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 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 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!

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.

Mumbo Jumbo

By Ishmael Reed

This book is something else! I picked it up on the basis of a short summary: during the Jazz age, a new dance takes people over uncontrollably, sweeping through the country. And yeah, I guess that’s sort of the basic structure that holds everything else together, but it is only the top gloss of a truly sprawling narrative.

In sheer scope of characters and plot lines, Mumbo Jumbo reminded me of Infinite Jest (though much shorter, only 217 pages), and after the most rudimentary of research (Wikipedia), I think it may exemplify postmodernism. Wikipedia defines postmodern literature as a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. Mumbo Jumbo checks off every last one of those, and truly deserves to be taught alongside Pynchon, Wallace, and the rest. I only wish I’d been able to participate in a class or even a book club to go through this novel in detail!   

Reed weaves so many allusions to historical, political, and cultural events throughout the plot (and even the occasional off-hand comment) that I’m sure I missed at least half of them. The ones that I caught, at least enough to follow up on with more research (Wikipedia again) were fascinating! For example, one of the plotlines revolves around Warren Harding’s run for president and people’s concern over his Black ancestry, which was a new one for me! I looked it up and it appears to have been a rumor spread by his unhappy father-in-law (debunked by DNA testing in 2015). On the other hand, every new fact about Warren Harding I read was completely bonkers, so I highly recommend reading both his and his wife Florence Harding’s Wikipedia pages.

Other plotlines include three Harlem mystics, devotees of different beliefs, in an amicable competition for believers (at least one of whom is possibly classic hotep?); art heists of European and US museums to return artifacts to their original countries; newspapers being used to send secret messages and either foment or quell various rebellions; a Haitian routing of a US invasion; among others. Each plot has a good half dozen characters with occasional overlap, all creating an extremely complicated but entertaining web.

I worry that I’m making this sound like slog, but while it wasn’t a quick read, the whole novel is also both very funny and emotionally engrossing. I really cared about the protagonists and their endeavors, and dreaded the machinations of the antagonists. The humor is both absurd and bitingly satiric, and the laser sharp cultural criticism still extremely resonant today.

The Last Ghost Series

By M Dressler

I See You So Close

Book cover for I See You So Close

I read a teaser that this was a small town murder mystery but with a twist: the investigating protagonist is a ghost disguised as a human! I was immediately hooked, wondering how does a ghost disguise themselves as a human?! It wasn’t until I had it in my hands that I realized it’s a sequel (I’ve done this before). I decided that it looked like it was enough of a reset in plotting that I could start with it, and the author does a fairly skillful job of getting any new readers up to speed, I thought.

Our protagonist ghost, Emma Rose, is traveling west to outrun ghost hunters, and it quickly established that this is a world in which everyone is aware of the existence of ghosts, but enough of the living find them troubling that ghost hunters are sent to “blast” them much as one would bring in an exterminator. So, I’m sympathetic to our protagonist’s wariness around humans, but her trigger finger to just kill them before they try anything makes me think the ghost hunters are probably all for the best.

Emma Rose ends up in a small town so wholesome and welcoming it immediately sent up a whole bushel of red flags for me, though it takes her a bit longer to realize that there is a dark secret lurking in its gold rush-era history. It is a really interesting look at what life and existence means, whether in current or after-life, and whether a “live and let live” philosophy should be extended to those not actually currently living. For me, the characters seemed a little flat, not stereotypes exactly, more just simplified, and the plot somewhat fussy and over complicated. Additionally, I found the language a bit stilted, and even wondered whether it was the fault of a weak translation, but not only does that not seem to be the case, the various cover blurbs raved about the poetics of the language.

The Last to See Me

HOWEVER, I went back to read the first novel, and it is so much better! It is much more introspective, focusing on the parallel plots of Emma Rose in life leading to her death, and her afterlife as she works through what this existence means, both to her and others. It all takes place in the same small coastal town in which she lived and died, with a much smaller cast of characters, so the book can really delve into the themes of life, freedom, and justice in really powerful ways. Both novels are told in first person by Emma Rose, who is complicated enough to be not necessarily likeable, which gives some really nice philosophical depth to this first book. I think this same narration may have contributed to some of the flatness of the other characters in the sequel, since they are only really seen through Emma Rose’s eyes and thoughts.


Between reading these two books out of order, my twitter feed was full of  SF/F twitter justifiably furious at a reviewer for panning a sequel for not standing alone, leading to this extremely thorough and entertaining takedown. For many reasons, I did not commit nearly her level of insult (I’m writing on my personal blog with a small audience, these are not epic fantasy novels, etc.), but even in this case, it really brought home to me what a disservice I’d done to both books. I think the second book isn’t as good as the first, but now I’ll never have a chance to read that second book fresh but with the knowledge of the first behind it, so I can’t ever be sure. I enjoyed the first book much more than the second, but I think I would have liked it even more without the spoilers I picked up from the second.

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.)