Monday, August 26, 2019

Novellas get me out of my reading funk! Also dragons.

It helps that the novellas were written by Lois McMaster Bujold, Becky Chambers, and T. Kingfisher.  And the dragons are from Marie Brennan's series that I finally got around to starting, and why did I wait so long (though it's nice that all the books (I think?) are written now) because she is an amazing writer!

There is nothing like putting yourself in a capable writer's hands. Suddenly, the world seems like a more hopeful place.

Becky Chambers is infinitely imaginative and also owns a deep well of hope. I haven't reviewed her Wayfarers series, I guess because it's adult and I'm mostly a YA/Kidslit blog, but I adored it. So, so interesting—her world, her characters, her narrative style. How does she manage to be both thought-provoking and feel-good? When I saw a novella with yet another amazing title (she is hands-down the best title-er out there, just saying), I bought it right away. To Be Taught, if Fortunate is another fascinating exploration of humanity's possible future, while also being a deep character study of science—yes, of scientists, but also of science itself: what it values, what it's good at, why it's a hallmark of our species and the ultimate reason to have hope for where we're headed. By the end of the novella I cared as much about the future of science as I did about the characters—who were all lovely and interesting and maybe they got along a little too well to be believable, but isn't it sometimes nice to read a book where the conflict isn't about people being mean to each other? Just saying.

I have written quite a bit about Lois McMaster Bujold, despite her never writing anything remotely YA—I just love her so much I can't help myself. She's been dropping novellas about Penric and his resident chaos demon, Desdemona, like little surprise fruits for the past several years, and I'm always thrilled to get another one. Penric is getting pretty powerful these days, as he and Desdemona figure out how to work together, and in Orphans of Raspay he gets very pissed off. You shouldn't piss off someone harbouring a chaos demon. Just saying. What I love about this series (and the World of the Five Gods series, same world, same religion) is the way she explores how gods could work in the world without infringing on human agency. I also love the humour. And Penric. I just love Penric. He has to be one of the best depictions of an ethical character—his conflicts are all about how to be ethical when you have the power to do whatever the hell you want, and there's room for a lot of humour there.

Speaking of humour, I can always rely on T. Kingfisher. She understands that all plots are jokes (you have to set up your punchline), and her comedic timing is impeccable. Also she has a deep well of absurdity. Don't be misled by the young protagonist and his armadillo familiar: this is not a children's book. When Ursula Vernon is being T. Kingfisher, she can do pretty horrific violence and some genuinely scary bits. (Some reviewers have pointed out that kids do read scary and violent things. I would recommend reading it yourself before giving it to anyone under 13.) Minor Mage has everything I like about Vernon/Kingfisher: unflinching understanding of the worst of humanity combined with loving depictions of its best; not-particularly-special protagonists who muddle their way into heroism; folktale elements teased apart and turned into very weird, very brilliant world-building. And laugh-out-loud funny scenes juxtaposed with insight and wisdom, in the best Terry Pratchett style.

Speaking of science (we were a few paragraphs ago!), A Natural History of Dragons is another delightful exploration of the scientific method and the characters of people who are obsessed with Finding Things Out. (And if you think "delightful exploration of the scientific method" is an oxymoron, this might not be the book for you.) I loved Isabella, and I loved the narrative style, which pretends to be all distant and objective but actually reveals how deeply Isabella feels. (And is also quite slyly funny a lot of the time.) This first book of The Memoirs of Lady Trent describes a young Isabella desperate to study dragons but destined to lead the restricted life of a Victorian lady. The narrator is older, wildly successful dragonologist Isabella, so we know she succeeds, but the gap between where she begins and where she apparently ends up is a fascinating one to see slowly filled in. These books are gorgeous, with lovely illustrations, and I now have a terrible dilemma: do I buy the discounted e-book collection that has all five books, or do I fork out for the paper editions?

I'm feeling my way back into reading and writing, and authors who know what they're doing and who believe the world, and people, are full of potential and are worth saving are a lifeline to me. Have you read anything lately that has given you hope and confidence? Or just made you laugh?


  1. Minor Mage sounds terrific! I'm awfully fond of Ursula Vernon, and have recommended her Castle Hangnail to all and sundry. I have been reading rather intense and grim things lately, I regret to report, but that includes some fascinating nonfiction, which I've been very much in the mood for.

    Oh! Actually! I read a biography of Ida B Wells, called To Tell the Truth Freely, and THAT made me feel hope. It's sad, because Wells faces so much opposition from so many people, but it made me feel hopeful to read about someone who was so relentless and brave in the pursuit of justice.

  2. I just started the Wayfarers series last week and OMG Chambers can really write! I can't wait to keep going with that and I'll have to get this novella on the list too. And I do need to get to Vernon/Kingfisher as well.