#REVIEW: THE BOOK OF M, by Peng Shepherd

I think I’ll start with the tl;dr on this book: much like a book called The Luminous Dead that I read last year, which ended up on my best-of-year list at the end of the year despite having a fair number of flaws, my ultimate feelings about Peng Shepherd’s debut novel The Book of M are going to depend on how well the book continues to live in my head now that I’ve finished it. I read the book in a day, which is always a good sign– anything I’m reluctant to put down is usually going to be something I’m going to recommend to people– but … there are some issues here, y’all, and it remains to be seen whether three months from now I remember the cool stuff or I remember the issues.

Also, it might not have been the greatest decision I’ve ever made to read a book about the end of the world while I’m literally stuck in my house during a pandemic. I’ve made better choices, is what I’m saying. And depending on your own situation right now even if you do decide to read this you might reasonably decide to hold off for a little bit. It’s OK, the book will still be there.

Anyway.

(Takes a moment to cough himself into near-unconsciousness)

Right.

So the premise of this book: human beings, through means never particularly dwelled upon or explored, have begun losing their shadows. In and of itself, losing one’s shadow is disconcerting but not especially threatening; however, it turns out that losing your shadow is also a precursor to losing your memory, which is a bit more of a problem. Furthermore, it turns out that occasionally as people’s memories disappear and they begin misremembering things, every so often the entire world just sorta reshapes itself to fit what they think they remember instead of the way things used to be, leading to all sorts of crazy havoc, from houses suddenly losing their doors and windows to entire population centers disappearing overnight. The book follows four main characters: a married couple, one of whose shadows disappears at the beginning of the book, an Iranian Olympic-level archer (roll with it,) and a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury just before the events of the book get rolling and suffers from amnesia, but not the same way everyone else does.

There’s a lot going on.

Here’s the good stuff: Peng Shepherd does good words. The writing is compelling throughout and there’s a palpable sense of dread and horror that permeates the entire book; it genuinely was difficult to put down, and again: it’s nearly 500 pages long and I finished the thing in a day. And, like, okay, I just dealt with “the good stuff” in two sentences, but this isn’t nothing, right? It’s a compelling-ass read. I barely stopped reading it once I stopped. That’s worth a recommend. Oh, and there’s a thing at the end that will knock you out of your seat if you’re not prepared for it. I had an inkling, but the book ends well.

That said, uh, there are some issues with … let’s say worldbuilding and narrative consistency, and the occasional real-world logic problem? And I’ll admit part of this may be me missing stuff here and there, as Shepherd can tend toward the elliptical every once in a while. But there are a fair number of places where there don’t seem to be any rules about how or why this whole memory-loss thing is happening other than pure narrative convenience, and the “sometimes folks misremember things and they become real” bit sounds cool but in practice it literally leads to the Statue of Liberty quietly coming to life and then, less quietly, knocking over skyscrapers with that book she’s holding. And that’s not even a main plot point. It’s literally noted that it’s happening and then the characters move on from it. It’s never quite clear what ultimately happens to the shadowless; sometimes they’re presented as basically becoming so nonfunctional that they forget to eat or breathe and then they die, and other times there are huge bands of them just sort of swarming around out there causing trouble, which sort of presumes some persistence of memory somehow.

Also, there are a whole lot of times where people are able to instantly identify others as shadowed or shadowless, at distance, and I’m pretty sure at least once at night. I could lose my shadow right now and I don’t know that I would notice right away; I don’t know how you figure out that someone fifty feet away has theirs or not. A character is able to fly from Tehran to some airport near Boston after all the shit happens, and explains that the plane is able to land because everyone in the (not Boston, but nearby) place it landed was gone.

And … uh. That’s not how planes work, I don’t think? Or at least that’s not how commercial air flight works?

There’s a bit where one guy gets serious third-degree burns to both his hands, necessitating one of his fingers being amputated later, and then I’m pretty sure that Shepherd herself just forgot about it. This is one of those bits where it’s possible that I missed something, I suppose; maybe the magic ex machina fixed him somewhere, but I don’t think so. His hands are burned to shit and then they … aren’t.

So: two sentences of “good stuff” and then several paragraphs of complaining, but I still enjoyed the book and I can still very much imagine a world where I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I’m definitely keeping an eye on Shepherd in the future; I don’t know if there’s a sequel to this in the cards (I don’t think it needs one, but it’s not unimaginable) but one way or another I’m definitely buying her next book. If you think your suspension of disbelief can handle a bit of a workout, I’d think about giving this a read.

#REVIEW: THE CITY WE BECAME, by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve only been to New York once. I was living in Chicago at the time, so it was probably fourteen or fifteen years ago now, and I was only there for a few days. I went to visit a girl, and I honestly wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lot of sightseeing with the limited amount of time we had, which I think disappointed her a little bit. She lived in Battery Park City, which is on the extreme southern tip of Manhattan (you could see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from not far away from her apartment) and other than the travel needed to get to Manhattan from whatever airport I arrived in, I didn’t really see any of the other boroughs. We went to Central Park, visiting the Zoo and finding the apartment building and the church from Ghostbusters, so you can tell whose priorities were driving the few places we did visit. If I were to identify myself with a city it would still be Chicago, despite the fact that I’ve now been away from the city for longer than I lived there.

The City We Became is, in a lot of ways, Not for Me. Jemisin has described the book repeatedly as a love letter to New York City, and as someone who doesn’t know the city I don’t know that I was missing anything, necessarily, but I suspect New Yorkers will get more out of the book than I might have. Except maybe for Staten Islanders. I would love to know what people from Staten Island think of this book, actually. It will be fascinating to see if this book is greeted with the near-universal acclaim that her previous work and particularly her Broken Earth trilogy received; if you’re not familiar with her, you should be: she is the only author ever to receive the Best Novel Hugo award three years in a row, and she is, hands down, the single most important author working in science fiction and fantasy today. And this, while still certainly fantasy, is very different tonally and structurally from her previous work, to the point where I’m not entirely certain I’d have pegged it as a Jemisin book if I didn’t know she’d written it.

None of that, mind you, is a complaint. The City We Became is the first book of a new trilogy and the basic storyline is simple enough that you can cover it in a sentence: New York City comes to life (roll with it) and chooses five individuals to act as avatars of each of the five boroughs.

(Pauses to put Beastie Boys on; To the 5 Boroughs has always been my favorite of their albums.)

Anyway, the Beasties thing broke this into two sentences rather than the promised one, but: there are complications. Turns out the birth of a city is a somewhat fraught and dangerous process, and there are those who tend to oppose it when it happens. You may have heard of Atlantis, for example, which did not survive the birthing process. There are a handful of other living cities as well; the avatars of São Paulo and Hong Kong make an appearance. There’s also a hell of an Oh Shit moment at the very end when the true nature of what they’ve been calling the Enemy throughout the book is revealed; a more careful reader than me may figure it out in advance (I should have; minor spoiler: take the myriad Lovecraft references seriously) but it’s still a great moment.

This is not one to sleep on, y’all. Jemisin is a powerhouse of an author no matter what, and a project like this that she’s openly admitting is some of the most personal work she’s ever done is not something to be missed. Go pick it up.

#REVIEW: No Truth Left to Tell, by Michael McAuliffe

Initially the idea that publicity companies were sending me free books in return for reviews on this site was really cool. I like books! I have thousands of them, and I read about a hundred of them a year! But the weird thing about that is that despite the fact that I read more than almost everyone (and if you read more than me, awesome, that just means that so do you, not that I’m not accurately describing myself) the stuff that I want to read is actually fairly well-defined. I’m good at picking out stuff I’ll like, which is why my average star rating on Goodreads is so high– it’s not because I have low standards for what makes a good book, it’s that there are so many goddamn books out there that anything likely to be a three-star or less simply never gets picked up.

Unless, of course, it gets mailed to me, and unfortunately with Michael McAuliffe’s No Truth Left to Tell, they’ve now officially sent me the first Free Book If You Review It that I really don’t feel like I have any choice but to pan. This book needed one more hard pass by an editor and probably another entire full draft; it has some massive structural issues and in a lot of ways is telling the wrong story even before you get to things like dialogue and character, and those aren’t great either.

The plot is pretty straightforward even after all that: there are a series of cross burnings over the course of a single night in Lynwood, Louisiana. The first 2/3 of the book follows a multitude of characters– this book employs Game of Thrones-style rotating third person POV characters– as the ringleader of the crimes, but none of the other perpetrators, is caught and sentenced to jail. Then one of the investigators finds out that the Grand Wizard’s confession, while true, was more than a little bit illegal, seeing as how the cop who pulled him over handcuffed him to a chair and let some local gangbangers scare the daylights out of him beforehand. And the last third of the book, including a literal recitation of the title, is one long moral dilemma as everybody fights over whether they should reveal what they know, and they decide to, so the conviction is vacated, and then the guy tries to kill the lead investigator but fails and kills someone else instead and gets run over by the cops after the shooting, and I guess that’s a happy ending, because he’s dead? Sure.

The book wants you to believe the last third, the moral “do I do the Right Thing, and what is the Right Thing” bit is the story– and it is, as the actual investigation and arrest and trial is somehow both 2/3 of the book and perfunctory and rather boring– but it doesn’t get around to starting to talk about it until that 2/3 mark. The pacing is hugely off throughout; the book feels done once the trial is over (except they didn’t catch most of the people responsible) and then there’s this whole other thing at the back. And because the book employs rotating POVs of characters who are, generally, far too similar to one another, it’s not even like you can really feel anyone’s particular journey through the book. Somebody should have caught this and forced a page-one rewrite to focus on the actual story, with one protagonist and not half a dozen, and no one did, and as a result the whole book is a mess.

Other gripes: in general the talk in this book does not resemble human talk, and this is especially true whenever a black person is speaking; Michael McAuliffe appears to have taken his cues on how black people in Louisiana and Washington D.C. talk from repeated views of Airplane! and perhaps a few blues bars scenes from 1980s-era John Hughes movies. Most annoying is his weird affectation for using ‘n at the end of words that end in -ing, but only when black people are speaking, so a black person isn’t “walking”, he’s “walk’n.” Now, I got an ARC, so it’s possible an editor will have caught this and fixed it by final release, but it happened consistently enough that McAuliffe is clearly doing it on purpose, and it’s weird.

I dunno; at some point there are diminishing returns to shitting on a book that is, after all, a debut; I could complain in more detail if I wanted to but there’s no money in it so I’m going to just drop it here. I didn’t hate the book, but it’s a mess and it’s otherwise very very forgettable. I two-starred it on GR because I reserve one-star reviews for books I genuinely loathed; I would never have finished this had it not been sent to me for a review. Avoid, but not, like, angrily.

#REVIEW: Queen of the Conquered, by Kacen Callender

I generally don’t write reviews of books that I didn’t really like. There are a couple of exceptions here and there, where I really hated something and wanted to let others know of said hatred, and at least one bad review of a book by an author I really like that has honestly gotten more attention than I’ve wanted it to. And while I certainly didn’t hate Queen of the Conquered, I didn’t like it very much either, but there’s enough about it that’s interesting that I’m writing about it anyway.

Let’s start on a positive note: this book’s struggles are all with structure and character, but the writing itself is of high quality. Feel free to take this review with as much salt as necessary, because the things that bothered me may not bother other people, and Callender’s skills as a wordsmith are above average. While I’m not certain I have any further interest in this particular series, I’ll be keeping half an eye on them in the future and I can imagine buying more of their books later on. And, again, the subject material and setup is pretty damn interesting; getting to a point where you’re writing a book I pick up is half the battle.

So, that subject: Queen of the Conquered is set on an archipelago that has been conquered and colonized by people who aren’t specifically identified as Dutch or maybe Scandinavian (the book isn’t set on Earth) but certainly scan that way, and the dark-skinned natives are held as slaves. The main character, who has several names throughout the text and who I’m going to call Sigourney for consistency, is half-native but because of Reasons is effectively a member– if a despised member– of the ruling, white-skinned colonialist class. She is also one of a smaller number of people, some colonizers and some colonized, who have what is referred to as Kraft and what are effectively (non-superheroic) X-Men style mutants, as no one’s Kraft works like anyone else’s. There’s a woman who can make anyone feel pain at any time, and a dude who can ask questions that must be answered honestly, and another who can create fear in other people, but no, like, metal skin or laser blasts or anything like that. Sigourney’s Kraft allows her to see into the minds of other people and influence their thoughts or sometimes take over their bodies; there are scenes where she is attacked and she fights back by sequentially taking over her attackers and having them kill themselves.

See the tagline on the book up there, “They will know her vengeance”? The basic plot of the book is Sigourney’s plan to be named as regent by the king of the archipelago and take over the islands, then to slowly destroy the ruling class from within, even though from the beginning all of them hate her– including a husband who she basically forces into marriage– and the plan is rather underpants gnomey throughout the book.

Spoiler alert: they will not know her vengeance, at least not in this book. They will know some vengeance, but it won’t be Sigourney’s; one of my major gripes with this book is just how passive she is throughout the book. She talks a lot about her plan to be named regent, but never really does anything about it, and the really weird thing is that throughout the book someone else is killing off a lot of the ruling class and while Sigourney is getting blamed for it by all the white people she doesn’t actually have any idea who is doing all the killing and spends good chunks of time hiding in her mansion and being worried that someone is going to cut her head off.

There’s a lot going on here that is interesting: Sigourney’s relationship with her husband, who hates her, and her relationship with her husband’s black half-brother, who also hates her (everyone hates her; be prepared for that) and the simple novelty of a book written from inside the head of someone who is of the same blood as all the enslaved people around her (many of whom are enslaved by her) and who is therefore despised by literally every other character in the book, even her closest allies, and who is trying to navigate the racism of those in her class and the (entirely reasonable) class-and-oppression based hatred of her own slaves– it turns out that “you look like us but are enslaving us anyway” is not a reason for people to like you– along with trying to bring her own plan to conquer the islands and free those slaves, but without anyone who she can confide in about that plan, because, again, everyone hates her.

(There is also a really interesting conversation where her husband’s half-brother, who, remember is enslaved by that half-brother and therefore by her as well, forces her to cut through the underpants gnomery of her plan and think about what she’s going to do with all these former enslaved people once– if– her plan works, and her utter befuddlement at the idea that she’d lose some of her privileges is really a thing to read.)

Figuring out who is doing all of the killing by the end of the book is an interesting measure of how much you buy into the racist structure of the world Sigourney lives in, by the way, and the fact that she herself doesn’t figure it out demonstrates nicely where in that structure she really thinks she belongs.

Ultimately I think the weight of all of this just became overwhelming for the author; this is a really interesting setup but it’s balancing an awful lot and the combination of narrative complexity with a fairly passive main character who can’t really talk to anyone so she just spends a lot of time thinking and reflecting and living in her own head– which is kind of boring, honestly– ends up really hurting the book. This was a three-star for me; not at all bad enough that I’d call it bad, as what it is is a novel with a lot of promise and some serious problems, but not good enough to really recommend it. If after reading this you think this might be worth a look at anyway, I’d go ahead and follow that impulse, but maybe try and get it from the library if you can.

#REVIEW: CHILDREN OF VIRTUE AND VENGEANCE, by Tomi Adeyemi

I liked, but did not quite love, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone when I read it a couple of years ago. I am pleased and a little bit surprised to note that I stayed up much later than I wanted to last night to finish Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel, and that in general I found it a much more satisfying read than the first book in the series. The first book suffered from what felt like (to me) too much recapping and too much YA-ness, for lack of a better word, and …

…well, this book is basically entirely about genocide, so, uh, it doesn’t feel nearly as YA as the previous book did. It follows the same characters, not all of whom are on the same side, and the general plot throughline of the book is you and all your friends and everyone like you should be dead vs no we shouldn’t vs a couple of people who think “you should all be dead” and “no we shouldn’t” are merely differences of opinion that can be sorted out through peace talks.

Hint: nah. And here’s the interesting thing, right? I read through some of the Goodreads reviews of this book, and there are some folks out there complaining about how some of the characters are occasionally not making the smartest of decisions, or sometimes they trust when they shouldn’t, or sometimes they’re inconsistent in how they handle things from one chapter to the next. And what’s weird about this is that those are strengths of the book for me.

These characters— every single POV character— are in enormously over their heads, and not a one of them has the slightest idea how to navigate the world they’ve found themselves in, and most of them are terrified through basically the entirety of the book, although they’re not always scared of the same things. And Children of Blood and Bone spent enough time setting up the relationships between the main characters that the fact that they’re reluctant to kill each other (while at the same time very much feeling like they might need to kill each other, to stop or win the war, depending on which character we’re talking about) that when they’re not always perfectly consistent from chapter to chapter it makes them feel like people, not like a list of character traits that the author didn’t bother to check before writing that particular chapter.

And if someone told me they didn’t like the book for precisely those reasons, I don’t know that I’d argue with them about it, but it definitely made the read more compelling for me. So adjust your expectations accordingly for how often my recommendations are in line with your own ideas about reading.

And then there’s the ending, which left me precisely suspended between “Oh, shit, that was awesome” and “Oh, fuck you, book” and I’m still kind of there? So we’ll see how Adeyemi pulls out of what she wrote herself into in the final book of the trilogy. I was looking forward to reading this, definitely, but my anticipation for the as-yet-untitled Book 3 is considerably higher than my anticipation for this one was. Check it out.