Hatke, Ben: (02-03): Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

The concluding books of Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, are as good or better than the first. Zita’s not perfect and the books let the consequences of her momentary lapses of judgment play out, with the same great art and inventive fun as before. Lovely plot momentum, too, Exhibit A for which is SteelyKid: the morning after we read the first half of the second book, she was dragging even more than usual, and she eventually admitted that she’d stayed up to read (or “read,” more likely) the second half of the book. So, though I felt like I was betraying my younger self to do it, I made sure to keep the third book out of her room when we weren’t actively reading it . . .

SteelyKid was a smidge taken aback by the “life goes on” style ending, because apparently narrative closure is an important thing when you’re almost six, but seemed satisfied by my firm promise that if the author wrote more books about Zita, we would get them. So, to the extent the SteelyKid seal of approval means anything to adults (as she also really likes, you know, Scooby-Doo books), there you go.

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Leckie, Ann: (01) Ancillary Justice

book cover Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was one of the most talked-about books of my social circle over the last several months, and is nominated for a Best Novel Hugo. I think it’s not quite as amazing as all the discussion led me to expect, but it’s still damn good. Unless Mira Grant’s Parasite is far better than I expect (not that I have anything against Grant, but I haven’t heard anything about Parasite—well, anything at all, actually, which necessarily includes “anything that would suggest it’s as interesting as Ancillary Justice“), it’s at the top of my Hugo ballot.

The narrator of the novel, who goes by Breq, used to be a two-thousand-year-old spaceship called Justice of Toren which served in the Radch Empire. More specifically, she used to be an AI which controlled the spaceship as well as thousands of ancillaries—human bodies whose minds were wiped so that they could be controlled by the AI, like limbs. But now only a single ancillary body remains.

About the first half of the novel proceeds in two strands: retrospective narration of Justice of Toren‘s experiences twenty years ago, and a present-day strand in which Breq is on a quest for vengeance against the deliciously-named Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch Empire, who uses the same technology behind ancillaries to exist across thousands of bodies. So right away this is catnip for me: I love well-executed variations on narration, and there’s two things here, one new-to-me and one not but still great. First, the retrospective narration is first-person singular (“I”) but from many different physical perspectives. It starts out focused on One Esk, a twenty-ancillary unit stationed on a planet that the Radch Empire has recently annexed (read: violently conquered), and later broadens to include the awareness of Justice of Toren‘s ship functions (which are mostly background noise when the story is focused on the planet). At all points, the different perspectives and events experienced and related by the “I” are handled deftly. (And in particularly tense moments, the geographically-dispersed narration gives a kind of cinematic effect of quick-cutting between scenes, which is cool.) Second, in all her manifestations, Justice of Toren/One Esk/Breq is a profoundly unreliable narrator: but in ways completely separate from her multiplicity of physical inputs, which just delights me.

This is another book I read in tiny fragments at first, which did it no favors, to the point where I delayed writing this up until I could claw out some chunks of time to re-read it properly. And it works better that way, because what I thought at first was an overly-slow start turns out to be important for character development. I admit that I’d like there to have been more story in the present-day plot than there was; it is apparently a trilogy, and the book ends as a natural break point but with a tantalizing/frustrating promise of “this is just the beginning.”

This is a book very concerned with identity, as should be obvious from what I said already, and also with class. I haven’t seen much discussion of it along the latter lines; if anyone has links, please leave them in comments, because I know my thinking about class issues is pretty 101 and I’d love a more nuanced and informed analysis. It is not, much, a book concerned with gender, though that’s the other thing everyone knows about it: (a) it’s a book about an individual who used to be a spaceship and (b) it uses female pronouns for everyone, regardless of what, if any, gender they self-identify as.

This is only partly successful, but is also not that big a part of the book. In-text, we’re told that Radchaai society doesn’t have gender and therefore doesn’t mark it linguistically, and that Breq is unable to identify individuals’ gender in other societies. It’s implied that in translation, Radchaai ungendered pronouns are rendered “she.” Put that way, the problem with this is immediately obvious: “she” is not an ungendered pronoun. Sure, it’s better than Brust translating Paarfi’s ungendered forms of address into the masculine, and frankly I found it very relaxing to have the default be female instead of male [*]; but it’s quite true that in challenging the male default, the book’s pronouns then fall headfirst into reinforcing the binary gender default. I think it would have made more sense for the book to use an ungendered pronoun for Radchaai and an arbitrary gendered pronoun (“she”) for others. But, because Breq doesn’t care about gender, and because Radchaai society doesn’t either, the pronoun thing is a pretty small part of the book: Breq has a few musings about navigating other cultures politely, but that’s about it.

[*] Also relaxing is that the Raadchi are brown-skinned (indeed, a fairly dark brown is apparently the fashion).

There’s lots of stuff I haven’t even mentioned yet—aliens, there are aliens that are offstage in this book but very significant and teased to appear in the next; very tantalizing hints about Breq’s time before the present-day strand picks up (I don’t know if those are short stories, backstory to be expounded upon later, or just things to make the universe feel convincingly large, but any way I love them); and the relationship between Breq and her officers and former officers, including Seivarden Vendaai, who Breq almost literally stumbles across at the start of the present-day strand and rescues from hypothermia. (Yes, coincidence. I’ll allow it for the thematic resonances.) Leckie is juggling a lot of balls, and it’s tough to resolve anything on this scale, but as soon as I finished this I pre-ordered the sequel, which is out in October.

In short: not the best thing since sliced bread, but damn good. Read it.

(By the way, the series name comes from the header image at the author’s website.)

A spoiler post follows.

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2014 Hugo Nominees: Short Story

More Hugo homework, the four nominees for Short Story. I’m going to do this, hmm, alphabetical by last name.

“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com). I liked this story a lot when I first read it, and I still like the conceit—the water of the title appears when you lie—and most of the characters. But on re-read, the malignancy of the narrator’s sister really stands out as a contrast to the nuance granted to the other characters. There’s the barest hint of an reason, but it’s not, for me, adequate or followed through, and she ends up feeling like she belongs in some other story. It’s distracting and frankly somewhat distressing, and knocks the story down in my estimation on both the craft and individual enjoyment levels.

“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt [*] (Tor.com). This is a story by a Dutch author set in present-day Thailand about the festival Loi Krathong. It makes me uncomfortable on a number of different levels. First, I am not the right reader for a satirical/ironic/humorous/something tone when the story starts with a murder. Second, I think it’s rude to use an active religion as fantasy fodder if it’s not your religion; that goes double for using a deity as an actual character. (I am assuming that it is not based on the biographical information I can find about the author and the next point.) Third, it uses footnotes to translate the Thai names, which I find very distracting and, also, the most prominent example of the way the overall story gives me the vibe of “you-the-intended-reader are Not Like Them!” (Chu’s story is an interesting contrast in this regard; it contains a number of untranslated words or sentences in Chinese, and makes clear their content from the surrounding context. Which, we’re SFF readers, we’re totally capable of that.) So, yeah, you could say I didn’t like this one.

[*] I am assuming based on the author’s domain name that he has an unhyphenated two-word last name; if I’m wrong, let me know & I’ll correct the tag.

“Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons). I have read this story about half a dozen times, because the first time I read it, it left me absolutely cold, and I know a number of people whose tastes I respect who are in raptures over it. It’s a very well-crafted story: distinctive narrative voice, excellent economical characterizations, careful parallels and resonances. And for the first four times or so I read it, it just . . . sat there in my mind, like a polished stone egg, admirable but completely lifeless. On the last couple of reads it’s starting to pick up emotional resonance for me, but I wouldn’t blame anyone else for not waiting that long.

(Also, in looking at reviews, I was surprised how many readers of a SFF magazine had no idea what a selkie was. But even if you don’t, again, I think the story makes it clear from context if you’re reading with your SFF-worldbuilding goggles on.)

“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex). This is by far the shortest story on the ballot, not even a thousand words if cut-and-paste into Word can be trusted. I loved it immediately, and still love it, but it’s so short that it’s hard to talk about. I love the rhythm of the prose and the way it leads from one thing to another and the emotional effect that has. I can see that the prose might not work for some people, but read it slow and give it a shot. It’s unquestionably my first choice.

(Chad’s reaction to the ballot was that it was “a bundle of misery,” which is not my impression. Because of the weird tone, I’m not entirely sure what effect “Ink Readers” was going for, but besides the minor matter of the murder that opens the story *ahem*, I think it’s probably not unrelieved misery. For the rest, spoilers, rot-13: V guvax “Fryxvr Fgbevrf” naq “Jngre” obgu raq ba abgrf bs ubcr, naq juvyr “Qvabfnhe” qbrfa’g, V ybir gur ynathntr fb zhpu gung vg qbrfa’g srry pehfuvat.)

My ballot thus tentatively stands at: 1) “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”; 2) “Selkie Stories Are for Losers”; 3) “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”; 4) No Award; 5) “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket.” What about yours?

(Also: I’ve updated the about page with a comment policy, if you’re new here.)

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Hatke, Ben: (01) Zita the Spacegirl

Zita the Spacegirl cover I got Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl for SteelyKid, but wasn’t on her bedtime rotation the night she finished it, so flipped through it myself quick.

This graphic novel is really charming. Zita and her friend Joseph are playing and find a mysterious device with a big red button in a crater. Zita, of course, pushes the button; a portal appears, tentacles grab Joseph and pull him through, and then the portal closes. Zita takes a moment to freak out and then jumps after him.

On the other side of the portal, she finds many different aliens on a planet that’s going to be hit by an asteroid in three days. She explores the planet and collects friends and allies in her quest to rescue Joseph (picking up a superhero-style costume along the way, as you can see on the cover).

I love Zita’s bravery, active nature, and loyalty to her friends. And the art is great, clean but detailed enough to show off the inventiveness of the worlbuilding. (The author’s site has four one-page comics about Zita and friends, which give a good sense of it.)

SteelyKid enjoyed it, by the way, but according to Chad was somewhat taken aback by the fact that the end of the volume concluded a story but not the story. So we’ll be acquiring the next two volumes (it’s a just-completed trilogy) pronto and will report back.

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Rees Brennan, Sarah: (02-03): The Demon’s Covenant; The Demon’s Surrender

Continuing the catching-up with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Covenant and The Demon’s Surrender, which conclude the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy.

Unfortunately the thing I loved best about the first book was the narration, and each book in the trilogy has a different narrator. So my excitement was already somewhat reduced, and never really recovered.

The second book sagged a bit, in terms of wheel-spinning, my relative lack of interest in the characters’ romantic choices, and finding some plot issues a little too obvious (and one annoying, major spoiler, ROT-13: gjb obbxf jvgu qrnq zbzf ng gur raq bs rnpu bar, ernyyl?). The third was better in many regards, but I was distracted by feeling that it should not have been narrated by a single person, because at some point I start to notice how often the narrator has to listen at the door to keep us updated on important developments. (Further, my notes to myself from way, way back in the day indicate that I had a problem with trying to repeatedly generate suspense from the combination of an ignorant narrator and a knowing audience, but it’s been so long that I can’t back up with details now.)

Basically I liked the series reasonably well overall, but didn’t feel it lived up to the first book.

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Novik, Naomi: (07-08) Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants

More backlog catchup, this time the most recent two books in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Crucible of Gold and Blood of Tyrants.

I have to confess that I was reading the second of these, Blood of Tyrants, and had literally no recollection of the existence of Crucible of Gold as I started—I kept thinking they’d just left Australia (which would be Tongues of Serpents, the one before). As I read, though, there were enough references to Crucible that it came back to me: “oh, right, they went to South America and things happened.” Once I remembered them, they were perfectly pleasant things and made sense and advanced the plot and themes, but my initial failure to remember their existence suggests that, perhaps, it was not the most striking of books.

Blood of Tyrants covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, but moves quickly and fully sets the stage for the next and last book in the series, which I am very eager for. It also ends on rather a cliffhanger, so at this point you might as well wait for next year sometime when that comes out. Otherwise, I’m a little dubious about it giving Laurence amnesia for a good chunk of the book, but it’s the kind of thing that I would want to have a fresher big-picture view of the series to decide.

(Which I expect to have, as I am tentatively slated to re-read the series for Tor.com in the leadup to the last book’s release. Expect reports of research reading on the Napoleonic Wars here as preparation . . . )

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Jemisin, N.K.: (02-03) The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods

I was extremely enthused about N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms when I first read it, but only finished the trilogy recently.

I actually read the sequel, The Broken Kingdoms, fairly soon after it was published, but I never wrote it up. This book has a lot of really good things: I love the look at how the changes in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are affecting the lives of people on the ground (literally), the POV character Oree is great, and there’s some lovely creepy inventiveness in the fantastical elements. But I wasn’t convinced by an emotional development late in the book (only partly, I think, because it happened to involve a plot pattern that I am allergic to), and there’s some things that trouble me about the way the book treats Oree’s blindness (see lightreads and the author) and about a major spoiler (discussed obliquely, but still in spoiler terms, by sanguinity). So a very mixed reaction.

I actually beta-read the third book, The Kingdom of Gods, and then took literally years to read the final version. Coming back to it after quite a while, again, there’s much to like: the narration, as before in this series; the continuing ramifications of events in the first two books; the way it comes to a very satisfying conclusion. But it’s a tough book for me to get a grip on, for two reasons. First, I find Sieh a difficult narrator: I can admire the craft of his narration while finding it emotionally difficult to experience events through his perspective. This is entirely appropriate—trickster, after all—but it still affected how I related to the book. Second, the balance of the book feels off: it covers much more time than the other two, and while I can’t swear that it’s actually juggling more plot elements, that’s the impression I came away with.

You can read the first book by itself, and I still encourage people to. The rest of the series didn’t work as well for me, but that’s a high bar to clear. I don’t regret reading them, and I look forward to reading Jemisin’s other books—the Dreamblood duology (out now) and this summer’s The Fifth Season.

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Samatar, Sofia: Stranger in Olondria, A

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is part of my 2014 Hugo/Campbell voting homework and a difficult book for me to talk about, because I’m fairly sure I haven’t done it justice.

I’d seen a few reviews and purchased it before Samatar was nominated for a Campbell, but all I retained about it going in was that Samatar is also a poet and people spoke highly of the prose. So I was expecting it to be difficult, frankly, very densely written and requiring a lot of unpacking.

Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The prose is rich in its descriptions, true, but I had no trouble falling through the page. My lack of knowledge was more of a problem when it came to the plot: I had no idea what it might be, and as I read the first quarter of the book, I increasingly began to wonder whether there was a plot.

Well, there is, so I can say that much. But it’s hard for me to talk coherently about the book otherwise, partly because I read it in small chunks, which did neither me nor it any favors, and partly because I think the book is genuinely somewhat fragmented in structure—its twenty-one chapters are arranged in a full six books. My overall impression is that I’ve registered the plot and the most obvious theme, but that I suspect it’s doing more than I can really appreciate at the moment.

The plot is that the narrator, Jevick of Tyom, comes to Olondria and becomes haunted by the ghost of a young woman he met on the ship there. The haunting puts him in the middle of an existing political and religious conflict, but one that is ultimately secondary to Jevick’s personal experience. The major theme is different experiences and consequences of stories: how language choice, format, and storyteller influence not only individual experience but class structures (and, I suspect, gender structures as well, but my thoughts on that are much more tentative).

Yes, I am failing to do this justice. Let me try to cut to the chase: both Samatar and Max Gladstone are nominated for a Campbell this year. Right now, on the strength of this book and Gladstone’s first two books, I rank Samatar over Gladstone. Why? Well, even putting aside Gladstone’s second book, which I was pretty “meh” about, I think Three Parts Dead is more fun but this book is better: both are creating detailed secondary worlds and putting their characters in thematically-interesting plots, but Olondria‘s prose and control over narration is more assured.

More useful, though spoiler-filled, reviews by Abigail Nussbaum and Nic Clarke at Strange Horizons.

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Greenwood, Kerry: Cocaine Blues

More backlog clearing: Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues is the first in the Phryne Fisher mystery series, set in Australia in the 1920s. I got it one day when it was free from Amazon and heard it recommended by various people.

This was very fluffy and not very difficult, as mysteries go. I don’t mind the wish-fulfillment fantasies that are Phryne’s life, but I found the book’s head-hopping very distracting, and I am pretty dubious about the villain being (spoilers, ROT-13) rvgure na rivy nfrkhny be fbzrbar rkgerzryl genhzngvmrq ol frkhny nohfr, naq orvat riraghnyyl birepbzr ol ure bja erihyfvba gbjneq frk. So, not a successful book for me.

There is a TV show that people seem to enjoy, which would at least avoid the head-hopping problem, though I’ve so little time that I can’t imagine I’ll ever get around to it.

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