Since I’m back in the office and like a book I can zip through I’ve picked up the first couple of books in The Expanse series which are fine but give me an extra appreciation for the television series and especially the casting. Extra props go to Thomas Jane for adding a melancholy to Miller who just comes across as a bit of a creep in the novel and more props to Shohreh Aghdashloo for toning down the “lol epic sweary grandma” vibe I get quite a bit from Avasarala in the novel. Remarkably Holden is even more annoying and righteous in the book. All that said though, they are very readable and I am enjoying them by and large.
The Expanse show is striking for me in that, thereabouts season 3, it turns into truly wonderful political television in a way that the books–with their devotion to single-character perspectives–fail to be truly impactful political literature for me. Also yeah, Thomas Jane and Shohreh Aghdashloo are fantastic, and Cara Gee and David Strathairn absolutely kill it as representatives of both Belter ideologies and as their own characters. It’s deeply ironic though, if nothing else, that a story fundamentally about capitalistic oppression writ large across space is funded as a kind of pet fancy by Jef Bezoar himself.
Wrt to the books, it’s interesting how Corey clearly learns how to develop both his characters and conflicts over time. Bobbie and Alex become truly fascinating characters in their own rights, and Corey not infrequently, as the series progresses, becomes more willing to experiment with the limits of his writing, which I think early on is workmanlike and in the service of plot and setting, and little else.
Got two I’m reading at the moment:
“How to Lose the Time War” by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. Beautiful writing, sci-fi romance novella.
“The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” by Harvey J. Kaye. Well written history Of FDR’s presidency.
Thought a lot of folks in this thread would appreciate this news:
More re-reads of some favorites, received some as gifts this summer.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin, Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Also read two Stephen King books on kindle, Everything’s Eventual (short stories, wanted to read 1408) and If it Bleeds (novella collection). Both were ok, nothing as gripping as The Shining which I read earlier this summer.
I LOVED Children of Ruin it was the sci-fi that got me back into reading sci-fi. Wasn’t that keen on A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (or Murakami in general) but thought the side stories in that book are among the strongest stuff he’s written.
It’s been so long since I’ve read it that I’m having a hard time explaining it, but All That You Love Will Be Carried Away (in Everything’s Eventual) is one of my all-time favorite short stories. It’s very unlike most of King’s work in that its not at all speculative, very short, and is super limited when it comes to plot, but it affected me really deeply when I first read it as a teenager. That theme of finding meaning in something most people find meaningless, and that character’s unwillingless to let go because without him, he knows that meaning would be not just lost but probably warped and misconstrued really gets to me even now. Might go back and reread it tonight.
I haven’t been reading much recently for various bad brain stuff, but I’ve been feeling a bit better so picked up Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis and it’s…good so far? Like not amazing but it’s fun and light and very Lindsay Ellis, which as a fan of her videos im into. It’s one of those books that is making me more interested for what Ellis will write in the future as she hones her skill more than anything else.
Very excited for Harrow the Ninth, it’s gonna be a good one.
Knocked over Ted Chiang’s short story collection Exhalation in about a week, which is a nice feeling. The stories have a very classic science-fiction structure to them - all of them are exploring a single premise, often to do with time-travel and/or free will, and puzzling out the consequences of the story’s conceit. And when he hits he hits - the titular story Exhalation is transportive, moving from the defamiliarisation of the alien scientist to the wonder and intrigue of the world they inhabit to the deft reveal of the story as universal, as being about entropy.
Unfortunately sometimes when he misses he also really misses, one of the (mercifully in this case) shorter stories “The Great Silence” felt clumsy, directionless and mawkishly sentimental. You can slightly see this tendency in Exhalation: the ending lingers a moment too long on its poignancy- instead of trusting the reader it asks you specifically to consider its moral implications. This penchant for moralising is also a familiar trope of classic science fiction so I suppose sometimes you have to take the good with the bad as far as stylistic inheritance is concerned.
The difference between understanding what a story is talking about & thinking about it and the story dictating it directly seems small but it always makes a big difference in how I experience and enjoy a narrative. I guess it’s kind of like a therapist gently guiding you to come to your own conclusion about a problem you have as opposed to just outright confronting you with the issue.
Which reminds me of a possibly apocryphal tale about Robert Frost who, when asked to explain one of his poems, responded, “You want me to say it worse?” His answer is particularly true for poetry which for me is very much about crystallisation of meaning, but it also holds true for more diluted art-forms. I think I could use reminding sometimes that art is more than just a didactic mechanism, it is not a thing that you feed into one end of a brain-machine for churning a moral or critical product out the other end. It’s vital to remember and esteem the experiential component of art.
Anyway this was supposed to just be a quick post but I got carried away thinking again sorry!
Reading through this thing:
On one hand, this book has convinced me that the ‘political commentary’ is going to be very surface level GTA kind of stuff… On the other, I’m curious to see if Capital G gamers get mad at all the details about how Global Warming will devastate the world.
That’s such a good post and series of thoughts! Thanks. I, too, thought that “Exhalation” was brilliant and I wished the rest of the stories held up to it. Nothing else quite matched it, though there were a bunch of gems within many of the other stories. The stories tend to walk right on that edge of telling the reader what they’re about and letting the reader come to understand, and I think Chiang is pretty good at making that have emotional weight even when being really, seriously, transparently allegorical. But when they don’t land, I thought they felt a little hollow. (I thought the VR story, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” was especially unsuccessful and was super too long.)
I wonder how Gamers reacted to Horizon’s message that profit seeking and military innovation will destroy the world. That game for me was the most egregious example of Mark Fisher’s take that capitalism is remarkably successful at co-opting fiction that’s critical of it.
I read through The Poppy War. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It was interesting in that it followed the young-adult book model at times, but never truly fell into the same tropes of the genre. Like Rin’s and Nezha’s hatred at the Academy, but then friendship once they’re both out. I would have 100% expected them to become some sort of love interests, but that never happened. Hell I was expecting her an Altan too at some point and creating a love triangle. Also Rin not being praised and struggling, and even being looked down upon, for destroying Mugen was an expecting twist. Instead of the cheering and celebrating you’d expect, we got disdain, regret, and other characters saying we did fucked up things too and you just have to accept them. Also the main character might be bad? I don’t see Rin becoming the villain in future book(s), but she definitely isn’t the squeaky clean, pure protagonist that you’d expect from a young-adult novel. There are multiple other examples of the book doing going against what I expected a young-adult novel to do. I quite enjoyed it for that. Maybe my perception was just so warped from hearing it was a young-adult novel that I was expecting one thing, and when it diverted from that path it made it that more interesting. Maybe I just haven’t read enough (totally possible) that anything that breaks from the template that so many books use throws me for a complete loop. In a similar sense, I was also surprised with the detail with which some of the violence and atrocities depicted in the book were told. It was a bit intense at times so just a heads up if you’re interested in reading it.
There are a lot of questions left unanswered after this book, and it obviously sets up for more books. I don’t know if it gripped me that much to see what happens next, but I’m definitely interested. It was an easy read so maybe I’ll get it and read through that one in a week like I did this book.
Oh thank you! And yeah I agree, Lifecycle definitely felt like it was given way more room than it deserved, it’s the longest story in the book! I would’ve felt more favourable to it if it was cut down to size. In the story notes he mentions he wanted to explore the idea of having to spend time on raising an AI to sentience as you would a child - but that could’ve just happened in narrative time rather than labouring over year after year. And I thought the other two longer stories - Truth of Fact, Truth of Fiction and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom - were the next best in the book after Exhalation & were paced well.
As an aside, its a strange choice that he chose to include his own notes about the individual stories - I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author do that. Occasionally a preface or something but it’s very unusual that within the book itself there would be an explanation of a story’s origin & aim. They were interesting to read but in hindsight I’m not sure they really added to the experience.
Anyway I’m continuing my genre bender and have just started Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which I really like so far.
I’m currently mid-hyperfixation manic phase so I have a lot of things I’ve read recently and a lot im currently/about to be reading.
First and the one I most want to recommend (with one caveat) on this forum specifically, was Semiosis and its sequel Interference, by Sue Burke. This is a first contact sci fi, as well as whatever subgenre generation ship stories like Noumenon are called. Starts with the common premise of, a small group of people travel in cryostasis to another planet to try to escape the dying earth and start over without all of humanity’s mistakes, except where the last few books with that premise I’ve read almost entirely take place on earth and in transit, this one starts maybe a year or so post first landing. Semiosis then follows a different character from a different, younger generation each chapter, with a significant time gap between each of the first 4 or 5 and then again between it and Interference, as they build a new community and culture that changes over the years, and as they learn about and integrate into the planet’s different-from-earth ecology, and particularly how they meet and interact with another sentient species. And then the second book has a group of anthropologists from earth, leaving maybe a century or two after the original colonists left earth and arriving several centuries into the colony’s history, show up and deals with that “first contact.”
And both books are just wonderful. They hit a particular intersection of my tastes that I always have trouble articulating and therefore always trouble finding books for. Something about the combination of a new and alien place to learn about, being really about a community that all the characters are part of and invested in and that is small enough to get my head entirely around, characters that are humanized but fundamentally not human, and the clashing of cultures. And just generally a setting and vibe that I just like spending time in, independent of any conflict that might be going on. This is what makes the Books of the Raksura some of my favorite stories in any medium.
And beyond just being laser targeted on me specifically, they’re just executed so incredibly well, and with such truly interesting ideas. A lot of the coolest stuff will be spoilers since so much of the books are about discovering what is going on with the planet, but I think the nature of the big sentient species is sufficiently part of the premise to talk about a little. (I’ll add spoiler tag, but I think this is safe to read unless you want to go in totally blind.) The biggest differencebetween earth’s ecology and Pax’s is that the plants all have significantly developed nervous systems, and so a lot of what enables them to survive in such an alien place is that, once they establish a symbiotic relationship with the sentient species of plant, its able to negotiate with other less intelligent plants to provide safe food and medicine and so on.
But its not just the biological sci fi stuff that is going on. What in my opinion took it from very cool to genuinely special is the way it tracks the community changing through the generations through following this series of very different characters. I became, very very quickly, invested in these people and in their lives, in how their community was and wasn’t working for them, in how their culture changed. And, again targeting me specifically, a huge ongoing theme in both books is: how, in a culture devoted to peace – the planet and community are called Pax, they call themselves Pacifists – what does justice look like, how do they deal with violence from both citizens and external threats, and its messy and fascinating and wonderful to read about.
Which is probably the best segue I’ll get into my one big caveat, which is also my one big content warning: towards the end of the second chapter, the pov character is very suddenly violently raped, on screen, by an unknown attacker. Its the only example of sexual violence in both books, and as far as these things go it’s relatively well handled – it’s explicit but doesn’t linger on or revel in it at all, its treated seriously by the narrative, its from the perspective of the victim – but, at least for me, it felt like it came extremely out of nowhere and I was caught totally flat footed. In retrospect I understand its purpose in the story and actually really like what was overall done in that regard (its part of a demonstration that for all the noble aspirations the original colonists claimed about starting totally fresh, they were always corrupted by their existing biases from earth, the cultures that raised them), but in the moment its suddenness made it really hard to see past the immediate horror of “oh my god I’m reading a rape scene,” such that if I hadn’t both been invested in that specific character as well as pretty immediately recaptivated by what was happening next, I likely would have stopped reading there. That said, with foreknowledge I don’t think it would be nearly so disruptive, and more importantly since its so brief and since its the only time something like it happens, it would be very easy to skip past.
For those who want to skip it, here’s my suggestion on how: there will come a point where the children all take off there clothes and start going about naked. Then, the pov character will go talk to another woman of her generation who has put her clothes back on, with the implication that she was threatened. Stop reading at the paragraph: “I went south on the way home through a field of esparto just about to bloom close to western snow vines. I looked at it closely. When esparto dried, the wavy edges of the leaves would become flat and resemble the poison grass.” The next paragraph is where the attack starts. You can jump forward 1 to 3 pages (depending on format; I was on my phone’s kindle app with large font sk it was closer to 3 for me) or else just count paragraphs – the scene is exactly three paragraphs long, with the third being just aftermath – but you will understandthe gist of what you need to without being precise, so you should feel free to skip a little further ahead and/or start skipping as soon as the conversation with the clothed woman starts if you want to avoid any chance of seeing something you don’t want to. The most importantstuff to future plot is what she does afterward; as long as you see the conversation she has with a character named Octavo right before he has a stroke, and then everything after, you will be good for the rest of the series.
So anyway, with that very large caveat, I highly recommend these books. They’re some of my favorite books I’ve read this year, and they’ve gone on my list of rereadable books. And I think a lot of folks in this thread, based on what’s been talked about here, would find them right up their alley.
After that I read Queen of the Conquered (all time great title there) by Kacen Callender. Set in a fantasy archipelago under the colonial rule of, I believe, the fantasy Dutch, from the perspective of a young native black woman named Sigourney who runs one of the islands and the plantations thereon, which of course makes her a slave owner, of her own people. When she was very young her enture family and household and guests were murdered by the rest of the colony’s nobility and she now has the stated goal of, via various political means, being made regent of the colony so that she can get revenge by destroying the colonial regime. Also there’s a magic system call kraft, which is different for everyone who has it; Sigourney’s manifest as the ability to read thoughts and to psychically take control of people’s bodies.
I think this is probably a very good book, but for a number of reasons it left me pretty cold. A lot of it is tied up in there being this huge, plot-redefining twist right toward the end. The kind that makes a lot of what we spent the rest of the book doing feel kind of pointless. The idea, I know, is that the plot stuff is meant to be secondary to the character work being done, and the setting being fleshed out, except I never really got on with that stuff in the first place. The setting felt fairly thin; what was there was interesting, and the physical description of the natural world was uniformly great, but there was so little going on in the broader structure of the culture, and the local world was so small while (while being written as though it weren’t) that it was hard for me to get invested in any of the very foregrounded politics.
As for the character work, this is what I mean when I say I still think its probably a good book, because this is very much on me. This book does something that I have noticed as a distinct trope or trend in SFF that presents as “literary”, and that I’ve seen done several times recently such that I’m burnt out on it: where a huge chunk of the story is made up of flashbacks to various mostly unconnected scenes in multiple characters lives that are significant in varying ways, and that then have relevance to whatever is happening in the present. In this book this happened especially frequently, because Sigourney’s kraft gave the author a device to constantly interrupt conversations and scenes with the thoughts of whoever was present and from there into their memories. This has become frustrating to me, in part because it makes what’s happening in the present day plot just feel like a scaffolding to hold these scenes and in (larger) part because these scenes can have a structure to them that becomes formulaic and repetitive when i start to notice it. That latter bit was my biggest problem here; I very quickly started to see past the illusion and notice all of these scenes having almost the exact same flow every time. And as to the scaffolding problem, this can generally be fine if I’m sufficiently interested in just spending time in the setting or with the characters – like I mentioned way above, I actually love relatively conflict- and plot-free stories a lot of the time – but like I said the setting didn’t work for me, and there were very few characters I wad interested in. Ad just kind of few characters generally. Add to that the sheer unpleasantness of spending time in a slave state, in the head of someone who is complicit in her own people’s enslavement and hates herself for it, and yeah the scaffolding-plot really wore thin.
And finally, the one thing that really did work for me – how well drawn and fascinating Sigourney is as a protagonist – is the thing most hurt by the twist. Going into any detail would start to spoil that twist, but the gist is, based on the facts laid out, i fundamentally disagree with the narrative’s ultimate opinion on and judgement of Sigourney, to the point of being pretty angry actually. Some more details on why; gives away some pretty important stuff but not the whole thing, and not any of the things that happen, but a lot can probably be inferred: the text makes it very clear that Sigourney was heavily manipulated into not just her position but also into many of the specific beliefs and goals that lead her to commit her worst acts, and then proceeds to fully condemn her, both from the perspective of characters it wants us to be on the side of and within the narrative voice, while treating the characters who did the manipulating as not just justified but righteous, and never allowing anyone, including Sigourney, to spell out how fucked up what is happening out loud. Instead the ones who are maybe-sort-of on her side or feeling guilty just talk about how she can be redeemed. That all said, this is extremely a take that I think reasonable people can disagree with. I definitely see where the author is coming from here and don’t even disagree with the broader theme, just very strongly with who all gets treated with the same judgement. And that’s again another reason I say I don’t think the book is bad so much as I personally disliked stuff in it.
So idk. I feel like I came across here more negatively than I meant to, since I got sufficiently invested that I’ll almost certainly read the second book when its out. I’ve just been stewing on my frustrations too much and needed to get them out.
I went extremely long on those so I’ll keep the rest short.
I listened to the first two novellas in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series on audiobook, and loved both of them. They’re set in her established World of the Five Gods setting, which I think originated with The Curse of Chalion (also a great book; i need to get to its sequrls sometime) which is a fairly generic British-ish pastoral fantasy world. They follow a younger noble son named Penric who, on his way to his wedding, stumbles across a group of travelers containing a temple divine who had an accident and stops to help. As the temple divine dies, she ends up passing the demon she is invested with – which is what makes a person a sorcerer – on to Penric, which confuses and frustrates everyone. Penric goes on to befriend the demon and give her the name Desdemona, which further confounds everyone all the time because people don’t think of demons as people or even as having identities. The first book mostly dealt with that event and the fallout and learning about what it means, and the second is an adventure from a few years later. I assume the future books will follow the second in being mostly unrelated excerpts of Penric and Desdemonas lives together.
The plots were fun but almost entirely secondary to my enjoyment. I really just loved spending time with all of these characters; they were all very distinct, very interesting to see bounce off of each other, and almost all extremely likeable. Penric and Desdemona in particular have just such a wonderful dynamic, which I guess I should expect given its what the series is built around. I just loved all my time here and can’t wait to read the rest.
If you enjoy straightforward fantasy, and want some quick, light, low stakes, and just plain pleasant, I highly highly recommend.
In less “i loved this” and more “this gave me what I was looking for”, I then read Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon. Eighteen year old sheepfarmer’s daughter runs away from home to join a mercenary company. Goes through training, goes on campaign, has military fantasy adventures. This very straightforwardly is just DnD, by way of military fantasy. My understanding is the protagonist Paksenarrion (dnd ass names abound) will in future books go on to be a literal paladin. It is the thing it says it is. I had a pretty great time, in spite of a lot of classic problems like none of the places ever rising above a buzz if meaningless sounds to me, in large part because of a lot of really likeable characters as well as the broad story tropes being ones I enjoy. Future books I believe she leaves the company pretty quickly and has more independent adventures, which is less my jam so idk if I’ll continue. Who knows.
My current read is The Poppy War, which MattadorD talked about above and i don’t have a ton to add to. I tried this once before about a year ago and fell off just as the main character Rin was arriving to the academy. I think the first chapter and a half is just kind of abrasive compared to what comes next because thus time through I’m mostly loving it. Again, this is just the thing I love – person goes to new place, preferably a kid, preferably a military or magic school, learns new things, cultures clash, so on and so forth, world expands from there. Its a real good time so far. Which I guess is weird to say goven how dark it is and gets, but its how I’m feeling.
I will say, I haven’t gotten to the Rape of Nanking chapter, so can’t speak to it myself but my understanding is its pretty horrific. If anyone is interested I strongly recommend looking up comprehensive content warnings.
And then throughout all of this and ongoing, I’ve been and am doing a reread of Animorphs, alongside listening to the podcast Animorphology. And its been great so far! I’m up through book 32, and so far they hold up really well! The quality varies obviously, especially now that I’m into ghostwriter territory, and the books are particularly bad around mental health language, but mostly I’ve been very impressed. These books were foundational to my love of reading and, silly as it sounds, my personal ethics, and its nice to go back and realize yes, that’s for a good reason.
The podcast in particular is just a wonderful way to do this – they’re two lifelong fans of the series and one person who’s reading them for the first time, and frequent guests with varying relationships to the series, and its been a joy to hear people chew over these books I love, doing a close reading and bringing new insights and criticisms. Highly recommend this for anyone who wants to reread them, or who’s curious about the series.
I also recommend just the podcast to anyone nostalgic or curious about Animorphs but who quite reasonably doesn’t want to sit down and read 62 middle grade books
And finally, looking forward its what has been mentioned up thread: I’m about to start Harrow the Ninth today, and am extremely looking forward to The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. Which, I have to thank the tjis thread for letting me know about, I had no idea it was coming out at all, let alone so soon. After those, who knows! I’ve got ten holds on my library app, many of which are rereads. We’ll see if this burst lasts.
I’ve been trying to find any concrete info on a UK release date and location for The Tyrant and in the process I’ve managed to find Seth Dickinson’s Reddit account. Man is a big Halo fan.
My favorite King book as a teenager was The Gunslinger. Like you said, its hard to put myself back in that exact mindset to remember why. It was very different from his other work (that I had read). The tone was still very King, dark, more than a little nihlistic (which def would have appealed to me). Its an adventure story, but there seemed to be something else going on that seemed deep at the time. The climactic scene in Tull will always stick with me.
Tyrant release seems to be a bit weird. I work in a bookshop in Australia and the only extant edition I can see at all is the US hardcover, so guess I’m waiting 3 or 4 weeks for that to make its way across the Pacific.
Edit: You prob know but I should append - publication date in U.S was 11/8 so should, presumably be out but stuff often gets pushed back with international releases.
That is another baffling piece in the puzzle of Seth Dickinson’s social media presence. Like on one hand he has a private twitter account - seems very sensible, healthy attitude etc, on the other, he’s answered a bunch of questions on goodreads which is home to the most insane book reviewers known to man.
Anyway my impressions on The Traitor Baru Coromorant are incoming as soon as I can put everything together in my head because GOD. What a fuckin book.
This is why I was so surprised by the release date, after following Dickinson during the storm where he locked his account and I assumed the release would be postponed indefinitely until he came back to public life.
Which by the way this much is widely known public info: after a (stupid, extremely frustrating imo) controversy that turned into a harrassment campaign against him he locked his account and then shortly after checked himself into a hospital for mental health reasons. For a few reasons I don’t think I can say what the controversy was, I only figured it out through inference from following a lot of the authors of his cohort. The only part that he talked about publicly was the harrassment and the hospitalization.
I’ve started reading Harrow the Ninth and it’s interesting so far. The tone is so different and fragmented and it feels like it’s a lot more interested in character than tone and genre convention compared to Gideon. It’s still got some of the quippy, pop-writing tone that soured me a little on the previous book, but it’s also got a lot of fun capital W writing. I guess I’ll see if it sticks the landing.