Democracy Awakening by Heather Cox Richardson 📚

This book is in part a compilation of the history, ideas, and themes which the author presents in the widely read Letters from an American Substack newsletter, in part an introduction and jumping off place for that newsletter, and in part a strong statement arguing for equality, democracy, and the preservation of the “liberal consensus” as the basis of politics in this country. The writing is clear and direct, arguing that when the federal government acts to help the disadvantaged that society as a whole benefits, rich and poor alike; but when wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of the few, when public programs are curtailed to prevent minorities from benefiting, when the country abandons the principles of democracy and equality, then only the elite few reap the benefits and the rest of us must deal with declining living standards, loss of opportunity, and in the worst cases conflict and war.

The Civil War is the fulcrum on which the narrative turns, the primary example of minority rule and race-based privilege leading to catastrophic consequences. Before the election of Lincoln the federal government was controlled by a minority consisting of enslavers and their enablers, people who thought it not only right but necessary to own other humans, people who claimed that the Declaration was wrong about that “all men are created equal” nonsense. They used many of the same tools still present today to maintain that control: disenfranchisement, the unrepresentative Senate, and the Electoral College; wealth was highly concentrated in the hands of the few, and the vast enslaved population owned literally nothing; the ratio of rich to poor was effectively infinite. But this vast inequality did not lead to prosperity, even for the few; they refused to compromise their addiction to human enslavement, despite a clear majority of the country opposing it, as evidenced by the election of Lincoln, and instead plunged into a bloody and disastrous war.

The book draws many parallels between that time and this, and explores how the same ideas which lead to succession are still present in the current discourse, including the use of violent insurrection to attempt to subvert the results of an election. It does contain some glimmers of hope, tracing some of the more progressive political movements of the past and how they continue to this day, but I don’t feel that I understand how the two political parties transformed over the past century, and in particular how the GOP went from Lincoln to Trump, from abolition to fascism. It is a strange, dark time we live in.

Recommended.

Book cover for Democracy Awakening by Heather Cox Richardson, line-art drawing of Liberty’s torch with a rainbow gradient background.

An Immense World by Ed Yong 📚

This is a wonderful book which has taken me far too long to read due to the vagaries of library ebook holds. The author is a long-time science journalist who has taken the time to survey the history and current frontiers of research in non-human perception, including a wide range of in-person interviews, both in the lab and the field. The writing is spare, expressive, and detailed, with copious footnotes, many pages of citations, a huge bibliography, and a comprehensive index. There are also a number of color photos (collected at the back of the ebook edition).

The book is organized in the logical fashion, covering each sense starting with the canonical five, which we humans have at least a chance of understanding, but then venturing into more exotic realms of echolocation, electroreception, and magnetoreception. The fundamental thesis is how difficult it is to really understand how other species actually perceive the world using senses which are so different in range, sensitivity, and even fundamental nature from our own, but by giving many examples and discussing how the science has evolved I felt I had at least made a start. Even the same sense can manifest in different ways, with a wide variety of sensory nerves and mechanisms, making it clear that there is no one true way to sense the world around us.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but to give a couple of examples I was very interested in the discussion of the technical aspects of bat echolocation, which includes shifts in frequency and cadence which allow bats to zero in on insects in mid-air in complete darkness. And the discussion of how octopus nervous systems are wired up, allowing each arm to operate in a semi-autonomous fashion, leads to interesting ideas about how these highly intelligent creatures think, and how their minds might differ from our own centralized versions.

The book does end with a warning; having discussed how many different ways there are to perceive the world, we learn how human disruption of the environment can cause terrible harm to other creatures, in the form of light, sound, and electric field pollution. The bad news is that these threats to ecosystems get much less attention that the traditional chemical pollutants and global climate change; the good news is that they are much easier to correct: just turn down the lights, reduce the noise, and simply take into account the senses of our fellow earthlings. And when the world is less illuminated and noisy we arrogant humans will benefit as well from the dark and quiet, allowing us to again see the stars and hear the sounds of nature.

Highly recommended.

Book cover for An Immense World by Ed Yong,close-up of a monkey’s face looking up at a blue butterfly.

Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway 📚

This is another fast read, an old-fashioned detective story in the vein of Sam Spade, but set in a dystopian future where political and economic power rest in a handful of nearly immortal bioengineered humans, known as Titans in part due to their more than human stature, a side effect of the bioengineering process which grants youth, long life, and physical strength, but doesn’t seem to do much for wisdom and intelligence; there is still betrayal, intrigue, and murder.

That’s where our protagonist comes in, an entirely human private detective with personal contacts in both the non-engineered general population and the oversized elites. When there is a crime involving Titans he is the one the police turn too, although not with much enthusiasm, to navigate the complicated relationships between the two societies. He is everything you would expect in a hard-boiled detective: sarcastic, loyal, and clever enough to solve the crime; but although he is cynical enough to recognize the inequitable structure of society, he doesn’t seem to really appreciate how the absolute power of the Titans corrupts everything they touch.

By the end of the case we meet a host of colorful supporting characters, plausible suspects, and red herrings, along with several action sequences in which things don’t always go the detective’s way. It is a page turner in the old-fashioned sense, with each section raising questions or providing hints that surely can be resolved by reading just a bit more. As with all detective stories things are tied up in the conclusion, but I felt that the resolution doesn’t really address the horror and immorality of the biologically stratified world.

Recommended.

Book cover for Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway, featureless white silhouette of a head wearing a black hat, paint drips running off the bottom, against a bright green background.

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed 📚

This is an even shorter book which I added to my library queue last month, written by a Texas-born historian of slavery in the United States, and exploring her personal relationship with the mythology and history of the state of Texas, the origin and subsequent celebration of Juneteenth, and what life was like growing up Black in a society where White is the “norm.”

One of the important points she discusses is how the traditional history of the US presents slavery as an aberration of the deep past which only affected a few unimportant (Black) people, and that the entire history of Black people in American can be reduced to that enslavement. In fact many people of African descent were on the continent well before 1619, most of them speaking languages other than English; there have always been communities of free Black people in all parts of the nascent United States; and the entire economic development of the country, in the North as well as the South, depended on the unreimbursed labor of the enslaved.

In the best of all worlds Juneteenth would be a reaffirmation of the Declaration’s central principal that “all men are created equal,” later codified in the 14th Amendment (and someday perhaps joined by the ERA as the 28th), and enforced by legislation and policies which address and correct the inequalities under which so many have lived for so long. By removing barriers which have prevented a large portion of our citizens from reaching their true potential we can at last reach the goal of “the pursuit of happiness” together.

Definite recommend.

Book cover for On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, light brown parchment pattern with a very faint vintage map as a background.

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi 📚

This is a very quick read, especially when you are stuck on a cross-country plane trip. I also learned in the author’s afterword that it was written over a few weeks, which is not to say this is a bad thing, but the story is fast paced and doesn’t spend much time on self-reflection or character development; we just go straight to the concept, put everybody in terrible danger, and then wrap things up in the end.

The book can be accurately summarized simply as “what if Godzilla was real?” The author spends some exposition time providing highly implausible explanations for how this could happen, which is not all that different from the “dimensional rift” of Pacific Rim, but in this world there are only a few monster incursions before the human world creates a multinational bureaucracy to cover up and manage the problem, something which seems much more in humanity’s wheelhouse than giant robots. The story is presented as taking place in our current world, including the Covid pandemic a plot point; the reality of kaiju is a secret known to only a few, and most of the action takes place on the other side of the dimensional barrier.

And that action is pretty much the whole story; there isn’t really any time spent on relationships, most of the dialog is wisecracks, and there is very little backstory for any of the characters. It’s all in fun and escapist to the max.

Not sure I would recommend but it is a quick read, and a Hugo nominee this year.

Book cover for The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi, closeup of a plastic ID badge with the book title in large letters and tropical leaves in the background.

Harrow the Ninth and Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir 📚

I read the first book in this series (Gideon the Ninth) some time ago, and actually read the second (Harrow the Ninth) at some point but didn’t write a post, and now as soon as I finished the third volume (Nona the Ninth) I went back and re-read the first two in order to try and understand what the heck was going on. Yes, it is that complicated. It seems possible that I will need to do it again once the next (and perhaps concluding?) book comes out. So the following comments cover all three published volumes (the story so far) and may contain spoilers at least for the first.

Much of my confusion results in the structure of the two narratives; each book continues the timeline of the previous from the point of view of Harrowhark Nonagesimus but (and here is the major spoiler) it turns out that Harrow’s point of view is an extreme example of an unreliable narrator, not because Harrow is a liar (she is loyal and honest) but because her fundamental personality has been changed and modified by earlier events to the point where she herself doesn’t really remember what has happened to herself and her companion/rival Gideon. More of my confusion has to do with which characters are dead and which are still living, as in the cosmology of the series death is still final but is a transition rather than an ending.

And as the story progresses we are also learning more of the backstory of this cosmology. In Harrow we meet the God-Emperor and his remaining Lyctors, near immortal necromancers of immense power, opposed by immense Resurrection Beasts created in the deep past as a result of a vague necromantic cataclysm. The author does a good job of presenting these ten-thousand-year-old characters as a strange mix of human and transhuman, although that transhumanity and Harrow’s mental confusion does make it difficult to infer what their true motives are. The final chapters resolve some mysteries but introduce several new ones, as it becomes obvious that Harrow and Gideon have been caught up in the long range plots of the immortals and are only beginning to understand their roles (as was I as a reader).

But when we get to Nona it turns out that (spoilers again) Harrow’s partial reintegration at the end of Harrow has gone wrong and she now has to relearn almost everything, having lost much of her memory of previous events. Some of the deep backstory of the Emperor is revealed in literal dream sequences, which I have have to assume can’t be relied on as a source of truth. Several of the characters from the previous stories appear here in new roles, and in the end it isn’t at all clear what has happened to any of them, including Harrow. Will the next volume resolve this question? We can’t really rely on Harrow to know what is going on, having traveled through so many transformations, obscure statements from immortals, confusing dreams, and several trips to and from the afterlife.

It’s hard to nail down the central theme of these linked stories; at one level we have an Emperor with strange powers opposed by a rebellion; at another level a coming of age story for Harrow and Gideon, young people with their own emerging powers thrown into a battle they don’t understand; and then there is the entire question of death and what comes after, the question of what each character owes to other people or society, and what each is prepared to do in order to gain or retain absolute power over the scattered worlds of humanity. Death and necromancy are the absolute power in this universe, and it seems that absolute power corrupts those who use it in strange and inhuman ways; can Harrow and her friends overcome that inhumanity without themselves becoming the enemy they are opposing?

Clearly I recommend these books, but I also suggest waiting for the next before even starting on the first. Also make sure to read all of the additional content at the end of Harrow before starting Nona.

Book cover for Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, a figure wearing a black body suit with a bone cuirass and face painted in a skull mask, with skeletons in the background. Book cover for Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, a figure in a dark dress flanked by a white dog and a skeleton, with planets in the sky behind.

Witch King by Martha Wells 📚

Everybody loves Murderbot, but Martha Wells writes other stories, including this recent novel set in a new fantasy world with complex magic, a great deal of (as yet) unexplored backstory, and varied set of characters with complex relationships and histories. Yet despite the completely different setting and cast there are several themes in common; the central character has a unique background which separates him from the surrounding world, but at the same time has strong personal relationships with a found family which anchors him there.

The structure is also different from the linear first person narrative of the Murderbot stories, following two different timelines separated by a number of years, the earlier story exploring the beginning of political and family relationships, the later a story of conflict against a mysterious conspiracy which threatens both. There is plenty of magical combat, with several different schools of magic, each with strengths and weaknesses, but without tedious exposition explaining each type in detail; the characters just accept magic as part of their world and use it to advance their aims, rather than sitting around discussing how it works.

Bouncing back and forth between timelines allows parts of both stories to provide context for the other, as we see the same people at different point in their story arcs. My only complaint is that I would like to see more about how the relationships begin, I felt like the earlier story line shortchanged the establishment of bonds of friendship and love at the expense of those big magical battles.

This book clearly establishes a framework for a series of stories, filling in the gap between the two timelines and continuing the battle against the conspiracy, which has received a setback but is certainly not vanquished.

Recommended (assuming that we get more in the series).

Book cover for Witch King by Martha Wells, a close up view of a figure in a dark blue robe with gold trim on the hood, hand outstretched.

The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher 📚

I read the first of these books in installments over the last few weeks, and then the second while traveling on a recent out of town trip. They are two of a pair, both horror-fantasy stories, both told entirely in first person, and both about traveling outside the bounds of the commonplace world. I greatly enjoyed several of the author’s other more fairy-tale oriented fantasies, and wanted to give these a try.

In The Twisted Ones we follow Mouse as she travels back to her late grandmother’s house to clear out the remains of a long secluded life, a task which she is taking on accompanied only by her dog, and which turns out to be much more complicated than she anticipated in several ways. First, her grandmother was a hoarder, with piles of old newspapers, boxes of useless objects, and an entire room filled with creepy old dolls; but although at first this has the feel of a ghost story, she quickly learns that the otherworldly events which she encounters are of a different kind altogether, as she follows her dog up a mysterious path and ends up in a different place, with hills and strange standing stones, clearly not part of the flatlands near the house. The rest of the story is clearly Mythos-adjacent, as she has to make difficult decisions on how to deal with the strange and unexpected encounters on the other side. As with the author’s other fantasies the world building is first rate, the other world is very other, the characters are engaging, and the writing excellent.

In The Hollow Places we follow Carrot as she travels back to her uncle’s combination house and museum of oddities to act as caretaker while he is in the hospital for knee surgery, and yes this does sound suspiciously similar to the other book. The museum itself put me in mind of the Mystery Shack from Gravity Falls (if you haven’t watched this excellent animated series you should give it a try), but the invasion of the otherworldly is even more threatening, and the peril to Carrot and her companion even more dire. This version is even more Mythos-influenced, and the thread of the story even more convoluted, taking a number of unexpected turns (although yes, the maguffin does turn out to be the obvious one, not much of a spoiler I’m afraid). We spend more time in the other world, which takes on a much larger and more inhuman dimension which is as horrifying as any Mythos stories I have read, and better thought out than most.

There are other parallels between the two plots (and other works in the genre); both make use of quotes from books written by unknown persons in the past, which give hints and portents about what is to come; both protagonists are supported by plucky sidekicks; and given that both are first person, we know that Mouse and Carrot will make it through so that they can write down their own stories. One thing I don’t think they share is a common universe; although they share many Mythos elements, they are not part of that world, or even of each other’s; the other worlds which we encounter are too different and unique to fit together cleanly.

Recommended if you like either the author or the Mythos; even more so for both.

Book cover for The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher, a view of a dark house through shadowed woods, a single lighted window on the second floor. Book cover for The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher, a single tree hanging unsupported in a foggy sky above gray waters.

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher 📚

Having read Nettle and Bone recently and enjoyed it greatly, I decided to pick up some other works by the same author. This one turns out to have been one of her earlier titles, and it bears more than little resemblance in the plot, prose, and setting to the later work.

The young protagonist is a miller’s daughter rather than a princess, and is herself threatened with marriage to a mysterious nobleman, but this is a fairy-tale world and not a Jane Austen novel and the nobleman’s intentions are quickly revealed to have more to do with magic and theft than happy-ever-after. Rhea must look for allies in unlikely places, perform terrible tasks set by her self-declared intended, and find a path to escape what seems likely to be a tragic ending.

The story is well told, the adventures scary and magical, and one can clearly see the inventive imagination of the author at work, but it does have a bit of early novel about it, the characters are a bit less vivid and the plot much more linear in how it unfolds. Still I banged though the book in short order (it’s not all that long) and enjoyed doing so.

Recommended.

Book cover for The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher, a person in a red dress, viewed from the back, standing in front of a large clock on a collapsing tiled floor.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik 📚

I greatly enjoyed the author’s Temeraire series of Napoleonic adventures (with dragons), and her more recent fairy tale retellings Uprooted and Spinning Silver; and now I have finally finished reading this novel, first in a series, set in an entirely new and horrifying world.

Although there are certain elements in this story which echo those in that series of books about a magical school, the two could not be more different in scope and intention. The present volume is entirely first person, narrated by El, who is not the hero of her own story; indeed she is desperately trying to avoid becoming the villain. The cast of characters is varied but not large, and the world itself is positively claustrophobic, as almost all of the story, save for a few flashbacks, takes place in the self-contained magical “Scholomance,” a wizardly building constructed outside the bounds of the world, populated exclusively by student adepts. The horrifying part is that the purpose of the school is to protect the developing wizards from roaming malicious magical creatures straight out of the D&D monster sourcebook, all intent on consuming the magical essence of the young magicians; and over many years the system has broken down and the school itself has become infested. Survival rates are marginally better than trying to survive on your own in the outside world, but that’s not saying much.

El herself is a bit of an enigma, unaffiliated with the powerful enclaves which shelter the elite of the magical population in the outside world, she starts her junior year without friends, but it quickly becomes clear that despite her magical aptitude for spells of mass destruction what she really wants is to find a few friends, upend the social order, and (if possible) not die horribly. At one point I had to put down the book for a while because I was so concerned that El was going to be disappointed in her choice of friends, but on coming back and starting again from the beginning I was able to keep going to the end of the term, learning (along with El) a little more about who she is and who her friends really are. But don’t worry, there are more volumes on the way, and senior year awaits!

The writing throughout is excellent, El is a snarky delight, and the monsters are horrible, but the biggest monster is the Scholomance itself, which is at once dorm, classroom, and faculty, imposing daunting lesson plans on the captive students according to some obscure magical rubric which is never really explained, rooted in a complex and convoluted system of magic where powerful spells come with powerful costs.

As before I will reserve judgement until I have finished at least one more in the series…

Book cover for A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, a diagram with a book below and a rayed eye encircled by moon phase images above, with a dark background sprinkles with stars.

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher 📚

This is a delightful book, a post-modern fairy tale with engaging characters, a tangled plot, and flowing, seemingly effortless prose, set in a world of ghosts, curses, and occasional blessings. It is true that the main protagonist is a princess blessed by a godmother, but from the moment we meet her in the first chapter attempting the impossible in a haunted land it is clear that she doesn’t fit the mold of most fairy tale heroines. She has two older sisters and an overworked and overbearing queen as a mother, but none of them are particularly evil, and she herself is an introverted and retiring person who does not feel comfortable in her own skin. We soon learn that she didn’t seek out her quest, but had it thrust upon her after years of quiet living in a convent, far from the pressures of court.

But once she learns of the dire circumstances of her sister’s life, married to a powerful prince in a much larger nearby kingdom, Marra realizes that she is the only one who can possibly rescue her sister, and ultimately herself, from violence and death at the hands of this unworthy ruler, who is protected by ancient magics and a standing army. All she has to do is leave the sheltered life of the convent, alone and by herself, and find magic powerful enough to overcome the prince without losing her sister or her own life. She knows that this is impossible, but sets off none the less, eventually finding a somewhat crabby witch who sets her several impossible tasks in order to earn the witch’s assistance; but by now we are starting to learn that Marra is not a person who gives up despite impossible odds.

There are many scenes of magic and derring-do as she recruits a motley band of companions to help her on her quest, but one which sticks with me is the visit to the Goblin Market, a place outside the realm of men populated by strange creatures of fey and enchantment, where she bargains for help and has to make payment in truly terrifying fashion. The visit to the Market makes clear that magic in this world is a wild and unpredictable force, and that humans are best to avoid its snares; but Marra is faced with an impossible quest, and magic is her only path.

As with all fairy tales there is a satisfactory resolution at the end, but as with most such tales the real heart of the book is the journey itself, the revelations, both dynastic and personal, which lead to the resolution, and the many moments of whimsy, enchantment, and character development along the way.

Highly recommended!

Book cover for Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher, a figure has her back to us wearing a cloak of nettles and bones.

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter 📚

Who doesn’t love a fleet of multigenerational interstellar ships? At the beginning of this story the people of Earth are united in peaceful cooperation and decide to launch several such fleets towards a variety of objectives scattered across the galaxy, each mission to take centuries of ship time (despite superluminal technology) while the Earth itself experiences millenia of elapsed time. What could possibly go wrong?

I found the structure of this book the most interesting part, as it is a sequence of shorter stories across the generations of one such fleet comprising the Noumenon mission to explore a strange variable star. Each chapter captures the defining events of the current generation of the artificial society created with the intention of keeping the fleet focused on their mission, using cloning technology in an attempt to maintain a consistent set of skills and capabilities over the long voyage. Each chapter focuses on a different central character, who often reappear as later clones in subsequent sections.

But the theme of the book is less about the exploration of the galaxy and more about how the plan of cloned uniformity breaks down, often in spectacular ways which put the characters and indeed the entire fleet in danger of death and failure. There is also a very strong and unsavory flavor of eugenics in how the society is created and how it fractures, reaching the nadir as a horrifying caste system. One would like to think that a starfaring people would know better than to take this path.

In the end there is a reasonable resolution, but by then so many terrible things have happened that anything other than complete disaster seems like a relief.

Still not sure about this one.

Book cover for Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter, a large spaceship surrounded by smaller ships with a background of geometric lines of light.

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott 📚

I’m not sure what to make of this book, it’s a combination of space opera, court intrigue, battle tech, and many yearning glances between the varied cast of characters. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that this is the first volume in a planned series, so I did not expect the many plot lines to be tied up at the end, but having gotten there I was surprised how few were resolved.

The story jumps between three main characters, including the eponymous royal heir Sun, her noble-born companion Persephone, and Apama, a random soldier on the other side of the war who seems mainly to serve as a mechanism for providing background on the forces opposing Sun. Or perhaps not random, there is a certain amount of unresolved foreshadowing about Apama which hints at more to come. Each of these three are constantly moving from one desparate adventure to another, including assassination attempts, ground and space battles, and in Sun’s case leading her team of official companions in a hunt for spies and traitors, across worlds and teaming cities.

There’s a lot to take in, and the number of people to keep track of is daunting, but I found that each had enough of a personality to usually (but not always) follow what is going on. Many of the characters are over the top, either particularly adept and attractive (hence the many yearning glances mentioned above), or in the case of those opposing Sun especially villainous.

What I found most fascinating was the extensive world building with multiple cultures inhabiting the far-flung worlds, the complicated social structures which are just accepted as is in the narrative rather than being laid out in exposition, and the way in which I slowly gained some understanding not only of the characters themselves but of the societies from which they came.

But I’ll need to wait for subsequent volumes to decide how I really feel about this one.

Book cover for Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott, the shadowy head or a woman with a star cluster in the background.

The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry by C. M. Waggoner 📚

I picked this book from a list of random fantasy novels on the library ebook search page before heading out on our trip solely on the basis of the title, as one does. It turns out to be a somewhat strange and meandering combination of fantasy, murder mystery, and heist caper with questionable morals (as advertised by the use of “Ruthless”). It is told from the point of view of young Dellaria Wells, whose disadvantaged upbringing has left her in difficult circumstances, without a job, behind on the rent, and largely responsible for supporting her single mother, whose situation is even worse due to her addiction to a magical form of laudanum. All this is about to change, as Delly turns out to be a wizardly prodigy of considerable abilities, and when circumstances force her to take a job as a magical bodyguard she quickly rises to the occasion, exhibiting pluck and bravery, making snarky remarks, and forming a bond of affection with the other members of the ragtag team which she is thrown in with.

The exact path by which this transformation in her fortunes takes place is confusing, with an early murder kicking off a search for the escaped murderer, which quickly transforms into a magical caper to infiltrate the drug underworld, assisted by an undead mouse animated by the spirit of a dead wizard (and I never did figure out where he came from), while at the same time Delly is trying to spark a romance with a decidedly upper-class co-worker. The main focus is on the interaction between the various members of the team, and not so much on the inherent logic of the plot, but the characters are interesting and distinctive, so this is all to the good.

The fantasy world which the author has created provides an interesting background; the action takes place in and England-analog setting which includes both several different types of magic (fire, necromancy, illusion, and so on) at the same time as pistols and locamotives; there are landed gentry in the country and crowded tenements in the city, with a ruling class based on magical aptitude of the “right sort” of wizard, which Dellaria is definitely not. I suspect that I would know more of the backstory if I had read the author’s earlier novel Unnatural Magic; these are both marketed as “YA” books despite some pretty dark happenings (murder, drug addiction, necromancy) but I found this one a quick and easy read.

Cover art for The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry by C. M. Waggoner, decorated with floral motifs and various dangers around the edge.

Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan 📚

At long last I have read this companion piece to Agents of Dreamland from so long ago, although the gap in time is appropriate given the manner in which this book hops between years, characters, and locales. From the author’s notes I learn that this is an expanded edition of an earlier work, and I find it is not so much a sequel to Agents as part of the same shared narrative, set in the dark fantastic universe of the Mythos. The structure of the two books are the same, with story fragments jumbled together, references and plot lines weaving between the chapters. It is not really possible to construct a linear narrative from the fragments, as causal links seem to go both directions in time.

This approach has advantages and disadvantages; as I noted for Agents it enhances the sense of otherworldliness, but at the expense of a continuous plot which draws the reader on to the next chapter; we lose the sense of “what happens next” when that “what” won’t be revealed until much later in the sequence, or in some cases not continued at all. There are so many loose ends that I suspect it is not possible to unravel them all.

I would still recommend this book, and now have learned that there is a third volume in the series, if I dare to risk it.

Cover for Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan, a dark sky above, a mist covered river below, and a dark bridge in between.

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells 📚

Speaking of shorter books, here is the latest novella in the Murderbot Diaries, according to the blurb a prequel to the recent novel Network Effect but really more of a stand-alone entry which happens to be set in that particular time period.

Here we find Murderbot playing the role she was clearly built for, that of the hard-boiled consulting detective forced to work alongside the authorities (in this case Station Security) to unravel a tangled and sometimes dangerous murder case. It’s a natural fit, with the first person wry commentary of the artificial protagonist leading the reader through the twists and turns as new characters and situations are introduced in rapid succession.

There is less combat than in some of the previous outings, which is all to the good in this case, as it leaves more room to explore the world of Preservation Station and for Murderbot to interact (often reluctantly) with humans, bots, and various ship pilots. The murder mystery itself if almost tangential to the story, but (as is required by the hard-boiled genre) it is resolved in the end, in no small part thanks to the skill and persistence of Murderbot.

If you haven’t read any of these I would definitely recommend going back to the first novella and working forward, as there are many references to previous characters and events. But as part of the series this is a real page turner.

Highly recommended.

Book cover for Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells, a figure in armor walks beside a tall robot.

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace 📚

My new plan to get back into reading is to sample shorter works, which brings me to this title from a few years ago. The author has a new book out recently which I ran across on the new book shelf at the library, which in turn reminded me that I had been meaning to read Archivist Wasp. I found it in the stacks, and it is a compelling story.

By the way, I can’t say how nice it is to be able to walk into the library again and actually look for books on the shelves, or walk up to the circulation desk to pick up a request. Masks are required and everybody is wearing them, but this in no way detracts from the pleasure.

Archivist Wasp is in some ways a very simple book, telling the story of Wasp, who holds the office of Archivist in a small town, an unpleasant position which separates her from society, places her under the authority of the town’s unsavory priest, and requires her to spend most of her time alone trapping and disposing of ghosts, which are endemic. The narrative follows her point of view as she encounters the unique ghost of a former soldier and their subsequent journey into the realm of the dead on a hunt for the ghost’s former companion.

But at the same time the story is very complex, taking place in a vaguely described post-apocalyptic world, with numerous flashbacks to explore the soldier ghost’s history during that apocalypse. At the same time, Wasp’s own backstory is revealed to be different from what she had been taught. The stories of these two characters are interlaced in a complicated series of adventures and revelations, and both experience meaningful change and growth. There is clearly a deeper story here which is only partially revealed during the journey; for example, we never learn why there are so many ghosts, or how the ghost realm came to be; these things are just presented as accepted fact.

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, resolving the personal arcs of the two main characters, while at the same time leaving much of the world unexplained. Perhaps more will be learned in the sequel.

Highly recommended.

Book cover for Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace, two outlined figures stand atop black and red jagged rocks, with glowing red smoke rising behind them.

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher 📚

As you may have noticed, book reviews have been few and far between this summer, as I have simply not been able to sit down and read with any regularity. I have started several books only to neglect them until the overdue reminder guilt becomes too much to bear and I give up and return them to the library halfway read. I have started listening to audio books during my daily walk, but so far only works I’ve read several times before.

Given my continuing lack of dedication I decided to try this strange little YA novel by an author I’ve not read before, and found it sufficiently brief and the characters interesting enough that I kept coming back to read another chapter. It is the first-person narrative of young Mona (who keeps pointing out that she is 14 years old), a wizard in a world where magic is both unusual (most people don’t have the talent) and limited, in that the few who do have powers can only affect a specific target, such as water, or dead horses, or (in Mona’s case) dough and baking.

The story takes place in a city which reminds me of the setting of several Miyazaki films, with the fantastic interlaced with the mundane, and the characters have distinct personalities, but I felt that the plot was a bit uneven and unconvincing, showing Mona as both terribly naive and tremendously competent in turn, rather than a logical progression from baker’s assistant to master wizard. There are a number of striking and sometimes dark scenes, but they don’t seem well connected.

But for a light summer read that doesn’t demand too much it was just about right.

Book cover for A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher, an angry gingerbread man cookie holding a sword against a purple background.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke 📚

This novel is both much lighter than the author’s earlier Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell while at the same time more profound. Both stories are marked departures from the conventions of the fantasy genre, but Piranesi takes us even further afield, to the point that it circles back to the roots of fantastic literature.

The cast of characters is limited, and initially there is only the narrator recording events in his journal. As the story progresses we are introduced to only a few more, allowing each new entrance to be a major event in the plot. But the most important element is the stage on which these players move, a world which consists of a gigantic building of unknown extent, subject to tides in its lower chambers and the vagaries of sun and cloud in its upper levels, inhabited only by the narrator and an uncounted number of rooms, stairs, doorways, birds, and statues. It calls to mind the crumbling sprawl of Gormenghast but is clearly not intended for human habitation; life for the narrator is challenging, bringing to mind Robinson Crusoe cast ashore on a desert island. The mystery of the “House” is the central theme of the book, and the most obvious clues are the numerous marble statues which are scattered in each room, each representing a person or animal persona with no context, random archetypes extracted from all of our world’s stories.

The novel itself is a series of revelations, as the narrator encounters the other characters and slowly learns the meaning and origin of the world he inhabits and his own role within that story, each meeting leading him back to earlier volumes of his journal which contain the keys to the mystery. There are echoes here of Lovecraft’s dreamworld (without those tedious elder gods); and of Borges’s infinite library (with statues in place of books). There is no great reveal at the end, but the story slowly builds to the narrator’s own acceptance of who he is and his place in his own narrative.

Recommended.

<img src=“https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/51QiffZMyQS.jpg" alt=“Book cover for Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, a satyr playing Pan pipes standing on top of a pillar against a deep blue starry sky.” title=“Book cover” class=“cover”/>

Unity by Elly Bangs 📚

As I have noted several times that current circumstances make it difficult for me to sit down and read a novel, and I was only able to make my way through this one due to our recent travel days, the first in a very long time. This was a good book for the trip, in that it is well written, interleaving the stories of several engaging characters facing personal and global crises; but at the same time it was challenging to follow the conceptual threads, which pass through increasingly abstract layers of identity to ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

The story begins in a future world in convulsion due to catastrophic climate change, with nuclear, biological, and nanotech warfare threatening the end of humanity. The cast of characters seem to be typical post-apocolyptic tropes, but it is soon revealed that some of them are post-human gestalts created using the titular Unity technology. Amid the background of escape and conflict the natures of these post-humans are gradually revealed; it’s not a single facet, but several different paths rooted in earlier decisions (shown in flashbacks) and reflecting the various aspirations and morality of the characters in question.

With such transformative technology followed to its logical conclusion it would be hard to escape a deus ex machina ending, and Unity does not escape this fate; but the characters themselves reach satisfying resolutions of their own, despite disasters both global and personal.

Recommended.

<img src=“https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/51ZqDw68oDL.jpg" alt=“Book cover for Unity by Elly Bangs, a small yellow stick figure in the center, surrounded by linked stick figures in circles.,” title=“Book cover” class=“cover”/>

Our Declaration by Danielle Allen 📚

I have been reading this book on an off for a while, mainly because it is organized into many short sections which require thought and reflection after reading. I don’t think it is intended to be read in one sitting, as it is based on courses devoted to the text of the Declaration which the author has taught over the years. It is not a weighty tome, but it does examine each word of the Declaration and consider the meaning and implications, both original and contemporary.

The Declaration of Independence is a remarkable document, and with recent political developments it is more important than ever to understand what is actually says. It is the foundational outline for why the United States exists and describes the basic principles for that existence. Allen’s central thesis is that the most fundamental of those principles is equality, expressed at several levels: the equality of nations to determine their own destiny; the equality of the citizens of those nations to determine when their government is or is not fulfilling its purpose (in particular preserving the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”); the equality of access to the levers of that government; and equality of input to the social consensus necessary to determine the form and processes of governing. She makes a strong case that equality is the thread which binds the document together.

There is some discussion of how the Declaration was written, but the book is firmly based on the text itself rather than being a historical narrative. It does examine the question of how a society which allowed extreme inequality and enslavement could be founded on such a egalitarian basis, and I still find it hard to understand how Jefferson in particular could manage the cognitive dissonance of expressing such lofty ideals in the Declaration while continuing to enslave and exploit others. There were many contemporaries decrying the evils of slavery, and there is no qualifying footnote in the Declaration on the phrase “all men are created equal.”

There have been many attempts at theorizing an ideal society (Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, and so on), but what has always appealed to me about the Declaration and the subsequent American Experiment is the practical, nuts-and-bolts application of idealism to the real world. It starts with some basic assumptions (the tyranny which the colonists blamed on King George, violating the rights which their social consensus expected) and proceeds quickly via a few simple arguments (based on equality) to the conclusion that we, the people, have the power and duty to determine our own form of government, and most importantly that the signers (as representatives of that social consensus) were doing exactly that, establishing “Free and Independent States.” Rather than just publishing a theory they did the experiment.

Highly recommended.

Book cover for Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, the signatures of the signers on a white background.

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams 📚

It has been difficult for me to read new fiction these days, but this brief novel proved to be a page-turner and I finished it in just a few days. This was not because it was a light read; the prose is built out of a complex mix of words, ranging from the mundane to the obsolete to the purely fictional. The two intertwined stories are simple, the cast of characters is small, but it is really the words which are the central attraction, often witty and sometimes lyrical. The book is not a fantasy, it clearly doesn’t fall under the category of magical realism, but the main theme is the magic of words, where they come from, and the relationships they build, both in the romantic lives of the characters inside the novel and the interaction between author and reader on the outside.

The structure of the novel is also interesting, consisting of two separate protagonists in different timelines, one narrated in first person, the other in third, alternating between alphabetized chapters, and never communicating with each other directly; instead, the two are linked by the titular dictionary, a fictional multi-volume tome which is not the Oxford English but shares some historical aspects. Part of the page turning was inspired by a desire to see how these stories resolved, and each chapter reveals a little more of the links between the two. The ending did seem a bit abrupt with sudden events which knock the protagonists onto new paths. I am inclined to wish that the author had a few more letters to work with.

Not my usual genre, but still recommended.

Book cover of The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams, an illustration of a peacock with book leaves instead of tail feathers.

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack 📚

It has come to this, I’m trying to read nonfiction in the hope that it will be engaging enough to avoid the siren call of doomscrolling and the continuing failures of our government (at all levels) to deal with the combined crises of pandemic, climate, and political disintegration. And if you want to distract yourself from the possible impending end of the American Experiment, what could be better than learning about the eventual end of…well, everything?

This slim volume provides an accessible and very current overview of cosmology and high energy physics, including the Big Bang, various models both standard and alternative, the key observations which test the models, and what the implications all this has for the ultimate fate of the universe. The presented options for that fate are not appealing, ranging from fiery contraction to ever cooling expansion, or possibly the sudden evaporation of the entire works due to a phase change in the Higgs field. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the current big mysteries of cosmology, such as the nature of dark matter, dark energy, and the exact value of the Hubble constant (still a problem after all these years). The author is a gifted writer with an offbeat sense of humor (you would need that to want to write a book about the destruction of the universe) and she manages to give a good sense of how all of the puzzle pieces fit together without getting bogged down in technical details.

The best part for me was the description of recent research in the field and the expectations for future observations to help answer some of those questions, in particular those from the Rubin Observatory here on earth and the Webb Telescope awaiting launch to deep space later this year. These will allow astronomers broader and deeper coverage of the sky, and might finally nail down the elusive Hubble constant. So at least the book has given me something to look forward to other than the end of everything.

Highly recommended.

Book cover for The End of Everything by Katie Mack, lines of force with a stellar nebular in the background.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots 📚

It has been difficult for me to sit down and read a book lately, despite reading being the best way for me to escape stress and depression, to spend some time in a different world detached from the travails of so-called “real life.” The global pandemic, the ongoing attempts by racist, authoritarian extremists to destroy democracy, the acceleration of human caused climate change, the replacement of traditional media and journalism by highly biased algorithm based social feeds, all of these forces and more make any escape from doomscrolling seem all but impossible.

Recently the only way for me to make that escape is to have the secondary world of the novel be even worse than the one we currently inhabit, which Hench provides in spades. We meet our first person protagonist Anna working as a lowly temp henchman for a cut rate villain under constant threat from costumed superhumans, in effect a red shirt of the criminal world. In common with recent treatments on the small screen (such as The Boys on Amazon Prime or Watchmen on HBO Max, each based on earlier comic series) we quickly learn that the real monsters are the “heroes” themselves, who appear suddenly, wreak destruction on the henches, and vanish again, often leaving extensive collateral damage. The matter-of-fact way in which the narrator tosses off brief references to the names and abilities of these superhumans makes it clear that they are the ultimate media celebrities, supported by a vast government bureaucracy and lauded by the public at large.

Anna has fallen into her life of crime as a result of desperate economic circumstances, but after an encounter with a super where she survives a glancing blow with “only” a shattered femur she discovers that her true talent lies in data analysis, and in particular determining the effects of those super powers both in lives and property. In short order she is using her talent for pattern recognition as part of a team under the direction of a major supervillain in an attempt to limit that damage by any means necessary. The story manages the moral inversion with aplomb, using Anna’s words and experiences to present a sympathetic view of villainy, and making the fight against government sanctioned heroes a logical necessity.

Along the way terrible things happen, both to Anna and to several of her costumed adversaries, and the action becomes frenetic at times as the stakes are raised and situations become increasingly desperate. And yet each set piece flows naturally from the one before, and the comic book revelations make sense within the strange and complex world. Many loose ends are tied up by the end, but not all…there is plenty of room left for a sequel.

Highly recommended.

Book cover for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, a red silhouette of a person wearing a dress and casting a shadow with a cape.

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan 📚

I feel as though I had already read this slim novella, and I can’t be certain that I haven’t, even though it is only a few years old; the Lovecraft Mythos basis, the dream-like interweaving of points of view (some more dream-like than others), the minimal and largely unresolved plot elements, all combine to give a familiar feel even if this is the first time I’m seeing this particular incarnation. I’ve read enough of the original Mythos, as well as more recent reconsiderations (such as the previously mentioned Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and also Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide), that it isn’t surprising to find so many familiar elements.

But that uncertainty fits in all too well with the story, which imagines shadowy government agencies contending with each other as well as the otherworldly threats to humanity, a battle of secrets in which uncertainty and doubt are among the primary weapons. In a way the Mythos has become the ur-conspiracy-theory of SF, a touchstone which only needs to be referenced in the most oblique way to bring the entire weight of cosmic otherness into a work. This can be a force for good or ill, much like those shadowy agencies, and in this case the author has exploited that weight to make her brief tale darker and heavier than one would expect for so short a book.

And there is more to come; I am now waiting for the sequal to arrive from the library. Recommended.

Book cover for Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan, a small house at night with lighted windows and stars above.