Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

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Adult · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley

43801821._sy475_I could sum up my thoughts about Meet Me in the Future by saying that all the stories were, if not always good, at least solid, but not one of them was memorable on its own the way I find short stories can be.
These stories are not pretty. They’re not necessarily satisfying. They would, however, be really interesting to discuss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the whole purpose of how some of these were written. They’re meant to be shared and talked about, not read and put down, I think.

As you’d expect from something Kameron Hurley wrote, many of them are about war. War is an element in the past, still casting a shadow on the main character (Elephants and Corpses), it’s something that is seen as inevitable by a society, but is also a direct danger to it (The Red Secretary, oh had this story a lot to say), or something that is paradoxically seen by some as “bringing civilization” even as it actually destroys it (The War of Heroes), something that is always inherently tied to the dehumanization of someone (When We Fall) and horror, horror, horror as much as an instrument to keep the attention away from the actual enemy (The Light Brigade – I recommend skipping this one if you want to read the book, however), something that needs to end (The Improbable War).
Not all of these were anything remarkable when read on their own. Inside the collection, it’s a running thread, and there is for sure a lot to discuss.

There’s also, of course, a lot of queerness and discussions about gender. The collection starts with a body-hopping mercenary who happens to be a trans man (Elephants and Corpses), and presents gender as something not tied to bodies, even though still relevant to the person, and continues with stories about violent matriarchies (The Women of Our Occupation, possibly my least favorite story, I’m not that interested in reading about speculative reverse sexism), stories in which gender is never stated (The Light Brigade), stories in which there’s only one gender (Warped Passages), and stories in which there are at least four different genders recognized by the society (The Plague Givers, my favorite story). In these stories, women are allowed to be ugly, to be dirty – queer, disabled, brown women are allowed to be all of these things without ever be seen as anything but wholly human, the way a man could be portrayed. The idea that women have to be beautiful is so woven into everything, even everything fictional, that these stories almost feel jarring.
And, since we’re talking about women and imperfections, here women are allowed to be evil or morally gray, humans with the capacity to experience a full spectrum of emotions. I will always be there for portrayals of queer women that are all but soft and unproblematic; in Garda we get a woman who is divorcing from her two wives (if the story had been about that, instead of becoming about a mystery with a main character who wasn’t Nyx but felt exactly like Nyx from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I would have liked it a lot more), and in The Plague Givers we get a story about the consequences of a very toxic f/f relationship in a world where magic can bring plague (I loved this one so much).

There are a couple stories that felt like filler (notably, The Fisherman and the Pig was a completely unnecessary sequel to Elephants and Corpses), but overall, this is a collection with a lot of things to say; the average rating might be a weak 3.5 stars, but the whole is more than a sum of its parts.

My overall rating: ★★★★

Individual ratings:

  • Elephants and Corpses – 4 stars
  • When We Fall – 4 stars
  • The Red Secretary – 4 stars
  • The Sinners and the Sea – 3.5 stars
  • The Women of Our Occupation – 2 stars
  • The Fisherman and the Pig – 2 stars
  • Garda – 3 stars
  • The Plague Givers – 4.5 stars
  • Tumbledown – 4 stars
  • Warped Passages – 4 stars
  • Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light – 2.5 stars
  • Enyo-Enyo – 3 stars
  • The Corpse Archives – 2.5 stars
  • The War of Heroes – 3.5 stars
  • The Light Brigade – 4.5 stars
  • The Improbable War – 3 stars

Do you rate anthologies with the average rating of the stories or do you have another system?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

42201485Hexarchate Stories is a collection of stories – from flash fiction and prose poems, both old and new, to a sequel novella – set in the universe of the Machineries of Empire series.
While many of these stories develop the worldbuilding, give a PoV to characters that were only minor in the trilogy, and give you some insight into how this series came together, they’re not necessary to understand it. Nor – I think – would mean a lot to someone who isn’t familiar with the main trilogy. I would recommend this mostly to those who loved this universe and want more.
As I’m part of said those, I’m glad these stories exist, and I’m glad that I can find most of them in only one place now.

This collection starts with The Chameleon’s Gloves, following Rhehan, an alt (non-binary person) who is trying to pull off art theft and gets roped into something much more dangerous instead, something that will make them question their loyalties. This was interesting mostly because of its worldbuilding, as it’s set before everything we saw in the series came into being.
Of mostly historical significance is also Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam, snapshots about a faction then gone heretical, which made me realize just how much the Hexarchate misunderstands its own history.

And I can’t not mention the gorgeous prose poem How the Andan Court. I’ve always been intrigued by the Andan faction, mostly because a) pretty and b) we see a lot of the inner workings of the Shuos, but not of the Andan, but from the little we see of actual Andan in the series they’re equally terrifying.
And now I want them to court me instead

There are also stories following Jedao’s childhood and family. They’re bittersweet, especially if you know what happens later, and really interesting, because Garach Ledana is a very fascinating person and because foreshadowing. The one in Rodao’s PoV was especially heartbreaking, as I can’t help but wonder about all the what ifs.
(Also, of course kid!Jedao cut class to play jeng-zai)

Then there’s Extracurricular Activities, the novelette that introduced me to this series. It has all the humor of the series, but it’s much lighter in tone; I’ve read it probably more than ten times by now, and every time I catch some new detail that makes me laugh. (The part about eating utensils and Jedao’s thoughts about knives never fail.)
It’s just – Jedao. He’s a charming, murderous bisexual disaster?
Also, here you’ll get more details about his mother, about the Gwa Reality, and you’ll get to read probably the closest thing to a (m/m) romance there is in this series, apart from the Brezan/Tseya storyline, maybe.

Far less romantic is Gloves, in which Jedao visits a brothel, feat. forbidden Kel uniform kink. Basically PWP, but as I suspected, there was some seriously ugly context, because my experience told me that when this author takes the time to describe a sex scene instead of just mentioning it – at least in this universe – there’s always some seriously ugly context.
And I mean, that was one messed up ending.

Another story I read before the actual trilogy is The Battle of Candle Arc, about of one of Jedao’s most well-known battles, in which he was outnumbered eight to one. I’ve read it a lot of times by now, and every time, my favorite parts are the ones about cross-faction bickering and the Jedao/Menowen dialogues.

Then there’s Calendrical Rot, which started out as the prologue of Ninefox Gambit but was then removed. It’s just a fragment about one of the many places in which the story began, and now I have questions, and is it weird that unanswered questions just make this world feel more real?

The following stories (BirthdaysThe Robot’s Math LessonsSword-ShoppingPersimmons) are about Cheris, her Mwennin upbringing, and her relationship with servitors. I love how Cheris is simultaneously a math lesbian and a sword lesbian, this is the kind of representation we need
The servitors have never been my favorite part of this series, but reading about how they see humans and how they interact with them, especially with Cheris, is always interesting.

Then there are two stories following some of my favorite characters: Irriz the Assassin Cat, of course, which is probably my favorite of the flash pieces, because it’s about Zehun and cats and Shuos parenting, and Vacation, about Brezan and Tseya, featuring questionable Nirai experiments.

The last short story is Gamer’s End. I’m not sure where it’s placed timeline-wise, but it’s a really interesting piece in second person about Shuos Academy’s new ethics curriculum. This is probably the most unethical way to have a test about ethics anyone has ever come up with, but what can you expect from the Shuos?
Also: a medical unit decored with knitted lace? Mikodez, why. (No, seriously, half of the reason I like this series are this kind of details.)

And then there’s the sequel novella, Glass Cannon, in which Jedao Two escapes the Citadel of Eyes to get his memories back from Cheris, and the two kind of reconcile in the process. I have some mixed feelings about this, because it has an exposition problem. I think there was an attempt to make this novella accessible to those who haven’t read the main series or don’t remember it that well, but it… really didn’t flow smoothly the way the rest of the series does. (How many times did you need to directly tell me that Kujen liked luxury?)

Also, I’m not sure if there are going to be more stories in this universe, but reading a very open-ended sequel novella after the trilogy had a pretty satisfying conclusion is… somewhat disappointing? However, there were some things left open in the third book, and this novella started to deal with them (servitor rights! moth rights! Seriously I love the Harmony), and Jedao Two was in a terrible place mentally when we left him – at least what happened here seems to have made that better. Also, Cheris now knows more details about what happened with Dhanneth, which is something I had hoped would happen in Revenant Gun, and I’m glad that was addressed, if somewhat obliquely.

I realize that so far what I’ve said about this novella sounds mostly negative, but I actually really liked reading it – it’s hilarious. As Cheris/Jedao and Jedao Two are both Jedao to a level but not fully, and as no one alive hates Jedao quite as much as Jedao himself does… well, it goes exactly as messily as one could think. It reminded me of Extracurricular Activities, as it has all of the humor and some of the darkness of the main series but none of the heaviness. And since I’m always there for mirroring, something about this ending made a lot of sense to me, too.
(My favorite parts were the ones in which Jedao was described as “the regenerating menace from outer space” and “what did the void vomit forth”.)
Also: Niath cameo (I’m so glad he seems to be doing ok, even though I hadn’t really met him before), Hemiola cameo, and poor Mikodez.

My rating: ★★★★½ [5 for the short stories, 4 for the novella]

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

First, some backstory: if you’ve been here since 2017, you probably remember me reviewing Ninefox Gambit before and are probably tired of hearing me talk about it, too. And I have – it’s just that, at the time, I wasn’t that fluent in English, and that review is a mess – so I decided to review this book again (and turn the settings of the old one to private). I want to be able to link something coherent when it comes to a book I often talk about.

So! Here’s Acqua’s review of Ninefox Gambit on sixth reread.


NinefoxGambitNinefox Gambit is my favorite book.
It’s the kind of novel I could reread over and over and still get something new from – this was the sixth reread in two years for me, and I’m still discovering things about this world.

But let’s get to what Ninefox Gambit is. This is a story about sieges: Cheris’ siege of a space fortress, and Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ values, beliefs and mind. And it is, in fact, a very twisty book, without needing that many shocking plot twists – just layers upon layers of mind games present and past, slowly unraveling towards a partial truth.
I say “partial”, because this book will almost never straightforwardly reveal that a certain character was lying in a particular moment, which, in a book in which most non-PoV characters are often at the very least lying by omission, makes for an interesting exercise in ambiguity. You know some of them are liars. Being able to tell when they’re lying – well, that’s not always as easy, and a few things are left for you to interpret.

I often see people say that this book is hard to get into, because “it doesn’t explain enough” – which is said both about the way it relies on hints and subtext and about the worldbuilding, which is, admittedly, one of the most unique (read: outright bizarre) I’ve ever read. I strongly disagree. I really appreciate when a book trusts its reader to keep up, to figure things on their own. Maybe it will take more of my attention, and it won’t be an easy read, but I’m glad to not have to wade through infodumps every time I reread. It’s a graceful writing choice, in my opinion.
(Also: if a 17-year-old ESL speaker made it, you probably can too.)

Ninefox Gambit is deceptively short. It’s barely longer than 300 pages, and yet it’s one of the few books that managed to convince me that there’s an entire universe of things happening outside the Scattered Needles siege, an universe with a complicated and often ugly history, and I love how wide it feels, how high the stakes are at the end.
It mostly follows two characters, whom I love with my whole heard, even though they’re terrible.
🦊 Kel Cheris, math lesbian and professional trouble magnet, narrates most of this book. She makes friends with AIs (“servitors”), joined the military faction because she wanted to fit in, and got caught up into a scheme that led her to be anchored to Jedao’s ghost and leading the swarm (space fleet) in the Scattered Needles siege. Deserves a nap. Unlike many of the characters, she still has a somewhat functioning moral compass.
🦊 Shuos Jedao, bisexual disaster, was a general who lived centuries before the siege, and he is well known for never losing a battle and for having slaughtered his own army during his last one for apparently no reason. He’s not the kind of person you think of when you think about mass murder – he’s charming, far from unfeeling, likes talking to people, and is mostly a pleasant person to be around. Until he’s not. With every reread, I realize more and more how much of a manipulative bastard he is – this is one of the few books in which the manipulative character not only was actually good at manipulating, but the book made me believe he was.

And the Cheris-Jedao dynamic? So fascinating. It reminds me of how much can be done with relationships that aren’t romantic in the slightest when you develop them enough.

There are other relevant characters I love, like Hexarch Shuos Mikodez (the morally messed up and aroace highlight of book two), and Hexarch Nirai Kujen, the evil scientist who reads like the sci-fi version of a fae (cruel, beautiful, impossibly ancient). A few chapters are told from the PoVs of minor characters to show what’s going on while Cheris and Jedao’s ghost are in the command center. And even those characters left an impact on me, and that’s not easy to accomplish.

I also, of course, love the worldbuilding to pieces. It’s Korean-inspired space opera with a math-based magic system that is affected by people’s beliefs and by the system of timekeeping they implement. It’s fascinating and not easy to understand at first, but I loved it for its beauty and weirdness – for a bloodthirsty space dystopia where war and ritual torture are the norm, the Hexarchate is beautiful in an unsettling way. And it’s also very queer; this book has an all-queer cast, and it’s the demonstration that you can write about queer people living in objectively horrible places without writing queer trauma porn (there are no homophobia or sexism in this book, and it’s still very much a space dystopia.)

And one last thing, before I turn this review into a book in itself: I love how this novel plays with ableist assumptions. The amount of people who don’t try to dig deeper in the circumstances around Jedao’s mass murder and take “madness” as a reason for what he did is… oddly realistic. As this book says, as straightforward as it ever gets, that’s not how things work.

My rating: ★★★★★

Trigger Warnings, if you need them – I think it’s better to go into this prepared (they’re not actually spoilers, but if you want to go into this without knowing anything more, don’t read this):

  • This is a story about war, which means that trigger warnings for extreme violence, gore, and mass death are necessary, plus graphic dismemberment and animal death because it’s that kind of book
  • This deals with suicide. There’s on-page suicidal ideation and the beginning of an attempt (character changes their mind). There are deaths by suicide, but they’re only mentioned and/or in flashbacks and don’t directly involve the main characters. There is, however, a scene involving dissociation from a PoV character.
  • Near the ending, there’s a scene in which a woman sexually assaults a man. It’s in the first pages of chapter 21 if you need to know where to skip/skim.
  • Also, mentions of torture, as ritual torture is how this universe works, but no explicit torture scenes.
Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

40523931I feel like I’m back to a Too Like the Lightning situation: The Light Brigade is just as unreadable as it is clever. But finished it, and I have feelings, so it must mean something. How do I even rate something like this?

The way I rated Too Like the Lightning, I guess.

My first reaction, when I finished this, was “I want to lie down somewhere and look at the stars”. Which, one could think, is an odd thing to take away from one of the bleakest, most depressing books I have ever read – something I actively hated reading.
But the ending was… I don’t know if I can even describe what worked exactly about the ending. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.
And I think that it takes skill to write a book as bleak as The Light Brigade that still manages to make the reader feel something in the end that isn’t completely negative. Most SFF books about the horrors of war don’t do that (and I dislike them for it. I don’t know, I’m stressed and sad enough as is, and if I want more, I have real stories to draw from).

But I think it’s also fair to say that a book isn’t only its ending, and someone might want to know if reading 300+ pages of pure ugly is worth those last few chapters. For me…. it was, mostly.
There was nothing to keep me reading this book. Nothing apart from the fact that Kameron Hurley wrote one of my favorite books – and, to quote The Light Brigade, this probably also had an influence:

[…] there’s this thing called escalation of commitment. That once people have invested a certain amount of time in a project, they won’t quit, even if it’s no longer a good deal.

Anyway. I’m glad it worked in my favor, I’m glad this isn’t the first book I’ve read by Kameron Hurley, and I’m glad this made me trust her enough to finish The Light Brigade.

This is a novel set in a future in which corporations own everything, from infrastructures to healthcare to the people themselves and their access to information. And they’re in a war with the humans who settled on Mars, because the Martians are evil. Supposedly.
The worldbuilding here was… solid, for the most part. I had no idea how anything or anyone looked like, but if you look for novels in which the worldbuilding is focused on the themes and low on the details, The Light Brigade is exactly that. So much that one might even criticize it for lack of subtlety in its discussions on the role of war, the meaning of freedom and heroism, and its criticism of capitalism, but sometimes that’s necessary. Not because readers won’t get it, but because there was no way the main character wouldn’t react strongly in situations like these.

All of Kameron Hurley’s books end up doing interesting things with gender. God’s War had a woman in a stereotypically male role, The Stars Are Legion had an all-lesbian cast, and The Light Brigade has a main character who narrates the book in first person whose gender isn’t explicitly stated until the ending. Which makes sense, because why would it matter, in a book about a sci-fi war? But Dietz is also explicitly bi/pan, and while that doesn’t “matter” either – Dietz just is attracted to people of different genders – I really appreciated it.
Also, I think Dietz is afrolatinx too (lives in São Paulo and is of Ivorian descent).

The Light Brigade is also a very confusing read. It’s a story about a character who starts experiencing time jumps because of an unusual reaction to sci-fi technology. Which means that Dietz doesn’t experience time the way other characters do, and this story is very difficult to follow – there are still some details that are lost on me – but the way it adds distance between the tragedies and the main character oddly made it easier to read? It also meant that there was a lot of distance between the main character and all the side characters, and if you’re the kind of person who reads books for the interactions between characters, this is something to keep in mind. But I didn’t have a problem with the “all the side characters kind of blur together” thing, as I imagine that’s how it would feel to be around so many people who die.

I (mostly) hated reading this, and continued just because writing and pacing were great and because I trusted the author, but it also made me think about a lot of things, which I guess was the point. I don’t want to penalize a book for what it meant to do. Also, if a book has so many things I don’t like reading about in it – dystopian worlds, time travel, a lot of meaningless-feeling death – and still works for me?
It means it’s really good.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Review: Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

17913917Conservation of Shadows is my favorite short story collection.

On the surface, this is about beautiful sci-fantasy universes with complex magic systems – from spaceships tuned with music to quantum chess battles, from shadow magic to mythological characters coming to life from paper – and beautiful, terrifying technology, which includes shadow ink, killer stardrives, flying war-kites, guns that can erase a person’s ancestry, books that grow teeth.

But Conservation of Shadows is so much more than that.
There are so many themes addressed in these stories – colonization, the cost of war, suicide, the role of art, choice and fate, the importance of language – and the endings never let me down. All of it in the settings I mentioned before, and the beauty, the way the writing was enchanting sometimes, made everything even more painful when things went wrong.
It’s also a collection about the blurred line between science and fantasy, with science that looks like magic (magical scientists included) and magic that looks like science, and that’s probably my favorite aspect of Lee’s fiction.

Ghostweight (2011) – 5 stars
The best new story I’ve read this year so far and also the best new-to-me story in this collection.
It follows Lisse, a woman from a colonized city that was destroyed by mercenaries. She has lost her fathers, but she’s not alone: her people tie the ghosts of the dead to the living. The story starts when she and the ghost find an abandoned war-kite (if there was a competition for the best book spaceship, this would definitely win).
This is a story about memory and the way time changes it, but it’s also about war, cultural appropriation and… folding. I won’t explain why, but I can say that the art of folding paper is one of the main symbols in this story, and that the war-kite’s weapons unfold themselves from origami. It’s a beautiful, deeply sad story and I loved all of it.

The Shadow Postulates (2007) – 5 stars
Sword lesbian!! Sword lesbian!! Sword lesbian!!
This science-fantasy story isn’t set in space, but in Black College, and follows Kaela Navus, a shadow mathematician in a world in which shadows are magical and have been used both to write books and kill people.
This story is about casting your own shadow, and about learning to question things, learning to not take even postulates for granted. My favorite part was the ending, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love the rest of it too. It’s short and atmospheric, full of pretty descriptions (sword dancing!) and I loved reading about shadow math and creepy shadow science even if I didn’t understand any of it. Also, it’s about an East Asian-coded lesbian mathematician. I need a sequel in which she finds a cute sword-dancing girlfriend.

The Bones of Giants (2009) – 5 stars
A fantasy story following Tamim, a suicidal soldier who was raised by ghouls, going on a quest with a mysterious necromancer. Tamim meets Sakera while she’s raising the bones of long-dead giants. This story is as much about death as it is about living, and I always like to see characters struggling with suicidal ideation who do not die by suicide.
Also, there’s pretty necromancy and destruction! I love when the most terrible things get pretty descriptions without becoming any less terrible. Anyway, I loved Sakera, this setting, and I really didn’t see the ending coming.

Between Two Dragons (2010) – 4 stars
Imjin War retelling set in space. It was really interesting to see the parallels between this story, which is a close retelling, and The Battle of Candle Arc/Jedao’s backstory, which are also loosely based on the same historical events.
The main reason this got a lower rating is that the narration was weaker than it should have been. I don’t understand why it was told in second person, it made everything feel distant, especially since I know almost nothing about the narrator.
The main strength of this story is the symbolism, and the ending is really powerful because of it.

Swanwatch (2009) – 4.75 stars
This is a story about art and not glorifying suicide. In a space society in which suicide itself is a work of art – people throw themselves into black holes with “swanships” – a musician is sent into exile on a space station until she will compose “a masterpiece honoring the swanships”. I loved the ending, and the side characters were really interesting, but this story was too short to reach its full potential. There were a lot of great ideas that were just hinted at.
Anyway, as I said before, stories that deal with suicide in which the characters involved do not die by suicide mean a lot to me and this wasn’t an exception. Also, I really liked reading about a character composing.

Effigy Nights (2013) – 5 stars
Haunting.
This is a sci-fantasy story about war and occupation, and what they do to art, even to a whole civilization’s traditions, focusing mostly on mythology and stories. It’s the darkest story in the collection yet. There are book characters who come to life, magical science and scary libraries. The descriptions of the art and the city before the war are breathtaking – and this makes the whole thing even more sad.
The beautiful-but-fallen city aesthetic reminds me of Winterstrike and now I want to start it again.

Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (2010) – 5 stars
As wild as it was short. This is about the coexistence of free will and inevitability, seen through… the opposite of the theory of parallel universes? Features magical guns that can erase your whole ancestry, creepy human-looking AIs and almost-freezing water. Also many kinds of death and pretty writing that flows perfectly.
The beginning felt like home, which is to say it reminded me of a physics problem.
This is also the first story I struggled to “get”, because it’s… really philosophical – also, that was a weird ending, it took me two rereads to understand it and I’m still not sure I completely did. I loved it anyway.

Iseul’s Lexicon (2013) – 5 stars
The longest story in the collection, and also the only one that isn’t a reprint.
Iseul’s Lexicon is a fantasy story about a war on languages and “tactical linguistics”. The magic system is… creepy, with charms that devour languages – destroying civilizations in the process –, magic that can rise storm-horses and books that grow teeth. It may be set in a made-up country, but it’s loosely inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea, and some of the parts about linguistic are inspired by the history of Hangeul.
What stood out the most to me about this story was the way it experimented with format, as parts of it are written like a dictionary.
Part of the ending was predictable, but I didn’t mind that.

Counting the Shapes (2001) – 3.5 stars
The oldest story in the collection, and also the one I feel less strongly about. It’s set in a kingdom that seems loosely inspired by France, and that kingdom is being invaded by demons. The main character is a mathemagician (magical women in science!) who is trying to interpret a prophecy.
It’s not that there was anything wrong with this – it’s actually a solid story – it’s just not that interesting, and it doesn’t stand out here, not for the magic system or the plot or the prose. The worldbuilding had some aspects that intrigued me, mostly the many kinds of magic that exist, but that wasn’t enough.

Blue Ink (2008) – 4.5 stars
Another story that wasn’t easy to get. It starts in a contemporary setting and follows Jenny Chang, who is recruited by another version of herself to fight a war at the end of time in a parallel universe.
This isn’t a story that explicitly deals with suicide, but it does so in small doses (blue is the color of uncut veins, it says, and the opposite of redshift, which becomes a sign of suicide in Swanwatch). The ending also says something really interesting about self-sacrifice in fiction, and goes in a direction I had never seen in post-apocalyptic fiction or in stories dealing with similar kinds of situations.

The Battle of Candle Arc (2012) – 5 stars
The only story in the collection that is tied to Ninefox Gambit, and also the short story that made me realize I wanted to read that book immediately.
This story follows General Jedao’s most famous space battle, in which he defeated the enemy while outnumbered eight to one. I love Jedao’s narration and everything about this story – the descriptions of the battle, yes, but also Jedao’s very mixed feelings on the whole thing, the magic system based on ritual torture timed through the high calendar, or exhausted, unsubtle Menowen. This is my fifth or sixth reread, and every time I notice new details. While this series is full of terrible, sad things, it’s never a heavy read for me, because it’s fun – in a way that does not detract from the fact that everything that is happening is terrible.
The Battle of Candle Arc was inspired by the Battle of Myeongnyang.

A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel (2011) – 5 stars
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities meets linear algebra! Probably the most unusual premise in the collection. I always love to see things inspired by Italian classics even if I don’t like to read them myself – but Calvino was one of the authors we studied this year at school.
I’m not even sure it would be right to call this one a story. It reads almost like an encyclopedia of FTL stardrives, with meditations on war, economy, knowledge, suicide, religion, and fiction influencing reality through stereotypes. Beautiful.

The Unstrung Zither (2009) – 4.25 stars
Ling Yun is a musician in a space empire in which music is used to tune weapons and starships, and also closely tied to the elemental magic system. She has been tasked with composing music about five teenage assassins from the ashworlds, the places the empire has colonized.
It’s a story about numbers and games as much as it is about music and colonization. I liked the worldbuilding here, but almost everything in this story felt… underdeveloped? I mean, lovely writing, interesting characters even if we catch only a glimpse of them, but I wanted more.

The Black Abacus (2002) – 4.75 stars
One of the oldest stories in the collection.
This was… something. What happens when your magic system is basically quantum chess in space? All space battles play out in quantum space, exploring every possible outcome. A fascinating story about a test, ethics, and two lovers who want each other dead because of ethics. I always love this trope and this was no exception – I wanted more, maybe a longer story told in a more linear way, but I know that wasn’t in any way the purpose. The story is itself a part of a game and a test.
I loved it, but I agree with the author’s note – the ending could have been better with a small tweak.

The Book of Locked Doors (2012) – 5 stars
Futuristic sci-fantasy inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea. The parallels with the longest Iseul’s Lexicon are there, but this story, while also mentioning the way colonization affects language, is more about how colonization affects a culture and the cost of war.
This story features a book that holds inside the dead’s abilities, which the main character could unlock if she wanted. The almost apocalyptic scenario that ensues because of her actions was as beautiful as it was terrible, and kept me glued to the pages. I almost felt like I could fall in one of the keyholes myself.
This is also a story about sisters, as the book was compiled by the main character’s sister; this adds even more weight to the ending.

Conservation of Shadows (2011) – 4 stars
A retelling of The Descent of Inanna (Mesopotamian mythology) written like the narration in a videogame, second person included. It was very weird, but the shadow symbolism was lovely. I’ve never really been into videogames, and the ending wasn’t as powerful as in many other stories in this collection, but I liked almost every other thing about this story.
Also, it’s only appropriate that a story about shadows starts with one of the best examples of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen in short fiction.

Average rating: 4,67

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

34523174I usually don’t give five stars to a book if it took me ten days to read it. However, I like to take horror in small doses; I also read most of this outside – at the beach, because there’s no better beach read than marine horror – and I often put it down because I wanted to spend my time there doing underwater photography, not reading.
I may have spent half of my goodreads updates complaining, but this book deserves five stars, and now I’ll try to explain why.

Into the Drowning Deep is a story about a scientific expedition trying to find mermaids after the mysterious deaths of the passengers of the AtagartisI decided to read this because I love everything that has to do with marine biology, and for once I found a book that talked about it without constantly breaking my suspension of disbelief. Not because it was realistic, it didn’t need to: it showed what I would expect scientists to do if they ever found mermaids.
I mean, this book features:

🦀 mermaid necropsy! With details! And people trying to classify them. Are they mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians or what
🦀 biologists getting very excited about studying mermaid lice
🦀 biologists having very strong opinions about cetaceans (100% true to real life as far as my experience goes). Never ask a marine biologist about dolphins and whales (and never ask them about tuna, even if that’s a fish) unless you want an infodump
🦀 people making very… unwise decisions to discover things
🦀 scientists talking about funds and publications and all that stuff you never see in books when there’s science involved
🦀 try to find another book that mentions carcinisation
🦀 for once, a books that gets how terrifying the sea is. Even real-life sea without mermaids. Really, it’s terrifying and yet I get all the unwise decisions of the scientists. During one of these underwater photography days, I had to move aside to avoid a stingray; I did not chase it to photograph it because I’m not that suicidal, but I get the temptation – I never saw one before! Especially not here! – and that’s why I get this book

The sea is beautiful, the sea is scary, and humans are fascinated by scary, beautiful things. This book gets it. I love it. Enough not to care too much about the things I hated.
Sometimes I thought the environmentalism aspect was exaggerated – not because global warming and poaching don’t have real consequences (they do.) but don’t say a species is extinct in the wild when you’re talking about one subspecies of it! On the other hand, I liked how this book explored people’s relationships with the environment from many points of view. In a way, this is a story about humans being too proud, too fearless because they don’t know how danger looks anymore.

Sometimes the characters annoyed me, even some that weren’t meant to. I’m talking mostly about Dr. Toth. I didn’t hate her most of the time, but the writing didn’t help – it doesn’t let you have your own opinion about the characters. If the writer thinks a character is a bad person you get almost told they’re the worst people ever, and if the writer thinks a person is awesome (…Dr. Toth), you have to endure the narration telling how awesome and great that person is. Which is very annoying, but I understand why telling and not showing can be useful in a book with such a large cast.

My problem with Dr. Toth was:

🦀 “the scientists were wrong and the misunderstood pseudoscientist was right all along” is one of my least favorite tropes ever. Pseudoscientists are dangerous, they’re the reasons we have anti-vaxxers. And someone who was convinced of the mermaids’ existence since before the Atagartis incident is definitely a pseudoscientist.
🦀 she broke my suspension of disbelief more than the mermaids. When Dr. Toth and some other scientists are talking about whether mermaids could be mammals, she mentions that an animal doesn’t have to be viviparous to be considered a mammal (true! see Monotremes). Then she starts a long infodump about the fact that there’s no viviparous/oviparous binary, because there are animals who “lay their eggs internally”. Yes, it’s true, it’s called ovoviviparity and it’s not a revolutionary concept, and I don’t think there’s a biologist who thinks that binary even exists. I knew about ovoviviparity since I was six from book about animals for children, and we learned about it in third grade. The fact that she explained ovoviviparity to scientists and no one told her to stop being condescending is very unrealistic.
🦀 If you’d rather humans got hurt instead of animals, there’s something very wrong with you.
Hence the not-full five stars, but I did want to give this book a full five.

But let’s go back to the positive things. This book is about scientists, and it’s diverse. This alone is something that means a lot to me. Some relevant characters are:

🦀 Victoria “Tory” Stewart, a bisexual marine biologists whose sister died because of the mermaids; she falls in love with another woman during this story. She was my favorite character in the book and the main reason I read it in the first place. Not only a queer woman in science, a queer woman who is a marine biologist. I thought I would never see that.
🦀 Olivia Sanderson, an autistic lesbian who became a camera operator to overcome anxiety. I loved her a lot, and I’m glad I found another book with a f/f romance I actually loved!
The part in which she talked about how non-disabled parents abuse their disabled children in subtle ways like telling them they will never be sexual/infantilizing them was something I never saw in a book, but it’s true.
🦀 Not-really-divorced Jillian Toth and her disabled (chronic pain due to an accident) husband Theo Blackwell. Jillian is Hawaiian; I’ve already said what I thought about her, but I can say that I appreciated her slight moral grayness. Same thing for her husband, except he’s more morally gray and I didn’t always understand him. Anyway, I never saw a similar relationship dynamic before.
🦀 three red-headed sisters, Hallie, Heather and Holly Wilson, of which the last two are deaf scientists (and twins) and the first is an interpreter. I loved the discussion about accessibility and really liked all of them. Heather’s descent in the Mariana Trench with the submersible “Minnow” is probably the best scene in the book. It perfectly got the “the ocean is terrifying but I can’t look away” theme.

And there are many others! These are the most relevant ones, but we get at least ten, if not fifteen PoVs. Some of them last only a chapter, but no character was ever so underdeveloped I didn’t care about them in some way (even if my caring was “I hope they get eaten by a mermaid”)

My rating: ★★★★¾