#REVIEW: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

I am a big fan of Rebecca Roanhorse. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, was the second-best book I read in 2018 and the follow-up to that, A Storm of Locusts, didn’t blow me away quite as much it was still on the Honorable mention list for next year.

Her novel Black Sun, which just came out last week, is the only thing so far in 2020 seriously competing with Scarlet Odyssey for my favorite book of the year. This is the first book of a new trilogy and not part of the Sixth World series, so it’s unrelated to her previous books. (She has also written a Star Wars novel and a YA book, neither of which I have read yet. I will probably get around to the YA book eventually but I have kind of soured on Star Wars novels at the moment.)

(EDIT: Since I wrote those two paragraphs, I’ve spent half an hour helping a now-college-aged former student with her stats homework, which meant I needed to quickly reteach myself the relevant material, and had a lengthy conversation with my brother regarding a wide variety of topics, none of which I really care to get into. Also, another former student died today and my head is suddenly not in this any longer. This book is good. It is second-world Mesoamerica in the same way that, say, Game of Thrones is second-world Europe, and that in and of itself is a reason to read it because there just isn’t enough of that on the shelf. And I like this more than her previous work because in general I prefer second-world fantasy to urban fantasy, even when the urban fantasy is rural fantasy, and I’m a big fan of good worldbuilding, and once again I want to know everything about this world she’s set up. But this post was going to be longer before my brain fell apart, and it is well and truly fallen right now. Go read, plz. Kthxbai.)

#REVIEW: Each of Us a Desert, by Mark Oshiro

Mark Oshiro’s name has been coming up a lot around here recently– they read The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1 on YouTube, which was immensely fun for me to watch, and I reviewed their debut novel Anger is a Gift back in September. Reading Anger is a Gift got me to order their second novel, Each of Us a Desert, which I finished last night.

I loved Anger. Loved it. And I’m kind of fascinated by my reaction to Desert, because while I didn’t enjoy reading it to the degree that I did Anger, I think it’s objectively a better book, and it’s definitely more interesting to me as an author than Anger was, because, especially for someone who hasn’t written any fantasy novels before, Oshiro does a magnificent job of slapping the genre around, and from a craft standpoint this book is a marvel.

Each of Us a Desert is second-world fantasy set in what is basically an analogue of Mexico, and let’s get this part out of the way early: there is a lot of Spanish in this book. It’s mostly single nouns and verbs, so if you don’t speak any Spanish you can pick up a lot from context, and there aren’t a whole lot of entire sentences and phrases, but it’s going to be a much harder read for someone with no Spanish than it was for me. (I can get by, if necessary. I had a student who barely spoke any English in my class last year and most of the time I spoke to her in Spanish, with Google Translate next to me as an aid when needed.)

There is a whole conversation to be had about how using multiple real languages in fantasy literature works, by the way. I’m not going to have it in this post, but I spent a lot of time while I was reading thinking about the technical side of things; when you decide as an author to render a word in Spanish rather than in English, and how much of the editing process was dedicated to, more or less, calibrating the amount of Spanish in the book, or what it means to the characters to use Spanish instead of English. Note that, again, this is second-world fantasy, and the words “Spanish,” “English,” and “Mexico” appear nowhere in the book. There is no indication that any of the characters know they’re flipping from one language to another, which is part of what makes it interesting.

But anyway.

The main character of the book is Xochitl, a young woman who lives in a tiny village in the middle of the desert. Xochitl is a cuentista, which is basically a priestess of the sun god Solís. As a cuentista, her job is to take in the stories of the people around her and then release them back to Solís. If you’re familiar with the concept of the sin eater, this isn’t far off; there is definitely an element of absolution to Xochitl taking a story, of the emotional aspects of the tale at least, and when she releases them back to her god she no longer remembers them afterwards. Until she takes a story from a friend and realizes that her home is in danger, and that she has to choose between doing something about what she knows or doing what she is supposed to do with the story, which is the conflict that sets the book’s story going.

The entire book– the entire book– is structured as one long prayer to Solís. Which is fascinating, and the true importance of which doesn’t really become clear until the last few pages. The book’s ending is perfect, and moved the book into five-star territory for me. (Also, I normally don’t mention the acknowledgements section of books unless they mention me, which has happened once or twice, but please consider the acknowledgements required reading. Trust me.)

Also worth pointing out: the book is absolutely a fantasy, as I’ve already pointed out, and features magic and monsters and such, as you might expect, but it owes less to Tolkien than it does to Lewis Carroll. There’s a lot of wandering through the desert in this book, and the hallucinatory aspects of some of the encounters that the characters have throughout the book are fascinating– you’re often not quite sure if something is really happening or is brought on by dehydration and heat exhaustion, and I’m pretty sure the answer is “both” at least a couple of times.

This is a book you should read, but it’s especially a book you should read if you’re an author, and it’s really especially a book you should read if you work in speculative fiction. My final reaction to it is more of respect than love, I admit; I want to read Anger again because of how great a story it tells, but I want to study this book and pick apart its techniques. Either way, thumbs way up.

#Review: STAR DAUGHTER, by Shveta Thakrar

Let’s take a moment and appreciate this outstanding cover. I’m told that early editions of the book featured painted page edges; I would perform unnatural acts to acquire one. Just gorgeous.

This is one of those books that was really hard to boil down to just a star rating– because I loved it, but it’s definitely got some flaws. Star Daughter is Shveta Thakrar’s first book, and it’s the story of Sheetal, a sixteen-year-old girl who is half human and half star.

It may be that you blinked at that sentence. Roll with it. Her father is human, her mother is a star, and she is their biological child. Stars in this book are both the actual real flaming balls of gas and thermonuclear physics that they are in the real world and immortal– or functionally so, at least– personified beings. And as Sheetal gets closer to her 17th birthday, her star side begins to overtake her human side, and she accidentally injures her father during an argument. She discovers that star blood (yes, they bleed) is a healing agent, so she and one of her friends pop off to what may as well be Heaven to convince her long-absent mother to give them some blood so that she can heal her father’s wounds.

And then things get complicated.

Star Daughter‘s greatest strength is Shveta Thakrar’s skill as a sentence-by-sentence wordsmith. This book is beautifully written, and engaging enough that I was up way too late last night reading it and basically woke up this morning, grabbed a large mug of coffee, and sat down and finished it. For the first half of the book, I was comparing Thakrar’s writing to Salman Rushdie’s. That good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end as well as it begins, and ultimately it’s one of those books that I wasn’t able to like as much as I wanted to but if I had a way to buy Thakrar’s second book right now I would be handing money over just out of the pure potential I see here.

Also fascinating is the worldbuilding– Sheetal, and every other human character in the book, is a Desi Hindu, and if you don’t know what I mean when I say that, hold it in the back of your brain for a moment. This book is absolutely steeped in Hindu cosmology– Shiva himself makes a brief appearance– and Thakrar has no interest whatsoever in moderating her language or the way her characters talk to make things easier for a non-Hindu audience. If you don’t know what a “Desi” is, for example, there’s a real good chance that you’re going to have a hard time. I know very little about Hinduism, but I’m reasonably certain my “very little” still counts as above average for an American reader, and there were definitely places where either context failed me or I wanted more detail and I had to look words up.

(There’s an interesting conversation to be had here– not by me, I don’t know enough to have it, but I want to be nearby to listen to it– about whether this genuinely counts as a work of fantasy or is religious fiction. To an American, non-Hindu audience, it’s going to be shelved correctly, but I’d love to know how much of the worldbuilding is made up out of whole cloth and how much of it is based in preexisting Hindu stories.)

Where the book falls down, unfortunately, is the story itself. Sheetal really doesn’t know what’s going on around her for most of the story, and it’s clear from the moment she arrives in the celestial realm that she’s a pawn in the plans of a bunch of other people who don’t necessarily have her goals in mind and who have preexisting and very old gripes with one another– but the pawn isn’t always really the person you want to read about. The big climax and the ending are too abrupt and, truth be told, a bit silly. There is a very YA-inflected romance with a boy that starts off sweet and fun and then somehow he ends up in Heaven too, but not on the same side as her, and come on. Sheetal herself is a bit more of a cipher than she ought to be as well– in a lot of ways I was more interested in her friend Minai, who, no shit, casually hooks up with one of the stars during the trip, than I was about the main character, and that’s a problem.

But: I couldn’t put it down. And that, to me, is the most important thing. If I can’t put your book down, it gets five stars and a review, even if it’s got some mess here and there. Calibrate your expectations accordingly, but definitely give this one a look.

#REVIEW: The Vanished Queen, by Lisbeth Campbell

Let’s start with some disclaimers: while Lisbeth Campbell and I have never met, we’ve been mutuals on Twitter (you should follow her) for long enough that I don’t remember not following her, and I saw a very early draft– like, pre-alpha, where there were bits that said things like <and then cool stuff> here and there, and I’m mentioned in the back of the book in the acknowledgments, which will never ever stop being cool. I suppose technically I also got a free ARC, but my hardcover has been preordered and will be here on the 18th when the book actually releases.

The first sentence of The Vanished Queen is — spoiler alert — When Karolje became king, he ordered rooms in the library to be mortared shut. That is an admirably well-chosen first sentence, because it does a lot of work, and really sets up the events of the novel impressively. The book takes place in the capital city of the nation of Vetia, a nation ruled over by Karolje, a despotic king moving into the twilight of his life and the end of his rule. The book revolves through several POV characters, but the two most important are Mirantha, the titular “Vanished Queen” and the mother of Karolje’s two sons, and Anza, a young resistance fighter who finds an old diary of Mirantha’s in the first chapter of the book. Karolje’s two sons are also POV characters along with a couple of others, but this is mostly Anza and Mirantha’s story, with Anza’s taking place in the present and Mirantha’s taking place through diary entries, although her presence is cast over the entire book. She has disappeared by the time the events of the novel begin, and while there is an official story explaining her disappearance, everyone (including the princes) assumes Karolje has had her killed.

While The Vanished Queen is going to be shelved and categorized as a fantasy novel, it’s very low-fantasy, with only occasional hints at magic (the king’s interrogators have abilities that can’t be easily explained) and has serious elements of a political thriller and even a bit of a ghost story to it. While there is a single organization that is called “the Resistance” in the book, they’re not exactly monolithic in their goals, and both of the princes and Anza herself have different ideas about what should happen to Vetia once Karolje is gone, assuming they are still alive to see it. Karolje himself is an interesting villain; he’s not personally a physical threat, of course, and in half of the scenes where he’s present he’s literally in bed. But no one is ever sure where anyone else’s loyalties lie, and the threat of imminent discovery by or betrayal to Karolje hangs over nearly every conversation in the book, particularly once Anza and one of the princes happen to meet after Anza is arrested early in the book. There are scenes where the people talking to him reflect on how they could kill him on the spot if they wanted to, if only they had any idea what the guards might do afterwards.

There’s a great atmosphere of dread and paranoia throughout the entire book, and while fantasy books where the line of succession is a kingdom is unclear aren’t exactly rare, I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of them where there’s a debate as to whether there should even be a new king once the current one dies. Simply replacing the current king with a “better” king isn’t necessarily what everyone wants, and even the princes are repeatedly shown as being unsure about who and/or whether they want to take up the crown. Beyond the plot, the characters are all well-drawn and interesting, and the utterly casual reaction by everyone to Anza’s bisexuality is refreshing. It’s clear that her sexual orientation is completely normalized in this setting; at least one previous girlfriend is a character and their relationship doesn’t get any different sort of attention than anyone else’s.

Plus, my God, that cover. Look at that cover.

I enjoyed this a lot, y’all, and I think I’ll have an interview with Lisbeth on the release date. If I quietly never mention it again assume we couldn’t get it scheduled, but we’re working on it. 🙂

The Vanished Queen is Lisbeth Campbell’s debut novel. It releases on August 18.

On the canon

Scalzi had– unwillingly, it must be pointed out– some interesting things to say today regarding the existence of a capital-C Canon as it relates to science fiction and fantasy. This was brought on by George R.R. Martin embarrassing himself and everyone else at the Hugo awards a week (? two? Time has no meaning) ago.

For the most part, I agree with him. There is no Canon, at least not of the capital-C variety, and it’s questionable at best about whether there ever was one. And a lot of what certain types of people think might be part of that Canon are books I probably haven’t read. I have never done anything but bounce off of Heinlein, for example. I don’t mind Starship Troopers but I don’t think I’ve ever finished anything else of his. I’ve read my share of Asimov but nothing I care to recommend to anyone. I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and Ursula le Guin; I can’t tell you a damn thing about any of them. No Bradbury or Silverberg, at all.

Honestly, I’ve read very little of the sci-fi Canon. I’m more widely read in fantasy, as that was my obsession as a kid, but I just didn’t read a ton of sci-fi growing up and most of what I’ve read as an adult has been much more modern.

So here’s the question: I don’t think there is a real Canon– there’s no work or set of works that someone having read or not read them would cause me to cast aspersions on their spec fiction bona fides– but what if there was?

In other words, if someone came up to me right now and wanted me to make a list of works of science fiction and fantasy that they needed to read, what might be on that list?

And that’s an interesting question. These will be in no particular order and I will absolutely forget some important books, so don’t take this as– heh– an authoritative list of canonical books. Let’s just say I’m starting a conversation and go from there.

  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are probably as close as I’ll ever be willing to get to books that I insist any fan of fantasy literature must read, if only because that way you get it when people are trying to subvert them.
  • Dune. You can skip every single other Dune book other than the first one, but you should read Dune.
  • The Harry Potter series. Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling is cancelled, but there’s an entire generation of folks out there for whom these books were foundational and just because we’ve decided that they were magically written by no one is no reason not to read them.
  • Speaking of cancelled people, you really should read at least the first two books of the series that is actually called A Song of Ice and Fire but is known as Game of Thrones now. Read the third if you liked them. Do not read further than that.
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, the only person to win Best Novel Hugos three years in a row.
  • Read Sandman. Yeah, I know it’s a comic book. Do it anyway.
  • Frankenstein. No, seriously, read Frankenstein. Like, do it anyway even if you generally don’t care about science fiction. It’s a better book than you think it is. Seriously. Try and find an edition with the extended ending, though.
  • Read something– I don’t care what– by China Miéville. Perdido Street Station, maybe, or The City and the City.
  • I will probably catch some crap for this, but read something by Lovecraft. Yes, he is a supreme asshole. But he’s dead, so he’s not going to get any of your money and a lot of his stuff is public domain by now anyway. Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow over Innsmouth or The Colour Out of Space, maybe. They’re short. Take a bath afterwards.
  • Orson Scott Card is a living utter asshole, but … man, Ender’s Game. Do it without spending money.
  • Watership Down. Which doesn’t have swords or orcs or spaceships in it, but does have talking bunnies and shocking violence.
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie’s most underrated book, and squarely in the realm of fantasy.
  • Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series could sub in for Heinlein, who is an obvious inspiration.
  • Read some Kameron Hurley. Really, just pick something, although if you pointed a gun at me I’d say something from her Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

And, like, I could definitely go on, and there are a ton of books that I think are magnificent but I wouldn’t necessarily put on this type of list (an example: the Expanse novels, which are brilliant but the series isn’t finished yet, and unlike ASoIaF I think you should actually read all of them) so obviously we could just keep adding things forever. But if this is a list of Where Should I Start, I feel like you could do worse than working your way through these.

What else is part of your fantasy/sci-fi canon?

(Also, I want to note, for the record, that I deliberately didn’t include Amazon affiliate links for any of these, because I feel like it would have been overkill.)