What I Read (and loved) So Far In 2016, Second Quarter
Sweet crap, the year is flying by. So here’s the second installment of this year’s thrilling (thrilling) list of the books that really blew my mind.
- Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
In a continent on the edge of war, two witches hold its fate in their hands.
Young witches Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble. After clashing with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, the friends are forced to flee their home.
Safi must avoid capture at all costs as she’s a rare Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies. Many would kill for her magic, so Safi must keep it hidden – lest she be used in the struggle between empires. And Iseult’s true powers are hidden even from herself.
In a chance encounter at Court, Safi meets Prince Merik and makes him a reluctant ally. However, his help may not slow down the Bloodwitch now hot on the girls’ heels. All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom, but danger lies ahead. With war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike. For some will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
So Kate Elliott was talking this up on Twitter a while back, and as the old saying goes, As goes Kate Elliott, so goes my heart. Also, never doubt Kate Elliott, because this book was delightful. Fundamentally, this is a book about a friendship between two young women. And they’re having adventures and there’s the possibility of a fulfillment of prophesy, plus some solid flirting with handsome young beefcakes, and don’t forget imperial politics, but mostly it’s about their friendship. Which is lovely.
Also in its favor? Probably the most body-positive “young woman puts on amazing ballgown and admires herself” scene that I have ever had the privilege to read, plus a really great surprise with how Dennard handles a character who could’ve easily been the evil Terminator character of the series, but is clearly brewing to be something much more complex and fascinating. I definitely can’t wait for the sequel, though judging from Goodreads I’ll at least have to wait a year. Sigh.
2. The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore channels William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe in this satiric Venetian gothic that brings back the Pocket of Dog Snogging, the eponymous hero of Fool, along with his sidekick, Drool, and pet monkey, Jeff
Venice, a long time ago. Three prominent Venetians await their most loathsome and foul dinner guest, the erstwhile envoy of Britain and France, and widower of the murdered Queen Cordelia: the rascal-Fool Pocket.
This trio of cunning plotters-the merchant, Antonio; the senator, Montressor Brabantio; and the naval officer, Iago-have lured Pocket to a dark dungeon, promising an evening of sprits and debauchery with a rare Amontillado sherry and Brabantio’s beautiful daughter, Portia.
But their invitation is, of course, bogus. The wine is drugged. The girl isn’t even in the city limits. Desperate to rid themselves once and for all of the man who has consistently foiled their grand quest for power and wealth, they have lured him to his death. (How can such a small man, be such a huge obstacle?). But this Fool is no fool . . . and he’s got more than a few tricks (and hand gestures) up his sleeve.
So many foul jokes, so many Shakespeare in-jokes, really, what’s not to like? An excellent sequel to Fool.
3. Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach
Devi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day – but not just yet.
That is, until she just gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn’t misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years everywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she’s found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn’t give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle.
Oh my god, Devi kicks all the ass in the world. I love that she’s take-no-shit, I love that she has ambition and she’s not afraid to show it, I love that she is completely unashamed of her sexuality, I love that she has power armor with two guns and a sword AND SHE HAS NAMED ALL OF THEM, and I basically love everything about this book. I really only meant to read a few chapters, but instead I read the whole thing. I also read the sequel (Honor’s Knight), which I’m not including on this list only because it would read like an almost identical fan letter to Bach. But it was also fabulous, and I’m looking forward to the third in the series, which now sits upon my to-read shelf.
4. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose, he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, but he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.
Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica, and to buried secrets and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcery masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, and a new Fillory–but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.
What a lovely, lovely conclusion to the trilogy. It has all the gorgeous imagery and writing, plus sly humor and characterization, that I loved about the first two, but it’s a different book. This is a book about Quentin finally becoming an adult, and as a result the book itself is much more tightly plotted. A lot of subtle stuff, plus some amazing and grand moments. Also, bacon. Perfection.
5. Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold
The familiar old SF “planet of women” chestnut is reversed in the planet of Athos — an all-male planet made possible by the invention of the uterine replicator. Ethan, drawn out of his beloved Athos by a quest, finds himself an alien in more mainstream human society, and cannot help but find women disturbing aliens as well, especially the ultra-competent, ultra-beautiful Elli.
Ethan of Athos is Lois McMaster Bujold’s third novel. It departs from the concerns of the Vorkosigan family to explore the ramifications of advanced biotechnology, turning many a cliché on its head along the way.
This was a hugely fun book to read, because in so many ways it is so classic SF, but in other ways it is strikingly modern. Ethan is an obstetrician from a planet made up entirely of men, but when the planet’s supply of ovarian tissue (critical to their ability to grow their sons in uterine replicators) begins dying (it is still the original tissue from 200 years ago, the planet’s founding), Ethan has to go on a mission to get more for his planet. In doing so, he is suddenly exposed to women, as well as an entirely different society. Along the way he gets sucked into what is essentially a noir murder mystery, teamed up with a beautiful, mysterious, and wholly dangerous female mercenary.
So here’s what I really loved about this book – the whole time, I’m just waiting, WAITING, for the moment that Ethan was going to discover that he really liked women, and the power of the male-female missionary position was going to make him swear off his planet, or swear to expose his planet to women or some such thing. But that doesn’t happen. Ethan learns that women are people, that they aren’t inherently sinful, and he becomes real friends with Elli (the mercenary), but he is still who he is – a man who is sexually attracted only to men. A nice man who just wants to go home to his planet and his family and start having sons of his own. I was so pleasantly surprised by Bujold allowing Ethan to stay Ethan, and it actually comes out as a fairly subversive book. Loved it.
6. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Missoula, Montana is a typical college town, home to a highly regarded state university whose beloved football team inspires a passionately loyal fan base. Between January 2008 and May 2012, hundreds of students reported sexual assaults to the local police. Few of the cases were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.
In these pages, acclaimed journalist Jon Krakauer investigates a spate of campus rapes that occurred in Missoula over a four-year period. Taking the town as a case study for a crime that is sadly prevalent throughout the nation, Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims: their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the skepticism directed at them by police, prosecutors, and the public; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them. These stories cut through abstract ideological debate about acquaintance rape to demonstrate that it does not happen because women are sending mixed signals or seeking attention. They are victims of a terrible crime, deserving of fairness from our justice system. Rigorously researched, rendered in incisive prose, Missoula stands as an essential call to action.
This book was emotionally hard to read because of its subject matter, but I feel that it is profoundly important for the way that it focuses on acquaintance rape and the profound way that our current handling of rape in the justice system is failing so many women in our country.
7. The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed
In the mid-1700s the English captain of a trading ship that made runs between England and the Virginia colony fathered a child by an enslaved woman living near Williamsburg. The woman, whose name is unknown and who is believed to have been born in Africa, was owned by the Eppeses, a prominent Virginia family. The captain, whose surname was Hemings, and the woman had a daughter. They named her Elizabeth.
So begins this epic work—named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times, Amazon.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a notable book by the New York Times—Annette Gordon-Reed’s “riveting history” of the Hemings family, whose story comes to vivid life in this brilliantly researched and deeply moving work. Gordon-Reed, author of the highly acclaimed historiography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, unearths startling new information about the Hemingses, Jefferson, and his white family. Although the book presents the most detailed and richly drawn portrait ever written of Sarah Hemings, better known by her nickname Sally, who bore seven children by Jefferson over the course of their thirty-eight-year liaison, The Hemingses of Monticello tells more than the story of her life with Jefferson and their children. The Hemingses as a whole take their rightful place in the narrative of the family’s extraordinary engagement with one of history’s most important figures.
Not only do we meet Elizabeth Hemings—the family matriarch and mother to twelve children, six by John Wayles, a poor English immigrant who rose to great wealth in the Virginia colony—but we follow the Hemings family as they become the property of Jefferson through his marriage to Martha Wayles. The Hemings-Wayles children, siblings to Martha, played pivotal roles in the life at Jefferson’s estate.
We follow the Hemingses to Paris, where James Hemings trained as a chef in one of the most prestigious kitchens in France and where Sally arrived as a fourteen-year-old chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter Polly; to Philadelphia, where James Hemings acted as the major domo to the newly appointed secretary of state; to Charlottesville, where Mary Hemings lived with her partner, a prosperous white merchant who left her and their children a home and property; to Richmond, where Robert Hemings engineered a plan for his freedom; and finally to Monticello, that iconic home on the mountain, from where most of Jefferson’s slaves, many of them Hemings family members, were sold at auction six months after his death in 1826.
As The Hemingses of Monticello makes vividly clear, Monticello can no longer be known only as the home of a remarkable American leader, the author of the Declaration of Independence; nor can the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president have been expunged from history until very recently, be left out of the telling of America’s story. With its empathetic and insightful consideration of human beings acting in almost unimaginably difficult and complicated family circumstances, The Hemingses of Monticello is history as great literature. It is a remarkable achievement.
Incredibly nuanced and detailed. Gordon-Reed is unafraid of looking at all the interpretations and permutations of the incredibly complex and fundamentally challenging relationships that arose between the Hemingses and the family members who owned them. The research here and the care taken to analyze it also allows the modern reader to look behind the veil of what was commonly said in public in society, and how lives were lived in private. An amazing work of history.