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?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I don't blog much in the summer anyway, but this year I've been in quite the reading funk and haven't had anything to say about books for a while. It happens, I guess. Sometimes life gets in the way of reading.

But when my friend's book came out I had to read it, of course. And if you need a book to get you out of a slump, have I got a book for you!

Gods of Jade and ShadowGods of Jade and Shadow has to be the sweetest dark fantasy about homicidal death gods ever written! If Jazz Age meets Mayan death god sounds intriguing, I can promise you won't be disappointed: you get Mayan mythology and 1920's Mexico in equally vivid realism. The intersection of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, with a Mexico on the verge of change is convincing, terrifying, and so much fun. Witches and demons lurk in strange mansions and the streets of Carnival; fancy new hotels can be portals to hell.

The protagonist leading you through both worlds is a clear-headed, no-nonsense dreamer with a temper that gets her in trouble and a dry, self-depreciating wit that gets her through it. Casiopea is named after a Greek myth and knows her stories, and when she accidentally resurrects a death god she takes it all in stride—after all, he's going to get her out of her grandfather's house and the drab town that "scorch[es] out dreams." And maybe, if she survives the vengeful spirits and the Black Roads of Xibalba and her ever-awful cousin Martín, she might get a chance to realize one or two of her own carefully hoarded dreams.

Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, is an equally delightful travel companion. Arrogant and careless as any god when we first meet him, he becomes more and more human as he journeys with Casiopea (due to a particularly well-done mythical plot twist). Casiopea's relationship with Hun-Kamé is the fascinating, piquant heart of the story: she fears him, stands up to him anyway, serves him, refuses to put up with his crap, chooses to stick with him, and comes to have compassion for him. The impossible romance that blooms ever-so-tentatively between them is entirely believable and beautifully bittersweet.

The writing is lovely and often quite funny. Hun-Kamé is prone to grave utterances that the other characters refuse to take seriously.
"Death enters all dwellings."
"Death has no manners."
But then sometimes he ends up being quite profound.
"Death speaks all languages."
"But I am not death."
"You wear me like a jewel upon your finger, Casiopea."
The plot has the pleasing inevitability of a folktale but the satisfaction of watching characters with agency change their world. "'Very well,'" says Casiopea at the beginning, "and with these two words she accepted her fate, horrid or wonderful as it might be." By the end of her Odyssey, she is defying gods and monsters (and the ever-awful Martín)(but even he gets some compassion, because Casiopea is just that awesome) and it turns out the fate of the world is in her hands. "'I wish you were a coward instead of a hero,'" says Hun-Kamé. But we've known from the start that Casiopea is no coward. Her triumph at the end is earned and fitting. I particularly enjoyed the form her happily-ever-after took!

If you're bored with endlessly replicated fantasy settings, annoyed with heroines whose one characteristic is spunky or kick-ass, have had it up to here with insta-love and angst—this is the book to cleanse your palate and renew your faith in speculative fiction.

Home-made corn tortillas with carnitas, queso fresco and a really spicy pico de gallo. Also a salsa made from blackened habaneros that will scorch your tongue off.

And here's some of what I've been doing instead of reading this summer:

Cross-posted on Goodreads (without the hiking photos!).