I’ve been reading

One of my minor goals for this summer is to read more– a lot more– and I finished four or five books in the last week or so. Let’s talk about a few of ’em real quick.

Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, was an impulse purchase at Barnes and Noble when I happened to walk past it on display while at the store looking for something else. I grabbed it because I’ve seen it showing up on a lot of banned book lists recently and so I figured that alone was enough of a reason to buy it. I ended up very cautiously recommending it to one of my trans students at school; I hope I don’t actually have to say that I’m against banning books but this one is explicit enough (and the fact that it’s in comic book format doesn’t help) that I can see at least understand why some parents might be uncomfortable with their kids having access to it even if I don’t agree with it.

Honestly, the fact that it’s a memoir called Gender Queer probably tells you everything you need to know about it; Kobabe grows up in a time where ey (eir pronouns are ey/eir/eirs) simply doesn’t have access to the vocabulary to describe how ey feel about eir body. Kobabe is born into a woman’s body, but fantasizes about receiving blowjobs while still not quite feeling like a boy or wanting a new name. Luckily, eir parents are more or less supportive and there is a group for queer students at eir high school, so there’s not the undercurrent of abusive behavior that you might expect from this kind of book. I’ve never read anything substantial written by a genderqueer person, so I’m really glad I picked this one up; you ought to read it.

Rebecca F. Kuang has now written five books that I’m aware of: a military fantasy trilogy, an alternative-history dark magical academia novel, and Yellowface, a modern-day fictional memoir with no fantastic or spec fit elements at all, and I’ve absolutely loved everything she’s read. Kuang’s talent is astounding, frankly; she’s still only fucking 26 years old and no one her age should be able to write this well. I read Yellowface in about a day; it’s written from the perspective of a young struggling white female author, June Rowland, who is friends (exactly how close they really are is never clear, and there are very good reasons to believe we have an unreliable narrator) with Athena Liu, a Chinese-American author and a phenomenal talent whose early works have taken the literary world by storm. The two are at Liu’s apartment after a night of partying and drinking and Liu chokes to death, but not until after showing her friend her latest manuscript, which she’s not told anyone about. And when June leaves her apartment, many hours later, after dealing with the police and the EMTs and the trauma of watching a friend die in front of her, she does it with the only existing copy of the manuscript in her purse. Which she finishes and gets published under her own name. And, well … shenanigans ensue.

Yellowface is one of the most savage works of satire I’ve read in a long time, and it’s definitely among the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best, and I really need someone else I know to read it so I have someone to talk to about it.

I picked up Rebecca Yarros’ Fourth Wing on the strength of a sudden blitz of wildly enthusiastic TikTok praise, which was probably my first mistake. My second mistake was assuming that damn near universal five-star ratings on GoodReads meant anything in particular. That said, I don’t really know how to arrive at a final verdict on this one.

Why? Well, I hated everything about it, for starters. It’s so goddamned tropey that it feels like an AI wrote it. The dialogue is astonishingly bad, with people having lengthy, exposition-filled, complicated conversations in the middle of battle or otherwise stressful solutions all the fucking time. Ever watched an anime where every bit of dialogue is a long speech? Imagine that in written form. The worldbuilding is atrocious; the book is about dragon riders, but it’s really unclear what value the actual riders bring to the battle as the dragons don’t really seem to need them and the humans don’t command them in any meaningful way. (It’s possible that I missed a bit of exposition somewhere on this, as the book overexplains everything else, but it’s absolutely not gone into in any depth.) The dragons are named after their colors and their tails, which, okay, calling a dragon a red daggertail sounds cool, but whoever decided that morningstartail should have been a word? Come the fuck on, especially since fighting with their tails doesn’t much appear to be a thing. The characters are flat, the action is predictable, and the writing is occasionally stunningly terrible– “He was more than four inches over six feet tall” was a sentence that I just stopped and stared at for a few seconds, for example.

Five hundred pages of this. I finished it in less than 24 hours. I gave it three stars on GoodReads because I have no fucking idea even how to think about a book like that. The sequel is coming out in November– ah, another sin; the series is called “The Empyrean Trilogy,” and I’m pretty certain the word Empyrean appears nowhere in the book– and I’m probably going to buy it. You shouldn’t buy or read this, but I did both and for some reason I think I’m going to do so again. I just can’t explain why.

#REVIEW: THE WARDEN, by Daniel M. Ford

First, the standard disclaimer whenever I review one of Dan Ford’s books: while we’ve never met in person, Dan and I are interweb mutuals and have been for years at this point, and I’m a member of his private Discord server, and if you would like to take that information as a reason to perhaps toss a pinch of salt on my opinion on his latest book, I would not look askance upon you. That said, the rule I’ve always followed when reviewing books written by people I know is that if I can’t write an honestly positive review I’m just not going to write a review at all. I owe my readers honesty in my reviews but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep my mouth shut, right?

At any rate, I think this is probably his best book, and I’ve read and reviewed all of them, as far as I know. So let’s just start with that: this is his best book, and it’s part one of a trilogy, and I need Book Two, damn it. This is not going to be a spoiler review but let me just say that I think that the next book will begin quickly after the end of this one and I need to know what happens next.

The premise: Aelis de Lenti is a necromancer and a (supremely talented) recent graduate of the prestigious Magister’s Lyceum. The Lyceum trains Wardens, which are basically a mix of a town sheriff, a local ombudsman, and if necessary the magical equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Aelis, a city girl and the scion an extremely wealthy family, finds herself posted to Lone Pine, a tiny farming village at the edge of nowhere with absolutely nothing of the comforts she is used to. The townspeople don’t trust her very much at first, she’s not especially fond of them either, the second floor of her wizard’s tower on the edge of town basically doesn’t exist, and her home keeps being invaded by a goat.

Shenanigans ensue. Like I said, this isn’t a spoiler review, so I don’t intend to describe the shenanigans, but one way or another by the end of the book you’re going to have a decent idea of why the Lyceum “wasted” her by posting her to Lone Pine, and you’ll have met enough characters from Lone Pine itself that you’ll be invested in what ends up happening with them.

One of the things I really liked about Ford’s Paladin trilogy was his choice of main character. Religion generally doesn’t have much of a role in high fantasy, or at least doesn’t have much of a role among the main characters, so seeing a paladin as the central character of the trilogy was great. This book is about a wizard, and while my first thought was “Well, there are tons of books about wizards,” … are there, really? Because I don’t know that I’ve seen a character like Aelis as the MC of a series. Can I come up with some characters who fit her role? Sure, but they’re all side characters. I’m gonna come up with a counterexample as soon as I hit Publish, but Dan’s got a great knack for choosing protagonists that feel new and different.

Which is interesting, because the overall feel of the book is very old-school and very D&D influenced, and it’s been interesting to look at other reviews of the book and see how people feel about that. What do I mean? Well, all of Aelis’ spells have names, and they have “Orders,” which are functionally equivalent to spell levels as far as I can tell. Most wizards, or at least most Wardens specialize in a single school of magic, and the most powerful might have a handful. If you’re a D&D player, you can list them off right now, and let’s see how many I can do from memory: Necromancy, Divination, Abjuration, Conjuration, Evocation, Illusion, Alteration, and … dammit … Enchantment! The eighth is enchantment. Aelis specializes in Necromancy, Abjuration, and Enchantment, more or less in that order, although most of what she does throughout the book is cast wards. You don’t really see her lean into the necromancy until the end of the book, and the townspeople of Lone Pine have serious aversions to it.

Now, this is not so much up my alley as it is the actual alley itself, so it worked for me across the board. Aelis does have her spells memorized, and definitely runs low on magic the more casting she does, but I don’t think she’s actually forgetting spells or getting up and consulting her spell books like a D&D wizard might be. I can see why a reader might roll their eyes a touch, perhaps, at Aelis literally deciding to cast Moogerdook’s Hornswoggling Goat-Inconveniencer at someone. I am not one of those people.

A word about Aelis herself, so long as we’re discussing mileages and how they might vary. Aelis is … well, she’s a lot, to be honest. Someone asked Dan in the Discord if he thought she was arrogant the other day, and his response was something along the lines of that she is likely to think that of all the people in a room she is the most capable of solving a problem and probably also the smartest and most talented. She is also likely to be right. She reminds me– and I doubt this is intentional– of Aloy from the Horizon games, because Aloy is a supreme asshole when she’s surrounded by people who aren’t as competent as she is, and there are plainly and simply not that many people who are as competent as she is. Aloy has no patience for anyone’s bullshit, and neither does Aelis. She’s bossy and curt but she’s also literally in charge most of the time due to her role as a Warden, and one way or another there are going to be people who are turned off by her.

I was not one of those people. I’m kind of sneering at them right now, too. A lot of the book is inside Aelis’ head, and the trick is she has doubts and recriminations and anxieties and such but she is not about to let anyone see them. It’s going to be interesting to see if she cracks under the pressure in future books, because she rather abruptly becomes responsible for a lot toward the end of the book.

She’s also delightfully gay, by the way, and the romance subplot is a highlight. I won’t spoil anything about it but I’m looking forward to seeing more of her love interest.

I haven’t talked about the worldbuilding, which is typically great, especially since the book is literally set in a tiny village where nothing ever happens. Ford does a great job of giving you an idea of what the outside world is like, via letters from family (that Aelis reads to the recipients, who are frequently unable to read) and the occasional adventuring group from outside of town showing up. I want to see more, of course, because I always want more worldbuilding, but this was a highlight as well.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t surprise me that I enjoyed this book as much as I did; I was all in based on the description, and knowing the author obviously doesn’t hurt. But you want to check this one out. It’s Dan’s sixth book, but it’s also his first with Tor, and I’m kinda personally invested (emotionally, not financially) in it doing well. Give it a look. You’ll like it.


Sort of. Maybe. I saw all the words.

I have read and reviewed the first two books in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth. There will be a fourth, supposedly this year, called Alecto the Ninth. That will apparently be the final volume. This one, Nona the Ninth, only happened because apparently Nona’s story got a bit out of Muir’s control and she had to make it its own book; early printings of Harrow actually say that Alecto will be the next book, an error that I don’t know if they corrected in later versions.

You might notice that the word “review” does not appear in the title of this post. This is not a review. I am functionally incapable of reviewing this series any longer, and I can only barely apply the verb “read” to the process my brain was attempting while my eyes were roving over the words on the page. If I had read the book, I would have understood more of it. By the end of this book, there are so many characters who are not in their own bodies that I feel like I need a fucking spreadsheet to understand what is going on. Some characters may — or may not, no one is clear– be in more than one body. My wife loves these books unreservedly; I keep asking her questions and she begins to answer them with “Well, do you remember when …” and my answer is invariably no. No, I do not remember that happening. No, I do not remember that character, who was apparently mentioned six hundred and thirty times in book two. No, the back cover copy on this book describes several different events in the book and I don’t remember any of them. Blue thing in the sky? What blue thing in the sky?

I only just found out, in conversation with her before coming in here and writing this, that not one but two of the characters are apparently planets. I missed that! I feel like a character being a planet should have been something I noticed. Two of them I definitely should have noticed. I did not. The main character, Nona, is physically nineteen years old but has the mentality of a six year old and is in some unclear way only physically six months old; the book is fairly adamant that she, Nona, is not Nona, but is in fact one of the two main characters of the two previous books, possibly in one of their actual physical bodies and possibly not, and by the end of the book I am literally unsure if any of the three of them are alive, in any sense of the word. I think Gideon’s actual physical body is running around, but someone else is in it, I think, unless we were supposed to realize that the other person who is in Gideon’s body now was always in Gideon’s body and this is not a change of the status quo but a reveal. I have no fucking idea.

Also, there are other Gideons, and at least one of their bodies is still running around, also not occupied by the spirit of that Gideon. I think. I saw a reviewer on Goodreads refer to that Gideon as G1deon to help distinguish them.

There is one person who is actually two people, but not at the same time, until they get into a fight with someone else and win it by the second person in the body shoving the owner of the other body out and taking it over, so then the one person who is actually two people is actually two people, until later, when one of them catches fire for, as near as I could tell, no fucking reason at all, and then suddenly both of them are back in the same body again only now both of them are one person. Whose name is Paul.

There is a character named Hot Sauce. Another named Pants of the Undying. A third’s name is Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead Kia Hua Ko Te Pai Snap Back to Reality Oops There Goes Gravity. I made one of those up. I dare you to figure out which one.

I swear to God, I’m literate. I really am.

#REVIEW: The Menu (2022)

Remember when I used to do reviews of stuff? I feel like it’s really been a while, but I do actually still have opinions about media once in a while, and last night my wife and I sat down and Watched a Movie Together, that being Searchlight Pictures’ The Menu. I miss movies; I used to reliably see at least thirty or forty a year, then I went into this long period where I only saw superhero movies, and now I don’t even give a damn about those, so it was a good feeling to be able to carve a couple of hours out of a Friday night to be able to watch this. Given that 90% of the television I watch involves cooking in some form or fashion, there really wasn’t any way I was going to be missing this.

And … man. I really didn’t know last night what I thought about it, and it took until taking a shower just now (yes, it’s the second-to-last day of break and 6:52 PM and I just took a shower) to figure out what I think. And the tl;dr is that if you watch the trailer and think Yeah, I might want to see that, then go ahead and follow up on that feeling, and if you feel like the trailer is for what seems to be a really schizophrenic movie that maybe can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up, well, roll with that feeling too.

I can imagine people loving this film and I can imagine them hating it, although people who hate it are maybe a little easier to imagine? And one way or another, I think maybe they made the wrong movie. Want details? Massive spoiler territory from here on out, although it’s not like the trailer conceals a lot of secrets and one way or another the film tells you exactly where it’s going at about the halfway point and I think counts on you to not believe it in order to continue to maintain dramatic tension.

So! A short black line, and then spoilers ho!

The one thing that you might be thinking and be wrong about, having watched the trailer, is that there’s probably a scene where they discover that they’re eating people at some point during this movie. No! I am as surprised as you are that they resisted their urge, but no; I don’t know how much the food can be considered food, really, but there’s no cannibalism, intentional or not. What there is is basically a suicide cult among the head chef and his various kitchen and front-of-house staff, and they’ve decided that this is their last service and as such it’s the one where everybody dies.

You get no insight into how this decision was reached or how he (presumably) managed to talk everybody into this nonsense, and you will discover as you watch that the dinner guests are remarkably passive about their impending demise. At about the halfway point the head sous chef shoots himself in the head right in front of everybody, and Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik literally says “You’re all going to die” to the guests at more than one point during the movie, so there’s no real argument to be made that they aren’t aware of what’s going on, especially when one of them actually does attempt to get up and leave and gets a finger chopped off for his trouble. It eventually turns out that everyone in the room has offended Chef Slowik in some manner or another (and some of them are really cheap; John Leguizamo’s character is a washed-up movie actor and apparently he was picked for death because he was in a movie Slowik didn’t like) except for Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, who is effectively a replacement +1 after her dinner date’s girlfriend dumped him.

There’s some effective creepiness here, and some fun satire of the way high cuisine works and (especially) the way major chefs are treated as gods and eventually expect to receive that treatment. Unfortunately basically every character in the film, especially the dinner guests, is some form of douchebag or another, really excepting only Taylor-Joy’s Margot and the hostess whose name escapes me. There are a lot of words that describe her, but “douchebag” isn’t one of them, I think. In some ways she’s the movie’s scariest character. And the thing is, a lot of what’s going on in the film either doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t make any sense, or some combination of both, and the notion that any of these people just sit around and wait to die is almost too ridiculous to bear. Also, Slowik’s operation apparently involves both a sophisticated hacker and an actual kidnapper, along with one hell of a surveillance and intel operation.

The movie should have been about one of the sous chefs.

The problem is that Slowik is such a guarded character, and the chefs by and large are entirely faceless, that you really can’t get any clue as to why any of them might go along with this insane plan to, eventually, and this is not a joke, dress up all of their guests as human s’mores and then burn everyone involved to death. And the fact that the guests don’t fight back just doesn’t make any damn sense. No; what you do here is you make the guests mostly faceless and terrified and you pull us into the cult of personality around this chef, and you hire a more charismatic actor than Ralph Fiennes, or at least cut him loose to be charismatic, because Julian Slowik, as he’s portrayed, couldn’t talk a kid into eating ice cream. I don’t know if I should blame Fiennes for that, or the director, or the script, or all three, or what, but this is not the guy. Nobody dies for this dude, or if they do, we’re gonna have to get a lot more background as to why, and you can keep all of the satire elements without them descending into utter ridiculousness like this one does.

(A prime example: the guests pay their bills and are given gift bags, all while wearing marshmallow serapes and chocolate hats, before they are set on fire and killed. Slowik tosses off a line about how their gift bags each contain a finger from a guy who is drowned as one of the “courses” earlier in the film. I have no idea whether the line was supposed to be funny or creepy or what. It’s ridiculous.)

The movie should have started off with a hot young chef getting hired by this dude– go ahead and let Anya Taylor-George play that character instead– and go through a couple of normal dinner services and some moments with Chef where it becomes clear why people might be willing to kill/die for him before getting into the murder shit, and have her be the one chef who decides she can’t be part of it. Or, hell, leave her conflicted! You can still have your horror satire if you want. Or, hell, have her be the hostess, so she’s outside the dynamic of the kitchen and maybe not part of The Plan but still enough on the inside of everything that we can see why this guy might have made the decisions he did, and why people might have followed him, and why people might have decided to go ahead and be burned to death instead of fighting back, which … no, sorry, I can’t buy it.

#REVIEW: Seed, by Ania Ahlborn

I am trying really hard not to make this review a single sentence: This book is deliciously fucked-up, and you should read it.

Because, really, that’s the money graf, right? Nothing else I write is going to matter much more than that single sentence, other than maybe the content warnings, because man, this book needs itself a content warning. Because if you are a parent of young kids there is a real good chance this book is going to fuck you up hard, and my son is roughly the age of the older daughter in this book. This book will grab you by your daddy-brain or your mommy-brain and shake you until you’re concussed, and I would understand if you don’t want that to be your reading experience.

Seed is a slim volume, totaling only about 220 pages, and I read it in two big gulps over two nights. The first night it scared the shit out of me and the second night, going in prepared, I was able to resist freaking the fuck out until I started to get a horrible inkling of how the ending was going to go, and this is one of those books where it’s going to hit you how it’s going to end and then you are going to spend the rest of the read with your skin crawling and hoping that you’re wrong and then you’re going to be right and it’s going to be awful anyway. It’s one of the most effective horror books I’ve ever read. Your mileage may vary, especially if you aren’t or haven’t ever been a parent,

(Jesus, why did I phrase it like that?)

… especially if you aren’t a parent, but if you are? Christ, I can’t let my wife near this book. Seed features generational curses, abusive parents, demonic possession, amnesia, grinding poverty, pet and animal death, murder, disintegrating marriages, poltergeists, car accidents, projectile vomit, ghosts, disapproving stepmothers and what may Goddamn well be the devil himself and it has crawled under my skin and it’s going to live there for a while. Ania Ahlborn has written a bunch of other books and I absolutely will be reading more of them. This is a great book to read in October if you don’t mind losing sleep and possibly a couple of sanity points to it. Go pick it up.