Review: Monstress, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

I’m going to start keeping records on how many books that bloggers scream about for one million years before I get around to reading them, and then when I finally do read them, it’s like “Well I should have done this a while ago.” Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s book Monstress, which in my defense has been checked out steadily from my library since the trade paperback came out (but I didn’t put a hold on it so it’s still my own fault), is one of those.

Monstress

You see that cover? Every page of Monstress is of equivalent, if not greater, beauty to that cover. Sana Takeda’s art is beautiful and dreamy and gives this work of fantasy an extraordinarily epic feel. The detail on every page is incredible, her characters feel lived-in, and with all of that, she doesn’t elide the brutality our main character, Maika, both faces and dispenses in just about every issue. I was hard-pressed not to screen-cap every page for y’all, because the art is just that gorgeous.

Monstress has received a huge amount of attention, deservedly, for the art, but the writing is also wonderful. I was warned repeatedly that Monstress was quite violent, and it is, in the manner of a lot of the secondary world fantasy I’ve encountered in my life. At the same time, it’s — can I say really fun? Is that glib? Our protagonist, Maika, is fighting against something evil that lives inside her, all the while trying to escape the many forces in her world that will stop at nothing to find her; and yes, that’s a recipe for violence and mayhem in secondary world fantasy. Maika is searching for answers about her own past and her mother’s, and she has a thing many people want and she is a thing many people want, and she has to find the answers before the bad guys find her. So when I say fun, I mean that this is a familiar type of story, which I enjoy, and it’s wonderful to see it played out so skillfully, with such superb worldbuilding, with end-of-issue surprises that make me gasp yet still feel completely earned, and with characters whose arcs over the course of the series I’m excited for.

LOOK AT THIS ADORABLE FOX GIRL MAIKA TRAVELS WITH

Marjorie Liu has said that she has deliberately written a book of only women — and as soon as she said it, I was like, “…Oh yeah. Oh hey. There are no men in this book.” Not actually zero, but very, very few. The soldiers are women, the slaves are women, the witches are women. It’s part of what makes this story so incredible, because what we see are a multiplicity of women with different ideas and motives and values — you know, a whole bunch of women portrayed as full people. Many of them women of color. In a comic written by two women of color. Doesn’t it make your heart grow three sizes? It does mine.

AND SERIOUSLY, THIS ART.

Particularly when you remember that Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda do not share a language and have to communicate with each other via a translator, this is an extraordinary marriage of the vision of art and writing. I love this comic to shreds and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Review: Boy Erased, Garrard Conley

You know how sometimes you feel that you’ve become inured to the world’s cruelty, and you realize that consuming the news every day and hearing about humankind’s fundamental inhumanity has turned you into a person who doesn’t flinch at each successive news story that comes on Morning Edition, and yes, sure, that’s good and necessary for your own mental health, but on the other hand, are you possibly becoming a robot person incapable of empathy because, like, what kind of human isn’t shattered anew every time they hear about what’s going on in Syria?

You know that feeling?

Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s memoir of his time in gay conversion “therapy” a decade ago, is so fucking shredding that while reading it I experienced the thought “so then this election season has not beaten out of me the capacity to feel.” Consider this paragraph your content note for some stuff: Conley was raped at college and subsequently outed (by his rapist) to his parents, after which he went to a gay conversion therapy clinic for treatment. Boy Erased is about all of those three things. So if any of them are baseline hard for you to read about, be aware going in that Conley portrays the pain of all them with extraordinary vividness. Which makes his talents as a writer obvious, but it also means that this book can be really, really hard to read.

Boy Erased

“You are not selling this book very well considering you gave it five stars,” says the attentive reader, so let me get to selling this book well. Boy Erased made me feel desperately raw and sincere the way you do when you’re in high school and you haven’t yet realized how unoriginal and simplistic your passion for Justice is. That isn’t to say that Conley is simplistic. He isn’t, and part of the reason this book is so shredding to read is that Conley does not ignore or minimize his parents’ genuine pain at learning their only son is gay. Here he is talking with his mother (almost a decade later) about the pamphlet she brought home for the gay conversion organization he attended.

I will force myself to hear her side of the story, listen for her voice amid the buzzing of harmful memories I thought I’d buried for good.

“His eyes [the boy on the pamphlet’s] were so sad,” she’ll say. “They were calling out to me.”

“Take your time,” I’ll say.

“I wanted to save the boy in that picture. I wanted to save you. But I didn’t know how.”

Both of these things are true: Conley’s parents love him (the sinner) desperately and utterly, and Conley’s parents’ beliefs (hate the sin) are killing him. He thinks frequently of suicide and goes on punitive diets (500 calories a day) to force his body to do what he wants it to do. It’s genuinely fucking devastating to know that this type of slavish commitment to the morals of thinkers who lived thousands of damn years ago continue to destroy (literally and figuratively) the lives of queer children and adults.

I had learned by now that there was a cumulative effect to beauty. If people already saw something as beautiful, the object of their affection would continue to receive all possible praise and attention. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein, my new favorite poet, quipped. Naming something beautiful made it so. . . .

Naming something ugly had a similar effect. The sound of my mother’s vomiting the night she drove me home had taught me that lesson better than anything else ever had. I was gay, had been named as such, a fact that, once ingested, had to be immediately expelled.

Boy Erased is rarely leavened with lighter notes, so I do recommend having something fluffy on hand to read when you’re finished. Conley perfectly captures his past self’s despair in these years when he was trying to reconcile his faith and his identity. It’s a painful and wonderful book.

Look, not to wear my heart on my sleeve for too much longer, but let’s build a better and kinder and more deliberate world for the next generation, okay? The next generation of kids should have better than what we had. Let’s make that happen. Vote on Tuesday.

Review: Everfair, Nisi Shawl

Note: I received an e-galley of Everfair from the publisher for review consideration.

The genesis of Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair was the author’s bafflement that she had never gotten into steampunk, and her theory that the reason for this is steampunk’s uncomfortable connections with colonialism. Everfair, therefore, creates an alternate version of Congolese history in which white and black Europeans and Americans purchase land in the Congo to create a small country called Everfair. The residents of Everfair develop steam technology that allows them, in alliance with the indigenous king of the Everfair territory, to chase out King Leopold’s forces. Everfair follows the creation and development of this country over the course of thirty years.

Everfair

Oh gosh. Ohhhhhh gosh. Please hold while I lie on the floor and catch my breath over the greatness of this book. Oh, where to begin. How shall I count the ways in which Everfair won my heart? I looooooved this book. It’s wonderful on its own merits, and it also made me feel excited for the ever-expanding (I hope) globalism of contemporary fantasy.1 Shawl writes from multiple viewpoints in a way that extends compassion to every character, but gives nobody a pass on their blind spots. The project of nation-building inevitably includes casualties, and Shawl never shies away from that truth, even when her characters do.

(Did you read The Just City? Did you like The Just City? This is kind of like that! But with more dirigibles, and in nineteenth-century Congo.)

If I had a complaint with Everfair, it’s that I wasn’t entirely ready for the way it makes large jumps in time and place. The chapters are short, which at first made it challenging for me to settle in comfortably to the point of view and time period of each one, and successive chapters are frequently set months ahead of the chapters that came before. This is doable — you have to pay attention to the chapter headings that let you know where and when the action is happening — but it was a little difficult for me to adjust to, right at first. It also gives rise to the kind of situation where one chapter will see the characters debating a heavily contentious issue of serious strategic significance, and the next will find you six months on, with that whole problem resolved and in the past.

However, Nisi Shawl is careful to catch you up to what’s happening, in ways that almost never feel like visits from the exposition fairy, and the benefit of this type of writing is that we truly get to see the growth and changes in Everfair over a course of decades. At first, there’s a degree of unity among the residents of Everfair: The most important thing for African, East Asian, European, and American Everfairians2 alike is to save as many people from King Leopold’s brutal rubber trade as possible, and ultimately to drive the Belgians out of the Congo.

But what truly made my heart sing3 was the second half, in which the priorities, loyalties, and demands of the different groups of stakeholders begin to conflict with each other. Shawl is respectful of everyone, laying out as fairly as possible the feelings and claims of the indigenous people of Everfair and its colonizers. She doesn’t try to find silver bullets for the problems in the world she’s created: Yes, the settlers were vital to driving out the Belgians; and yes, they shed blood and made their homes in Everfair; and still, the land belongs first and primarily not to Daisy Albin of England or Martha Hunter of America, but to King Mwenda and his people.

With all of this, Shawl brings her book to a conclusion that might be argued to be slightly too neat. When, after all, did competing land claims ever settle themselves bloodlessly? But there’s something revolutionary about a story of African colonialism in which opposing interests are able to find a peaceful middle ground.

I’ve been crazy psyched about this book — which really seems to cater to 100% of my interests — since December of last year, and it did not disappoint. Everfair! Read it and come back and squee with me!

  1. I dunno, maybe that’s grandiose to say? It’s not like I think Everfair is going to usher in some sea-change in the way we write fantasy. Just, wow, this book.
  2. That is not a demonym the book uses.
  3. This whole book made my heart sing.

The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez

I was going to start this post about The Other Slavery by making a really grim joke about Ir*sh sl*very (asterisked out so Nazi bros don’t find my blog), but then I just got hugely sad about living in a world where that’s still a lie people perpetuate instead of talking about real actual slavery. So instead I’ll start by saying that Andrés Reséndez has produced what feels to me like a monumental work of American history, delving deep into archival records to uncover the hidden story of American enslavement of indigenous people.

The Other Slavery

Reséndez argues that while disease certainly played a role in the decimation of Indian populations in America, it was far from the primary factor. Rather, colonizing powers systematically enslaved American Indians from the earliest days of Spanish power in the Americas. Because Spain outlawed Indian slavery in the sixteenth century, however, Spanish governments in America concealed their enslavement of Indians behind a variety of smoke screens, from debt peonage to trumped-up criminal charges and disproportionate sentencing.

Their methods achieved mixed success in concealing ongoing Indian slavery from the Spanish rulers, but were phenomenally successful in concealing it archivally. Until you know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to spot in the records that what’s going on is the systematic and deliberate destruction of Indian populations, languages, and economic power through enslavement, forced assimilation, and relocation.

Pretty much the definition of genocide. In case you forgot what this country was founded on. And of course none of this stopped as the southwestern and western territories came under American jurisdiction (perish the thought).

Another section [of the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850] established the “apprenticeship” of Indian minors. Any white person who wished to employ an Indian child could present himself before a justice of the peace accompanied by the “parents or friends” of the minor in question, and after showing that this was a voluntary transaction, the petitioner would get custody of the child and control “the earnings of such minor until he or she obtained the age of majority” (fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys).1

The Other Slavery makes for some grim reading, but it’s incredibly important to know exactly how widespread and insidious these forms of slavery were. Built on the rhetoric of a civilizing mission, enslavement of native peoples lasted throughout the colonization of the continent and well into the establishment of America as a quote-unquote free nation. If the colonizing powers or, later, the United State Congress blocked one avenue of acquiring slaves, slavers would find another way to maintain their access to forced labor.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I would love to see its conclusions incorporated into future high school history curricula, because this is nothing I was ever taught, and I should have been.

  1. There’s an endnote here that’s even worse: This law was later expanded so the white person’s custody lasted into the child’s twenties.

The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater

The first part of this post will not contain spoilers for The Raven King, or indeed for any book in this series. I will clearly mark the end of the non-spoiler-y part of the post, so that you can bail before I start shrieking about specific, spoilery things. I mainly want to tell you what I love so much about this book and this series.

The Raven King

The Raven Cycle is about figuring out how to be a person. Or more specifically, how to be a person when your world as it stands is not — is nowhere near — enough. One of our protagonists, Richard Campbell Gansey III,1 is looking for a Welsh king. Everyone else — Adam Parrish, who’s trying to be someone different; and Ronan Lynch, who’s looking for true things in a world full of liars; and Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a house full of psychics, who desperately wants something more — finds “looking for a Welsh king” to be a viable means of also searching for what they do want, so they are along for the ride. Mostly what they are all looking for is How To Be.

(how to be free, how to be happy, how to be a friend, how to make your life matter)

That they are sometimes phenomenally bad at these things makes it all the more satisfying as, over the course of the series, they get better and better at being who they want to become. Compare, for instance, the chats about relationships Adam and Blue have in The Dream Thieves versus in The Raven King. Compare the way Gansey is with Blue the first time they meet to the way he is with her — well, any time else, really, I just wanted to remind you of that whole President Cell Phone snafu because it remains one of my favorite scenes in the series. The lovely thing is that Adam and Blue and Gansey are fully themselves in all the versions of all these conversations; they are just getting better at it as they go along, in a lovely organic way.

It’s funny that I started with a spoiler warning, because in fact one of my favorite things about these books is how unspoilable they are. Or conversely how eminently disappointing it would be to go into them spoiled. Maggie Stiefvater’s maybe-best trick as a writer is that she always tells you the spoilers herself, probably more than once, but when the big reveal arrives, you’re still surprised, because she told you what was going on, but you were too distracted by something else she was doing at the same time.

(It makes rereading fun! You reread and you’re like “Oh she told me this exact information in Chapter 4.” “Oh, Ronan has been saying this all along and nobody was paying any attention.”)

Also, there’s magic and creepy trees. If magic and creepy trees are things that interest you. Or Latin. Or Tarot cards.

ONWARD TO THE SPOILERS.

Are you ready now? For spoilers?

Okay. Here they come. In no particular order.

NUMBER ONE. I cannot, and it is unfair for you to expect me to, handle a situation in an already emotional book in which a character I love walks into a creepy forest to meet his own death. You know perfectly well that gives me Harry Potter flashbacks. I had to put the book down for a minute because I couldn’t face the possibility of Gansey being alone when he died, even though I knew from previous visions that at least Blue was going to be there with him.

NUMBER TWO. I love it that Glendower was dead, and there was no favor, and the search brought them to a dead (ha ha ha) end. Mostly because I’m nihilistic that way, but also because it wasn’t ever really about Glendower in the first place (see above). It was about these people and their friendship and what they were growing into. Even Ronan knows that Gansey could have found Glendower any time he wanted, if he’d wanted to. It actually was the journey, and not the destination, that mattered.

NUMBER THREE. Everything about everything relating to Blue and Gansey, and Adam and Ronan, was perfect in every way. But my favorite thing, probably, was this:

He said, “I thought this was a night for truth.”

“Ronan kissed me,” Adam said immediately. The words had clearly been queued up. He gazed studiously into the front yard. When Gansey didn’t immediately say anything, Adam added, “I also kissed him.”

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. It’s just such an Adam thing to add, while he is talking to Gansey about, basically, how best to be careful of Ronan and what to do about it all.

Relatedly, I love Adam the best. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, which if you take a gander at a few of those “Which Harry Potter/Star Wars/Marvel Universe character are you?” Myers-Briggs charts, you will find is the personality type of mainly fictional psychopaths and life-ruiners. So it was nice to have such an exceptionally INTJ-y INTJ character like Adam to who was neither a psychopath nor a life-ruiner.2

NUMBER FOUR if I may make one tiny criticism. I am not sure we and the other characters had enough time to deal with their losses. Gansey is dead for like two seconds before they bring him back to life, and even though I find the manner in which he is brought back to life quite satisfying, I would have liked that emotional beat to matter a little more and a little longer. Like maybe if Henry Cheng hadn’t been there for it? And if they’d had to take Gansey home and once they got home he said the thing about them being magicians?

Also, and mainly, nobody got a chance to grieve Noah. I guess it’s fine that they never knew he’s the one who saved Gansey — I actually like it when there’s important pieces of the story that important characters never find out — but I’m sad we didn’t see them recognizing that he was gone gone, and having the chance to grieve. And after he was so sweet to Ronan.

NUMBER FIVE, Adam borrows Ronan’s car to go see his family at the end. (I assume his Hondayota finally bit the dust?) That Adam let Ronan lend him a car, and that Ronan let Adam go do this scary feelings thing on his own, says everything about how much these two characters have changed over the course of the books. What a great series.

You may now feel free to squeal at me in the comments about any and all of the books in this series.

  1. I like to call him RG3, even though the overlap between Raven Cycle readers and minor quarterback carers-about is probably not that huge so there are probably very few people who would find this amusing.
  2. My mum doesn’t like Adam. I identify strongly with Adam. Does this mean she doesn’t like me? Who knows.

Comics February Round-Up

Man. If this were any of the last three years, I would have failed at Comics February. But this year is Leap Year, and I am squeezing this post in just under the wire, because I want you to read Genius. And, I mean, I love Comics February as well. Just mainly I cannot understand why Genius hasn’t gotten more (and by “more” I mean “all the”) attention.

Genius, Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, and Afua Richardson

Shitdamn, this book was good. I’ve had a medium reading year thus far — nothing that I’ve hated (although see below re: puppy), but also nothing that I’ve wanted to shove in the hands of every single person I see. Genius is a book I want to shove at everyone.

Genius

Seventeen-year-old Destiny was born with the military and strategic mind of an Alexander the Great, a Napoleon — but she lives in an area of Los Angeles that is torn apart by unchecked drug violence and police brutality. So (as you would) she unites the gangs and secedes from the country.

If you are thinking “How did they ever get a comic book published that’s about black kids blowing up large swathes of the LAPD?”, you and I are thinking along the same lines, friends. At first I felt uncomfortable with it, but then — revolution against an oppressive power is a staple of our story-telling, and it’s hard to argue that Destiny and her compatriots don’t have a legitimate, revolution-worthy grievance, when LAPD officers (and cops all over the country) can shoot unarmed black folks with no repercussions at all for their employment status, and we’re just all supposed to write it off as the cost of doing (crime-prevention) business.

Afua Richardson’s art is beautiful, the story is ballsy as fuck, and I dearly hope that we can expect another volume of this audacious and brilliant comic (not least because I want to know what comes next for Destiny).

Honor Girl, Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl

A graphic memoir of a summer spent at camp in which Maggie Thrash developed a crush on an older camp counselor. The art was lovely, the writing and characterization were achingly true to what it’s like to be fifteen, but — have we talked about my thing about imbalance of power? I cannot deal with stories about older authority figures developing crushes on their charges. The nineteen-year-old camp counselor, Erin, doesn’t do anything technically not-okay with Maggie, but I just am not comfortable when those boundaries are being nudged. You know what I like in mentor-mentee relationships? NICE CLEAR BOUNDARIES.

(Yes, I did know some girls in high school who were sleeping with our algebra teacher. Why do you ask?)

The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf

The Arab of the Future

A comics memoir of growing up in Syria and Libya, with a father who fell under the spell of various dictators’ cults of personality. I warn you now that a puppy gets spiked with a pitchfork and has its head cut off in this comic. I noped on out of there as soon as that happened, but it was late in the book, so. There you go.

The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil, Stephen Collins

Dave lives in a place called Here, where everything is orderly. Across the sea is a place of chaos, called There. One day, the chaos of There starts to assert itself on Dave’s very own very face.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

No, I get it. It’s because you shouldn’t have too many rules. If you have too many rules your life will be boring and hemmed in, and that’s why ladies who like spreadsheets have to learn a Valuable Lesson about Lightening Up and Enjoying Spontaneity in romcoms. I UNDERSTAND THIS PARABLE.

Like, Stephen Collins’s art is beautiful, and his panel structuring is a masterclass, but I read comics for the story too. Did we really need another book in this world with the message “Lighten up, office drones!”?

Not a dumb American: Congo edition

Onward with my Africa reading project! David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett and published by Ecco, has received widespread critical acclaim, and very very well deserved too. If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state, may I recommend pointing them towards Reybrouck? Congo reads nearly like a novel, and Reybrouck heavily privileges African voices in telling the story of the country’s modern history. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the Democratic Republic of Congo:

I know, I know. It’s very confusing that there are two countries right next to each other, and one of them is called Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other one is called Republic of the Congo. Which one used to be Zaire? (The DRC.) What does “Brazzaville” even refer to? (The capital of Republic of the Congo. I’ll learn more about it soon.) I know. It’s confusing.

What I learned about the DRC from my book: Some new stuff about Rwanda and the genocide there and how Congo was involved in all that. When the colonial powers were dishing out Germany’s holdings after World War I, they gave Rwanda to Belgium to govern — probably because Belgium was doing such a bang-up job in the neighboring Congo.

Kidding. That’s not why. They weren’t; see below.

Belgium heightened ethnic tensions for most of its time governing Rwanda (they were all about concentrating power in the hands of the Tutsis, because they thought Tutsis were less black than Hutus); the independent Congo was a major player in the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; and although Rwanda arguably put Laurent Kabila in power in the First Congo War, they did not remain such cozy close allies once Kabila was actually running the country.

Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwandans as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt.

Wonder if that remains true still now. I am very interested in the stereotypes various countries have about each other.

Definitely true: The Belgian colonial administration was super racist.

The Congolese middle class that emerged in the mid-1900s wanted to have the same rights as the European population in the Congo, including jolly luxuries such as not being at risk of being flogged with a piece of hippopotamus hide if you got convicted of certain crimes. So the Belgian government introduced a thing called the carte d’immatriculation, which was supposedly to extend the same legal rights to Congolese card-holders that Europeans living in the Congo already held by default.

Extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean.

About two hundred people received these cards. The population of Congo at that time was around fourteen million. Great work, colonialism.

But the most important thing I learned, by far, is this: PAY YOUR ARMY. Never don’t pay your army. The Congolese government did not make the army a financial priority in the early years of independence, and the results were Not. Good. First, the army mutinied. Then, the Belgians freaked about Congolese army guys maybe raping their ladies, so they all left. Belgian civil servants. Belgian transportation workers. Belgian export company owners. Everyone.

(Not everyone. But sort of.)

To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately, it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959. Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roes within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability.

PAY YOUR ARMY.

David van Reybrouck’s marvelous book has spoiled me utterly for the future of my reading project. Does anyone have a particularly excellent history of an African nation to recommend? I can see an argument for doing Rwanda next, while this Congolese context is fresh in my mind. On the other hand, it might be neat to move on to some totally different African nation about which I know nothing. Like Mali. I know literally zero facts about Mali.

P.S. Sorry this post wasn’t funnier. Just, Congo has a sad and difficult history, and the country is in a bad way today. Corruption is everywhere, sexual violence ditto, and although Congo is the most resource-rich country in the world, its people are among the very poorest. It’s hard to make jokes about the history that led to these crappy, crappy outcomes.

Not a dumb American: Truth commissions edition

Unspeakable Truths is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Kim’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

Some time ago I got the idea in my head that I wanted to learn more about a fuzzy thing I could not quite define that was related to shifting from a terrible, warry society to a less-terrible not-war society. As with so many things, it was tricky to find books about this when I didn’t even know the name of what it was exactly. For your reference, the thing I wanted to look for was transitional justice, and all the resources on transitional justice said that if I wanted to learn in particular about truth commissions such as the famous one in South Africa, Priscilla Hayner was my gal.

Hayner’s Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity is the gold standard for an overview on truth commissions, and the book was put into a second edition in 2010. That is the edition you should probably get, if you’re interested! My library only had the 2001 edition, as did PaperbackSwap, so that was the one I read. I would be most interested to get hold of the updated one and discover new findings in the world of truth commissions, since I know there have been many more in the past decade and a bit.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned:

Apparently when the UN came to get rid of the militia government in Haiti and reinstall their president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US military forces swept into the government office and took away a whole bunch of Haitian government records. And then we refused to give them back.

Yes! And Haiti kept asking for the records because, you know, they’re theirs, and the US eventually said Haiti could have the records back, but only if they didn’t mind if we first blocked out parts of them we didn’t want Haiti to know about. (Haiti said no so we just kept them.) What? What? Is this situation ongoing? (I will never know because I don’t have access to the updated edition of this book, and the internet has been of no use to me in this regard.) If (as I suspect) it is ongoing, I’d like to remind the US government of that time Putin came by and stole Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring and we all thought Man, Putin is just the worst, and then when he invaded Ukraine we were like, Yep, that’s about what we’d expect from a dude who would steal a dude’s Super Bowl ring. And that was only a Super Bowl ring, not irreplaceable government records.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Hayner’s book was the one about naming names. Truth commissions throughout the world have had very different goals, some of them more focused on reintegrating society, others on punishing perpetrators of terrible crimes. But regardless of the main aim, a major decision that truth commissions must make is whether to say exactly who is responsible for specific crimes committed against specific people. And it is so tricky! Your first instinct is to say, yes, we want to name names, so that those terrible people cannot continue to hold positions of power because, you know:

EVIL

Except that it turns out to be much more complicated than that even if you accept the premise that some people are Evil independent of their situation (which I do not). Although it is pretty easy to identify the foot soldiers and rally enough proof from eyewitnesses to feel confident enough to say, this person took this priest up in a helicopter and dropped him into the ocean, it is much trickier to get positive evidence about who gave the commands that made that happen. So then you end up with the foot soldiers getting all the blame, and the commanders none, which is not a) fair or b) beneficial to national reconciliation. But if you name names of the higher-ups without sufficient evidence, it will kind of be your fault if a not-guilty or not-very-guilty person gets dragged out of his home by vigilantes and shot in front of his family. Or if you name names and include witness testimony as to that person’s guilt, maybe the person the witnesses named will hire his thugs to go drag your witnesses out of their houses and shoot them in front of their families.

So, okay, you don’t name names after all. All the victims’ advocacy groups are furious with you for your pusillanimity, and NGOs publish statements condemning your truth commission for caring more about protecting the rights of perpetrators than upholding the truths of victims. Nobody is dead because of you, but all the work you’ve done is now suspect. If you wanted everybody not to hate you, you maybe should have found a different job.

Hayner also includes a chapter of two case studies — Cambodia and Mozambique — of countries who have not instituted and do not want any kind of truth commission. They want to stop talking about it and move on. Cambodia held a tribunal, eventually, to try a few of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for the Cambodian genocide. And here’s what Hayner says about Mozambique, a country whose civil war was funded heavily by the apartheid government in South Africa, who believed an unstable Mozambique was in their interests:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers. When the peace agreement was signed in Rome, “word came from the top, and the war just stopped. Not another shot was fired,” described one observer. The war just “went out,” like a fire goes out, said another. From that day on, the former warring enemies have lived in peace virtually without incident.

That’s no longer fully true, incidentally, but the image of a foreign-funded war going out like a fire when it’s no longer in the interest of foreign powers to have a war in that country is going to stick with me.

If you are remotely interested in international law, human rights, or government transitions in unstable countries, I can’t recommend Unspeakable Truths enough. Every resource I’ve found on transitional justice sings its praises to the skies (so you don’t have to trust me), and I’ll be shoving this at various people in my life over the next few weeks.

(Psst, Eva! Read this! I think you would find it really interesting!)

Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Maggie Stiefvater

Note: I received an electronic copy of Blue Lily Lily Blue from the publisher for review consideration.

Second note: Of necessity, I’ll be talking about some of the events of the first two books in this series. If you haven’t read those yet, the short version of this review is that Blue Lily Lily Blue is an excellent third installment in an excellent series. But you probably shouldn’t read on unless you want to be spoiled for the first two. Spoilers for Blue Lily Lily Blue occur only in the bottom, bullet-pointed section, and I’ve marked it that way.

ETA third note: Alice has rightly pointed out that if you haven’t read the first two books in this series, this review makes no damn sense. So you should probably skip it. And go read The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves. That is probably a better use of your time. My reviews of those two books are here and here.

Maura Sargent has been missing for over a month, and Blue and her raven boys are spelunking in Cabeswater, hunting for Glendower and Maura both. The man who hired someone to retrieve the Greywaren has come to town to do the job himself, and he’s brought backup. Blue does not pay reliable enough attention to whether Gansey is or is not wearing a rain-spattered Aglionby sweater at any given moment, and the answer to everyone’s questions seems to be in a mountain cave, which sings into Adam’s deaf ear and whose owner insists that it’s cursed.

Two processes are befalling the characters in the Raven Cycle. First, they are growing from variously broken teenagers into the working-order versions of themselves they have the capacity to become. Second, they are developing into powerfully magical people you don’t want to fuck with. Stiefvater knits these two things so tightly together that they become component parts of one and the same process: As Blue settles more comfortably into the feeling of belonging to her group, she’s also evolving a better and better sense of the value of her particular gifts and the ways she can usefully deploy them. [Adam example redacted for spoiler reasons]

They’re also discovering what readers knew all along: that they’re stronger together than apart. You see this particularly with Adam and Ronan, the two who have tapped into the fierce, unpredictable power of Cabeswater, and who can do some truly remarkable things when they’re working together. There’s a nice symmetry between Kavinsky’s shitty, amoral tutelage of Ronan in The Dream Thieves and Ronan’s clear-eyed confidence in Adam throughout Blue Lily Lily Blue. Both boys are pushing someone else to be more than what they’re currently being; but where Kavinsky was telling Ronan, Be more like me, Ronan’s telling Adam, Be more like you. It is super lovely.

Blue and Gansey are still in the throes of Doomed Love. Maggie Stiefvater does her best to get to me by having Gansey give Blue his coat and then teach her how to drive stick shift, and look, I am not made of stone, standard transmission cars are amazing and nothing says love like making sure the other person is warm enough, but still, so far I like Blue and Gansey separately more than I like them together. Or rather, I like them together fine when they are joking about faxes from hell, and less when they start getting all Doomed about their Love. It’s not them; it’s the Doomedness of their Love.

In terms of plot advancement, quite a lot of important events occur, and some mysteries are solved while many more are raised (including a pretty big one about Gansey’s past). Whether you came for the characters or the search for a Welsh king, there are so many reasons to leave this book feeling satisfied. Stiefvater’s writing is as lovely as ever, with her weird and perfect metaphors, and it has been an extremely long time since I loved any fictional characters the way I love these ones.

Miscellaneous, spoilery observations (this section will include both plotty and emotional spoilers. Big ones. Look away.)

  • Adam and Ronan should always team up to do magic and iniquity together. It is the best.
  • Actually, the real, legitimate best is when Gansey says “Wake up.” I got chills.
  • Why is everyone in the visions switching places? I don’t like that! At least when it was clearly Gansey who was supposed to die, I knew where to focus my worry. Now it just seems like anyone could choose to sacrifice themselves to save anyone else. Adam sees a version of his Gansey-dying vision where it’s Ronan dying instead; the vision Blue and Gansey share in the vision tree swaps two lines of dialogue when it happens in real life.
  • The reveal about Matthew is the Maggie Stiefvaterest reveal ever. She has this brilliant gift for making you not notice that she’s told you a secret several times in a whisper before she tells it out loud. It even feels crazy to call it a spoiler. Of course Ronan dreamed Matthew. It’s been obvious all along, but I just didn’t notice. (Cf. Noah being dead.) (You guys, that is rough for Declan. I feel bad for Declan.)
  • My head knew that there was no chance at all that Ronan and Gansey weren’t going to show up to Adam’s court date, but my heart could not bear the suspense. Maybe it is too Hollywood and too facile a resolution of what Adam has been trying to learn about himself all along, but it’s such a good moment that I don’t care. “Behind him was Ronan Lynch, his damn tie knotted right for once and his shirt tucked in.”
  • “Why me?” “I hear if you want magic done, you ask a magician.”
  • The cliffhanger ending everyone was going on and on about: Piffle. That is not a cliffhanger. They spent the whole book saying Whatever we do we must not wake up that one sleeper, oh man, that would be a terrible catastrophe if that one sleeper got woken up. If you didn’t know that someone was going to wake the sleeper, you must have never read a book before. A cliffhanger is like when the protagonist has just defeated his human foe and then he turns around and there’s a whole alien army bearing down on them all. It is not a cliffhanger if it surprises you zero.

Review: We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a digital galley of We Are All Completely Fine from the publisher for review consideration.

DARYL GREGORY AUTHOR DISCOVERY YEAR CONTINUES. Not only has Daryl Gregory produced another fine piece of science fiction — this one a novella — but I have at last discovered why I love his books so much. It’s cause his wife is a psychologist! (He thanks her in the acknowledgements.) No wonder Gregory wrote about crazy people so brilliantly in Afterparty. No wonder he is always writing about confronting impossible, insane situations with the only available tools (science, therapy) and knowing all along that those tools are nowhere near adequate to the task. What do I love even more than creepy, inventive science fiction? Creepy, inventive science fiction informed by a background in psychology!

Ahem. Sorry. I’ll try to control myself.

The therapy group is composed of sole survivors: the only ones to survive horrific, supernatural incidents. At first only Stan will speak openly about his story, about the cannibals (demon cannibals?) who tied him and his comrades up for weeks and ate them, bit by bit, limb by limb. And the group knows a little — or thinks it does — about Harrison, who was, long ago, the model for a series of books about a teenaged monster-killing hero. Martin refuses to take off his glasses. Greta never lets anyone catch a glimpse of her skin, and Barbara will only say that she was attacked twenty years ago. The group leader, Dr. Jan Sayer, doesn’t push them for more. She’ll let the stories come in their own time.

Your question at this point may be, Do we find out gradually what happened to each member of the group, and is it inventively horrible in each case, and do they ultimately team up to do a mission together to fight against the darkness in their own small way? And the answer is, yes. That is exactly how it goes down. It’s THE BEST. If this were the pilot episode of a show on Syfy, I would set up a Change.org petition for six seasons and a movie.

The characters’ backstories are revealed in fits and starts, sometimes in great detail and sometimes in very little. Like the characters themselves, we aren’t privy to knowing why these things happened to them; only that they happened, and now they are part of that character’s emotional landscape, and must be dealt with. Without some of the details I wanted (who were the Weavers before the demon hybrid thing showed up? How did Barbara come within the orbit of the Scrimshander, and how did she get away?), I kept thinking how much I’d enjoy reading a full book about any of these characters in their lives before they join the group (or, in Martin’s case, after).

Some quick vague spoilers in this section only: I love that we find out at the end that Dr. Sayer has a story of her own to tell. Her own fight not to be defined by her damage turns out to include helping other people to heal from theirs. That is a true thing from real life. Sometimes people respond to the unimaginable pain they have experienced with this exact kind of generosity and grace, and it is remarkable and moving to me.

My only tiny gripe is that the chapters begin with a “we” section, where the group is speaking collectively about itself. This didn’t really work for me. Gregory doesn’t manage to make that “we” feel like an integrated part of the rest of the book, which is all narrated in third person, often from Harrison’s point of view and with detours into Barbara’s and Martin’s.

But really, that’s a small gripe for a novella I overwhelmingly loved. I was heartbroken when it ended, especially as it means that there will be no more new Daryl Gregory for me for a while. Up until now I have had a new Daryl Gregory thing every two months or so. I should have held off on reading one of his books, and saved it for a rainy day. I will just have to do some rereading.

Other Daryl Gregory books I have been excited about this year: Pandemonium, [Devil’s Alphabet was just okay], Raising Stony Mayhall, and Afterparty. I am a scary Daryl Gregory evangelist. (PS Ana please read Afterparty, cause I think you will love it.)

You can read an excerpt from We Are All Completely Fine over on Tor.com, to get the flavor of it. Then if you are interested, Publishers Weekly has good things to say about it, as does Locus. See? Everyone agrees with me. Let me know if you reviewed it too, and I’ll add a link to this post.