Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Xeno Reviews Books

Entirely inspired by Throne of Salt's book reviews.

Here's what I think about some stuff I've read in the last year-ish.

Annals of the Western Shore: Gifts, Voices, and Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

Published 2004, 2006, and 2007; 149, 188, and 280 pages.
This trilogy deserves to be ranked among the greatest young-adult series of all time, up there with the Earthsea Cycle and His Dark Materials, and I'm not sure why it isn't better known. All three are coming of age stories, and very good ones, but they're so much more than that. They're about books, about poetry, about stories, about violence, about freedom, about finding one's place in the world. One of Le Guin's consistent virtues is her conciseness, and these don't disappoint, with the first two clocking in at less than 200 pages. Not a word is wasted, the stories are tight and contained, and yet they still drip with more and better flavor than a dozen lesser fantasy novels. You aren't left in question as to how people live because every moment is deeply immersed in everyday life. The series as a whole has an interesting and unorthodox structure; Gry and Orrec, the protagonists of Gifts, play a major role in Voices but aren't the main characters by any means, and they and Memer of Voices show up in the end of Powers as well, though their role is fairly minor. This leaves it feeling cohesive without being tied to any one location in the world or continuing the stories of someone whose story is done, who has completed their arc.

There is one rather large problem I do have with the Annals of the Western Shore, and specifically with Gifts and Powers. Violence against women is a major theme throughout the series, but the main protagonists of the first and third book are both male. Women are hurt and die to further the stories of men. It's done better than most other occurrences of this shitty trope, they're fully developed characters and exist as more than shadows and cheap shots, but it's still there. There's one incident in Powers in particular that, while reinforcing the themes of the book and being a genuinely heart-wrenching moment, is still particularly egregious. You'll know it when you get to it.

Conclusion: Fantastic books slightly hamstrung by one issue that doesn't get anywhere close to ruining them. Read them.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Published 2014, 333 pages.
This is the sort of book where someone takes the tropes of a genre that's derided as immature and not really literature (in this case, post-apocalypse), does them up in a way slightly more palatable to the literary establishment, and then gets praised for how creative and novel it is and ends up as a National Book Award finalist despite the fact that it's all been done before. Nonetheless, it's not a bad book, and I did enjoy it. It's very character-focused and small-scale, jumping in time between various intersections of a web of a dozen characters who touch each other's lives despite having, in many cases, never met or met for but a moment. The problem that arises is that it's a very "tell don't show" book, which does mostly work, keeping things moving and reasonably fast-paced in a complex, tight narrative, but it unfortunately extends to the emotional state of the characters too. It spells things out way too much, which ends up depriving the characters of interiority and making them feel like cardboard cutouts dangling from strings. This is, as you can imagine, a really big problem for a book that is trying very, very hard to be introspective and relying on the characters to carry it.

Conclusion: Trying to be a Le Guin novel and getting like 80% of the way there, which really isn't all that bad of a score. It's worth a read, but don't expect it to be mind-blowing unless you've never engaged with any sort of post-apocalyptic media in your life.

A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Published 2019 and 2021, 426 and 496 pages.
A Memory Called Empire might be the best science fiction novel to come out since Ancillary Justice. It's fast-paced and exciting while still being very deliberate in everything it does. I normally am not a huge fan of political thrillers, but this is a total exception. It manages to capture that Kim Stanley Robinson feeling where everyone is sleep-deprived and doesn't really know what to do but things are going horribly wrong and someone has to do something about it. I absolutely adore the down-to-earth worldbuilding of both Lsel Station and the Teixcalaani Empire, and the book just oozes with love for poetry, for writing, for words. The central mystery of "what the hell did Yskandr do?" is compelling, while Mahit is a perfect reader stand-in, knowing enough to exposit sufficiently and being confused and out of her depth enough to be relatable and to not throw you right in the thick of things immediately without a period of adjustment. All of the characters are generally excellent, especially Three Seagrass. To borrow a quote from Jane Austen, she is "As delightful a character as ever appeared in print," and yes, I do think she manages to measure up to Lizzy Bennet in that respect.

The sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, is a very different book from the first. No longer a political thriller, it's a first contact drama. Lots of very good interpersonal drama, lots of aliens who actually feel properly alien. It is missing some of the driving energy that makes the first so very compelling, but it has other things going on to compensate. A worthy successor, although I don't think it's quite as good.

In conclusion: Both truly excellent books; the second isn't quite as good and it is rather different but if you liked the first, you'll still like it.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal el-Mohtar

Published 2019, 198 pages.
I'd describe this book as high-concept transhumanist time-traveling epistolary lesbian romance. That's quite the tagline, and I imagine already very interesting to many of the people who read this blog, but the thing that really surprised me about it is how amazing the prose is. If you inserted a bunch of arbitrary line breaks I'd absolutely believe it was written as poetry. Lush, indulgent, sensual, gorgeous sentences just pile up and do not stop coming. I was sad when it ended, even though the story concluded precisely at its due time, just because I wanted to keep reading more of those lovely words. The wordplay makes you feel smart for reading and understanding it. There's not that much more to say. It's really good.

Conclusion: Wholeheartedly recommended, but be warned that it is rather abstract in broad strokes, though not in the little details, if that's not your thing.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 ed. Diana Gabaldon

Published 2020, 388 pages.
This is the most recent edition of a series of short story collections that's been assembled each year since 2015, although I've only read the 2020 and 2019. I don't always agree with the editors' taste, but that's inevitable, and it's a nice round-up. I'm going to give these number scores, even though I'm not doing it with the novels, because there's a lot of these and I want to keep them all pretty brief without waffling on too much.
  1. "Life Sentence" by Matthew Baker. A fairly by the numbers dystopian story in the well-trodden "what if the punishment for crimes was getting your brain fucked with" category. In this case, the punishment is getting your memory selectively erased. Good treatment, none too inspired. 6/10.
  2. "Another Avatar" by S.P. Somtow. To be honest, this one confused the hell out of me. A Thai orphan finds out that he's the next Chosen One, selected to avert climate change. It really feels like there's something here, but I couldn't tell you what it is. ???/10.
  3. "Between the Dark and the Dark" by Deji Bryce Olukotun. A very creative story about politicians back on Earth trying to police the emerging culture on board a generation ship growing farther and farther away. The parts back on Earth are, to be honest, rather boring, and really mess with the pace of the story, but the concept carries it. 8/10.
  4. "Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters" by Kelly Barnhill. A rather trite moral parable about the thirty-three daughters of a king, who are demonized and attacked for making things better for women and the poor, then eventually come up with a clever plan to murder their opposition, enact all of their improvements that were prevented earlier, and then leave for a place they'll be appreciated. Not bad per se, but it doesn't really have anything interesting to say. 4/10.
  5. "Bullet Point" by Elizabeth Bear. The last woman left on Earth in Las Vegas meets the last man, and shocker, he's a terrible person. Short, effective, and to the point. 8/10.
  6. "The Eight People Who Murdered Me" by Gwendolyn Kiste. An attempt to give Lucy Westenra, a character from the original 1897 Dracula, a rather fairer shake than the novel does, and I think it succeeds quite admirably. Would probably be more effective if I'd actually read Dracula. 7/10.
  7. "The Archronology of Love" by Caroline M. Yoachim. An archive of all which is, has been, and will be - but it's irretrievably erased by viewing it. A collapsed extraterrestrial colony where the families of many on the newly arrived colony ship were already living, with no signs remaining of the cause. Good setup, good payoff. 9/10.
  8. "Shape-ups at Delilah's" by Rion Amilcar Scott. All the men in a Black community mysteriously lose the power to give good masculine haircuts, but the women retain it. I'm definitely missing out on some cultural context, but it was a really interesting read. 8/10.
  9. "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex" by Tobias S. Bucknell. The Earth is turned into an interstellar tourist trap. A tourist commits suicide out of the back of a gig driver's flying car. Things escalate from there. Very much a satire of tourism, the gig economy, and capitalism in general. 7/10.
  10. "The Bookstore at the End of America" by Charlie Jane Anders. The US has split into two nations, one of which is conservative and "traditional" while the other is progressive and technological, and there's a bookstore spanning the border. There's some real potential here, but sadly, it's incredibly "enlightened centrist" both-sidesy. The transhumanist/gender non-conforming leftists (it's unclear what their actual economic system is) are equated to the intolerant fascists way too often for my tastes. 3/10.
  11. "Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island" by Nibedita Sen. A meditation on the fetishization of racialized people, but you're left to tease out the occurrences being discussed and the subject of the paper it's ostensibly the bibliography of yourself. Saved from tedium by being very concise. 8/10.
  12. "The Freedom of the Shifting Sea" by Jaymee Goh. Man-eating lesbian bobbit worm mermaids. That's all the description you need, it's really really fucking good, go read it. 11/10.
  13. "Sacrid's Pod" by Adam-Troy Castro. A young woman is imprisoned in an impenetrable prison by her fundamentalist family, but it may be less of a punishment than intended. Good concept, goes on for way too long. Apparently it's part of a loose series (which I have no further interest in reading from this example). 5/10.
  14. "Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan" by Christopher Caldwell. An escaped slave discovers his lost traditions (and a boyfriend) aboard a doomed whaling ship. I don't have much more to say about it. 7/10.
  15. "Thoughts and Prayers" by Ken Liu. Another take on the ubiquitous cautionary tale of "social media bad" with the particular flavor of deep faking is scary, but it's redeemed by being particularly awful and written with an understanding of how trolls operate. Still, it doesn't go much beyond "wouldn't it be fucked up if...?" 7/10.
  16. "The Time Invariance of Snow" by E. Lily Yu. A thoroughly confusing... parable? fairy tale? about a mirror the devil made and a woman who reassembles it after it shatters. Very enjoyable and somehow poignant even though I'm still not really sure what's going on after reading it something like five times. 8/10.
  17. "The Robots of Eden" by Anil Menon. A Brave New World-style dystopia by way of chemically induced happiness, but it avoids tiredness and cliche by remaining very human and small. Some interesting digression into the meaning of books and stories. 7/10.
  18. "Erase, Erase, Erase" by Elizabeth Bear. It's got the classic sci-fi thing where you're really, really confused at the start and things come together quite nicely as you go. It's not too neat, which I appreciate. A woman finds herself insubstantial and disappearing as she tries to forget her past, and saves herself by writing. 8/10.
  19. "A Brief Lesson on Native American Astronomy" by Rebecca Roanhorse. The traditional Tewa folktale of "Deer Hunter and White Corn Woman" adapted into a near-future tale set in Hollywood. Apparently Roanhorse is quite controversial in both Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, where this story is from, and the Navajo Nation, which she is also a member of, for her use of traditional stories. As I'm entirely unqualified to comment on this, I'll just say that I enjoyed it a lot and it lead me to read the original folktale, which is also excellent. 8/10.
  20. "Up From Slavery" by Victor LaValle. A fascinating re-examination of Lovecraft's shoggoths from the perspective of race and slavery. I won't say much more, because you should just read it. I should also really get around to reading At the Mountains of Madness one of these days. 10/10. 
Conclusion: This is a generally pretty darn good short story collection overall, much better than the previous year's selections. Definitely worth picking up, or just look up the highlights online. You can almost always find any short story for free on some website or blog.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss

Published 2017, 402 pages.
It's a bit of an odd one. A mystery set in London in the 1890s, the main characters are an array of the daughters and female creations of various villainous mad scientists from the horror stories of the era - Dr. Hyde, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Frankenstein, and such. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are also major characters. I don't have a great deal of knowledge of those tales, so I had to look a fair few things up to get the full context. The book is definitely a younger teenager sort of YA, which isn't bad by any means but wasn't exactly what I was expecting. It's got a very basic girl-power theme and tone to it, which feels a little bit trite, but is totally acceptable given the target audience. I do think it could do a little more examination of its ideas of womanhood, but maybe that's just me as a transfeminine person. Maybe I'll get around to reading the sequel, but I'm not going to go out of my way for it.

Conclusion: Well-paced and fun, but very little depth, which is a shame given the potential in the premise. I wouldn't really recommend it to adult readers, but it'd make a good present for a younger relative.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see another bookpost. I've only read the Galactic Tourism Industry Complex out of all of these, but I shall keep my eyes out for several.