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.

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!

Point of Hopes

By Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

Melissa Scott may be my new favorite author, and I just ran across her by chance when browsing SmashWords.* I am so, so happy to have found her now, but also wish I’d had her on my bookshelf decades ago. Point of Hopes reminds me of the books I loved as a kid, Patricia C. Wrede and Andre Norton in particular, but with more detailed and progressive world building. This is the first in a five novel series, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so thoroughly drawn into world!

First, the whole society is built around a complex astrology system. Major events and decisions are scheduled around fortuitous star positions, and birth charts can determine individuals’ job and status. For instance, if you have water signs, you will make a better sailor, and if you don’t, captains are much less likely to hire you on. Our main protagonist is the equivalent of a police officer (strong presence of planets in justice signs), and while he investigates several minor crimes as the novel establishes the setting and characters, he is then assigned to the major case of a recent slew of missing children and the simmering anger and panic it is causing throughout the city.

Speaking of simmering anger and panic, this novel (written in 1995!) features a neighborhood convinced that a foreign-run pub is somehow hiding the missing children, despite no evidence from repeated searches, eventually culminating in an armed attack. I seriously had to check the publication date again (which actually gets a little confusing, because I think it was first published in print in 1995, and then later e-published in 2012).**

Second, while the society is strictly stratified by class and the culture most closely matches the late Middle Ages in Europe, it is all subtly matriarchal. The author has a nice show-don’t-tell style, so the society comes together in bits and pieces through the perspective of our solidly middle-class protagonists. There is a queen, who is childless and expected to name a female relative as heir to the throne, and the highest positions in society, such as the city council, are predominately held by women. Overall, though, both gender and sexuality are unrestricted. Our secondary protagonist is a soldier recently decommissioned in the city, under suspicion as an outsider, but fully acknowledged and accepted as bisexual. A relationship between the two protagonists evolves over the series, but the first book simply introduces their friendship.

*SmashWords is one of the primary alternatives to Amazon for self-published authors. The website is fairly clunky and difficult to navigate, but they give the authors 85% of sales, which is worth it to me.

** I am almost positive that the eBook was generated with an automated text reader, since there are unfortunately a number of typos that would come from that process: corner turning into comer,  and ever into even, for instance.

The Goblin Emperor

A friend once told me that he had improved his life by deciding that he would never again read a book that started with a map. I have a similar philosophy about books that start with a list of characters. If there are going to be so many people with such complicated names that I won’t be able to keep up with all them without a family tree, I am not going to have the bandwidth to enjoy the story.

And then there’s the common issue with fantasy books that Justin McElroy so neatly summarized in this tweet:

Exactly! Just tell me who has the sword and get on with it! I will never remember which mountain range the trolls originally came from! By these measures, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison should absolutely not have worked for me. It starts with a glossary and a pronunciation guide and a chapter that reads like a description of elven culture from a Lonely Planet guide. Ten pages in I was deeply skeptical. But once I got swept up into the story I was so invested that I stayed up until 2:00 AM on a Tuesday because I was so desperate to find out what to this teenage half-goblin/half-emperor I had gotten so attached to.

Maia is the youngest son of the emperor of a kingdom of elves, but after his goblin mother dies he is exiled to the far edge of the empire and largely forgotten about. Until his father and older brothers are all killed in a airship crash. Overnight Maia becomes emperor and is thrust into the intrigue of a royal court he had never been allowed to even visit. He must master everything from dinner with his advisors to foreign relations to infrastructure development, all while trying to figure out who he can trust and who might take the opportunity to overthrow a teenage ruler with no allies. But Maia is smart and kind and determined to do things differently than his father. He never really wanted to be emperor, but once he gets there he is determined to do the best job he can, and I found myself very invested in his success and well-being.

If you are reader of a certain age, chances are you grew up spending a lot of time in used bookstores, unearthing weird old dusty paperback fantasy novels that you could buy for 25 cents. The Goblin Emperor reminds me of those books in so many ways–it has the timeless feel of a classic. But it’s also a book written by a woman in the last decade, which gives it a refreshingly modern twist. Maia would never talk about “social justice,” but he is a mixed-race ruler who doesn’t understand why he should be making decisions that benefit rich nobility rather than his poorest subjects. As a modern-day reader, classic sci-fi and fantasy sometimes has to be read through gritted teeth as it casually drops weird racist and sexist ideas. It was a pleasure to read a classic fantasy story that reflected ideas of equality and justice.

The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, but I’m glad I came across it now, because in June a sequel is being released and I will be first on the list for it.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Coming-of-age court intrigue

You might also like: We’ve talked about the Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner so many times that I almost hate to mention it again, but those books are wonderful and feature the same sort of twisty negotiations and constantly shifting alliances. But I would also recommend the television series The Great on Hulu, which tells the story of Catherine the Great’s introduction to the Russian court in a quite darkly comedic way.

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.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

The House in the Cerulean Sea Cover Image

Just hours after I finished this book and started recommending it to most everyone I know, Alison at Ask a Manager named it her favorite book of the year, so I feel in very good company telling you to read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TK Klune. It is absolutely charming and, look, everyone likes it!

It’s a very simple set-up–Linus Baker is a caseworker who investigates the orphanages that care for, or possibly detain, children with magical abilities. He has a very specific, prescribed job and lives a very specific, prescribed life when he is given a special assignment to check out a house on a small coastal island. And to check out the man who oversees the children there. I would not say that this is a particularly subtle book, but it is done so well you won’t care at all. Even thought I was pretty sure I knew from the beginning where the story was going to go, I still couldn’t put it down. If you’ve ever been on vacation to the beach, you know that feeling when you first get there and you step out of the car and breathe in the wind and salt and see the water stretching out before you? And sort of feel this big exhale of relief and your shoulders drop and you feel a sense of calm settle over you for a minute? That’s how this book made me feel.

And how gorgeous is that title and cover?

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Harry Potter meets . . . Joe vs. the Volcano?

You might also like: The Ten Thousand Doors of January, as well as Sourdough: or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market: A Novel. This book also shares a lot of DNA with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series (I reviewed the first one, Every Heart a Doorway, a few years ago), although I think The House in the Cerulean Sea is a bit sweeter. And I’ll take any opportunity to recommend Jo Walton–in this case, Among Us.

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.)