Currently Reading: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik + current state of Hugo reading

I’m going through the Lodestar nominees currently. I did just finish T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which is currently winning all the awards. It was great fun and well-deserving of all the praise it is getting but I don’t have much to say about it for a review. Reminds me of Murderbot in that’s another set of stories which I really like but don’t actually have much to say about.

I’ve now moved on to Naomi Novik’s new series, a magical school setting but with a more brutal twist or rather an acknowledgement that magical schools in literature have a disproportionate fatality rate compared to your average high school.

I’m mindful that having a whole big heap of time to read EVERYTHING and yet somehow it is October already and the Hugo voting deadline is fast approaching! I don’t think I’ll get to read all the Lodestar finalists.

I’ve fallen behind on novellas. I’d been doing pretty well and then I stalled on The Empress of Salt and Fortune…oddly. I had it as an audiobook and just couldn’t get into it at all and had to keep restarting because my mind would wander and I’d realise I’d lost track of the story. Gave up on the audiobook and went to the ebook version and enjoyed it. Just not the right kind of pace for an audiobook for me I guess.

What I’m Reading Update

My odd approach to reading Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series came to an end when Book 9 wasn’t available in audiobook format. Book 7 was at least a kind of finishing point with a major change in the faerie politics of San Francisco by the end of it. So four books of the series read (1,3,5 & 7) and it was diverting for me but not compelling reading. They suffered, ironically, from comparison with the works of rival author Seanan McGuire who covers similar themes in more complex ways 😉

For dessert, I read (or audiobooked) Fugitive Telemetry, the more recent Murderbot story in which everybody’s favourite cyborg construct gets to play detective. Nice: a short review — it’s a Murderbot story and if you like Murderbot you’ll like it.

Currently on to novellas and Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, a dystopian future Western. Entertaining.

In other news, it is raining.

An Odd Way to Read October Daye

With the Hugo Award closing date not until November and due to circumstances giving me an unusually good head start, I’m making a serious stab at voting in the Best Series category this year.

  • The Daevabad Trilogy, S.A. Chakraborty (Harper Voyager) <- I’d already read all of this and enjoyed it!
  • The Interdependency, John Scalzi (Tor Books)<- I’d already read all of this and enjoyed it!
  • The Lady Astronaut Universe, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Audible/Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction/Solaris)<- I’d already read SOME of this and enjoyed it and then I read the rest of it!
  • The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells ( <- I’d already read all of this and enjoyed it!
  • October Daye, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
  • The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)<- I hadn’t read any of this, so I went and read it and enjoyed it!

So that leaves October Daye. I’d read none of these. I’ve read a lot of Seanan McGuire (in absolute terms…in relative terms to how much she has written…not so much) but mainly as part of Hugo reading. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read but I’m not a close match to an ideal reader for her work. I don’t then seek out her other books. There are books I read and appreciate the craft that has gone into them but don’t really grab me (e.g. Becky Chambers) and books I read & enjoy but have had enough by the end and then there are books that I want to consume more of. McGuire’s books so far have been more in that middle category for me. Undeniable talent but not quite what I’m after.

Of course, that’s what is so good about reading for the Hugo Awards. You get to read writers that push your own boundaries and involve you in other styles and narratives. Authors aren’t writing to appease individual readers, although inevitably they have a fanbase to whom they tailor their writing to some degree.

So the question was how to read October Daye. Not counting shorter works, there are 14 books and a 15th due in September. That is the essence of the Hugo Reader Paradox: there are too many books for a set of people who don’t believe there can be too many books. The rest of the nominees are either completed trilogies or ongoing series which are still at a manageable level of books for a new starter. Yet, back in the middle of the last decade when “Best Saga” was being discussed, October Daye was this kind of long-running series that was cited as the need for a new category.

Here is another dimension to my problem: trains or rather the lack of them. A global pandemic shifted my reading habits. Whereas, I used to mainly read books on a Kindle sitting on a train since 2020 I now mainly listen to audiobooks when going for a walk.

If I’m not going to read all of the series, then which parts should I read? The early bits? The later bits? The best bits? Reading the “best” ones (i.e. the ones fans like the most) upsets the pedantic side of my nature — I can’t judge a series just on the best bits! That’s cheating! Well, it isn’t but you know…or maybe you don’t and it’s just me…anyway, just assume that I wanted to get a sense of what reading the WHOLE thing is like without reading the whole thing.

My solution is to only read the odd-numbered October Daye books, at least up to book 7. I’d be “halfway” through that way and have a good sense of the series but only have read a quarter of the books!

How is the plan going? I’m on my third book i.e. book 5 One Salt Sea. So far I’ve read Book 1 and Book 3. I’m not won over yet but I’m also not tired of reading them or virtual throwing the audiobooks across the room.

Book 1 Rosemary and Rue is very much a debut novel and makes for fascinating reading just for the compare-and-contrast for McGuire’s writing compared with something as complex as Middlegame. You can see both the rough edges and the obvious talent but it also feels like a book of its time or rather a book of the time when McGuire would have first been working on it. Also, the noir-ish private-eye aspect of the story doesn’t quite work but the characters are engaging enough and there’s this real sense of promise in the story. You can also see all these budding themes and ideas that are going to sprout into later works.

Book 3 An Artificial Night is a massive levelling up in quality in all dimensions. Everything is more tightly written. It is also much more of an overt fantasy novel with just nods to the “real” modern world base setting for the central character. Most of the plot is driven by events in a faerie sub-world and you can also see McGuire’s interest in portal fantasies and the implications of these worlds on the children characters who visit them. There’s still a bit of a pacing issue with events feeling like they’ve reached a natural end twice before getting to the actual end.

Book 5 One Salt Sea I’m still reading. Now I’ve clearly missed a whole bunch of stuff in Book 4 but McGuire does a great job of getting a reader up to speed who may have missed a given volume. I don’t feel like this plan is going to leave me hopelessly confused.

I’ll keep going for the time being. I’m confident I’ll get to at least Book 9 now.

Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I apologise to whoever recommended this book in the comments but I can’t recall who it was! Thank you anyway, as this book is delightful.

The town of Grafton in New Hampshire has (according to this book) been a somewhat independent sort of place, keen on low taxes and small government. It has also been a town with a long history with bears. Hongoltz-Hetling tracks the history of the “Free Town” project where some internet libertarians got it into their heads to tray and concentrate their numbers in a single town.

For details of some of the shenanigans (and the impact on bears) this article in the New Republic covers a lot of ground.

“But tracking headlines on human-bear encounters in New England in his capacity as a regional journalist in the 2000s, Hongoltz-Hetling noticed something distressing: The black bears in Grafton were not like other black bears. Singularly “bold,” they started hanging out in yards and on patios in broad daylight. Most bears avoid loud noises; these casually ignored the efforts of Graftonites to run them off. Chickens and sheep began to disappear at alarming rates. Household pets went missing, too. One Graftonite was playing with her kittens on her lawn when a bear bounded out of the woods, grabbed two of them, and scarfed them down. Soon enough, the bears were hanging out on porches and trying to enter homes.”

The author even brings in some speculation around the role of toxoplasmosis in the events — the parasitic disease carried by cats that may have behavioural impacts on infected mammals. With the local bear population consuming a proportion of the town’s cats, maybe bear behaviour was being impacted by more than just inconsistent human reactions to the encroaching bears.

More broadly and more pertinently to some of the previous topics of this blog, the book charts the impact of a community dealing with right-wing entryism as a means of affecting political change. Prior to the town’s experience with the libertarians (and very much the wackier kind rather than the Republicans just pretending kind) the Moonies had also once set up shop there as well.

The tone of the book is wry, humorous and sympathetic towards the often eccentric and independent minded citizens of Grafton. That relatively gentle tone shifts when the inevitable encounters of humans and bears turns more violent. There are many distressing aspects to the story as inevitably there are cases of violence and neglect towards humans, domestic animals and wild animals (and from wild animals too…and from domestic animals as well in the case of one very protective llama versus an intrusive bear).

And as I was writing this review, the day’s XKCD popped up with a synchronicitous topic:

Currently Reading: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Oh this book is very much full of the kind of stuff I like. Stuck in a huge labyrinth like house full of statues and with floors in intermittently flooded by the ocean, the narrator believes they are exploring the known universe. The reader can tell they are probably somebody trapped in a magical place an were originally from contemporary London but ‘Piranesi’ is under the impression they have always lived in the halls of the vast house.

Slow, thoughtful and full of evocative details.

Currently Reading: The Mythic Dream by Dominik Parisien, Navah Wolfe, et al

I picked up this anthology to review the IGNYTE award finalist story by Rebecca Roanhorse [my review]. I’ve been listening to it on my socially-distant-get-out-of-the-house walks subsequently and of the 9 (of 18) stories I’ve listened to so far most are very definite hits and none are misses.

Fisher Bird by T. Kingfisher turns Hercules into a tall tale about a big lummox with a toxic family in some backwoods part of rural America. JY Yang spins up a nested tale that mixes space travel and faerie with a folk tale about the nature of the milky way in Bridge of Crows. But I think my favourite currently is Carlos Hernandez’s ¡CUIDADO! ¡QUE VIENE EL COCO! which really can’t be easily summed up but which is completely coconuts and very moving.

The premise is retellings of myths and folktales in new settings. The connections are sometimes overt (e.g. He Fell Howling by Stephen Graham Jones delves deeper into a Greek myth but keeps the setting and uses Zeus as a major character) or sometimes a lot more subtle as in Seanan McGuire’s Phantoms of the Midway which definitely felt like folklore but the actual myth (revealed in an afterword) is a clever surprise, that adds an extra dimension to the characters. About half of the stories so far have been Greek myth retellings and the others drawn from more varied settings.

I don’t think I’ll review it as a whole but there are some real gems in there.

Currently Reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

My current audiobook companion to long walks is the final book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, read by Ben Miles.

It’s got kings, executions, imperial shenanigans and it is in a trilogy, so that makes it fantasy right? Seriously though, the Tudor period has to be one of the most fictionalised bits of history in English literature or at least outside of the 20th century. Even so, Mantel’s justly praised series never feels like it is just treading over new ground.

It’s a very humanising book. Terrible, often very shallow, people doing terrible things and stupid things, all circling around the abusive character of Henry VIII. I’d forgotten how funny Mantel’s writing is, the world-weary thoughts of Thomas Cromwell as he attempts to keep all the spinning plates of Tudor England from crashing down in a world that is neither entirely medieval nor exactly modern.

I don’t think I’ll write a review when I’ve finished it as I’m not sure I’ve anything new to say about the book or the heavily discussed series.

Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Currently Reading: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

This is proving to be every bit as good as people said it would be. An ambassador from a space habitat that controls access to a key navigation route is sent to the heart of a hegemonic empire. Mahit Dzmare has spent her life studying the literature of the not-so-benevolent Teixcalaanli Empire and is both enamoured and wary of the culture she has to navigate. The death of her predecessor is not her only problem, as she finds herself amid the courtly machinations of the Teixcalaanli elite. Luckily she has the aid of the former (and now dead) ambassador but unfortunately he is an out-of-date back up copy and the implant he is stored in maybe broken…

It’s great stuff. A bit of Iain M Banks and a bit of Ann Leckie and a lot of originality within a familiar frame. I’m currently listening to the audio book version on my socially-distant solitary bush walks.

Now this may sound odd but…it also sort of reminds me of the recent Detective Pickachu movie. The parallels aren’t exact but there are these odd echoes between the two.

Currently Reading: The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota 3) by Ada Palmer

How behind am I in the books I intended to read some time ago? Not as far behind as the rest of you because I know you are all even worse and have to live in constant fear that the towers of unread books will collapse on top of you resulting in a headline in your local newspaper about the eccentric person who was eventually murdered by their own book collection.

So where were we? Palmer’s future society of hives (quasi-states that exist independent of physical territory) has learned of the conspiracy of elite leaders centred on Madame and also of the Humanist Hive’s OS operation – the selective assassination of people to keep society as a whole stable. The bountiful but uneasy peace between the many factions of the world is unravelling much as our narrator, Mycroft Canner, originally intended when he was a teenager and committed a series of brutal murders to shock society into conflict.

The possibly less murderous Mycroft’s previous accounts (Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders) charted the events leading up to the revelations. That account is now (in universe) public knowledge. In The Will to Battle Mycroft has been charged with maintaining a secret account of the run up to the apparently inevitable war between the Hives.

Central to the shift to a war footing is Achilles, as in the legendary Greek hero of the Iliad. Or maybe not. Achilles is both a former small plastic toy soldier (known as the Major) owned by the possibly magical child Bridger and also a transformed version of Bridger. The actual nature of Bridger/Major/Achilles is as yet unknown.

I will be continuing the Notes Ignota series, mainly because I enjoy reading the books this way, underlining words and adding question marks and chasing down references.