Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Quick round: My recent readings

What a time to be a nerd. These days it looks like people from everywhere are producing an endless wealth of speculative fiction, and my ever-growing TBR pile has become an ominous reminder of the finitude of life. And yet, all through recent months, I've managed to steal a few minutes here and there to catch up with the interesting titles I've come across. Here's a quick round of things I've been reading up to this point in the year:

The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi
(Tor, 2023)

For generations, in exchange for desperately needed water, the City of Lies has been forced to pay the Ajungo Empire with the tongues of its people. But one child risks going on a journey across the desert, hoping to find water elsewhere. The story unfolds with the texture and cadence of ancient myth, even as it deals with the quite modern evils of state propaganda, predatory trade agreements and the suppression of dissident voices. Of particular merit is the characterization of the protagonist, whose growth from nothing to people's paragon follows a natural emotional progression. Within the limited size of a novella, the author finds space to speculate on the ways that the deeds of flesh-and-blood people can become part of a community's traditional tales and, eventually, end up joining the ranks of mythical heroes.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.
The Last Dreamwalker by Rita Woods
(Forge Books, 2022)

Every third daughter of a third daughter in this lineage of Black women can visit other people's dreams and influence their actions via their subconscious. A catchy premise, but one the novel doesn't develop much. While the author takes care to show the inherited pain of this family, especially in chapters set centuries in the past, the story moves too slowly and the conflict lacks intensity. The protagonist has just buried her mother and learned that she's inherited a house in South Carolina. From then on, most of the wordcount is used in creating a grounded picture of the Gullah landscape, climate, language, rhythm of life and customs, which isn't without literary merit, but what is supposed to be the plot (a lifelong resentment between relatives) barely happens at all, and its resolution lands without impact.
Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.
Food for Thought by Ariana Ferrante
(Brigid's Gate Press, 2023)

Limos is the goddess of drought, barrenness, starvation, and withering. Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, fertility, abundance, and blooming. They have always been opposite forces: the hunger and the feast, need and satiation. Divine decree forbids them from ever meeting, because no one knows what disaster may result from their contact. Will desire and satisfaction annihilate each other? Or will something more interesting happen? In this little book, the myths of Erysichthon and Persefone are retold from the point of view of Limos, to whom mortals pray only when they have an enemy to destroy. Through her burgeoning obsession with Demeter, she discovers that even the all-giving mother of crops can yearn for things she can't give to herself. Luckily for both, Limos knows all there is to know about unmet wants.
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.
Sunflowers Rise in a Midnight Sky by Avery Davis, illustrated by Tang Wei
(self-published, 2024)

In this fantasy poem, accompanied by drawings made with delicate sensibility, what is merely imagined in dreams comes to life. Purple grass, purple cows, winking shadows, polka-dot flowers, cats that tell jokes, trees that dance, ladybugs wearing lipstick, violinist birds, frozen water that turns into cake, gigantic lollipops, flying popcorn, mutable words, spiders made of diamond, mermaids that sleep on seaweed, dancing berries, tunnels made of water... all in the span of one night. Reality opens a brief door to impossible wonders until the sun rises again. Even the adult reader will be charmed by this exuberance of childlike fancy.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.
Nature Fights Back, edited by Nikki Mitchell
(self-published, 2023)

From five-eyed rabbits to all-devouring storms to city-sized snails to robot-worshiping birds to armies of walking fish to forests capable of holding really long grudges, this charity anthology of short fiction enumerates the grievances our planet could raise against our irresponsible ways and then relishes in the description of each form of vengeance we deserve to have befall us. As may be expected, many of the stories are set in post-apocalyptic climate dystopias, typically with survivors trekking long distances through the ruins of civilization. The overuse of this image gives the book an air of tedious repetition, sometimes punctuated with a bit too much glee at the skewering of Big Bad humans. This book is best read on those frustrating days when the world seems too broken and your inner misanthrope needs validation.
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

The Loneliness of the Abyss by Dimitris Vanellis and Nikolas Kourtis, translated from the Greek by Abraham Kawa
(Europe Comics, 2023)

A Greek legend tells that Alexander of Macedon found an elixir of immortality, but his sister accidentally drank it in his stead. Cursed by the gods to roam the seas forever, she's now a dreadful menace to any sailors unlucky enough to run into her and fail to tell her what she wants to hear. In this stunningly illustrated comic, done in a deliberately limited palette that accentuates the contrasts of tragic emotions, the monster reappears in the present day. What do you do when you meet a legend? Do you feed her delirium to save your life, or do you risk her wrath to seek your freedom? Whichever your choice, remember: tales of the Greek gods very rarely have a happy ending.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.
The Quavering Air by Simone Snaith
(Broken Wheel Books, 2023)

More a D&D campaign log than a novel proper, this is the story of a band of heroes recruited from across the known world to fix a cosmic misalignment that has opened a portal through which infernal pests have started an invasion. From what I can guess, there are apparently two planets that must never come into contact, and the key to keeping them isolated is to guard two big clocks that must always remain mismatched. However, the richly evocative worldbuilding is relegated far into the background, because our confusingly named and therefore easily confusable heroes must roll for initiative in almost every chapter. There are tantalizing allusions to the nature of this universe and the various creatures and intelligent beings that inhabit it, but the author was more interested in describing complex (and admittedly well executed) fight scenes than in telling a story.
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.
The Legend of Charlie Fish by Josh Rountree
(Tachyon Publications, 2023)

In the days preceding the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, a psychic girl and her little brother become orphans and must flee an intolerant town. Luckily, they are adopted by a kind man who was passing by. Less luckily, they run into a pair of scoundrels trying to capture a human/fish hybrid they plan to display at a freak show. This novel skillfully immerses the reader into the perspective of a psychic who is too young to process mental content like an entire town's prejudices or a road bandit's murderous intentions or a sapient animal's instinct to rejoin the herd. Apart from some extended and awkwardly placed flashbacks, the main plot covers just a few days in the children's lives, but the brilliantly chosen turn-of-the-century setting was the kind of time when world-shattering change could happen in the blink of an eye.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.
The Island by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant
(Sterling and Stone, 2023)

What begins as a very interesting surreal allegory for the clashing desires inside the human mind ends up unraveling into a too obvious didactic device. Our protagonist is a widowed father whose shameless infidelities pushed his wife to suicide, and now he's stuck without knowing how to process the guilt he still refuses to admit to himself, or how to keep raising his daughter without hurting her any further. But we only learn all this by the book's midpoint; the beginning is a fantasy tale of two equally powerful gods who don't know why they've been confined to an island to do meaningless, repetitive work for eternity. Turns out this fantasy represents the turmoil in the protagonist's head, but by the time we have the full picture, what follows is the kind of trite, saccharine claptrap you find in the self-help aisle of the bookstore.
Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.
Harlequin Butterfly by Toh EnJoe, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd
(Pushkin Press, 2024)

Proving for the trillionth time that the best stories are those about stories, this short but delightful book quickly proposes several questions to the reader: Can we record the process of learning a language in real time? Can it be done in the same language that is being learned? Is knitting like writing? And if so, is it translatable? Are there books that can only be understood in specific situations, like being on a plane or under a cat? And how can such books be written? By following the shifting and nebulous identities of a nomad writer, a detective of writers, and perhaps a couple more hard-to-identify bystanders, we may catch some priceless ideas the way one catches a butterfly: with a delicate net, preferably one woven from thoughts.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.
The Living and the Rest by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn
(MacLehose Press, 2023)

Like any work of magical realism, it all seems normal enough at first. A literary festival gathers authors from all over the African diaspora on a little island just off the Mozambican coast. As they exchange opinions on writing, publishing, and African identity, a mysterious storm cuts off the island from the rest of the world for days on end. Soon the authors start seeing their characters walk on the street as if they were real people. Time dissolves as if erased by the rain, and some characters find the story of their entire lives, extending even into the future, inside completed novels. It becomes impossible to tell literary inventions apart from flesh and blood, and the difference no longer matters. For all they know, the outside world may as well have ended.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.