Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless (Leningrad Diptych, #1)Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started this book in the middle of winter, read 40 pages, then left it on my nightstand for months. Once I returned to it, I very much enjoyed the read. I can always count on Valente for beautiful, stylized language and sharply-rendered characters. She also has a way of leading me on with little surprises waiting around the corners, layering in gorgeously horrible details about Leningrad during the war. I appreciated the structural motifs (the triplicate repetitions, the Russian folktale textual cues, etc), however, I couldn’t connect the thematic motifs in a way that felt satisfying. I have no doubt the threads are there, but they never coalesced as I was reading, and I ended the book feeling like I didn’t understand the point she was trying to make. Not sure if I read it at the wrong time or if I’d always feel that way about it. Rather than read this one again, or even read any eventual sequels, I’d rather read Valente’s other novels I haven’t gotten to yet.

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The Girl in the Green Silk Gown – Seanan McGuire

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown (Ghost Roads #2)The Girl in the Green Silk Gown by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Sparrow Hill Road so much I walked into a bookshop minutes after finishing it to purchase the sequel, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, which I tore through with gusto. A more traditional novel, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown did not begin life as a series of short stories later “fixed-up” into a longer work, like its predecessor. Instead, McGuire set out to tell more of road-ghost Rose’s story in long form. I relished the twists and turns of the tale, as the cat-and-mouse pursuit from book one again stands as the narrative through-line, only darker and more dangerous. Rose’s journey took her many places (a hitcher has to keep moving), echoing the episodic structure of the previous book, and delved deep into themes of trust, identity, coming of age, the burdens of power, and choices. Familiar characters populate the highways and byways of Rose’s quest, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering if she’d defeat Bobby Cross or be destroyed in the attempt, wondering who might betray her and for what price. It’s rare that I genuinely wonder if a main character will make it to the end (it’s almost always obvious they will, no matter how harrowing the writer thinks they’re making the story), but McGuire kept me on tenterhooks and I love her for it.

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Sparrow Hill Road – Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill RoadSparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I orbited Sparrow Hill Road for years before finally reading it when I got a free copy in my swag bag at the 2018 World Fantasy Convention. It was worth the wait, and I loved it as much as I hoped I would. I love linked short stories, and this book introduced me to the term “fix-up,” coined by sci-fi writer A.E. van Vogt in the 1950s to describe the trick of linking up previously-written short pieces into a novel with some tweaks and/or the addition of new material to create transitions. I had not read any of the short pieces that comprised Sparrow Hill Road on their own, and I thought it worked really well as an episodic novel. The main character – a hitchhiking road ghost named Rose – and her through-line story – a cat-and-mouse game with the man who killed her – lent themselves well to the format. Also, McGuire has a way of making things work, seemingly through sheer charisma but really because she has a deep understanding of what makes stories approachable and structurally sturdy. I don’t read her for fancy language or post-modern stylistics. She delivers strong character voice and good plain fun every time.

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Deep Roots (The Innsmouth Legacy, #2) – Ruthanna Emrys

Deep Roots (The Innsmouth Legacy, #2)Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Winter Tide, and I looked forward to Deep Roots, looked forward to again following a quiet, contemplative protagonist as she searched for survivors of her people to rebuild her community. As much as I love thrillers and adventure stories, I also like taking a break with a character who is cerebral and relationship-focused, a thinker like me.

Winter Tide’s search for information in the midst of paranoia and mistrust was like reading a John Le Carre spy novel, slow but satisfying. Unfortunately, Deep Roots didn’t satisfy me in the same way. Emrys tried to use the same techniques again, but that, ultimately, was the problem. That ground had been trod. Deep Roots needed to be a different kind of story. It had all the elements of a more old-school pulp sci-fi action story (aliens, G-men, everyday folks caught in the middle!), but it didn’t come together that way. I wanted this book to be a blend of an action-thriller and a cerebral exploration, but it was too much thinking and not enough action.

I usually advocate for larger casts of characters in stories, but a large cast requires splitting it into smaller groups, and too many of the characters in Deep Roots are together too much of the time. I could see the work Emrys was putting in when seven or eight people were crammed in a hotel room or a van trying to have a conversation. All they did was bicker, and it was work to read it and keep everyone distinct. The first-person narrator is also too much of a constraint on the novel’s structure. We only get other points-of-view through brief, italicized journal entries. Emrys allows the conceit of the diary entry to fall away as she writes these scenes, and I wanted her to take it further and allow the first-person narrative to be disrupted by third-person chapters that follow these other characters. I was excited to follow Caleb and Deedee into their own investigation, and instead that fizzled out. Switching between first- and third-person narration is a workable model, and in this story would have allowed us to follow other characters and know things Aphra doesn’t. It would have made the story feel less claustrophobic.

These characters also talk everything to death. They keep talking about paranoia, but it feels like anxiety as the talk their way in circles about the Outer One’s motivations and philosophies and the rights of everyone to do what they want, but what about The Consequences. I didn’t care about the consequences anyone would suffer in this book. I didn’t care if they convinced Freddy to move to Innsmouth to help them reclaim and rescue the land. I didn’t care if Nekko went traveling with the Outer Ones. I knew Aphra wouldn’t suffer any permanent damage from the Outer One’s technology because she’s the protagonist and she’s suffered enough, and I knew Emrys wasn’t going to permanently disable her any more. The only exciting rescue of consequence in the story was when they went to save Spector. I just wanted them all to take more action instead of analyzing everything into a state of stupor. A car chase, fist-fight, or on-page kidnapping would have added some zing. Aphra kept thinking, “we’re running out of time,” but I felt no sense of urgency from eighty percent of the text.

Aphra spends almost the entire book in a state of exhaustion, wringing her mental or physical hands about what’s happening around her and the mistakes she’s making. I was exhausted reading this book. I almost abandoned it several times, and I skimmed the last hundred pages, pushing myself to finish because I’m a completionist and got really stubborn about it. But I didn’t enjoy it, and that makes me sad because I genuinely wanted to.

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The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” so I was very excited to see a novel about Elma’s earlier life. I nearly bought a copy of The Calculating Stars three times while circling the bookshop at Readercon but passed on it to purchase American Hippo instead (absolutely no regrets; you can read my review of how much I enjoyed American Hippo here).

I also wasn’t impressed by the quality of the materials used in the trade paperback hard copy. The cover curled and the paper felt cheap. The $18 cover price seemed too high. I know the higher price offsets the direct-to-paperback loss of hardcover sales, but I don’t like to buy chintzy books because I tend to keep them for a long time. So, when The Calculating Stars went on sale for Kindle for $2.99, I purchased immediately.

I was not disappointed by this book- it was fabulous. A League of Their Own meets Hidden Figures, The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of the 1950s and 60s space race in a time of accelerated global warming that necessitates off-world colonization, with a large and diverse cast of smart women all based on real historical people, fighting their way to the role of astronauts. In the real history of NASA’s voyages to the stars, women got men into space. Women were the mathematicians (called computers) behind the trajectories and engineering of space shuttles and lunar modules, doing the calculations by hand that early electronic computers were too slow and unreliable to do. Women also flew just about every kind of plane all over the place during WWII in the WASP program. Like women in the military today, the story that gets told is that these women didn’t go into combat, so it was never dangerous or difficult, but then and now, that’s a lot of bullshit.

Elma is a former WASP and a computer, a Doctor of Mathematics, married to a rocket engineer who is supportive and acknowledges her intelligence, talents, and ambitions. She has anxiety and struggles with whether or not to take medication and what people might think if they knew. She likes her work as a computer, but desperately wants to go to space, to the moon, to Mars. Elma is such a well-crafted character. In a brief description she sounds too perfect: smart accomplished woman with perfect marriage has one tragic flaw to overcome on her way to destroying the patriarchy and achieving her dreams! But she’s so much more complex than that, with little nuances and asides. She loses most of her family, constantly forgets about and then is reminded of her white privilege as the women of color around her suffer from racism, struggles with the lingering effects of being a girl and then a woman who moves through life outshining men and is bullied and traumatized to boost fragile male egos. She’s also Jewish, and grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust and the loss of her own family line among thousands of lost Jewish families. This story may be alternate history, but it is very grounded in its time and place. Elma does not destroy the patriarchy on her way to achieving her dreams. She eats a lot of shit, grits her teeth and smiles through it, because she knows she is building a better future.

The focus on global warming and society’s attitude toward it, is very timely. Sadly, so is the racism and sexism. Decades of advancement, and we haven’t come as far as Elma would hope. I’m looking forward to escaping into the world of the sequel, The Fated Sky, to spend some time in a hopeful fantasy of a better tomorrow.

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Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2 – Kathe Koja (ed.)

Year's Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2 by Kathe Koja

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I tried reading Kathe Koja’s novel Under the Poppy and couldn’t get into it, which was disappointing, since she’s billed as such a stylist. I had expected to love her work.

Although I failed to connect with that particular novel, I found my common sensibilities with Koja in this anthology, her selection of the best weird fiction from 2014. She has an ear for language that resonates with mine. I liked almost love every story in this anthology, and appreciated the gorgeous writing even if the story didn’t grab and shake me.

My standouts were K. M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under,” Kima Jones’s “Nine,” Sunny Moraine’s “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow,” and Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears,” which I read upon its first publication by Tor.com, and was more than happy to revisit. I’m excited to find more work from K. M. Ferebee – I’ve been thinking about that story for weeks.

Upon further research, I seem to have read two of Koja’s short stories, in the anthologies The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest and Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: an Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy, but have no distinct recollection of either story or what I thought about them, except that I enjoyed both anthologies. Both are still on my shelf, so I may revisit her stories. Then again, perhaps I should leave well enough alone; I would hate to go back and discover that I didn’t like them.

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American Hippo – Sarah Gailey

American Hippo (River of Teeth, #1-2)American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OMG, HIPPOS.

Although it’s set in the deep south, the novellas and stories compiled into American Hippo are unapologetically Western. Gailey’s delightful alternate-history swamp-romp on hippo-back is a caper and an operation chock full of double-crosses, revenge, kidnapping, explosions, and romance. And hippos. Lots and lots of hippos.

After the hippos (and the human characters, they’re pretty great, too), what I appreciate most about Gailey’s storytelling is that it is character-driven, and she’s not self-indulgent with her world-building. We’re not led on unnecessary side-quests so the author can showcase all the pages and pages of elaborate thinking she did about the world she created. The story moves swiftly from act to act, drama to drama. Gailey accomplishes all the worldbuilding we need in a few paragraphs, a doling-out of select details, and a reliance on the reader to bring a cultural awareness of the genre to the table. I’ve been exposed to enough Westerns and Mark-Twain riverboat iconography that I don’t need those things described to me. And if another reader doesn’t have that exposure, it’s still not necessary to understand and enjoy the story, because the point is the characters and the story, not the boats and buildings that make up the setting. The unique element of the story is the hippos, and they are characters in their own right, rather than accessories, each a unique personality and companion to their human riders (or feral monsters providing gruesome Jaws-style horror).

After I finished reading American Hippo (such a great way to kick off 2019!), I found an essay Gailey wrote for Tor.com confessing her anxiety about her sparse worldbuilding in the face of the extreme worldbuilding some authors find satisfying and enjoyable but others find intense and overwhelming, and the fun she had making the map that appears on the inside covers of the book. I think she has nothing to worry about. I am on board for more hippos, or whoever and whatever else she wants to write about.

I hope its hippos, though. More hippos, please.

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