Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

40639316The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee
Published March 12th 2019
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In hindsight, the clue that I wasn’t going to enjoy this book was right there in the (sub)title.

When selecting The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books as my January pick for a Biographies! book club at work, I assumed that the focus would be mainly on Hernando Colón, Christopher Columbus’ illegitimate son, and his quest to collect and then organize books and material into a great library. At the time I thought nothing of the fact that this son, the man the biography is ostensibly about, isn’t even named in the subtitle. By the time I had tediously made my way through the first hundred pages (reading with a piece of paper covering the remaining text on the page so my mind and eyes couldn’t wander) about Columbus and his New World voyages, I bitterly regretted both my mistake and the fact that because I was reading this for work, I couldn’t DNF it.

The story of Hernando, his library, and how he undertook the process of organizing its contents is genuinely fascinating, but unfortunately this story makes up only a small fragment of Wilson-Lee’s bloated, meandering book. The rest covers Christopher Columbus, and Spain and its history in a way that only those who have personal experience with either the region or the manuscripts Hernando collected (which, remarkably, one member of the book club did!) will enjoy. I suspect that many others will DNF (as the two other members of the book club did), frustrated by the lifeless narrative, the dense text, and the lack of focus. Those who finish The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books will no doubt be left with a great deal of respect for Hernando Colón and his work, but sorely disappointed by the wasted potential that is this biography.

Fully the first third of Wilson-Lee’s book is focused on Columbus and, to a lesser degree, his relationship with his illegitimate son. Colón, who accompanied his father on many of his voyages, idolized his father and attempted to repair his tattered (yes, even in the sixteenth century) reputation. Yet even after Columbus’ death, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books reads like filler. It’s an exploration of place and time that goes far beyond what’s necessary to contextualize Hernando Colón’s life; more travelogue than biography. It’s also less than strictly factual, frequently using phrases like “perhaps he would have encountered” or “he may have seen” to discuss architecture and features of the towns and cities Colón visited.

I’ve also never before encountered a biography that told me less about its subject as a person. By all accounts Hernando Colón was an obsessive man, a workaholic consumed by his library and other projects (including a comprehensive Latin-English dictionary that never made it past the letter B, a description of the geographic makeup of Spain including distances and geographical features, and a biography of his father that neatly omits all of Columbus’ worst qualities), who had little in the way of a personal life. Yet the same accusation could be leveled at William Pitt the Younger and I would recommend William Hague’s informative and entertaining biography of Pitt to just about anyone, so I’m inclined to think the omission of any insight into Hernando Colón is a fault of the author.

Parts of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books detailing how Hernando categorized his collection of prints so that he wouldn’t purchase duplicates, and describing his epitome, which summarized information contained in each manuscript with the purpose of disseminating not the books themselves but the summaries to the broader public are fascinating, but they occur late in the book and far too infrequently. As someone who doesn’t often pick up non-fiction, I may not be the target audience for this book, but as a librarian, I most certainly am. If even a librarian, the very geekily interested in the organization of information type of reader this book should appeal to the most, can barely get through the book, I’m not sure what hope anyone else has of finishing it!

Favourite Books of 2019

Often I have trouble narrowing down which titles should appear on my favourite books of the year list. It says something about the mediocre year of reading I’ve had that out of 63 books read, I could really only come up with 12 contenders. There are a few more that I heartily enjoyed and recommend, I could discuss my pleasant surprise at some great Canadian science-fiction this year, like Kelly Robson’s deservedly Hugo nominated novella, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach and L.X. Beckett’s technologically adept Gamechanger, how much I enjoyed Taylor Jenkins-Reid’s ode to a fictional 70’s band, Daisy Jones and the Six or how I appreciated Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik putting a feminist spin on fairy tales, but ultimately there were really only twelve books that I seriously considered for this list, so I’ve written up the two that fell just short as well.

Honourable Mentions

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12. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

“I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body. Do you think my body couldn’t decide what it wanted to be?”
“I think it doesn’t matter because we get to decide what our bodies are or are not,” he answered.

Unsurprisingly, Rivers Solomon’s debut novel about the journey of the HSS Matilda, a space ship organized much like the antebellum South, is an uncomfortable read. It’s unflinchingly graphic in its depictions of violence and unsubtle about the way that dark-skinned sharecroppers from the low-deck slums, like protagonist Aster, endure brutal treatment, deplorable living conditions, and pervasive casual cruelty (including misgendering) from white upper-deck “owners”. Yet this sci-fi treatment of American slavery is grounded by exceptional world-building and its characters, who are unique, diverse, and full of heart, even as they wrestle with the collective trauma of their people. As a queer, autistic, and black character, Aster is still all too rare a protagonist to come across and I loved watching the connection between Aster and Theo, another nonbinary character grow. The exceptional characters and worldbuilding are let down by a meandering plot and an ending that doesn’t feel earned, but it’s a promising debut and an inventive, sobering look at slavery through a science-fiction lens.

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11. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

“You couldn’t spell obligation if I shoved the letters up your ass.”
“I gotta say, I don’t think that would help,” said Gideon. “God, I’m glad you didn’t teach me my spelling.”

I really wanted to be one of those bloggers screaming to the rafters about this book and forcing it into the hands of everyone they meet, but I never quite reached that point. Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed the book – it’s only just shy of my ten favourite reads this year – but it was more of a 4.25 star read for me than a glowing 5 stars. The premise is fantastic; gothic lesbian necromancers in space? Sign me up! and ultimately it’s the uniqueness that kept me hooked, but the execution of Muir’s vision didn’t always work for me. I could tell that she had thought through the nuances of her magic system, yet it wasn’t explained well on page and I found the world-building lacking. Some pacing issues also held this back from being the grand slam that it could potentially have been, but despite these issues I loved this weird little book and I fell in love with Gideon and Harrow and their complicated dynamic. I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like Gideon the Ninth before and the ending left me itching for book two. Bring on Harrow the Ninth!

The List

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10. The Deep by Rivers Solomon

“One can only go for so long without asking ‘who am I?’, ‘where do I come from?’, ‘what does all this mean?’, ‘what is being?’, ‘what came before me and what might come after?’. Without answers there is only a hole. A hole where a history should be that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities.

Based on a song by experimental rap group Clipping (which counts rapper/actor Daveed Diggs among its members), Rivers Solomon’s novella is spun from the darkly unique premise of an underwater society descended from the offspring of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard during The Middle Passage. The trauma of their pasts is too great to be remembered regularly, so Historian Yetu alone holds the memories of her people, but the burden is too great and when she has the chance to be free, she flees to the surface. Solomon’s prose is dreamy and lyrical as they reveal a richly imagined and completely alien undersea civilization. Although the themes are weighty, as The Deep considers the broken identity that results from a loss of cultural knowledge and history, and explores diaspora, and the impact of generational trauma on a people, I found the novella ultimately uplifting and hopeful. A moving and raw examination of how to learn to live with the pain of generational trauma on an ongoing basis, and the importance of companionship and finding strength in others like you.

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9. Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard
(translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

No one could have predicted that I would love this as much as I did. Not Rachel, whose review alerted me to its existence in the first place, and not me, expecting it to end up somewhere in the four star rating range. Yet something strange happened when I picked up this odd little novella – I fell in love. The rich historical detail played a role. The spare, carefully crafted, yet dreamy prose so reminiscent of what I loved about Sarah Winman’s Tin Man (my favourite read last year) had something to do with it. The ‘what if’ premise that imagines how things may have played out if Michelangelo had accepted a commission from the Ottoman Empire to design and build a bridge across the Golden Horn was certainly a factor. Yet the most likely reason of all is simply that it’s so emotionally charged. I went from being interested and invested in the outcome, to overcome with pangs of emotion by the end. I wouldn’t recommend Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants to absolutely everyone, but in the hands of the right reader (who may be someone completely unexpected) this novella is an absolute gift and the sort of book that stays with you long after you’ve closed the pages.

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8. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

“I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”

Unlike Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, expecting a Leigh Bardugo book to win up on my favourites list is a pretty safe bet. To each their own, but I’m honestly a little baffled at why this book has been so polarizing a read as the goodreads ratings suggest it is. Personally I loved it! Bardugo’s first foray into adult fiction introduces Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a former drug addict, sexual abuse survivor, and high school dropout who is offered a second chance – the opportunity to attend Yale University on a full-ride. The catch? She’s tasked with monitoring Yale’s secret magical societies, whose occult activities are more sinister than she could have imagined. Alex is a prickly protagonist, but I fell in love with her and with her mentor, the affable Darlington, and assistant Dawes. I found Ninth House an intelligent, atmospheric, and entrancing read that was well paced and left me hungry for more. At times it is as dark as advertised, with the book engaging directly with themes of sexual abuse and abuse of power so I advise heeding the trigger warnings if that’s something that concerns you.

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7. Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

“Escape now, feelings later.”

Getting personal for a moment, 2019 was a pretty dark year for me. I struggled a lot with mental health issues brought on by professional frustration and I fell into reading slumps more frequently, which is why books that I couldn’t put down, that let me escape into another world meant so much to me. Steel Crow Saga was one of those books. Despite its length, Steel Crow Saga is an action-packed, swift-paced book that hooked me immediately. Set in a mid-20th century fantasy version of Asia, where the Tomodanese (Japanese) have the ability to bond with and shape metal and the Sanbuna (Filipino) and Shang (Chinese) people can create a soul bond with an animal, it’s very clear what nations are represented by their fictional counterparts and Krueger uses this understanding to explore the tensions between these Asian countries and the impact that colonialism has had on each of them. As a non-Anime watcher, the comparisons to Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender were more of a deterrent than a draw, but if you’re also not a big Anime person and are considering this book, let me just say that yes, Steel Crow Saga is a lot of fun, but it also tackles serious themes, albeit while retaining a hopeful buoyance about the future. The novel’s four viewpoint characters (soldier, prince, detective, and thief) each have a clear voice and motivation and I loved them all so much! I love that there is such an excellent standalone fantasy novel out there, but how bittersweet that there aren’t more stories to read about these fantastic characters and the fascinating politics of the world they live in!

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6. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

“The phrase ‘see attached bibliography’ is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”

Speaking of fun and reading the right book at the right time, there’s this gem. Often I reject these kinds of books as too fluffy for me, but once or twice a year (see my love last year for Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda) a book sneaks in with just the right balance of humour, heart, angst, a pinch of snark, and a winning romance. I started off skeptical but was quickly smitten by this charming self-aware tale of bisexual disaster Alex, the First Son of the United States, falling in love with Henry, the Prince of Wales. The relationship between the characters, though quick moving, avoids feeling like instalove because we’re let in on the emails and other communications between the characters when they’re apart. Although the writing didn’t thrill me, I found the chemistry between Alex and Henry believable and I enjoyed most of the secondary characters. It’s very definitely a book written by an American and I had trouble getting my head around the English monarchy being completely different (and undeveloped beyond some pretty cringy conservative tropes) while the American presidency seems to just go AU after Obama. The writing is also somewhat uneven. There are some beautiful romantic lines and bits of dialogue that made me laugh out loud, and I loved the allusions to queer history, but some lines do seem to be trying too hard. It’s not objectively one of the best things I’ve ever read, but I devoured it and then devoured it again before I had to return it to the library, and then bought a copy to re-read in the future. It’s not perfect, but I loved it anyway and it made me feel all of the feelings.

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5. Regeneration by Pat Barker

“But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime? After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men – comradeship – and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.”

The World Wars hold little interest for me, so I rarely pick up books set during this period, yet a select few have been so well-written and affecting that they are among my all-time favourites: Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, Wein’s Code Name Verity, and now Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Confronting the psychological effects of World War I, the first book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is a slender but powerful read. Told through clear, sparse prose, the novel focuses on treatment methods during the war, but its primary focus is Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated English officer (and lauded poet) who, in 1917, was sent for treatment in a war hospital by pioneering psychologist W. H. R. Rivers after sending a letter to the Times declaring his disillusionment with the war. Barker begins her novel with this declaration, a scathing condemnation of those involved that begins, “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” As both Sassoon and Rivers are historical figures, what happens to each of them is already known, it’s the psychological drama behind the action that concerns Barker and that makes Regeneration such a compelling read. Barker deftly weaves in themes of class, politics, masculinity, and homosexuality, as she explores the psyches of both the soldiers and of their psychologist. The conversations between Sassoon and Rivers are particularly riveting. I can’t wait to find time to read the rest of this series in the new year because Regeneration was a knockout and a new all-time favourite of mine that I would recommend to just about everyone, though be warned there are some graphic depictions of the symptoms of shellshock as well as treatments for psychiatric disorders.

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4. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,00 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

My favourite discovery of 2019 was the Murderbot Diaries, a set of four novellas (with a full-length novel to be released in 2020!) told in the first person by a snarky, self-deprecating, agender security unit that thinks of itself as “Murderbot”. Murderbot would like nothing more than to half-ass its job and be left in peace to binge-watch its favourite shows, but when things go awry, Murderbot chooses to use its proficiency to keep the human explorers it has been assigned to watch over alive. The key word here is chooses because Murderbot lives in a world where it is treated as sentient property, owned by a corporate entity that leases security units out for contracted work. Its hacked governor chip offers the character the chance to make choices but not the freedom to do so openly, so it has shut itself off from humanity by pretending not to feel. Over the course of the series, Murderbot reluctantly takes steps towards exploring its humanity as it sets out on its own and must adapt to escape discovery. Murderbot is one of the most relatable characters I’ve encountered all year and I’ve been more or less shoving the first novella (All Systems Red) at people and telling them to read it all year. Gloriously snarky, intelligent plotted, and well-paced, I would recommend these novellas even to those who don’t normally enjoy science-fiction. Like many of the best stories about non-human characters, the Murderbot Diaries are, at their heart, about what it means to be human, particularly in a world where you’re seen as something less than.


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3. The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

“I am a witch,” said Vasya. Blood was running down her hand now, spoiling her grip. “I have plucked snowdrops at Midwinter, died at my own choosing, and wept for a nightingale. Now I am beyond prophecy.”

Two of my favourite series wrapped up this year and as you can see by their placement on this list, they both stuck the landing! The Winter of the Witch brilliantly concludes the story of Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Having experienced grief and hardship and been tested, Vasya matures into her powers to become a formidable woman and witch. It’s a transformation that feels earned, but that is also empowering. I wasn’t fully on board in earlier books, but the realization of Vasya’s slow-burn romance with Morozko, The Winter King, finds a new tenderness here and, through Vasya’s growing strength, becomes a true match of equals. Like the previous books in the Winternight Trilogy, The Winter of the Witch is immersive and atmospheric, told through Arden’s evocative, graceful prose. I loved the realistic moral ambiguity of the world, the fact that nothing is strictly black or white, good or evil as it initially appears to be and the fact that every choice has a consequence. I definitely shed a few tears over this one, and while I do have some quibbles about uneven pacing, I absolutely loved this book and the series it concludes.

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2. Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly

“Small lies,” he said. “Do you promise?”

When I first read the blurb for Amnesty, the final chapter in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series my heart stopped. Promising the return of a departed and much missed (by me anyway) character, I began counting the days until its release and yet I worried. Was there hope that the characters I loved so much could both face the consequences of their actions and survive the book? Would they ever be able to find peace after what they’d done? Would the ending feel earned? I needn’t have worried. Amnesty gives its characters room to breathe as they come to terms with the changes both in the world they inhabit and in each other. Characters take the first tentative steps towards putting the past behind them, yet Donnelly never hand-waves the trauma that they have experienced or belittles the choices that have led them to this point. Few things appeal more to be as a reader than a realistic exploration of trauma and the long and arduous, but not impossible, path that leads, if not to recovery per se, than at least forward. Amnesty tackles this beautifully and concludes in a bittersweet, and yet perfectly fitting finale. I was profoundly moved and cannot wait to re-read.

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1. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.”

Was there ever any doubt that this would be my book of the year? Since I read Say Nothing in March I have been thrusting it at everyone I’ve ever met and insisting that they have to read this stunning book. At least a few have. Both of them have loved it as much as I did. I very rarely read nonfiction, but this narrative nonfiction work about the disappearance of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, during the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles” was so engaging that I had trouble putting it down. One of the most unsettling and informative books I’ve ever read, it contextualizes the events of the Troubles and the day-to-day existence and trauma of those who lived through this period. Needless to say, this book left quite an impression on me and I know it will haunt me for a long time to come.

Books: Spinning Silver

36896898Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Published July 10, 2018
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I grew up reading books on world folktales and Greek mythology more than the popular fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why Naomi Novik’s twisted fairy tales don’t resonate with me to the extent that they have with other readers. Quite frankly I found the hype over Nebula Award winner Uprooted baffling, but it’s easy to understand why Spinning Silver is so beloved. Novik’s loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, is a winning feminist fairy tale about women who refuse to lie down and accept their fates, but who forge their own futures through bravery and wit.

Told through multiple perspectives, Spinning Silver is primarily focused on three women – Miryem, Wanda, and Irina – each of whom must rewrite their fate. When Miryem’s mother falls ill, she takes over her father’s moneylending business and soon proves adept at collecting outstanding debt. As her shrewd ability to turn a profit grows, she’s approached by the frightening Staryk King, an otherworldly being who promises to make her his Queen if she can change Staryk silver into gold three times over. Wanda works as a housekeeper for Miryem’s family in order to pay off her violent alcoholic father’s drinking debts, yet she soon realizes that she is better fed and treated away from home. Finally, Irina, a duke’s daughter, is a disappointment to her father, who does not expect her to make a brilliant match. To her dismay, Irina unexpectedly winds up married to the Tsar, whose cruelty she witnessed when they were children. Yet the Tsar conceals a dark secret that threatens to harm not just Irina, but her people as well.

All three women serve as protectors who watch over those who can’t take care of themselves, yet not solely in a traditional motherhood role. Miryem hardens her heart and does what she must to provide her sick mother with food and medicine, Wanda earns a wage working for Miryem’s family and begins learning Miryem’s form of magic (numbers) in order to protect her two brothers, and Irina uses her wits to protect her faithful nurse and to hold her country together when it’s threatened by the creature possessing her husband.

What really resonated with me though was the fact that these women, who have been commodified by the men in their lives know their own value and set their own price. Miryem says as much to the Staryk King, setting a value on her services greater than he bargained for, while Wanda and Irina too know what price their loyalty and particular gifts should command.

I also loved the role that Miryem’s Judaism plays in the novel. Her culture, her traditions (including observing Shabbat), and her people hold such importance for Miryem and it grounds her character nicely in the narrative.

I do have a few minor quibbles. The familial connections that Novik crafts are rich and compelling, but I wished we had seen more of the friendships between women in the text than we did. I also found the male love interests somewhat underwritten, a detail that kept me from fully investing in the romantic relationships between characters. It’s worth noting that all of the characters grew on me by the end though.

The prose is well-crafted throughout and Novik makes excellent use of fairy tale tropes to weave her original tale. Admittedly the conditions under which I finished Spinning Silver (desperately trying to make it to the end before leaving for Vermont the next day) were not ideal and may have influenced my opinion, but I didn’t find the climax of the book suspenseful or tense enough to rate this a full five stars. Still, I really loved this one and if it can win over even someone like me, who isn’t big on fairy tales, I can only imagine how much readers who adore fairy tales must love this book.

Books: Witchmark

Witchmark RD3 fixedbleeds new dressWitchmark by C.L. Polk
Published June 19, 2018
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C.L. Polk’s debut is a syrupy sweet queer romance that defies categorization. Combining medical mystery, adorable gay romance, and family drama into its post-WWI inspired historical fantasy, many readers will find that it strikes just the right balance. If you’ve been reading my reviews for awhile though, you’ll know that descriptors like ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ are rarely selling points for me. I loved the idea behind Witchmark, but found its surface-deep treatment of serious issues, like PTSD in veterans, disappointing and its romance too cloying and underdeveloped to satisfy.

Witchmark’s protagonist is Miles Singer, a man with few choices. Belonging to an influential family of mages, he is doomed, either be committed to an asylum or enslaved as a living battery for his more powerful sister to draw upon. He goes to war to escape and returns home under an assumed name, where he practices medicine in a hospital and discreetly uses his magic gift for healing to aid ailing veterans. When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing abilities, he puts his freedom at risk to investigate the patient’s murder.

Doctor Miles Singer is the kind of hopelessly naive protagonist that makes you want to put your head in your hands multiple times over the course of the book, but his compassion and stubbornness won me over in the end. Even when his decisions made me want to wring my hands, they were understandable because his family and friends are so obviously his blind spot. The romance at the center of the book is appropriately adorable, but I found the love interest comparatively underdeveloped and wished that Polk had invested more energy into the relationship so it didn’t walk a fine line between romance and instalove.

What Witchmark does extremely well is communicate its themes. Polk offers important commentary on how soldiers returning from war with mental health issues are frequently ignored and mistreated. Freedom/agency and the lengths to which we’ll go to achieve and then to maintain our ability to choose is a key theme. There’s also some interesting discourse about the needs of the many versus the needs of the few argument and how this perspective is used by the privileged to justify mistreating the underclass, “for the good of society”.

It isn’t the only Nebula-nominated debut novel, but to me Witchmark is the only one that feels like a first novel. The ideas are definitely there, but Polk’s writing style is still developing. The book also suffers from uneven pacing. The opening chapter is gripping, but Polk loses momentum after that, focusing on the day-to-day banal existence of her characters rather than continuing to develop the plot and build suspense. The result is a book that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but that I wasn’t compelled to continue once I had set it down. In contrast, the last 50 pages or so gave me tonal whiplash as Polk seems to scramble to bring everything together in the book’s abrupt climax.

This is sounding overwhelmingly negative so let me stress that I did *like* Witchmark, I just wanted more from it. I wanted the deep dive into the issues characters in this world face, more detailed world-building that puts the climax in context, and more developed secondary characters. What I got was a fluffy romance with some fantasy aspects and interesting commentary on agency.

Although Witchmark wasn’t ultimately for me, I can see why it has its fans. There have been too many recent reminders that when it comes to media representation of queer relationships, happily ever afters are still, sadly, a rarity. Witchmark provides that much needed happy ending and more; It is pure escapism right when we need it most. It didn’t move or transport me the way I hoped it would, but I still admire the attempt.

Books: Fire Ant

39359011Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee
Published March 22, 2018
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Fire Ant is both the last of my Nebula Award reads for this year and the least accomplished. It’s readable and there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but Fire Ant is your garden-variety military sci-fi tale of a plucky underdog who is selected to join an elite squad and must prove herself to her superiors and to her fellow pilots. Generic and predictable, Fire Ant is the novella equivalent of a popcorn movie; enjoyable enough while you’re reading/watching it (if you don’t think too hard, that is) but difficult to remember as soon as it’s over.

Floribeth “Beth” Dalisay is a member of the Off-Planet Worker underclass who has, by virtue of her 4″6 height, become a pilot for a mega-corporation that sends tiny one-person ships on missions of exploration. On a routine contract to search new solar systems for natural resources and/or habitable planets, Beth encounters a hostile alien presence who begin firing on her. Some fancy flying saves Beth’s life, but when she reports her encounter to the company, they ground her ship and impose financial penalties for equipment losses. Luckily the Directorate Navy is interested in Beth’s skillset and enlists her as a Navy fighter pilot.

I suspected Fire Ant wouldn’t be something I’d enjoy. There’s the rare exception (Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is a clever, complicated, and well-characterized example of the genre), but military science-fiction (MilSF) holds very little appeal for me. Like many examples of its genre, Fire Ant offers an abundance of action, military procedure, and space battles, but is woefully short on characterization. By half-way through the novella I had started to skim, the extended training exercise descriptions and battle scenes making my eyes glaze over.

How, I wondered, does such a mediocre novella make it into an otherwise impressive slate of Nebula Award nominees? The answer seems to be through playing the voting system. A closed Facebook group of independent science-fiction and fantasy writers, including Brazee, put forward a list of authors with eligible works that they encouraged their members to vote for – and it worked! 6 of the works they suggested have been nominated for awards this year.

Undoubtedly a nomination will increase the visibility of a work, but I wonder if this approach doesn’t do as much harm as it does good. Sure I wouldn’t have picked up Fire Ant at all if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Novella, but when a work isn’t anywhere near the caliber of writing demonstrated by the other nominees in its category, it suffers by comparison.

Unfortunately, Fire Ant feels amateurish. Published under self-publishing imprint Semper Fi Press, I caught multiple spelling and grammar errors in Fire Ant that suggested it could use a more comprehensive edit. I don’t want to take away from anyone’s passion. I certainly haven’t written and published a book, so I have a great respect for those who follow their dreams and become a writer, but when you not only put your book out into the world, but then push to have it recognized by one of the most prestigious awards for science-fiction and fantasy authors, you open yourself up to criticism.

Books: Artificial Condition

36223860Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
Published May 8, 2018
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An apology to an underappreciated format:

Dear novellas,
I misjudged you. I erroneously assumed that your limited page count couldn’t possibly deliver the emotional depth or satisfying character arcs that I so desired. I stubbornly maintained this view and neglected to read novellas even when I knew that a short story or slender work of fiction could pack an emotional punch. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to see the light, but I’m a convert to the format and ready to spread the word!
Sincerely,
Me

After being, quite frankly, a little stunned by just how much I loved All Systems Red, the first in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, I couldn’t wait to see where Murderbot’s journey would take it next. I was not disappointed! Artificial Condition picks up shortly after the events of the first book and follows Murderbot as it undertakes a mission to learn more about its past, specifically the incident at a mining center where it went rogue.

Like the first book in the series, Artificial Condition examines humanity and what it means to be human through the point-of-view of its decidedly not human main character. Murderbot’s discomfort with altering its physical appearance and behaviour to appear more human (a safety precaution so it can explore the mining facility while escaping detection) is keenly felt, even as it also recognizes the drawbacks of being a construct.

Although Murderbot’s crew don’t appear in the story, there are plenty of new characters to get to know and love, such as Murderbot’s latest clients (three naive, but well-meaning humans, including one who uses gender neutral pronouns!) My favourite new addition though is a bored, super intelligent research transport vessel named ART who is capable of being every bit as snarky as Murderbot itself. A scene where ART is emotionally compromised by a fictional media serial was both amusing and relatable.

Artificial Condition enables Wells to expand on the broader world that’s only hinted at in the first book, while deftly exploring themes of found family, choice, and freedom. It’s a brilliant continuation of Murderbot’s personal journey and a compelling, well-paced thriller that offers no easy answers.

Books: The Tea Master and the Detective

36686547The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
Published March 31, 2018
star-3-half
In the 125+ years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes there have been countless adaptations, but I’ve never encountered a re-imagining quite as unique as The Tea Master and the Detective.

Set in a galactic empire inspired by Vietnamese culture, consulting detective Long Chau must team up with The Shadow’s Child, a sentient transport warship (known as a mindship) with PTSD, to solve a mystery. As a science-fiction novella it works; de Bodard’s world-building is detailed and refreshingly free from Western military conventions, and The Shadow’s Child is an engaging and sympathetic narrator. As a Holmes pastiche though, the execution falls flat. The mystery is, well, not much of a mystery at all, and the understanding between Long Chau and the mindship doesn’t feel earned.

Here’s where I make a confession. When it comes to Hugo or Nebula nominated books or novellas that are part of a broader world, I usually try to read the preceding works in order to contextualize the nominee. Reader, I ran out of time. I went into The Tea Master and the Detective without reading any of the author’s other Universe of Xuya novellas and I definitely felt the lack. The Tea Master and the Detective is technically a standalone, but to fully grasp the nuance of the world-building I’d recommend at least skimming the author’s page about the series here before diving into the novella.

I did love each of the characters individually. De Bodard may not be the first to gender swap Holmes and Watson, but what a joy to see two female characters team up to solve crime! Long Chau is an enigmatic and compelling presence as the abrasive consulting detective, although I wished her intelligence and deducing were shown more than told. The Shadow’s Child stole my heart though as a battle-scarred, compassionate ship eking out a living not as a transport ship but as a mixer of personalized tea blends that grant the drinker special properties. I wish the relationship between these two characters had undergone a more gradual transition from dislike/reluctant partners to mutual respect, but I enjoyed the journey anyway and would love to read another adventure that builds on this understanding.

The Tea Master and the Detective didn’t quite come together for me. I loved the premise of a Vietnamese-inspired empire and a female Sherlock Holmes in space, but found the pacing uneven and the plotting too simplistic for a detective story. I’m intrigued by de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya though and will be checking out more of her works in the future.

Books: All Systems Red

32758901All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Published May 2, 2017
star-4-half
Gloriously snarky, intelligently plotted, and surprisingly touching, it’s easy to see why the first novella in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series is so acclaimed.

I knew I was going to love All Systems Red from its opening paragraph:

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module. but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

149 pages later I’ve recommended it to multiple people and am so glad that I have the sequel, Artificial Condition, waiting for me! The book’s first-person narrator, Murderbot, is every bit as snarky, apathetic, and self-deprecating as the opening lines of the novella suggest and as someone who loves these kinds of characters (think Jaye Tyler in Wonderfalls, George Lass in Dead Like Me, and fanon Bucky Barnes post-Winter Soldier, only set in Space and minus Steve), I found the author’s sense of humour both appealing and relatable.

Murderbot is hands down the best new-to-me fictional character I’ve encountered this year. Part human and part bot, it’s an agender security unit assigned to keep watch over a group of explorers. Murderbot would like nothing more than to half-ass its job and be left in peace to binge-watch its serials, but when the mission goes awry, Murderbot chooses to use its proficiency to keep its humans alive.

The important word there is chooses, because Murderbot lives in a world where it is treated as sentient property, owned by a corporate entity that leases security units out for contracted work. Its hacked governor module allows Murderbot to make choices, but it is still listed as inventory, still belongs to the company. It may look human under its armor, but can never fully belong as one, and so it shuts itself off from humanity by avoiding unnecessary interaction and pretending not to feel emotions. Like many of the best science-fiction stories involving robots, androids, and other non-humans, All Systems Red is, at its heart, a story about what it means to be human.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read All Systems Red but I am definitely picking up the rest of the Murderbot Diaries series ASAP! I can’t wait to dive deeper into the murky morality of this world and Murderbot’s past in Artificial Condition.