I was having dinner with the wonderful founder of the Seattle Ladies’ Comic Book Club the other night and she recommended a book she had read recently, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was excited to get my hands on a spec fic work by a female Muslim author, so I dove right in. As a brief summary: Alif is a gray hat hacker in an unnamed middle eastern city state who has devoted his talents to helping anyone who wanted to stay one step ahead of their governments’ censorship on the net. Islamists, Feminists, Anarchists, he didn’t much care what your views were, he would help you be able to share them with less fear of persecution. Until one day it all comes toppling down on his head and he ends up begging for help from none other than a jinn living at the edge of the market.
Coming to this book after a long string of mediocre reading was a serious breath of fresh air. The writing is crisp and clear, the characters multi-dimensional, and the world understandable, even for a white-bread American girl like me. In fact, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, I actually downloaded a copy of the Quran so I can read some of the referenced stories and passages for myself when I am next in a scholarly mood. I was continuously impressed with Wilson’s handling of situations around things such as veils or other cultural differences as they never came across as alien or alienating. One of the main supporting characters, Dina, has chosen a veiled life for the sake of piety, and I felt like I understood the basic nuances of her choices, her family’s dismay at her choice, and felt she was all the stronger for having made it, which is an entirely foreign concept to me. Thus, impressed.
There was also an excellently executed commentary on political power, revolutions, gender dynamics, and belief woven delicately through the novel. If all you were looking to read was a rollicking magical/techno book, Wilson’s messages never got in the way. But if you were willing to look deeper into the text, there was a lot of fascinating discussion going on. I highly recommend picking this up or putting into your queue to read sometime in the near future. Now, please excuse me while I add all her other books (and comic books!) to my list to read.
So, as most of you know, I am an avid fan of Tamora Pierce and her work, and I was thrilled to discover she was going to be doing an appearance in Seattle with her newest release, Tempests and Slaughter.
When I showed up to the event, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was actually a joint event with Rachel Hartman, and mediated by Lish McBride. Hartman has a new book out herself, Tess, and McBride (who also happens to be Seattle local) guided the other two authors through a discussion about how they approach writing, their characters and their worlds in general. It was a fun talk, and Tammy is as fierce as ever (and angry about misogyny as ever), and I really enjoyed the evening. Thankfully, the talk was being sponsored by the UW Bookstore, so they had lots of everybody’s books on hand to sell, so I picked up Seraphina and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Harman’s and McBride’s first books, respectively.
I always make it a point to buy an author’s book if I’m at their event, and a quick google search of these books while I sat out of the crowd made them sound interesting enough that I gladly picked up copies and had them signed. I promptly started Hold Me Closer when I got home as I’d already read Tammy’s book to review for the Manhattan Book Review the month previously. And I was hooked.
McBride has four books, all set in the same universe, but two follow a fledgling necromancer named Sam in Seattle, and two follow a pyrokinetic named Ava in New England. Her version of America is ripe with mystical characters that we don’t often see explored, including characters like were-bears and -hares, golem makers, half dryads, and many more. It was refreshing to see normally neglected species explored, and her writing is dry and witty. As soon as I’d gotten halfway through Hold Me Closer, I had already requested the rest of her books from the library, and they were all fantastic. Highly recommend!
While I was waiting for the rest of McBride’s books from the library, I opened Seraphina, which goes a completely different direction. While Sam was playing in an urban fantasy not far from our current reality, Hartman introduces us to a completely separate fantasy world wherein dragons and humans have a tenuous peace. However, there is a fun twist that separates this realm from other standard high fantasy fare: the dragons can and do take human form to interact with man, and can even interbreed while in said form. Thus we are given our main character, Seraphina, who has a human father and had a dragon mother who died in childbirth. Being half dragon is a cause for secrecy in their society and thus leaves Seraphina struggling to find her place. Beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, as soon as I finished Seraphina, I requested Hartman’s other two books from the library as well. I got Shadow Scale, but am still waiting for Tess, but I have a feeling it’s going to be well worth the wait.
So that’s two new authors for you to go explore! I loved both of them, and they have drastically different voices and feels, so something for whatever mood you might be in!
Between the next poorly written self-published novel given to me to review and another foray into the under represented authors in speculative fiction, I decided to give my brain a break and go back to revisit an old favorite: Sir Terry Pratchett. If you don’t know Sir Terry’s work, I envy you the absolute joy of your first encounter with Discworld. If I might suggest you start with Going Postal, or The Truth for your first adventure in Ankh Morkpork, closely followed by Monstrous Regiment.
I don’t recommend starting here because there is a lot to learn about this world before you are introduced to one of the pocket countries hubwards of the main city in their world, but once you have your turtle-legs under you, this is one of my favorites. The premise is simple enough: The protagonist, Polly, disguises herself as a guy to enter the army to find her brother, who enlisted a year previously. She is part of a country that is perpetually at war, and is not very good at it, hence the lack of eligible men in her town, and she needs to find her brother and get him back or when her father dies, their family inn will be lost since women can’t inherit. Women can’t do a lot of things in Borogravia, it seems, so off she goes as a young man to find her only chance at a decent future. After signing up for the war, one of her fellow recruits spots that she is female and offers her the advice of stuffing a pair of socks into her trousers to complete her disguise. Thus it becomes a running theme through the novel that Polly can’t tell whether her new-found bravery is coming from herself or her socks. In fact, I once did a book report in high school on this very subject wherein I chose a pair of socks to represent each of the characters in the book and gave a presentation describing exactly why each pair was appropriate.
The rest of this essay contains more than a few spoilers, so if you want to be surprised by the book, stop reading now, and come back to this after you have read the novel. It won’t take long, I’ll wait.
Okay, good, you’re back. You’re a speedy reader! Anyway, one of the turning points–really, every turning point in the book–comes when we find out yet ANOTHER character is actually a female disguised as a male in the army. Eventually we find out that nearly 1/3 of high command is actually female, the sergeant in charge of Polly’s unit if female, and said sergeant has made it their mission over the course of their overly-long military career to spot women coming into the army and quietly suggest to some they’d be better off home, while refining and encouraging those who would be an asset. A good portion of the high command owes their position today to Sergeant Jackrum and his/her not-so-gentle hand. We find out about this absolute abundance of estrogen at the point in the novel that Polly and her fellow recruits are unmasked and facing retribution for being in actual-fact female and loudly saving Borogravia from certain defeat. Several things become clear over the course of the tribunal:
- Each of the women in the room (barring Polly’s platoon) had assumed they were the only female in the Army and were trying to make it on their own. A few of them had spotted the rare other, but they were so concerned about being seen as male that they often overlooked other women’s tells.
- It was okay to be a woman in the army so long as no one KNEW there was a woman in the army. If they had been willing to go back under as men, it would have been alright.
- They were expected to lookout solely for themselves, be grateful for a handout from high command, and go quietly back to living under the absurd rule of their dead god and all his insane rules and submit themselves to a man.
Needless to say, Polly and her crew were not too thrilled with any of this. They refused all of the handouts and insisted on remaining as open women in the Army. Granted, they were only allowed to do so because the ghost of their dead beloved ruler, the Duchess, demanded it as well, but they managed to get a truce in place and a new ruling system installed in the capital before Polly took her brother home to her family and went back to work in the tavern.
If this had been the end of the story, I would have enjoyed it, but it would not hold such a dear place in my heart. While Polly enjoys being home with her family, she also does not feel like she is done; she has tasted privilege beyond what she once knew and knows that she has the power to bring change to her country. So when rumors abound that their neighbor is invading, she dusts off her skirted Army uniform and begins the journey back to the capital in order to bring her kind of power and change to this new conflict. And on her way across the ferry, she notes two young men whom are headed to the Army to join up that she instantly identifies as being, in fact, female.
“Let’s have a look at you,” said Polly. “Chins up. Ah. Well done. Shame you didn’t practice walking in trousers and I notice you didn’t bring an extra pair of socks.”
They stared, mouths open.
“What are your names?” said Polly. “Your real names, please? Don’t looks so worried. You can tell me the truth. And don’t try cunning on me, because I was trained by Mister Fox.”
“Er…Rosemary,” one of them began.
“I’m Mary,” said the other. “I heard girls were joining, but everyone laughed, so I thought I’d better pretend to–”
“Oh, you can join as men if you want,” said Polly.
The girls looked at one another.
“You get better swearwords,” said Polly. “And the trousers are useful. But it’s your choice.”
“A choice?” said Rosemary.
“Certainly,” said Polly. She put a hand on a shoulder of each girl…and added: “You are my little lads–or not, as the case may be–and I will look after…you.”
For the first time, when I finished the novel, I actually feel like I understand what Sir Terry was saying, truly saying, about what it is like to be a woman in this world. Because that’s what Sir Terry does: he uses fantasy as a way to comment on our Western culture, and each novel focuses on and satirizes another aspect of our world. When I was a teenager, I caught all the commentary about war, and even some of the commentary about gender politics, but definitely not all of it. I didn’t have the life experience at the tender age of 17 to see much beyond the sock question and my own bemusement at girls who felt they couldn’t be outspoken and brave without the addition of socks. I certainly never felt like I needed a pair, but then again I was raised without a lot of the same gender expectations a lot of my peers suffered under. I was a Girl Scout, and a leader, and outdoorsy, and intellectual by my nature, and my parents encouraged that, so as a teenager I found the gender politics of Monstrous Regiment to be more humorous than hateful. But I loved the book and I have carried it with me through the 7 moves since then, rereading it occasionally.
Before I move too far into the commentary, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that while the book does use cross-dressing as the physical metaphor for this commentary, Sir Terry does address trans and gender-fluid issues in other ways in this and his other books and his usage of the physical presentation of gender is used here as a simplification of the issue in pursuit of the message and not a commentary on actual transgender issues. In fact there are several oblique references to a general who is quite probably either gender-fluid or trans (mtf) and is readily accepted by his peers.
I think the last time I read this book was several years previous, and since then I have become much more aware of the gender disparity in our country. I have watched women get passed over for promotion, and I have fought for better parity in pay. I have read study after study talking about the way in which women minimize themselves in the workforce so as to not be perceived as a threat, to be accepted and not dismissed as a bitch or worse. The same tactics that men use and are praised for, women are fired or reprimanded for. My mother, a woman who broke into an all-male industry right out of college, taught me several skills to succeed in life and work: how to read upside down so you can see what is on your boss’s desk; how to modulate tone of voice so people don’t have a negative reaction to what you have to say; how to state your opinions clearly and stand up for what you know is the right course of action. And somewhere in-between her lessons, school, and the world, I learned a different set of lessons: how to qualify what I am saying so people are more willing to listen; how to minimize confrontation so I am not at risk for retaliation; how to play the dumb blonde the better to steer interactions. How to minimize me in order to not be a threat. How to unruffle feathers in the work place by self-deprecation and demurring.
I didn’t even realize I had picked up most of these coping skills until people started to point them out. The first major realization came when my husband (then friend) pointed out that I used a lot of qualifiers in my writing, “just” and “so” and other verbal ticks that robbed by writing of its power and voice in an effort of minimize my opinions. It is still something I fight today, and he definitely doesn’t let me get away with, ever. Then I noticed that the way I interact with my coworkers included a lot of self-deprecation, happily shouldering non-existent blame to keep feathers unruffled. I move aside, physically and emotionally, in order to yield space to just about everybody, but when you keep doing that, you’re not left with any space for yourself. And so, I have spent a lot of the last few years opening back up, catching myself before I bow and scrape and diminish my self, and trying to help as many women as I can find their own feet, their own voice, and their own space in this male dominated world.
And I think that’s why this book hit me so hard this time. I read Polly’s last words and I started to cry. Jackrum’s little lads were given two choices at the beginning of the book: stay in their lives as women and diminish themselves every hour of over day to make more room in their world for the men who already had more than enough, or give up their femininity and become a man to combat it. I see women make that choice every day, and not in the literal transgender sense, but in the emotional and behavioral sense. They either chose to develop the same coping mechanisms I was talking about above in order to not crowd the boys, or they give up on being perceived as women and become just “one of the boys” in their company, metaphorically farting, burping, and taking up all the air in the room. Polly and Jade and Maladicta and Betty chose a third option: being women and not giving ground. They found strength in their femininity, they did not let the men nor the women who had become men nor the diminished women dictate what they were or how they could or should act. Instead they listened to their hearts and did what made them whole. They made their own space in the world and will not give it up for anything.
At the end of the novel, when Polly has finally come into her own and is on her way back into the fray, embracing her skirts, she is presented with the picture of her younger self, two young girls with the same two choices she was given: diminish or become masculine. She rejects both of these, neither telling the girls to go home or that they have to stuff a pair of socks in their trousers. First and foremost, she tells them they do actually have a choice, and there is nothing wrong with the choice they have made thus far, but there was a third option they were not aware of. No one ever tells girls there is a third option, to be female and strong. And Polly will help them do it.
It was weird to finally be able to articulate why this book meant so much to me growing up. Why all of Sir Terry’s books did. There were messages in them I didn’t even know I was receiving, wasn’t aware I needed. This was a message I needed to hear now, more than ever, and I finally had the knowledge and the cultural vocabulary to be able to understand what I had only brushed the surface of previously. It left me oddly satisfied and tearful, and with the certain knowledge that I want to be a Polly in this world. I already do my best to inhabit my corner fully, without minimization, without giving ground to those who demand it for no other reason than that they don’t think I need it. But more than that, I need to be a guide to other women, a beacon to young girls, saying, yes, the world has offered you two ways of being, and if you choose to follow either of those, that is your prerogative. But if you look over here, you can be female and strong, femme and strong, trans and strong, she or they and strong, if you want. And no matter what route you choose, I will be there for you, supporting you, helping you to the best of my ability because that is what women should do. We should build each other up, hold strong against those who would tear us down. Sir Terry understood the grace and power of being feminine and strong and I wish I could thank him for his clarity and wisdom, but I definitely know he would be happy to hear there was another Polly, thanks to him.
Things have been crazy busy for the beginning of the year, and I should totally catch you guys up on books I’m reviewing over at City Book Reviews, but for now, take a look at these four books that I totally recommend you should read:
John Scalzi’s Lock In was an absolute blast and I can’t wait for its sequel coming out this year. In a not so far future, an epidemic has swept across the globe, leaving millions of people completely paralyzed and entirely conscious. Its been long enough by the time we get to this book that people are well taken care of and neurological science has advanced far enough that the locked in people, or Haydens as they are referred to, have the ability to participate in online worlds and network with robotic bodies to interface with the world. This novel is a buddy cop drama featuring a Hayden in his robot body and his first week on the job as an FBI agent. Needless to say, it is a very rocky first week. This book had me laughing out loud repeatedly and I have the sequel reserved from the library for the moment it comes out.
The third installment of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti is just as engaging and fun as the first two novellas. If you haven’t picked this series up yet, do it, this conclusion is completely satisfying and well worth the time. I love how math is so advanced its basically magic at this point. I also love how, for once, I’m reading a far-off science fiction that takes into account tribal cultures that still exist and flourish and how that might impact future societal relations. So much fun.
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into with Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, as I am not normally a fan of alternative histories, but this was seriously well done. We maintain a discreet distance from the action, following a host of characters over the first few decades of a new country, Everfair, which was purchased away from King Leopold in an effort to rescue the Congo from his rubber trade as well as create a refuge for freed slaves. It a fascinating look at how cultures collide and what would have happened if the natural talents that were, in our history, destroyed, but here allowed to flourish. Its a bit quieter in tone and if you have trouble following multiple narratives or large time jumps, this probably isn’t the book for you, but it was certainly an interesting thought experiment.
Saved the best for last! Michael Strelow recently released his newest novel, Some Assembly Required, and it is a mind trip. To begin with, our narrator straight up informs us that he hears voices, no, not those kinds of voices, rather innocuous ones, but that definitely leaves the reader with some questions. It’s a fun, stream-of-consciousness adventure of this journalist/writer trying to figure out what is happening with a particularly odd science experiment in his home town. I can’t say much more before ruining the plot, so that’s all you get. I love the themes this explore about determination and evolution, and I definitely think it’s a fun read for those of the more science minded among us.
This one, if possible, is even better than the first. Binti is dealing with the emotional aftermath of her traumatic trip off Earth and decides to return home and complete her woman’s pilgrimage to recenter herself and reaffirm her tribal connection. This time, at least, the trip was uneventful, but once she gets home, nothing goes the way she had planned.
The writing is smoother in this sequel and the story is incredibly strong and fluid. I love the language and I love the voice Nnedi Okorafor has created for Binti in these stories. They are full of beautiful metaphor and evocative settings and peoples. I also love how math has gone so far it’s basically magic at this point.
It ends with another cliff hanger than made me gnash my teeth with frustration, but the third one, Binti: The Night Masquerade is due out in January, so at least I don’t have to wait very long! I am terrible at being patient for other authors to write books yet take my own sweet time with sequels, so I have no grounds on which to demand books faster, but I do love Okorafor’s work and I can’t wait to read more.
Yes, I am immersed solidly in NaNoWriMo, and yes, I am still finding enough time to read! It’s the only thing keeping my brain from collapsing in on itself as the words rush out–words rushing in! Last night I blasted past the 20% mark a full day ahead of schedule and I’ve been writing all day between work and chores. Hoping to get to 25% tonight, we’ll see if I manage it! But back to books…
When I was at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas one day, one of the other volunteers had a novella that they were reading called Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The cover caught my attention first for its striking composition and second because it implied a Black protagonist, which i am trying to actively seek out since it’s so rare in speculative fiction. I requested the book from my library and had to wait a few weeks to arrive, but when it did, I bolted through it.
The story and voice are striking from page one, and we are thrown into an Earth well beyond our current understanding. The main character belongs to a family of superior mathematicians and abandons her duty to her family to instead attend the most cherished university in the universe which requires leaving the only place she’s ever known as home. Needless to say, the journey to school is highly eventful and Binti must stretch her nearly psychic mathematical powers to their extremes in order to survive, while still staying true to her people and her home.
While on occasion the writing felt unpolished, it wasn’t enough to throw me out of the story, and I enjoyed every paragraph of this 90 page novella. There are strong themes of home, and what it means to leave it, a question which we are faced with more and more in this global economy and culture. Binti is strong and resourceful, and her situation is relatively unique in speculative fiction, and for once we have a protagonist resolving conflict with wit and words rather than through blasters. It was quite refreshing. I also loved how the alien race was truly alien, in all of their aspects, and yet, mathematics allowed them to communicate. That tickles the scientist in me quite a bit. I highly recommend taking the time to read this, and I very much look forward to its sequel, Binti: Home.
So when I was at Geek Girl Con, I stopped by the Razorgirl Press table to chat and picked up a couple of books, and since I finally made it through the list of books waiting to be reviewed for City Book Reviews, I was able to pick one of them up.
I started with Trace by Ian Smith. The lead, Joanne Shaughnessy, is a young woman who was adopted as a child from China by a family in Montana and grew up not only as an adopted minority, but also as an amputee missing her right hand…and any memory of why it was gone. The story picks up as Joanne is trying to build a new life in Seattle after college having moved in with her best friend from high school. During her quest to figure out a way to deal with her phantom limb sensations in her missing hand, Joanne ends up discovering that she has the ability to sense imprinted memories on objects and stumbles into a an ongoing power play between those who have this gift and those who wish they did.
The first thing I want to say about this book is that although the author is a white male, he does a remarkable job creating a nuanced and realistic female, Chinese-American amputee. Not once did I feel like he went for the easy and stereotypical descriptors, and Joanne is well represented in all of her aspects, all of which had valid story aspects and were not used for tokenization or fetishisaztion. In fact, if any of the characters were lacking in depth, it was the white males in the book. But even them I found believable. So congrats to Smith on threading that dangerous needle.
Beyond the excellent characterization, the story itself is fun and unique in its representation of a supernatural gift. The quiet suggestion that it is all a part of their chi and somehow related to her missing limb were well articulated and drove the story forward, especially how it worked together with neuroscience and technology. This was a definite page turner and I maybe spent more time reading it than I should have over the last few days.
The last thing I want to say is that this book also did an excellent job of characterizing Seattle (yay, hometown!) and the city came out feeling more like a character, more real, than I’ve found it in most other books set in the city. It was grounded, realistic, and all the little inside jokes about living in Seattle were well placed and utilized in the novel. As a (non-native) Seattleite, it rang true and was highly amusing. So thanks for that!
It does end with the suggestion of a sequel, so I’m hoping that might be in the works. I would definitely buy it when it came out!
As many of you already know, I’m an avid fan of K.B. Spangler and her OACET universe of stories and web comics. However, her new novel, Stoneskin, takes place in an entirely different universe than the OACET series, though one might argue for it being in the very far flung future of that very same world. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this newest novel, but turns out I was worrying needlessly. I made the mistake of starting the novel before bed, stayed up way too late, woke up early and was done reading it before lunch. And I want more; write faster, Spangler!
In Stoneskin, Tembi is a young bioformed human living on a planet far from the original Earth when she discovers that she has been selected by the Deep to be a Witch. Now, the Deep is a sentient life force, possibly other dimensional, with a puckish sense of humor that has decided it likes humanity and enjoys helping humanity spread through the star systems and the Witches it decides to communicate with and through are its envoys in our universe. Tembi is by far one of the youngest ever selected and it leads to an interesting and unorthodox training all leading to the eventual question as to why the Deep is changing its selection criteria and behaviors.
If that synopsis doesn’t intrigue you, it should. The plot is unique and fresh while at the same time drawing from masters such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert A. Heinlein. Characterization is excellent, with everybody having discreet and believable motivations, even the Deep, whom we don’t actually get to have a conversation with and is most often characterized by the colors, sounds, and scents it makes its attitudes known by. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly bite sized, and if you’re looking for a new dose of epic sci-fi, this is it. I cannot recommend it enough!
When I asked for recommendations on speculative authors who were not cis-gendered white men (for now and forever referred to as CGWM), I received several recommendations for N.K. Jemisin. Funnily enough, at the same time people were recommending her to me, my husband was at Powells buying me her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
It wasn’t the novel of hers I’d planned on starting with, but I’m glad to have gotten it as it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t sure as I started it whether I could get behind the voice, but it quickly became clear that the memory issues of the protagonist and the slightly stilted and disjointed storytelling had a definite purpose and it won out in the end. This novel is a story about a young woman who is brought back into the fold of her royal family after her mother’s death and who struggles to understand her family and personal history while politicians and gods alike try and use her for their own ends.
It is a fabulous story, with some excellent writing, and I am not surprised she has been in the running for several major awards; they are all well deserved. This story is at times poignant and sweet, and bloody and chaotic, and even a little bit (more than a little in one instance) sexy. If you like stories with strong female protagonists who take no nonsense and make their own space in their world, this is definitely a book for you. I highly recommend giving this a read.
One note on something I’ve noticed as I dive into this reading pattern: The female protagonists are all beautifully strong, but they also face cultural issues that I just don’t see protagonists of male authors facing: realistic subjugation due to sex through micro aggression. It is shockingly realistic in the books I’ve read by female authors thus far, and I never realized it was something that was missing until I finally read it. There is something just so much more real about their struggle to me than most of the speculative fiction I have read before, and it makes the endings of the books just that much more satisfying for me when the ladies come out on top.
So I have decided I end up reading way too much fiction by white cis-gendered American men, so I am beginning a journey to read as much speculative fiction by authors that are NOT somehow in that category in one way or another. Preferably in multiple ways. To start off, I give you The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.
This was a fun, wild, and surprising ride through a revolution of identity for bots, humans, and demigods alike. I really can’t say enough good about this book: The setting is vivid and engrossing, and as an American it is just alien enough to set loose my expectations and allow full immersion in the crazy clashing of singularity and mythology. The characters are beautifully developed, and even though we are constantly jumping perspectives from chapter to chapter, everybody is fully 3-dimensional with their own unique motivations and beliefs and I was never lost in the jumps. The story itself is amazingly wrought, with several twists and turns and the feel of a vortex–the deeper you get the faster you move. And it all spins down to one brilliant point of intensity before flaring out into a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.
I definitely recommend you give this beauty a read. I’ve got a few more on my list of to-reads, and a few I’ve already read and am reviewing for City Book Review (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and A Tyranny of Queens) and I will post those reviews here once they are live!