I am dealing with some pretty serious personal issues, as well as in the process of moving into a new apartment while working 45 hours a week. My creativity is just… not. I can’t do any writing right now, and this includes writing exercises and “think” pieces.
So posting might be a tad sporadic in the next few days. And once I’m back to normal, I might go down to only two posts per week. It is important to me to be regular, and three is too much at the moment, with everything else going on.
Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel Gideon the Ninth was an absolute revelation to me. Unapologetic and audacious, it easily became my favorite book of 2019. If I could have “Queer Baroque Necropunk” be a legit genre, I would likely buy anything published in it. And as for the sequel, I would have been perfectly content to read another story like Gideon.
But that would be too easy.
The following review contains spoilers for Gideon the Ninth.
Right from the get go, Harrow the Ninth aims to confuse. You see, this is not the Harrow we remember from the first book. Gone is the viper wit, the withering confidence, the precocious bone genius. Instead, we are offered a Harrow that somehow bungled the Lyctoral process. One who is beset by physical frailty and the gravitational pulls of anxiety and depression. She is a young girl, alone and trapped on a space station with teachers who despise her — one of whom is even trying to murder her! — and a God who feels sorry for her, and has no answers to her questions.
This is also a Harrow who went to the First House with Ortus Nigenad as her cavalier primary. But…
Is this how it happens?
Harrow the Ninth is a brave new frontier that flirts with the post-modern. Tamsyn Muir has earned the reader’s trust, and soon the maddening mystery of Harrow’s sorry state, as well as the inconsistencies of her existence begin taking shape. The novel alternates between two types of chapters. Some are in second person, in which she is being told how the present is unfolding by a mysterious narrator. The past tense makes them an interesting experiment of storytelling, as if Harrow herself was not present for these events. The rest are in traditional third person, and retell the story of her journey to the First House. Except, it’s all wrong. Nothing happens the way it was described in Gideon the Ninth. Characters are not who they appear to be, and at sudden moments people will question the reality around them.
The cast of said characters is just as colorful as that of Gideon, though in a completely different way. Everyone carries their own unique damage. Harrow’s new sister Ianthe Tridentarius — formerly Princess of Ida, now Lyctor of the First House — has murdered an unwilling cavalier to achieve her sainthood. Now struggles with a sword hand that won’t obey her. God himself and his three surviving original Lyctors are creatures who have known each other for ten thousand years, They have accumulated civilizations’ worth of grudges and emotional baggage, deliciously opaque for any reader who has not been alive for a myriad. Meanwhile, Ortus Nigenad — failed cavalier primary of the Ninth House in Gideon the Ninth — seeks redemption in the eyes of the reader, as he tries to fulfill his role in a story that never happened.
Harrow the Ninth throbs with the disquieting feeling of paranoia and an almost Gene Wolfean puzzle box quality. Things are not as they seem, the world is not as it should be. This is not how it happens. The wrongness permeates not only the inaccurate retelling of the events at the First House, but also the present in the Mithraeum — the Emperor’s space station, 40 billion light years away from Dominicus and its Houses — where a dead Lyctor stalks the hallways seeking vengeance, while a living one bears the name of the wrong cavalier, as well as an inexplicable thirst for Harrow’s life. In the twisted hallways of God’s home, she is not simply frail and confused. She is haunted.
That this mystery is absolutely maddening, is a given. But Tamsyn Muir uses it brilliantly to tell a story of a girl on the brink of mental breakdown. It is a story of depression and inadequacy, and of injustice. And as Harrow tries to understand her failures, and overcome them, it also becomes a story of heartbreaking intimacy and truly heroic emotional openness.
Harrow the Ninth is an absolute masterpiece, just like its predecessor, while being twice as ambitious. It takes a bold new trajectory, but still retains the baroque darkness that makes Muir’s universe so enticing. What it lacks in contemporary humor, it more than makes up for in far more complex storytelling and character development. The book makes you emotionally invested not only in the current plot, but also in a messed-up retelling of a story you already know. And it the process, it gives wonderful center stage to characters you thought you’d never meet again.
Which is outrageous, as well as absolutely delightful, just like everything about Tamsyn Muir’s writing! To be fair, I wish that the first few chapters were a little more welcoming. The story is extremely confusing at first, and the reader is thrown into a labyrinth with no clear exit. But in the end, there was never a doubt in my mind that the book would deliver on its mysteries. I just didn’t anticipate how incredible it would be in the process.
As part of my Hugo 2020 marathon, I finally got through Seanan McGuire’s massive epic Middlegame. It’s not that I didn’t want to, honestly. But I only recently got acquainted with McGuire’s work, and I feared that I might be oversaturated with it. I am happy to report that I was wrong to worry.
Middlegame is massive. Not just in page-count, but in scope, and in a way I genuinely like. The story begins decades ago (but really, over a century ago), with the creation of two unique children. In a world where centuries-old alchemists practice their miracles in secret, a brilliant and monstrous genius — himself the creation of another — seeks to achieve what even the mistress he killed could not: embody a guiding principle of the universe in human form. Twins Roger and Dodger are the two halves of the Doctrine of Ethos. Placed in adoptive families under surveillance, they are meant to grow apart from each other. This way, by the time their powers manifest, they would be easier to control.
Except, they find each other in the space between their minds.
Middlegame follows Roger and Dodger from their 7th year until present day, when they’re in their late 20s. The narrative is omniscient, jumping perspectives between the two protagonists, as well as the villains trying to control their destinies. McGuire is amazing at this type of storytelling. She often flat out tells the reader of tragedies still to come, only to deliver them later in unexpected ways.
The story goes to some genuinely dark places, and while I am not one for content warnings, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. There is a whole lot of fairly gruesome murder, and a particularly grueling scene of self-harm. The author doesn’t do this lightly, or for shock value, but still, it’s important to know in advance that this is not a YA adventure.
The violence and tragedy underline another theme of the book, which is alternate timelines. McGuire deftly spreads out signs that the twins are on a path that has led them to failure and death many times. And they have rewritten their fate over and over, trying to retain even a fraction of knowledge that might save them next time. The more they mature, the more their story focuses on the power that they embody. Middlegame begins as a tale of two children learning how to be what they are without hurting each other. But by the end, the magical aspects of the world are driving the vehicle full speed. And for the longest time it seems like they’re driving it into a concrete wall.
Roger and Dodger are wonderful characters, particularly Dodger. She is a math prodigy, and while not explicitly labeled as such, certain aspects of her are coded as autistic. McGuire develops her brilliantly, both as herself, and in the context of her sometimes-toxic, but always loving relationship with her more mundane brother. Roger himself is more subtle, more relatably flawed, at least at first. But the story also follows him more closely than it does his sister, and so we get to see how divinity impacts them on a deeply human level.
I have seen people criticizing the book for its length. The way I see it, this story could either be a very short action adventure, or the sprawling coming of age saga that it is, with no middle ground. As I thoroughly love McGuire’s writing and characterization, I didn’t mind the sprawling coming of age saga version, but I can see how others might be more focused on story. Even so, the book ultimately delivers on that as well. It just asks you to stick with it. And in its defense, it never drags its heels. As the twins grow, their lives never cease to be compelling.
All in all, I really loved Middlegame. It makes grand promises, and then surprises you by actually delivering on them. It does so in a single volume too, raising the stakes to a point where sequels would be impossible. And even if I love a good series, there is a lot to be said about solid stand-alone storytelling. Definitely recommended reading, with some content warnings.
P.S. The audiobook is read by Amber Benson, a.k.a. Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not that this is terribly relevant, but it was an added plus for me.
Before I start this, I need to admit something. This is the first work by Stephen Graham Jones that I have ever read. I could immediately tell that I would be unable to fully appreciate the cultural nuances of the Native American (his characters even mock this term) experience. But with that out of the way, let’s dig in!
On surface plot level, The Only Good Indians resonates with the classic Stephen King style of horror. Four Blackfeet Native American friends (the author’s own tribe) once trespassed into land reserved for tribe elders. They found a herd of elk and shot them down. Except, a small female had more to fight for than the rest, and refused to die. Lewis, one of the four, had to shoot her repeatedly in the head before she would give up. And after her eventual gruesome death, he found out she had been with calf.
Ten years later, the massacre still haunts Lewis. And while his friends have forgotten all about it, it’s going to haunt them as well. As all four have broken with tribal traditions to one degree or another, and lost the meager support systems they had in the past, a dark entity driven by hatred and pain targets them one by one.
One needs very little understanding of the Native American experience to recognize how deeply suffused with it this book is. The Only Good Indians is a tale of sorrow and abandonment, more than it is about elk demons and vengeance. It deftly explores identity, and what’s left of it when you cut out tradition. Only to find that tradition was all that held the whole thing together. The characters are a fractured bunch, members of a fractured people. Even within the chamber ensemble of the story, being “Indian” is not all-encompassing. Jones deftly uses the Blackfeet’s ancestral mistrust of the neighboring tribe, the Crows, to sow paranoia, to brilliant effect.
Paranoia is actually one of the strongest tools of the book. While the prologue already tells us in no uncertain terms there is to be some spirit shit going down, the first half of the story is slow and ambiguous. Unsettling. We follow Lewis himself in those chapters, as he superstitiously jumps from one insane scenario to the next, trying to decipher the haunting that seems to be choking out his life outside the reservation. And then the story starts escalating, and refuses to stop until the gore-splattering end.
Jones is an amazing writer. I know I am late to the party, but damn! He paints an atmosphere with just a few words, and it is THICK, and disturbing, and visceral. The writing evokes powerful imagery, whether you want to see it, or not. On that note, if I had one — very personal — complaint about The Only Good Indians, it would be the graphic depictions of violence against dogs. Poor puppers…
In the end, I cannot speak to the mindset, worldview and emotional experiences of the characters in the book. But I can definitely attest to how strong their impact was on me. This book is a short read, simultaneously heavy and impossible to put down. The Only Good Indians is a miasmic mixture of tragedy, a sense of pointless waste, and a flickering of triumph, snatched from the jaws of desolation. And if the genre is not a deal breaker for you, it is easily among the most impressive works of the summer.
It occurred to me, out of nowhere, that I have never actually managed to read all Hugo Award nominees in time for the ceremony. And of course, ten days out is exactly when one should decide to catch up. But I am not letting things like the objective passage of time stop me! By necessity, I am only limiting myself to novels, though I have already read some of the novella nominees as well.
The nominees for best novel are:
The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
As of right now, I have read Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire. Currently, I am halfway through The City in the Middle of the Night, and then I think I will try The Light Brigade, since I have been meaning to read it for a while now. Hopefully I will be able to get to at least 4/6 before the awards are announced.
Life has been throwing curve balls at me (sportsball metaphor!) for these past few weeks. I am dealing with it as best I can, but writing seems to have become the proverbial innocent bystander. My creativity is fluctuating wildly, and when the time comes to write, I feel drained and unmotivated. I know myself well enough to expect this to be temporary. But until then, writing exercises feel like too much of a chore.
In the meantime, a housekeeping note. I decided to skip the “Women and Men” section of The 3 A.M. Epiphany. There are some pretty inventive exercises there, but the outdated gender roles and implied relationship dynamics feel like too much effort to navigate healthily at the moment. So my plan, once I get back to the book, is to proceed to the next section, titled “Children and Childhood”.
Recently, I reviewed Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It was a Hunger Games novel, so I wasn’t going to miss it. I ended up quite enjoying it, because it was focusing on a character, rather than events. But back when I first heard about it, my reaction was an exasperated sigh.
I hate prequels. I hate them with a fiery passion. I respect the fact that not everyone feels as I do, and for some people returning to a beloved world is enough to be happy. But I am not wired this way. I enjoy that, to be sure, but my main drug is story. And here is the thing about prequels: I know what happens next.
There is a pretty solid argument to be made that the very concept of a prequel is messing with the dramatic rhythm of a work. The emotional punchline is by default muted. Sure, we are invested (smirk) in the trade disputes around the blockade of the planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Or the mystery of the clone army in Attack of the Clones. Or even Sidious’ machinations in Revenge of the Sith. But really, what we want to see, is the rise of the Empire and Anakin turning evil.
Except, we already know those things will happen. The Empire will rise. Anakin will become Darth Vader. And then Sidious will be killed by his apprentice, who will die saving his son. Thus apparently redeeming himself for being the galaxy’s shittiest parent.
This makes any potential emotional punch of the Star Wars prequels – even were they better written – immediately lessened. And what’s worse, we now have the bad taste of those not-awesome movies that mars our experience of the original trilogy. And this applies to any work of art. Often the prequel will create context that damages the original story in some way, and for what? I don’t want to sympathize with the villain. I don’t need to know how many adventures the protagonist’s now-dead parents had. It only makes me annoyed that they died so easily before the story even began.
I think it is likely easier to write a prequel than a sequel. You are working with a pre-existing world, and leaning on a completed story that demands a certain direction. Furthermore, publishers LOVE prequels. For established works they are certain cash cows, and even for less successful stories, they are, by definition, low-risk.
But here is the thing. Even when people like a story enough that they are willing to read anything related to it, they would still never truly love your prequel. And they will especially fail to love the diminishing returns of your prequel series. We know what comes after. Sooner or later we are just looking at our watches and waiting for it to just happen.
I did a little mental inventory to see if there have been any prequels I have genuinely loved. Weirdly enough, the most recent example I started this post with, is actually among the successful ones. The Star Wars sequel trilogy was far more exciting to me than the prequel one. It had never occurred to me to even try and read anything about James Potter, even before Joanne turned full TERF evil. But I did enjoy the flawed Cursed Child. The Dune prequels were… not awesome. The Wheel of Time’s New Spring left me gasping from boredom.
Our entertainment culture is driven more and more by profit, and seems to be increasingly terrified of taking risks. Literature, luckily, is low-stakes enough, and by its very nature can’t survive without new voices. But the moment something becomes successful, it is expected to keep proliferating. And hey, if they are offering you bags of money to write prequels, you should absolutely take their bags of money! The easiest way to do so is to look back. ‘How did we get here?’
But here is the thing. You already told us how. In the original story. If we needed to know more in order to understand it, you’d have told us then. And this is before considering that adding more (and rarely necessary) details only has the potential to mar the impression of the source material.
In most cases, prequels add nothing but disappointment and diminishing returns to my experience. I accept that this is not the case for everyone, but I dare you to show me a single work where a prequel was better or more exciting than the sequels. In the meantime, I will continue hoping that Collins takes us further into the future of Panem and the inevitable collapse of its inept people’s government.
Sorry for the topical pun, which will cease to make sense within a week. But as I am halfway through Mary Trump’s unflattering and devastatingly empathetic portrait of her uncle, the title has been percolating in my head. This post is about something else however.
I have been reading a lot lately. My life is in the middle of some significant changes. For good and for bad, alas, but both aspects amount to more reading time. It’s a borderline feverish state of ingesting books, and it feels amazing! Reading has always been therapeutic for me, and working at a bookstore, it also makes me feel connected to my job.
On that note, apparently I am good at hyping up things and making people buy them. Who knew!
A bit of housekeeping. Last week I mentioned reading Sam Lansky’s Broken People. I ended up absolutely loving the book, but the reasons for that are a tad too personal to really talk about in a coherent review format. His story resonated with my own current circumstances, underlying mental health issues, and overall life experience in a way that never really matched, but at the same time informed them. I don’t even know if I could recommend it to people, because the experience was so personal.
Anyway, here’s to reading, and having complicated experiences with books!
I have experienced very little Gothic aesthetic, especially in literature form. Just about enough to recognize its trappings, but certainly nowhere near as much as I’d need to analyze it competently. This might be why I approached Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic with a certain trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This is a novel that speaks for itself, in clear and compelling voice.
Young, rich debutante Noemi Taboada is running wild and carefree in 1950s’ Mexico City. Then her father abruptly changes that when he shows her a letter from her orphaned cousin. Catalina recently married into a once-rich old British family, and now lives with them in a faraway part of Mexico. Her letter is rambling and insane. She accuses her husband of poisoning her, mentioning voices within the walls, and other disturbing things. Noemi’s father insists that she goes to her cousin, to make sure the family will avoid a tabloid scandal.
But upon arrival in High Place — an old manor with no electricity, up on a foreboding hill, perched above an impoverished village – Noemi quickly finds herself trapped in a strange and hostile world. The Doyle family, into which Catalina married, is unfriendly and strange. The ailing old patriarch Howard is an eugenicist, deeming her “mixed” race inferior. Her cousin’s husband Virgil is in turns menacing, lascivious, and tender. Catalina herself has taken ill, and Noemi barely gets to see her, only to find her listless and distant.
Then the dreams come.
The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, invoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired…
Mexican Gothic is exactly as advertised — a gothic horror with a socially conscious twist. The Doyles are an old British line. They’re steeped in tradition, stringent rules, and sense of superiority, despite their impoverished and decaying state. There are other elements that place the story firmly in its time and place as well. Even so, the novel is far more focused on its plot than any kind of sociological exploration. Though the pacing is slow to begin with, it never seems to drag, but rather weaves subtle layers of tension. In the second half, this tension explodes in directions often gruesome and genuinely disturbing.
In typical gothic fashion, the story has an underlying current of forbidden sexuality. And as any self-respecting horror, it uses it to unsettle the reader. Noemi is a strong-willed and brave girl, but she is just a girl. And she is among people who often don’t even try to hide the predator behind the noble facade. To her credit, Moreno-Garcia understands how to do horror well. She never crosses lines for shock value, but rather allows her story to dance on the edges of snapping tension. Meanwhile, she also fully utilizes the gothic aesthetic, both in dialogue, and in painting Noemi’s surroundings.
Just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.
What I loved most of all, is that while using traditional forms and language to tell her story, the author is unabashedly creative with her worldbuilding. While I happened to guess many of the book’s plot-twists and revelations, I actually loved them no less for it. The concept at the core of Mexican Gothic is original and profoundly unnerving, while still utilizing the themes of gothic literature. In all honesty, Silvia Moreno-Garcia vastly over-delivers on the minimalist setup she begins with.
In short, Mexican Gothic is a captivating, alluring, living thing, pulsating with promise. From the gorgeous cover to the last sentence, the novel brings equal doses excitement and revulsion. It is highly aestheticized, yet tells its story in a consistently discomforting way. As a sidebar, I would recommend that you avoid reading too many reviews. The story is easy to spoil unwittingly, and it is worth experiencing without expectations. Suffice it to say that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and if gothic horror is something you are willing to give a chance to, I cannot imagine you will be disappointed.
I first heard of Mary Robinette Kowal from the Writing Excuses podcast. At the time, my impressions of her were personality-based. She was confident, wore many hats, and had strong feelings about intersectionality in art (like me). She also had no patience for your bullshit. Only later did I actually get acquainted with her writing. By then, I couldn’t help but hear every word on the page in her smooth voice. And for what that’s worth, it has only made me appreciate her already great writing even more.
The Relentless Moon is the third full-length novel in the Lady Astronautof Mars series, based on a novella with the same name. In an alternate timeline, a meteorite hits Earth in 1952, starting a greenhouse effect that will make the planet uninhabitable. Humanity unites like never before to establish colonies on the Moon and Mars, and avoid extinction. But that unity doesn’t mean that the many prejudices of the mid-20th century have suddenly been forgotten.
The first two books tell the story of this alternate space exploration through the eyes of the mathematician Elma York, destined to become the famous Lady Astronaut. In The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky she has to prove to the men in charge that she is not only as good as any of them, but by necessity, quite a bit better than most.
I genuinely enjoyed Elma in those novels. But I loved Nicole Wargin in The Relentless Moon. Where Elma is a scientist, Nicole is a politician. Elma is occasionally a rebel against the system of prejudice and low expectations of her world. Nicole has made of that system a game. Rather than slam her head against the wall, she seeks ways to make the wall move out of her path. She doesn’t always succeed, but when she does, she makes it impossible for men to ignore her.
The Relentless Moon takes place during the events of The Fated Sky. While Elma York is traveling to Mars, Nicole has to juggle being an astronaut with being the wife of a governor who is about to run for president. What’s worse, the terrorist group Earth First has began an active campaign of sabotage, trying to shut down the space program. Now Nicole finds herself trapped on the Moon colony, uncertain of her allies, and racing against invisible enemies whose misguided fight for Earth might doom humanity to extinction.
The Relentless Moon is a solid departure from the tone of the previous novels. Where those were focused on the success of vast undertakings, the new entry is more of a detective thriller. The main characters are trapped in a place where survival is highly dependent on technology, knowing that some of the people with them are actively trying to sabotage it. The story jumps from one disaster to the next, as Nicole tries to figure out the plans of Earth First, while her husband fights a much larger version of the same fight back on the homeworld.
I loved this book. It presents a very real aspect of The Lady Astronaut series — the knowledge that not everyone will get to leave Earth, and what that does to humanity. Nicole is a sharper, less scrupulous character than Elma, capable of decisions that would shock her friends. She also struggles with anorexia, and the story doesn’t shy away from describing that. But more than anything else, she is exactly the person for the job. Kowal uses her brilliantly to tackle problems her original protagonist never could. The shift in perspective matches the shift in genre, making the novel a fast-paced and engaging read.
I don’t know how much room there is in this universe for more stories. But if The Relentless Moon is any indication, Mary Robinette Kowal is capable of taking it in completely unexpected directions, and I genuinely hope she returns to it. In the mean time, this novel is a firm recommendation from me.