attacked by pirates and continues on in wacky hijinks after he’s taken on the temporary guardianship, as best he can, of two young orphans who were also taken by the pirates.*

This is an utter delight and I have no idea how comprehensible it is to anyone who hasn’t read the rest of the series but I’d be interested to know if it’s so indulgent that it actually can stand on its own. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life (or, in this case, week-in-the-life) of a temple sorcerer in a fantasy world.  And I love it!

* While I love this story, here’s a warning for pirates being pirates and actually genuinely bad and there are threats of sexual assault.

The Bedlam Stacks

By Natasha Pulley

Bedlam_StacksOh, man, you guys! This book is so good! The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and I’d forgotten how good that novel was, too! They both have this beautiful atmosphere of dreaminess and suspense, and all the characters are so smart and interesting, even when they are at odds with each other, and the dialogue is so witty!

So, The Bedlam Stacks is about a guy who works for the East India Company as a smuggler, which the book fully recognizes is super problematic. Merrick Tremayne travels around the world, steals other countries’ protected resources and brings them back to London for the English company to sell at a huge profit. When the story starts, he has been injured in China and convalescing at his decrepit family estate. Though he isn’t fully able to walk yet, the company asks him to go to Peru to steal some cuttings of a native tree that is the main ingredient of the only known malaria cure at the time.

I would say that this is a stand-alone book and you don’t have to read The Watchmaker first, but you actually do. There is very little overlap in characters and setting, but to borrow from the clockwork theme, there’s a small but important cog in the story that you won’t understand if you don’t already know the secret of The Watchmaker. One of the very cool chapters when things start falling into place won’t make any sense at all, and will probably just confuse everything worse.

That said, The Watchmaker had one key magical element that transformed the very mundane London setting. The Bedlam Stacks exponentially expands the world-building to an entire region in Peru, where what we would consider magic is built into the way of life, both to the benefit and detriment of the locals. I loved it, it broke my heart, and I can’t stop thinking about it!