For the holiday season, the bookstore I work at is making a display of all the employees’ favorite books of 2020. Each of us had to pick 5 favorite to put on there. My own list was pretty extensive, so choices had to be made. In the process of deciding what to choose, I left out sequels such as Harrow the Ninth, or massive cultural successes that obviously didn’t need my help to sell, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.
With that in mind, I am very happy with the end result. It unintentionally ends up promoting small press, debut authors, and queer identities, and this feels like the little bit that I can do to help this year suck a tiny bit less.
To clarify, this is not a ranked list. I love each of those five titles for different reasons, and I am not looking to pit them against one another. Feel free to click on each title to read my review.
I first heard of Linden A. Lewis’ The First Sister when a coworker at the bookstore showed me the freshly arrived hardcover, and said “You’re the science fiction guy, tell me what this is”. To my shame, I hadn’t even heard of the book, and went on to correct the lapse. I ended up listening to the audio version, and I am incredibly glad I did. But more on that later.
In this stellar (teehee) debut, the future Solar System is torn between two factions. The Gaeans are the desperate Union that came out of a century-long war between Earth and Mars. Rich in population, but poor in resources and technology, they are driven by the dual powers of the secular Warlord and the religious Mother. On the other side are the Icarii — the people of Mercury and Venus. Descendants of scientific research missions, they have built a militaristic society based on reason and discipline. Using the unique element Hermium, found on Mercury, the Icarii have the technological advantage to counter the Gaeans’ superior numbers.
Three people on opposite sides of this conflict find themselves instrumental to its culmination.
The First Sister has no name. Sold to the Sisterhood as a child, she is a priestess and a courtesan. Her role is to offer peace to Gaean soldiers by listening to their confessions, and giving them her body. Her superiors have taken her voice, so she would not be able to betray their secrets. When the captain of the space ship she serves on abandons her, she finds herself mired in Sisterhood politics. Tasked to break all the sacred rules of her order, she is to spy on the new captain. One she finds herself inexplicably drawn to instead.
Lito sol Lucius is a “Rapier” of the Icarii — an elite duelist warrior trained to fight in a pair. A year ago he was split from his “Dagger” Hiro after the loss of the planetoid Ceres to the Gaeans. He is pulled out of his forced retirement, and tasked with an impossible mission. He must find Hiro — now a covert agent on Ceres — and kill them for supposedly turning to the enemy side.
The First Sister boasts lush worldbuilding and truly spectacular characterization, especially for a debut novel. There are three viewpoints — alternating chapters with Lito and First Sister, as well as interludes of recordings by Hiro. This is also where the audiobook shines, as those are all voiced by three separate actors, expressing the feminine, masculine, and non-binary vibe of each character.
The story itself is only the beginning of a larger conflict, but one that still reaches a satisfying conclusion. Lewis is fantastic in setting up and paying off emotional stakes, as each character deals with a metric fuckton of issues. There is also a wonderful duality between First Sister and Lito. Where she begins as a tabula rasa with simple desires, who slowly recognizes the complexity of the world around her and her role in it, he starts off as someone bogged down by trauma and self-doubt, and has to learn how to shed some of it, and channel the rest. Hiro, meanwhile, plays a balancing act. An elusive off-screen character who knows exactly who they are, and what they were born to do.
The First Sister is one of those HURTFUL debut novels that make you feel like you could never write anything remotely as good. Particularly for someone like me, who regularly struggles with structure, seeing how deftly Lewis weaves the strands of the story into an exciting narrative, was a source of tar-black envy. But of course, that only serves to the reader’s benefit. The book is an absolute gem, and I cannot wait to see where the story will go next.
As a gay man, I didn’t grow up suffering. Sure, I was in denial, I repressed a lot of shit, and I missed on my entire teenagehood. That sucked. But I didn’t get disowned. I was never bullied. I have rarely been discriminated against.
I was never sent to conversion therapy…
A part of me feels the need for vicarious trauma. For personal outrage, despite the lack of personal experience. It is a profoundly disturbing mixture of perverted FOMO and guilt. As a Queer person, do I really own myself if I didn’t suffer? Do I have a right to my identity? The answer is, naturally, yes, of course I do. But the feeling is still there, and it makes books like Adam Sass’ Surrender Your Sons a near-cathartic experience.
At the age of 17, Connor Major is a skinny 5’6 gay kid in rural Illinois, who just came out to his church-zombie single mom. His life is, as a result, not awesome. His phone has been confiscated, so he is isolated from his few friends. His two-towns-over boyfriend is unable to fully comprehend what he is dealing with at home. And his mom and the town preacher insist that he admit to the paternity of his ex-girlfriend’s newborn (he didn’t do it!).
The best, however, is yet to come, as Connor finds himself literally kidnapped and carted off to a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica (no dinosaurs though). There, at Nightlight Ministries, boys and girls like him are sent by overzealous parents to get “fixed”. Except, everything is off, even by conversion therapy standards. And Connor was warned about this place back home.
By someone who is now dead.
When I first read the blurb for this YA thriller, I was both immediately on board, and a bit skeptical. Conversion therapy? In 2020? In this economy? But Sass navigates the anachronistic core of his premise with elegance. By hanging a lantern on the absurdity of such a place in present day, he gets to place it in an exotic location. What’s more, he gets to have his characters have a near-meta understanding of their surroundings, as they navigate not only the camp itself, but its cultural context as well.
Surrender Your Sons is a brilliantly written debut. The book exudes the kind of easy sass (pun forever intended) and colloquial flexibility that always make me ugly-jealous. Connor himself is beautifully portrayed as a neurotic kid who has the capacity for both courage, and complete emotional collapse. The rest of the cast are just as well depicted, if in less detail. There is raw vulnerability and innocence coming out of the intimate first person narrative, even when the circumstances around Connor are anything but innocent.
As I said before, this is a thriller. The back cover suggests more of a mystery than the story actually ends up being. But to me, the mismatch between my expectations and the reality were in favor of the book. Surrender Your Sons is a story about tragedy, both past and present. About violence and the desolation that bigotry and self-loathing can heap upon the world. One sentence in particular stuck with me long after the end:
‘That’s what a hate crime does: it reaches out, through space and time, and touches you with a greasy hand.’
The book begins with a content warning. There are themes in there. Suicide, abuse, and surprisingly hot depictions of sex that must have barely passed the YA standard. Despite the effortless prose, Surrender Your Sons is certainly not an easy read on an emotional level.
Sass ends up weaving a story both more mundane, and more personal than the blurb implies. And far stronger for it. I read the last 50 pages with perma-lump in my throat, as one of the best denouements I have ever seen in a book meticulously takes us through the lives harmed or ruined by Nightlight. In the end, Surrender Your Sons was an exciting adventure with a powerful emotional charge. Dealing with serious darkness, but ultimately hopeful. And I thoroughly loved it.
There is something to be said about artists who only want to tell a few select stories, and take their time crafting them. Something profoundly Not-of-This-Time. Dare I say, something fey. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell took over a decade to create. It inevitably became a literary phenomenon when it came out. A lush, meticulously crafted Regency epic, mimicking the language and sensibilities of the time, while adding a dose of Faerie magic to the Napoleonic Wars, it was one of the great novels of its decade.
That it should take Clarke 16 more years before she gave us a new book, feels almost correct. But Piranesi is nothing like what I personally expected that book to be.
The House is the world. Or perhaps the world is encompassed by the House. Its endless Halls and Vestibules span for thousands of miles. The highest floors are obscured by clouds, while the lowest drown in oceans. Only celestial bodies can be seen through its windows. Grand, empty atriums sprawl eternal, populated with countless statues.
There are only fifteen humans that have ever lived in the world, and only two of them live still. One is Piranesi, though that is not his name. He is an explorer and an acolyte of the House. He has learned the arcane calendar of its oceanic tides, and the meaning of its many statues. He has walked hundreds of Halls in each direction, and knows their geography intimately. The House speaks to him through symbolism and circumstance. It feeds and loves him.
The Other is a scientist. He is Piranesi’s only friend, though he is seldom seen, and where he goes when they are apart, no one knows. The rest of the humans of the world are but skeletons. Piranesi takes care of them for the House, has named them, and loves them as if they were alive.
Then there is the sixteenth person. The invisible reader for whom Piranesi keeps his journals. And if the numbers on these journals make no sense, or feature entries he does not recall writing, on subjects he does not recall knowing, well the sixteenth will have to do deal with that.
Piranesi is a melancholic and introspective mythology of loneliness. In a strange and — I am certain — unintended way, it is almost commentary on the times we live in. As its titular character roams the empty Halls and interprets the House’s will and meaning through signs that mean nothing to anyone else, the reader is hypnotized by the near-religious irrationality of the narrative. There is infinite kindness and innocence in the way Piranesi sees the world, and even as we try to understand the mystical rules of the House, we are tempted to accept his childlike interpretation of them.
This is a book about magic, but in no way remotely similar to Clarke’s previous epic. For one thing, it is barely a quarter of the size, but that is only the beginning. Where Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was plot-driven, Piranesi is an intimate exploration of one man’s inner world. Even if much of what transpires in the story is real, it still symbolizes the intangible universe within a lonely yet endlessly optimistic individual. The quiet serenity of the House is a search for meaning where none might exist. But for Piranesi it is the search that creates that meaning. And for the reader, it is going through this journey with him that makes the book a masterpiece.
I am unable to consume speculative fiction TV/movies if they’re based on a book I haven’t read. Such was, naturally, the case with HBO’s Lovecraft Country. When the book first came out, I filed it under “Huh, seems fun”, and moved onto the other three billion books I wanted to read. But once the trailer for the show dropped, it no longer seemed like a matter of choice.
Lovecraft Country bills itself as self-aware pulp. It takes place in 1950s ultra-segregated Chicago, where a Black family deals not only with racist white folks, but also the machinations of a sorcerous coven. The book is actually episodic. I was quite taken aback when the story just ended after the first 100 pages, and a new one started. But after a while it became clear that the vignettes added up to a complete picture. They all tie back together by the end, forming a somewhat coherent narrative.
It felt like Matt Ruff set out to create an alternative “mythos”, in which his Black cast seeks to reclaim agency from the racist era they live in. But on a more meta level, they are reclaiming it from the even more racist Howard Lovecraft. While the story does not take place within his world, he is referred to often, and there are moments throughout that resonate with his works. If I am being entirely honest, I don’t know how comfortable I felt about it. A white author “saving” Black people in this way is already iffy enough. But more than that — I am not sure the experiment was all that successful.
Lovecraft Country reads like tongue-in-cheek romp, but it is filled with contradictions. The first story especially has some truly chilling examples of real world Jim Crow horror. But then the actual supernatural stakes never quite amount to feeling like a real threat. The main villain is not only charming, but also quite friendly, despite his villainy. The characters are all smart and resourceful, yet they are constantly outsmarted by him, which devalues their intelligence. The villain’s main fault, meanwhile, is that he is entitled, obnoxious, and white. Which — don’t get me wrong — is enough, but again confuses the stakes.
Overall, I enjoyed the book up to a point. The writing is solid, the characters are fun, if not terribly deep or memorable. The overall conceit is quite charming too. But the execution left me… uh… whelmed. Not over, not under, just kind of whelmed. I can tell that Matt Ruff is capable of a lot. But here it felt like he got scared of the underlying seriousness of his chosen subject matter, and kept himself from going all the way. That said, Lovecraft Country has all that it needs to make a spectacular TV show. Which I am now free to watch!
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.