Your Questions for the Author Answered

It’s been almost a year since I last posted on what I’ve recently read. Part of the reason for not posting is that I’ve been deeply tied up in the four Recluce books about Alyiakal, but part is also because, while I’ve read a number of novels in that time, there turned out to be a considerable number of them that I didn’t much care for, and three or four that I simply didn’t want to finish.

I did enjoy The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, although it’s incredibly low-key, and definitely not for action-lovers. The Jasmine Throne, by Tasha Suri, also isn’t for everyone, I suspect, given that it’s a bit of a downer, if interesting, although there are plenty of bodies, but it’s also the first book in a series. I definitely enjoyed T. Kingfisher’s Clocktaur War books (Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine), as well as another low-key masterpiece, Victoria Goddard’s The Hands of the Emperor.

There were also a number of books favorably reviewed by others that I felt relied far too much upon sexuality of various sorts, without the supporting element of, shall I say, “sharing and caring” for another.

I haven’t posted on my reading recently because I haven’t done as much F&SF reading as usual. I did read and enjoy Katherine Addison’s two “Cemeteries of Amalo” books, The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones. I’m not sure they’re for everyone, because they’re anything but fast-paced, and I may have liked the ties to opera more than some readers. On the other hand, P. Djeli Clark’s A Master of Djinn is definitely faster paced and action filled, as well as based on an interesting conceit. Another rather “fluffy,” but quite enjoyable book is Travis Baldree’s Legends & Lattes about a female Orc who just wants to retire from battles and pillaging and open a coffee shop. Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher definitely kept me reading. Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility has more of a science fiction flavor than her earlier The Glass Hotel and might appeal more to F&SF readers.

On the non-fiction front, I found Temple Grandin’s The Autistic Brain most insightful, and readers who have to deal with those who have autism issues might find it useful as well.

For perhaps obvious reasons, my reading, such as it’s been, over the past few months has tended to be a bit more upbeat. I read two books by Katherine Addison, and enjoyed both, although they were very different in setting and approach. The first was The Angel of the Crows, and the second was The Goblin Emperor, justly praised by many. I found The Silver Wind by Nina Allan both melancholy and yet upbeat. On a lighter note, even if it’s more of a YA book, I did like T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. While there are a few (to me) technical flaws, I still was carried away by Victoria Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.

Although the book is strongly written and the main character definitely unique, I have mixed feelings about Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education , largely because the setting is unrelievedly grim, and that’s likely an understatement.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus definitely evoked in me a “fin de siècle” feeling, in her slightly alternate Europe of quiet, but potent and often cruel magic. I just finished Garth Nix’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. Being left-handed myself, I could be slightly biased, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it certainly lifted me away from the gloom of the past year.

Because of Covid-19 and because I’m not travelling, since I do most of my fiction reading while on the road, I haven’t read as much fiction recently. The most striking book, to me, was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, with a very different Mexican take on magic. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel was a dismal and depressing tale told exceedingly well, one which is mostly mainstream, except for the ghosts that haunt one of the main characters. I didn’t really like any of the characters, and I knew where the book was going early on, but still found myself intrigued. I finally got around to reading Witchmark, which won the World Fantasy Award last year. It’s a well-told tale with an interesting magic system and some truly despicable aristocrats. The House of Sundering Flames [Aliette de Bodard] is another dark and strong novel in her alternate Paris series. On a much lighter vein, I found Caroline Stevemer’s The Glass Magician utterly charming. As usual, there were also other books that I found far less captivating.

I haven’t been reading as much during the time I was finishing Isolate, but I have read a few books in the last several months. I greatly appreciated Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago, and even if it is a more direct riff on post-Byzantine Italy than some of his other fantasies are of history, I still found it poignant and enjoyable. I do have a fondness for Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict, and Octavia Gone was entertaining to me, but I think a bit weaker in basic plot than some of the earlier novels. I also read the ARC of Re-Coil, by J.T. Nicolas, (forthcoming in March from Titan Books), which is a an intriguing mix of bio-tech and space opera, and, unfortunately, clearly the first book in a series, which left it with a weaker ending than I would have preferred.

I also got to read an advance, uncorrected, bound manuscript of The Freedom Race, by Lucinda Roy, a novel that I can only describe as American magic-realism meets the outcome of the Second U.S. Civil War in a well-told, but brutally jolting, strangely prescient, and soul-haunting narrative. Unhappily, because I got to read this early-on, it won’t be published until mid-2021.

And, as always, there were a few other books I won’t mention.

The books I’ve read this summer, the ones that I’d recommend,that is, include: The Scornful Stars by Richard Baker, which I read as an advance copy and which is just as good, if not better, than the first two books in the series ( Valiant Dust and Restless Lightning); The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison; Gabriel’s Road, a novella by Laura Ann Gilman);and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine.

I’ve read more than that since I last posted, but, as is my policy, I don’t mention books where I was underwhelmed or which I did not care for and could not recommend on stylistic or artistic grounds [yes, I have been known to say that books are well-written, but that I don’t care for them].

For quite a number of reasons, I haven’t been doing as much pleasure reading in the last few months, but I finally got around to Valiant Dust, by Richard Baker, the first book in a trilogy, and I found it both engrossing, and very true to life (possibly because Baker definitely portrays the inside of the Naval “culture” all too accurately). I’m halfway through the second book, and it’s (so far) at least equally good. The third book has been turned in, but has not seen print yet. I also found, in a strange way, Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Cordova, interesting and absorbing.

Then there are my two “binge reading” series, both of which are fun, at least for me, the Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch and The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. As I’ve said before, I’ve also read several other books, some even praised, that just didn’t interest or captivate me.

Although it’s been a while since I posted on my reading, it’s not because I haven’t been reading, but because I’ve read a greater percentage of books, in my opinion, not worth mentioning. Among the better books I’ve read over the past months are: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse and The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. In this category, also, is Troy Carrol Butcher’s Lies of Descent, which I read as an advance bound manuscript that won’t be published until next August.

Books that weren’t quite as good, but that I enjoyed for various reasons included: Linesman by S. K. Dunstall; Afterwar by Lilith Saintcrow; Planetside by Michael Mammay; Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyon [which won’t be released until next February]; and The Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless, who is also an internationally performing classical violinist [the U.S. release is in January].

I’ve obviously gotten behind in noting what I’ve recently read, and part of that is because I’ve been trying to finish a novel [more on that in a few weeks] and also been required to proof the galleys of Endgames, which is a time-consuming and detail-oriented task. However, among the books that I’ve read in the past few months, there are several that I greatly enjoyed and several others that I found enjoyable. The ones I enjoyed and appreciated the most were The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift, and Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng, all three of which offered unique treatments of both characters and setting. The other books that I enjoyed were The Tea Master and the Detective [actually only a novella] by Aliette de Bodard, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear [although I can’t figure out why the heroine’s last name is spelled differently in the book and in the title,unless the publisher was afraid that a “misspelling” in the title would put off readers], Jade City by Fonda Lee, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, and This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova. I also read quite a few other books, hoping they would turn out to be more enjoyable than they were, at least for me.

My fiction reading has been rather spotty over the past few months, since I’ve been working on the sequel to Outcasts of Order and also because more than few disruptions in my normal schedule have occurred, but several books do stand out, among them, C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust, Beth Bernobich’s The Time Roads, and an older book, Katherine Neville’s The Eight. For various reasons, I also enjoyed, in a bittersweet way, Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of Witches, which was not at all what I expected from the title.

Over our recent vacation, I actually did get in some reading, some of which I found intriguing and enjoyable, including Aliete de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns, which I suspect contains more allusions to Vietnamese/Indochinese history and culture than those I did recognize. I also enjoyed The Guns Above, by Robyn Bemis. I can’t say I actually enjoyed Paul Cornell’s The Severed Streets, rather that I appreciated what he’s done with the settings and premises. Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams raised some interesting issues in a fun way. For different reasons, I also liked Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, and Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son. I also read a number of other books, which others have found excellent and/or enjoyable and which I did not. Nor will I mention them, except to say that I intend, for the most part [reserving the right to make exceptions], only to list positive mentions here

During my recent stints on airplanes over Christmas, I actually did get in some reading, not all of it science fiction and fantasy. In some ways, the most interesting book I read was Dark Genius of Wall Street, The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons, by Edward J. Renehan, Jr. This is not a book I’d recommend to most people. It’s filled with the details of 19th century financial manipulations and complex transactions, but it provides great insight into the men and institutions who, in many ways, shaped the framework of today’s world. Gould was generally regarded as a scheming and unprincipled scoundrel. The details shared by Renehan suggest that he was no more a scoundrel, and perhaps no less, and actually more principled than at least some of his contemporaries, not that such is necessarily an accolade, given the times, compared to other tycoons who are revered today. One fact I found most intriguing was that Gould was not only a philanthropist, but that the vast majority of his philanthropy was accomplished during his lifetime… and that one of the conditions was that his name and gifts never be revealed publicly, possibly because his largess would have undermined his reputation as a cold-hearted, scheming bastard. From the book, he was “only” a calculating, driven, schemer who fought a frail constitution and ill-health most of his comparatively short life.

Other books I read worth my mentioning were The First Fifteen Lives of Harry North by Claire North, Impersonations: A Story of the Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams, and The Fold by Peter Clines.

On recent trips, I’ve squeezed in a little reading, including The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, which is listed as the first of three, but which I found just fine as a stand-alone. Another book that I approached with apprehension, but which soon drew me in, was Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, another “first” in a projected series, but which certainly doesn’t leave a reader hanging. The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis, has a truly fascinating setting, although I really didn’t care much for the majority of the characters. A number of people have recommended Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen, which I also found interesting, but one aspect of the plot hangs on Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. That’s not surprising, given that Schoen is is a psycholinguist, but, especially in retrospect, that aspect bothered me a little, possibly because I have trouble buying Chomsky’s theory. I also read Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz, intriguing in a strange way, possibly because it provided an insight into a historical personage who was always referenced but never really explained or explored in anything I’d read about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Last of all, I finally finished Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer, which was well-written, opened strongly for me, provided surprising twists, and then ended with the story incomplete [apparently another volume is coming] with characters I liked less and less.

One of the most intriguing books I’ve read recently is Alexander Hamilton, the Ron Chernow biography on which the musical Hamilton is reputedly based. Combined with David McCullough’s John Adams, and Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, I now have a very much altered view of Thomas Jefferson, as not only talented and unrealistically idealistic, but as an extraordinarily self-centered and often petty man who could seldom directly confront others, but who was exceptionally skilled in using words, especially anonymously, to attack others. Hamilton by comparison, was not as adept at self-promotion, and his comparative probity in public affairs and his weakness for women left him at a great disadvantage, particularly after George Washington effectively retired from public life.

In the F&SF field, I’ve recently read Archangel by Marguerite Reed; The Devourers, by Indra Das, a very unsettling book highly praised by others, but which I found far too violent for my tastes despite the skill of the writing; Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers; Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel; and Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. There are a number of others, as well, but not worth mentioning

These days, my fiction reading is largely confined to when I travel, but over the past few months I’ve traveled a bit and can report on a few books I found worthwhile in some fashion or another. One that surprised me was Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life, a seemingly almost pedestrian novel about a “vat-grown” young woman who has been educated to be a truly outstanding securities analyst in Manchester,England, which, as I read it, became both more entrancing and quietly and truly frightening. Definitely not feel-good, but thought-provoking. I also finally got around to reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and I frankly don’t understand either the rabid praise about the book or the furor it seemingly caused in some quarters. I thought it was a good book, but neither as great as those who raved over it nor as evil as those who hated it. I’ve heard a great deal about Catherynne M. Valente for the last several years; so I read an early novel of hers, Speak Easy, which was fun, although I did think that the language was more florid than necessary for what she was doing, but that could well be a matter of taste. I also read several other books, one of which I mentioned in my regular blog, and others which I don’t wish to mention, simply because they were all too forgettable, if fun, in one case.

Over Christmas, I did get in a little bit of fiction reading, most of it in the form of advance reading copies from Tor and another publishers. One was Wolf’s Empire:Gladiator, by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan, which will be released in June and which is filled with action, aliens, incredible treachery and double-dealing and is the kick-off volume of a series [don’t say I didn’t warn you]. Another was Faller, by Will McIntosh [from Tor next October], which has an almost whimsical SF premise presented in a most factual manner and which begins with a man waking up with no recollection of who he is, and only two objects in his hands. One is a toy paratrooper and the other a photograph of him and an unknown woman, on which he has scrawled symbols with his own blood — and the cut he made for the blood is still bleeding, not to mention that he and others are marooned on a section of a city floating in an ocean of air. As for non-fiction, one of my Christmas presents was what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, which I found both amusing and strangely informative. The other book I found truly fascinating was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, most accurately billed as a brief history of humankind, a very well-written but quite provocative work.

I just read the advance bound manuscript of fun YA novel from Carrie Vaughn entitled Study Abroad, but it won’t be published until January 2017 [from TOR]. I also just finished an ARC by a new author, Gerald Brandt, entitled The Courier, which is about a young woman who is motorcycle courier in futuristic California — very fast-moving and it did draw me in. It’s coming out from DAW in hardcover in March. Among books already published, I enjoyed The Six Gun Tarot from R.S. Belcher, and while it is a Tor book, I didn’t even notice who had published it until after I’d read it. And, of course, there’s my non-fiction, this time Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

For some reason, a lot more of what I’ve been reading lately has been non-fiction, including two books by David McCullough — The Wright Brothers and The Johnstown Flood, both of which I found most interesting. The only F&SF book that I’ve read recently that I can recommend without reservations is one that many have already noted, but I’ll add my approval to theirs, and that is Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings. I also had fun with Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella, Penric’s Demon.

Over the past few weeks, I have managed to cram in a fair amount of reading. A number of the books I read, based on recommendations from various sorts, I’m not about to mention. Some of them I decided not even to finish. Of books currently available, I enjoyed Louise Marley’s collection of stories [Absalom’s Mother] and The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt, although that is one of his earlier works. I also read the advance reading copies of two other books. The first of those was Only the Stones Survive, by Morgan Llywelyn, which is a story about the last chieftain of the Tuatha de Daanan, the ancient Irish people, during the period of the invasion of Ireland by the Gaels. It won’t be published until next January, however. The other book I liked was Allen Steele’s Arkwright, a science fiction novel that spans the time from the first World Science Fiction Convention to the first human interstellar colony. It’s scheduled for publication next March.

I still haven’t read that much F&SF recently, but from the books I have read, there are a few that struck me as worthy of mention, beginning with The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese novel by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, an intriguing novel that appears to be the first volume in a series, and one that begins with the horrors of the years of the Red Guards, and then moves forward from there with chapters alternating between scientific developments and episodes in an elaborate computer game that turns out to be far more [but is NOT your typical immersive virtual reality]. While I have a problem, a significant one, with one proposed technological aspect of future technology, it’s still a very intriguing book. I also greatly enjoyed, just for fun, Carousel Seas, the second book in Sharon Lee’s Carousel Tides series, as well as Tad Williams’s first Bobby Dollar book — The Dirty Streets of Heaven. On a more philosophical nature, I also found thought-provoking E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence.