Her novel Black Sun, which just came out last week, is the only thing so far in 2020 seriously competing with ScarletOdysseyfor 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.)
Before I get into the post itself, I just want to point out that I find it kind of funny that I made a point of mentioning the other day that I hadn’t missed a post since April, and then bloody went and forgot to post yesterday until almost 11:30, at which point my inner fuck it, nobody is paying me for this kicked in and I didn’t bother throwing something onto the site just to check off the day. In my defense, yesterday was a deeply weird, schedule-murdering sort of day, the kind of day where you wake up with a certain set of expectations on how the day is going to go and then those expectations are rather rudely tossed onto their ear before you’ve finished your coffee.
What we did manage to do was finish the second season of The Boys. And while I watched the first season by myself, my wife was along for the ride for the entire season this time, thus the “we” and the slightly longer amount of time elapsing before its release and me managing to watch it all. The first season of The Boys was … messy. Real messy. To the point where I felt kind of squicky about recommending people watch it.
The second season was phenomenal.
Now, let’s not misrepresent things: The Boys is still hyper-violent (exploding heads make up more of the season’s plot points than you might typically see in a TV show, and there’s a thing that happens with a whale that is, like, wow) and profane and a lot of other stuff, but while the first season followed the comic books into leaning way too hard into sexual violence and rape than anything really needs to be, the second season has none of that. In general, the female characters are treated much better this season; there’s no fridging at all, and most of the new characters introduced are women.
This show does a couple of things that I really like. First, the acting remains absolutely top-tier across the damn board. Antony Starr as Homelander is Goddamned amazing. This is the role of Karl Urban’s life. The relationship between Jack Quaid and Erin Moriarty’s Hughie and Starlight is sweet and awkward in all sorts of adorable ways. And Giancarlo Esposito is in this show and I praised four other actors before I got around to mentioning him. I mean, come on. And while I wasn’t happy with the semi-redemption arc Chace Crawford’s The Deep got last season, his role this season is far more interesting than last year’s. And his character is responsible for what might be the single greatest cameo in the history of television. You wouldn’t think that the acting and the character work would be the highlight of a show that spends fully three-fourths of a season making you think a head might literally explode at any given moment, but it absolutely is.
(Also, I want every shirt that Mother’s Milk wears during the series. Every single one.)
The second thing that I love about the show is how it has handled adapting the comic book, and it’s kind of fascinating to me that my other example of an outstanding adaptation, The WalkingDead, is also an adaptation to TV of a comic book series. This is the right way to adapt things, guys: take what you think works from the original material and then twist it and fuck with it however you want so that the people who know the source material don’t necessarily know what’s coming next. Something happens at the end that manages to recast the entire first two seasons as a prequel, at least of sorts, to the place where the entire comic series starts. And while at least part of this season is taken, broadly, from the comic book, a huge chunk of it isn’t, and there’s no smug “I know what’s going to happen at the Red Wedding!” sort of scenes for people who have read the comics. I knew one reveal was coming about one character, and one major reveal from the end of the comic series appears to not be the case in the TV series, based on about four seconds of footage in the second-to-last episode. So they’re definitely going their own way here.
The last time I talked about this show, I ended with “If you think this is something you might like, and you’ve already got Amazon Prime, maybe check it out.” I’m still not telling you to get Amazon Prime just for the show, but it’s definitely a reason to get Prime now, as opposed to an ancillary side benefit, and if you already have the service you should strongly consider checking it out if the ultraviolence isn’t going to push you away.
I ordered Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius damn near at random, when I realized that I’d spent all year reading books by women of color and hadn’t managed to find one from Australia yet. A quick Google search for Aboriginal authors and fifteen bucks later and this was on its way. And this book is another great example of why I do stuff like this– if I wasn’t specifically looking for a book by someone like Claire Coleman, I don’t know how this would have crossed my radar otherwise, and I’m damn glad I read it.
You may have noticed that this post isn’t called a “review,” which is usually the way I title– hashtagged, even– most of my posts about books I’ve read. I’m doing that for a reason: I went into this book about as blind as I possibly could have, and as a result certain events in the text absolutely floored me; this is one of those books where you think you’re reading one thing and then pow bang what suddenly you’re reading something completely different and you have to reevaluate everything you’ve read in light of your new knowledge. And therefore my approach to telling people about this book is as follows: most of y’all have been around for a minute, and whether you agree with me or not, if you’re a book person and you follow my blog you probably have a pretty damn good idea how well my taste aligns with yours by now.
Well … trust me on this one. I’m not telling you a damn thing other than that you will enjoy the time you spend with this book. If my word on books has been useful to you in the past, listen to me on this one. I’m not quite in “if you buy this on my say-so and don’t like the book, I’ll send you your money back” territory, but I’m closer than you might think.
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.
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.
Every so often, a book scratches an itch that you didn’t even know was there, and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is such a book. Those of you who have either been around for a minute or know me in the real world are aware that an earlier version of me wanted to be a college professor. I triple majored at IU, in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, which is where I hit a wall when I realized that I liked being in class a hell of a lot more than I liked independent research. But I still have a couple of bookshelves about religion, and along with that is a fair number of volumes about Jewish history.
The Weight of Ink tells two parallel stories about two women scholars, a young, unmarried Jewish woman in the mid-1600s, when women knowing how to read and write much less participate at the highest levels of scholarship was forbidden, and a modern-day scholar of seventeenth-century Judaism, suffering from Parkinson’s and nearing retirement. A cache of documents is found in a seventeenth-century home, and the owner calls his former professor in to look at them, and the book takes off from there. Ester and Helen’s stories are interwoven throughout the book, along with Helen’s assistant Aaron, a postgraduate who she more or less grabs at random because he is able to read the right languages to help her with her research.
Mix in some Shakespeare, some Spinoza, a blind rabbi, the Inquisition, Sabbatai Zevi, and a little bit of fire and plague and you’ve got yourself a hell of a book. I’m making this sound a bit more like a detective novel than I probably should; this is indisputably capital-F Fiction, and may indeed be a litratcher, as (I hope) Hilary Custance Greene described it when she recommended it to me. But … yeah, if you’re going to drag me away from nonfiction and genre fiction, writing a book about seventeenth-century Jewry, making translation a bigger part of the action than one might expect, and making the two modern-day figures scholars is a key with a very specific shape that nonetheless opens one of my locks.
Or something; that may be too overwrought of a figure of speech, I’m not sure. At any rate, while it’s a bit slow-moving, which may not be surprising to those of you who just read the description, and it’s a bit on the dense side– it took me over a week to read, which is really rare for a 560-page book– I loved this book a whole lot. Kadish writes about seventeenth-century London like she lived there, and everything about this really worked for me. I hope to hell it actually was Hilary who recommended I read it, because I can’t find the comment anywhere, but I owe her one.