Review: The Bloodprint, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Note: I received a review copy of The Bloodprint from the publisher. This has not impacted the content of my review. As Katie always says, it would take more than a single copy of a single book to buy my loyalty.

Bloodprint

Arian is a warrior, linguist, and Companion of Hira, an order of women who draw their power from the Claim, a type of magic that draws its power from sacred scripture. They are battling against the Talisman, a movement led by the One-Eyed Preacher that seeks to eradicate scholarship and knowledge and the written word and to subjugate all the lands under an absolutist patriarchal rule. But Arian has a chance to find the Bloodprint, a physical copy of her faith’s scripture — if she can undertake the dangerous quest to retrieve it.

I’ve been a fan of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s for a while now. She gets me to read mysteries, and I never read mysteries! But her mysteries are grounded in history and grapple deeply with questions of culpability, complicity, and oppression, so they’re catnip to me. The Bloodprint deals with many of the same issues: Arian’s enemy, the Talisman, use a distorted version of her own faith to enslave women, brutally conquer every city in their path, and suppress literacy wherever they go. This is genuinely really hard to read in places, because the Talisman are destroying monuments and texts that Arian’s order values deeply, but that cannot be replaced.

The Bloodprint is very much a road trip story, which is always fun for me. Arian travels with her apprentice, Sinnia; her friend and would-be lover, the Silver Mage Daniyar; and a freed slave named Wafa. They cover a lot of territory, and I was glad that Khan had provided vocabulary and character guides in the back of the book. However, things did tend to get a trifle complicated, in that way secondary world fantasies often do, where the writer has a lot of elements and is trying to introduce all of them in the series’s first book. I got muddled in spots, and it wasn’t always clear which names and concepts I needed to remember for later vs which ones were just there to provide local color on Arian’s journey.

I gave up on secondary world fantasy years ago, when I started to notice how heavily inflected by imperialistic worldviews it all seemed to be. The Bloodprint, which draws on Islamic art, culture, and history, is a refreshing reminder that there’s nothing inevitable about Eurocentric fantasy stories. I’m thrilled to see Ausma Zehanat Khan branching out from mystery into fantasy, and I’ll look forward to reading more in this series.

Review: A Taste of Honey, Rose Lerner

Note: I received a review copy of A Taste of Honey from the author. This did not influence the contents of my review.

If you’ve ever asked me for feminist romance novel recommendations, I’ve probably enthusiastically pushed Rose Lerner on you. Consider this me doing so again. A Taste of Honey is the latest installment in her Lively St. Lemeston series, which focuses on middle and lower-class folks in a small British town in Regency England. As with most romance series, you don’t need to have read the others to enjoy this one. Be prepared now for me to overuse the words delightful and charming, and if you notice a sentence in which I use neither one, just assume they were implied.

A Taste of Honey

Our protagonists are Robert Moon, the proprietor of a Lively St. Lemeston confectionery perpetually on the edge of financial ruin, and his shop-girl, Betsy Piper. She has pined after him for years, but he won’t make a move; he is waiting to achieve financial security before asking her to marry him, because he doesn’t want to drag a wife into bankruptcy with him. When the confectionery receives a massive order — twenty-five pounds — it could be the chance they’ve both been waiting for. A week-long frenzy of baking and banging ensues.

I mean: WHAT A DELIGHT. Protagonists managing a shared project is one of my favorite things, and Rose Lerner brings her customary acuity to Robert and Betsy, both of whom manage well enough when they’re negotiating sex with each other, but who also both need to learn a few things about recognizing and asking for what they want emotionally. Their shared project is the exactly-correct level of stressful, as Mrs. Lovejoy is rude to Betsy, flirtatious with Robert, and constantly swinging by unexpectedly to make expensive last-minute changes to her order.

Also featured: Extravagant, mouth-watering descriptions of yummy Regency-era desserts, which given Rose Lerner’s attention to detail I feel confident are period-accurate.

Also also featured: Butt stuff. Which is CRAZY because the day before I read A Taste of Honey, I was talking to my friend Ira about how M/F romance novels almost never have butt stuff.

And I cannot emphasize enough how sweet and dear this book is. Viz:

“It’s only that you’ll have to show me what to do.” His ears were hot. “You, erm–you might not be a virgin, but I be.” He’d been busy. And shy.

“Oh.”

Was it a disappointed ‘oh’? “But I learn quick,” he added hastily. “It can’t be much trickier than a good pie crust.”

I MEAN COME ON.

A Taste of Honey is a delectable treat that will please the palates of the romance expert and the romance newbie alike. You should rush right out and gobble it up as soon as possible. (Full disclosure, I was going to say the romance gourmet but I couldn’t think of a parallel word that meant newbie but with food. I regret nothing.)

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.