The Bone Shard Daughter

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Floating in the Endless Sea is an archipelago ruled by the Phoenix Empire. For hundreds of years the Sukai Dynasty has ruled these islands, protecting the people against the fearsome power of the Alanga, a mythical race of beings whose contests of power could swamp entire islands. The founder of the dynasty defeated the Alanga and imperial propaganda insists that they could return, though no one can so much as remember what they look like.

But if these myths give the dynasty legitimacy, they rule through through more usual systems of coercion and centralized power — in this case, taxation, soldiers, and a host of constructs created by the emperor and powered by shards of bone taken from the skull of every citizen in a tithing festival. These shards power the constructs, set their programming, and slowly drain the life-force from the person from whom they were taken.

The story comes together in three plots that converge on the same location.

The first is the story of Lin, the eponymous daughter of the title. She is the presumed heir of the empire locked in a struggle for succession with her foster brother Bayan, both of whom the emperor is teaching magic. However, he refuses to teach Lin Bone Shard magic, claiming that she is not a whole person because she cannot remember anything past five years ago when Bayan came into the palace, supposedly bringing with him a disease that wiped her memory. Not deterred, Lin is determined to steal what she has not been given, subverting the four major constructs that rule her father’s empire in the process if necessary.

Second is Jovis, the most wanted smuggler in the empire and a man on the run from both officials and a powerful crime syndicate. All he wants, really, is to find his wife, Emahla, who was abducted by someone in a ship with blue sails. He has been tracking this ship for years, but the chase takes a detour on Deerhead Island, first when he is charged with rescuing a child from the tithing ceremony and then when the entire island starts to sink. While fleeing certain doom, he rescues a swimming creature, Mephi, who seems to grant him immense powers. Suddenly, Jovis finds himself unable to follow such a selfish mission.

The third plot is the story of Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and her beloved-yet-impoverished partner, Ranami. Phalue has a reputation as a playgirl, but Ranami is convinced that she can convince her of the fundamental exploitation of the system and therefore join the “shardless” rebels in overthrowing her father, the governor.

All the while, on the small island of Maila, in the far north of the archipelago, Sand has spent years collecting mangoes without questioning why when, after a fall, she begins to recover her memories.

None of the characters struck me as particularly complex, but they were all working from archetypes that fit neatly within their assigned roles. I didn’t see a huge amount of character development, but the way in which the story unfolded neatly masked what otherwise might have been a problem. Lin is the best example of this because she is presented to us as something of a tabula rasa: instead of her character developing a huge amount emotionally, her character is revealed as we learn about this world with various twists and turns. The protagonists other than Jovis frequently received their development as a revelation brought about by learning about the world more than through the choices they make. This approach worked here since the reader was simultaneously learning about the world, but I found myself wondering whether it could be sustained for multiple books.

Each of the main characters also had a simple goodness that I found refreshing, even when they were set up to be naïve optimists that could be a bigger detriment in sequels if there aren’t complications thrown their way.

And yet, despite these nitpicks, I loved every moment of The Bone Shard Daughter. The reason, quite simply, is the world. This is an Asian-inspired setting, in some ways similar to Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, but remixing tropes of a lost civilization, a totalitarian government, and catastrophe that felt fresh. Stewart included in a number of nods toward systemic supply issues that created inequalities, but the shard embedded in this story that invested it with mystery, stakes, and novelty were the bone shards themselves, and the tithing ceremony that harvested them.

On one level, Stewart presents the shards as simply banal. The tithing ceremonies take place regularly, anyone who doesn’t have the tell-tale scar is automatically suspect, and the collected shards are stored in a long archive that I imagined like a library card catalogue.

On another, she presents the collection as the cruel process that it is. Since the shard is taken with a chisel applied to the skull behind the ear, some number of people die during the ceremony, but everyone else spends their life wondering whether their life or that of their family members is being slowly drained away since the constructs draw from the life force of the owner of the shard.

And on a third level altogether, the way in which the shards power the constructs is clever: each shard can hold a small number of commands written as if-then statements like a computer code. Simple constructs might have a single shard with two simple commands (follow x; report to y). More complicated constructs require larger number of shards with greater number of commands that allow them to address a wide range of tasks.

It is too soon to judge a trilogy based on its first book and there are points here that I want to see either complicated or paid off in subsequent books — for instance, I have some guesses about Sand’s story, but it needs to be more fully incorporated into the rest of the world. And yet, in The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart has done the hardest part: telling an eminently readable story in a compelling world that I want to come back to when the second book in the series drops later this year.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, a novel about a young muslim woman in India whose social media connections and digital critiques of the government land her accused of aiding a terrorist attack on a commuter train that leaves more than a hundred dead. Now I am reading Black Wave, Kim Ghattas’ account of how the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran radicalized the Middle East, leading to sectarian violence and unstable countries.

The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

ΔΔΔ

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Parable of the Sower

Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.

The year is 2024. Climate change has parched and torched the American Southwest and what is left of the United States is, functionally, a failed state. The president Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner believes that all Americans really need to get back to work, which means cutting back on needless regulation. We enter into this dystopian landscape through the journal of Lauren Olamina: author, prophet of Earthseed, teen-aged girl.

When we first meet Lauren she lives in Robledo with her father (a priest and professor), step-mother, and siblings. Robledo is nothing special: a poor community just outside Los Angeles, gated, if barely. Inside the walls is a community. There are families. They grow food. Lauren’s stepmother teaches the kids how to read. That is not to say things are perfect, but it is an island of stability. Outside the walls lies danger: drug users, roving bands, packs of wild dogs. For Lauren, the stability offered by Robledo is of particular importance because of her particular condition. She is an empath who feels the pain and joy of other people, which is a particular danger in such a violent world.

Although Parable of the Sower unfolds over four years, the story is actually divided in two parts: in Robledo and on the road. About halfway through the book, the bubble of stability suddenly implodes and Lauren suddenly finds herself cast onto the road. With just two survivors from Robledo, Zahra Moss, the youngest wife in a polygamous family, and Harry Balter, a white teenager her own age, Lauren resolves to head north to find a better land where she can build a new community based on her new religion: Earthseed. Food is scarce, water expensive, and every person in the vast human tide moving north is a potential thief or worse. And yet, there is also safety in numbers, so they find themselves accumulating traveling companions, whether in the form of Allie and Jill Gilchrist, runaway sisters whose father became their pimp, or a small family of runaway slaves Travis and Natividad Douglas with their infant child. An exception to the apparent strays that Lauren accumulates is Bankole, an aging black man who is just a little bit too prepared and a little bit too competent and starts by conspicuously traveling alongside the group rather than with it. Each new addition to the group gets the same message:

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Although Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1994, a world in which the American southwest is on fire, presidents call for deregulation, and people desperate for work take jobs in ever-worse conditions while the core problems are left unaddressed is an eerily plausible setting. And the imminent arrival of the year 2024 makes it seem all the more prescient. This is a world built on the bones of American social institutions going back to the time of slavery, but imagined in the context of the very real social and environmental problems of the twenty-first century.

As a near-future history of a failing United States Parable of the Sower falls into the same genre as Omar El Akkad’s American War, which envisions a future where the Civil War reignites over the issue of fossil fuels, splitting the country and allowing him to invert the paradigms of the American “War on Terror” as applied to the American south. I really liked American War and thought its project was a clever one, but, in a lot of ways, what Butler does in Parable of the Sower strikes closer to home. For one, Butler is significantly more insightful about the race-based schisms that linger in the United States and the gradual erosion of social order because of environmental change seems a bit more plausible than the neat resurrection of the Confederacy. Similarly, the 2019 documentary American Factory won an Academy Award for its look at the working conditions at a Chinese-owned factory in Moraine Ohio. The conditions in the Ohio factory were not as extreme as those imagined in Parable of the Sower, but it is easy to hear an echo of the same processes at work, particularly since American companies have created comparable conditions by sending their production overseas. From there it is a short leap to the reintroduction of outright slavery.

“You might be able to get a job as a driver,” she said. “They like white men to be drivers. If you can read and write, and if you’d do the work, you might get hired.”

“I don’t know how to drive, but I could learn,” Harry said. “You mean driving those big armored trucks, don’t you?”

Emery looked confused. “Trucks? No, I mean driving people. Making them work. Pushing them to work faster. Making them do…whatever the owners say.”

In short, I loved Parable of the Sower. This is my first exposure to Butler’s writing, but I was blown away by how vivid and specific it was, both in imagining the world and in painting the characters and relationships. For instance, I’m not one to usually cast books as I read them, but I could not stop imagining Bankole as Idris Elba as I read it. The book’s format as both the diary and gospel of a precocious teenaged girl is deceptively easy to read, even as the world itself is unrelenting. I can imagine a complaint that Lauren is too precocious, but this actually becomes a plot point and the format is a perfect vehicle for capturing Lauren’s empathy, which, in turn, puts both the pain and joy of the world on display. This book is incisive, painful, and optimistic by turns, and entirely worth reading.

ΔΔΔ

I reached a point of the semester where I struggled to read anything except science fiction and fantasy novels. Most recently I read N.K. Jemisin’s latest work, the excellent novel The City We Became and before that Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January (about which I was more mixed). Next up, I’m reading Jeffery Pilcher’s Planet Taco, a global history of Mexican food.

A list of my favorite Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels (2020 edition)

Individual Novels

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series of books. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

Tier 3
27. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
26. The Armored Saint, Myke Cole (2018)
25. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
24. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
23. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
22. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
21. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
20. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
19. Neuromancer, William Gibson
18. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
17. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
16. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
15. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
14. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
13. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
12. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
11. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
10. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
9. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
7. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)

Tier 1
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

This category is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. The only caveat to this list is that I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list.

Tier 3
14. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
13. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
11. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu

Tier 2
10. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
9. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
8. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
7. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
6. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
5. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tier 1
4. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

The Farthest Shore

“The traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live! The little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like the worm in the apple. He talks to all of us. But only some understand him. The wizards and the sorcerers. The singers; the makers. And the heroes, the ones who seek to be themselves. To be one’s self is a rare thing, and a great one. To be one’s self forever: is that not better still.

“What is a good man, Arren? Is a good man one who would not do evil, who would not open a door to the darkness, who has no darkness in him? Look again, lad.”

Decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Prince Arren of Enlad has arrived on Roke, the island of the Wizards, with dire news: magic is disappearing from the world. Signs of this impending doom haven’t reach Roke yet, but the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Ged) who watches the balance of the world decides to trust Arren and venture out into the world to see what is happening.

They go first to the Southern Reaches where magic has indeed vanished, and with it most restraints of social connection. The disappearance of magic from the world of Earthsea so disrupts the fabric of society that it begins to unravel as people turn to drugs to cope. People alternate between despair and succumbing to a destructive, addictive promise of oblivion where they are being told that they can find eternal life. The mage and his guardian then head west, encountering the people of the open ocean who live on rafts where the magic of the song is also vanishing, before heading past the islands of dragons and to Selidor where they have to cross over into the land of the dead to find the source of this darkness.

The best thing about Le Guin’s Earthsea novels is her oblique and nuanced approach to themes. Where most fantasy literature relies on supernatural or eternal evil, these novels have grand stakes through intimate stories. A Wizard of Earthsea tackled taking rash actions and overcoming an internal darkness. The Tombs of Atuan took on issues of gender, power, and uncritical belief. The Farthest Shore is no different. Here she tackles the banality of human evil and, ultimately, the ordinariness of heroism when individuals have the courage to take action even at a cost to themselves––regardless of whether the person is young Arren or Ged, the most powerful mage alive.

The themes in The Farthest Shore turn it into a thoughtful meditation on good and evil, but it was my least favorite of the first three Earthsea novels. As usual, Le Guin’s new afterword is an engaging read, here focusing on dragons, the human face of evil, and why the novels seem to skip forward in time at irregular intervals. Contrasted with the first two books, though, I found the plot and most of the character development got lost for the meditation on good and evil. I had this same problem to an extent with A Wizard of Earthsea, but the fact that it was also a story about Ged’s coming of age, character came to the fore.

Here, we get a glimpse of Ged at the height of his powers, something we know because he have heard the tales about his deeds even when we haven’t seen them, but much of the story hinges on Arren, who Ged mostly takes under his wing. So far this isn’t a problem, and Arren even has his moments, but then he is revealed to be the descendant of Morred, one of the good kings of old and therefore a candidate to take up the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and justly rule the land. Where The Tombs of Atuan revealed “reincarnation” to be the work of a dangerous cult and A Wizard of Earthsea showed the nobody Ged to be a hero because of how he used his prodigious gifts, The Farthest Shore offered us an entitled heir if only he has the courage to claim it. For me this undercut much of Le Guin’s otherwise incisive story.

The fourth book in the series, Tehanu, won the Locus and Nebula awards for best fantasy novel in 1991, so I am looking forward to reading it despite my issues with The Farthest Shore.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I just finished Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us, pop-science book about the psychology of intuition. I haven’t decided what to start next. I have a copy of Tehanu, but may need to read Beloved first, in light of Toni Morrison’s passing.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Welcome to Camorr, a city state built on the twin pillars of the ruins of an ancient civilization and commerce. Officially the Duke Nicovante rules from the luxurious heights of the Five Towers, his city guard patrolling the streets in yellow tabards and secret police skulking in black. Unofficially, Capa Barsavi rules. Barsavi controls the city’s criminal underworld, keeping the duke’s Secret Peace that keeps the gangs from targeting the aristocracy and city guard and keeping their actions from spilling into public riots.

The Gentleman Bastards, trained by the blind priest Chains and led by the silver-tongued Locke Lamora, are one of the gangs sworn to Capa Barsavi. A small gang, the Gentleman Bastards let Barsavi believe that they are pretty thieves when, in fact, they specialize in elaborate, non-violent confidence games that flaunt the Secret Peace.

Their target now is Don Salvari. Posing as Master Fehrwight, a foreign merchant, Locke intends to relieve Salvari of a sizable portion of his estate by getting him to fund the rescue of “his” family’s brandy business from an unstable political situation in return for a stake in all future profits. To grease the wheels, they give Salvari a push from the opposite side, posing as the secret police to enlist his aid in capturing the Thorn of Camorr, a thief who has been terrorizing the aristocracy––all Salvari has to do is play along until all of the Thorn’s compatriots can be identified.

Thus The Lies of Locke Lamora begins, a tightly written heist that alternates the Salvari con with interludes that flash back to Locke’s origin and training, as well as introducing the rest of the Gentleman Bastards, the twins Calo and Galdo and Locke’s antithesis, Jean Tannen––large where Locke is small, meticulous and rational where Locke is impulsive and intuitive.

If the novel ended there, it would have been a largely insubstantial book, but a rollicking good time. The Gentleman Bastards are lovable, genteel rogues who steal from those who can afford it and do so without violence. They hoard their money because they haven’t considered what they could do with the money. The deft touch of this plot line conceals a darker setting, which are foreshadowed with brutal revels and the blood that stains Locke’s glib tongue from the time he was a youngest.

This darkness rushes to the fore in the back half of The Lies of Locke Lamora when an ambitious new player arrives in Camorr. The Grey King threatens to upend the balance of power in the Camorri underworld by targeting the heads of the gangs and undermining Capa Barsavi’s organization. Nobody knows the Grey King’s identity, let alone what he wants, but it is only a matter of time before he is going to come after Locke.

Characters can make or break a book of this nature, almost as much as the pacing. We need to buy that our protagonists can plan, prepare, and execute a plan of this scope, while making their marks competent enough so as to not be pushovers. On this point Lynch has an overwhelming success. He populates Camorr with competent, dangerous individuals, while using the interludes to demonstrate how Locke and his friends acquired the necessary skills to outwit them. These characters skew male because of the composition of the Gentleman Bastards, but Camorr is more balanced; I particularly liked Dona Salvari who is a canny partner for her husband and we are given tantalizing hints but never see the one woman Locke loves.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is an immensely satisfying book. Adding to the success of the structure Lynch achieves an effective balance of stakes by balancing the lightness of Locke’s gang with the darkness of the setting.

In fact, there was only one feature of the Lies of Locke Lamora that I *didn’t* like, a seed buried in the world building.

In most of its formal aspects, the world of this novel is a spin on Renaissance North Italy, with Camorr taking the place of Venice. In addition to Camorr being a city of canals and the italianate vocabulary, other aspects of the world reinforce this impression: the bones of the lost civilization that Camorr is built upon is Rome, there are other city states at odds with an empire to the north with an uncouth tongue (Germany), and Emberlain as a poorly-defined place that could be France. Similarly, instead of inventing the epigraphs at the start of each section, Lynch chooses real quotes, first from Shakespeare and then from Jean-Jacque Rousseau.

Over time Lynch developed the world away from this seed––the lost civilization, for instance is both more magnificent than Rome and utterly wiped away while Renaissance Rome was the Papal Seat––until the maps of the world bear little resemblance to the real world, but the underlying disconnect remained.

Using a seed like this doesn’t have to be a problem. Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, for instance, steers into its second-world European setting to good effect. Where complications emerge is when the setting gets caught between a the historical setting and a fully fictional world. As I have previously written, history has advantages: it can imbue a setting with social, cultural, and environmental depth created through the slow processes of geological formation and trade where fictional settings can be unnaturally static, with each region being both a curious mishmash of features and oddly-siloed away from each other.

The fact that The Lies of Locke Lamora remains so tightly focused on Camorr avoids most of these pitfalls. Lynch is able create a richly-textured city while leaving the lands beyond largely undefined. Cracks only occasionally showed, such as the arrival of a frigate constructed after the model of Emberlain, a ship style most associated with eighteenth-century France.

In the end, though the triumphs of The Lies of Locke Lamora more than compensated for any concerns I had with the setting. This is a deeply satisfying fantasy novel that begins as a fast-paced romp before taking a sudden dive into emotional depth.

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I have also finished Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call From the East and am now using the last gasp of summer to continue Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I am about a quarter of the way through The Furthest Shore.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Coming to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels as a mature reader, I started with her mature works The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. These novels are philosophical and profound, part of her allegorical Hainish Cycle. By contrast, I put off reading A Wizard of Earthsea because it is simple, a book for a younger audience.

Sparrowhawk (real name: Ged) is a promising young mage from Gont, an island in the archipelago on Earthsea with a reputation for giving birth to powerful mages. As a child he manages to repel a Kargish raid on his village and is subsequently taken in by the Mage Ogion. The novel is, in effect, a chronicle of Sparrowhawk’s early exploits where he demonstrates his power by binding the powerful dragon Yevaud to Pendor and achieves his first great triumph: defeating a shadow that he himself summoned into the world.

In short, this is a classic Bildungsroman for a young wizard. I have found myself increasingly bored by stories about preternaturally talented young men and this concern lingered the entire time I was reading this book that is clearly written for younger readers.

But to dismiss A Wizard of Earthsea as shallow or rote is to give Le Guin too little credit. As she notes in the Afterword, this is a story about a person of color who is betrayed by light-skinned characters. He is explicitly a good and well-intentioned person with a positive male friendship, and is his own enemy. This is story without overt militarism or wars that define the fantasy genre from the Arthurian models through Tolkien and beyond.

Le Guin writes:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the war Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.

Or does might make right?

If war is the only game going, yes. Might makes right. Which is why I don’t play war games.

A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968, far before the start of the recent golden age of fantasy literature. The best that the modern genre has to offer (e.g. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) offer more complex plots and more fully developed characters, but this just makes it easier to underestimate her achievement. Even today, too many fantasy novels default to a faux-Medieval Europe setting and feature heroes whose “best” skill is their ability to end lives. Wrestling with the morality of this skill may be a common feature in recent novels, but there remains a residual attraction to sword-wielding prodigies.

I remain in awe of Le Guin, whose keen insight imbues this attractive mid-grade novel with subtle depth. Still, I was not the primary audience for this book and had difficulty connecting with the characters because of the tendency to narrate at a remove rather than embedding the reader in their points of view––something that heightens the superficial resemblance to Arthurian Romance.

All of this to say: I am glad to have finally read A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m not sure that I will read on in the series.

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I am about a third of the way through a history of the Greek War of Independence that broke out in 1820. The book has turned into a bit of a slog. The most interesting thing, though, is exploring the difficulties of creating a nation at a time when seemingly the only people who conceived of “Greece” were educated people from Western Europe who visited the region with their eyes filled with visions of the distant past and a society of ex-pat merchants and soldiers of fortune.

Across the Nightingale Floor

I found Across the Nightingale Floor by accident. Browsing through my local bookstore, I picked up another book in the same series and opened it because Ursula K. Le Guin had given the book a blurb. Rather than get that book, I redirected to read this one because it was the first in the series, totally oblivious to who Lian Hearn was or really knowing anything about the series. I was not disappointed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a straightforward fantasy in the tradition modeled after Medieval Romances of brave warriors and doomed love, set in an alternate medieval Japan.

Takeo, as he comes to be known, was raised among the Hidden, a secretive sect of pacifists, until his village of Mino is attacked by men of Tohan. Takeo escapes with the aid of a stranger who turns out to be Lord Otori Shigeru. This fortunate encounter catapults Takeo into a world of clan politics. Tohan recently came to prominence after defeating the Otori and killing Shigeru’s father and brother. Recognizing in Takeo something of the Tribe, a sect of assassins, Shigeru adopts him, raises him, and makes plans to use him to seek revenge.

The second half of the romance comes from Kaede, the heir Shirakawa family and close relative of another powerful family headed by Lady Murayama. In short, through Kaede lays a potential path to power, and since the rise of Tohan when she was a child, Kaede has been a hostage at Noguchi castle. Now that she has reached marriageable age, her captors have decided that it is time she marry and propose to use her as a pawn to undermine the last opposition to Tohan rule: brimming discontent centered on Otori Shigeru.

Across the Nightingale Floor does not have a complicated plot. It is filled with strong motivations, dramatic gestures, and two simple arcs that are gradually brought closer together with just enough action to propel the story. Around the teenagers at the heart of the story the motivations and plots are more complex in that this is a world of competing political motivations, but the sweeps are no less dramatic and the agendas nuanced only marginally by the weight of personal histories. Hearn hints at a more complex story and throws in a few twists along the way, but ultimately chooses not to elaborate.

This is not to say that Across the Nightingale Floor isn’t well-crafted. It is a lush story with significant research into the Sengoku period in Japan and a plot that I found propulsive. But it is also a story that feels like it belongs in an older fantasy or epic tradition, one that is more like a medieval Romance.

Using these traditions leads to certain consequences on top of reducing certain characters to their broad motivations. Older fantasy has a flat-map problem where anything that exists off the world-map might as well not exist. Narnia is literally flat, but elsewhere the flatness is implied, often with an authorial choice not to engage with the possibility of an interconnected world. Sometimes the plot doesn’t demand this engagement, but the consequences still exist.

Hearn offers slight nods to a wider world, with occasional references to a land over the sea that could be an approximation of China, but stops short of engaging with the wider consequences of the historical setting. For instance the Sengoku period was a period when Portuguese merchants conducted a brisk trade with Japan and the persecution of the Hidden strongly resembled the persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Similarly, in one scene characters eat a meal featuring maize, a new world crop that came to Japan in the 16th century and therefore would have been rather new. None of these points were critical to the plot, but struck me as limits of projecting a story into a world modeled on a historical time and place without fully engaging with that context.

There was one final question that stuck with me as I read Across the Nightingale Floor. I picked it up without looking into Lian Hearn, and only belatedly learned that she had no connection to Japan other than having fallen in love with the country after visiting. Nevertheless, Hearn clearly did her research and avoids orientalist tropes, which put me at ease regarding cultural appropriation.

In sum, I enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor as a perfectly pleasant, easy read, but many of the same features that made it enjoyable and the reasons I’m in no hurry to read any of the other books in the series. Perhaps on a beach (or a grassy equivalent) this summer I’ll be ready to pick up the second, but in the meantime I don’t really need another epic featuring a functional but flattened setting and a young male protagonist on the cusp of learning the ways in which he is special.

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It is the end of the semester here in central Missouri and while that means I’ve had a bit more time to read, I’ve also been falling behind on writing (both her and elsewhere). I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Go, Went, Gone, a novel about immigration to western countries, and am now about halfway finished with David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a history of the Osage murders in the 1920s and the creation of the FBI.

Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

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I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.