Archives for category: books

I read Raybearer, the first book of this duology over the summer and immediately preordered the sequel which arrived a few weeks later on my e-reader. In the afterward Ifueko notes that she spent twelve years creating the first book and nine months, as the pandemic was beginning, on the second. It came in such a rush that she says that she didn’t recall writing swaths of it. With a score of great characters ready to take on the task described at the end of Raybearer, she knew where it was going, I think.

There’s a lot to be said for this work and its intricate world. The blends of magic and mythology and world building are effective (and mind bending, sometimes). There’s a lot in the first book that grounds you in the world. Pretty early on she explains all the kingdoms that make up the empire and the very interesting ways in which power is passed between generations. We then meet the Abiko, demons who, under treaty, take hundreds of children each year into the underworld as the price of not overrunning the empire. The trick is that some early emperor agreed that only children of one kingdom, Songland, would receive the mark indicating they were to go into the breach between the worlds.

I don’t want to give away any of the key plot points. Our narrator, Tarisai, is set up by her mother in the first book to join the prince’s council to undermine the empire. She’s able to subvert her mother’s will but finds that she’s the only one who wants to change the way the redemptors are chosen (from only one kingdom), and later who wants to change the way the empire as a whole is run. No one else seems to find the traditions of court life so repugnant that they’d even examine how to change them.

Ifueko makes Tarisai’s struggles and emotions real, and we feel a three-dimensional character experiencing them. And she’s created a hero who looks like the people fighting today’s battles against establishment oppression. The fantasy world’s elites bear strong resemblances to those of our world.

If there’s a downside in the story, and I’m not sure this isn’t just the nature of such heroes – the ones who take on the big tasks that no one else can do (or, in the words of Norton Juster, will do), she doesn’t tell anyone of the one thing that’s driving her to distraction. The nature of the council she sits on is that the members have psychic bonds with one another, if they open themselves to the connection. So Tarisai’s reticence to share her experience moves the plot along, but it turns the conflict into Tarisai versus herself, rather than against external forces.

This is a trope of this kind of fiction, I think. In a world where the hero’s bond is a major plot point, and her establishment of a greater number of such connections is one of the drivers of the second book, her refusal to engage feels false. Not false, but an easy way out of creating a way through in which the character relies on the thing that the story hangs from as a whole. On the other hand, she’s the one with the insurmountable goal that almost no one else will take on.

On their own merits, Raybearer and Redemptor succeed admirably. My quibble doesn’t obviate my joy in Tarisai’s various successes, and in the beauty and terror of the worlds Ifueko has opened.

Learn more here: https://www.jordanifueko.com/books (and dig how gorgeous those covers are!)

The Infinite Noise is a slightly supernatural queer YA something that includes romance, but mostly not. I don’t read a lot of YA, so I’m not sure how to characterize it. The story follows two neurodivergent high school boys. Caleb is an empath – he can be overwhelmed by the emotions of others. He’s also on the football team. Adam suffers depression and is one of the stars of the debate team.

One thing that grabbed me about this book was the alternating first person narratives. Caleb and Adam are very different but have an endearing quality to their differentness. Adam’s depression has been known to lead to self-harm – it’s nice to read of a boy in this position because this is thought to be mostly a girl’s issue. We meet Caleb before a fight he has after which he blacks out. The fight is the impetus to put him in therapy. There are no spoilers in that – we learn these things about both boys in the first couple of chapters.

Note that this is released as a ‘Bright Sessions Novel’, Dr. Bright being Caleb’s therapist. I’m not sure how I came to this book – my guess is that it was a Tor.com freebie, but it might have been some other special offer. That said, it wasn’t until I read the afterward that I learned that The Bright Sessions started out as an audio drama podcast. This gives the book (and its place in a series that has two more books, both of which have different protagonists) more sense. Because the voices came out of audio drama, they had to be unique. Shippen succeeds admirably in bringing these differences to the page.

I also love the fact that the main characters are queer and that their varieties of neurodivergence are normalized in the context of the story. The parents are concerned, but their concerns are mostly for the health and safety of their kids, not any kind of homophobia.

Even the bully doesn’t have an issue with the fact that the two main characters are dating. It’s a little utopic, but I love how Shippen normalizes the nature of queer love – the focus on all the things they’re dealing with (including all the heavy emotions of the protagonists’ internal states, the emotions of just being adolescent, and some schoolyard violence) isn’t compounded by the fact that they’re queer. The queerness is simply adjacent. But the parents, who are most definitely issue-laden, are cool with the fact that their sons are boys in love.

As the story progresses, what we experience is a courtship and burgeoning relationship that captures adolescent angst about these things in a way that feels especially accurate. It certainly brought to mind the ups and downs of my own adolescence, in a bittersweet way.

The trick with stories like this, comprised of first-person internal monologues, is that you have to want to be in the characters’ heads, even when they don’t want to be in their own heads. It’s a feat to make that emotional rollercoaster attractive and inviting and Shippen makes it work.

I really like Caleb and Adam, so I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the other books in the series. I’m curious about the original audio drama that gave birth to the stories. A couple of episodes of The Bright Sessions are waiting on my phone.

I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.

I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction for over 40 years. Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein were mainstays through my adolescence as were Stephen Donaldson and Stephen King. In the last couple of years I’ve focused a lot more on writers who aren’t white men. I know that my experience is by no means exhaustive, but fantasy in the last few years seems to have made a real leap in terms of the presentation of sexuality and gender roles.

The dynamics between characters with regards to sexuality, gender, and gender roles have taken a giant leap forward. Consider Star Trek, which was itself a leap forward with a Black woman, an alien (played by the son of East European Jewish immigrants), a Russian, and a Scot holding lead roles alongside the only slightly evolved Wild West White Male hero. In the late 60s there was almost no hint of non-binary sexualities. Gene Roddenberry had advanced a little beyond the rigid gender roles espoused by Robert Heinlein. Consider Stranger in a Strange Land. The titular character a human raised on Mars, whose parents were two of the four crew members of a mission who managed to kill one another out of jealousy (if I recall rightly). He returns to Earth as a messiah of sorts, but all the surrounding characters (including Heinlein’s perennial stand-in Jubal Harshaw) are very much about the heterosexual/dominant male dynamic, more evolved though Heinlein might have preferred them to be.

Fast forward to the early 90s, we get Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy, which imagines a world with a very queer milieu of traditional humans and this next level hermaphroditic race who become who they are through a kind of vampiric infection. Constantine was writing this at the height of the AIDS epidemic and imagining infections that made one more powerful, better able to heal, and impervious to (rather than suffering an accelerated) mortality. In addition, it’s humans, not the very queer Wraeththu who are on the way out. There’s definitely a revolution in her approach to fantasy, but it’s also a reaction to the time.

Fast forward to now. I have no idea if the writers I’m enjoying today are at all representative, but consider these. In the first book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, two of our humans fall in love with distinctly different aliens. Captain Pei (an Aeluon – a sort of reptilian biped) and Captain Ashby have a relatively hetero relationship, but at the heart is the fact that extra-species relationships are explicitly taboo for Aeluons. She has to keep her relationship with Ashby secret through the whole series. Chambers has derived these characters from deep considerations of how different species might evolve. When Rosemary and Sissix connect, we’ve already learned that the adult Aandrisks (Sissix’s species) raise families of offspring that they haven’t themselves given birth to. The whole clan structure is discussed before their ship lands on Sissix’s home planet. The fact that she connects with a human, however, is a matter of course and not addressed as strange.

The characters in Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series are born without gender and decide sometime after adolescence which path to take. Our heroes in the first books are twins and one decides for female, the other male. And the male takes up with one who made no transition.

In Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater Than Death, the human characters introduce themselves with their pronouns. Is this heavy-handed? I’m not sure. They’ve got something like a babelfish. When our hero introduces herself to a Chinese character with her pronouns and a whole bunch of hard-to-digest information, she asks if everything made sense. The other says, ‘I’m Wang Yiwei. Your Mandarin is hardcore except the part where you try to use gendered pronouns.’ Anders acknowledges that in a very diverse galaxy, some species might feel differently still.‘Then acting Senior Engineer Yma is a Zyzyian (small, slimy, blows bubbles all the time). It’s a huge insult to use any kind of pronoun to refer to Zyzyians – like, a battle-to-the-death-level insult.’

Also, in addition to the crew of the main ship being aliens from all over, the humans who join are from all over. Tina and Rachael are Americans, Damini is from Mumbai, another is from Brazil.

Nghi Vo introduces a character on page 1 of The Empress of Salt and Fortune ,as ‘they’ as does Nino Cipri in the LitenVerse books (Finna and Defekt, which take place in a very weird version of Ikea).

I think my favourite of this new kind of fantasy is Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. (And it’s really easy to mix up Wayward Children and Wayfarers, I know). The conceit of Wayward Children is that the main characters all end up at a school for kids who have been through doors into what we would call fantasy worlds. McGuire takes the idea of how the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe would actually have interacted with their parents upon return from Narnia, and how very hard they would have been to deal with and what if we could shunt them off to someone who could actually handle all the blather they talk about Narnia and talking lions and fauns and evil witches. So we go to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. All of our kids have been somewhere else and returned. And long to go back to the Goblin Market (where every trade is based on agreed upon fair value) or the Moors (ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist always in competition) or Confection which is sugar and sweet and nonsense. Kade is trans, Jack and Jill are twin girls (and require a look into their histories to recall what made Jack different. But all of their differences are cherished and the fantasy aspects of their adventures are as normal as the differences in sex and gender.

When Yskander says to Mahit in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire that she ‘should do something about’ her feelings for Three Seagrass, it’s solely an acknowledgement that love should be attended to. Yskander had had both male and female lovers and acknowledged love as the key to things. (This brings to mind the end of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in which love is quite literally the key. Beautiful but annoyingly heterocentric, much like Besson’s more recent Valerian.)

I’d love to know what Constantine would think of these modern evocations of love in all its normality. Sadly she passed away earlier this year, having labored in some obscurity for the last couple of decades. I’m finding in my reread of Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (the first of the Wraeththu books) a sort of normalization of queer love, but it’s very much in opposition to that of humanity (credit in the straight world, as Courtney Love once put it). Non-Wraeththu society still exists in opposition to queerness. Where we are now is (despite the anti-gay battles still being fought) offers a modicum harmony. Even in Constantine’s queer Utopia, one character says that if he hadn’t been elevated to Wraeththu, he’d just be a queer. This might be a reflection of the character’s own self-hatred (which manifests in a number of ways) or it might be that even at the end of humanity, love and desire still evoke senses of shame.

Ongoing radio drama podcast The Strange Case of the Starship Iris deals in much the same realm of sex, gender, and race being aspects of life and makes the embrace of same central to the plot. Populated mostly by humans, and one Dwarnian, the titular starship is a mixed bag of characters. Dwarnians and humanity fought a disastrous war, but the Dwarnian on Iris is engaged to Brian Jeeter who’s trans, and the other humans, male and female are from all over, as are the actors. Liu, Patel, Captain Tripathi. The cast, based on the actors’ names are equally from all over.

My experience of fantasy writing nowadays is very much informed by the fact that I’m focusing on writing by women and trans authors. I have little or no idea how representative these writers are, but Chambers and Martine are nominees (winners?) for major SF awards. It’s not as though these are niche writers at this point.

Given the hundreds, possibly thousands, of audio cassettes I’ve purchased in my lifetime, it’s a little bit surprising that I didn’t know the inventor’s name until reading his obituaries this week. (I’ll note also, that Dhr Ottens was also on the team that developed the compact disc. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve owned 10,000 CDs since buying my first one in 1987.)

I was led down the rabbit hole of mix tapes by Jim and Mary Glaser, a pair of NYC transplants to Los Angeles who worked at American Pie Records with me when I was in high school. They probably made me a dozen in ‘84 and ‘85 that I wore out. Those tapes included my introductions to Frank Zappa and Lou Reed and dozens of other artists. And when I went off to SF State in the fall of ‘85, those tapes went with me and were my constant companions for the next four years (and beyond).

In a lot of ways Jim and Mary were the embodiment of cool for me. I think they’d come west to make it in rock and roll, but it wasn’t to be and they moved back to NYC around the time I moved to San Francisco. Occasionally they come to mind, but sadly their names are too common to provide useful search results. The mix tapes I made for friends for over a decade after that (and then the mix CDs) extended their philosophy of mixing both humor and great rock and roll. I developed my own philosophy as well, well before Nick Hornby expounded on the topic in High Fidelity. But that only proves that I wasn’t the only geek in the 90s making mix tapes. Far from it.

And then there’s Norton Juster. I’ve only read those first two books of his, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line, but I fell in love with them when I was first falling in love with books. I can tell from my copy of Dot that I bought it in the 90s (the price of 1.50 written in pencil, but with a heavy hand, indicates the source was probably Moe’s in Berkeley rather than Austen Books in San Francisco). The sticker inside that reads Ex Libris with my name, printed in color, means that I left it in a box with a friend, or with my sister, when I moved to Europe in 2002 and collected it some time later.

I bought my current copy of Tollbooth around 2007 at the same time I bought a copy for my nieces who were just getting to the first right age for it. And rereading it now, I’m still at the right age.

My earliest memory of Dot was the Chuck Jones cartoon that was in rotation with Looney Tunes on one or another of the other cartoon programmes that occupied my weekday afternoons on days I didn’t go to Hebrew school. I watched a lot of cartoons but that one stuck with me. A few days ago, I could only find a super-low resolution version on YouTube, but today, there’s this lovely 1040p upload. Take ten minutes to enjoy it in all its 1965 glory.

In the period when I was separated from my first wife, she dated a guy who in a number of ways was everything that I wasn’t. I was quite sure at the time that I was the squiggle in the story and he was a line who could do amazing things. Someone at the time, who knew more about him than I did pointed out that he was very much a squiggle. I still found myself jealous, but I also took the time to appreciate my own vectors. And how much dot, line, and squiggle we all had in us.

I honestly don’t know where I’m going with this. These stories still move me for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint. The lessons Milo learns on his journey through the tollbooth resonate – I still find value in not jumping to conclusions (though I still do it) and in fighting off the easy repetitive tasks that take the time I could be doing something worthwhile (for a wide range of definitions of worthwhile). It’s strange, because Juster created a quest in the Arthurian tradition with a hero who may not realize what a fantastic boon he’s returned with. Simple as a cup on the shelf but still full of mystery.