Seanan McGuire’s MIDDLEGAME: A reviewlet

I am probably going to read at least seven new-to-me Seanan McGuire books in 2019(*); she is, I think, probably the most prolific author I am aware of, and gets mentioned fairly frequently around here. The last book of hers that I talked about a lot was Into the Drowning Deep, written as Mira Grant, a book that at the time I called her best book and which made it into #4 on my end-of-2018 Best Of list.

SO, yeah. ‘Bout that.

Drowning Deep is still my favorite of her books, I think, as personal preferences go, but it’s no longer her best book. Middlegame now takes that honor, as it’s a nearly-as-entertaining story with a frankly much more complicated theme and structure than any of her previous work; McGuire is, and this is not a criticism, a fairly straightforward author, which is one of the things that makes me so partial to her work, and Middlegame is anything but a completely straightforward book. It is, frankly, the second book I’ve read this year that I would describe as a level-up by the author, and in fact she talks about how it took her forever to decide she was good enough to write this book in the afterword.

So why am I calling this a “reviewlet” and not a review, since we’ve made it perfectly clear over the years that I don’t really feel compelled to adhere to any particular sort of template when reviewing books? Because I feel like going into this book as blind as possible is a good idea, which makes me not want to talk about the story all that much. Now, you will have to be patient for a bit at the beginning, as you sort of start off at the end of the story– well, one end, anyway– before rolling around to a prequel and then the beginning, but like I said, the book’s structure is kinda complicated. It’ll pay off, I promise, but there will probably be some confusion at first. It’s worth it.

What’s the book about, though? Alchemy. And twins. And math. And quantum entanglement. And language. And Frankenstein. And The Wizard of Oz, and a neat little fictional book-within-a-book that I kind of hope to find out that McGuire wrote in its entirety and released somewhere, and another actual book called The Midwich Cuckoos that I might actually have to check out. And graduate school. And horror. And murder. And … well, other stuff that I’m not going to spoil.

Y’all know if you can trust me by now on these things. Be it known that I’m highly recommending this, and my end-of-year list for 2019 is going to be bananas, and go check it out.

(*) Which would be more impressive were it not for the at least nine Sarah J. Maas books that I’m going to have read by the end of the year. But more on that in a couple of weeks.

#REVIEW: GIDEON THE NINTH, by Tamsyn Muir

I have preordered two books this year, both in response to pre-publication hype that lasted months and had me salivating for the book in question. The first, Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, ended up being everything I hoped it would be. The second is Gideon the Ninth, a book I’m pretty sure I added to my Amazon wishlist in January and now somehow it is September and it’s finally been released and I’ve read it.

And … well. I wouldn’t quite use the word disappointed. Okay, yeah, I would, because I am kind of disappointed with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it means that I went into it wanting my world changed and did not get that. Gideon the Ninth is a good book. Depending on how it survives in my memory, despite the four-star review I gave it on Goodreads I can imagine it sneaking onto my end-of-year list anyway despite its flaws. But this is going to be a rare mixed review from me; normally I don’t review four-star books– it’s usually extreme enthusiasm or warnings to stay away, and this will be neither.

Let’s start with the part I can say unreservedly positive things about: if you can get a first edition of this book, with the black-stained pages, do it. Gideon the Ninth as a physical artifact is a rare piece of art; the paper feels great, the endpapers are nice, the gold embossing on the actual hardcover is gorgeous, and there is something primordially satisfying about flipping through black-stained pages and watching them settle back down, to the point where I frequently found myself doing it for the hell of it. I tried to get video of it and couldn’t get anything I was happy with, but if you want to read this, go get it right now, because the black edges are only going to be on the first edition and you want them. The book has already gone back for a second printing, so get going.


I have never been able to use “not enough lesbian necromancers” as a complaint about a book before, although now that I think about it I can complain that literally every book I’ve ever read does not feature enough lesbian necromancers now that I’ve conceived of the idea. And make no mistake: lesbian necromancers are mentioned on the cover and the phrase “lesbian necromancers in space” has been a big part of the pre-release promo of this book. The thing is, they’re not really in space– they travel from one planet to another at one point but space travel really isn’t a thing this book is concerned about, and the lion’s share of the action takes place in a single building. When I started reading this I said on Twitter that it felt like Kameron Hurley had written a Gene Wolfe book, and that’s still true but there are undeniable echoes of Gormenghast in this as well. And yes, there are necromancers– lots of them– and Gideon is indeed a lesbian, but other than a mild crush on another character and whatever the hell her relationship is with the other major character of the book is, the “lesbian necromancer” angle is somehow left less explored than you might think.

Weak worldbuilding is kind of a major problem, really; Gideon and Harrowhawk, her necromancer, are of the Ninth House, out of (presumably) nine total, and the book basically takes representatives of Houses two through nine and dumps them into a crumbling castle to … compete? over … something? Like, they’re trying to become Lictors, or maybe it’s Lyctors, I don’t remember and the book’s in my bedroom, only what a Lictor is is never really very carefully explained, the characters themselves don’t really know what they’re being asked to do, and the very nature of the contest itself is left deliberately unclear, even to the characters. This isn’t me not being a careful enough reader; the characters are literally told that the only rule is not to open locked doors uninvited and then the dude in charge basically shrugs his shoulders and walks away. They spend most of the rest of the book collecting keys and eventually there’s somewhat of a murder mystery. Imagine Myst, only with lots of skeletons and something like twenty characters to keep track of. It’s kind of a lot. I can’t wrap my head around how this world works at all, and the author mostly doesn’t want you to.


I would forgive you if you were, at this point, wondering why I’m saying I still liked the book. And here’s the thing: this is Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, and the last few pages make it clear that a sequel is coming, and where Muir excels is her actual, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing. I just wish the whole book hung together as well as any individual page does, because her writing is gorgeous and a joy to read. Gideon herself is a fascinating character for the most part even if some of her decisions don’t necessarily make a ton of sense and her dialogue is weirdly anachronistic a lot of the time (no one else in the book talks like Gideon does) and I genuinely wanted to know more about her. I think ultimately the best comparison I can make is to Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, a book I actually didn’t finish but was nonetheless so oozing with potential that the idea that I might not buy her second book never even occurred to me. And that’s ultimately where I’m at with Gideon the Ninth: this is not a great book, but Tamsyn Muir is absolutely going to write great books in the future, and I’m excited to have gotten in on the ground floor.

#REVIEW: The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon

This was one of those awesome accidents, a book that I had never heard of until I picked it up off a shelf at Barnes and Noble, mostly because it was a giant, intimidating (800+ pages) doorstop of a book with a cool cover and an intriguing title and, finding myself still thinking about it, ordered it a few days later. I wasn’t familiar with Samantha Shannon’s previous work, and the notion of a one-volume epic fantasy sounded like a nice change of pace even if that one-volume was, on its own, enormous.

The basic plot is, I’ll admit, a touch on the pedestrian side: an Ancient Evil is about to awaken, and once it does, well … it’s gonna be bad, in the way Ancient Evils typically are. I mean, you don’t get to be an Ancient Evil unless you’re planning on upsetting a few apple-carts once in a while, if you know what I mean. It’s in everyone’s best interest if the Ancient Evil is prevented from waking up. That’s just kind of a given.

Where The Priory of the Orange Tree shines is how it’s about that admittedly seen-it-before premise. First of all, the action is literally worldwide. Each of the four main characters is from a different culture and a different country, and many of them do not begin interacting with one another directly until the last third or so of the book. Second, the role of religion in the book is really interesting. The Nameless One (its actual name, which … whatever) was locked away a thousand years ago, and as it turns out the different cultures do not exactly agree on the precise order of events leading up to said locking away, and some of them have based their entire governing systems on a line of succession from someone who the other cultures don’t even see as legitimate. There is an Important Magic Sword; no one agrees on who made it or who wielded it, although there is general agreement that it was used to stab the Bad Guy, somewhat less effectively than one might have hoped. Various aspects of the actual truth are uncovered at various points throughout the story; most of the time, those truths end up pissing people off.

Oh, and most of the main characters are women and lots of them are gay.

And there are dragons. And spies, and a rather interesting magic system, and court intrigue on a couple of different continents, and a plague, and I spent about half the book wondering how in the hell everything was going to get wrapped up in a single volume and the other half wishing it didn’t, which I have to figure is a recommendation. I’d happily return to this world for more, to be honest, but if there isn’t ever a second volume it absolutely wraps itself up satisfyingly.

Thumbs up. I’ll be on the lookout for more Samantha Shannon in the future.

#REVIEW: JADE WAR, by Fonda Lee

I’m not going to bury the lede: Jade City and Jade War, the first two books in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, are the best first two books in any speculative fiction series since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. And frankly, they may well be better.

I have been open about my affection for Jade City, the first book in the series. It was my favorite book of last year, and I reread it before starting Jade War, which just came out. I suggested in the end of my review of the first book that I expected the second novel to begin incorporating spy elements, and holy crap was I right. Jade War’s most impressive achievement is the way it effortlessly broadens the scope of the series to incorporate literally the entire planet, with not only the clan conflict going on but multiple overlapping and competing interests, from rival governments to crime gangs in other countries to any number of different ethnic groups, some in their home countries, some expatriates, and others refugees, and their (sometimes intermixed) second-generation children. The scope of the book and the ease with which Lee keeps everything straight and their alliances and motivations clear is astounding.

There are several maps at the front of the book, and damn near every place on them is relevant at some point in the story. And it does this without losing focus on the core figures from the first book: the No Peak Clan, now led by Kaul Hilo and his sister and Weather Man Kaul Shae, and Ayt Mada’s Mountain Clan.

The first book got compared to The Godfather a lot. I did it myself. And the amazing thing is that it’s not remotely unfair to compare Jade War to The Godfather, Part 2, one of the most acclaimed sequels of all time. It is, if anything, better than the first book– which, as the middle book of a trilogy, is damned near an impossible feat.

I went out onto my back porch this morning and sat out there for a couple of hours to finish the last 200 pages or so of this book. I legit had to wipe a couple of tears away when I finished it. I know I’ve already compared it to ASoIaF, but despite all of my reservations about how the last several books of that series have gone, one of its most outstanding strengths is how well-drawn its characters are. One of my weaknesses as a reader is remembering character names– I’m bloody terrible at it– and in both ASoIaF and The Green Bone Saga if I wanted to I could sit down and sketch out a character map with everyone’s names, primary affiliations and family relationships. The characters in this book are an astounding achievement on Fonda Lee’s part. I said on Twitter after I finished the book that she had the talent of any other six writers, and I mean it. As a reader, I couldn’t be happier that I get to read this series. As a writer, it’s fucking depressing, because my God I will never be this good.

I knew last year when I finished Jade City that it would be very high on my list of favorite books for that year, and it was my favorite book of a very good year. Jade War is better than Jade City. I literally cannot recommend it any more highly.

A brief, pointless whine

I am currently reading this:

And it’s really good! It’s incredibly engagingly written and it’s about a subject I’ve got a lot of interest and not a ton of knowledge in, which is a good combination. But it is dense, and I am maybe 215 pages into it, and it is five hundred pages long.

Yesterday this came in the mail:

This is the sequel to my favorite book of last year, which is this:

And which I’d kinda like to reread before I get into the sequel. But those are both big books too! And I also have this giant fucker also on my shelf, which is longer than any of them, and I’m psyched to read it too!

(Slightly different style of picture deliberately chosen so you can appreciate the medium-rodent-killing nature of this book, as opposed to the other three, which are more suitable for small rodents.)

I mean okay they’re books and the good thing about books is it’s not like they expire while they’re waiting for you to read them. But I kinda have a lot of shit going on right now somehow despite it being summer break? And the point of this post is if any of y’all have any extra brain cycles that you’re not using that you could loan me they would be greatly appreciated for the next few weeks.

That is all.