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 Chosen and the Beautiful

By Nghi Vo

Nghi Vo must have had this novel in the chamber ready to go, because it was published mere months after The Great Gatsby left copyright in January 2021. So, to brush off my decades-old literature degree, The Great Gatsby is basically a character study of one man, the titular Jay Gatsby, and the character is also more a metaphor for the corrupting deception of the “American Dream” than an fleshed out person. There’s a lot of room to fill out the lives, thoughts, and feelings of all the characters, and Nghi Vo does that very well.

The narrator is Jordan, the thinnest of the central five characters in the original, so with the most room for creative exploration, and Nghi Vo sure takes advantage of that! She’s now Vietnamese, adopted as an infant by a wealthy white missionary, and now in young adulthood doing her best to ignore anything that makes her stand out from the other bright young things. She is also untrained but agile in the Eastern magic of paper cutting, and this magical element is what really diverges from the source.

It is mostly incidental to the plot but fascinating, and there were several times where I wish the novel had thrown out the source plot entirely to just explore this magical and much more diverse world. On the one hand, the multi-dimensional Jordan, Nick, Daisy, and Tom are more interesting to read about in detail (Gatsby remains a bit of an enigma); on the other hand, those details somewhat undo the pivotal central message and theme of the original.

The very act of adding dimension negates the sense of a flat façade that Fitzgerald created, but Nghi Vo also plays with that idea in interesting, and occasionally very literal ways, as with the magical paper cutting creating animated illusions. I think in the end, I found the book more interesting than enjoyable, and not up to the very high standards of her previous two novellas, which Rebecca reviewed last year, but with all that, I still think it is well worth the read.

Meddling Kids

By Edgar Cantero

Just read the blurb for this and see if you aren’t intrigued! I immediately put a hold on it and was eagerly anticipating its arrival, but upon reading quickly realized that it’s not really my thing. I get what Cantero is trying to do and I think it is really interesting, but for me, it doesn’t quite work. He wants both a winky satire/nostalgia piece and a dark, shocking horror/mystery, and they each undercut the other.

The first 50 pages were a bit of a slog, as Cantero set up the characters and setting. He really, really likes a simile, and I can’t say that I feel the same. Not everything has be like something else! Some things are just themselves! And often the similes got so convoluted, it actually obstructed understanding rather than assisted: “The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.” What does that even mean?! “From the mining equipment buried in that station like implausible goodies found inside pyramids and hellgates for the use of video game characters, Andy picked up a few items she deemed useful.” Sigh.

Once the action picks up after about a hundred pages, I started enjoying it more for the plot itself. The characters are likeable enough once the author stops rhapsodizing over their physical and mental attributes. The plot really is a good one, too, flipping the standard cartoon final reveal of a man-in-a-mask to become a façade covering something much darker.

Meddling Kids would make a brilliant movie (with a pretty serious editing job), and the author clearly agrees, painstakingly setting up sequences of physical comedy and Rube Goldberg-like action that would look stellar on the screen, but bog down the pace for the reader. Of course, even those sequences are immensely clichéd – it’s meant to be, that’s part of the joke and the homage – but that also doesn’t prevent it from also being eye-rolling. The writing style very much isn’t for me, but I think a lot of readers would enjoy it much more than I did, as testified by the raving reviews and cover blurbs.* Also, to give credit where it is very much due, Cantero takes incredible care to avoid any serious animal harm: even the literal canary in the goldmine implausibly survives intact.

About midway through the book, I checked whether Edgar Cantero had made an appearance in The Midnight Society (he has not, as far as I know), which is one of my favorite twitter accounts. The author lovingly skewers a wide variety of horror authors in ongoing tweet-length dialogues, and it makes me laugh regularly and introduces me to some new authors and some truly wild details about authors I had thought I’d previously known!

*Though, actually, when I went on GoodReads to confirm this, the majority of reviews sound the same as mine – good premise, weak execution, and they brought up some more serious issues of outdated language referring to intersex, transgender, and lesbian characters, as well as some broad racial stereotyping. I was willing to give some leeway for this since Cantero is Spanish, and Spain and Latin American countries use different terms than we do (even in translation), but readers should definitely be forewarned about that.

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.

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 Twenty Days of Turin

By Giorgio De Maria

Written in 1977, The Twenty Days of Turin has been a cult favorite in Italy that only got an English translation in 2017. I was intrigued when I read reviews saying that this short novel (only 144 pages) depicts a proto social media far more accurately than any early cyberpunk authors. It’s not a spoiler to explain the setup: before the start of the novel, several young adults established “The Library,” where citizens of Turin could submit and read anonymous personal diaries. It was intended to help lonely and isolated individuals find connection with their neighbors, but quickly devolved into mean-spirited diatribes and grotesque confessions. Stunningly familiar, right?

After several mysterious, violent murders, The Library is closed down and most of the contents are burned. The novel is narrated by a local author several years later, attempting to investigate the unsolved murders and their connection to the library for a new book he is writing. He interviews several key people, and uncovers deeper levels of conspiracy in this cross between a noir mystery and a horror/fantasy novel. The conclusion ties in surprisingly with another current social debate, but elaborating any more would be a full spoil.

The pacing is odd, with long philosophical discussions between the narrator and his interviewees mixed with growing suspense and sudden outbreaks of violence in a very disconnected, dreamlike way. The narration did not always focus on what I expected to be the most interesting parts: there is less about the actual library than I’d have liked, and more description and backstory of each person interviewed than I felt was necessary. I wasn’t sure if the disconnect for me came from it being Italian, almost 50 years old, or in a genre I’m not overly familiar with.

I recommend it because it is short, interesting, and different, though not as mind-blowing or entrancing as I’d hoped on the first description. My library edition also came with two shorts, a supernatural short story featuring Lord Byron and some A+ satirical writing, and a somewhat dry essay on the new pop-rock music of the 70s and its cultural significance. Both were also very odd but entertaining in their different ways.

As an aside, the descriptive blurb on the novel says it was written during the height of domestic terrorism in Italy, and it made me wonder if in forty years the 20s would be considered the “height of domestic terrorism” in the U.S. For more context, I recommend this Goodreads review by Luca Signorelli, acknowledged in the translator’s notes as a key figure in bringing about the translation.