#REVIEW: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin

This will be a straightforward review, I think, as this really is one of those books where once I describe the premise you’re going to know right away whether you want to read it, and you will very likely be right: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is about a Chinese cowboy (I have seen the word “assassin” used to describe him, but that’s not precisely correct, at least the way I define assassin) in the antebellum Old West; the book takes place mostly in Nevada and California, neither of which are states yet. It’s a revenge story; Ming Tsu has some men he needs to kill, who have wronged him, and … honestly, if you feel like you know how the book is going to go from those few sentences, you’re probably right. There’s a slight supernatural turn that you might not expect; Tsu spends most of the book in the company of a prophet who can predict the future along with a handful of other miraculous individuals with unusual abilities, but the supernatural doesn’t really play as strong a role as you might think.

This is not a surprising book, and while it definitely gets some points for originality because of its Chinese main character– not exactly a common thing in Westerns– you’re going to have a pretty good idea how it’s going to go. No, this is a good book not because it’s breaking new ground but because it does what it does really really well, so if you’re the person who thinks you’re going to enjoy a book about a Chinese cowboy on a revenge-based murder spree, you’re not going to do much better than this book.

Not my longest book piece, I know, but sometimes they don’t have to be.

#REVIEW: Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder

I bought Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch for one reason and one reason only: the author is from Iowa. I mean, I had the idea that I would like it, but I don’t even remember where I discovered the book. As I get closer to the end of this current reading project, I’m getting to states where I made it to September without accidentally reading a book from there, so my standards are dropping somewhat for what I’ll order.

That sounds like I’m about to start panning the book. I’m not; I actually put it on my shortlist for my best books of the year list, but … I do not know what to say about this one. See that quote on the cover describing the book as a “feral, unholy marriage of Tillie Olsen and Kafka”? After reading about a third of the book, and before I noticed that quote, I described the book to my wife as the book Kafka would write if he had been a suburban Midwestern housewife. By the end of the book, I’d actually ordered a new copy of Metamorphosis, which I’m going to read after the book I’m reading now. I don’t actually know Tillie Olsen’s name, so I can’t comment on that part, but this is a deeply weird book, and it’ll be interesting to see where my opinion of it ends up shaking out after a couple of months to marinate on it.

The story: the main character is a mother of a toddler, I believe around two years old. She used to be an artist but since having her baby has ceased to make art. Her husband is an engineer who travels for work and he is away most of the time, so she’s at home with the child, who she must clothe, feed, entertain, and worst of all, put to bed every night.

She hates it.

And then she turns into a dog.

This is not a joke.

The character is never actually named. She is The Mother for the first third of the book or so, and after the transformation she thinks of herself as Nightbitch for the rest of the book. It sounds like a superhero name; it’s not. She turns into a dog, abandons her child for a while, runs roughshod across her neighborhood, taking great joy in taking a “colossal shit” in her neighbor’s yard, and kills a couple of things. Then she goes back home and eventually reverts to her human self … at least mostly.

Nightbitch’s doggy nature continues to assert itself in odd ways throughout the rest of the book, particularly when she convinces her son to “play doggy” as well, and does things like feeding him small bits of raw meat and finally solving the bedtime problem by convincing him to sleep in a kennel, which actually comes off as more reasonable than you might suspect just given that description. And while it might sound like there are bits of levity in there, and there are, from time to time, this is really a book about rage and feeling trapped, and there are moments of genuinely shocking violence sprinkled throughout the text.

And the thing is, I can’t tell if the book is horrifying or just insufferable, and it’s entirely possible that it’s both. Like, this woman really is convinced she lives the worst of all available lives, and … well, I’ve had a toddler, although I will grant that I never had to be alone with him for a week at a time much less every week, but I have to feel like there are worse ways to live than being trapped with a toddler and feeling unsatisfied in your career. Maybe that makes me a bad feminist, I’m not sure. But if I had to compare it to a book other than Metamorphosis, it would be The Catcher in the Rye, which might immediately clue some of you in as to why people might find the book insufferable. The tone of the writing even evokes (quite possibly intentionally) Holden Caulfield’s disaffected, alienated tone, to the point where when I read a paragraph to my wife she asked if it had been written in English or if I was reading it in translation. I dunno; I’m inclined to think the book is a bit of a triumph, but I need to sit with it a while and maybe talk it over with some other people who have read it. Maybe you should be one of those people? Let me know if you read it.

REPOST: #REVIEW: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

Author’s Note: I got an early copy of this book, and I wrote this back in April. The book is out this week after a slight release date slip; I got my copy today, so I’m reposting the review.

First, the obligatory “My God, LOOK AT THAT COVER” moment.  Go ahead, take a few, they’re free.

DISCLAIMER! Cassandra Khaw’s new novel The All-Consuming World does not actually come out until August 21. I found out that copies of this and her other upcoming book were available through Netgalley the other day and jumped, immediately, and got lucky, and then rearranged my reading schedule so I could get to it as quickly as I could. I have read three previous works by Cass Khaw, including her Hammers on Bone, which was #3 on my Top 10 list for 2016. I think that The All-Consuming World is her first novel; it’s definitely the first novel-length work of hers that I’ve read. 

I’ll not bury the lede: my favorite thing about Cassandra Khaw is not her characters or her stories, but her writing. Of all the writers I currently consider myself a fan of, and there are dozens of them, she is the one whose writing abilities I would most like to completely absorb and use for my own dastardly purposes. Her writing is gritty and visceral and verbose in a way that is perfect for either Lovecraftian body horror or what we used to call cyberpunk, and All-Consuming World has elements of both, and my God was this book a joy to read. 

Now, that’s kind of a problem as a reviewer, because it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to dislike anything Khaw writes because what she’s writing about is almost irrelevant to me. I’d read a recipe book cover-to-cover if Cass Khaw wrote it. But precisely because she is so stylized an author, I can easily imagine my opposite as a reader out there; I’ll read anything she writes because of how much I like her writing, but there are going to be people out there who are going to bounce off of her style, hard. Toss in the legitimate body horror elements (one character keeps a gun in her ribcage for part of the story) and the fact that the word “fuck” is at least a quarter of one particular character’s dialogue and this becomes a “not for everybody” book. But for me? My god, smear it on my face.

Right, the plot. As if that matters. Here’s the blurb, it’s as good as anything:

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade… but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir. The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. 

And, like, okay, that’s what it’s about, I guess? But this book is more about how it tells its story than the story it tells. The description leaves out that all of the members of the team are at least nominally women (one of them is nonbinary in a way that is either immensely sloppy or really interesting, because I could not figure out what the deal with … that person’s pronouns was at any point in the story*) and most of them are immortal and several of them die during the book and that’s not a spoiler because it’s also not a problem. I think Maya alone goes down at least three times. I think one of them is technically dead for the entire book? Maybe two? No more than two characters are dead for the entire book.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying.  Pre-order this book and read it immediately when it comes out. If you like good things you will like it.

*The character is sometimes he and sometimes she, and will bounce back and forth between both sometimes in a single paragraph, and I either missed the explanation or just couldn’t figure out what the rules were.

#REVIEW: Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee

Obligatory “look at that cover” moment: LOOK at that COVER.

I think the most effective tl;dr I can produce for this review is that I started Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant while drinking my morning coffee today and it is 6:31 PM and I have finished it. It ain’t like it’s a huge doorstopper of a book, but at 343 pages it’s not exactly a novella either. Lee’s work is proving impressively versatile; his Machineries of Empire series is absurdly complicated adult science fiction where all the weapons are based on advanced mathematics, his book Dragon Pearl is middle-grade, and Phoenix Extravagant hits somewhere in the middle; it feels more like fantasy than the rest of his books, although there’s a mechanical dragon at the center of the story and there are definitely silkpunk (is it still silkpunk if it’s inspired by Korea and not Japan?) tendencies throughout.

At any rate, it’s really goddamned good, and it’s quite a bit more accessible than the Machineries series, so it’s easier to recommend to people who aren’t sci-fi nerds in their bones like some of us. It’s also, since I’ve been talking about this a fair amount lately, one of the better books featuring a nonbinary main character that I’ve seen lately. Lee’s Hwaguk culture openly accepts nonbinary as a third orientation, and Jebi, the main character, uses they/them pronouns throughout, but it’s made clear how the nonbinary (there’s a word for them, but it’s slipped my mind and it’s not used a ton of times so I’m not going to go looking) characters are identified as such by other people, and Lee also doesn’t play the game where you never describe your nonbinary character so that your audience can’t get a fix on them. There are enough clues sprinkled throughout that if you really need to know what Jebi’s genitals are you’ll have a decent guess by the end of the book, and it’s clear that nonbinary individuals do play a role in society and their nonbinariness, for lack of a better word, actually means something.

Right, the plot: Jebi is an artist living in Hwaguk, a peninsula nation that has been invaded and taken over by the neighboring Razanei. There is a third large country to the north of Hwaguk that doesn’t play much of a role in the story, and then there is the looming threat of invasion by the “Westerners.” This is not, in other words, the most subtle second-world fiction out there; Hwaguk is Korea, the Razanei are Japan, and the third country is China. Jebi’s older sister, who raised them, opposes the Razanei invaders, and she actually throws Jebi out of her house for being a collaborator early in the book when they try to get a sort of court artist position with the Razanei. Eventually the book ends up being a story of subterfuge and revolution, as Jebi more or less gets press-ganged into a job in the Razanei Armor division, using their skills to paint sigils that help the Razanei control their automatons– shades here of Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars series.

Along the way, there’s the aforementioned dragon, and … well, Jebi doesn’t quite do what they’re expected to do with the dragon’s sigils, and the book doesn’t end promising a sequel, but it does end in a literal place I want to know a lot more about, so I’ll be quite disappointed if we don’t end up seeing more of this world. We’re getting close enough to the end of the year by now that the outlines of my Best Books post are starting to come into visibility, and I’d be surprised were this book not to be on there somewhere. Definitely check it out.

#REVIEW: Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

As of this precise moment, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra represents the biggest triumph of this “Read Around the World” project I’m doing. The authors are Ukrainian, and there is simply no way I would have encountered this book were I not specifically looking for books from Eastern European authors. Honestly, I don’t have high standards for ordering these books right now– I pick a blank spot on the map, search for authors and look for something that looks vaguely up my alley thematically, and hit the order button.

If you look at the Amazon listing for this book, you’ll see the words “Harry Potter” a lot. I was considering beginning this piece with the suggestion that anyone who suggested that this book and the Harry Potter series had something in common ought to be slapped, and then I discovered a Goodreads review that called it “Harry Potter, but written by Kafka,” and … well, that’s not bad.

(Also, that top review on Amazon is batshit insane.)

The book is about a young person– college-aged, though, not an adolescent like Harry is at the start of the story– who goes to a school, and the school is not normal. That’s the entirety of the similarities to Harry Potter, and it ain’t much, and another person I might add to the literary ancestry of this book is H.P. Lovecraft– not because of monsters, or anything like that, but because the entire book is about the idea that there exists a secret and unknowable universe beyond what human beings are able to perceive, and that attempting to contact that universe will inevitably drive you completely insane.

And, well, the book follows a single student through three years of her university education at a school of something called “Special Technologies,” and — very, very minor spoiler here– at the end she takes something called a “placement exam,” and the book fucking ends right there, because the authors have been very clear throughout that the knowledge Sasha and her classmates are accessing is alien and terrible, and she enters that realm fully at the end of the book, at which point they really can’t represent what’s happening to her in words anymore, so I guess the book is over. Like, you’d think telling you the ending would count as a major spoiler, but it really doesn’t, because much like Sasha herself you just have no idea what the hell is coming here, and knowing where you’re going to end up just doesn’t matter all that much.

It’s fucking amazing.

It’s also super, super Russian; like, you could strip all of the names and places out of the book and replace them with something more generic and I absolutely promise you that I could tell you this book was from the Eastern bloc. I need to see how much other translated work these folks have (preferably translated by the same person; Julia Meitov Hersey did a great job) and pick up another couple of titles. This is 100% not a book for everybody; I can’t imagine the notion of (sigh) Harry Potter filtered through Kafka and Lovecraft and then translated from Ukrainian (I’m not actually sure if it was written in Ukrainian or Russian, for the record) is going to appeal to everyone, but if that raises an eyebrow, and if the notion of a book that is really and genuinely about a college student studying impossible subjects that make her go crazy appeals to you, well, I strongly recommend you give it a look.

Also, we should be friends. Seriously.