Monthly Reads: June 2022

I’m not gonna lie, there were a LOT of DNFs this month, but the Book of the Month is nonetheless Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs.

Unread Shelf: June 30, 2022

I was doing so well, and then a few books that I had preordered came out and I got a $100 gift card to Amazon, and … well, I’d tell you that I’m not going to buy any books in July, but my birthday is the 5th and there is no way I get through July without buying any books, especially since like 2/3 of these have sequels. Some have lots of sequels.

Sigh.

#REVIEW: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, by Riley Black

I say this a lot, but it’s as true now as it’s ever been: I don’t need to review this book, because you already know if you want to read it or not, so really, my job here is just to make sure that you know it exists. And did you know that Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs existed? Yes? Then you have it already. No? Go buy it. I was about to say “It’s about dinosaurs!,” which actually isn’t quite true, because the book begins on what Black quite reasonably refers to as the worst day in the history of the entire world: the day that a 6-mile-wide object, possibly an asteroid, possibly a fragment of a much larger asteroid, and possibly even a comet, slammed into the Chicxulub region of what is now the Yucat√°n and basically killed every living thing on Earth. Including all the dinosaurs, except for the ones lucky enough to be living underground or underwater when the object hit. She goes into some pretty intense detail about what happened in the immediate aftermath and then skips ahead a bit in each subsequent chapter– the next day, the next year, 100 years later, and so on. “That sounds fascinating!,” you think, if you’re the type of person who would be reading this blog in the first place.

Yup.

I like the description on the cover, there, that refers to the book as “narrative prehistorical nonfiction.” This is definitely a work of pop science; there are notes, but they’re confined to the back; Black is not citing sources or arguing with specific paleontologists during the text, because it’s not that type of book, but neither is she engaging in wanton speculation. Where things are fuzzy, she says so, but she talks about the different changes on Earth after the explosion through narrative, fictionalized stories about the various creatures that would have been alive (or could have been alive, at least) during whatever time period she’s discussing. In other words, we might not have uncovered the fossils of the specific Triceratops with bone cancer in the Hell Creek formation in what is now Montana that she discusses in the first chapter, but there were definitely Triceratops there and we’ve uncovered evidence of some that appear to have had cancer. Do we know for sure that this particular turtle might have been in this river at that time, staying alive partially by breathing through its cloaca? Nope! But they can do it now, so it’s reasonable to project that ability backwards given other trends in the evolution of prehistoric turtles.

You get the idea. This book tells stories; the stories are not specifically true, necessarily, but they are carefully fictionalized, and there’s forty pages of extra “stuff” in the back past the official end of the book if you want to read in more detail. Which I do, of course. What you need to be able to pull off a book like this is a fine grasp of the detail, a good journalist’s instinct for getting your story straight, and a novelist’s flair for storytelling, which is a rare combination, but one Black (an amateur paleontologist but not, I believe, a Ph.D) has in spades. This is a great read for anyone who thinks deep history and dinosaurs are cool, and if you’re not one of those people, you’re not here anyway, so everybody else go buy it.

(Oh, and also: I found out about it on Twitter, and bought it on the spot, so those of you who don’t think Twitter can sell books are doo-doo heads.)

Monthly Reads: May 2022

All of this plus The Peacekeeper, by B.L. Blanchard, which I read as a digital ARC. Can you tell I was stuck in my room for a week?

Book of the Month is Babel.

#REVIEW: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R.F. Kuang

I admit it: I thought about just putting Babel in as the name of the book for the headline there, but really, when a book has this grandiose of a title and more especially when it earns this grandiose of a title, you really need to lean into it. So you get the whole thing.

First things first: this book does not come out until August 23rd. I have had absolutely incredible luck lately with getting advanced reader copies of books I was frothing at the mouth to read– first getting a copy of Jade Legacy several months early, and now lucking out and getting my hands on Babel by winning a Twitter drawing. I have reviewed all three books of her series The Poppy War, and two of the three ended up on my Best Of list at the end of the year. To be brief– because this book has nothing to do with those books except for some overlapping themes– they are an astounding achievement in fantasy, particularly when you take into account that even now, four books into her career, R.F. Kuang is somehow only 26 years old, meaning that I was in college when she was born.

Christopher Paolini, eat your fuckin’ heart out.

Anyway.

Babel is set between 1826 and, oh, the mid-1830s or so, primarily at Oxford, and is at least mostly a historical fiction novel. Why “mostly”? Because in the real world there wasn’t a gigantic tower in the middle of campus that housed the Royal Institute of Translation, which kept the British Empire afloat via a translation-and-silver-based magic program. That’s … new. And it’s weird to say that Kuang mostly adheres to real history other than this thing that literally touches every aspect of the British Empire, but she does. And this is where I’m kind of perfectly situated for this to be my favorite of her books: you might recall that at one point I was working on a Ph.D in Biblical studies– the Hebrew Bible, specifically– which means that while intellectually I can’t hold a candle to any of the four students who form the main cohort of this book, it does mean that I’ve had a lot of the same conversations that they have at various points in the book, and that I’ve spent lots of time thinking hard about a lot of the same issues that are inherent to the concept of “translating” something from one language to another, even before you get to the part where one of the things being translated is literally considered holy Scripture.

Also, one of my buddies from that graduate program is now an actual professor at Oxford, so while I’ve never set foot on the campus I know people who work there, which … doesn’t mean anything at all, actually, but I’m happy to bask in Bill’s reflected glory– and if you’re reading this, my dude, you must find a copy of this book when it comes out. And then send me one, too, because the UK cover is way better than the US one and books with sprayed edges make my jibbly bits feel funny.

The main character of the book is called Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan who is taken as a ward by a professor at the Institute of Translation and brought back to London, eventually to become a student at Babel himself. Why “called” Robin Swift? Because Dr. Lowell tells him that his actual name– never revealed in the text– is no fit name for an Englishman, and makes him choose another one. When Robin arrives at Oxford, he meets the rest of his cohort, composed of two women, one Black, and a young Muslim from India. You may perhaps be raising an eyebrow at this, and you’d be right to, as Oxford didn’t admit women or anything other than white people in the 1830s, but Babel has different standards and different rules than the rest of the university. The book follows Robin and his friends through their first four years at the university, as they learn more about Babel’s workings and about how the silversmithing that underlies so much of Britain’s power works, all while living in Britain and attending a university while, for three of them at least, being visibly Not British.

So in addition to being another really good R.F. Kuang book about a young scholar in over their head (no uterus-removals in this one, though) this book is also about racism and colonialism. In fact, I’d say it’s mostly about racism and colonialism, and specifically the way both manifest themselves in the university, and about what it’s like to be complicit in the oppression of your own people, and what “your own people” even really means if you were raised away from them. And all of that sounds really deep, and it is, but it’s also a hell of a good story, with fascinating characters and lots of worldbuildy magic stuff that may as well be serotonin injected directly into my brain.

I loved the Poppy War books. I loved this more than any of them, and if R.F. Kuang wasn’t one of my favorite writers before, she absolutely is now. Pre-order this, immediately. You can have it in August.