River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey posits an extremely clever alternate American history in which hippo ranching took over the Mississippi Delta and other areas before the Civil War. Set in the 1890s, the plot follows an eccentric group of hoppers (hippo wranglers/riders) who are contracted to remove a herd of dangerous feral hippos and, incidentally, take care of some revenge. There is a non-binary character who is not white (possibly Asian?), and a bisexual English character who is not white, and a Latina assassin, and a female French con artist who sometimes likes to dress as a man and can impersonate one convincingly. Louisiana is a frontier in this world, and the story is a Western like unto The Magnificent Seven, albeit one with modern sexual mores and various breeds of hippos, some of which apparently eat meat, including people. I could accept all that; it’s fantasy.
However, for the entire length of the novella, I could not stop wondering what had happened to all the black and indigenous people in America. Because there was not one mention of slavery, slaves, Reconstruction, displacement, any of it, and I don’t think you can really have an alternate America without dealing with those things, even with just a passing comment. It felt more glaring to me because of the effort the author had put into having characters with various ethnicities and sexualities; both of the non-white characters experience or remember micro-aggressions, such as “where are you really from,” but that only made me feel the gigantic slavery-shaped hole in the story more strongly.
On the other hand, it made me think about how I would approach the story, which is an entertaining exercise. South Carolina rice country, for example, could be full of hippo ranches, tended by slave hoppers, who after emancipation might have traveled West and ended up in Louisiana, some of them taking a chance on getting rid of those feral hippos for a payout and perhaps dying in the attempt, or perhaps ending up working for the villain who wants to keep the feral hippos to protect his territory. One dead black hopper (a friend of one of the crew?) and one black henchman could easily have taken part in the story. Were there any indigenous hippo ranchers, perhaps still fighting to keep their land (like Cherokee farmers in Georgia), perhaps occupying land they’d been pushed onto by white hoppers, perhaps plotting a war to regain their land once they’d bred the perfect war hippo? I would totally read that.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is set in a Regency England which has always had magic. The male protagonist Zacharias, a black man adopted as a child by a white couple, has recently become Sorcerer Royal under circumstances that are slightly mysterious for most of the novel. The female protagonist Prunella, of mixed race, also has strong magic but her advancement is hampered by her circumstances, her gender, and her dislike of convention. I enjoyed both of them, particularly Zacharias’ bookishness and introversion, but my favorite character by far was a powerful Malaysian witch because she was a Cranky Middle-Aged Lady like me, except she had magic and was not averse to using it.
To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South by Angela Cooley dismantles and displays how food became an instrument of white supremacy, hammering home once again how racism is entrenched in the baseline of American society. Which I knew, but I can always be unpleasantly surprised by an unexpected angle on how pervasive it is.
At a basic level, white southern women championed domestic science because they saw that its methods could help to sustain white supremacy, establish class lines, and promote racial purity. They did not have to read too much into its principles to draw out these ideas. The architect of the national domestic science movement, Ellen H. Richards, explicitly envisioned a profession that would help to improve the white race. During an initial naming controversy for the new discipline, Richards suggested the term “euthenics.” She explicitly saw it as a companion to, and an improvement on, eugenics. “Eugenics deals with race improvement through heredity,” Richards wrote. “Euthenics deals with race improvement through environment.”
From domestic science to the sociology of early fast food restaurants to lunch counter sit ins, if you’re interested in food and history at all, you’ll get something out of this book.
See also this Atlas Obscure article: Why Eating Insects Is an American Tradition for striking at indigenous peoples via their food.
A Brief History of the Dynasties of China by Bamber Gascoigne was a relatively quick read and helped me to get an overarching idea of the span of Chinese dynastic history, which was the goal. There were more occasions of body horror than I would have liked; historic, yes, but I would’ve settled for fewer details. I am possibly over-sensitive on this issue. Before this book, I knew very little about Chinese history in general, and I can definitely recommend this as a starting place. I think it will help me a lot in future reading.
Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Volume 2 took me a bit longer than Volume 1 because I got stuck in the middle, the middle being a rather tiresome and stagnant series of crossovers with Moon Knight, Avengers, and Deadpool. Eventually, I managed to slog through all that, and the rest went quickly. This volume sympathetically features both Killmonger and M’Baku, two of Black Panther’s ongoing villains; it was fascinating to see what had been remixed for the movie, so I won’t spoil anything here. Female villain Malice gets a less nuanced treatment, I felt. This volume, especially the M’Baku issues, also features the Chicago-raised teenager who becomes a Dora Milaje, Queen Divine Justice. She is absolutely terrific for outsider commentary on Wakanda and its culture; I vastly prefer her to Ross for this role. I am pretty sure elements of her character made it into the movie version of Shuri (who at this point in the comics did not yet exist).
Captain Britain and MI: 13 Vol. 1: Secret Invasion by Paul Cornell was a simple and satisfying story of defending Britain from a Skrull (alien) army, with the excellent dialogue I expect from this author. I’ve been wanting to read this run for a long time, having read the author’s Doctor Who tie-in novels long ago, but it was very difficult to get hold of. Hooray for electronic format comics on the tablet!
Black Bolt Volume 1: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed is ostensibly about the Silent King of the Inhumans, whose voice can destroy planets, who’s become trapped in an alien prison. For me, it was really about Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man. Creel is a longtime Marvel villain, but here he’s the most talkative character in the prison, and the person whom we learn most about in this story. It’s difficult to write about a protagonist who doesn’t speak, and even when Black Bolt’s powers are muzzled and he does speak, he doesn’t say much. Ahmed makes this work by making good use of the other characters, among them Creel and an inspirational female Skrull warrior/pirate named Raava. Christian Ward’s art is absolutely gorgeous, especially on the high resolution tablet screen; it looks like ink wash with lots of deep blues and bright oranges (one of my absolute favorite color combinations) that give the whole story an appropriate otherworldly, almost underwater feel that lends itself well to the idea of being trapped. Recommended even if you’re not familiar with the Inhumans comics (my knowledge of them is minimal).
Astonishing X-Men: Northstar by Marjorie Liu was a very big deal at the time it originally came out, because it featured the very first superhero gay wedding. It was okay. I think there were so many corporate expectations layered on this issue that it was difficult for the story to shine through. It felt really odd that the awful things happening to and caused by one of the characters, Karma, were shoved away in favor of the rather abrupt wedding, though that’s kind of the nature of serial comics. It was about as good as it could be, I think. In contrast, the volume also included the infamous 1992 issue of Alpha Flight in which Northstar adopts a baby infected with HIV, and he and the former Major Maple Leaf discuss how terribly HIV-positive people are treated while having a big smashup fight. Yes, the baby dies. But Northstar and Major Maple Leaf bond over MML’s son MML2, who was gay and died of AIDS, and Northstar realizes he should come out. Giant hammers, meet anvil.
Fourth Floor by dirtybinary, mithborien, and picoalloe is a very Alternate Universe Bucky Barnes/Steve Rogers romance, of the subgenre ShrinkyClinks, which means Steve is his pre-serum self. The setting is a New York City where magic is normal and in the public eye. Steve stubbornly wants to go to college and learn magic, to honor the memory of his mother, but hasn’t been able to get in anywhere; it isn’t spelled out, but he seems to be dyslexic, so written spells cause him no end of problems. While auditing classes in which he is not actually enrolled, he takes a room in a very cheap magical building with many odd characteristics, and there meets Bucky, Natasha Romanoff, and other Marvel characters, all re-envisioned through a magical lens. But the building is in danger! From Hydra! So Steve steps up to defeat them, along the way learning how he can express his magic, and it’s all very cleverly done and rousingly entertaining.