THE FAIRIES OF SADIEVILLE by Alex Bledsoe

A new review over at Tor.com:

Bledsoe’s prose, as always, is carefully precise and elegantly measured, a delight to read. But The Fairies of Sadieville feels more scattered and less unified than his previous Tufa novels, without—it seems to me—a compelling through-line to draw the whole work together. Thematically and in terms of characterisation, the book feels slight, lacking the depth of its predecessors. Its strands are woven together without the deftness of connection that I hope for in a Bledsoe book, failing to support each other for the maximum tension or strength of feeling. It’s not quite all that one desires in the capstone volume of a series with the Tufa series’ strengths.

THE BARROW WILL SEND WHAT IT MAY by Margaret Killjoy

A new review over at Tor.com:

Killjoy’s prose is clean and precise, elegantly atmospheric. The Barrow Will Send What It May is a brisk and entertaining read, and I recommend it. It’s complete in itself, but it feels like a continuing installment of an ongoing adventure—and I hope this means that there will be more Danielle Cain novellas to come.

STARFIRE: MEMORY’S BLADE by Spencer Ellsworth

A new review over at Tor.com:

Memory’s Blade is a fast, punchy story that packs an awful lot of boom into a relatively small space. It wraps up the whole Starfire storyline in a series of surprising revelations, startling choices, and complicated emotions.

But like its predecessors in this trilogy, I can’t help feeling that Memory’s Blade takes a bit too much of a breakneck approach to pacing.

 

PRIDE AND PROMETHEUS by John Kessel

A new review over at Tor.com:

This is a fine, measured novel, deeply interested in the social conditions and conventions of its setting, and deeply interested, too, in human nature and human frailty.

It’s not nearly as fun as Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (Saga, 2017), which is working with some of the same influences—revisioning 19th-century popular fiction from a point of view that emphasises women’s choices and agency, and which interrogates the assumptions of the original texts.

 

SEMIOSIS by Sue Burke

A new review over at Tor.com:

Semiosis is Sue Burke’s first novel. It’s a braided narrative, taking place over several human generations, and involves questions of community, communication, power, civilisation, memory, history, and compromise. For all its ambition, Semiosis is a fairly slender volume. It’s also an easy read, and a pretty compelling one.

 

MARKSWOMAN by Rati Mehrotra

A new review over at Tor.com. I did not greatly enjoy this book. I rather disliked it, unfortunately.

Markswoman is Rati Mehrotra’s debut novel. It’s also a book I really wish I’d enjoyed, because its big idea—sword-wielding telepathic lady assassins enforce the law while having internal politics that might involve murder!—is the kind of thing that feels like it should be tailor-made to appeal to me. And yet, reading Markswoman felt like a chore, a book that could only be read a couple of pages at a time, because its voice was about as compelling as old cardboard.

 

Sleeps With Monsters: Time Travel and Living Ships

A new column over at Tor.com:

The difference between a really good novella and an excellent one lies partly in the ability of the author to make the ending feel right, inevitable, and a satisfactory conclusion to all that has come before. There are other differences (and some of these are also differences between a good novella and a bad one, depending on how they arise), and this statement is also true for a lot of novellas. But if there’s a difference between Kelly Robson’s really good Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach (Tor.com Publishing) and Aliette de Bodard’s excellent The Tea Master and the Detective (Subterranean Press), it’s that Robson’s ending feels right and inevitable, but not satisfactory, while de Bodard’s ticks all three boxes.

Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., POSTCOLONIAL AMAZONS: FEMALE MASCULINITY AND COURAGE IN ANCIENT GREEK AND SANSKRIT LITERATURE

Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., Postcolonial Amazons: Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016.

I watched this book on Oxford University Press’s website for months, before and after its publication, until the point at which I could — barely — justify a purchase. Postcolonial Amazons promises so much: “a ground-breaking re-evaluation of the place of martial women in the ancient world, bridging the gap between myth and historical reality and expanding our conception of the Amazon archetype.” It promises me a treatment of Amazons that uses a postcolonial frame to examine the periphery of the Greek world and the Indian one, a book that employs both Greek and Sanskrit literature to revision notions of “the Amazon” in the ancient world.

Any scholar who attempts such a treatment requires both depth and breadth of knowledge. Most of the archaeological evidence for Scythian and Sarmatian burials — which are two of the cultures most closely associated with the idea of Amazons, and which have provided female warrior burials — has been published in Russian, and some scholars have argued that surviving Central Asia epic cycles from the middle ages and later may preserve some clues about ancient cultures in the trans-Caucasus and the region of Georgia and Armenia. Indian history — especially the Mauryan and Gupta periods, and the time contemporaneous with the Hellenistic kingdoms in Bactria — and Sanskrit literature is its own well-developed field about which I know little (though I have tried to get access to the more recent works on Hellenistic Bactria), while a diachronic survey of Greek and Roman literature concerning not just Amazons but women who have participated in war — or who have accessed some form of masculinity — may require the knowledge of a career’s worth of study, especially if one is to speak of “female masculinity” in the ancient world and counterpoint it with “male femininity” — for it seems to me to make little sense to attempt to understand the one without the other.

Walter Duvall Penrose Jr. has some promising ideas, and connects them with moderate success. But throughout, Postcolonial Amazons feels much slighter than it should be, and much less underpinned by direct engagement with its sources. Let me take an example: Penrose cites Pomeroy on women in Hellenistic Egypt instead of directly engaging with the papyri that would have supported his argument in the early pages of this book, and this approach — cite an author who has already done some of the work, like Adrienne Mayor with The Amazons, which could have used more direct engagement with the Russian archaeological sources, or like Lindoff and Rubinson’s Are All Warriors Male? Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppe, without peeling back the layers to make an independent examination of the material on which they base their conclusions, or at least to show that Penrose considered that material on his own — persists throughout. I cannot speak to the whole of Penrose’s work, but where I have some knowledge of the field, the lack of substantial and extended engagement with scholarship in languages other than French and English is notable (and for that matter, Penrose fails to nod to French archaeological work in Central Asia where it might give weight to some of his arguments).

Postcolonial Amazons feels more like a survey sprinkled with theory that, by and large, mystifies rather than illuminates — and I’ve read quite a bit of theory-heavy work in my time. It’s not that difficult to get a feel for when the theory is genuinely integrated with the material and supporting it, and when the material and the theory are a bit like roommates who live mostly separate lives, passing each other with witty asides and sidelong glances but lacking a really unified approach to their household. It’s a decent survey, and one with some interesting ideas (though Penrose is hobbled by the “let me tell you what I’m doing, no let me tell you what I am about to tell you” style of academic writing, which does his work no favours) but one that tantalises with glimpses of what it could have delivered, had it managed to pull off a deeper and more joined-up engagement with both literature and archaeology.  (I cannot help but wonder, here, whether Penrose might have managed a more satisfying book in an academic system that did not put so much pressure on its denizens to publish early and often, or whether he was simply not aiming to produce that kind of work — but failed to communicate that to me in his opening chapters.)

Yet there is food for thought here, in the connections that Penrose sketches but does not draw out in detail. It is a book worth reading — though perhaps not to the extent of paying sixty euro for the privilege — and one whose sketches and preliminary arguments I hope other scholars will use as springboards for their research. And some of the Indian material was an entire revelation to me, since it deals with matters of which I have been entirely ignorant.

Maybe one day, someone will write me a really satisfying work about the idea and the reality of Amazons in the ancient world. I’m going to keep looking.

HAMILTON’S BATTALION, by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole

Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole, Hamilton’s Battalion. Independently published, 2017. Ebook.

The story of how I got to read Hamilton’s Battalion is actually a little bit of a saga, involving wrestling with Kobo in order to get access to the epub to read in Adobe Digital Editions, ultimately failing, and reading it on my phone. One’s phone is not, I find, an ideal platform on which to read interesting narratives…

That aside, Hamilton’s Battalion is based on an interesting conceit. It consists of three novellas, whose characters are all in some fashion connected with Alexander Hamilton’s troops during the battle of Yorktown — or in the case of the third novella, with Hamilton’s family after his death. These are inclusive romances: the first novella involves an estranged Jewish married couple who — despite Rachel having faked her death and enlisted under a male pseudonym — find each other again in the confusion of war, fall in love (perhaps really for the first time) and negotiate a better relationship; the second is an interracial love story between a rather peculiar white English officer (and deserter) and a black soldier from the colonial forces as they travel together in the aftermath of the battle of Yorktown (it also involves cheese: literal cheese); and the third is a romance between two black women, one of whom acts as secretary/maid to Hamilton’s widow after his death (as she collects material for a hagiographical biography), the other of whom is a dressmaker and small-business-owner.

Much to my disappointment, Alyssa Cole’s “That Could Be Enough” — the romance between two women — is the weakest story of the three. The characters do not feel rooted in their period, and their sexual mores and attitudes feel more modern than my impression of their time should allow. (Heather Rose Jones would know more, though.) But that aside, the pacing is weak, and it is a romance of the kind where if people just fucking talked to each other, there’d be no narrative tension at all.

(Seriously. Romances where people just need to have an honest conversation to solve all their problems are really frustrating. At least give people different goals and worldviews, things they need to negotiate and reconcile in order to be together, right?)

Rose Lerner’s “Promised Land” and Courtney Milan’s “The Pursuit Of…” are each in their own ways utter delights, though. In “Promised Land,” Rachel Mendelsohn has enlisted in the revolutionary army, and is now a corporal under the name of Ezra Jacobs. When she sees her husband, Nathan (who believes she’s dead), she has him arrested as a Loyalist spy — for that’s what she believes he is. But the truth is more complicated than that, and — thrown together by their new circumstance — they come to a new understanding of each other, of the circumstances that led Rachel to find their marriage intolerable, and of what led them each to where they are now. With a lot of mutual hurts and differences in how they viewed life to overcome — and also some of the difficulties of being Jewish with different attitudes towards Jewish dietary and religious practice, and of being Jewish among goyim — their journey towards new romance isn’t smooth. But it is rewarding.

“The Pursuit Of…” features Corporal John Hunter, a black man from Rhode Island, and Henry Latham, an English officer who so desperately does not want to return home that he would rather die than face the prospect. An officer, moreover, who has latched on to the ideas contained in the American Declaration of Independence and who believes in them with the fervour of the freshly-converted. On a journey together from Yorktown to Rhode Island, Henry comes face to face with what his ideals really ought to mean, in practice, and the gap between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and practice in America. And John realises this white guy isn’t like most other white guys. From different backgrounds and with different experiences of the world, they end up falling in love. Milan’s trademark deftness of character is on full display here — as well as the humour that she’s used to excellent effect before.

The cheese. Good heavens, the cheese.

All in all, I recommend this wee collection. It’s worth a look.

Women Who Love Women: October Dispatches from FF Romance

Ronica Black, Under Her Wing, and Karis Walsh, Set the Stage. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

Every month, as you may recall, I go to look at the Bold Strokes Books ARCs on Netgalley. Every month I hope to be surprised by something that takes my breath away with its quality.

Most months, I’m what you might describe as hideously disappointed.

For October, most of the offerings weren’t even entertainingly bad. (Though at least one, true to form, opens in transit, and yet more feature women with traditionally masculine names. Not that this is a criterion of badness: it’s just a pattern I’ve been noting.) Most of them are merely boringly bad, with the mediocre lack of any kind of life or competent writing that is pervasive in FF romance — much as I really wish it wasn’t.

However! There are two books that I can commend to your attention. One isn’t what I’d call good — it’s passable, though better than the rest — but the other is actually pretty compelling.

Ronica Black’s Under Her Wing is the book that’s passable. Kassandra is a school librarian — growing increasingly dissatisfied with her job and her life — who’s always thought she’s straight. When her dog goes missing after a break-in, she meets the owner of a no-kill shelter. Jayden, said owner, is a lesbian who plays the field with abandon, and comes on really strong to Kassandra due to a mix-up involving Jayden’s best friend Mel constantly setting her up with other women. After this initial misunderstanding, Kassandra starts volunteering at the shelter, and the two of them grow closer — not without some truly terrible miscommunications and misunderstandings. In the background lurks the Chekov’s gun of Kassandra’s break-in, and the resolution of this plot element is perhaps the weakest part of a not very strong book.

The other book is Karis Walsh’s Set the Stage. After getting out of a toxic relationship where she put her dreams on indefinite hold in order to support her girlfriend, Emilie Danvers finally has a chance to get back into professional acting. With a one-year contract for a place in a company in Oregon that performs plays for a long festival, she’s determined not to let anything get in her way. She’s doubting herself enough without the addition of romance. But romance is exactly what she finds, in the person of Arden Phillips, an employee of the park in and around which a lot of the festival plays take place. Arden has a history of theatre people leaving her: she was raised by her grandparents after her director father and actor mother left to pursue their careers in various cities around the world.

But her attractive to Emilie — and Emilie’s attraction to her — is instant and mutual. Though both of them try to keep things platonic, their friendship swiftly escalates to more. But Emilie’s career goals (and insecurities) and Arden’s background stand between them and any longer-term happiness. They’re each going to work out what they really want, and what they’re willing to give up, if they’re going to stay together.

Walsh’s strongest point is her characters. Set the Stage‘s protagonists feel real and human, and the barriers between them and a lasting relationship aren’t the kind that can simply be cleared up by a single honest conversation. That makes for a pretty decent romance. It’s still not quite my style of thing: I’m not especially fond of contemporaries that don’t have anything else but the romance plot going on. But it’s better than okay.

THE RAJ AT WAR by Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Vintage. London, 2016. (First published 2015.)

It hadn’t occurred to me until I heard of The Raj at War that India must have been central, and centrally important, to the Allies’ efforts in World War II — particularly once East Asia became an active theatre of war, with the Japanese attack on Hawaii in 1941 and the invasion of Burma in 1942. Indian regiments and Indian soldiers fought in all major theatres of war, and the fact that their contributions are not strongly remembered is a failure of historiography — almost as great a failure of historiography as the ones which meant I knew about the famines in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Greece under Nazi occupation, but not about the Bengal famine in India during the war: a famine ignored by Churchill and made worse by the action and inaction of British politicians and civil servants.

The Raj at War tells the story of World War II from an Indian perspective. It’s a relatively short book to cover a continent’s experience of six years of war: 416 pages including the end matter and index. Khan is a careful writer, and a skilled one: her brevity feels efficient, rather than forced, and she moves from grand overview to focusing in on a particular person or detail with great smoothness. This is history writing at its best, and it’s no fault of Khan’s — indeed, it is much to her credit — that my strongest reaction is: but I want to know MORE!

Khan’s account ranges from the start of the war, when the British empire mobilised its Indian regiments, through the changes in Indian society that resulted from the Raj working to put India on a total war footing, to the challenges and changes to the Raj’s traditional class and race systems, the mass mobilisation of labour, the hardship and suffering undergone by many, and the widespread tension between an empire that said it was fighting for “freedom” and the Indian people to whom it refused to listen or engage with on the question of self-rule or independence — tension that would in the end lead to the British withdrawal from India.

This is not a book about Indian regiments on the battlefield, or indeed a book about battles at all. It is more an overview of the social developments that occurred and social conditions that prevailed in India as a consequence of India’s experience of being a British possession during WWII. And, in consequence, some of the political developments during that time.

Yasmin Khan has also written a book about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan). With this in mind, it is easy to understand why at times her account of India’s war experience tends towards the teleological, particularly with respect to the changes in Indian nationalism and nationalist feeling during this time. The Raj at War does that thing of so many history books, where because something momentous did happen, the narrative defaults to the assumption that it was unavoidable that it would happen, which is a historiographical tendency that deeply annoys me.

That said, this is a really interesting and compelling piece of history-writing. I learned a great deal from it — so much that even to summarise the highlights could go on for pages. It’s fascinating, and I recommend it highly.

Women Who Love Women: November Dispatches From FF Romance

Gun Brooke, Arrival, and Carsen Taite, A More Perfect Union. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

This month’s set of offerings (care of the Bold Strokes Books’ Netgalley page) are largely unobjectionably boring. We’re mostly short on the hilariously awful — as far as I can tell from first chapters, and barring Shea Godfrey’s laughably overdramatic opening to King of Thieves — and long on the deeply uninspired prose and tediously poor characterisation.

I’m cruel because I care. Let’s be fair: lesbian romance needs to up its game if it’s going to play for a bigger slice of the romance market pie. It’s not going to manage that without paying a lot more attention to the craft of catching a reader’s attention. Many readers aren’t short of other options.

I finished two novels out of the six (or was it eight? They blur together) that were available this month. One of those was Gun Brooke’s Arrival, the latest novel in a science fiction romance series. The other is Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union, a romance between a military officer involved in investigating misconduct at an officers’ training school in Washington, and a political fixer who has no reason to trust the military. Neither of these novels were actually good, mind you — though A More Perfect Union was tolerably okay — but they shared one feature that set them apart from their peers this month. Their characters were interesting and had personality. And not the kind of personality that makes you want to throw them off a cliff, either.

Gun Brooke’s Exodus series, of which Arrival is the latest instalment, is terrible science fiction. The worldbuilding is shoddy and inconsistent, the technology hasn’t been thought through, and the ongoing political situation is of the “throw a bunch of terrorist threats and racism analogies at the ceiling with no particular co-ordination and see what sticks”  sort. There’s a large, well-organised group of people who’ve left their homeworld on a colony ship because they don’t like the fact it’s being taken over by “changers” — mutants, basically, like the X-men, who seem to have been fighting the government for a while. But wait! There are also “good” changers, some of whom have hidden themselves aboard the Exodus vessel. Fortunately, it seems, because the bad changers have been trying to sabotage the project from the get-go.

The worldbuilding’s a hot mess, basically. And Arrival is also a hot mess structurally. But it has a pair of interesting characters.

Lieutenant Pamas Seclan was held captive by hostile changers for years before she escaped. She forged identity documents to get herself aboard the Exodus project, hoping to be able to reconnect with her adult children, Aniwyn and Pherry, at the end of the journey. (Her children were left to grow up under the debatable care of her abusive husband.) Aniwyn is now known as Spinner, and a Commander in the military. But Pamas’s hopes of peaceful reconciliation with her children are dashed when the new colony’s medical facilities are attacked with a virulently dangerous substance.

Darmiya Do Voy is a scientist and a member of the advance team that helped get the colony ready to receive colonists. Her homeworld was destroyed and she’s one of only a handful of survivors. She’s also one of Spinner’s best friends, which makes things awkward when she and Pamas immediately find themselves forging a connection. As the two of them negotiate Pamas’s complicated past and her relationship with her daughter, they find themselves at the forefront of attempts to defend the colony from the antagonistic changers.

The plot as a whole doesn’t make any sense, I should tell you. But the characters and their arc are entertaining and fun.

Meanwhile, Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union features Major Zoey Granger, an officer who blew the whistle on fraudulent dealings at her base. A chance meeting with political fixer Rook Daniels as Granger’s en route to testify before Congress results in a fast-growing attraction between the two women. When Granger’s reassigned to work at the Pentagon — and when her first job is investigating some young officers whose potential misdeeds are likely to have political complications — she and Daniels meet again professionally, and this professional relationship is somewhat antagonistic. Both of them are convinced that the other is holding back relevant information, and that the other doesn’t understand the real picture. They also find it difficult to trust each other on a personal, relationship level. When a Pentagon officer commits suicide, things get even more dangerous.

A More Perfect Union is tolerable romantic suspense, but it too is off-balance structurally and pacing-wise, and its characters, apart from its romantic leads, are thin and two-dimensional. But its romantic leads have characters, and their growth from miscommunication and mistrust towards mutuality is treated reasonably well. I wouldn’t say run out and read it now — but of Bold Strokes Books’ available romances this month, this one might well be the best.

VALIANT DUST by Richard Baker

A new review over at Tor.com:

Sikander Singh North is a prince of a planet that is, essentially, a colonial protectorate of the powerful space nation of Aquila. He’s been an officer in the Aquilan Commonwealth navy for ten years, and has now received the position of gunnery department head aboard the light cruiser Hector. He’s junior for the post, and several of his colleagues disapprove of him on grounds of where he comes from. Fortunately, he has a mostly sympathetic captain, but he must prove himself to some of his direct superiors.

 

KA: DAR OAKLEY IN THE RUINS OF YMR by John Crowley

A new review over at Tor.com that I am belated about sharing, because I spent the weekend in Limerick:

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is the most baffling novel I can remember reading. (It may not be the most baffling book, but that’s because I worked my way through Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice and Outline of a Theory of Practice, the latter of which contains an oxymoron in its very title). At the prose level, it’s beautiful. Thematically, it seems to be a story about stories and, perhaps, also about death: about change and changelessness.
Buy it Now

Maybe. I’m not sure.

THE BLOODPRINT by Ausma Zehanat Khan

A new review, over at Tor.com:

I wanted to like it [The Bloodprint] more than I did. In terms of voice, characterisation, and prose style, it feels not quite cooked yet: it only begins to feel like it gels together into something greater than the sum of its disparate parts in the last 100 pages (quite late for 400-page-plus book), just in time for it to cliffhanger on the way to volume two. I’m an old and jaded critic, and I have come to prefer books that feel narratively satisfying within a single volume, even if they are clearly part one, than books that feel as though they stopped more because they ran out of room than they reached a natural break point.