Valentine, Genevieve: Persona and Icon

I can feel myself running out of steam in my booklog-catchup effort, but looking over my notes to myself on past books, the ones I wanted to talk about most are Genevieve Valentine’s Persona and Icon. I doubt I can do them justice in this state, but I’ll try to give an impression, at least.

The fastest way I can describe the setup of these is that they’re near-future political thrillers in which UN(ish) ambassadors are called Faces and are celebrities, as in red carpets and paparazzi and careful public image management. Suyana Sapaki is the Face of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation; Daniel Park is an unauthorized photographer who witnesses an assassination attempt on Suyana.

Another way to describe them is that Persona is Suyana’s origin story and Icon is an exploration of the problems with superhero stories. Suyana is not literally a superhero, to be clear–these are SF by virtue of being near-future–but those were my strong impressions when I finished each (indeed, the day I finished Icon, I said on Twitter that it was what the MCU will never give me no matter how much I want it to). So if that sounds appealing, you should definitely check these out.

Other things that may be useful to know: the books are full of excellently varied women and non-white people and their relationships to each other. They are unflinching in their acknowledgment of complexity, compromise, and loss, while also containing moments of progress, gain, and hope. And they are fast-paced reads, not long, and a complete duology.

Disclaimer: the author is a friend.

A spoiler post follows.

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Doyle, Debra, and James D. Macdonald: (01-05) Mageworlds reread

(This entry was 95% drafted nearly a year ago, as will become immediately apparent.)

Hey fandom: I hear you like your space opera with a new generation dealing with the aftermath of a galaxy-spanning war, plus central female characters and a main character with dark skin?

So now would be an awesome time to introduce you to the Mageworlds books by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, which were published in the 1990s and remain available as ebooks. I have never actually asked the authors about this, but I am morally certain that they began as Star Wars fanfic—and now that the Star Wars movies have moved into the next generation, I thought I’d dust these off and see how they held up.

I think they do pretty well, though honestly I imprinted on them hard back when I first read them, so I can’t promise I’m entirely objective. [*] But yeah: space battles, hand-to-hand combat with glowy things, non-human species, and complicated family relationships (no incest or close calls with, though), plus more worldbuilding and moral complexity than I, at least, got out of the Star Wars movies. Oh, and can I interest you in a main character who cross-dresses and supporting characters who are canonically in a same-sex relationship? (Sadly, like the Star Wars movies, apparently we can only have one dark-skinned character at a time, unless they’re that one character’s kids; but I do love Llannat a lot. And Mageworlds does way better than Star Wars on its number and range of female characters, though it still doesn’t manage actual parity. (I counted.))

[*] The only thing I noticed this time around was that there was a fairly stereotypical depiction of sex work–not shaming the worker, not in the least, but viewing sex work as something intrinsically degrading that would only be done out of necessity. It’s a very small part of the series, however.

The first three books are a trilogy: The Price of the Stars is a bit more standalone, but Starpilot’s Grave and By Honor Betray’d are the Second Magewar, which goes in satisfyingly different directions than its presumed inspiration. Then The Gathering Flame jumps back a generation to tell some of the First Magewar; but read it in publication order, because it doesn’t really have a full arc on its own, and some of its revelations won’t land properly if you don’t know the rest of the story (and they are so good if you do). The Long Hunt jumps forward a generation again, and is slighter and part of its plot doesn’t really work, but does wrap up something from By Honor Betray’d, plus it’s nice to see everyone again. (There are also two way-back prequels, The Stars Asunder and A Working of Stars, which I didn’t reread this time around.)

Basically, these are extremely readable fun with solid substance underneath, and if you’re in the mood for “more like Star Wars that isn’t exactly Star Wars,” or just generally fantasies of political agency with lots of competence, you should really pick them up.

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Leckie, Ann: (01-03) Ancillary Justice, Sword, Mercy

I have finally gotten around to reading Ann Leckie’s complete Imperial Radch trilogy and I am dusting off this booklog to talk about it quickly. (Also pulling out a bunch of notes or mostly-written entries on other books while I’m at it.)

As you may recall, I really liked Ancillary Justice and was unsure what to think about Ancillary Sword because it was very much a middle book. Sword kept looking worse in retrospect to me, so when I tried reading Ancillary Mercy, the concluding volume, and realized I needed to reread Sword to make sense of it, I lost a lot of enthusiasm for the prospect. (The opening absolutely tries to orient the reader, but I’d forgotten so much that it wasn’t enough.) But, very recently, I needed to reread Justice for reasons not relevant here, which reminded me of how much I loved it. So I resolved to push quickly through Sword so I could finally get to Mercy.

This worked very well indeed. Not only did my love of Justice give me the momentum to get through Sword, but it had the benefit of getting me in the proper frame of mind to approach the scope of the ending. I know some people would have preferred that Mercy go wider, and that’s entirely understandable; but Justice is explicitly about doing the small, hopeless-seeming things because they’re the right thing to do and might make a difference, who knows. And I found satisfying the way Mercy developed this theme about the meaningfulness of smaller actions, while also hinting at ways that the immediate resolution could have much wider effects.

Sword looks somewhat better now, too. The plantation section is probably always going to feel like low-hanging fruit for me, but it’s less of the book than I remembered (like Frodo & Sam in Mordor). And now I know Sword wasn’t a standalone episode, but necessary setup for the last book, which addresses my other major concern about it.

I found Mercy compulsively readable, funny (fish sauce!), and tense. It put something on the table that I somehow failed to realize should’ve been all along, and it’s always great when a book can pull that kind of inevitable surprise. It introduced two awesome new characters and continued to develop several existing ones. And it was generally very satisfying and heartening. I’m glad I finally read it.

Finally, if you haven’t read “She Commands Me and I Obey” yet, you should definitely do that.

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Rowling, J.K., John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne: (08) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The library got me the newest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, the script for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, on its release, a bit to my surprise, and I opened it up mostly because I couldn’t decide what else I was in the mood for, and I figured spoilers would be rampant soon enough. (This is technically a play by Jack Thorne, based on a story by Rowling, John Tiffany, and Thorne; I’ve put the author names in the order they appear on the cover.)

Unfortunately, through no fault of its own, The Cursed Child hinges on two things that leave me entirely cold: time travel and daddy issues. And, of course, it’s the script of a play, so there’s an additional barrier to emotional immersion as a reader. Which is not to say that a play can’t be emotionally engaging just on the page: I’ve read at least three plays that I was enraptured by, though of course I’ve booklogged none of them (M. Butterfly, Angels in America, and The Lady’s Not for Burning; I’ve been fortunate enough to see the last two live after I read them). But the format didn’t give me the nudge I needed to get over my general lack of interest in the play’s topics.

This all left me with plenty of mental space to be distracted by several things that were mostly incidental to the plot but felt . . . gross. Here are two super-tiny, entirely content-free examples: 1) stage directions reading, “It’s a lame trick. Everyone enjoys its lameness”; and 2) a location where magic is used “for fun”: ” . . . knitting wool is enchanted into chaos, and male nurses are made to dance tango.” Because 1) it would be cool if people didn’t use “lame” to mean “weak or lousy” and 2) ha, ha, it’s so funny that men are forced to tango with each other! Are these incredibly small things? Yes. Are they entirely unnecessary? Yes. Did they pull me out of a narrative that I already wasn’t engaged with? Yes. (There are bigger and more plot-critical things, too, which I will put in a spoiler post.)

In summary: if you don’t mind daddy issues and time travel, and if you really care a lot about the family lives of some of the HP characters post-novels, this may be for you. If you wanted a wider scope post-novels, this is not.

(I do think it would be interesting to see the play if only for how they manage the considerable special effects necessary, however.)

A spoiler post follows.

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Fink, Joseph & Jeffrey Cranor: Welcome to Night Vale

I tried both listening and reading to Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, which may have been my mistake. You see, I’m very picky about what audiobooks I listen to, because many books are just too slow out loud for my tastes. But I’d listened to the first chapter that was released as an extra on the podcast, and in general I’m just so used to Night Vale as an audio-first experience that I decided to give it a try.

I believe I got to about chapter 8 before I gave up, because it was just not working for me: as a novel, it’s far longer and slower than the podcast, naturally, and my mind was drifting far too much while I was driving. This is nothing against Cecil Baldwin’s performance as a narrator, which is excellent as always; it’s just not what works for me in audio.

But this may have carried over into my experience of the book, which basically felt like a whole lot of waiting for things to happen. And I genuinely have no idea how fair an assessment this is, because I tried to re-read once I knew the ending, to see the whole shape, and I couldn’t make myself do it; I kept checking social media and playing silly games instead, before I gave up and reminded myself this wasn’t homework, it was supposed to be enjoyable.

(Oh, another thing that didn’t dispose me well toward the book, which I think can be reasonably laid at the feet of its creators: the podcast episode that was released immediately before the novel was available was called “An Epilogue,” and opens thusly (via):

The last couple weeks, as we all know, have been eventful ones. I’m not going to go over everything again – we all know what happened. We are well read, well informed people who have paid attention to the whole recent “KING CITY” affair. We know about the terrible ordeals that Diane Crayton and Jackie Fierro endured. We know how their troubles all ended up. And we know the truth about The Man in the Tan Jacket. We know all about him now, because of what Diane and Jackie found out. So I won’t go over all of that.

Which is (a) not how people talk — commit to your framing device, damn it — and (b) the kind of thing that makes me want to say “Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up,” like Peter Falk in The Princess Bride. And the whole episode is like that, nothing happening but blatant teasers for the novel.)

So I was grumpy and felt like things were moving slowly when I shifted to reading; would the free-floating omni POV and expository prose have gotten on my nerves without that? For instance:

Josh sometimes appears human. When he does, he is often short, chubby-cheeked, pudgy, wearing glasses.

“Is that how you see yourself, Josh?” Diane [his mother] once asked.

“Sometimes,” Josh replied.

“Do you like the way you look?” Diane once followed up.

“Sometimes,” Josh replied.

Diane did not press Josh further. She felt his terse answers were a sign he did not want to talk much.

Josh wished his mother talked to him more. His short answers were a sign he didn’t know how to socialize well.

Similarly, was I discounting character development because of my mood, and failing to give enough slack to the need to establish location and worldbuilding for new readers, just because I already knew it? Would I have found charming and in-character the chapter that’s just a Carlos monologue, if I weren’t in the mood to say “ugh, that’s just an excuse to give Dylan Marron a speech for the audiobook?” I can’t say.

I can recognize that some of the book’s themes are laudable, even if I can’t make myself care about them. And I did enjoy some of the small touches, particularly the house’s thoughts and the man in the gray pin-striped business suit. Further, other podcast fans like this just fine–see, for instance, Amal El-Mohtar at NPR–so it can’t only be a book for readers new to Night Vale. But fairly or unfairly, it just wasn’t for me.

(Oh, and if you’re new to Night Vale and are arachnophobic, you want to avoid the book and podcast both.)

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Addison, Katherine: The Goblin Emperor

I should really start booklogging again, shouldn’t I?

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is a standalone fantasy novel that was nominated, on its own merits, for a Hugo this year. As the first novel under a new name by Sarah Monette, I was quite looking forward to it; and I enjoyed it very much, though it is certainly not for everyone.

The main thing to know about this book is that it is a story of one person’s growth and development, specifically Maia’s journey from the despised fourth son of an emperor, raised in isolation and near-ignorance, to an effective Emperor after an airship explosion kills his father and his three older brothers. There are subplots in which things happen, but the book is about Maia; this gives it a somewhat unusual shape, which is why it’s useful to know that up-front.

(The secondary thing to know is that if you, like me, have trouble with decoding the meanings of names—I was too sleep-deprived the first time through and thought the variants on titles were personal names, so I could not figure out who anyone was after a certain point in the book—there’s an appendix that explains things.)

This is a single-volume kingdom-level fantasy, populated entirely by non-humans (distinctly non-mythic elves and goblins; Maia’s mother was a goblin, which is one of the reasons his elf father despised him), set at the start of industrialization, all of which are refreshing changes from multi-volume medievaloid epics. But the setting also leads to some intrinsic awkwardness about the very premise. Maia’s journey is a fantasy of political agency, but—as in-book revolutionaries remind us—no matter how much Maia tries to improve politics by promoting voices that had been marginalized, the system he sits atop is still one that denies legitimate political agency to the majority of people. Of course this is a problem that all novels about the triumph of non-elected rulers have, but (perhaps unfairly) The Goblin Emperor‘s very recognition of the problem made it more prominent in my experience of the book. Not so much that I didn’t enjoy myself, but it was still a little weird.

One criticism I’ve heard is that Maia is too nice. I think that the book is careful to show the effort it takes him, and the reasons he prioritizes empathy, but I recognize that mileage could reasonably vary on this. (Also, I’d much prefer to cut people slack for being perhaps unrealistically nice than the reverse.) Another is that the opening is pretty slow; I was drawn in by Maia’s emotions as he’s suddenly thrust into being Emperor with almost none of the knowledge he needs, but if the opening doesn’t inspire similar feelings in you, you may find it rough going.

I did enjoy this a lot, especially on the second time through when I’d figured out the names. More, on balance, I think it is more successful as a single book than Ancillary Sword. I look forward to reading The Three-Body Problem, the last Hugo nominee for Best Novel I intend to read [*], and seeing how I’ll rank this category overall.

[*] If you haven’t heard about this: here’s one post and a followup with context, and here’s a handy list of nominees.

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