My July Reading Log

Fiction:
For a Readercon panel, I re-read The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein and its three sequels.
It did not matter to her that she walked in danger; it only mattered that she could speak and act freely again, and that the power given to her by her training and nature need not be hidden like some secret sin…The change, she knew, was only in herself; she was relieved of deception, and her mind was free to work on its familiar paths. She recognized for the first time that lies worked damage in two directions.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score: Seducing the Sedgwicks by Cat Sebastian was recommended to me, but I don’t remember who it was, or why. It turned out to be second in a series, but was easy enough to follow. Set in 1817 London, it’s a male/male romance about an interracial couple. Sam Fox is a former boxer who runs a pub that serves as a social center for some of London’s black community; Hartley Sedgwick rose from impoverished gentility to higher society, but was recently disgraced when rumors of his sexual relationship with his godfather came to light. Possible trigger: he blames himself for exchanging sex for a better life for his brothers, but he was sixteen years old and coerced. Both heroes are kind and considerate of each other, and good at psychology. It’s light on the historical atmosphere, and rich in found family narrative. Recommended if you like soothing stories about good people who are good together.

The Covert Captain: Or, A Marriage of Equals by Jeannelle M. Ferreira features a crossdressing English cavalry captain who falls in love with her major’s sister, just after the Napoleonic Wars. I particularly liked that some of the LGBT community of the period is shown, so the captain is not alone in her masquerade; her well-off lover, however, had a much harder time of it due to parental expectations. It’s written in a style more reminiscent of the period than most historical romances usually attempt.

Incalculable Diffusion (Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle Book 3) by L.A. Hall is delightful if you’re already familiar with the main Comfortable Courtesan series; it’s a collection of letters and stories that mostly take place after the end of the original series, and provides more information about some events that were referenced in the previous Circle volume. I ate it right up.

Null Set by S.L. Huang is the second book about Cas Russell, an amnesiac mercenary with a mathematical superpower. I enjoyed it, but felt the book was trying a bit too hard to hit similar notes to the first one; the stakes are upped because Cas’ own memories are, potentially, the Big Bad. The best part was the story’s exploration of gray areas of morality, particularly decisions made for people and their safety instead of by them, and where both types of choices can go wrong, and what a slippery slope that can be. I am assuming there will be more in this series? I’m interested to see where it goes.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell was a book that enchanted me when I was young; I’d bought a copy some years ago, as an adult, and re-read it to see if I wanted to keep it. The answer is no, because it is about a thousand times more depressing to read this book as an adult who has anthropological knowledge and understands grief, and now knows it was based on true events.

Sad spoilers ahead! It starts off with a tribe of indigenous people living on an island off the coast of California; Aleuts travel down the coast to hunt sea otters and fail to pay the locals for this imposition. There are some white people who treat them badly, as well, and soon most of the men on the island are dead. The people decide to leave the island with missionaries. The protagonist Karana’s little brother is left behind, and she leaves the ship to get him, hoping someone will come back for them. Nobody comes. Her little brother is killed by wild dogs. (At this point, I remembered skipping the beginning on re-reads.) She manages to make a smaller canoe that she can handle from a larger one that had been left behind, plans to kill the wild dogs and does kill a bunch of them before taming one that the Aleuts had left behind to go feral. She has a dog for a companion, yay! But Karana is stuck on this island for eighteen years, and she is lonely and has to come up with strategies to cheer herself up, like making a new dress decorated with feathers. I remember loving reading about her making spears and places to hide in caves and other survival-related tasks. Once, briefly, she has some time with an Aleut girl who comes to the island with her family (?) but Karana has to remain hidden from the hunters, and then the Aleuts leave again. Her dog dies of old age and she captures his son and tames him, so she has a dog again. Eventually she is rescued and goes to live in a Catholic mission, but nobody knows what happened to her people, and nobody spoke her language anymore. The modern estimate is that ninety percent of the indigenous population of California died of disease or were killed in the nineteenth century, so this story made me way sadder than before I knew this.

Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh is new in the Psy-Changeling universe, but a new overarching storyline apparently started while I wasn’t looking, so this was third in Psy-Changeling Trinity. I was very faithful to this series for quite a while. It featured a world inhabited by baseline humans, humans with psychic powers, and humans who could change into animals, everything from rats to wolves to hawks to leopards, but mostly focusing on the wolves and leopards because predators are always the hot ones in paranormal romance. Singh set up automatic conflict between the very emotional Changelings and the emotion-suppressing Psy. Mate-bonding between a Psy and a Changeling would result in the Psy being freed to feel, and eventually it was revealed that Silence, the suppression of emotion, was harming all Psy. At this stage in the series, Silence is no longer endorsed, and the new conflict involves the Psy struggling to deal with the resulting changes and damage to the psychic network that ties them all together, and recovering from what their society had done to empathic Psy under Silence.

This particular volume features an empath who was held captive and exploited by a sociopathic Psy, then rescued by a wolf Changeling whose brother, father, and grandfather all died as a result of a Changeling disorder that made them lose human connection and murder their loved ones. Meanwhile, another Psy is having weird blackouts and indirectly attacking empaths, as a result of Silence damage. Despite all those issues, the couple end up together happily and relatively smoothly. The heroine, having been isolated for so long, loves living among the close-knit Changeling society, so there’s a found family element. And lots of couples from previous books show up.

I don’t think I’m going to go back to this series in any dedicated way, but I admire the way Singh structured this world and has allowed paradigm shift to allow further exploration of her themes.

I had been saving Merely a Marriage by Jo Beverley, since it was her last novel, and she is one of my favorite historical romance authors. I devoured it over the weekend, delighting in the complex, justified conflicts between the characters, and the portrayal of two people who had changed and grown up since their last brief encounter. Several of Beverley’s books have been re-reads for me, so when next I visit her work, that will be how.

The Beverley put me into a historical romance mood, so I started in on Courtney Milan’s “Brothers Sinister” series; I’d read the introductory novella a while back. The Duchess War features a couple coping with and overcoming past traumas; they’re a former child prodigy and a radical duke, which offered a nice change to the usual roles of historical romance couples.

A Kiss for Midwinter is the sequel novella, featuring the romance of secondary characters from The Duchess War; I found the doctor character, in particular, delightful, because he’s so blunt and straightforward.

Comics:
Black Panther Book 6: The Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda Part 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2018) is really cool; it seems to be an Elseworlds type of story, in which Wakanda is an evil, dominating intergalactic space empire and Maroon rebels take the names Nakia, M’Baku, and T’Challa as they fight back. N’Jadaku (aka Erik Killmonger) is the emperor who looks like he will have a bigger role in the next volume. Coates is writing a slavery allegory, if you can call it an allegory when there are literal slaves in the vibranium mines, some of them dark-skinned humans, some of them aliens of various types. The slaves, here called “mules,” have had their memories erased, and this made me think of how American slavery, by removing people from their home, then selling them away from their families, forcibly removed their cultural and familial memories, which has terrible long-term repercussions. If you didn’t get into Coates’ first Black Panther series, you might want to give this one a try. The resonant thematic aspect reminded me of Coates’ Black Panther and the Crew: We Are the Streets, which I also loved.

Champions Vol. 2: The Freelancer Lifestyle by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos languished unfinished on my tablet for a while, mostly because I was not carrying around my tablet. I applaud this series for attempting to show new solutions to traditional superhero problems, and new angles on the responsibilities superheroes would have to their communities. But at the time I was finishing this volume, I felt hopeless and was doubting any of those strategies would work. It was by no means the fault of the comic. Another week, I would have been uplifted.

Nonfiction:
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant is what it says in the title. Each chapter looks at another aspect of “original” behavior, with a focus on people who are inventors and businesspeople. Though the author cites every study he references, it’s a very talky style and easy to read; I could easily see the chapters presented as individual talks. I would recommend reading the chapters with a bit of space between them, because I started to get annoyed with seeing the same rhetorical tricks used repeatedly, most frequently relating an anecdote about a famous person or event but not revealing the identifying information until the end of the story. Interesting thing I learned: the first people to come up a business based on a New Thing and rush into it don’t generally do as well financially as those who wait a bit, see the lay of the land, and then approach the New Thing from a new angle. I was not very surprised to learn that people who produce a lot of work tend to produce a higher number of original and lasting creations; I thought immediately of Bach, though I think even his work that doesn’t get much attention is better than a lot of other people’s, I will fight you on that. I was pleased to learn that successful “originals” tend to balance risks with safer bets rather than going all in and, say, immediately quitting their dayjob.

Fanfiction:
Parts 11 and 12 of the post-series Buffy: the Vampire Slayer series Snapshots/Cleveland verse by nwhepcat were posted recently. Part 11 included some material I’d already read, but now enmeshed in a larger narrative that flowed into part 12, which had a delightful twist. I love this series because I feel it does some of the characters better than the canon, and has a cast of lovable, complex original characters as well. It’s a perfect example of “more of this, but better.”

Like Real People Do by xiaq is a Check Please! romance between Kent Parsons, who might as well be an original character, and a truly original character, Eli, who is a figure skater with an injury-induced seizure disorder, and also a friend of Bitty’s. I enjoyed this sweet romance and gentle coming-out story a lot though I wish there’d been more proofreading; there were a lot of homonym-type errors which might have come from using voice recognition software, or just from the fact that the author appears to be a graduate student and has no time. I felt the story was intended to be a parallel to the canon Bitty/Jack relationship, and perhaps a commentary on it, but maybe I am thinking about this too much! Bonus service dog and protective giant hockey players. I do not think canon knowledge is necessary to read it.

My June Reading Log

Fiction:
I re-read the entire The Comfortable Courtesan: Being Memoirs by Clorinda Cathcart (that has been a Lady of the Town these several years) series by L.A. Hall, which is very soothing to my nerves. I highly recommend this series if you would like to see the Ultimate Hufflepuff (with some Slytherin methods) going about her business with great success. On a second read, it is striking me how tiny mentions of things build throughout the text until they become Events, and change the status quo. Things Turn Out Well is apparently what I need right now.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch is a novella in the Rivers of London series, but it takes place in Germany, and has a different first-person narrator. Tobias Winter sounds like Peter Grant, though he’s less ambitious and is into cooking rather than architecture and the science of magic. He and local cop Vanessa Sommer poke around a mysterious death that revolves around a vineyard and river goddesses, and we learn a bit about how the magic police work in Germany, and some of the longterm effects in Germany of the Ettersberg disaster that is referenced in the rest of the series. I liked seeing the worldbuilding extended, and would read more like this.

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina is a straightforward second-world fantasy featuring fabulous weaponry, intrigue, and instalove enlivened a bit because the warrior participants think it’s a really bad idea. The plot follows the heroine’s ascent from being a bullied sword student to a major actor in a plot to overturn the empire. My favorite part was that the heroine experiences swordfights with the hero as the best thing ever.

Proper English by K.J. Charles is historical f/f romance with a mystery (though not a hugely mysterious one). I love the characterization in Charles’ work, and this book was no exception. Some elements in the characters of the two heroines weren’t immediately obvious, and I liked both of them, and enjoyed the progress of their relationship. The murder victim was obvious from the start, the solution less so, and I thought that little bit of extra plot helped out the development of the romance, because it gave Pat and Fen something to do outside of the normal run of their existence.

Fanfiction:
The Art Of Cooking For Two by littleblackfox is an Avengers/Great British Baking Show crossover/AU (no powers), and I really don’t need to say much beyond that, do I? It is exactly as soothing as you might imagine, with only minor threats and a soothing repetition as the contestants return each weekend to compete.

After a weekend of memorializing Blake’s 7 actors via watching a bunch of episodes and interviews during a visit with a fellow fan, I re-read an old favorite by a deceased friend, Duty by Pat_Jacquerie (Pat_Nussman). This is Avon/Tarrant slash from the 1990s, set on an original world with original characters, so I think you could read it without knowing much except these two guys are rebels against an evil Federation, their relationship is generally antagonistic, and one is older and more cynical than the other. I still found it very satisfying and classic.

warp of water, weft of stone by jediseagull is a Rivers of London story set in a nebulous future of the series; it has a slightly melancholy feel, and a happy ending.

ready to make it by defcontwo is an alternate version of the ending of Avengers: Endgame focusing on Sam Wilson and what he did after returning from being dusted.

I Know I’d Look Good On You by Brangwen is an Inception slash novel, Arthur/Eames, which I find fun; since these two characters barely share any screen time in the movie, the writers get very creative with their relationship and backstories. This one starts with a dreamsharing operation in South Africa, and ends up in London, with Eames in a stage play.

Steerswoman Series Book Club, Readercon 2019

This is a spoiler post! All spoilers, all the time, for all four books of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman Series.

Rather than put this off until I feel I can make a beautiful coherent post, I’m just going to post the notes I scribbled during the panel while trying to keep track of the discussion and at the same time mentally prepare what I was going to say next that fit into said discussion. As I am not Archie Goodwin, I cannot tell you which bits are verbatim and which summarized on the fly; I have also added stuff to make this recap a tad more coherent. I think I got some things out of order as well, since my notes are crammed into all kinds of small spaces in my little Moleskine. All inaccuracies are my fault.

Panelists: Kate Nepveu [moderator], Elaine Isaak, Victoria Janssen, Yves Meynard, Cecilia Tan.

KN: had us each name the topic we most wanted to discuss, because we had way more to discuss than we had time for. And I can’t remember specifically what those topics were, other than that “outstanding mysteries” was last.

CT: Steerswoman series is science fiction that appears to be fantasy at first glance, some “next-level consciousness,” predecessors Darkover and Pern. From interviews, knows that woman writers did this at first because science fiction was respected and fantasy was not.

YM: the diction isn’t the sort usually associated with fantasy. It’s not flowery but luminous. Knowledge, understanding, truth. Word choice is a matter of music as [part of?] an orchestra. Flows beautifully. Mystical intellectual ecstasy. [I had a note about the way Rowan is portrayed admiring maps.]

EI: role of the reader in worldbuiling – constructed like a mystery, reader is looking over detective’s shoulder. We know things the character doesn’t, so it’s very complex from a writing standpoint to set up the right level of tension. Rowan doesn’t have the right information; when will she get it?

CT [to Rosemary]: “You’re not a pantser, are you?” [laughter] It’s a large mystery full of smaller mysteries.

VJ: variety of genre tropes represented in the smaller mysteries, such as a long journey with companions, first contact.

YM: it takes Rowan six years to figure things out, he noted the time scale was carefully delineated.

KN: the section with Rowan and the demons is very disorienting, and it’s hard to shift out of it for book four. [to Rosemary] “Janus’ name is a little on point.” R explains she meant to change his name to something better but never got around to it and then it was too late. VJ pointed out later (on panel? in the green room with R.?) that the people in the book had no idea of the significance of Janus’ name.

KN: Noted portrayal of PTSD for both Fletcher and Janus.

VJ: deaf worker at Shammer and Dhree’s keep, apparently not part of a Deaf community, but ASL or some equivalent used with “wood gnomes” (I presume are chimpanzees).

CT: ASL [or idea of it?] crucial for demon first contact. Outskirters use military-style gestural language, hand signals at a distance. Outskirters also use the metric system and the clock system of directions, they “debrief,” plus seyoh sounds like “C.O.,” Commanding Officer. [KN exclaims, as she didn’t catch that before.] [VJ thought, but didn’t say, the Outskirters insist they were the first people; the scouts?]

YM: they are positive books, but not simple 2+2=4, there are shades of grey. There’s a high body count; reflects the world they are in.

KN: notes scene where Bel tortures a soldier, Rowan takes refuge in thinking about orbital theory. Rosemary later points out the torture happens off-screen (we’re in Rowan’s head, and see Willam’s reactions). KN makes sure to warn people about that scene when she recommends the books.

VJ: Bel fills the role a typical male hero might take in another series; willing to kill/torture, deadly skilled with weapons and fighting, we don’t get into her head really.

CT: a male character in each book who gets schooled, then leaves. Willam, Janus, Steffie. Gender role reversal.

VJ: understanding leads to empathy [not sure I said this or just noted it down]

KN: cultural understanding is not shown as necessarily frictionless, for example, Rowan with the Outskirters – should she adopt a matronymic? no!

CT: wizards – “power corrupts.”

EI: wizards are essentially sysadmins. [discussion of The Krue/Crew, losing their knowledge, losing empathy with “the folk,” not wanting things to change, which Corvus states explicitly; Janus says that as well]

Audience: female roles in society (innkeeper, dockworker) mostly equal to men’s, gender roles become background noise.

Discussion about outstanding mysteries we hope will be answered.

EI: the spaceship is close, but it lost contact?

VJ: has Slado contacted the ship? why did the humans bring chimpanzees and dolphins with them? Are the dolphins heading out to explore the planet’s oceans via the dolphin stair? What are they eating? [someone wondered if they could be robot dolphins, CT mentioned David Brin’s Uplift series]

YM: why terraforming this planet, when it already has a rich biosphere [though inimical to humans]? ended up there by accident, needed to make do? Einar’s song – is Earth dead?

KN: is the ghost lover in Einar’s song an AI?

YM: why the dragons?

KN: the basilisk? [discussion of these robots/weapons and what they might actually look like, their possible original purposes]

VJ: have wizards killed steerswomen before, because they found out too much?

Rosemary: “This is a writer’s dream, and you are my dream panelists.” Regarding all our questions, she “can neither confirm nor deny.”

My Readercon 2019 Schedule

Here’s where you can find me this weekend at Readercon, July 11-14, 2019, Quincy, Massachusetts.

Friday, 3:00 pm: Kaffeeklatsch
Theodora Goss and Victoria Janssen

Saturday, 12:00 pm, Salon A
“Classic Fiction Book Club: The Steerswomen Series”

Kate Nepveu [moderator], Elaine Isaak, Victoria Janssen, Yves Meynard, Cecilia Tan
Since the publication of Rosemary Kirstein’s first novel, The Steerswoman, in 1989, the Steerswoman series has become a quiet classic for its powerful female friendships, slowly-revealed worldbuilding, and unique approach to genre paradigms. Over the last 30 years, four novels have been published, with another two intended in the future. We’ll look at the state of the series today, and speculate about where it might be going.

My May Reading Log

Fiction:
The Shirt on His Back is tenth in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. I always buy her new ones in hardcover, and the line of unread ones on my shelf is a little embarrassing, so I dove in. Such bliss.

Alliance Rising: The Hinder Stars I by C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher is the first book set in this universe for a really long time, but since I’d read all of the earlier books in the series, some multiple times, I found I didn’t need to re-read anything to understand what was going on; plus, I think the book was designed for those who would be new to the Alliance-Union setting. This is space opera that gets into the nitty gritty of how economics might work in space, complicated by differing political systems, great distances, and cultural and linguistic shifts. And it’s showing us how the Alliance and the Union came to be. I think some readers might find it dry, and perhaps a bit info-dumpy, but I eat this stuff up with a spoon in each hand. Everything happens relatively slowly, until it doesn’t, and then semi-cliffhanger, agh!

I read Planetside by Michael Mammay based on a recommendation, and really enjoyed it. The first-person narrator is a grumpy colonel (his voice is terrific) sent to solve a missing persons case, except the missing person was fighting aliens on a distant planet. So I think the category is both military sf and mystery, and possibly even space opera because the humans have spread out into space. That said, it’s very much grounded in what this one person can find out and accomplish in the day-to-day, while staying within his orders. The ending was a bit more dramatic than I had expected, and though I could see why the narrator made the choice he did, I still found it unsettling. There’s a sequel now available; I’m curious about the fallout from book one, and will probably get it for a travel read at some point.

The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt is book two of a space opera series, but I think a new reader could manage without reading the first, if they don’t mind being spoiled for many major events should they go back to it. I think the first book was better, as it had a lot of exciting new ideas, but this volume is by no means boring, particularly if you enjoy banter. The cast of characters shifted a bit, and some issues from the end of book one were resolved. I would not mind reading the third book, which is out, and perhaps later ones if there are any; it has the feel of a serial, currently, and I like the comfort of serials. I don’t sound hugely enthusiastic, do I? But I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, which is the important part.

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse is also second in a series, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit because the villain is super-creepy and freaky weird and frankly terrifying; in fact, I would not have minded more of the villain. Second volumes are tricky, aren’t they? They have to remind readers of the events of the first book, and give background to new readers, while still making the plot and characters fresh and exciting. Maggie, the protagonist, is trying to be less of a killer and to create some relationships with other people, but she’s still a stubborn pessimist as well, and a lovely example of the Badass Heroine. There’s character death and supernatural beings that both help and hinder, and a touch of romance, and a stupendous climax that ought to be on a movie screen. I’m in this series for the duration. If you read or used to read a lot of Urban Fantasy sub-genre, I think you would probably like this series quite a bit; note that it leans a smidge towards horror sometimes because the depicted supernatural world is not human or knowable.

A Man of Independent Mind by L.A. Hall was several stories in one, or rather various events in the life of Alexander MacDonald, with appearances by his dear friend Clorinda Cathcart and many other characters readers have grown to know and love through the Comfortable Courtesan series. As with the previous “Clorinda Cathcart’s circle” book, I would recommend reading the main series first. You will probably read them in one huge gulp, and not regret it.

Firebrand by Ankaret Wells was loads of fun, a steampunk (airships!) adventure novel with a romantic subplot that was inspired by Gondal and Angria from the Brontë juvenilia. The first-person narrator, Kadia Warner, is the twice-widowed younger daughter of an airship engineer who inherits her mother’s crowning achievement, a gigantic state-of-the-art airship; the emperor, of course, wants the airship for purposes of further conquest and incidentally wants her as his mistress, so she travels to the single independent duchy remaining in the area and a whole lot of entertaining twisty plot happens before the happy ending. Kadia’s voice is delightfully practical and not in the least missish.

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles is, in my opinion, what sf writers used to call a “fix up,” where a short story was expanded into a novel, or several short stories were cobbled together into a novel. Narrated by a Watson-like character, most of the stories involve ghosts or mysterious supernatural happenings, linked together by the romance between narrator Robert Caldwell and the investigator of the title, Simon Feximal. There are horror elements, which I would judge as slightly darker than those in Spectred Isle, which is set later in the same universe, and which I accidentally read first. It was a good choice for a busy week, as I could dart in and out of it fairly easily.

Fanfiction:
The Persistence of Memory by st_aurafina takes the Moira MacTaggert from the X-Men: First Class movie and pairs her with Emma Frost on a spy road trip, with a bonus redhaired Russian spy, and do I really need to say anything else? It includes a little comics canon as well.

Love Stories for Tedious People by kristophine is a Captain America and the Winter Soldier AU in which Steve Rogers is a burned-out emergency room physician and Bucky Barnes is a recovering veteran he meets on duty. I think this would be a nice romantic read even if you were not familiar with canon, and portrays Steve figuring out what to do with his life that makes him less depressed, which is a plotline I highly approve of.

My April Reading Log

Fiction:
I finally read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which everyone and all their cousins has been recommending as a terrific Found Family space opera since it came out. And it is that. For me, it had a slightly retro feel, which is by no means bad. I enjoyed it a lot.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine follows the new ambassador, Mahit, to the powerful Teixcalaan empire as she tries to figure out how and why her predecessor was murdered. So far as names go, and a tendency to honor willing blood sacrifice, and physical appearance, the Teixcalaanli seem roughly based on the Aztecs, except in space, and possibly with more poetry. There’s a succession crisis happening, and a looming threat near the ambassador’s home space station, and a mystery surrounding Mahit’s imago, which is a personality/memory impression of the previous ambassador. This may sound like a lot, but it’s all tied together and the plot clicks over swiftly and entertainingly. I really liked it, and though the ending isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, it very clearly sets up the next book.

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a novelette, I think, but that was all I could handle, anyway. The first person narrator is stuck wandering a physics-bending alien space artifact out beyond Pluto, alone, while becoming more and more unreliable. It was not pleasant reading, exactly, but was gripping. I was left unsatisfied by the ending, but am not sure what I would have preferred instead. The setting was perfect for generating additional stories, though, so I’m curious if that was part of the intent.

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older is a Middle Grade fantasy set in an alternate version of Civil War-era New York City. The alternate part is there are dinosaurs living among people and being used as beasts of burden, though the possibilities aren’t as fully explored as they might have been in an adult novel; I got the feeling they were around because dinosaurs are cool, and dactyls are cool, and I think that’s cool, because why not? When I was a kid, I would not have blinked at this setup. (Adult me was wondering how the presence of dinosaurs would affect the Industrial Revolution and the development of associated technology, which appears to have happened here pretty much the same as in our world.) Magdalys Roca, the protagonist, is one of the kids from the Colored Orphan Asylum who get caught up first in the draft riots, then in a plot to rescue black people who’ve been captured to be sold in the southern states. The history is very beautifully integrated with the kid-focused action plot, and doesn’t shy away from the racism non-white people are facing. The assortment of kids have interesting characterization, even those with smaller roles. Trigger warning: early on, a kindly adult figure is discovered to have been lynched in the riots after heroically giving children time to escape. Recommended because dinosaurs.

Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold is set in an alternate universe Victorian London, where metaphysician is a common profession, at least for men. There’s an intriguing secondary female character, Miss Frost, whom I’d love to know more about, who’s been trained in metaphysics at a women’s college. Julian Lynes is a private detective and Ned Mathey a metaphysician; they’d been lovers while at a terrible boarding school, and are now figuring out their relationship as adults while solving a mysterious murder that involves cursed silver. As an added complication, one of their worst tormenters from school is related to the murder victim, and they have to deal with their feelings about that as well. I enjoyed both the romantic plot and the mystery.

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw is the second book about Dr. Greta Helsing, contemporary descendant of the Dracula Dr. Helsing, who is a doctor for supernatural beings. She’s traveled to Paris for a conference on supernatural medicine, as a last-minute replacement for someone else. Greta spends most of this book caught up in someone else’s revenge plot, but does quite a lot for other people (beings?) at the same time, which I found extremely satisfying. Winston was my favorite (I will not spoil Winston’s identity). I was happy to learn that a third book is now available for pre-order, and amused to learn that Shaw is married to Arkady Martine, whose book I read the previous week.

I also re-read The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I ended up switching between the electronic version on my phone and the hardcover at home; sadly, print books do not automatically synch with e-books, but I managed! Enough time has passed since the book came out that I’d forgotten some plot twists, which only added to my enjoyment of revisiting Maia and his world. I’m so happy there is going to be a sequel. It was a good choice for a difficult week, with so many terrible things happening all over the world.

Fanfiction:
After the Storm (I Look Up) by HoneySempai looks at, if Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes got married in Wakanda, what their wedding might be like. It turns out, their wedding would be really lovely. The best part of the story is the appendix, in which we learn the author writes and officiates weddings in real life, and goes into great detail about how this fictional wedding was created. Neepery!

The Way to a Man’s Heart by Niitza and whatthefoucault is a Captain America story in which Steve Rogers grounds himself in the twenty-first century through eating and cooking, and then uses food to help Bucky Barnes regain memories. Nom.

The Persistence of Memory by st_aurafina takes the Moira MacTaggert from the X-Men: First Class movie and pairs her with Emma Frost on a spy road trip, with a bonus redhaired Russian spy, and do I really need to say anything else? It includes a little comics canon as well.

Love Stories for Tedious People by kristophine is a Captain America and the Winter Soldier AU in which Steve Rogers is a burned-out emergency room physician and Bucky Barnes is a recovering veteran he meets on duty. I think this would be a nice romantic read even if you were not familiar with canon, and portrays Steve figuring out what to do with his life that makes him less depressed, which is a plotline I highly approve of.

My March Reading Log

Fiction:
Mira’s Last Dance: Penric & Desdemona Book 5 by Lois McMaster Bujold was delightful to read, but it felt like it ended too soon, not just because it leaves the door open for the next story, but because it felt like less had happened overall. It’s a transitional story, all of it escaping from one place to another.

Leverage in Death (In Death, Book 47) by J.D. Robb was a bit more interesting than some of the recent entries, alas due to an overly-complex murder method that seemed a bit strained to me; it could have benefited from, maybe, some more complex technology which ought to be available, given the futuristic setting. Maybe it’s a sign of more weird twists in the series’ future. There is a subplot relating to the Oscars and the movie about a previous book being up for several awards, and Eve Dallas’ discomfort with same. Apparently, in the future, it is still #oscarssowhite if you were wondering. It seems I am going to keep reading this series no matter what.

The Ironmaster’s Tale (Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle Book 1) by L.A. Hall ties in to the first several volumes of The Comfortable Courtesan, and I think is best read as a supplement to those, so you understand everything that is going on, because Josiah Ferraby, the titular ironmaster, takes a while to catch on to certain things. Anyway, I liked it a lot, particularly the scenes of Josiah and Eliza together, discussing events and going about their domestic business.

Nonfiction:
I devoured The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn on my vacation. Though I never read his last three novels, I have read the rest, some of them many, many times. The first science fiction book I ever read was Have Space Suit – Will Travel, and it’s one of my keepers. Mendlesohn’s book looks at themes that carry through all of Heinlein’s work, and explores how they fit in with biographical details and are refined or focused over time, taking into account how his politics align or don’t align with the politics of the time in which he was writing. I felt I understood his work far, far more after reading this book than I had before I began, and for that reason I strongly recommend it, provided you are interested in Heinlein, the history of science fiction from the 1940s through the 1980s, or genre criticism in general.

Fanfiction:
Four Letter Word For Intercourse by bendingsignpost is an erotic Supernatural AU in which Dean Winchester is going to college, somewhat against his will in order to please his brother and uncle, and ends up calling a phone sex line to relieve stress and explore the notion that he’s not straight, but bisexual. It’s extremely well-crafted male/male erotica, with quite a lot of self-discovery and eventual romance. The characters are established within the story, so no knowledge of canon is required. Highly recommended.

Neighborly by Spooks and thesuninside was an unexpected but interesting crossover between The Punisher and Supernatural, in which Dean Winchester is a teenager and Sam Winchester is twelve, and they happen to live next door to Frank Castle while their father is away. It was surprisingly moving. There’s a sequel, which I plan to read.

The Great War by Fabrisse puts the characters from Kingsman: The Secret Service into World War One as ordinary officers. It was nicely researched, which pleased me.

Also, Nightingale by The_Cimmerians explores MCU Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers’ life in Wakanda after tne end of Civil War, which only gets more complicated once Bucky Barnes emerges from cryo. Plus there is some excellent Shuri. There are a lot of delicious-sounding Wakandan meals in this story, and hot sex as well, eventually.

I skim-reread the first two volumes of From the Log of the Hellhound, a classic late 1980s Blake’s 7 series continuation that went on for a while but was never completed. I had expected it to be dated, as the characters were portrayed with very very New Wave clothes and haircuts; what I hadn’t expected was how dated the gender relations felt, despite complex characterization. This dystopic future is extremely heteronormative, and I think the writers meant to criticize that to some extent, but it is in fact difficult to tell. Phrases like “flaming faggot” are used, and a man being overdosed with an aphrodisiac as torture is considered funny until the characters realize it was painful and not pleasurable; lack of consent is apparently not considered torture. Several characters consider it disturbing that someone is bisexual. The bisexual man has developed rampant misogyny as a result of torture by a woman, which is unpleasant to read, even when he appears to tamp it down. Also, I remain extremely confused as to why an Original Female Character, a professional psychologist, ends up having sex with a man she’s been treating (or attempting to treat), and whose many many psychological issues she knows about in detail; in fact, he had previously tried to strangle her in a fit of rage at a perceived betrayal. (However, he is considered Hot Stuff by fandom and clearly by the authors as well.)

I was reminded of how much things have changed since then, and how (relatively) quickly. We are not even close to perfect today, but Consent is much more in the common discourse, as is identification and recognition of problematic relationship dynamics. It’s a terrific historical document.

My February Reading Log

Fiction:
The City and The City by China Miéville is actually a mystery, though set in a bizarre speculative world. Two cities occupy the same space, and the inhabitants learn to “unsee” and “unhear” their counterparts. There is bureaucracy surrounding interactions between the two cities, which we see when the protagonist, a detective investigating a murder, needs information from both sides. As usual with Miéville, the world is densely built, especially politically; it’s subtly and meticulously laid out for the reader bit by bit until all the weirdness seems almost normal. I’m still thinking about the themes, some of which I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet identified.

Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren is a young adult time travel novel with a lot of quirky, weird, entertaining banter as well as realistic relationships between siblings and step-siblings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even when I wasn’t sure what was happening, because of that dialogue. The one thing that annoyed me was the word waddling, which was used a couple of times to describe the plump younger sister’s gait. It seemed a cruel word to me, not an affectionate one, though otherwise the character is seen in a positive light. Perhaps other people comprehend this word differently than I do. I did like the storytelling theme that’s an important part of the book.

I reread two Walter Farley harness racing books that I had read multiple times as a child: The Black Stallion’s Blood Bay Colt (1951) and The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt (1954), its sequel. From an adult writer’s perspective, I found it intriguing that older male mentor figures were so important to the plots of both novels. Jimmy Creech is teenaged Tom Messenger’s mentor, with some of his opinions and angry outbursts about the current state of racing offset by Jimmy’s longtime friend and partner George; Tom also learns to get along with his opinionated old uncle. In the sequel, Alec Ramsay and Henry Dailey take over the plot, with Jimmy and Tom and George making appearances. The importance of “men like Jimmy” and their advice is emphasized repeatedly; but at the same time, new and different opinions about raising and training horses are debated and shown to vary in their effectiveness. There’s a lot less character growth for the young male heroes than one would likely see in a middle grade/young adult book today, though they make mistakes and have to surmount the results of those mistakes. Mostly, the young protagonists learn to trust themselves and use both advice from mentors and their own emotions to work with horses. For the first time ever, I read a brief biography of Walter Farley, and learned that his horsemanship mentor was his uncle, which to me answers the question of why older male mentor figures are so important in his fiction.

The books also offer a requiem for the origins of harness racing, when farmers would unhitch their horses from a plow and bring them into town to race, and the annual routine of racing at country fairs. Night racing at a giant track is shown as the future of the sport, but it leaves the old guard mourning what they are about to lose and wishing the new guard could see and appreciate the fairs in the same way. A young character like Tom Messenger appreciates both types of racing while feeling that the old style is still, in some ways, better.

What made this re-read particularly interesting to me in particular is that a good deal of it, especially the first book, takes place in Pennsylvania. As a child, reading these books, Pennsylvania might as well have been on Mars. As an adult, I have lived in Pennsylvania for many years, and the names of most of the towns mentioned were familiar to me.

Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan McGuire features killer!mermaids and a large cast of scientists and other interesting people, some of whom get their faces eaten, alas, so I had to stay braced for that. However, I loved the worldbuilding of the siren creatures and their physiologies and hunting techniques, the sort of thing that would have likely been left out had this been a disaster movie instead of a book.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon is a dystopia set on a generation ship, which I found gripping but also frustrating, which means it’s a great book to generate discussion. As usual, I wanted more exploration of how the society worked on a day-to-day level, for instance about how each deck had its own language and culture and even technology. Though there was some of that, I think the goal was more of a thought experiment about how people cope, or don’t cope, with an intensely stratified, racist and fascist society, using an analogy to chattel slavery and plantation culture in America. To me, it felt like speculative fiction leaning towards literary fiction.

Aster, the protagonist, is neurologically atypical and seems to have gender dysphoria or be non-binary; Aster also seems to be a genius, and has some advantages from association with The Surgeon, a highly ranked position. It’s stated that fertility is down and people are exhibiting more gender differences, but it’s unclear whether this is a result of radiation exposure are of the oppressive society, or both; oppression of women and to a lesser degree, non-cishet people happens throughout, but it’s a subset of the various oppressions happening. I speculated that fear of change resulted in oppression of anything not considered cis-heterosexual. Given the sometimes miraculous medical advances shown (for the healing of life-threatening wounds to Aster, for example), I was surprised there wasn’t more fascist intervention in bodily integrity.

It’s unclear how the societal structure on the ship, the Matilda, started out when the ship left The Great Lifehouse, the home planet; by the time of the book there are huge disparities between life on the privileged upper decks versus the oppressed lower decks, reinforced by racism and colorism. The dark-skinned lower deckers work the fields while the upper deckers are at leisure, with better food, environments, and medical care. I assumed this was meant to indicate that among humans, hierarchy always seeks to replicate itself. It explores slavery in a confined environment that reinforces the feeling of being trapped, hopeless, and enraged.

What left me unsatisfied with the book was disappointment with the resolution; I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was left feeling adrift, because it didn’t feel like the rather sudden final events solved anything except, maybe, for a couple of people. Perhaps that was the point, that there can be no good resolution to such pervasive inequality; there can be escape from the situation, but that escape may not be a total victory, and it might not be possible to save anyone but yourself.

Nonfiction:
Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly is a memoir by the astronaut, which frames the year he spent on the International Space Station with the life journey that led him there, from distracted, terrible student to test pilot for fighter jets to space shuttle pilot to astronaut (you get that title after you first fly in space). I got this book at a talk Kelly gave at the University, shortly after the book had come out, but didn’t start reading it until this month. I found it gripping, especially all the little details about being in space, and living in such close quarters with only a few people, for a long time. It was also interesting to read his perspective on various events throughout his time with NASA, including the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia; the people who died were his colleagues and friends. Things I learned: a space walk takes a really long time to prepare for and to finish up, and is utterly exhausting; it’s harder to defecate in space because gravity isn’t helping you; there is so much stuff on the ISS in so little space, and it’s so easy for things to float away, that it is easy to lose things like tools for literally years. Highly recommended if you want to learn more about the experience of being an astronaut. I am really looking forward to learning more about the “Twins Study” as it progresses; he and his twin, Mark, are both astronauts, and they gave permission for their DNA to be studied and compared, to see what changes happen from Scott’s long mission in space.

Though I bought Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide about a decade ago, it took me long enough to actually read it that there is now a reprint edition. The colonialism, racism, and gender disparities contributing to violence against indigenous women (and men) described in this book are sadly still extremely relevant, and though details today might be different, the systemic problems are still present and still harming people; but people are also still fighting those systemic problems.

Sex in Georgian England: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s by A. D. Harvey is more academic and more depressing than the title would perhaps suggest, though I did appreciate the author’s occasional dry humor. There were a lot of statistics about divorce and criminal proceedings brought against prostitutes and gay men. A useful book, but less ethnographic than I had hoped.

My January Reading Log

Fiction:
The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman is first in the contemporary Decker/Lazarus mystery series. A violent rape and then a brutal murder take place in a tightknit yeshiva community in California; we get the pov of Rina Lazarus, the widow of one of the scholars, and Peter Decker, the police detective. The two protagonists develop a romantic interest in each other that I assume is further addressed as the series progresses. I will probably read the next one in the series, once I get through some more of my TBR.

A Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles) by Claire O’Dell is set in a near-future dystopic America caught up in a new Civil War; Watson and Holmes are both women of color. I enjoyed the book but it didn’t feel Holmesian to me, mainly because Holmes was more of an opaque spy/intelligence agent than a detective. The book is more about Watson, which is fine because she’s an intriguing character dealing with post-traumatic issues and a badly-functioning prosthetic arm and veteran’s bureaucratic issues that resonate strongly with our present world. I’d call it speculative fiction rather than a mystery.

Spectred Isle by K.J. Charles is a post-World War One light fantasy with male/male romance. Protagonist Saul Lazenby discovers there’s magic in England in the 1920s, and ends up working with others to prevent paranormal disasters, in what feels like the setup for a Found Family series.

Dark in Death by J.D. Robb is…number forty-six in the series. I read this one in tiny bits and snatches, but was able to follow because I know the series formula. I think it was slightly better than the last one in the series, but not outstanding. There was a meta element that was moderately entertaining: the murderer is re-creating murders from a book series.

Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney is set in London during World War One, and had some nice historical detail including a zeppelin bombing raid that made me wonder if the author owns the same Osprey book I have on the topic. A possibly-triggery brutal injury to a woman (spoiler: she survives) happens right at the beginning, but thereafter the tone is cozy mystery, despite one other episode of a badly injured young man being rescued. The characters all felt bland to me, and their relationships were far too easy. I didn’t like it enough to see if there were more in the series.

I celebrated the new year with a re-read of The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. Reading in close sequence, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret present accumulated clues to what’s really going on in a most satisfying way; as the reader, I feel great satisfaction when I can figure things out before the characters, because I have more knowledge than they do, but there are enough twists and surprises that I am far from omnipotent. The Lost Steersman adds a new twist to the worldbuilding, and The Language of Power coalesces several parts of the story. I now sadly contemplate waiting for volumes five and six. I absolutely adore books with the appearance of fantasy that turn out to be science fiction, and this series is even more rewarding on a second read. Highly recommended, and now available in electronic editions.

Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare is fourth in the super-fluffy Spindle Cove historical romance series about a village full of unconventional women. This one loosely follows a “My Fair Lady” plot. While I felt no sense of historical reality, I did enjoy the heroine’s thoughts and opinions quite a bit, which for me outbalanced the usual Hero Angst. At least, this time, I felt the Hero Angst was justified; it wasn’t the usual Angst Trope. If you like fluffy historicals, such as Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare is in the same wheelhouse.

The Walls of Troy by L.A. Witt is contemporary male/male romance which started out with a bit of an intriguing mystery plot, but alas for me soon became a lot of sex scenes that I couldn’t muster up attention for. I was in the mood for mystery/thriller, and wasn’t getting it, because this was a romance. Bonus points for a Turkish-American protagonist in the Navy.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark is supercool steampunk set in an alternate 1912 Egypt, with a female detective and a cross-dressing lesbian and assorted supernatural creatures. The worldbuilding is utterly fabulous. Alas, it is short (46 e-reader pages) so there is way less of it than I was hoping.

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith is a short novel with fairly minor speculative elements that affect the first-person narrator’s emotions more than anything else, but are important to the story’s resolution. The protagonist is an athletic lesbian, director of an AIDS charity, who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She passes through realistic stages of dealing with not only the disease’s progress but with how society and her loved ones treat her while she organizes a new nationwide nonprofit that seems to have unexpectedly dangerous consequences. I suspect, in future, this will be high on the list of recommended #ownvoices fiction about people with disabilities. I was completely swept away by it until the ending, which to me felt too abrupt, even though it did what it needed to do and resolved a character arc.

Nonfiction:
The First, the Few, the Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I by Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall is exactly what is says on the tin, beginning with the decision to recruit women to serve as navy yeomen (clerks) on land to free up men to serve on ships, and ending with how some of their lives were changed, and the things they accomplished, some of which were as a result of their service. A lot more people remember the WWII WAVES than they do the WWI “Yeomen (F),” and I think that’s a shame.

Fanfiction:
fight like girls for our place at the table by napricot focuses on Sharon Carter, from the beginning of her assignment to keep an eye on Steve Rogers in The Winter Soldier, and features a slow-build romance with Natasha Romanov. Recommended!

Comics:
For one of my Arisia panels, I did re-read the first Morlocks story, which is two issues long, in Uncanny X-Men 169-170. I include image links so you can see the covers.

This story introduces a group of mutants who live underground and refer to themselves as Morlocks, specifically referencing The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; many of them have unusual physical forms or powers, and are angry at mutants who can “pass” as human. Some of them, such as Caliban (who can identify other mutants much like the computer Cerebro), speak in an affected dialect, which seems to be meant to indicate non-standard mentality. Caliban sounds weirdly formal but also childlike, and speaks of himself in the third person.

The leader of the Morlocks, Callisto, could easily pass as human. She kidnaps Warren Worthington (Angel) to be her husband. I found it amusing, on this read, that Warren has no lines, he’s just there to wear a little white loincloth and, at the wedding, a baby blue fetish harness. (He’s shown in costume on the cover, but nope, he was totally eye candy inside.) The X-Men track Warren down and clash with the Morlocks; it’s resolved by Ororo (Storm) battling Callisto in single combat. Callisto does not know Ororo grew up a street kid and is quite good at knife-fighting.

After Ororo’s victory, the Morlocks ask Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler) if he would like to stay with them, as he is blue-skinned with a prehensile tail. Kurt replies that he’s spent so much time already working to be accepted by the world at large that he doesn’t want to give up until he succeeds. However, he doesn’t tell them he thinks separatism is a bad idea.

The story raises the issue, again, of how mutants are treated by the outside world, but adds on how “ugly” mutants are treated by “pretty” mutants. There isn’t a huge amount of depth, but reading this as a young teenager, I remember feeling empathy for the Morlocks and noting that they make good points. X-Men has many flaws so far as representation goes, but I’m still glad it was around for me and for so many others.