Review: Thorn, Intisar Khanani

“I don’t know what justice is,” I tell him. “But I am trying to get what I can right.”

The above paragraph is a perfect summation of why I loved Thorn, and of why I love Intisar Khanani so much as an author. In Thorn, as in all her books, she writes about characters who may be in bad situations but who are trying their best. Characters who are trying their best are balm to my frazzled soul in these difficult times, so I am pushing Intisar Khanani’s books on people like they are ebags dot com packing cubes. Consider them pushed upon you. Go get you some.1

Thorn is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” It’s a good fairy tale, full of details with that specifically fairy tale brand of weirdness. In this one, a princess is sent to marry a prince in a faraway land; on the way to her wedding, her chambermaid changes clothes with her and ultimately marries the prince in her stead. The true princess has to serve as the goose girl and comfort herself by talking to the head of her horse Falada, whom the chambermaid has had killed in fear that Falada would tell the truth about her. (Go with it; it’s a fairy tale.) Matters proceed from there.

Thorn does a typically (for Intisar Khanani) sincere and sweet retelling of this story, providing a backstory for the fairy tale weirdness that absolutely works. The maidservant, Valka, has made a deal with a wicked witch to switch bodies with the princess Alyrra, so that the witch can gain access to prince Kestrin. If Alyrra tries to tell what happened to her, the witch’s spell will choke her to death. She takes on the nickname Thorn and bides her time to see if she can save the prince from the witch’s curse.

In the hands of an author whose faith in people is less genuine, Thorn could have been a mess. Huge swathes of the plot depend on people appreciating Thorn for not being a jerk in a world where jerkiness runs rampant. If her goodness had felt forced, or their gratitude untruthful, the book would have fallen apart. But I am particularly in need of books where people are kind because they are trying to be good, even when the circumstances around them may not be conducive to goodness. In Thorn, the characters try to be good because they want to see goodness in the world, but they can only control themselves and their own actions. Which is, you know, pretty hashtag-relatable right now.

Who here still hasn’t read Intisar Khanani? How can I convince you to give her a go?

  1. I am still not being paid by ebags dot com although I think that I should be because I have convinced three people this year alone to buy their product.

Review: Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a copy of Spoonbenders from the publisher for review consideration.

Spoonbenders

Frabjous day! Daryl Gregory — one of my favorite new(ish) SF authors — has a new book out! Spoonbenders follows the adventures of the Telemachuses, who long ago achieved fame and fortune as the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing feats of telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis for secret CIA projects and live television audiences. But that is all twenty years in the past, and matriach Maureen Telemachus is long dead. Then Matty, the only son of human lie detector Irene Telemachus, discovers suddenly that he can astral project.

The above summary is roughly how the book was advertised, and it is a correct description of events. BUT, the thing that it does not convey is that Spoonbenders is one of my favorite type of books, wherein an array of disparate plotlines culminate in one massive, climactic Event where all hell breaks loose yet somehow still manages to resolve every plotline. In the case of Spoonbenders, that event is Zap Day, 4 September 1995, the date on which the clairvoyant Buddy Telemachus stops being able to his own — or anyone else’s — future.

I tell you this because Spoonbenders is slow to start, and I want you to stick with it. In the beginning, it prominently features the con-happy male members of the Telemachus family. Patriarch Teddy shops for ladies to pick up at the grocery store; eldest son (and sporadic telekinetic) Frankie plans a theft that will allow him to pay off his debt to a local mobster; and fourteen-year-old Matty discovers his new powers while lusting after his older step-cousin, Mary Alice. Yawn.

As the book goes on, though, we spend more time with Irene, whom I adore, and with Buddy, who is constantly trying to work around the bits of future he’s foreseen to produce the best possible outcomes for the people he loves. Daryl Gregory has a knack for teasing out the small, mundane implications of his wild premises, and he gets at some genuinely fun (and sad, and weird) ideas with Irene and Buddy’s powers.

Plus, Zap Day makes for a terrific climax: all the pieces click perfectly into place, and we get to see each of the family members at their strange, unselfish best.

There’s a very minor subplot that bugged me. (Spoilers.) In a flashback, Buddy goes to a prostitute called Cerise. The book uses she pronouns for her and casually makes reference to her cock — which I thought was terrific as far as it goes. Later on, though, Buddy finds this same person, who now goes by Charles and works as a waiter, and for whom the book now uses he pronouns. Again, fine, gender can be fluid, etc., etc. But Charlie says, nervously, “I’m not in that line of work anymore,” and I dunno. It felt like the book had set up Cerise as trans to begin with, in this refreshingly unfussy way, only to align her transness with her career as a sex worker. I wasn’t wild about it. I’d love to hear other folks’ opinions.

Apart from that and the slow start, I enjoyed Spoonbenders a lot. It’s Martin Millar meets Sylvia Browne meets American Shameless, and I’m about it.

 

Review: Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner

What a world we live in, friends. Long, long, long ago I read the four books in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, and I hella loved them. Almost a decade later (okay, seven years, but still), Thick as Thieves, the mythical fifth Queen’s Thief book has arrived, and it did not disappoint.1

If you haven’t read the Queen’s Thief books, I advise you to walk away from this post straight away and read them. The Thief is the first one. It is fine. The Queen of Attolia is the second one. It is an infinity of fire emojis. Get on it.

Anyway, so this one. Nahuseresh, formerly the Mede ambassador to Attolia, who was so magnificently put in his place by Attolia in The Queen of Attolia, had this secretary called Kamet who helped him escape from Attolia. In Thick as Thieves, Gen sends an Attolian soldier to help Kamet escape from the Mede, an event which — fortunately for Kamet — coincides with Nahuseresh’s untimely death by poisoning. A road trip ensues.

If you can bear a very minor spoiler that even I, a woman notoriously bad at guessing spoilers, was able to guess, the Attolian solder Gen sends is Costis. When I figured this out (I swear it’s not much of a spoiler, it’s very guessable very early), I nearly died of delight. The King of Attolia is my favorite of the three books, partly because we get to see how the hell Gen and Irene live their life now, but largely because of Costis, the sweetest cinnamon roll maybe in any book ever. What with Costis being a major character and the whole book being about a road trip, there was just no chance that I wouldn’t love Thick as Thieves.

Thick as Thieves bears the closest resemblance to the first book in this series, The Thief. Kamet and Costis travel widely through Mede, constantly in lowkey or highkey peril, as often as not dirty and wounded and uncomfortable and complaining. But of course, Turner has advanced tremendously as a writer since twenty years ago when this series began (itals bc I can’t believe how long this series has been happening, not bc I’m mad at Megan Whalen Turner about anything), and she’s better than ever at conveying everything that happens between the lines of dialogue these characters are actually saying to each other.

Which brings me to my next point: Thick as Thieves is gay as hell. My sister texted me a little way into reading it to be like “Kamet sure is talking about Costis’s muscles a lot,” and my friends, truer words were never spoken. The whole structure of the story is romantic, from the forced proximity of the road trip to the tending each other’s wounds to the looming Big Lie that threatens their ?friendship? happily-ever-after. While it would have been nice to have a female protagonist for a change (especially given how fucking great the queens of Eddis and Attolia are and thus how confident I feel that MWT could give us the greatest female protagonist of our time), a queer road trip story was pretty terrific too.

Have you read Thick as Thieves yet? Did you find it to be substantially gay? Will you be requesting Queen’s Thief fic this Yuletide?

  1. Except in one small way, i.e., it would have been nice to have a lady narrator for once. Five books in, the all-male points of view are starting to feel a trifle pointed.

Review: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect the content of my review. The book is just so honestly extraordinarily good.

Before I read Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s last book before Testosterone Rex, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it would contain, given that I already agreed with her arguments; and then when I actually did read it, it blew my mind straight out of the back of my skull and onto the wall behind me, and that was five years ago and I’ve been tucking splattery bits of brain back into my head ever since.

Testosterone Rex

Well wouldn’t you know it, here we are five years older and I made the exact same mistake when I was picking up Testosterone Rex. I thought, “I already agree with Cordelia Fine, and I’ve read a book by her about gender and science. I undoubtedly know what this book is going to be!” But then my reading experience was as follows:

YES. MY MIND WAS FRESHLY BLOWN. BLOWN ANEW.

Whereas Delusions of Gender focused on brains primarily and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female, Testosterone Rex is about evolutionary biology and development and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female. I loved this book so much I couldn’t shut up about it even to the person I bought it for for her birthday and desperately needed to conceal it from until birthday day arrived. I kept starting to tell her awesome things I learned from the book and then awkwardly pretending to lose my train of thought.

Okay, so what are some of the gendered science narrative that Cordelia Fine is countering in this book? (I hear you ask.) Pretty much everything that suggests men are this way and women are that way and it is always immutably so due to having evolved that way. Men have a greater penchant for risk! A disinterest in monogamy!

A desire to acquire showy possessions and high status in order to attract women! A lesser ability to nurture and feel empathy!

All because of evolution and testosterone!

Let’s take just one example, the claim that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. If you’d asked me ahead of reading Testosterone Rex whether this claim was true, I’d have said that yes the science showed men are bigger risk-takers but that no it wasn’t an inherent biological thing but was instead about socialization. If you’d pressed a little bit, I might have been able to come up with one of the points Fine makes, which is that surveys of risky behaviors likely tend to focus on areas that are traditionally male-dominated (due, again, to socialization) such as sports betting, fast motorcycle riding, or major financial investments.

Fine does go deep on the question of the gendered assumptions inherent in how we assess risk, pointing out complication after complication for the idea that men take risks and women tend not to. For instance, pregnancy is twenty times more likely to result in death than skydiving,1 yet women do it all the time. Or here’s another thing: Women do perceive the world as being inherently riskier than men perceive it as being, but this disparity disappears when you control for ethnicity.

Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

IT IS ALMOST AS IF SOCIETAL ROLES ARE IMPORTANT DETERMINANTS OF BEHAVIORS AND ATTITUDES.

Here’s something else I didn’t know: When you divide risks into categories by type (one study Fine cites broke it out into gambling, financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical risks), there’s no correlation between a high level of risk-taking in one domain with a high level of risk taking in the others (see also).

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the skydivers, or the traders? . . . . The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

The whole book is like that. Wherever Fine encounters a simple, intuitive-seeming precept that would seem to explain gendered difference, she massively complicates the picture. Gender won’t account for the difference, genes and hormones give an incomplete picture, and every word in the original precept was miserably inexact to begin with. Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.

One of the chapters in Testosterone Rex begins thus:

Sometimes these days I’m introduced to people as an academic who wrote a book about how the brains of men and women aren’t that different. Disappointingly, the wide range of reactions to this brief biography has yet to include You must be Cordelia Fine! Would you sign this copy of your book that I carry around with me?

That would be me. That would be my response. I would also probably burst into tears and propose marriage. Y’all, for real, buy a copy of this book. Buy a box set of this and Delusions of Gender. Buy twelve. Distribute them to your loved ones. Absolutely everyone in the world should read it. You’ll thank me later.

  1. Not anywhere in the world. Pregnancy in America.

March Magics: The Lives of Christopher Chant

Did I ever tell you that The Lives of Christopher Chant was the first Diana Wynne Jones novel I ever loved? And did I ever tell you that when the seventh Harry Potter came out and I was feeling disappointed in Dumbledore, I went back and read The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life and Witch Week and Conrad’s Fate to experience a non-disappointing omniscient wizard man?

March Magics is upon us, hosted by the wonderful Kristen at We Be Reading, and I am celebrating this week with a reread of the book that made me certain (at age, like, twelve) that Diana Wynne Jones was going to become one of my favorite authors.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is not the book you’re supposed to read first in the Chrestomanci series, but it’s possibly the one I would recommend you to read first. It’s this or Witch Week, for sure. Our hero, Christopher, who will one day grow up to be the Chrestomanci of maddening vagueness and extravagant dressing gowns, is a little kid who walks through the multiverse in his dreams. When his Uncle Ralph discovers this, he enlists Christopher to do some experiments for him, and Christopher — who worships Uncle Ralph — agrees.

The Lives of Christopher Chant

The Lives of Christopher Chant does this narrative trick to which Diana Wynne Jones is very prone, where the child protagonist fundamentally misunderstands important things about himself, the world around him, and the choices he’s making. Some of these things are clear to the reader: If it weren’t immediately obvious that Uncle Ralph is a bad person who is taking advantage of Christopher’s unique skills, we could figure it out from Tacroy, who guides Christopher on his journeys through the dream world / multiverse. But other revelations were as much of a surprise to my young self as they were to Christopher, and a reminder — Diana Wynne Jones excels at these — that the world we see isn’t the only world there is.

Also, if you are the sort of person who cares about this, The Lives of Christopher Chant features probably my favorite of the Diana Wynne Jones cat. His name is Throgmorton.

Review: Memories of Ash, Intisar Khanani

AT LAST I have read the sequel to the wonderful Sunbolt! Intisar Khanani is a fantasy author who really deserves a good, let’s say, 75% more fame than she is currently receiving, so let’s all get on spreading the word far and wide, okay, team? Read the novella Sunbolt if you haven’t yet, and then get straight on to the superb sequel, Memories of Ash.

Memories of Ash

Our protagonist, Hitomi, is learning magic from the secretive, kindly mage Stormwind, with whom her vampire friend Val left her at the end of Sunbolt. Many of her memories of her former life are gone, and she is focused primarily on cultivating her powers and staying under the radar. All of her peace is shattered when the High Council (led by Hitomi’s old enemy Blackflame) summons Stormwind to stand trial for treason. Though Stormwind accepts her fate, Hitomi is determined to go after her and save her from unjust imprisonment and possible death.

If you are needing (as I am) some straight-ahead fantasy adventure stories, I can’t recommend Intisar Khanani’s work enough. Her worldbuilding here, as in the last book, is superb, everything from the limitations to Hitomi’s look-away charm to the differing societal norms for the desert nomads as opposed to the people of the Mekteb (the school where magicians get trained). Possibly my favorite thing about watching Hitomi travel to so many different locations is that Khanani seems to believe in the fundamental goodness of people. Wherever Hitomi goes and however slim her chances seem of rescuing Stormwind, she always meets people who are kind and good. At a time when the world feels less and less hospitable to strangers, Memories of Ash was a balm.

As with Sunbolt, this book ends in a satisfying way that nevertheless leaves the door open for many more adventures to come. Hitomi finds herself, at one point, in a land that’s been shattered by vicious magics, and she makes a promise to come back someday to try her hand at fixing it. Part of this is my current state of mind, but most of it is Khanani’s gorgeous world- and character-building: I absolutely cannot goddamn wait to see Hitomi throw her considerable energy and talent into healing the whole world.

Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Well, not review exactly. There’s not much more to review in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, given how personal it is, and how tremendously of its time. But it was the first book I read in 2017 (by design), and there are elements of it that I’d like to talk about as we all stagger back to work and try and get moving again after the holidays.

The Fire Next Time

One thing that strikes me about James Baldwin is how little ideological slack he’s willing to cut anyone. (That is a compliment.) He’s clearly worked hard to fight free of easy answers, and it seems clear that he wants the same independence of thought for everyone, and believes that not only can we all be independent and critical thinkers, we absolutely must, or we’re wasting our time.

People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.

Or to put it another way, he strikes me as someone who cannot help seeing (also: looking for) the messy, complicated truth, even when he knows it would be easier, and the path of his life would be smoother, if he could unsee it. It seems to apply to everything he looks at: He sees his young nephew, his namesake, and wishes an easier life for him, but he can’t look away from the hardships he knows his nephew will face as a black kid, and then man, in America. On the other side, he shares dinner with a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammed, and he can’t quite sink into that vision of the world either.

At times The Fire Next Time is very grim. At other times it’s astonishingly hopeful. But it reminded me — and I hope I can take this with me into 2017 — that while uncertainty makes us all look around for leaders who will tell us what to do, the most important thing is to trust my own mind and remember my own accountability. Baldwin says:

One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

I have my own little nephew now coming after me, which made reading Baldwin’s letter to his nephew a particular and strange experience. My nephew will have different fights than Baldwin’s did, and right now, after this election, it’s hard for me to imagine what those fights will be. I hope he will be safe; I hope he will be brave. I hope we can both live lives that will make the world better for the ones who come after us.

Review: They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery

I’m in a strange, post-news-outlet state where I follow individual reporters more than I follow entire news outlets. This is possibly symptomatic of my increasing distrust of institutions in the wake of the recent election? And troubles me because of the echo chamber conservative news media insist that I (but not they) are in. I am not sure what the solution is. (Weirdly, the only outlet besides NPR’s Code Switch that I specifically follow on Twitter is the National Review, for like, ideological balance.)

So Wesley Lowery has long been one of my most trusted reporters on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I was excited for his book. They Can’t Kill Us All follows the development of the movement from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, an event I was surprised to discover only occurred in 2013. It feels like we’ve been talking about black death for a million years, but as a national conversation, where white people were forced to stop ignoring racially biased policing,1 that’s somehow only been three years.

They Can't Kill Us All

For all three of those years (coming up on four), Wesley Lowery’s been on this beat, and if you weren’t paying attention to the development of Black Lives Matter, They Can’t Kill Us All is a terrific way to catch up on what’s been happening. Lowery writes not only about the deaths that became hashtags — Michael Brown, Charles Scott, Tamir Rice — but about the rapid, meteoric growth of activism around police shootings. His reporting at the Washington Post, including his idea for the Police Shooting Database, won the Post the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Lowery also talks about the process and ethics of reporting on traumatic death, how you walk up to grieving family members on the worst day of their lives,  make them trust you, and get quotes out of them to convey to the country what has been lost.

A journalist’s portrait of the deceased is often used by the casual reader to decide if the tragic outcome that befell him or her could have happened to us, or, as is often implied to be the case in those killed by police officers, if this tragic fate was reserved for someone innately criminal who behaved in a way we never would.

Lowery isn’t trying to explain how this movement fits into America’s past or to predict what impact it will have on our future — it’s a book of journalism, not historical analysis. But Lowery’s a great reporter, honest about his errors and aware of the limitations of his form. If you’ve been following Black Lives Matter all along, there’s not a ton of new information in They Can’t Kill Us All, but it’s a terrific overview of how the movement developed.

  1. Ugh, I don’t know how else to qualify this. Many white people continue to close their eyes to racially biased policing. Lots of people of all races have been talking about this for years, but it just hasn’t been picked up national media in the same way that it has over the last three years. Y’all, words are hard.

Tell the Wind and Fire, Sarah Rees Brennan

Note: I received Tell the Wind and Fire from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Okay, despite having shared that article about how people should stop hating so much on YA love triangles, I am slightly over YA love triangles, not because there aren’t authors who can write them well, but because YA authors who can’t write them well insist on writing them anyway. So to read a book like Tell the Wind and Fire, which is about a girl and two physically identical dudes, and which specifically and deliberately steers away from love triangling, made a refreshing change.

Tell the Wind and Fire

Lucie Manette has won her way over to the Light side of her city through a combination of luck and judicious manipulation of her own public image. Now she has a wealthy and influential Light boyfriend and things seem to be going her way (as long as she doesn’t think too much about those she left “buried” in the Dark side of the city). But everything changes when her boyfriend Ethan avoids arrest only by the intervention of a Dark doppelganger called Carwyn–someone Lucie never knew existed. If you have read A Tale of Two Cities you can basically predict how this all turns out.1

Because I do not like Dickens,2 I wasn’t expecting much from Tell the Wind and Fire. I was delighted to find that it is a kind of book I particularly love, which is the kind where the protagonist is trying to be a good person in a world where the only choices available to them are bad. Toss in themes of public perception, its power and lability, and its contrast with true reality, and you’ve got Gin Jenny catnip.

actual footage of my reading experience

Thus! If you are on the hunt for a dark-but-fun page-turner about good people who are trying their best, or just a YA novel where a girl can have two boys in her life without falling into an abyss of indecision about which one to kiss, may I point you toward Tell the Wind and Fire?

Where are y’all on love triangles these days? In, out, in but need a break, out but you’ll make exceptions?

  1. I have not but I read the end.
  2. I have tried: I love A Christmas Carol but I hated Oliver Twist (twice) and the first third-to-half of both Great Expectations nor Bleak House, and at some point I shouldn’t have to keep trying.

The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge

When Faith’s family moves suddenly to an out-of-the-way island to conduct an archaeological dig, they do so under threat of suspicion and fear, though fear of what Faith isn’t told. (She’s only fourteen, and nice young ladies in the year 1868 don’t ask questions.) But Faith herself hopes that this will be her opportunity to show her father, a prominent archaeologist, that she can be a scholarly companion to him, that she is worth taking seriously. Once they reach the island, though, it becomes clear that her worth remains what it has always been: She’s as valuable as the trouble she can save her family by behaving decorously and taking care of her little brother, Howard.

When tragedy strikes her family, Faith has to make use of all her cunning and bravery to delve into her father’s secrets — including the mysterious Lie Tree.

The Lie Tree

The Lie Tree is, with all the good and less good this implies, a very very Frances Hardinge sort of book. By which I mean that it’s slow to crank its story into gear, and you sit through quite a bit of table-setting before Hardinge lets you taste the meal; but when it does get going, you’re certain of a satisfactory conclusion. More Hardingely still, you can be sure that nobody in the book will be just one thing. If a character is kindly or catty or condescending early on, you are nearly guaranteed to see another side of them before the book is over.

Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies.

I am mightily preoccupied with the not-one-thing-ness of people. It’s easy to take the quick and dirty route of learning a little about someone and allowing our biases to fill in the rest, even — maybe especially — when we are ourselves trying to fight free of other people’s restrictive narratives of what we are supposed to be like. The half-truths we tell ourselves about other people because it’s convenient aren’t the type of lies Faith thinks to feed to the Lie Tree, but the tree thrives on those untruths as well. While Faith badly wants to be seen for who she is, not just who she pretends to be, the conventions and norms of her time frequently blind her to the fact that the people around her are often as constricted as she is (and more).

Excellent stuff, all in all. Frances Hardinge knows how to get me with her Themes and Feelings and Ladies Who Seem One Way But Actually Have Hidden Depths Like All People Do. I’ll just leave you with this, my of-course favorite moment of the book:

“This is a battlefield, Faith! Women find themselves on battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.”