Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Cool Books I Read While I Was Too Sad to Review

If a review copy lands in the inbox when the reviewer is too overwhelmed to read it, does it even get a review?

Well, no, obviously it doesn't. Despite my fervent hopes, the review fairy did not visit me once while I was having a Big Bad 2023 to magic away my Netgalley obligations and show love to books during my period of chronic distraction. But the books continued to be good, and I'm going to cover some of them here in not-even-nano-sized review chunks.

Case in point: The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera was a 2023 highlight. I've seen a lot of deservedly flattering comps for this novel, a story of divine destiny denied set in a fantasy Sri Lanka:  my own mind was drawn to Sofia Samatar and Ursula K. Le Guin while reading, with a few of the bleak vibes I last felt in A.K. Larkwood's The Unspoken Name. For a story that really invites comparisons, however, Saint of Bright Doors is very much making its own mark on modern genre - and I'm sure there are plenty of threads of Sri Lankan and wider South Asian influence that I missed entirely.

Highlights of the reading experience for me included the way the story's geography seems to literally rearrange itself around the absurd authoritarianism of Luriat's state politics, the portrayal of gods and unknowable supernatural forces co-existing with a mundane, modern setting, and the greatest first person pronoun drop in genre history. This is an essential novel and I hope we'll be talking about it for years to come.

Translation State by Ann Leckie was a novel I hoped to feel similarly about. This latest standalone-ish instalment in Leckie's Imperial Radch universe is a solid, thought provoking piece of SF (Clara has some excellent provoked thoughts here) but it hasn't withstood the test of time as a standout novel for me, Don't get me wrong, I love the Presger translators, and I highly appreciated the way Leckie gives us crumbs of further context without really making anything clearer about the setting's most mysterious alien race. Less attractive on reflection is the treatment of alien biological urges as fundamentally irresistible in a way that would simply not make sense if the author were talking about humans. Protagonists Reet and Qven are, for different reasons, terrified of the urges of their alien heritage, but all Presger translators simply have to go through "puberty" in the way their creators designed, so oh well, suck it up kids, they'll be fine once it's done. 

I understand the narrative is setting up questions about personhood in general, not creating any deliberate queer parallels, but gender is so integral to the setting as a whole, and aliens so often used as a stand-in for human queerness (and neurodivergence) that it's hard not to think about Qven and Reet's lack of choice through that lens. It would be nice to see stories that think more about how alien queerness would manifest, from the starting assumption that of course it would manifest in any sentient species, but I'll keep searching for those books elsewhere. In the meantime, any Imperial Radch is good Imperial Radch, but this one didn't hit "great" for me.

Joe and I share a love of Seanan McGuire's October Daye series, and while he does the honours of the full Nerds of a Feather reviews, I also found time for both of last year's double-Toby entries, Sleep No More and The Innocent Sleep. These are the 17th and 18th books in the series respectively, and they effectively act as companion novels to each other: Sleep No More follows series protagonist October - a fae changeling - as she grapples with the effects of a reality-altering mass illusion, while The Innocent Sleep breaks with series tradition to focus on her Cait Sidhe husband Tybalt, who is working against the illusion from the outside. The actual points of narrative overlap didn't set my world on fire (In one book, October thinks Tybalt looks angry! In the next book, we learn Tybalt is angry!), but the double-bill allows McGuire to let loose with the most unsavoury conventions and darkest corners of fae society in a way that brings the series full circle to its earliest vibes. There's also more time across the books to feature a wide set of supporting characters - including one unexpectedly sympathetic "recast" - who demonstrate the breadth of the series' worldbuilding. As always, I'm eager for more.

Let's talk about some more underrated series! Claws and Contrivances is the second in Stephanie Burgis' Regency Dragons romances and it's just as delightful as the first: an intricate and often hilarious plot of misunderstandings and reversals, sprinkled with fun dragon naturalism and centred around a young protagonist with a lot to learn and a LOT of willing accomplices to her various schemes. Unlike the first book in the series, Scales and Sensibility, Claws and Contrivances takes place in a fundamentally loving family environment where queerness and difference are accepted, and it's the perfect backdrop for Rose Tregarth and her nerdy, autistic-coded love interest Aubrey to fall for each other.

Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott is anything but light, both in content and in physical weight. As Paul covered in detail, this is a 750 page chonk retelling events from the life of Alexander the Great, except Alexander is now Princess Sun, daughter of Eirene of Chaonia, an expanding galactic power rubbing up against the much larger might of the Phene while trying to maintain their own powers at home. If you know the history of Alexander the Great, you'll probably recognise more moments from real history, but it's certainly not necessary to enjoy the combination of pew-pew space battles, irreverent epithet-laden narration, "oh no she DIDN'T" politicking, and silly teenagers with entirely too much power. Go look up the facts afterwards to find out which bits really happened (no genetically modified four-armed people in antiquity, unfortunately), and get some knowledge useful for pub quiz as a bonus!

Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Bluesky at adrijjy.bsky.social.