My September Reading Log

Fiction:
Hild by Nicola Griffith is a historical novel about a medieval woman who eventually became an abbess. There’s very little actual information about the woman, but Griffith did a ton of research and it shows, in a very very good way. The names of people and places, the social roles and constraints, and even the landscape all contribute to the feeling of reading about an alien culture. If you like writing about the natural world, Griffith excels at bringing medieval England to life in that way.

It’s also a story about women seeking some control over their lives. Hild’s mother had or says she had a dream about Hild being “the light of the world,” and helps to shape her observant child into someone who’s considered a seer, valuable to the king. Women are shown working though the social system or around it to gain choices for themselves, sometimes successfully, sometimes thwarted by men or by other circumstances beyond their control. We see the female relatives of high-ranking men, peasants with few paths to higher economic standing, and a female slave whose role shifts as the story progresses. Violence is also a theme; power is shown to be gained and/or held through brutal maiming and killing and subjugation, while Hild tries the alternative of building a refuge for “her people,” hidden away in a reclaimed marshy area.

This book was really good, and deserves every bit of praise.

Favorite quotes:
She liked time at the edges of things–the edge of the crowd, the edge of the pool, the edge of the wood–where all must pass but none quite belonged.

Hild leaned into the buffeting wind on the top of Ad Gefrin. She opened her mouth and let the wind whip her breath away. She loved it up here with the goats, loved the scudding clouds, the sun and shadow chasing each other over bent and silvered grass.

The moon moved higher, drew itself tighter and brighter. Then there it was: true night. That moment when the world seems to stop and wait and the air both stills and quickens, thick with tree breath and the listening of small animals. Foxes were abroad now, and badgers, and uncanny things.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is far more intricate than her previous fairy tale novel. It features multiple first-person narrators from multiple walks of life in a fantasy version of medieval Eastern Europe. It starts out as a take on the Rumpelstiltskin story, but also riffs on several other folk tales including a fire demon and an endless winter, and “dead mother speaks through a tree,” with a dollop of Jewish history and philosophy. There’s a satisfying found family narrative that turns out to be really important. It’s very good; the flaw, if you can call it that, is that the voices aren’t disparate enough, so sometimes it takes a little work to identify the new narrator. I didn’t mind this voice sameness that much; it helped keep the tone as a fairy tale rather than a modern novel, and supported the idea that all these people from different walks of life had the same type of fears and loves.

The main three characters are Miryem, a Jewish girl who takes over her father’s role as moneylender; Wanda, a peasant girl with an abusive father; and Irina, daughter of a duke who wants to marry her off for gain. All three of them end up interacting with each other and contributing to the outcome; all three of them take the best actions they can in difficult circumstances, and have to figure out how to live with those decisions or make them right, in what might seem like the falling action after the climax, but to me felt like the heart of the novel.

Favorite quotes:
I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.

But the world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.

It didn’t matter that I cared, that I was sorry; what mattered was what I had done, what I would do.

Fanfiction:
The Night War by praximeter (Zimario) and quietnight is over a hundred thousand words of Bucky Barnes’ experiences in WWII, both before and after Captain America shows up in Europe; it ends just before Bucky’s death in the movie continuity. So far as I could tell, it’s really well researched, and the research flows naturally as part of the story; my favorite bit was a brief mention of a nebulizer, because a new version of those devices had become available in the 1930s. The narrative style feels like a real memoir to me, something scribbled on whatever was to hand whenever there was an opportunity.

There’s also a meta level. The story is being presented as the 60th anniversary edition of what, in this version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a classic war memoir published by Bucky’s family after his death, and it has footnotes about the fictional parts of the continuity as well as notes on the real history. Beyond all that cleverness, I was deeply involved with the story every time I picked it up, and at a couple of points I was brought close to tears. I could imagine reading this in a college class and having it be revelatory. My main trigger warning is that the Howling Commandos stumble upon and liberate a concentration camp close to the end of the war. There is also a lot of period-typical angst about the death of fellow soldiers and the particular moral dilemma of being a sniper.

My 2018 CapClave Schedule

I’ll be at CapClave this weekend, in Rockville, Maryland. The convention runs September 28-30; I’ll be there only on Saturday the 29th.

Saturday, 11:00 am – 11:55 am, Monroe
“Fan Fiction”

What we like to write; what we like to read. Honing one’s skills through writing fan fiction.
T. Eric Bakutis, Victoria Janssen [moderator], Steven H. Wilson, Alyssa Wong

Saturday, 1:00 pm – 1:55 pm, Monroe
“What Are the New Questions SF Should be Asking?”

SF in particular is meant to be a forward-looking genre. What questions should contemporary SFF writers be asking that they are not? What issues are being successfully addressed?
David Bartell [moderator], Charles E. Gannon, Victoria Janssen

Saturday, 2:00 pm – 2:55 pm, Eisenhower
“I Need to Finish This Story….”

What we do to force our butts into our seats and get writing and keep writing.
Jeanne Adams, Doc Coleman, Victoria Janssen [moderator], Jack Skillingstead

Saturday, 5:00 pm – 5:55 pm, Washington Theater
“Writers As Fans: How Fandom Influences Our Writing”

A panel of writers discusses their favorite fandoms and how their passions have inspired and influenced their writing.
Andrew Fox [moderator], J. L. Gribble, Victoria Janssen, Hildy Silverman

My August Reading Log

Fiction:
Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys is second in the Innsmouth Legacy series, set only a short time after the previous book ends. Our heroes have to travel to New York City in search of a lost relative, and there they find more complications and dangers than they’d expected. It felt more internal and reflective than the previous book, adding complexity to the worldbuilding and giving Aphra more challenges both magical and emotional.

Neighborhoods shifted and blended–as they did in San Francisco but larger, louder, more multitudinous. Alphabets and chords of scent, line of cheek and tone of skin, flavor of language: these differences marked each cluster of blocks unmistakably, showing where communities settled together to share comfort in an unfamiliar place. But each permeable pool spread rivulets into the surrounding pools, as people intermingled for food or friendship or business or simple curiosity. Without that flow, they might have grown stagnant. With it, they became a thriving wetland of shared strength. Those rivulets were the veins carrying the pulse I’d felt since I arrived.

It also felt very relevant to the times in which we live:
“Great powers surround us. If we don’t choose to shape them, they’ll shape us unopposed–we cannot let that happen again.”

A Beautiful Blue Death: The First Charles Lenox Mystery by Charles Finch was vacation reading, and served that purpose admirably, with straightforward prose and short chapters that I could finish before falling asleep each night. For a murder mystery, it was remarkably low stress, which I believe was the reason for its initial recommendation to me. The characters are reasonable people, for the most part, and the mystery had some unexpected tangles. It was not the sort of mystery where I could figure out the solution by following the protagonist’s thought processes.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss is the second book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series, and it brings in vampires! Or, pardon me, humans infected with vampirism. Goss continues to reimagine the stories of female experimental subjects, this time in a road trip novel that includes the Orient Express, a carriage journey, and a circus. Also Carmilla (from the Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu story) and various characters from Dracula. If you like Gothics, and transformative works, I suspect you will like this.

Favorite quote: “It is a great pleasure to meet an agent of the Subcommittee for Bibliographic Citation Format.”

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells is third in this series of novellas. Murderbot once again navigates being an escaped slave, this time by pretending to be what it has left behind, while no longer entirely successful at the pretense. Murderbot gets yet another view of human/robot relationships as well as the banal, brutal evil of corporations. When the last volume comes out, I’m going to read it all again.

Favorite quotes: If you had to take care of humans, it was better to take care of small soft ones who were nice to you and thought you were great because you kept preventing them from being murdered.

…there’s the right kind of unrealistic and the wrong kind of unrealistic.

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is a novella rather than a novel, which I didn’t realize until I was near the end. I found that disappointing, and hope he will do a lot more with this alternate-history steampunk world in which the American Civil War ends in an uneasy truce with slaves kept down by drugged gas, and New Orleans is fiercely protecting its neutrality in the midst of all that, while Haiti is still dealing with having used powerful magic/science to destroy the French navy that attempted to re-conquer them in a sort of Cold War nuclear crisis, and sky-pirates fly out of the Caribbean, and gods and goddesses walk among or rather within some of the characters. So many fabulous worldbuilding details! Such appealing characters! So much potential plot conflict for future work!

Favorite quote: The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik.

Comics:
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 2: Cosmic Cooties by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare continues to grapple with the issues of being a super genius and also nine years old, which as you can imagine is very frustrating. And also, Lunella is manifesting a very inconvenient Inhuman power. Plus, there’s bonus Ms. Marvel! I enjoyed this, but I think the Inhuman aspects cluttered and complicated the story too much, so I kept putting it down. I have several volumes waiting after this one; we’ll see how this all turns out.

Fanfiction:
The Leftovers by hulksmashmouth is a really good and emotionally intense MCU Infinity War story, from the pov of Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s MJ. When The Snap happens, nobody knows what’s going on, but it’s all terrifying, and then MJ has to deal with her familial losses, which is very well done and realistic. Eventually, there are Avengers, and eventually, all is made right, but it’s a rollercoaster to get there. Note that this is the last in a series, though I followed it with no problem. Now I have to go back and read the first story!

Life of the Party by AggressiveWhenStartled is hilarious! Captain America is his usual self, but Bucky Barnes is a modern man, who does children’s birthday parties as The Winter Soldier. They meet, they are smitten, and they make charming fools of themselves over each other, and I loved every wacky moment of it.

in cayenne and honey, in vinegar and lime by alby_mangroves and Nonymos was a terrific story about Bucky recovering in Wakanda, from M’Baku’s point of view. I don’t want to spoil this because I really, really enjoyed the M’Baku voice and characterization, and the role he plays in Wakanda after the events of Black Panther. Also features slash, though both parties are in love with other people.

Full Metal Sasquatch by newsbypostcard for cabloom features Bucky!Captain America trying to survive being separated from Steve, who is supposed to be dead. Thanks to Natasha, part of his coping mechanism is an Instagram account. I recommend this for its humor and great dialogue.

where the dread fern grows by silentwalrus is set in an alternate universe where Sam Wilson’s family can all fly, Steve Rogers can create fire in his hand, and Bucky Barnes might be a witch. It’s Sam’s pov, and it was funny; he needs some elf wine for a wedding present, and Bucky is the guy who can provide it.

under a golden january sun by newsbypostcard is a Steve/Bucky story set in Wakanda, with a delightful role for Shuri.

My July Reading Log

Fiction:
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is post-apocalyptic dark fantasy/horror set in Dinetah, a Navajo nation that survives ecological disaster but has problems with monsters and supernatural creatures of the sort that want to kill and eat humans. The protagonist, Maggie, manifested clan powers after a traumatic event and was trained as a monster-slayer by a supernatural creature, who recently abandoned her. Because of how close she comes to evil, most people view her with suspicion and fear, except for Grandpa Tah (not an actual relative) who took her in when she needed it. Tah introduces Maggie to his grandson Kai, who has clan powers of his own, and together they fight crime they try to track down the source of a recent monster infestation. I recommend this highly, especially if you like urban fantasy-type series; it has that sort of feel, complete with a potential romance between Maggie and Kai. It is so very, very good; I read it really fast and am ready for the sequel, and hope it sells a bajillion copies.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner is latest in the Queen’s Thief series, following a Mede slave secretary/scholar named Kamet with a poor opinion of the Attolian soldier (Costis) sent to bring him to freedom. It’s a buddy road trip novel, essentially, with some bonus relevant warrior bromance poetry, and it was a lot of fun.

The Edge of Worlds: Volume Four of the Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells is fourth in the Books of the Raksura series, and introduces several new species/races of intelligent beings from various parts of the Three Worlds, in the course of a journey to a mysterious sealed city that may or may not harbor dangerous beings or artifacts. Moon continues to be a narrator I love to follow; though he’s integrating well with his own people, the Raksura, after several years with them, he’s still curious and skittish about the outside world and its dangers. I love road trip stories, and this is essentially a road trip without the road, as they’re traveling via an airship to a distant land. Once the traveling party reaches the sealed city, the pace is breakneck, with dangers both expected and unexpected, and puzzles that need to be solved, followed by a savage twist in the tail. These books are so filmic; I would love to see them adapted for the screen.

The Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells, book five, finishes off the Raksura series with many dramatic events that…make me want to read more of this series, but there is no more. I especially want to see more of Malachite and Pearl together, they fight crime bantering. And more of Bramble the Arbora. I think this is a series that will reward re-reading.

Fanfiction:
Relatives in Spacetime by feldman and Thassalia tosses Tony Stark, Natasha Romanov, and Bruce Banner into 1950s Cuba where they encounter Howard Stark trying to convince Maria Carbonell to marry him while Peggy Carter is having one last fling with Angie Martinelli in the middle of a spy mission and the Jarvises provide support and occasional commentary. And Dottie Underwood just happens to be around as well. It’s time travel facilitated/inflicted by Odin, and has a lot of plot, intriguing character study, and mutual pining between Natasha and Bruce. Yes, that eventually gets resolved, but the story doesn’t centralize their relationship. I loved all the details about Cuba. Recommended especially if you like lengthy, plotty genfic.

My June Reading Log

Fiction:
The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold is very Bujoldian, and I wish it had been longer. It takes place before Cryoburn. My favorite part was the speculative science of dealing with a heavily-irradiated landscape, and how to science the hell out of that, and what to do with one’s experimental results; I liked the sense of hope and possibility. The other part of the plot concerned people’s choices and lack thereof, and the duty of care humans owe other humans; I’m still thinking about that part.

Witchmark by C. L. Polk is great. I read it really quickly and with a lot of enjoyment. Early Industrial Fantasy is my jam, doubly so when the characters are this good. Polk hooked me swiftly with the first-person narrator, a doctor, dealing with realistic issues like PTSD-that-is-possibly-also-something-else, then kept me reading with the steady increase in difficulties he had to face and the multiple unexpected twists. I loved how what at first seemed like a straightforward medical/magical mystery opened up in several directions, dealing with imperialist wars and industrialization both realistically and fantastically. There’s a very low-key m/m romance.

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson involves first a nearby volcano eruption and then the Moominvalley being flooded, though without real consequences. I read it to be soothed, and was soothed. As usual with Jansson’s books, I was intrigued by the personalities of the characters. This time, I particularly noted the varying depictions of anxiety in the Fillyjonk and the Hemulen jailer’s cousin, and Goth-like Misabel’s enjoyment of feeling sad. Also that Snuffkin’s misbehavior, however warranted, was made right by someone else, and he immediately hands over an unexpected responsibility to Moominmamma as soon as possible. I also checked out the Moominsummer Madness Re-read at Tor.com.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee concludes the Machineries of Empire trilogy in ways both unexpected and satisfactory. I will avoid spoiling the plot!

Nonfiction:
In Her Own Words: Oral Histories of Women Physicians, edited by Regina Markell Morantz, Cynthia Stodola Pomerleau, and Carol Hansen Fenichel, was an old book I got from BookMooch years ago and occasionally poked at. Published in 1982, and featuring interviews of women doctors of gradually decreasing age, it gives a pretty good picture of second-wave feminism from women of various backgrounds and social classes, though not races; the single Person of Color is the final interview, a black woman who is still finishing her MD/PhD. It was a little weird to hear opinions from the mouths of these pioneering women that made me wince at times, though very interesting to see how sometimes their opinions altered over the course of their schooling and career, as they came up against barriers some of them had earlier not believed in (been told not to believe in), or felt irrelevant to themselves.

Comics:
The Unstoppable Wasp Vol. 2: Agents of G.I.R.L. by Jeremy Whitley and Elsa Charretier was really sweet, and I am extremely sorry there won’t be more. It introduces a whole diverse female squad of teenage scientists and one lacrosse player, and it shows Wasp and Mockingbird mentoring them, and it even address the awfulness of Hank Pym. Whitley writes another series, Princeless, which I’ve added to my wishlist.

Fanfiction:
When Push Comes To Chevre by copperbadge is set between the Black Panther and Infinity War movies, and features Bucky and his Goat Farm, my new favorite fanfictional subgenre. He also has a rhino that flunked out of warrior training. And there are peanuts and cheese and sweet potatoes.

If They Haven’t Learned Your Name by silentwalrus is second in the Bucky Barnes Gets His Groove Back and Other International Incidents series. You don’t have to read the first story, set during WWII, to understand this one, but you should because it’s great and also smokin’ hot. Getting back to part two, it starts out like a lot of other Bucky Recovery stories but soon goes off the rails in a fantastically cracktastic way that includes completely unexpected usage of the Winter Soldier’s metal arm, Steve and Sam meeting Korean grandmothers who think Steve is Channing Tatum, and some excellent Rhodey characterization. Also, it’s really long and involved, so if you’re looking for that sort of thing right now, this might be the thing you are looking for.

My Readercon 2018 Schedule

I’ll be attending Readercon 29 July 12-15, 2018 in Quincy, Massachusetts. My schedule is below.

Thursday, 9:00 pm, Salon 6
“Living in Material Worlds, Part 1: Fabric Goods in Fictional Settings”
In many post-apocalyptic landscapes and colony worlds, everyone has clothing but no one ever talks about where it came from. Who wove the cloth for that shirt, and who designed the pattern and cut and sewed it? What do station inhabitants feed their fabricators? This panel will dig into the influence of material culture on worldbuilding, and may also explore dye, fiber, and fabric in handicrafts, art, communication systems, and more.
Elaine Isaak [moderator]; Tom Greene; Victoria Janssen; Natalie Luhrs; Sarah Smith

Friday, 5:00 pm, Salon 5
“Reclaiming Stories of Victimized Women”
After reading Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, Amal El-Mohtar tweeted, “Please please let these books usher in a new era of books in which women claim the fuck out of popular stories where they’re victimized.” Are we seeing other signs of such an era on the horizon? Which stories are the ripest for this sort of reclamation?
Victoria Janssen [moderator]; Naida Bulkin; Teri Clarke; Hillary Monahan; Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Friday, 8:00 pm, Salon C
“Dorothy Dunnett, Literary Legend”
Alaya Dawn Johnson called Dorothy Dunnett “the literary equivalent of the Velvet Underground”: not many people read her, but everyone who did wrote a book. A painter, researcher, and opera lover, she wrote what she wanted to read: epic historical drama. Come learn what our panelists and many other writers learned from Dunnett.
Kate Nepveu [moderator]; Lila Garrott; Alexander Jablokov; Victoria Janssen; Nisi Shawl

Saturday, 10:00 am, Seven Masts Room: Kaffeeklatsch

Saturday, 9:00 pm, Salon C
“Living in Material Worlds, Part 2: What Do Clothes Convey?”
Having examined where clothing comes from and what it says about a culture, this panel will move on to discussing what an individual character’s clothing conveys about gender, class, wealth, affiliation, ability, access to materials and craftsmanship, and much more.
Elaine Isaak [moderator]; J.R. Dawson; Samuel R. Delany; Greer Gilman; Victoria Janssen; Emily Lavin Leverett

My May Reading Log

Fiction:
The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang is Asian-flavored science fantasy with a familiar plot, following the twin children of a dictator as they grow into their paranormal abilities and oppose their mother’s reign. Only one of the twins is a point of view character in this volume, which leads me to believe the companion volume/sequel features the other twin, the one with the more rare and powerful psychic gift. Neat stuff: gender is chosen when the child decides on it, and is then surgically/medically expressed; before that, you’re a child. One character does not choose to have gender expressed, which appears to be somewhat unusual in this society. Trigger: late in the book, there is a child death which I found upsetting. Overall, this is quality speculative fiction.

Rainbow Islands by Devin Harnois is a YA LGBTQA pirate novel, set in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic future. The first-person narrator is exiled from the Christian Republic to the Rainbow Islands of Sappho and Alexandros and discovers the wonders of free gender expression and found family. Fluffy escapism ensues, and also there are kraken, and giant flying eagles who bond with asexual humans exclusively. There is a war but it is remarkably non-traumatic. I was not opposed to any of this.

Song of the Navigator by Astrid Amara is a male/male space opera romance about Tover, a (he thinks) privileged improvisational space navigator taken captive by his mysterious lover Cruz and subsequently, accidentally, trapped with Evil Pirates and tortured. The torture was pretty visceral, even though he is rescued and nursed lovingly back to health by Cruz’s doctor mom and fed lovely food by Cruz’s sister. Eventually Tover forgives Cruz (whom I kept picturing as looking like Oscar Isaac because his planet is like a CO2-atmosphere version of Guatemala), because he is attempting to save his planet from the evil colonialist company that Tover works for. Triggers/Spoilers: torture, and the awesome doctor mom is killed, for which I am not sure I forgive this author. Otherwise, everything works out happily. The setting is imaginative and rich and complex, and there’s a lovely variety of characters in all shades of gray, whether they work for Evil Colonialist Company or fight against it.

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells was fun! The first-person narrator again swept me along, and some questions from the first story were answered, and the worldbuilding was deepened, and some new characters were introduced. My only sadness is that it felt too short.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is a noir cabaret political novel that is entirely too close to what’s happening in the real world right now. It’s beautifully written, complex, and tragic. I probably should not have read it at this time. Recommended if you don’t mind bad things happening to people who are just trying to live their lives freely.

Radiance by Grace Draven is about a political marriage between a human and a human-shaped magical nonhuman who display amazing decency and practicality to cope with their situation, and develop a rich and lovely relationship. If you like “marriage of convenience” stories, you will very likely enjoy this quite a lot. I devoured it rather quickly. There are additional books that I will check out at some point.

Secrets in Death (Book 45) by J.D. Robb was, like other recent books in the series, a good thing to be reading in small chunks while very busy doing other things throughout the day. I think it was a bit better than the last one, but not terrific. I was mostly invested in wondering if anything exciting would happen to the secondary couple while they were on vacation, after the book ended.

Lone Wolf by Sara Driscoll is about an FBI agent and her scent tracking dog who get caught up in a serial bombing case. I learned about the many uses of forensic scent tracking in both apprehension of criminals and in search and rescue, but wasn’t hugely attached to any of the characters, or invested in the case, except when the tracking dog was potentially in danger. It featured good people with good intentions, with the exception of the bomber. It was a good airplane read.

Comics:
The Unstoppable Wasp Vol. 1: Unstoppable! by Jeremy Whitley and Elsa Charretier features one of the newer heroes in the Marvel Universe, Earth-616, Nadia Pym, Hank Pym’s daughter from his first marriage. Nadia was raised in the Red Room, so has combat skills as well as Science! skills. She’s recently come to the States and is finding her place as a hero and a scientist, with the help of Janet Van Dyne (original Wasp) and Jarvis. She’s begun contacting a bunch of young female scientists to start her own lab, which looks like it will be the focus of Volume 2, which I’ve already purchased. …so I guess this is yet another Getting the Band Together iteration of my reading… Because of the optimistic outlook of the protagonist and the female focus, this comic reminded me of the recent Hellcat series by Kate Leth, minus the manga-style art. Recommended if you just want to read some damned enjoyable comics.

Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart Vol. 1: Riri Williams (Invincible Iron Man (2016-)) by Brian Michael Bendis got better as it went on, because Riri meets Pepper Potts. Otherwise, I’m still a bit annoyed that the superhero angst of a black teenager is gun violence; it just seems too on point, and in addition removed Riri’s single female friend, which no. Hook her up with the Unstoppable Wasp crew, stat; they are scientists and have things in common.

Monstress Volume 2: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda continues being super-excellent with complex characters enacting mythic drama in a deliciously dense Asian-inflected fantasy world, where human witches devour the life energy of magical animal people, and dangerous gods are supposedly locked away but maybe not. Also, the gorgeous inkwashy art is so awesomely rich and detailed that I spend a really long time on each page; I can’t imagine this story looking any other way. Volume two has pirate mafia tigerpeople and a supremely creepy island of the dead that you can’t remember after you leave, at least if you are in the comic itself. I remember, and it was supremely creepy, parts of it like a twisted mirror of the forest in Princess Mononoke, except the little forest spirits are saying things in tiny speech bubbles like “help me,” and you see what looks like humans partially turned into trees. Maika, the protagonist, gets more information about her origins and the monstrous tentacle god she’s hosting, but it’s unclear if she remembers all of it. I am still wondering about the child fox Arcanic, Kippa, and if she will ever play a more complex role in the story than, essentially, The Doctor’s Companion.

Pretty Deadly Volume 2: The Bear by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios is also a perfect example of story and art being perfectly integrated, elongated figures adding to the supernatural feel. For a comic about death, I was actually a bit uplifted by this volume, though melancholy as well. The story has moved forward in time to World War One; an elderly woman from volume one is on her deathbed, and though her family has gathered to say goodbye, one son is in the trenches in France. (He’s black and American, which historically means he was most likely in the support services arm of the military, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be in a trench some of the time; he and another black guy are set to taking care of horses at one point, reinforcing the idea that they were initially there as support.) The Reapers are fighting War and Fear, and soldiers are fighting despair. I know this doesn’t sound uplifting, but it kind of was, because at the end, the dead tell their stories to feed the garden (an in-between place), and the garden feeds the world, and that vision of Story and legacy makes me tear up, because it says we’re not just destined to be compost, noble as compost might be.

Fanfiction:
Travelogue by neveralarch is a delightful story in which both Black Widow and Hawkeye have the hots for Bruce Banner, and keep “accidentally” running into him all over the world. Spoiler: they get it on.

watch them rolling back by napricot is an emotionally satisfying sequel to Avengers: Infinity War.

I re-read Ghosts by torch, a classic Krycek/Mulder X-Files story from the 1990s, in which it rains a lot, and there is sleeping in the same bed and wearing each other’s clothes. It’s still redolent of the 1990s and that period of fandom for me, and still a classic so far as I’m concerned.

My April Reading Log

Fiction:
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.

Nonfiction:
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.

Comics:
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.

Fanfiction:
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.

My WisCon 2018 Schedule

Here’s my updated Wiscon schedule.

Friday, 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm, Conference 2
“Caveman Issues: Evolution Narratives in SciFi”
Victoria Janssen [moderator], Seth Frost, Lesley Hall, Anonymous
Scifi loves to play with evolution, from de-evolution machines and “beer bad, tree pretty” to cavemen who miraculously wake up in the present day and have to sell insurance for some reason. What do these [totally incorrect] stories tell us about what is intrinsic to humanity? Which gender and race narratives about human evolutionary history do they reinforce? What might it actually mean to meet a Neanderthal?

Saturday, 10:00 am – 11:15 am, Capitol B
“Fantasy Worldbuilding in Comics”
Aaron Kashtan [moderator], Dylan Edwards, Victoria Janssen, Jennifer Margret Smith
Marjorie Liu/Sana Takeda’s Monstress and Kelly Sue Deconnick/Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly set their stories in complex fantasy worlds outside of the more common superhero-based canon. How is worldbuilding for comics different from worldbuilding for prose fiction? And what does that mean for the reader? We’ll discuss the perks and challenges of fantasy worldbuilding in comics.

Saturday, 10:30 pm – 11:45 pm, Caucus
“When An Alien and an Astronaut Love Each Other Very Much”
Heidi Waterhouse [moderator], Robyn Fleming, Victoria Janssen, Charles Payseur
From gay werewolf shifters in heat to androids in love in space, speculative fiction is fertile ground for romance. This panel will discuss the general state of spec fic in romance and romance in spec fic – and talk about the difference!

Sunday, 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm, Caucus
“Found Family”
Victoria Janssen [moderator], Maddy, Ariel Franklin-Hudson, Emily Jiang, Kiersty Lemon-Rogers, Isabel Schechter
Found family is a big theme in fiction, especially in speculative fiction. It’s also a reality for lots of us who live on the margins of society due to gender and orientation variances, disabilities, etc. What does it mean to be part of a found family? Can a found family include family members of origin or biological family members? Why are we so attracted to found family dynamics in our fiction? How is it that so many stories set in sci-fi or fantasy worlds have found families at their cores? Does isolation from the norm naturally lead to the need of forming alternative family structures? What are some of our favorite fictional found families? What do our real life found families look like? What are the connections there?

Love is in the Details: Crooked Hearts by Patricia Gaffney

I was a late convert to Patricia Gaffney’s novels. I’m not sure how that happened; back when I first became interested in romance novels, in the mid-1990s, I deliberately sought out classic novels in the genre. Perhaps in my catching up on older novels, I missed what was then current.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that I finally read To Have and To Hold (1995), one of the most-discussed romance novels ever, and was astonished by its complexity [link leads to my blog post about it]. Next, I read Wild at Heart (1997), set in Gilded Age Chicago, which entered my Keeper collection.

Crooked Hearts (originally released 1994) is one of the best romance novels whose protagonists are on the wrong side of the law. For me, criminal heroes are a hard sell. I began to wonder about how Gaffney had done it, how she had made me not only like but love two confidence tricksters, Grace and Reuben. I realized, once I started collecting and reflecting on quotes, the brilliance of her characterization.

Gaffney is specific when she tells us what the characters love about each other. Saying, for instance, “he was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen” is bland. Gaffney does this instead to show what Grace likes about Reuben:

His voice was low-pitched and intimate, like a cello playing a slow waltz… She liked his scholar’s forehead and his long beak of a nose, his romantic mouth…

It wasn’t even his good looks that caused the devastation; if anything he was too handsome, a man not to be trusted on that score alone. No, what really made him dangerous was the fatal thread of sincerity that wove through his effortless charm, smooth as snake oil.

Reuben’s thoughts about Grace are equally appealing. I particularly love how he mingles thoughts of “traditional” attraction to her waist, hips, and breasts with attraction to her unique characteristics.

…slim, womanly hips, a minute waist he could probably get his hands around, and breasts—big palmfuls at odds with the smallness of the rest of her, proud and perky as a couple of high-nosed thoroughbreds in the winner’s circle. He even knew what beat behind the luscious breasts: a larcenous heart…That’s what he liked about her: the combination of bunco artist and bleeding heart. You didn’t find that very often, especially in a woman.

Reuben notes even the tiniest details of her physicality, which makes clear how closely he’s been paying attention to her throughout the narrative.

…Her left eyetooth was slightly crooked and overlapped the neighboring incisor, a defect that gave a rakish twist to her sly smiles…In fact, he couldn’t say which of her so-called imperfections he liked better, the bumpy nose, the crooked eyetooth, or the little mole under her left ear.

Finally, I adored the way Gaffney shows Reuben falling into love with Grace. It’s not stated directly, but shown to the reader, so we can realize along with Reuben what’s wonderful about this woman, not in general, but specifically wonderful when these two people interact; and best of all, what he loves about her is integral to her character.

She wasn’t really beautiful. That too came to Reuben with a jolt, for up to now he’d believed completely in the illusion of beauty she deliberately fostered. But it was a trick. She tossed her hair, looked deeply into your eyes, smiled her suicide smile–she acted beautiful, and by sheer nerve and sleight of hand she made you believe she was. You never saw the flaws because you were too caught up in the trick, the mystique; seduced by the patter, you were watching the wrong hand. The degree of courage an act like that must require took his breath away.

If this novel isn’t art, I don’t know what is.

[This post was originally written for the Heroes and Heartbreakers blog but, in its original version, is no longer online. I make it available here, updated and edited, for posterity.]