2023 Preview

I love mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction, so what could be better than a good murder mystery in a fantasy or science fiction setting? There are a number of those in my TBR pile, so it’s not surprising they figure heavily in this selection of recent speculative fiction books I’m looking forward to reading in 2023:

  • The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard: A human scholar and a transport spaceship avatar join forces to solve a murder in a Vietnamese-flavoured interstellar society.
  • A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys: Aliens arrive to save humanity—whether we want to be saved or not.
  • The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd: A contemporary fantasy thriller about the power of maps.
  • The Peacekeeper by B. L. Blanchard: A murder mystery with a Native American detective in an alternate history timeline where North America was never colonised.
  • The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield: Imagine Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and her sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, casting spells, and attempting to deal with the unintended consequences.
  • The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal: The Thin Man in space, by the author of the Lady Astronaut series.
  • Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher: A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. This is not the start of a joke. It is the start of an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. By the same author as The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking.
  • The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter by Amberley Martin: A fairy-tale mashup of Macbeth with Beauty and the Beast, and the sequel to The Rogue and the Peasant.
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2022 Recap

I started off this year with a post about the half-dozen books on the top of my TBR pile, and was only happy with one of them (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain). What about the others? I loved some early parts of The Hands of the Emperor, but ended more disgusted than pleased. The House by the Cerulean Sea was too twee for me; The Three-Body Problem too grim. Project Hail Mary was entertaining—if you can tolerate buddy movies in space interspersed with info dumps—but far-fetched and a bit juvenile. Insta-love and the abusive sister put me off Witchmark.


But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find lots of good books this year. In no particular order, here’s the top ten of the ones I did enjoy:

  • Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara: Time travel, a missing father, an intricate plot, and an appealing tattoo artist for a protagonist are only part of what make this novel a standout.
  • The King of Faerie by A. J. Lancaster: The fourth in the series that started with The Lord of Stariel takes us deeper into the fae lands. Hetta Valstar and her sexy fae fiancé Wyn Tempestren try to find the elusive king of Faerie before their snowballing problems (including Wyn’s murderous sister) catch up with them.
  • Sanctuary by And C. Buchanan: In this ghost story, the ghosts are the ones in danger, and it’s up to the members of a neurologically diverse, gender queer, found family to protect them.
  • Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell: An enjoyable read, whether you’re more interested in nicely-plotted mystery with a side of romance or a slow-burn heart-warming romance with a side of space opera and mystery.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: This story starts off slowly in an artificial, nearly uninhabited world, like some sort of allegory or dream, but gradually shifts into something captivating, urgent, and strongly connected to our own reality.
  • When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo: This fantasy novella uses shape-shifting tigers and a tiger/human courtship to explore culture clashes and the variability of perceptions of the same events. Domesticated mammoths are icing on the cake.
  • The Rogue and the Peasant by Amberley Martin: A delightfully original fairy tale mashup laden with surprises.
  • Flashback by Nevada Barr: The only book on this list with no connection to speculative fiction, this thriller, with its exploding boats and other bloody mayhem, takes place in the Dry Tortugas National Park, at the end of the Florida Keys.
  • Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand: An anthology of stories, around 10,000 words each, by New Zealand writers. Longer than a typical short story but shorter than a novella, these have enough meat on their bones to be satisfying without requiring a significant time commitment.
  • Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson by Jack Remiel Cottrell: At the other end of the scale is this collection of flash or micro fiction that packs a punch in a small space. Perfect for dipping into while on hold, or while waiting for the bus.
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The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is destined to be a queen. At least, that’s what her mother has always said, and Esme doesn’t doubt her, despite living like a peasant in a small village all her life, where she plays—and fights—with the miller’s children, the baker’s daughter, and the butcher’s son. She has, however, had tutors to instruct her in the subjects a queen needs to know, from the arts and sciences to deportment and diplomacy. So when she returns home one day from the village to discover a coach waiting to take her to Finishing School, Esme fights down her dismay over the abrupt departure, packs her small bag, and climbs into the coach with her head held high.

Finishing School may not be what you expect, her mother warns her while saying goodbye. Disquieting advice, as she has few preconceived notions of what Finishing School is. But whatever it should be, she is quite sure it does not involve being kidnapped on the way by a charming rogue.

To Rory, the rogue, waylaying Esme’s coach is just one more task the godmother has assigned to him. He has the script down pat: carry the purported victim off to the godmother’s tower, chivvying them along while they make a good show of righteous indignation and resistance, and keep them fed and healthy until their promised prince with a hero complex arrives to rescue them (or princess, or whatever they wished for—this world isn’t heteronormative or bound by strict gender roles). Rory has done this before, and never had any trouble, so he is caught by surprise when Esme puts up a real fight. The solid kick she lands in the middle of his chest hurts. She’s not following the script. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know there is one. She’s not responding as expected to his charm, either.

Sounds like the beginning of a generic fairy-tale romance novel, doesn’t it? It’s not.

If Esme doesn’t follow the script, neither does the book she’s in: The Rogue and the Peasant, by New Zealand author Amberley Martin. It is not a romance, although it does have things to say about friendship and families. What it is, is a fairy tale—a very modern one, with women who can take care of themselves. Martin borrows elements from lots of stories—imagine a mashup of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Labyrinth (the movie with David Bowie), and Hamlet. She tosses them together with a Dead Prince, a sword-wielding homicidal princess, giants, trolls, an extremely intelligent horse, a dragon, and more, and comes up with something deliciously original. The action is stage-managed by a vicious godmother who seems closer kin to The Godfather than to Cinderella’s saccharin fairy. The mix keeps throwing up surprises, making for a lighthearted and entertaining read.

The Rogue and the Peasant has a (mostly) happy ending, even if not a guaranteed happily-ever-after, and both Esme and Rory are appealing characters. The book is the first in a new series, The Fairy Godmother Tales. The second book, The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter, is high on my TBR list for 2023.

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Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand

Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand is a recent anthology of stories around 10,000 words each, shorter than a novella but longer than the typical short story. For me, these long stories (novelettes?) were a nice change of pace, with enough meat on their bones to be satisfying, while not requiring the time commitment of a longer novel or novella. Published by Victoria University Press, the book contains fourteen new stories by New Zealand writers, covering a range of styles and genres. Most, but not all, are set in New Zealand, with a very Kiwi flavour. Ordinary family problems are a recurring theme, but some stories delve into other-world fantasy and horror. There’s something here for everyone. The stories are:

Scales, Tails, and Hagfish by Octavia Cade: A pre-teen girl with scaly eczema claims to be a mermaid. Her continued insistence antagonises people and gets her into trouble as she engages in increasingly bizarre activities to prove her point—activities that eventually land her in hospital after an encounter with an angry seal—but her mermaid dreams may not be entirely delusional.

School Spirit by Joy Holley: A ghost story, with several graduates returning to their old school after dark.

The Promotion by Maria Samuela: Twenty years apart, a father and his abandoned son come to Wellington from the Cook Islands looking for work, and experience similar cases of culture shock.

Basil and the Wild by Rem Wigmore: A fairy tale of sorts, and I love fairy tales. Two outsiders—a slow-witted shepherd and a forest giant—become friends, but the frightened villagers are unable to see past the giant’s threatening bulk, or understand the shepherd’s attempts to protect his peaceful friend.

Getaway by Nicole Phillipson: Unlike the previous story, this is grounded in current reality, showing us a dysfunctional family whose members are unable to communicate with each other or see past their own noses.

Backwaters by Emma Sidnam: A tale of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand in the 1870s. It starts out appearing to be a pleasant historical love story, but gradually morphs into something rather more unsettling.

The Dead City by Jack Barrow: This story is the most clearly fantasy, with nomadic tribespeople pursued by ghosts in a lush, jungly world. It includes evocative descriptions of an abandoned, haunted city, but I was not sure quite what was going on, and unfortunately I lost interest in trying to find out.

Ko tēnei, ko tēnā by Vincent O’Sullivan: A 19th-century bored, wealthy gentleman has tangled relationships with his sister-in-law and half-sister. He leaves England and travels to New Zealand, where he buys a tattooed head as a macabre souvenir. On his return to England, he gets drunk and shows the head to the two women. It isn’t clear where the story is going, or how the two women feel about him, until the very end, where they deal out what is a clear instance of poetic justice.

Ringawera by J. Wiremu Kane: Culture clashes again, along with a bit of a mystery involving several people attending a Māori funeral. One woman is intent on giving her deceased aunt the proper ceremonial farewell she wasn’t allowed to give her late Pākehā wife. Two others—both young gay men, one a cop—struggle to fit in with the other Māori. For me, this was the outstanding story in this collection, with universal emotional arcs around otherness and acceptance.

Around the Fire by Anthony Lapwood: A father of  three, struggling to keep his family together after his wife leaves, reflects on an incident in his own childhood: his father, divorced from his mother, took him and brother on an unauthorised, two-week long, incommunicado “camping trip”.

Afterimages by Sam Keenan: Set in the World War II era, a woman draws on theories about recently-discovered dark matter to escape painful reality by disappearing—literally, as in becoming invisible.

Like and Pray by Samantha Lane Murphy: A young couple’s daughter dies suddenly. The father, confronting reality, wants to grieve silently, but the mother, a member of some charismatic evangelical cult, is sucked into an ecstatic worship service attempting to call the girl back to life.

Sea Legend by Kathryn van Beek: This is a different sort of mermaid story. A fishing trawler pulls a mermaid up in its net, forcing the newest member of the crew into a crisis of conscience.

The Black Betty Tapes by David Geary: This is speculative fiction and the most adventurous story, told in a fast-paced—and rather baffling—series of transcripts of interviews with people involved in the future Queen Elizabeth III’s ascension.

As with any anthology, the stories are not equally successful. Besides Ringawera, the ones that left the biggest impression on me, either because I enjoyed them or they stuck in my head afterwards, were Backwaters, Ko tēnei, ko tēnā, Basil and the Wild, and Scales, Tails, and Hagfish. There’s a lot to like here; other readers may have different favourites.

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Aftermath: Stories of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is a collection of about two dozen stories, poems, and images, set in post-apocalyptic New Zealand. The disasters represented range from the quite possible (catastrophic climate change, nuclear war, earthquakes, pandemics, …) to the highly unlikely (zombies, aliens, etc.), and in at least one case, it isn’t clear what exactly did happen. That’s fine; the focus here is on the recovery, not the disaster itself. In most cases, the disaster, whatever it is, is already over, sometimes decades ago. These are stories of hope, fortitude, and resilience. Of people finding new communities, coping, and rebuilding.

As is the case with most anthologies, the stores aren’t all equally successful. These are the ones I liked best. YMMV.

Lizards and Villains and Wars (Oh, My!) by Scott Fack: Friends and co-workers offer a PTSD sufferer a helping hand in an alternate Christchurch, where the destruction was caused by rampaging robotic lizards rather than an earthquake.

Thirty-Four Days by C D Jacobs: Earthquakes again, with a woman looking after a boy she finds trapped in a pharmacy.

Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade: A blind teenager, learning to fend for herself after most of the rest of the world dies of plague, refutes would-be rescuers’ pity.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Erica Challis: Plastic-eating bacteria let loose in the wild has a profound impact on human society.

Bounded by Rivers by Jacqui Greaves: Survivors in an isolated valley set up a breeding program to ensure the best genetic health of future generations. Towards the end of her life, the designer of the program plans to go out in style.

Boy-Boy by Barbara Uini: Two kids hide in the bush after an alien invasion. The older girl makes trips into town, telling the boy she’s foraging for supplies. He has to find out for himself that the humans won the war; she’s been afraid to tell him because he’s all the family she has left.

Flipsides by Miriam Hurst: What seems like a disaster doesn’t always turn out to be one.

Best Mates by Gary M Nelson: This one is my favourite of the lot, with a friendship that survives even death.

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The refuge in Sanctuary, by New Zealand author Andi C Buchanan, is a many-roomed house dating from the 17th century. Once a mansion, it is now in a state of disrepair, tended to by residents with inadequate funds for its proper upkeep. The refugees it shelters come in two sorts: (A) neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, …) and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals escaping abusive backgrounds or just looking for a non-judgemental environment where they don’t stand out, and (B) ghosts.

Yes, Sanctuary is a ghost story, but an unusual one. The resident ghosts are not responsible for the horrors inflicted. In fact, it is the ghosts who are most at risk in the early parts of this story. The motley collection of eight living residents treat the ghosts with respect, and try to protect their privacy from the prying eyes of sensation-seeking ghost hunters. As the story develops, a more serious threat appears, attacking first the dead and then the living, until both sets of residents are fighting for… well, let’s not say their lives, but their continued existence is as stake.

The events leading up to that start when an elderly man arrives with a collection of old bottles. He is downsizing on his way to a retirement home, and wants to find a good home for the ghosts in the bottles. The residents, horrified at the thought of being trapped in a bottle for eons, begin freeing the captives, but in doing so, also free something unexpected and evil: a ghost eater.

The narrator is an autistic trans woman named Morgan. (I’m not sure which pronouns Morgan prefers; I’m going with they/them/their as potentially least offensive.) Morgan gives their partner Araminta a gift without realising the gift comes with strings attached. When the gift brings Araminta under the ghost eater’s power, Morgan is forced far out of their comfort zone, to do whatever is necessary to bring back the woman they love.

Sanctuary is a lovely story of a found family, a collection of damaged misfits who discovered a place where they belong. The residents have different strengths and weaknesses, and conflict does happen, but they all work to accomodate each other, although some of the ways they work together might be a bit baffling to more neurotypical people. I particularly enjoyed one scene where they are gathered in one room but to all appearances isolated in individual bubbles, as each one is focused on their own electronic device. Morgan, however, is experiencing a strong sense of family togetherness and support as they all participate in a group chat, because all of them are less stressed by text than by speech.

Sanctuary is also an introspective and character-driven story, with the first half mainly introducing the residents, both living and dead, and immersing us in an autistic person’s psyche. The plot, such as it is—thin and without surprises—doesn’t really get moving until the second half. This isn’t necessarily a problem, if you understand going into it that the author’s focus is on the people involved and their relationships, not action.

There are a few problems: It should have had another proofreading pass before publication. (I’m usually tolerant of a few typos—I have to be; I make enough myself—but there was one glaring continuity error that made me wince.) A lot of character names are introduced, and it takes a while to get them all sorted out. (Wait, which one is Joseph again? Is he alive or dead? A score card or cast of characters would have been helpful.) And parts of the climactic action sequence were quite vague. (I have no idea how long that confrontation with the ghost eater went on. Minutes? Hours? Days? Probably not days… My confusion wasn’t helped by Morgan’s narration going off on tangents in the middle of it, although I suppose that’s part of the point: their strategies for coping with stressful situations are not typical.)

Problems aside, I loved the story, both for its insights into Morgan’s heart and mind and for its depiction of a cohesive, supportive family bound not by blood ties but by shared needs and the values of kindness and empathy.

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Beyond Magenta

I read Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin, for this year’s Banned Books Week, since it has popped up in the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Books list several times since it was published in 2014.

The book is fairly short, only 182 pages in hardcover. Six teens talk about their gender identities and journeys towards transitioning. Two of them (Jessy and Luke) transition from male to female, two from female to male (Christina and Mariah), and two (Cameron and Nat) are non-binary, using they/them pronouns and not identifying as either male or female. Of those two, Cameron—the teen pictured on the cover—presents as more feminine or more masculine depending on their mood, while Nat is intersex and apparently asexual, preferring to present as neutral/ambiguous.

The reasons given for the book being challenged include its LGBTQIA+ content and because it is considered to be sexually explicit. There are some passages that mention sex and anatomy, but that’s hardly surprising, given the subject matter, and they don’t seem unreasonable given the context. Besides, the odds are good that any teen with access to the internet or who has ever been in a high school gym locker room has been exposed to a lot worse. The adults who worry that books like this will “give kids ideas” really need to get a grip. It seems unlikely to me that most teens would be interested in reading this book unless they were already experiencing gender dysphoria, and if they are, withholding information about similar people’s experiences—including the impacts on their physical bodies—is simply cruel.

That said, this didn’t strike me as a particularly good book. For one thing, it isn’t really clear who the expected audience is; it feels as if it is targeted more towards cisgender adults trying to understand transgender teens rather than the teens themselves. For another, the organisation is less than ideal; the most interesting chapters (at least, to me) are all in the second half of the book, and some readers will bail before they get that far.

And then there are the narratives: they are in the teens’ own words, but are drawn from interviews by the cisgender author, so there was non-trivial editing involved on her part. Since she doesn’t give us the questions she asked, it’s hard to tell how much she drove the direction the interview took, or where the subject was more or less forthcoming. In addition, in the first chapter, Jessy and his girlfriend talk about their relationship. He claims he’s happy, but his girlfriend refuses to refer to him by his chosen pronouns (he/him). That makes me wonder if his claims that his family and friends are supportive are overstated in an attempt to convince the author—or perhaps even himself—and left me with persistent doubts about the emotional honesty throughout the book.

There were also some really unfortunate gender stereotypes expressed. I suppose it isn’t fair to expect a high degree of self knowledge and articulation from a group of otherwise rather ordinary teens who are still struggling to come to terms with their own identities, but I have little patience for the idea that loving to shop for pretty clothes equates with being a girl. (I never have enjoyed shopping for clothes. I hardly ever wear a dress. I despise pantyhose and heels. I’m not trans.)

Before reading this book, I had hoped it would illuminate a gender dysphoria strong enough to drive someone to transition. Unfortunately, it didn’t give me any new insights into what makes someone do something so life-altering.

But just because this book doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful to someone else.

A few notes on the chapters I found most interesting:

  • They include the ones about the non-binary teens, Cameron and Nat, possibly because they were less invested than the others in gender stereotypes.
  • Nat’s story was the one that resonated the most with me, although as much for their efforts to be taken seriously as a musician as for their story about gender identity.
  • Similarly, Luke’s involvement in theatre gave an extra dimension to his story.
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Banned Book Week 2022

It is, once again, Banned Book Week: the American Library Association’s yearly campaign to draw attention to efforts to remove certain books from classrooms and libraries. Their current list of the most frequently challenged books is here.

As far as I can tell, the books most at risk fall into two categories:

  • Any that challenge gender essentialism (the idea that male and female roles are fixed and innate) or a hierarchical view of society and families with men at the top, and women and children subservient. That would include medically factual information that would empower teens by helping them understand their own bodies.
  • Any that make the United States look bad, by, say, covering the real history of slavery, race relations, police brutality, depopulation of indigenous peoples, etc.

As I have commented on in earlier posts, in the United States “challenged” has been a more appropriate term than “banned.” Unfortunately, that may soon no longer be true. Radical right-wing extremists are in full roar, and with the courts stacked in their favour, they may succeed in implementing governmental bans in some states. They’re certainly trying hard in Florida, Texas, and Virginia. In the Virginia case, Republicans attempted to use an old law, unused in decades but still on the books, to have a pair of books declared obscene and illegal to sell or lend in the state. That law would have allowed a challenge in one district to ban the book in the entire state. A Virginia judge ruled against them, but similar laws in other states may find more receptive judges.

Censorship was a hot topic at the recent Chicon8, the 2022 World Science Fiction Convention. As a virtual attendee, I listened to a session that included Ada Palmer, a historian at the University of Chicago, who is an expert on the history of censorship. She made an interesting observation (I’m summarising/paraphrasing here, so if I mis-represent her, it’s my fault, not hers):

For hundreds of years, attempts at censorship have come in waves every 25 to 30 years, and historically they have always censored the wrong things, because the cat is out of the bag. The censors don’t perceive the next threat coming down the line, which would have been easier to deal with if they could have nipped it in the bud. Censorship is a panic reaction to a perceived threat, but the things we’re afraid of now aren’t necessarily the ideas that are powerful in retrospect from a hundred years later.

What I took from this is that the current furore over books by or about non-gender-conforming people or people of colour will eventually die down, because they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The information in the books they want to suppress is already out there, on the internet, in Little Free Libraries, in donations from Friends of the Library groups, etc. Ideas are notoriously hard to kill. And the fact that there are so many more challenges in recent years of children’s books with LGBTQIA+ characters underscores the fact that there are so many more of those books being published; you can’t challenge something that doesn’t exist.

(Of course, Dr Palmer’s observation also implies that the fight against censorship will just move on to something else not even on the conservative radar yet. Legal rights for non-humans, perhaps? But that’s a worry for another day. She also said that the panics come from the grassroots, but then are harnessed from above to advance elite and governmental interests, which squares with Republicans pushing for book bans.)

But even if the would-be censors lose in the long run, that doesn’t mean they won’t make life miserable for lots of people before the current conflagration is extinguished. They can. They will. But there are ways to fight back:

  • Campaign for non-extremists (or run yourself) in your local school board elections.
  • Get to know your local school board members and let them know what’s important to you.
  • Stock a Little Free Library with challenged books.
  • Join your local Friend of the Library group.
  • Spread the word about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project, which includes giving teens anywhere in the United States access to their full eBook collection and learning databases.
  • And most important: VOTE! Lots of people don’t pay attention to local elections, but sometimes they matter even more than national elections, because the margins can be very slim. If you don’t know who is up for election, here are good places to start: for the US, ballotpedia , and for New Zealand, policy.nz.
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The Hands of the Emperor

I am conflicted about The Hands of the Emperor, by Victoria Goddard. I’m giving it three stars on goodreads.com, a compromise between five stars (It’s wonderful! You have to read it!) and two (meh).

Let’s start with the part I loved. This fantasy novel contains a beautiful, riveting story about a man—His Radiancy, Lord Artorin Damara, the Last Emperor of the Astandala, a god come to Earth—who is trapped by responsibilities and ritual, and slowly dying in the gilded cage of his position. It is strictly taboo for anyone to touch him; if or when the strictures protecting him are violated, people die. In all the years he has been emperor he has not felt the comforting touch of another human being. Even the Royal Physician and the people who dress him have magical instruments to assist them in doing their jobs from a respectful distance.

Cliopher (Kip) Mdang—His Radiancy’s secretary, the man who sees that things get done—realises that His Radiancy needs a vacation, and organises a trip away from the capital city. The subsequent voyage across the South Seas Wide Seas and holiday in a beach house near Kip’s hometown set in motion cascading events that lead to hard choices His Radiancy must make, and a possible way out. They also lead to deepening friendships between and among His Radiancy and his senior attendants.

His Radiancy is a terrific character, exuding compassion, empathy, and gravitas, mixed with frustration and an impeccable sense of humour. I enjoyed nearly every scene in which he was the central character. Unfortunately, he isn’t the book’s main character; Kip Mdang is. His Radiancy makes his momentous decision less than a third of the way into this long book, and then the focus shifts to Kip and his problems with his family and the civil service. Except for one health crisis (chapters 36 through 49, out of 80), His Radiancy fades into the background in the rest of the book. The longer it went on, the more irritated with it I became, and it’s a very long book indeed.

Kip is the book’s biggest problem. At the beginning he comes across as a self-effacing civil servant, a workaholic policy wonk in late middle age who reads all the reports that come across his desk and has an encyclopaedic memory for detail. He appears set on a course headed for either burnout or a heart attack from overwork. Although the first chapter says he is head of the Imperial Bureaucratic Service, he seems more comfortable with massaging data than in dealing with actual people. So far, so good. This is someone I can understand, and accept as a real person.

But then it gradually becomes clearer that Kip really is the Secretary in Chief: a capable administrator of a large bureaucracy, and the second most important person in the empire’s government, after only His Radiancy himself. This is where he started to bother me. In my view (admittedly making sweeping generalisations here), detail-oriented bureaucrats and people-savvy, politically-adept executives tend not to appear in the same person, and people who climb to the highest levels of government service tend to have inflated egos, but hey, extraordinary people do appear occasionally. I was willing to accept this version of him, too, for the sake of the story.

Unfortunately, the author wasn’t done building up Kip, and the longer the book went on the less I liked him[1]. By the end, he was the most glaring example I have see in years of a Gary Stu—a character whose existence deforms the universe around them to show how wonderful they are. Goddard lays an unbelievable list of accomplishments on him—reform of the postal service, implementation of a progressive tax system and a universal basic income, hospitals, … a liberal’s dream agenda—until at the end he is being lauded as the most important person in the history of the Astandalan government, and I’m ready to heave the book across the room.

That brings us to the second problem: Kip doesn’t seem to have encountered any serious friction in implementing his reforms. People and governments just don’t work like that. People don’t like change, even when it’s good for them, and the societal changes Kip is credited with would have been massive. After the aforementioned crisis, I kept waiting for blowback from Kip’s assault on the religious hierarchy, but it was never mentioned again. Seriously? Besides the priests, there are the nobles. They wouldn’t all be stupid; somebody would have grasped how he was undercutting them and would be pushing back. (Not to mention that any one of those reforms would be a life’s work for a normal person; reformers don’t often get things right on the first try.)

Kip’s problems with his family aren’t believable either. Yes, I understand that, at the start of the book, the provincial islanders he comes from might not understand that “Secretary in Chief” is a different beast from a secretary/clerk assisting his boss with his correspondence and calendar, but they should have gotten the message after he was promoted to Lord Chancellor. We are told over and over again what gossips the members of his huge family are, and how he’s related to half the population of Gorjo City, so why is it that they don’t talk about him? Half a dozen members of his family are visiting him when His Radiancy’s health crisis occurs, but a few years later Kip’s best friend from childhood, living only two or three blocks from his mother and sister and seeing them on a regular basis, hasn’t heard any of the details of that visit? Not credible. Just, not.

Did I mention that this is a long book? At 900 pages (hardcover) and 319K words (according to Kobo), it’s a doorstopper. (For comparison, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—another doorstopper—is 332K words. For the Nebula Awards, the dividing line between novella and novel is 40K words.) Most of the second half of The Hands of the Emperor is either Kip losing his temper and telling someone off, or some wide-eyed relative being reminded of how important he is. (They seem to forget that with astonishing regularity.) One or two of these scenes can feel satisfying, even cathartic. After that, the repetition gets tedious. I skimmed a lot of the second half, looking for His Radiancy’s appearances. I would have liked this book twice as much at half the length, and at 160K words, it still would have been a long book.

On looking back at what I’ve written, I realise it turned into a rant. (And I didn’t even get into  the cultural appropriation, or the time slippage inconsistencies.) So why have I bothered to write about it? Because the beauty of some parts of it make the disappointments of the rest harder to bear. As I said earlier, there are parts of it I loved: His Radiancy’s vacation; the emphasis on kindness, empathy, friendship, and respect; the image of a communist islander in a grass skirt and shell necklace winning his case before the assembled nobles; middle-aged protagonists; Kip’s story of his voyage across the Wide Seas in a boat he built himself; great world building; …

I would happily read other stories Goddard has written about His Radiancy. I’m just not interested in hearing any more about Kip.

If you want to read His Radiancy’s story, I suggest you read chapters 1 through 20, 36 through 49, and skim or skip most of the rest.

Trigger warnings: a brief discussion of cannibalism, and one also brief incidence of violence. Otherwise, nothing. No sex, no bad language. People behave themselves and are polite to each other. How refreshing.

[1] If Kip is so brilliant, why did it take him so [insert-your-favourite-expletive] long to realise His Radiancy needed a holiday? Oof.

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A Trio of Short Reviews

A trio of books, all by New Zealand authors:

Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson: and other very short stories, by Jack Remiel Cottrell, is a collection of flash or micro fiction; the longest stories are a page and a half, most stories are less than a page, some are just a sentence or two. Perfect for dipping into while waiting for the bus, or on hold with the bank’s help line.

It is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories don’t quite work, or aren’t fleshed out enough to be engaging—ideas I would have shoved in the plot-bunny drawer to expand on later. But the format lets the writer cover a lot of ground—fantasy, sci-fi, horror, politics, sports, religion, and more—in ways that are both fun and surprising. Some of the stories that did work were splendid, and pack a punch in a small space. I will be looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

Here are titles of a few of the stories that I found particularly amusing, or that kept me thinking long after I’d put the book down. Note that the descriptions are my synopses, not the stories themselves!

  • But the graffiti is amazing: Fae wars in train station tunnels.
  • The flour dealer: Black market dealing during a supply chain crisis.
  • Changeling: As seen from an autistic kid’s point of view.
  • Phantoms: A twist on the phantom limb syndrome.
  • An unfortunate legacy: An unusual spin on the story of Doubting Thomas.
  • And there are so many to choose from: A compassionate view on conspiracy theorists. “…that there are people with enough faith in their elected officials that they believe government is capable of orchestrating huge, elaborate intrigues and keeping the secret for decades. Kind of touching, when you think about it.”

You will probably have different favourites. Go find a few for yourself.

I’ve written about Grace Bridges’ YA Earthcore fantasy series in earlier posts (RotoVegas and Volcano City). The 4th entry in the series, High Tide, foregoes the paper-thin megalomaniacal villain of the earlier books, and the story is, in my opinion, stronger without him.

The starting point is when Maori elders on an island near Auckland call in the Earthcore team to investigate a series of earthquakes that don’t follow any established pattern. The team dig into long-forgotten tunnels under World War II gun emplacements, and have to deal with cave-ins, people lost in the tunnels, and two girls trapped in a cave at the tide line with the tide rising. The enemies in this story are time and upset taniwha, with the tension rising the longer the Earthcore team is underground.

There are a few too many people to keep track of easily, but I like stories emphasising teamwork, and this is a good entry in that category.

I’m a sucker for stories with librarians as the romantic leads. What can I say?

In Jamie Sands’ Overdues and Occultism, Basil, a librarian, and Sebastian, a ghost hunter, fall for each other while searching for the secrets behind a haunted library in the Mount Eden suburb of Auckland. This is another novella in the Witchy Fiction brand, which I have reviewed a few of before, and it’s a short, sweet, and charming M/M romance. There’s a sequel available, too: Monsters and Manuscripts, where Basil and Sebastian continue their adventures with a monster that likes chocolate biscuits.

Posted in Fantasy, Kiwi author, LGBTQIA+ | Leave a comment