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Books That Will Cause Problems On Purpose

Have you ever gone through a stressful time in your life and then thought well, now that I have some free time, why don’t I create some problems for myself?

If so, don’t worry! I have just the right reading list for you.

Low-Level Problems


Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney: compared to a lot of other books on this list, Desdemona and the Deep is a really nice, straightforward, very queer novella involving humans just as much as fae or goblins. However, and I say this especially for ESL speakers like me, keep a vocabulary/some reliable internet translator at hand. Context won’t be enough; you’re going to need it.

  • Desdemona and the Deep, describing anything: …and they glowed with that gallimaufry of moonlight, twilight, and predatory flower-light…
  • me, a confused Italian: wtf is a gallimaufry??
  • Desdemona and the Deep, grinning up to its “festooned eyelids”: …and Chaz spared them a single glare from her alluvial larimar-on-scarlet eyes
  • me: oh sure. I know how that looks like

It’s intentionally over-the-top, and it’s a really fun time if that’s not too much for you. For me it wasn’t, because I like books that cause me problems and make me learn something, even if that something is a word I will never use, like “gallimaufry”.


Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: I’m ranking this in the low-level problems category even though, I will admit, I didn’t fully understand this book nor was able to fully follow the timeline, but I got enough and getting more than that wasn’t necessary, because this novel is a masterpiece in being deceptively simple. Making a definitely non-linear story in which time repeatedly rewinds on itself feel linear is an achievement most authors don’t have the skill for. This feels straightforward, if weird – but it’s the farthest thing from the first, while the second describes it perfectly. My dear philosophical alchemical book. Unlike most of the books on this list, Middlegame goes out of its way to be readable, and it will still confuse you a lot!


This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone: when I say that this book feels like an overgrown short story, I mean that it’s written in a style you’re probably familiar with if you’ve read a lot of short SFF – evocative vague sci-fi with a lot of flowery thrown in. It’s… definitely not for those who don’t like poetry, despite not having any actual poetry in it. I will fully admit that I think this style works better in a shorter format, but this was still a remarkable book made out of very pretty confusion. It being epistolary time travel doesn’t help, but if you too are a simple gay who will persevere for the enemies-to-lovers spy F/F romance, you’ll reach an ending that is a delight.

Medium-Level Problems


The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley: I still have no idea what happened and hated almost every moment of reading this book (realistic and kind of apocalyptic near-future sci-fi about war… let’s just say it’s not my thing) but it was one of my favorites of last year and I think about it often. It has one of the best endings I’ve ever read, one that made reading a book I pretty much disliked everything about worth it, even though I’m still not sure anything about the book makes sense, because it’s one of those time travel books (those that make This Is How You Lose the Time War feel as if it made sense). What’s linear time, you ask? This book doesn’t seem to care.


Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: if it were up to me, this would go into the “low-level” tier, but it would be wrong to talk about Ninefox Gambit without taking consensus mechanics into account, and the crowd has spoken, mostly in the vein of Acqua, why does this read like a math textbook on acid. If you also happen to be completely immune to sciencespeak (I grew up around physicists, math space-fantasy cannot hurt me), I really recommend the mass murder magic math book! If not, you need the opposite ability than with Desdemona and the Deep: do not focus on the details. You’re not going to get them anyway, just like when your mother has decided she really, really needs to explain you that one math problem you didn’t get right now but you’re just trying to eat dinner: if the book tells you that “such a storm would scramble vectors”, just go with the idea that it’s something to avoid, whatever it might mean (if you have an overactive visual imagination like me, come up with your own very cool visual description of having your vectors scrambled! I recommend imagining a lot of fractals as you read this), and go on eating your scrambled eggs.


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente: if The Light Brigade wins the award for best ending, Radiance wins the award for best prologue, as the prologue itself is a retro sci-fi meta commentary on prologues, and it only gets weirder from there. Making sense of something is infinitely more difficult when you’re not able to discern what’s fictional and what’s not inside the canon of the book, which is what happens with a meta narrative ever-rewriting itself through excerpts of nonexistent films in an alternate, decopunk fantasy version of our solar system. The best kind of trippy! And, as this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” understands, you can never truly have too many genres.

High-Level Problems


Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko: this is the only book on the list I can confidently say I didn’t get. It was ominous and metaphysical and overwhelming, and technically it’s about a magical school (but was it really?). My confusion is probably the result of a combination of symbolism being lost in translation, me not being familiar with the cultural context this was created in, and this book being generally, uh, obscure. It’s still an interesting experience, as long as you’re fine with the distinct possibility that you won’t understand three quarters of what you read – it pretty much makes as much sense as its cover does, which is to say, I don’t know what that is, but it sure gives me a certain feeling.


Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: or, a compilation of things I’ve said about this book scattered around this blog and its comments

  • “It took me ten tries to get through the first chapter and I’m not even sure why I did this to myself, but I did it and now I feel accomplished”
  • “one of the most boring things I’ve ever read and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’ve also four-starred it because it’s great (it’s not. But it kind of is?)”
  • “I hate-read this book. I hate-read it because there was no way something as convoluted and heavy as this really got published and won awards”
  • “this is what happens when your novel is 90% worldbuilding and basically the book equivalent of a 18th century philosophy shitpost.”
  • “a terrible slog with cw: cannibalism levels of questionable content”
  • “if you want to read a story about the slow fall into chaos of a not-so-utopian utopia because of a heretical brothel, two deity children and a group of stabby celebrities, this may be for you!”
  • “I ended up giving this book four stars for the effort. The author’s or mine? I don’t know, but there sure was a lot of effort involved”
  • TL;DR: read it! Then judge me for recommending it to you.

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar: adult SFF authors in an experimental mood scare me and this book is the reason why. What about a novel in which there’s technically no time travel and the timeline would be, could maybe have been linear but there’s pretty much a time jump in every paragraph, if you want to call it that, because this isn’t so much a story as a staircase of moments sliding in and out of focus as you go up and down in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of memories? And not all memories would conform to every definition of truth. Reading it feels like trying to hold onto smoke, it’s an authentic lyrical headache – one I loved deeply, and the part called The History of Music will always be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Have you read any of these? Do you have any recommendations for this? [Also, why can’t “a problematic book” mean “a book that causes problems on purpose”. That would be way funnier]

12 thoughts on “Books That Will Cause Problems On Purpose

  1. Oh I looooved this post and now I’m thinking of these books as those cats who look at you in the eye as they push a glass off a table, you know, on purpose.

    “I ended up giving this book four stars for the effort. The author’s or mine? I don’t know, but there sure was a lot of effort involved” —-> the way I laughed out at this!!!!

    I’ve only read time war and I agree with what you said about it, especially it feeling like an overgrown short story. Middlegame is also on my definitely-TBR and NfG is on my TBR just because but I doubt I’ll ever be brave enough (same or similar thing for Too Like The Lightning, I added it so I could see it there and ask myself “wait what was that”, then remember everything you said about it and be reminded NOT to read it. sometimes my brain works like a contrarian)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the cat comparison dfkldjkj yeah they’re Like That!!

      I’ve been wondering if Time War started out as something that was meant to be much shorter and then just… grew because the authors were having too much fun

      I hope you like Middlegame! And with Ninefox Gambit, I don’t know if you’d like it djghdj I find it difficult to predict how people will react to it, even people I know well bookishly speaking. I don’t think Variations on an Apple is an accurate sampler of how it is either, but in a far future in which you’re not burnt out on short stories anymore you could try one set in that universe. Much less effort & probably accurate prediction of how you’d feel about the novel?

      About TLTL: that’s way more sensible than what I did with it (= take the fact that I couldn’t get into it personally) and I recommend continuing like that! It’s Not Worth It unless one really likes a challenge for the sake of it

      Liked by 1 person

      1. i think i will try the short story first, i didn’t mind the writing style in Variations but i also don’t know if i could take a whole book (series??) in it and if NfG is more complicated than that it might be A Problem fhsdklsd

        Liked by 1 person

  2. what an excellent post! (was waiting for The Winged Histories to show up the whole time ngl) i love how i’ve read/tried to read or plan to read all but one of them. your descriptions of Too Like the Lightning just keep making me want to try it more and more, not sure why. something about curiosity and cats?

    and yes the word problematic should mean that, absolutely.

    some other titles I can think of:
    The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark: this feels minor but it had some chapters in it i still don’t know what they meant. were they in the past? in the future? am i just dumb and it’s really obvious since i haven’t seen anyone mention them? (or maybe they were never real?)

    Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar: alternate realities blending together.

    The Stars Are Legion: i’m not sure how much about the under-world trip i really did understand.

    Annihilation: uhh…i think that one’s obvious? has VanderMeer ever written something Not Deliberately Confusing?

    Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr: current characters are reincarnated versions of past ones, and they are all bound by a messy tangle of relationships- different in each life of course! (the name guide at the end was a life saver)

    Bunny by Mona Awad: i tried twice and only lasted a few pages into it and i’m sad, bc from what i heard it’s confusing and very weird. (i will try a 3rd time for sure)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (Sorry for not answering earlier, this somehow ended up in the spam folder and I don’t check it as often as I should!)

      About TLTL: maybe it’s because in a way it comes across that I do want other people to read it, just so that we can talk about what even was that. I also can’t really outright recommend it because I don’t necessarily think it’s good, so…

      Daggerspell sounds like a terrible time! Of course I’m curious now

      I didn’t think about The Stars Are Legion because I mostly found it straightforward but gross? But maybe there are things the book implied that I didn’t look for or understand (I don’t trust 2017!me) so that the weirdness that isn’t based on gore didn’t even register. I think I just went along with it. Same with Annihilation, probably – and it’s interesting to me that in both cases it’s biopunk horror. Something about this genre makes it feel less weird to me than it actually is, because I didn’t even think of them while writing this.

      I’ve heard some vague things about Bunny and it really does sound like an Experience. Let me know how it goes if you make it through?


  3. I love Middlegame, but yeah, I agree it’s an unusual ride in terms of the timeline. Deceptively simple is the perfect phrase! Even though I had a bit of an “OHHHHHHH NOW I GET IT” moment towards the end, it still made a lot more sense on the reread 😛

    Liked by 1 person

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