Review: El-Mohtar & Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War

This book has been on my TBR list for a while. So when I hied myself over to my branch library to renew my card and saw it on the shelf, I checked it out. (Disappointingly, several books I had hoped to put holds on are not in the system. Obviously I’m going to have to put a second string to my bow and sign up for a JoCo account.)

I admit, a big selling point for the book was the fact that it’s small. (Again with the ways in which I am not the reader Author Me is looking for.) I didn’t realize the book was actually a novella; if I wanted to be That Bitch I would check the word count and issue Commentary on how 50k words is not ten thousand words too many to be considered a novella, So There. But eh, who has time for that. Time War is, pretty clearly, a novella; it has no wasteful digressions, no overblown prose, no jags where there ought to be jigs. I read it in the same afternoon, with time left over for a nap.

I gave it the same four stars on Goodreads that I give to other excellent books, but I didn’t write a review of it there because I wasn’t actually sure what I thought about it. And — I still don’t. The back jacket cover is full of blurbs giving a kind of praise I’ve never seen before — I think Gerard Manley Hopkins was name-checked at one point, which you definitely don’t see every day — and none of it was stuff I thought about the book, but I thought it plausible that someone else might think it.

The story, you would think, hits my Enemies Who Love Each Other kink whang in the gold. Not quite: the two time soldiers in this story fall in love as enemies and continue in their duties even after they’ve acknowledged their secret and forbidden love; but it wasn’t quite the specific non-romantic love of enemy for enemy that I hunger for so much. Close, though; as close as things usually get.

I think the book both stands and falls on its thoroughgoing commitment to discorporealized action. Or…dyscorporealized action, in some instances. Like Charles Williams (honestly he’s much more my go-to comparable than GMH for this), the actions these time soldiers take, the letters they write, happen in an almost metaphysical realm, the synapses between thoughts, between beats of the heart. The story is written and lived in interstitial, intercostal spaces; the reveal of the seeker-shadow is a fulfillment rather than a bucking of its trope; for all the main characters tell one another about their physical lives, those lives are conducted at a far remove from anything we experience. Possibly the most anchoring thing in the book is the occasional allusion to memes of our time — I laughed when I encountered the reference to “I’m in ur base killing ur doods.” Do kids these days know that meme?

Trying to get a critical grasp on this story, I noticed that it’s written in tight-third, present tense POV — a perspective tailor-made for this kind of story; or vice versa. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment when I say it’s like fanfiction pieces written by the best practitioners of that perspective. But tight-third present tense perspective became popular among fic writers precisely because it is so handy for invoking this dreamlike sense of immediacy, and — if you have the chops for it — providing the bevels needed for imagistic wordplay and incantatory style.

This stylistic choice is not just popular in the realm of fanfiction, but when you find it out in the wild it’s usually in literary fiction. I suspect that reviewers have a Pavlovian response to encountering this style, which is to tag it as having high literary merit whether it does or not. But that’s not El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s fault. Their book does everything it does in good faith, and in the end I suppose that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

But the thing I liked best about the book, the thing that filled all those resonant spaces in my heart whenever I pick up a story looking for Escape in Tolkien’s sense, was the last line of the acknowledgments section at the back. El-Mohtar and Gladstone clearly mean their book to be an act of resistance, as all real art is in times like these, and the last thing they have to say about it — and the last thing I have to say about it — is this:

Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re all still here.

The Un-Natural

Last night, looking for something to watch while eating dinner, I saw that Netflix had added The Natural to its list of Acclaimed Movies from The Past. I remembered liking the movie a lot as a kid, so I started it up.

Seriously, Cheese Man makes more sense than this movie.

My memory of this movie was pretty patchy. Like, Robert Redford got hurt somehow — maybe it had something to do with war? — and that made him an underdog, and there was some kind of sinister money plot, and at the end he hits an amazing home run and starts bleeding and manages to run the bases before he dies. Maybe?

The rewatch didn’t do this movie any favors. To start with, it’s little Roy Hobbs and his nobly poor farmer dad, and nobody else except the well-off farm girl Iris hanging around in worship. Where is Roy’s mom? No mom? Okay, maybe they’re just trying to keep this story succinct. Roy’s dad dies and lightning strikes the tree he died under. So Little Roy makes The Perfect Bat from the wood. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is earnestly aping Aaron Copland, which along with the Model T tells you that it’s the Olden Times, i.e., the early 20th century.

Roy Hobbs brands his bat WONDERBOY. So far what this movie seems to be missing is symbolism.

So cut to a few years later when Roy is off to make his fortune, but first he stops to have a midnight barn tryst with Iris. Then he gets on the train with…some dude who’s agenting him. A mysterious Woman in Black is on the platform. Some baseball insiders are in the dining car musing over a newspaper story that two sports greats have been mysteriously shot with silver bullets. I wonder if this will have any bearing on the story!

Roy and his agent get into a dick-wagging contest at a local fair with the baseball insiders, and Roy strikes out the legendary batsman. Back on the train (that was the longest half-hour water stop I ever heard of), the Woman in Black approaches Roy alone and draws him out so far as to say he intends to be The Best That Ever Was.

At their destination, the Woman in Black invites Roy to visit her in her hotel room, and he goes. She gets him to say again that he intends to be The Best, and then she lowers a black lace veil and shoots him.

What?

TITLE CARD: 16 YEARS LATER

Roy shows up at the dugout of a washed-up team in New York with a scout’s contract, and Wilford Brimley, pissed off at getting sent an Old Dude, refuses to play him. But eventually he has to, and discovers that he is The Best. Suddenly the team becomes good. The co-owner tries to bribe Roy to suck so that he can buy out the team from Wilford Brimley, and Roy nobly refuses.

Meanwhile this whole time, Roy refuses to let on a) where he’s from, b) why he didn’t keep playing ball after high school, and c) what the hell he’s been doing with himself for 16 years. We know he didn’t go home because there’s a scene where a lonely Iris goes into a diner and sees a newspaper article about this sudden phenomenon. No matter how many times people ask him, he deflects the questions.

Then Roy’s rival on the team crashes through a wall trying to catch a fly in right field, and somehow this kills him? Which leaves Roy a clear path to Wilford Brimley’s daughter and a place on the starting lineup.

What??

This is the halfway point of the film. I skimmed the cursor through the rest to see if there were some hope of a sensible plot, and I didn’t. So I noped out.

I can’t remember how Roy suffered the relapse of his wound in the side. Maybe the Woman in Black, annoyed at having failed to eliminate a Paragon of Masculinity, comes back for another try?

No doubt there was some kind of reveal when everybody finds out Roy’s Tragic Past, but it can’t be any less ridiculous than the build-up. Roy is too ashamed to admit to being the victim of a random malicious misfortune…why? Roy didn’t wind up back home…why? No newspaper article connected the dots with the other silver bullets…why? Roy’s agent mysteriously disappears at the point of the shooting…why?

It’s like Roy takes a 16-year hiatus for Doylist reasons, and his creators, the perpetrators of this plot, write it this way for Watsonian reasons.

I guess having your masculinity perforated is a fate worse than obscurity.

I must not have noticed the absurd misogyny of this plot when I was a kid because it read like randomness to me. After all, the potential is great. Robert Redford! as a baseball hero! facing incredible odds! in a dashing 1930s knickerbocker uniform! This could be great!

But you were failed hard, Roy Hobbs. No mom, no home community (highly improbable, WTF), no arc of team camaraderie, no war angst, no Great Depression angst, no best male friend, not even an honorable rival. Nope, just a lot of inept men and unfathomable femme fatales, a drab backdrop for the luminous Natural. If this were football there’d be flags all over the field. Illegal Succubus, Intentional Incomplete Use of Wilford Brimley (like, The Firm made better use of him, WTAF), Improbable Wounding, Running Out the Play Clock…I can’t even.

So, file this one under Beware Movies You Enjoyed As A Kid.

ETA: I went over to Wikipedia and read the rest of the plot summary. Oh my God, it only got more egregious from there. Two succubi and a Penelope. Oh, and Roy doesn’t actually die in the end; he lives to sire a line of Naturals while his loving long-lost Iris looks on. Well, at least the next generation has a mom. Baby steps?

Review: Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

I am so not the kind of reader I want, really. I’m the kind of reader who hangs about like a cat in a doorway, ambivalent both about going out and staying in, until something happens to tip the balance. In this case, the requisite critical mass of recs plus my decision to take a mental health weekend resulted in my getting a Kindle copy of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth — and, of course, reading it in one sitting.

The kind of readers I want, of course, are the kind of readers Gideon the Ninth has: readers who will rave about it in their spaces and joggle their friends’ elbows until they have read it too, so that they can flail together about it. So, full disclosure, I’m a little bit envious of Gideon for its insta-fandom. But not envious enough to turn up my nose at it, either before or after reading it.

Gideon Nav, the POV character for most of the book, is a foundling indentured servant of the Emperor’s Ninth House. It’s the terminal House, with a terminal population, racked by terminal boredom, and all Gideon’s escape attempts have been foiled by the daughter of the house, her nemesis since childhood: Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer extraordinaire. Harrow offers Gideon a devil’s bargain to get off the planet: put her swordswomanship to use as Harrow’s cavalier in a dangerous trial to be elevated to the Emperor’s elite. Harrow is determined to win that place to save her dwindling House.

Gideon couldn’t give less of a shit about the Ninth House, but it’s an adventure, and she gets to wield a sword. And does she ever get to wield a sword. But as you would expect, the trial turns out to be far different to what they expected, and will require more of them both than they could ever have imagined.

The story is, just as advertised, brilliant and pyrotechnic (in a skeleton-y kind of way), with a narrative voice that cracks wise in an ironic but not cynical style. And, it doesn’t fail to deliver on lots of swordplay. Now, I’d quibble that a Zweihander is not an automatic overmatch for a rapier, precisely because what you gain in weight you lose in speed, but I can forgive that because Muir has obviously done proper research, and worked the fighting skills of Gideon and her counterparts from other Houses into the thematic foundations of the trial itself. Sometimes you want speed, and sometimes you want a can-opener, and at all times you want deadly ferocity and a towering passion for winning.

The story fulfills its promises, and any mysteries it leaves unsolved are obviously to be addressed in future books. I gave it the same solid four stars on Goodreads that I gave A Memory Called Empire, and for much the same reasons. Annoyingly, star ratings tend to be a bit like customer-service ratings — anything less than a 5 is a failure of some obscure kind; believe me, if there were an extra little gold star I could add for “life-changing!” I would give five stars to books more often. This book was excellent but not life-changing.

The reason it wasn’t life-changing has everything to do with my particular taste. About half way through my reading of the story, the knowledge sank in that this book’s engine was the Final Girl trope — and sure enough, the story delivered, with precisely the amount of creative body-horror you might expect from a story about dueling necromancers in which life and death are both extremely plastic and ductile.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that tropes are unmentionables, like underwear in polite company — like, how very coarse and bodily of you if you admit to needing to wear any; please. Tropes aren’t just foundation garments; they’re foundations. All stories are made of them, good, bad, and indifferent.

I approve of the Final Girl trope in principle, but in practice I find it kind of…a surfeit, a panoramic waste. There are some characters in this book I would really have liked to see more of, dammit. From my point of view, the Final Girl isn’t bad or even unsatisfying; it just isn’t the here kitty kitty kitty that reliably brings me running.

But, like I said, I enjoyed it happily in one sitting, admired the prowess of Muir’s wordplay, and have no reservations adding my rec to some other cat’s critical decision mass.

Review: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.

This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.

It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.

In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.

The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.

I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.

Review: Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing After Another

[crossposted from Goodreads; slightly spoilery, caveat lector]

Just what it says on the tin.

A book club choice that I’m finally catching up on. Rather wish I’d read it last winter when it was being discussed — there were fun things to talk about in this one. Also wish I could give it 3 1/2 stars, as I definitely liked it better than The Japanese Lover and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which were also book club reads.

In fact, I almost gave it four stars, but this book just fell enough short of the admiration I have for Ann Leckie’s recent books, the Rivers of London series, and a plurality of Terry Pratchett’s books — though if you like those, you should certainly try this.

The first-person protagonist is a firecracker (or maybe something slightly less benign), with a snarky voice and the most towering capacity for mayhem this side of Miles Vorkosigan. The story was compelling enough to finish in one sitting (the plot, being more or less solid events from start to finish, definitely lends itself to this), but that very sense of undifferentiated urgency left me without much of a grasp on the story, much like when I was a kid in gym shaking a parachute, losing hold of my edge, and fumbling to catch it again. I can’t tell if this is a feature or a bug.

[Mild spoiler] Meanwhile, the characters our heroine makes enemies with turn out to be the bad guys — what are the odds? This sort of thing really annoys me in principle, but in practice this book was saved by the fact that Jodi Taylor is very good at spotting difficulties and lampshading them. (Nothing wrong with a little lampshading! I’ve been known to use the technique myself.) Max, who apparently comes from an unspeakably abusive childhood, second-guesses herself when working out who the villians are, and even gives them more credit than she should precisely because she doesn’t like them. Very believably, she does not trust her own trust meter, with widely mixed results.

Similarly, most of the characters are types, which is handy in a book as full of “damned things” as this is — but if the story gets round to them, they act interestingly within their types, though in some cases less believably than Max.

The emotional throughline of the story was very compelling, and would have been more so if there’d been more dynamic range, but there was never time for anything like that, nor even to grieve for the characters who got killed, many of them gone just as one gets to know them.

These things annoyed me a good deal, which, as I said, is ultimately a point in this book’s favor because it was the opposite of “meh” — so I don’t wish I had my Sunday afternoon back. And isn’t that what we ask of a book first and foremost?