Book Review: Roman Britain: A History from Beginning to End by Henry Freeman (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Roman Britain: A History from Beginning to End by Henry Freeman

(Three Stars)

“Create history—History is what we think, say, and write about the evidence for the past.”

Its fifty-two-page length tells readers how much history they’re getting: little. An outline at best.

“The modern Celts are not the present representatives of a people who have existed continually for millennia, but constitute a true case of ‘ethnogenesis’—the birth of an ethnic identity—in early modern Europe.” Like several hyphen-American cultures. “Ethnicity is a cultural construct, and may have little to do with the ‘real’ historical background(s) of the individuals and sub-groups concerned.”

Several bibliographic essays about Roman-ness, Celt-ness, and Britain-ess. Little information is imparted, just lots of opinion about Continue reading

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Book Review: The Light Princess by George MacDonald (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Light Princess by George MacDonald

(Four Stars)

“He could not tell whether the queen mean light-haired or light-heired; for why might she not aspirate her vowels when she was exasperated herself?”

Fun. Unexpected and untypical (of MacDonald). A trailblazer of modern fantasy, MacDonald’s stories are often deep in meaning and dense with prose. This hundred and fifty year old tale is neither. Light and easy to follow. Raises the suspicion this is a modern paraphrase, yet many of the puns and word plays must stem for the original

“One day he lost sight of his retinue in a great forest. These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran.”

Self-conscious of fairy tale tropes used and abused. MacDonald using and makes fun of standard fairy elements, yet his tale of the redemptive power of self-sacrificial love is typical of his writings.

“She will die if I don’t do it, and life would be nothing to me without her; so I shall lose nothing by doing it.” “Love hath made me strong to go, For thy sake, to realms below.”

Book Review: The Dragon that Flew out of the Sun by Aliette de Bodard (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Dragon that Flew out of the Sun: Stories of the Xuya Universe by Aliette de Bodard

(Three Stars)

“Everything is a lie. Everything is a fragment of the truth.”

The collection contains the titular story plus “Ship’s Brother,” and “The Frost on the Jade Buds.”

“… seemed to be perpetual mourning, as if some spring within them had broken a long time ago.”

Well-written, but lacks depth. Presumably much backstory is developed in earlier Xuya Universe novels. This is not a good place to start.

“Tales for children. Bedtimes stories: the only narratives that can be stomached.”

(Illustration from deBodard’s website, not from collection.)

Book Review: “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinkser (Four Stars)

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Book Review: “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinkser

(Four Stars)

“Would you like to learn real magic?” The boy snorts. “There’s no such thing.”

Excellent short story. As with the best of any genre, it is compact and forceful. Little fluff; lots of misdirection.

“The Guild is for magicians who feel the need to compete with each other. The Palace trains magicians who feel compelled to compete against themselves.” It’s perhaps the truest thing I’ll ever tell him.

Read it at one sitting; it’s short enough. Let yourself go to the power and flow of the narrator. It increases the final impact.

“Is magic only a trick I haven’t figured out yet?”

(2019 Hugo Short Story Award finalist. Published in Lightspeed magazine. January 2018)

Book Review: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djéli Clark (Four Stars)

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Book Review: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djéli Clark

(Four Stars)

“For the blacksmith understood what masters had chosen to forget: when you make a man or woman a slave you enslave yourself in turn.”

Excellent speculative historical fiction. Since the root–that George Washington bought the teeth of nine slaves as his own rotted away–this might have made an excellent historical fiction. The speculative musings–while fun–are so over-the-top that they dull the edge on what would be righteous indignation over the behavior of our first president.

“… from the ramparts English mages hurled volleys of emerald fireballs that could melt through iron.”

The storytelling is compact and fast moving. Clark makes his points and Continue reading

Book Review: “Mimsy Were the Borgoves” by Lewis Padgett (Four Stars)

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Book Review: “Mimsy Were the Borgoves” by Lewis Padgett (C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner)

(Four Stars)

“But no boy has ever left a box unopened, unless forcibly dragged away. It was a toy; Scott sensed, with the unerring instinct of a child.”

Excellent novelette with a literary hook. Despite an unpromising start, the story ends well. The section on the adults’ reactions is too long and clumsy.

“A child knows nothing of Euclid. A different geometry from ours wouldn’t impress him as being illogical.

Like many smart people, Moore and Kuttner got geometry, and learning in general, backward. We don’t see things as we do because we learned Euclid’s axioms; Euclid derived his axioms from how we view reality. A child learns to throw and catch a ball knowing nothing about physics.

“But I don’t think I’ll change your little song.” “You mustn’t. If you did, it wouldn’t mean anything.” “I won’t change that stanza, anyway,” he promised. “Just what does it mean?” “It’s the way out, I think,” the girl said doubtfully. “I’m not sure yet. My magic toys told me.”

2019 Best Novelette 1944 Retrospective Hugo Award finalist. Published in Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943.

“A symbol, to us, means more than what we see on paper.”

Book Review: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Two Stars)

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Book Review: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow

(Two Stars)

“In grad school, they called it “ensuring readers have access to texts/materials that are engaging and emotionally rewarding,” and in my other kind of schooling, they called it ‘divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine,’ but it comes to the same thing.”

Wanted to like this, but couldn’t get past the self-satisfied hubris of the protagonist. She seems to feel that having a heart makes up for having no brains. Expect great writing from Harrow someday. This is well-written, but as subtle as a ton of bricks.

“I teetered, the way you do when you’re about to do something really dumb.”

Not only does she violate the norms of society, but breaks the rules of her witches group. Surely they have people and procedures for identifying and shepherding candidates, other than giving them a gun and hoping they didn’t shoot themselves with it? She endangers a youth just to feel good?

“If you want justice and goodness to prevail in this world, you have to fight for it tooth and nail. And it will be hard, and costly, and probably illegal. You will have to break rules.”

Excellent narrative voice and characterization. Too obviously correct cultural cues. Right-thinking readers will applaud her heavy-handed politics. Readers who think for themselves may be offended that Harrow insists on thinking for them. Not to mention her ‘winning is all that matters’ attitude.

“I wondered … how rogue librarians spent their time, and whether they had clubs or societies, and what it was like to encounter feral stories untamed by narrative and unbound by books. Then I wondered where our Books came from in the first place, and who wrote them.”

(2019 Short Story Hugo Award finalist; published in Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Book Review: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho (Four Stars)

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Book Review: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

(Four Stars)

“You get used to being a failure. It was too early to tell her that.”

Excellent. Based on Korean mythology, Cho draws the reader into the mind of an aspiring imugi. Aspiring to be what? That’s the story.

“You couldn’t study something for 3,000 years without becoming interested in it for its own sake.”

Sparse description augmented by the protagonist’s musings and dialogue with humans. Well done.

“Couldn’t take it. Not now, not after … I’m not brave enough to fail again.” “I know.”

(2019 Best Novelette Hugo Award Finalist, published by B&N SFF Originals)

Book Review: “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (Five Stars)

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Book Review: “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher

(Five Stars)

“Is this what it’s like when they pine away after us?” “We are not pining!”

Slightly ribald version of the shaggy dog story. Riotously indirect. I’ve already told you too much; read it. (Cover art is Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018, in which the story appears.)

“I’ll tell you all about it when you’re older.” She paused, looking down at the stubborn little face. “Much … much older.”

(Finalist 2019 Hugo Award for Short Story)

Book Review: “Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Black God’s Kiss by C. L. Moore

(Four Stars)

“The soul can be lost but once.”

This story introduces the one tor.com calls, “the first lady of sword-and-sorcery, Jirel of Joiry … in all her ferocious mailed glory and defiance.” Very dark, almost horror. Not my kind of reading, but exceptionally well done, especially considering it was first published in 1934. Stories like this established Moore among the top tier of science fiction/fantasy writers.

“Shrive me, I say! I go into hell tonight to pray to the devil for a weapon, and it may be I shall not return.” “I will give you God’s blessing, but it will not avail you–there.”

Unlike later fantasy, the Jirel stories are firmly planted in this world. References to the former Roman empire and French wine, while slightly anachronistic, set Joiry somewhere in medieval Europe. Moore also takes the church as it would have been then as a given to Jirel’s culture.

“The pull of gravity of the place must have been less than she was accustomed to, but she only knew that she was skimming over the ground with amazing speed.” “She was soon skimming over the grass.”

A third of a century before men walked on the moon, Moore correctly posits the dance-like gait of one moving in low gravity. Prescient? No, smart and observant.

“She was coming to know that death lay in wait for her if she bore this burden long, that it was a two-edged weapon which could strike at its wielder if the blow was delayed too long.”