Intellectus Speculativus

Home » 2019 » September

Monthly Archives: September 2019

Books Read, Early September

Orange World by Karen Russell
A collection of longer short stories that take on ordinary themes through strange, and estranging, lenses; whether climate change and family through echolocation, or maternity through pacts with the (a?) devil, or depression through tornado farming, Russell uses estrangement to tell moving and very human stories about the everyday. The variety of themes and approaches to the weird and to different aspects of humanity is revealing and beautifully executed. I need to seek out more of Russell’s fiction: if it’s all like this, I’ve clearly been missing out!

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler
Read for LGBT+ Book Group. A good story (memoir) poorly told: while Fowler’s coming out, her canal expeditions, and her nature knowledge are all fascinating individually, the way they’re combined in this volume feels a little messy. Each detracts from the others, bouncing around and feeling a little disjointed. There’s also no sense of time; it’s unmoored from chronology, with no real idea how long anything takes, or how much time passes between different things: it’s only at the end in the conclusion that the total time becomes clear. Still probably worth reading, but it would have been better either restructured or as two different books: coming to this as either memoir or nature writing, the reader will likely leave disappointed.

The Princess Who Flew With Dragons by Stephanie Burgis
The third part of Burgis’ series that began with The Dragon With the Chocolate Heart, The Princess Who Flew With Dragons is very much in line with the earlier books; a light and gentle children’s story with a big heart and a message about family, belonging, selfhood, and coming into one’s own strengths. This one gets a little deeper into philosophical territory than earlier volumes, and fails to fully engage with that territory – it edges into questioning the nature and use of power, but dips away before ever really doing so, and falls down in its treatment of the kobolds – but it might make children want to know more about ideas around power, and that can only be good. All in all, another rather lovely installment in the series.

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Valdes’ debut novel is, unashamedly, openly, and with a lot of jokes, a good, fun Mass Effect fanfic, with elements from another couple of videogames thrown in for good measure, drawing on the relationship drama, worldbuilding, humour, and some of the ideas from the first two Mass Effect games. That’s far from a criticism: those games are excellent at dealing with character, and their main plots work well, and Valdes doubles down on both those elements, with a diverse, human cast (including the aliens), and a plot that deals with some big questions in a fun and enjoyable way while never losing sight of the essential goal of entertainment. The book has a really strong interest especially in family, found and natal, and has interesting things to say about both of them. It isn’t the most serious science fiction on the market, but it is probably the most fun. NOTE: I read this as an ARC, received as a gift from the author, who is a friend.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
The first of the Detective Club stories is quite an interesting creature; obviously in the tradition of both Dorothy Sayers (though its characters want to think it’s more Sherlock) and of Enid Blyton, it has that very upper class sensibility of both authors, and the first half is rather a slow affair. That suggests a far more frustrating read than is actually the case, though; Stevens goes out of her way to deconstruct and actually engage with a number of the tropes of Blytonesque boarding school novels, as well as the racism and specifically Orientalism of 1930s Britain and the treatment of intelligence in the British upper classes and educational system. It’s also a subtly queer novel (bisexual characters! even if one is dead), and the mystery is satisfyingly resolving, matching all the clues while also – for this reader at least – coming straight out of left field. Well executed, and I’ll need to look out the sequel soon…

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
The working title of this novel, discussed in Chabon’s afterword, is entirely accurate: Jews with swords. Gentlemen of the Road isn’t high literature, or late-century naturalism, or anything like that; it’s a pure, fun, simple romp. It’s Fritz Leiber, or Robert E. Howard, or any of those other purveyors of sword and sorcery, but without the sorcery, and with a lot more Jewry. It’s not particularly clever, and a lot of the twists are very visibly telegraphed, but that’s almost the point of books like these: they’re not there to be high literature, they’re there to be good, enjoyable, simple fun, and Chabon has delivered that in spades.

Mythic Dream eds. Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Reviewed here.

The Gurkha And The Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Hossain’s novella is a fun, feisty creature; a brief punch of politics mixed with myth and folklore, wrapped around a very human core. Hossain balances the different elements very well, and the earthiness of the Lord of Tuesday blends well into a world that seems to have become removed from that earthiness. The book as a whole is something of a parable about utopia, and the costs and risks of building utopia, and how we go about it; the end is a brilliant, beautiful moment, one that makes everything that’s gone before that much more powerful and thoughtful. For all its humour and crudeness, this is a deeply intelligent little book.

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett
Reread. For the nth time. The Watch and the Witches are my two favourite strands of Discworld, and this is probably my favourite of the Witches books; like all of them, it engages with story, but in this case, it engages in a very active way, with ideas of fairytale, and creating story, and playing with story. As usual Pratchett’s characters are strong and leap off the page with a life of their own, and the book is endlessly quotable; parts of it have dated a little, but its treatment of Voodoo is, if anything, better than most mainstream contemporary portrayals. Why there’s no Witches TV adaptation in the works is beyond me, honestly… Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick, and Granny Weatherwax sparking off each other would be the best core cast in all of entertainment.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder
Ogawa’s novel is a strange, creepy, creeping book; it reminds me of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, with its strange dystopia of rules and constant surveillance, and a science fictional underpinning that is never explained, just allowed to exist. The creeping narrative in Ogawa’s book is inevitable and unsurprising – indeed, there are no twists here, it’s exactly the narrative you imagine at the start; but the execution is beautiful. The narrative within a narrative plays a fascinating counterpoint to the main narrative, and the balance between the two is achieved excellently; both are about agency and loss and control, and well written. The book’s big flaw is its beauty; it seems to be too in love with its own narrative voice and its own intricacy, especially at the start, at the expense of character or plot, although the former of those at least is addressed as the book goes on and the characters shine through.

Review: The Mythic Dream eds. Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe


Phantoms of the Midway by Seanan McGuire
McGuire’s Persephone retelling, centred on a fading American circus, is a beautiful and sweet story, that recasts its central couple as women, and Hades as not an abductor of Persephone but as the person willing to tell her the truth about herself. It’s a moving, emotional story, and one with a bite at the end; the way McGuire changes the nature of the six-month deal is absolutely brilliant, and impressively new. Talk about coming out of the gate strong!

The Justified by Ann Leckie
Leckie takes an Egyptian myth and makes it science fictional; there are traces of the same interests in power as she shows in the Raadch trilogy and in Raven Tower, but compressed, and reworked into the form of the myth, which she follows pretty faithfully – with her own twist, and a change of agency that turns the whole thing on its head in interesting ways.

Fisher-Bird by T. Kingfisher
Kingfisher’s aggressively Southern retelling of the Twelve Labours of Hercules is a fun fable, but the telling suffers from the strength of voice; the story works, and is very close to the standard Greek myths, but the Fisher-Bird is a frustrating narrator, and the story feels longer than it needs to be. If you’re a fan of this narrative mode, though, you’ll love it.

A Brief Lesson In Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is a sort of flipside to McGuire’s story, thematically; it’s about loss, and grief, and being driven to extremes by grief. It’s very well written, and the way Roanhorse extends contemporary Native concerns into the future is excellently done; the impacts of fame are well handled, and the love that makes the central character make the decisions he does is well portrayed and believably written.

Bridge of Crows by JY Yang
This is a beautifully told melancholic story; it feels similar to the videogame Journey, in its aesthetics, but its story is more revolutionary, and more pending, than that. The way Yang builds their narrative through a series of sacrifices and the results of those is expected, but the conclusion to the story is less neat than we might usually expect; instead, it is left open, in a very intentional and interesting narrative choice.

Labbatu Takes Command of the Flagship Heaven Dwells Within by Arkady Martine
If you’ve read A Memory Called Empire, you have some idea what to expect here; playing with history, narrative, and different forms, to give different perspectives on a singular set of events, reset into space, and without clear answers or truths in many cases. It’s a very effective display of Martine’s talents, and feels like there are many more stories in this world at its corners waiting to be told.

Wild To Covet by Sarah Gailey
Gailey’s rural resetting of the Thetis myth didn’t work as successfully as McGuire’s; while powerful, it felt like it moved a certain amount of intentionality onto Thetis, and a degree of cruelty towards her child, while also absolving the men around her of responsibility, in some key ways. The story is inevitably beautifully written and the end cruel and right, but as a whole it left a sour taste in my mouth.

¡Cuidado! ¡Que Viene El Coco! By Carlos Hernandez
Hernandez’ story feels a little sickly sweet; which is surprising, given the darkness of what it is dealing with. It’s well-accomplished, and the science fictional elements are small but well-presented in a way that is very effective, but at the same time, the end feels rather too neat and simple, and excessively wholesome, in a rather frustrating way. In a volume of children’s stories, it might have fit; here, it felt out of place.

He Fell Howling by Stephen Graham Jones
This was a rather uninteresting werewolf origin story; the twist at the end is mildly interesting and plays with the Lycaon myth, but fundamentally, it’s a horror story that isn’t particularly doing anything new in the genre it’s playing in. Well written but unoriginal.

Curses Like Words, Like Feathers, Like Stories by Kat Howard
Howard’s fascination with stories, and the power of stories, and stories as magic is one I share, and this story was, inevitably, one of my favourites in the volume; it’s a beautiful and simple story, that mixes its frame narrative with its internal narrative, and splits and moves across timelines while being completely clear. Howard’s control of the narrative strands is fantastic, and her ability to use few words to make you feel for a character is brilliant.

Across the River by Leah Cypress
Cypress’ story feels unusually melancholy for this collection; but appropriately so for much of Jewish folklore, of which this is a reworking of two different pieces. It’s well told, although at times a little pat, and the Jewishness of it is never something Cypress allows the reader to lose sight of; it’s very much engaged with a modern religious tradition, and working with that in clever ways.

Sisyphus in Elysium by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is another weak one; while the ideas in it at times are strong, fundamentally it’s all about a man finding redemption and being rewarded with a woman, and it’s not a particularly interesting version of that trope. The moments when it seems to be working against that grain are undermined by other narrative choices Ford makes, leaving us with rather of an old-fashioned story, really.

Kali_Na by Indrapramit Das
Das’ story is a story about hope in a cyberpunk future, and about community and compassion; it’s a powerful and fascinating one, engaging with modern living faith and thinking about extensions of that faith into the future, and how it might look. It’s not actively predictive, but the predictive possibilities of it lend the character at its centre ever more depth; and her choices have weight and potency to them as we see ourselves reflected in them.

Live Stream by Alyssa Wong
Wong’s Actaeon retelling opts for one of the versions of the myth in which Artemis is revenging herself on a predator; it is also a parable about GamerGate and revenge porn and harassment mobs, sadly a fact of life for women on the internet as it currently is. It’s powerful, and dark, and pulls no punches in holding up a mirror to our culture and demanding we look ourselves in the eyes; brutally brilliant. It’s also hopeful, and a discussion of female agency and power and reclamation of both those things, and Wong makes that balance and shift with grace and skill.

Close Enough for Jazz by John Chu
Chu’s story is less a retelling of a myth than playing around the neglected corners of a mythology; but it’s a fascinating piece of play. The characters and world he build feel very real, and the dilemmas involved feel all too believable; there are points when reading this was a struggle, because the issues involved hit very close to home to me as a reader. It’s a simple little story, and one whose conceits fit together excellently with the characters playing in them.

Buried Deep by Naomi Novik
The Minotaur has been retold by any number of writers, perhaps most lastingly by Mary Renault; Novik’s crack at the myth feels rather half-formed, rather than full-fledged. The attempt to have it both ways with the Minotaur and Theseus both as heroic, positive figures feels forced, and the characters feel paper-thin.

The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s story is a brief one; it feels rather slight, and like Machado was more interested in some of the specific moments of imagery she includes than anything else, but given how powerful the final images are, perhaps she earns that a little!

Florilegia; Or, Some Lies About Flowers by Amal El-Mohtar
El-Mohtar is playing, again, with Bloduewedd; but this time, her engagement feels angrier, and more grown up. The story is told with a passion and frustration about the limitations placed on Bloduewedd, and the way she is treated; and the way El-Mohtar plays with and changes the story are powerful and beautiful, and her choice of narrative beats emphasise the importance of agency to her narrative.

The Mythic Dream
As an anthology, the variety of stories is incredible, and while there is a distinct tendency towards the Greek myths (nearly half the volume), it is actually the recentring of women and the centring of queerness into these stories that emerges as the strongest theme. Some don’t quite feel like they fit the volume, in some cases because they rub against that recentring; but the overall standard is excellent, the narrative flow of the stories as a whole and the order they’re in is brilliant, and the stand-out stories (McGuire, Martine, Howard, El-Mohtar) are truly spectacular. This is apparently the last collaborative anthology between Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, and they’re going out on a real high.