In which I read The Witcher

… or, rather, I read the first two hundred pages of Blood and Elves, which I’ve come to discover is technically the third Witcher book, after two books of short stories, but is branded as the first book because it’s the first novel.

And it’s terrible. Absolutely unforgivably terrible. I went and looked at other bad reviews of it on Goodreads, and many of them seem to feel like the first two books (the short stories) were pretty good and then this one shit the bed, but that sentence with all the arrows pointed at it up there is where I decided I really was going to put this down, and then I read a few more pages anyway, and it’s just a Goddamned awful book. I’m going to lay a bit of the blame on the translator– I am willing to wager a small sum that the words she translated as “bite your own backside in fury” are a Polish proverb expressing angry frustration, but if that’s the case it should never have been translated literally. As a guy with a couple of degrees in Biblical studies I take translation pretty seriously, and there is no good reason to ever translate a proverb literally when you’re translating for a different culture. But it wasn’t the translator who wrote the endless conversations where characters explain things to each other that they already know, or the utter disgrace to women everywhere that is Triss Merigold’s character, or who decided to write two hundred pages about a guy called a Witcher where he does no Witching of any kind.

Seriously, the dude’s supposed to be a monster hunter. There is none of that in this book, or at least not in the first half. It’s dreadfully boring. And I was dumb enough to jump straight to the box set of the first three novels, so I not only have this thing sitting on my shelf now but two other books that I have no intention of reading. Bah.


And so long as we’re talking about works read in translation, the book before dipping into the world of the Witcher was Jin Yong’s A Hero Born, which is the first book of a massively successful series in China that has only recently been translated into English. This is one of those books that I ordered because I got flooded with people talking about it in a short period of time, and the phrase “Chinese Lord of the Rings” kept coming up.

I don’t know what the Chinese Lord of the Rings might be, but it is not Legends of the Condor Heroes. To be honest, having read it, I cannot for the life of me imagine what the hell possessed anyone to compare those two books to each other, other than the knowledge that it would get my specific subtype of nerd to order a copy. They were both initially published in the fifties. That’s all I’ve got. What A Hero Born is is a perfectly serviceable wuxia novel, or in other words a book set in ancient China that is all about powerful martial artists going around and doing things.

What things are they doing? Hard to say, because rather than describe the action most of the time Jin Yong just names the move and either expects you to know what that is (which I can’t believe is actually the case, but I suppose might be) or expects you to fill in the details yourself. In other words, you might have one character attack another with a Rooster Masturbates the Moose move and have that move be countered with an Insipid Charlatan, but the variant from the Batman Eats a Blueberry Crepe school of kung fu, not the normal one.

What’s that mean? Hell if I know. And clearly this works in China, and I didn’t hate the book by any means, but it was sort of a slog.

So, yeah. So far, not regretting writing my Best Books of the Year post with a couple of days left in the year.

In which I watched The Witcher

When did I watch it? Wecently.

Shut up I get to have my fun.

I’m coming at this show from sort of a weird angle: I had not read any of the source material (but I ordered three of the novels after watching, and am about a fourth of the way through the first one right now) and I have played one of the three video games and didn’t like it very much. So it’s kind of difficult for me to explain why I jumped at watching the show, particularly since I’ve never really been a fan of Henry Cavill either.

tl;dr you should probably watch this if you’re into This Sort of Thing, but don’t pay for a Netflix account for it or anything like that.

Good Stuff:

  • The show mostly dispenses with the rampant sexism and PoC erasure of the game, at least– I don’t recall a single use of the C-word, which is everywhere in the game, and the cast is reasonably diverse;
  • Henry Cavill is having the time of his life playing a man whose only emotion is exasperated— Geralt of Rivia is so over all of this shit, all the time, and it’s hilarious; I never thought I’d use the word “adorable” to describe Cavill but it’s entirely accurate through most of the show;
  • Anya Chalotra as Yennifer of Vengerberg also does a fantastic job in what is probably the show’s best role. Yen is a complicated, meaty role, and she digs deep into this character;
  • The majority of the smaller roles are well-acted as well. I don’t know any actor in this program outside of Cavill himself and I don’t know where they found all these folks but they’re great. Definitely worth singling out are Joey Batey’s Jaskier and Jodhi May’s Queen Calanthe, who I want to get a show all on her own;
  • Fun fact about Jaskier: this is the character who in the games and the English novels is called Dandelion. Turns out jaskier is the Polish word for “buttercup,” and the books and games made the decision to render the character’s name as a slightly less feminine-sounding yellow flower in English, but the show just stuck with Jaskier, which in English scans perfectly well as a fantasy name;
  • Netflix went all out with budget and FX; there’s a suspect mask early in the series but in general the show looks really good, and it’s well-directed across the board, with good action scenes.

The not as good stuff:

  • I’m willing to be patient with Ciri’s story while she becomes the character I know from the third game, but she basically just runs around in the woods uselessly for the entire season. She’s getting Sansa’s character arc from GoT right now without the endless, twisted speculation about when she’s going to get raped, and we’re very much in the “young and whiny and mostly pointless” phase at the moment. Hopefully this gets better quick in the next season;
  • Costuming is generally pretty good, but two exceptions are Henry Cavill’s wigs and the Nilfgaardian’s utterly ridiculous, impractical, please-stab-me armor;
  • The show follows three timelines separated by at least several decades, and wants you to figure that out rather than making it clear, and while I don’t mind TV that rewards the viewer paying attention it’s not at all obvious what the show gains from making all the time-jumping effectively a background detail. They also hurt Yen’s storyline quite a bit with this; she goes from a novice to someone who has spent three decades as a royal advisor between the earliest storyline and the middle one, and those three decades change her character quite a bit– it would have been nice to see some of it;
  • It’s possible that Cavill’s bad wigs are a timeline hint, but even if they are– I think one of them might be blonder than the others– they’re still terrible;
  • Related to the timeline issue, the show isn’t great at explaining things in general, and my wife spent most of the season asking me questions I couldn’t answer with my limited background knowledge. You’re asked to take quite a bit on faith and I think the show works much better for people with deep background knowledge, but it’s hard to say, since I don’t have it. One of the best things about GoT was the opening sequence, which effortlessly laid out the entire map and let you know where everything was without wasting show time on it. This show could have used something along those lines. At least sprinkle some maps into the background somewhere.

So, yeah: if you’re one of the ten Netflix subscribers who hasn’t checked this out yet, you should probably think about it. If you don’t have Netflix and are a big fantasy person, maybe think about it. If you’re neither, give it a pass. I’m in for Season Two and at least the first of the books, but I’m not gonna lose any sleep waiting for it either.

The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2019

It’s that time of year again— it’s in between Christmas and New Year’s, and I’m not completely in love with the book I’m reading right now and it’s gonna take at least another day to get through, so there shouldn’t be any late surprises that might cause me to want to modify this list. I read 133 books this year, and that number’s likely to grow by at least a couple more by the end of the year, and (he says, for the second year in a row) 2019 was an utterly shit year across the board except for the quality of the books I was reading. I had to go to fifteen this year, y’all. I might go back to ten again next year, we’ll see, but this year it had to be fifteen.

As always, “new” in this context means new to me, not came out this year, although I think this is the youngest batch of books I’ve had — I think the oldest book on this list is no more than four or five years old– and not that I think anyone will, but don’t get too het up about the rankings of the books past the top five, maybe; if you think #7 should be #10 or whatever chances are I’ll agree with you if I’m writing this on a different day.

Here are the last six years’ worth of lists:

15. MIDDLEGAME, by Seanan McGuire. Seanan has been making consistent appearances on this list since the beginning, and while her Into The Drowning Deep, which was #4 on my list last year, remains my favorite of her books, Middlegame is probably her best book on a technical level. It’s one of those books that it’s best to go into as blind as possible. Needless to say, there’s a hell of a lot going on here– Middlegame features alchemy, quantum entanglement physics (yes, in the same book,) time travel, parallel timelines, twins, wicked experiments, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, The Midwich Cuckoos, and a whole lot of other stuff. One of the things I’ve always liked about McGuire is that she writes fairly straightforward, entertaining stories; this book is every bit as entertaining as her previous work but the story structure is a level of magnitude more complicated than anything I’ve ever seen from her before.

14. THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read this book on the rarest of recommendations: my brother, who does not read nearly as much as I do but if he tells me he thinks I would like something it is a sign I should sit up and pay attention. You already know what the book is about; the title is not exactly subtle: this is a history of the study of genetics. Mukherjee is a hell of an author, though, and he takes what could be a very dry and complicated subject and makes it clean and accessible. His book The Emperor of All Maladies, which is a history of cancer, got ordered right after I finished this, and frankly has been sitting on the shelf for too long waiting for me to get to it. If you’re a science person, you probably ought to check this out, and even if you’re not a science person it never hurts to learn anything new. Well worth the time.

13. THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015, by P. Djèlí Clark. This is the second of P. Djèlí Clark’s novellas I’ve read, after his The Black God’s Drums in 2018, and it just blows my mind how solid Tor’s novella line has been since the beginning. I don’t have the money to read all of them, but it’s something I’d seriously consider trying to do if I did. The novella is set in an alternate version of Cairo, where an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is called upon to exorcise a possessed tram car. So it’s a great mix of magic and mid-level technology set in a (still) Islamic culture. You will note that a ton of the books on this list got extra points for sheer inventiveness; I got a lot of enjoyment this year out of reading stuff I’ve just flat never seen in books before, and this is a great example. Read diverse books, y’all. It pays off.

12. REVENANT GUN, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one’s a bit of a rarity; it’s the third book in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and the first and second books did not make the list. How did this happen? Well, first, I accidentally bought the second book of the trilogy first. Then I tried to read the first book, which was complicated as hell, and couldn’t get through it. Then the third book came out and I randomly heard about it and, feeling bad about bailing on the series on book one when I already owned book two, tried to reread the first one, and this time it clicked and I quite happily read all three of them. At any rate, this is outer space military science fiction, only most of the technology used in the book is based on the calendar in a way that eventually makes sense but be prepared to be puzzled for a while when you’re reading it. This series is rewarding as hell but you are going to have to work for it. I just wasn’t in the right headspace the first time I checked it out.

11. THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER, by K. Arsenault Rivera. The morning after I finished reading this, I got in touch with a former student and ordered a copy of it for her. The Tiger’s Daughter is a cross-cultural lesbian love story set in a fantasy analogue of China and Mongolia, told from the perspective of one of the lovers, who is definitely a princess and may be a goddess as well. It is mostly told as an epistolary sort of novel, and the main characters are kept apart for the majority of the present-tense portion of the story. The most impressive thing about it is the ending; The Tiger’s Daughter might have the single most perfect ending of any book I read all year, and I was in tears as I finished it. There are two sequels out– I’m not sure if it’s a trilogy or if there are plans to go beyond the third book, but I’ll know soon as it shows up today. I was not as enchanted by the second book as I was the first, which is probably the reason this isn’t slightly higher on the list, but it’s still worth recommending. Tiger’s Daughter reads quite well on its own, though.

10. THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE, by Samantha Shannon. I effectively bought this book at random– I was wandering through Barnes and Noble and it jumped off the shelves and into my hands, mostly because of the interesting cover and title and the fact that it’s huge. This is a standalone fantasy novel, no sequels are planned, although I’d be happy to see them. The overall plot is a trifle on the been-there-done-that side; ancient evil awakening, world in peril, blah blah blah, but it makes up for it by involving damn near every corner of the globe in the story, an interesting and yes, fruit-based magic system, and an interesting cast of characters dominated by women and fairly heavy on The Gays as well. The plot isn’t the most original but it does some really interesting stuff within that framework and I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

9. CHASING NEW HORIZONS: INSIDE THE EPIC FIRST MISSION TO PLUTO, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon. I am, as most of you probably know, a huge astronomy nerd, and I was all kinds of excited with the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto a few years ago. This book isn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be when I bought it– I was expecting more space science, when in fact it’s really a book about politics more than anything else– an inside look at NASA during the (many) years that it took to get the New Horizons mission off the (literal) ground and out to Pluto. This isn’t a book about Pluto, it’s a book about what it took to get to Pluto, told by a couple of insiders to the entire process, and while that’s not what I wanted when I bought it I’m enough of a NASA nerd that it was a fascinating look at what it takes to get these sorts of multi-year, massively expensive projects approved and funded. If that sounds dry to you, don’t worry about it; Stern and Grinspoon are a talented couple of authors and this is an engaging read throughout.

8. THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE, by Lindsey Fitzharris. I first encountered Lindsey Fitzharris through Twitter, where she is awesome, and you should all be following her. This book almost didn’t make this list; in fact, it almost didn’t get read, as I made it through the detailed description of a bladder stone removal in the first few pages, put the book down, and walked away to cross my legs and keep them crossed for a week. I have never been gladder to be alive in the age of anesthesia and antibiotics than I was after reading this fascinating little book, and you are absolutely going to have to have a strong stomach to be able to read this– Fitzharris has a ridiculous eye for detail, only since she’s talking about hospitals and surgeries in the early days of both none of the details are anything you want to hear. The book could have been the words “It sucked” over and over again and it would have been fine, but if you have the constitution to make it through the read you’re going to enjoy the journey a lot.

7. QUEEN OF SHADOWS, by Sarah J. Maas. Consider this a stand-in for the entire Throne of Glass series, which is eight books and five thousand pages long and which I read in its entirety this year. The books themselves vary in quality somewhat, as you might expect, but the good news is that they get much stronger after the first book and continue to improve as the series continues on. Queen of Shadows was probably my favorite of the lot so it gets the actual slot here, but if you’re a fan of epic fantasy fiction you should go grab Throne of Glass and The Assassin’s Blade right now and get to readin’. Don’t be put off by having to wander into the YA section to find the books, either; I think that was a publisher mandate, not a decision Maas made, and by the third book or so it’s clear that she was being allowed to write whatever the hell she wanted without any interference.

6. THE LUMINOUS DEAD, by Caitlin Starling. So here’s how these lists work: as I read throughout the year I add books that I think might make the list to a Goodreads shelf. I don’t remove anything from that shelf over the course of the year, and then on the day I’m going to write this post I sit down and organize the books into the list. There are usually 20-30 books on the shortlist; this year there were 32. And The Luminous Dead wasn’t one of them, and I got partway through my list and realized I hadn’t shortlisted it at the time, and went wow, forget that and put it onto the list. There is, obviously, an element of how well the book stays in my head in addition to how much I initially liked it, and … well, man, did Luminous Dead manage to stick around. This is a book with some definite flaws to it, chief among which is that the basic premise wouldn’t make sense if the book was set today, much less set a few centuries into the future, but this is one of the most atmospheric and creepy books I read all year, and the story– an exploration of an extrasolar cave, and yes, that’s it– stayed with me to a degree that very few other things I read this year managed to do.

5. WAR GIRLS, by Tochi Onyebuchi. Nigerian science fiction is a thing, y’all, and I think I read four or five books this year at least that were either by Nigerian authors or set in Nigeria or both, and Tochi Onyebuchi’s War Girls was the best of the lot. He apparently pitched the book as “Gundam in Nigeria,” which is accurate in the sense that the book is set in Nigeria and does in fact involve giant mechs beating the shit out of each other, but it leaves out the part where the book is also about the Nigerian civil war, and family, and Afrofuturism, and slavery, and sisterhood, and oh also cybernetics which isn’t quite as, like, serious but is damned cool. This book is listed on Amazon as being for 7th through 9th graders, which is bananapants crazytalk; I mean, I would have enjoyed it at that age, but it doesn’t feel like a YA book at all and there’s plenty of adult complexity there for older readers. I loved it.

4. WANDERERS, by Chuck Wendig. The second book on this list– well, chronologically the first I read, but whatever– that I’d describe as a massive level-up by the author, Wanderers has been described, not unfairly, as “Chuck Wending writes The Stand,” and it’s on par with that book, which is one of King’s best. Wanderers is interesting in that the world-ending plague doesn’t start to be a thing until a good chunk of the way through the book; until then, it’s a horror mystery about a group of steadily-growing group of sleepwalkers who are heading … well, somewhere, and the concerned family members and CDC people who are staying with them and trying to discover what’s wrong. It’s three times as long as anything else he’s ever written and I loved every word of it; there aren’t a lot of books on the list this year that I’d describe as horror novels, but Wendig hits this one out of the park. Even if you’ve read something by him in the past and haven’t enjoyed it, this is different enough from his previous work that you should check it out anyway.

3. ESCAPING EXODUS, by Nicky Drayden. Nicky Drayden is a madwoman, y’all, and I actually didn’t manage to finish her first book (due for a reread early next year) because of how nuts it was but I figured if I stuck with her my patience would be rewarded, and oh man was I right. Escaping Exodus is about the occupants of one ship in a fleet of living generation ships. Everything about it is endlessly fascinating, from the different subcultures within the ship to the family structures to the way the ship is maintained and kept alive (and, later in the book, the look at how other genships’ occupants have kept their ship-creatures up and running) and yet another intensely satisfying Juliet-and-Juliet, cross-class romance. I swear that I didn’t go out of my way to read gay-themed love stories this year, but I appear to have come across quite a few of them, and several of them were just great. The book is completely insane and I was completely enthralled from start to finish.

2. CHILDREN OF TIME and CHILDREN OF RUIN, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I read both of these books this year and they were both amazing, so following on the fine and previously-established tradition of “my list, my rules” we are going to honor both books with the #2 slot for 2019. The series is about a posthuman future where Earth is gone and the only human beings remaining may well be the characters in the book. Children of Time follows the entire evolutionary path of an intelligent species of Portiid spiders, and Ruin adds two more alien species to the mix along with the handful of human characters. The amazing thing here is Tchaikovsky’s amazing talent for writing what feel like genuinely alien cultures; he includes just enough Earth touchstones to give the reader something to grab ahold of and everything else is there to be puzzled out. Children of Time is an amazing enough achievement on its own; the fact that Children of Ruin is equally good is incredibly impressive.

Speaking of amazing sequels…

1. JADE WAR, by Fonda Lee. And, let’s be real here, there was never any doubt once I read it that this was going to end up the top book of the year. Not only did Jade City end up as my #1 book last year, and by a not-uncomfortable margin, but Jade War was actually better than Jade City. If Jade City was The Godfather, this was The Godfather, Part II, and it is not just the best book I read in 2019 but it is one of the best books I have ever read. I cannot overstate my affection for this series, and I will eventually be building an altar to Fonda Lee somewhere in my house and attempting to start a world religion. There’s literally an entire-ass church for sale not too far from my house and I’ve been looking for an excuse to buy it. Starting the Church of Fonda Lee seems like probably the best reason I’m going to get. This year was amazing, and this series is amazing, and this book is amazing, and if you ignore the other fourteen times I said “you need to read this” through this post you need to pay attention to it this time. If nothing else, being the first author to get two books in the #1 slot, much less in two successive years and two successive books, is pretty damned impressive.

HONORABLE MENTION, in NO REAL ORDER: ON THE COME UP, by Angie Thomas, CIRCE, by Madeline Miller, A STORM OF LOCUSTS, by Rebecca Roanhorse, THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu, BODY BROKER, by Daniel M. Ford, QUICHOTTE, by Salman Rushdie, INTERNMENT, by Samira Ahmed, FRESHWATER, by Akwaeke Emezi, THE OUTSIDE, by Ada Hoffman, THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, by John Wyndham, and THE WATER DANCER, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Merry Christmas!

Raise our hand if your wife bought your 8-year-old son what is obviously a drinking game for Christmas!

(Looks around)

Just me, eh?

Okay.

Call for author recommendations

8:45 on Christmas Eve is totally the best time to do this, right? I’m sure I’ll get tons of responses.

One of my focuses for my reading next year is going to be on books by women of color. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to set it up; a percentage of my overall books is a possibility, as is simply setting a raw number of books that I want to read– I’m tempted to say 52, a book a week, but that’s going to mean a pretty good number of new authors.

Anyway, I need y’all to give me some names of authors to read. My rather considerable booklist on Goodreads is here, and I’m not exactly coming at this from a place of complete ignorance (you can leave out Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin, to start) but there have got to be lots of women of color out there that I don’t know about and I want to know about them. I generally prefer speculative fiction, as you probably already know, but any genre, fiction or nonfiction, is just fine. Recommend some books!

(Also: if you know of authors of color who identify as nonbinary, or genderfluid, or basically anything other than male, go ahead and toss their names in here. So JY Yang, who was AFAB but currently identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, counts, but Yoon Ha Lee, a trans man, does not. If you’re not sure if someone counts go ahead and tell me about them and I’ll sort it out myself later.)