Summer Reading

Summer’s almost here officially, and there are many wonderful books to choose from. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed recently:

First I must offer an explanation of why it took me so long to review this book, which entails a bit of background. I was introduced to the work of David D. Levine through his science fiction short stories, which by the way are awesome and utterly award-worthy. I loved the concept of the first “Arabella” book, Arabella of Mars. Intrepid heroine/coming of age! Steampunk airships travel between planets! Adventures on Mars! What more could I want? Oh yes, a bit of stowawaying and a touch of romance. I loved that first book.

Alas, when I picked up Arabella the Traitor of Mars, I did not realize there was a middle book (Arabella and the Battle of Venus). I started reading Traitor but quickly (as on the first page) realized that much, too much had happened. Who are these other people and why does Arabella have a prosthetic foot? I set it aside, thinking to pick up the middle book at some vaguely future time and then return. In the way of things, that future time kept stretching further and further away.

Then, as fate would have it, I heard Levine read the opening chapter at a convention, FogCon to be exact. First of all, Levine is an amazing reader, expressive and elegant, perfectly conveying the mildly Victorian steampunk flavor of the narrative. Two sentences in, I was captivated. Ignorance of the middle book evaporated into insignificance. So I returned to Traitor, now perfectly willing to let the story carry me along in trust that all would be made clear from context. And it was.

The Victorian sensibilities of steampunk play out in a parallel to English imperialism, with striking echoes of the occupation of India and the Opium Wars in China. Arabella remains true to her Martian roots, loyal to her principles and her alien friends, and courageous enough to leave her dearly loved husband to warn Mars of the impending assault. The chase sequence is one of the best, most dramatically perfect, I’ve ever read, worthy of the best of Patrick O’Brien or C.S. Forester. And the rest of the book is just as good. The series is highly recommended.

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I picked up this romance set in a university Classics department, hoping for a light-hearted love story, probably involving one or more Greek gods in disguise, and found much more. At first, it read like standard fare, romantic, occasionally humorous with a game of figuring out which professor was which god (and wondering why our heroine, Theodora Fairchild, who is supposedly well versed in the Classics, didn’t have a clue). But the story took a turn into satisfying depths as Theo and Grant Proctor begin courting, and she steps into the role of teacher – not just about romance but about the rich panoply of emotions that make up being human. He grows, but so does she, in the very process of verbalizing and practicing the dance of relationships. I won’t tell you which mythological character he is, since half the fun was figuring it out. Suffice it to say that he is very far from the all-powerful, perfect lover one might expect.

All is not sweetness and light at Waldrop University, for the charismatic, autocratic chair of the Classics Languages department, Julian d’Amboise, has his own agenda, and his own aeons-long grudge against Grant. When he sets his manipulative, coercive sights on Theo, it’s as much to cause Grant anguish as to win Theo herself.

I loved how Theo battles her way out of Julian’s clutches, rescuing not only herself but Grant. She makes mistakes, but she owns up to them and takes responsibility for making things right. The emphasis on the importance of mutual, respectful consent added to the emotional depth and maturity to the story. Julian uses magical potions to strip Theo of her will, while both Theo and Grant check in with one another. Too often, romance tropes involve force over resistance, and we need better role models. Verdict: A fast, enjoyable read that rises about clichés about damsels in distress.

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I’ve enjoyed Seanan McGuire’s books since I discovered Rosemary and Rue and the “Incryptid” series. Her sense of dramatic flow, finely-handled narrative pacing, and just plain nifty stuff made each successive adventure more enjoyable. I quickly learned that when I picked up one of her books, I was in for a good time. Sometimes I wondered how she was able to maintain the quality of her work, given how productive she was. Not only did she consistently deliver one good story after another, but her recent releases have leapt from “good” to memorable. Her novella, Every Heart a Doorway, was stunning, a journey of the heart as well as a series of dramatic events, richly deserving both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. I loved her “Sparrow Road” ghost stories, too. Now I can add Middlegame, an alchemy/Frankenstein/time-traveling/sibling-story, to that list.

The outer frame of the story involves a precocious and wildly talented alchemist who devises a way to remake the world through the human incarnations of the Doctrine of Ethos.

“In the ancient world the Greeks believed music had a magical power to speak directly to human emotion. In what has come to be known as the doctrine of ethos, the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in a positive way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion.”

– From Music and the Doctrine of Ethos, classicaltyro.com.

McGuire uses a somewhat different sense of this doctrine, albeit still in the sense of possessing transformative powers. The alchemist, Asphodel Baker, and her disciples set about creating pairs of twins whose natural talents (language and mathematics, for example, or order and chaos) complement and complete one another. Adopted out and separated as infants, when mature they will be drawn together to fully manifest the Doctrine and grant the one who controls them power over the universe. Or so goes the plan.

The inner story involves one pair of twins, Roger and Dodger, and their early ability to communicate telepathically and experience the world through one another’s talents and senses. Dodger helps Roger with his math homework, and he guides her through learning to talk to people and develop relationships. But they have made contact too soon for Asphodel’s heir (and Frankenstein creation), the sinister autocrat James Reed, who then takes measures to divide them until he determines the time is right.

All of this is done up in prose that ranges from really good to luscious:

“For your safety,” says Dr. Barrow, in a voice like butter and cyanide.

….

Roger knows the words – shock, surprise, epiphany – but he doesn’t know how to put them in an order his sister (his sister, he has a sister, not just a weird quantum entanglement with a girl on the other side of the country, but a sister, someone whose blood knows his almost as well as his heart does) will be able to hear and understand. He supposes he’s stunned. The impulse to close his eyes and retreat into the space that exists between them is strong. He forces it aside. This is a real thing; this needs to be a real thing. He didn’t realize until this moment how badly he needs it to be a real thing, something spoken in the open air, something honest and concrete that he can put down between them, look at from all the angles, and know for the truth. Real things are too important to entrust to quantum entanglements.

I stayed up way too late on a number of nights, following Roger and Dodger on their quest for one another and for a life truly, humanly lived. I heartily recommend this book and expect it to be a contender for major awards in speculative fiction.

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I fell in love with Don Simon Ysidro, Spanish Renaissance vampire, and James and Lydia Asher, sometimes friends and allies, consummate vampire hunters, with their first encounter in Those Who Hunt the Night, one of the best vampire stories ever. Hambly’s vampires are not nice. They are not sparkly. They are very definitely not safe. But they are compelling, and when, in 1917 and the heat of the first World War, Dr. Lydia Asher receives a coded distress call from Don Simon, she does not turn away. Theirs is a long and complicated history, and more is at stake than their friendship. If Don Simon has been taken captive by an agent of one of the Great Powers, his terrible powers could turn the tide of the war.

The story unfolds aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic, complete with revolutionaries riding belowdecks, an insanely ambitious American industrialist, Jewish refugees, and the unexpected inclusion of Lydia’s young daughter, whom she believed safe at home in the custody of one of her aunts. Oh yes, there are German submarines in these waters, and no ship is safe from their torpedoes.

One mysterious death after another stokes superstitious fears of a vampire aboard – and where is Don Simon? What hold does the industrialist, Cochrane, have over him, and how can Lydia break it? And what will Lydia have to do to prevent the introduction of a vampire to the fertile feeding grounds of America?

I finished the story, with its breathless climax, wanting to go back and read all the adventures back-to-back.

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This lovely novella reminds me of water-colors, painted with a deft touch, often evoked rather than explicitly depicted as layers of illusion are dispelled. The story opens with Bee, incarcerated in a series of caverns with only one companion, her lover, Chela. Although her crime was blowing up a space ship, she has no memory of it. Food and other supplies are delivered, but the two of them never encounter another human being. Gradually, though, Bee realizes she has telepathic powers that are nullified by a chip in her brain, supposedly related to her crime. The more she tries to reach out with her mind, the more agonizing the consequences, and the more frantic Chela becomes to maintain their status quo, to not challenge their imprisonment, and to keep Bee emotionally entangled with her.

Slowly Bee peels away the layers of illusion, and I won’t reveal what comes to light, as “the pleasure is in the journey.” Suffice it to say that I kept turning the pages, pausing to savor the nuanced, exquisitely crafted prose. Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water showcases Kaftan as an author of immense skill and sensitivity. The end suggest that Bee’s story will continue, and I for one will be looking forward to it!

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I just loved this fantasy adventure, with its compelling heroine and system of “industrialized magic.” The world is an oppressive portrayal of social inequality of the Industrial Revolution. Great families wall themselves up in “campos” and live lives of luxury while the rest of the city suffers pollution and dire poverty. Myths from the past provide tantalizing, terrifying hints of how the entire system of magic came into being.

Young Sancia managed to escape the slave plantations to eke out a living as a thief in the less savory neighborhoods of a great city. She’s able to “listen” to physical materials: “The wall spoke to her. The wall told her of foundry smoke, of hot rains, of creeping moss, of the tiny footfalls of the thousands of ants…” Sancia’s magic aids her in her marginal living, but is dwarfed by the real magic of the city: sigils that are “instructions written upon mindless objects that convinced them to disobey reality in select ways,” such as altering their gravity or adhesion to other objects.

Then Sancia opens a box she has been sent to steal and discovers a sentient key, “Clef,” who can persuade any lock to open, and her world changes forever. She’s not the only one after Clef – her employer will stop at nothing to gain control over the key. But who is her employer and what is that person’s greater plan? Mystery piles on action and personal growth, not only of Sancia herself but other characters. The world and its people are in precarious flux, inwardly and outwardly.

This is not a world in which I would like to live, yet almost from the beginning, I cared about Sancia and the people she encounters, especially Clef, who realizes that he more he uses his power to help his only friend, Sancia, the less of his personality survives. The story built as stakes were raised higher and higher. The magic was an intrinsic part of the world-building, with its own logically consistent rules and its own cost. Highly recommended.

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