Recent Reading, Part 1: SFF and the like

I wanted to do a recap of my recent reading—and then I realized that it would be my first this year, and if I want to cover everything I’ve read I’ll have to divide it into several posts. I’m starting with a round-up of all things magical and speculative—fantasies, urban fantasies, sci-fi, fairy tale retellings, and the like.  

I want to highlight my two favorites: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik and The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells.

Spinning Silver is an inside-out Rumpelstiltskin, told from the perspective—essentially—of Rumpelstiltskin. The main protagonist is a moneylender who is content with her profession and proud to execute it well. We understand why especially after she finds herself entangled with a fairy prince for whom all debts are anathema.

The book is all about debts, and different kinds of debts--there are several interweaving plotlines and they all play on the same theme. What does a child owe her parents, what do parents owe their children, what happens when those relationships are unbalanced or abused. The writing is beautiful and it features a romance involving an angry, emotionally unavailable fairy prince, and that’s a winning combination in my book.

The Murderbot Diaries are a series of novellas by Martha Wells, starting with 2017’s All Systems Red, progressing to Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and ending on Exit Strategy, with a full-length novel to come. The only bad thing about them is that the novellas are expensive and they are too short. Everything else is amazing. 

This is really good, really smart sci-fi, set in a universe where corporate power has run amok and sentient robots—everything from spaceships with advanced AI to cyborgs combining man-made tech and organic matter—are common. The star of the show is the protagonist, a not-quite-top-of-the-line cyborg who gives itself the name of Murderbot, since it usually works security. Murderbot is good at security, but would really rather spend its time watching entertainment feeds, following her favorite shows, and avoiding humans. Or at least, that’s what it tells itself. When the humans it’s assigned to guard are put in danger by the very corporation that manufactured it, Murderbot goes rogue.  

But how about some other books I enjoyed?

The Power by Naomi Alderman is a beautifully written, high-concept novel that asks the question: what would happen if one day, all over the world, young women developed the ability to shoot lightning from their hands? This new power flips the fundamental imbalance that underlies all gender dynamics. The book starts out really interesting as women test the fences, feel out how things might change, and finally gain confidence in their new strength. I think it ends on a dull note, suggesting a lack of imagination more than anything, but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking book.

The Golem and the Jinni takes a piece of American history, adds a dash of magic, and the result feels truer than the truth, a vision of the America I want to live in and believe in. In the novel, a golem and a jinni separately migrate to New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. They blend in with the crowded, busy, struggling immigrant communities most associated with their own mythologies, extraordinary creatures building ordinary lives for themselves, and along the way they meet and become friends. It’s beautifully written, by turns sad and hopeful, fundamentally a love song to New York City.

The first two books in the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden were great—a Slavic setting, a blend of history and fable, some favorite tropes that are so well done I fell in love with them all over again. To wit: a feisty girl who wants to go on heroic adventures instead of getting married and settling down, matched with a curt, emotionally unavailable man who falls in love despite himself. If that’s your catnip, you’ll enjoy these books.

Two books that I loved fall pretty far along in established series, while also providing good entry points for new readers: Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews and Lake Silence by Anne Bishop.

Iron and Magic is a spinoff from Andrews’s Kate Daniels series and it features an angry, emotionally unavailable warrior (are we sensing a theme yet? I’m sensing a theme) who ends up in a marriage of convenience with a powerful witch. It features a rare alpha/alpha pairing and the relationship develops in the most marvelous, satisfying way. Plus, as with all Ilona Andrews books, the greater cast of characters is great, the worldbuilding is top-notch and there are some great action scenes.

Lake Silence is set in Anne Bishop’s World of the Others, a paranormal alternate earth where humans never become the dominant species—this earth is ruled by spirits of the earth and administered by a host of magical creatures called the ‘Others’, among them vampires and werewolves. The main series starts with Written in Red and follows an urban enclave where humans and Others meet and mingle, forming relationships that will hopefully benefit both. This side-series is set in a small town surrounded by wilderness. The stakes are lower but as with all the Others books, the pleasure in reading comes from watching wildly different beings learn to work together, solve problems together, enjoy one another’s company. The books can be gory and Lake Silence starts with a grisly murder, but the overall feel is always warm and comforting.

The Last Wish is a book of short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski set in the Witcher world and featuring Geralt—so of course I loved it. I parceled out these stories like a miser, because it’s such a pleasure to read something new about characters I love & I didn’t want to run out. But the inevitable happened & here the book is on my list. Start with the novels if you’re interested.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton was wonderful—it’s essentially a fantasy Pride and Prejudice where all the characters we know and love have been replaced by dragons. The most interesting, and horrifying, aspect of the change is that so many of the customs that seem nonsensical in Pride and Prejudice make perfect sense when the characters are cannibalistic lizards. For example: young female dragons can’t inherit from their father because they are too small, and neighboring dragons will eat them and steal their land.

And lastly, the Monstress comics by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda. The art on these comics is gorgeous and the story is grim. The contrast alone is enough to give a reader’s heart a good squeeze. It can be hard to follow, though, and the action proceeds slowly. Still, I read two volumes and I’ll pick up the third soon.