Seems that for the past few months most of the books I’ve read have been sci-fi or about music (which I wrote up here). Herewith notes on the most recent sci-fi/fantasy. Featuring Emily Tesh, Martha Wells, John Scalzi, Sandra Newman, Vajra Chandrasekera, Arkady Martine, and P. Djèlí Clark.
Used to be I’d put Amazon links in when I mentioned books, and route a few commission bucks into my Amazon account. No longer. While I’m not a fanatic, if I can do something using a Big Tech or an alternative, I’m going to be trying the alternative. Alternatives are good.
Twisty space opera · Some Desperate Glory is the debut from Emily Tesh and I expect great things from her, because this is pretty great. Let’s see, we have an earnest young trainee at a fascist outer-space military academy, but her Faith In The Mission is slipping. Wait… I’m hearing echoes from plenty of old-and-not-that-great sci-fi pulp.
And yeah, the first 40% of the book, while it’s sharply-written and keeps you turning pages, is treading a pretty well-worn path. Then it goes sideways. More than once. I mean the sideways paths are reasonably well-trodden too but still surprising and clever and entertaining.
I can’t help noticing that there’s all this good space opera written by lesbians? Not obvious from first principles why that should be, but OK.
Murderbot and… · I suspect everyone knows about Murderbot now. The latest is System Collapse and if you’re going to read it, which I recommend, it’s probably a good idea to to go back and re-read Network Effect first; the new book is an extremely immediate sequel and it will probably help to refresh your mind on who all these people and bots are. System Collapse is a little shorter and lighter in weight, which is OK. If you like Murderbot you’ll like it fine.
Then there’s Ms Wells’ Witch King, a huge, complicated saga of epic conflict between somewhat-divine characters. And they’re all interesting enough characters. But I don’t know, they just didn’t grab me the way the Murderbot cast does. Witch King is really well-crafted. The combat scenes are explosive. I’ll have to give another of Ms Wells’ non-Murderbot works a try, but this one didn’t work that well for me.
Scalzi fun · During the course of the last year I read The Kaiju Preservation Society and Starter Villain, both by John Scalzi. These are blasts of pure fun, with razor-sharp dialog, jaw-dropping set pieces, and lots of laughs. Nothing here will change your life but I’m pretty sure you won’t regret dropping a few bucks on either. If only for the dolphins with the attitude problem.
1984++ · Just like every other member of the world’s Anglophone population, 1984 was compulsory one of my high-school years and yeah, one doesn’t forget it, admires it even, but I wonder if anyone really likes it? Hardly a pleasant experience. Anyhow, Julia, by Sandra Newman, builds around Winston Smith’s story from his lover’s point of view. It’s a bigger book than the original and you won’t forget it either, whether you actually like it that much. It’s compelling, and the perspective Ms Newman gets in backing off a bit from the hyperfocus on Winston’s world, in considering Airstrip One and Oceania a little more widely, is entirely convincing and pushes your mind in different directions.
Julia is a more interesting person than Winston and her experience is more intensely felt. I liked parts of it. I won’t read it again. It attaches a sort of coda to the story after its natural ending that didn’t really work for me, but I can’t think of what I’d replace it with. If 1984 made an impression on you, this will quite likely leave you with one of equal or greater strength.
Bright doors · Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. In the admirable Jo Walton’s September 2023 Reading List she got all excited about Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors. She says “Everything is slightly too big and too bright, and details keep piling up and slipping out of control, and it’s all stirred together with a dash of Kafka—but in a good way.” Can’t disagree. Fetter, who casts no shadow, leaves his sorcerous murderous mother to find his fortune in the Big City…
It’s as colorful as anything I’ve read in years. I really enjoyed that, although the cleverly-constructed world is perhaps a bit more interesting than the story inhabiting it. It’s, uh, not space opera and not romance and not fantasy and not 1984 but its author has clearly drunk from all those wells.
More lesbian space opera! · A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, won the 2020 Best-Novel Hugo so it’s hardly obscure. I liked it, and its sequel A Desolation Called Peace (Hugo 2022), a whole lot. It’s got a Galactic Empire and, like most space operas set in one of those, you get to meet the Galactic Emperor and his family and court. In fact, the first book spends most of its time right there. Which is fine, because our plucky heroine Mahit Dzmare and the people she gets to know are plenty of fun and there’s plenty of action, and an Aztec undercurrent.
The first book is slightly lacking in space battles and aliens and so on, but the second solves both those problems in the first few pages, and it’s a good space battle and they’re excellent aliens. And then romance, and spicy sex, and sordid politics, and, well, not boring at all. It’s called the Teixcalaan Empire series and I’m pretty sure there will be more.
I enjoyed Ms Martine’s work enough that I also picked up Rose/House, which is shorter, and beautifully constructed, and defies description. There’s this house in the desert, there’s a corpse in it, and the house is really hard to get into. I think it’s fair to say it’s a stronger piece of work than the imperial space operas. But I’ll still totally snap up the next Teixcalaan-Empire book.
Dealing with Djinn · When I looked up P. Djèlí Clark after reading A Master of Djinn, I discovered that he’s super-political; issues of class and race and imperialism are all over his Web site — he’s a Black American. They’re all over the book too, now that I think about it, but so smoothly and well-worked-in that I never noticed while reading it.
The book is a detective story, with Djinn, set in “Egypt in the 1920s”; I put that in quotes because the 1920’s weren’t like that, and neither is Egypt. Anyhow, it’s action-packed; maybe a little over-written, there are places where it could do with a little less atmosphere and a little more dialog and action. But the Djinn are great and so’s the heroine and it’s all very satisfying in the end.
Books are good · I find it very supportive to my currently-somewhat-assailed mental health to drag my eyes away from the global clusterfuck surrounding us and sit in a soft chair looking on words on pages. You might too?