What I’ve Been Reading – Winter Edition

I started writing this post in March, but I was never quite happy with my summarising of the books. I’ve been in a reading slump and have not finished any reading or writing I’ve done for the last two months. I finally decided to try to finish what I had here and just post it. It took me 10 minutes. /shrug

Since the last time I made one of these posts, I’ve only written about two books on this blog – Seveneves and Radiance – but there are several others I haven’t mentioned. Here are some brief thoughts on all those other books.

Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
A steampunk western about the residents of a brothel who become targets of a powerful and ambitious criminal after taking in a rescued trafficking victim. Meanwhile, a serial killer is targeting prostitutes in Rapid City, and Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves seeks their help with his investigation.
There’s plenty of wild steampunk invention in this alternate history where “Mad Scientist” is a licensed profession, from submarines to mind control to mech-suit sewing machines, and a lot of action. The main strength of the book however is probably the narrative voice of the protagonist, Karen Memery, who aspires to own a ranch and write adventure novels, and finds herself right in the middle of all this trouble.
I can’t say it’s among my favourites of Bear’s work, but it’s certainly a fun read.

The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
In a world where frequent major tectonic activity causes devastating “fifth seasons”, some people, known as “orogenes”, have developed the ability to control and cause tremors. Feared and hated by ordinary people, orogenes, once discovered, are either killed or sent to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, to train in captivity to serve the empire.
The Fifth Season tells the story of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun – a child found and taken to train at the Fulcrum; a young women travelling with a powerful orogene to fulfill one of the Fulcrum’s missions; and a woman whose son has been killed and daughter taken by their father, who she now chases after as the world begins to end around her. There’s more going on than there seems, however, with mysteries surrounding the strange beings called Stone Eaters, the floating Obelisks, and the truth behind the origins and methods of the Fulcrum.
This complex novel fits together these three stories from three times in a way that gradually peels back the surface of this society and begins to show us the mysteries underneath, and something of the truth to come. The story of Syenite is the most complete here, as she travels with Alabaster, the most powerful Fulcrum orogene, and begins to learn the reasons for his bitter cynicism toward the empire. It’s between this and Damaya’s storyline that Jemisin addresses the slavery of the orogenes, and how the empire keeps the worst truths of its treatment of them hidden away. Essun’s story, on the other hand, seems mainly to lay groundwork for the future of the trilogy; if there’s one place the book suffers, it’s in being the opening volume of a series. Overall this is an excellent book, and very much a series to watch.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Published as part of Tor.com’s new novella imprint, Binti tells the story of a young woman who is the first of the Himba people to be accepted into the most prestigious university in the galaxy. Leaving without the approval of her parents, she sets off on a spaceship journey to Oomza University – only for things to go wrong when the ship encounters a hostile alien species.
Binti is about identity, communication, and understanding – in particular, it’s about respecting one’s heritage and culture while forging your own path, and discovering who you are as an individual. It’s a charming story with a strong lead character who solves problems through empathy.

Persona – Genevieve Valentine
The United Nations meets beauty pageants. Persona shows us a future where every country has a Face, an individual who serves as a mix of ambassador, personification, and figurehead. Faces are the public representatives of their governments, their images and lifestyles tightly controlled; celebrities whose reputations are tied closely to those of their countries. When an assassination attempt is made against Suyana, Face of a tiny South American nation caught between competing powers, she ends up having to rely on photographer Daniel – an aspiring member of the illegal paparazzi – to help her uncover who was responsible and find a way to restore her position.
A light and fast-paced political thriller, this didn’t quite match the strength of Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (one of my favourite novels of 2014), but I still enjoyed it. At the ending I was left feeling that a lot more could have been done with the story, so I was happy to hear that a sequel, Icon, is on its way.

Black Wolves – Kate Elliott
The outsider King Anjihosh has conquered the Hundred, killing the Demons who ruled the country and uniting it under his rule. Decades later, under his grandson King Jehosh, it seems like the peace and unity he created is beginning to fall apart as factions within the palace scheme for power.
As the foreign ruling family impose their customs and faith on the country, this fuels discord among the people. King Jehosh himself is no longer sure how much power he really holds. Dannarah, the king’s aunt and formerly Chief Marshal of the giant-eagle-riding Reeves, sees the systems of the Reeve Halls being torn apart and remade in dangerous forms by her great-nephews. Kellas, once the most trusted Captain of King Anjihosh and his son Itani, is brought out of retirement to help Jehosh, but he is part of another, larger agenda. They and others become caught up in the plots that are tearing the Hundred apart.
This is a big, complex epic fantasy, where every character has their own secrets and you’re never really sure who can trust who. It’s hard to summarise, with so many characters and so much going on. What I can say is that it was one of the most engaging and well-crafted epic fantasies I’ve read, full of great characters (the back-cover copy – and the very long prologue – focuses on Kellas, but it tends to be the other characters, mostly female, who carry the story), and written with a clear awareness of issues of prejudice regarding race, gender, religion, and culture.
The Black Wolves trilogy is a follow-up to an earlier series, however you do not need to be familiar with those books to follow the plot of this one – I have not read the Crossroads trilogy, but based on the strength of Black Wolves, I intend to.

Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of England, but faces hostility from the magical establishment in his role – Zacharias is black, a former slave freed and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, and trained in magic in an effort to prove to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers that people of his race are just as capable of magic.
On a visit to a school for “gentlewitches” (which specialises in teaching young women how not to use magic, which is considered unladylike) he encounters Prunella Gentleman, an orphan of unusually powerful magical ability, and seizes on the idea of training her in order to demonstrate the capabilities of women – just as she seizes on him as a means of escaping her current life and finding a better station for herself in London society. Together they end up dealing with assassination attempts against Zacharias, the efforts of a Malaysian witch to stop British magicians supporting persecution of her people, and the unexplained closing off of Faerie and dwindling of magical power in England.
The novel is written in a style that mimics the period, but with a willingness to address Britain’s colonialism, and the ugliness of race and gender prejudice. It’s been earning a lot of praise and award consideration, and I can see why.

Archivist Wasp – Nicole Kornher-Stace
In a post-apocalyptic setting where ghosts wander the world, Wasp is the Archivist, whose role is to capture these ghosts and from them try to learn anything she can about the world before. The ghosts, however, do not talk – until she encounters one strange spirit, a soldier who seeks out Wasp’s help in finding his former partner. Their journey together will lead Wasp through many questions and discoveries about who she is and where she came from.
Archivist Wasp is a journey-through-the-underworld tale with a very original spin, and woven within it is the touching science fictional story of the ghost soldier and his partner. Both sides are ultimately about finding your own identity, and escaping the roles that others have shaped you for.

*

In addition to the above, I’ve gone through a number of audiobooks, but I’m having a harder time shaping my thoughts on those. I’ll leave you with these for now. I’m currently reading Testament by Hal Duncan, which is doing some very interesting things with its reinterpretation of the gospels, but has taken me a very long time to get through as the Bible can be somewhat dry.

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