James S.A. Corey, Tiamat’s Wrath: This book is focused on the fight against Winston Duarte’s empire from Laconia, based on the alien tech that has allowed Laconia to have far superior ships and Duarte to become not-human and perhaps immprtal. Jim Holden is Duarte’s prisoner, a tame bear who tries to destabilize things just a bit when he talks to the people around him, including the scientist now in charge of investigating the alien tech and Duarte’s daughter. Meanwhile, Naomi Nagata is helping run the insurgency, which becomes much more exciting when Duarte’s attempt to punish whatever it was that killed the protomolecule engineers draws a punitive response. Duarte wants to train the whatevers with a tit-for-tat strategy, but doesn’t seem fazed by the seemingly obvious fact that they have a lot more tat than humanity has tit. I’ve seen references to Game of Thrones as a climate change metaphor, with the argument that the end of the show should be the end of humanity given the characters’ inability to focus on the threat to all of them. I had the same feeling about this book—many characters know, and a few of them even try to tell Duarte, that he’s doing something profoundly stupid, but he’s in charge so they press on. The end of the book brings significant changes and losses, and perhaps some powerful people now better oriented towards the existential threat humanity faces, but it seems more plausible that it’s too late even if they do get consensus.
Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower: Leckie just keeps doing interesting things. Here it’s a fantasy about a god telling a story, or a series of stories, in a world in which a god’s statements become true (or the god dies in trying to make them true). The other main protagonist (addressed as “you” by the god) is a canny young trans man, who is himself the confidant of the heir to the Raven’s Lease—the human ruler of a small but crucial geographic bottleneck. This is all quite engaging, but I also really like what Leckie does with the performance of emotion and its cultural supports. The heir, like his father, is prone to truly ridiculous sulks lasting days, which everyone just tolerates, even though he’s also capable of overcoming them when he has reasons—specifically, when he’s on the border fighting skirmishes. But although people back at the Raven’s Tower bemoan his behavior and ask his confidant to try to rein him in, they also basically accept it—it’s not great for a ruler, but it seems culturally intelligible, as do other extravagant performances of emotion that are simultaneously both heartfelt and engaged in for purposes of manipulation. Anyway, there are also god politics, with serious twists and turns; most of the characters turn out to be implicated in some dodgy business, or at the least beneficiaries of past crimes, and not always in the way I would have expected. Leckie is also doing something interesting with the human relationship to truth and power: Eolo is a man even if powerful people refuse to recognize him as such. Others can definitely hurt him by failing to recognize who he is, but that is different. Power makes human reality, but not all reality, contrary to the rules for gods; e pur se muove.
Michael Marshall Smith, Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence: Hannah Green is an ordinary 11-year-old staying with her grandfather as her parents’ marriage falls apart. Unfortunately, her grandfather happens to be the devil’s engineer, responsible for the upkeep of an infernal engine that has, for reasons unknown, stopped working. The engine was supposed to take the power derived from evil acts and give it to the devil, but it’s not (and the resolution of this is the weakest/most confusing part of the book); Hannah is dragged along with her grandfather in the attempt to fix things, but there are people/entities who are not friends of the devil trying to stop them. There are a number of clever bits derived from the omniscient POV, commenting on Hannah’s reasoning and on the ultimate fates of minor characters, but I’m not sure it added up to much.
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs: Three hundred years ago, the people of Saypur (alt-Indian subcontinent, seems like) managed to kill the gods of their colonizers on the Continent (alt-Russia/Central Europe), which was the only place that had gods. Now, Saypur is the colonizer, and the ravaged remnants of the Continent are deeply resentful. When intelligence operative Shara’s old friend/Saypurian historian of the Continent is murdered in the central city of Bulikov, Shara investigates. And finds out that perhaps the gods aren’t as dead as supposed, particularly the one who’s really, really into inflicting pain. It’s extremely inventive but also very much about the way that those who have evil done to them do evil in return. There’s a small moment where Shara has found an important clue—a path to a place where Divinity still might be—by tracking some Continentals, and tells her compatriot, “I have spent half my life reading about other realities. I’d never refuse the opportunity of being the first to enter one, even with my life at stake.” Cool story, but of course she’s not the first to enter, given the people she very well knows she followed. Although she’s relatively empathetic to at least some of the Continentals, and although she thinks her spymaster aunt is perhaps too focused on Saypur to the detriment of others’ wellbeing, she is still from what is for the moment the master race, and it shows. (From the other books I’ve since read by Bennett, I am wondering whether this moment was even intentional.)
Robert Jackson Bennett, Vigilance: An if-this-goes-on novella about gun violence and reality TV. In a near future of massive US decline, many people agree to participate in Vigilance, in which gunmen are released to kill as many people as possible before they’re killed, at a time and place algorithmically determined to attract as many viewers as possible. An African-American bartender and the white asshole in charge of staging the show are the POV characters, and everything is awful.
Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe: In a pre-WWI US, a traveling troupe seeks pieces of the First Song that keeps the world mostly intact while trying to avoid the wolves of nothingness trying to devour being. American Gothic, sort of; the POV character is the young white son of the troupe’s leader, who’s found him after years of searching. The leader’s cryptic and mean statements keep the son resentful and confused even after he lusts after the dancer Colette, whose dark skin is a barrier to the success she craves even though our protagonist doesn’t understand why (apparently racism hadn’t made it to Ohio in his time?). I was not impressed by the callow youth or his ultimate role in saving/remaking the world and getting a happily ever after. Sometimes an author just hits once for me, and maybe City of Stairs is like that.
Erica L. Satifka, Stay Crazy: Em, recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, is home from college and working at the local Walmart-analogue when the frozen foods start to talk to her. An entity from another dimension needs her help to save the world. Yes, sounds like a hallucination, but there are all those inexplicable suicides taking place at the store… The descriptions of the florid aspects of Em’s delusions were appropriately unnerving.
Tobias S. Buckell, Ragamuffin: A sequel to Arctic Rising that I read first, though I figured a bunch of stuff out through context. A hostile universe has mostly subordinated humans, who’ve become clients/pets of more advanced races, but a few stragglers survive, including on planets shut off from the main wormhole network. A woman who’s been created as a weapon against the alien computer network fights to survive among others with their own agendas, while elsewhere a nearly ageless modified man tries to save his planet from the return of alien invaders. A lot going on in a short book—maybe too much.
Tobias S. Buckell, Arctic Rising: Anika is a UN pilot inspecting ships in the now ice-free Arctic when she and her partner are shot down by someone carrying something that trips her radioactivity detector. Trying to solve the mystery puts her even more in danger and puts her in the path of those trying to turn climate change into localized economic benefit. Decent speculative fiction + adventure.
Tobias S. Buckell, Hurricane Fever: Focuses on a side character from Arctic Rising, Roo, who used to work for the Carribbean Intelligence Services (more important as the nations united and got control of some oil). When an old friend asks him to investigate the friend’s death, it sets off a chain of events that leaves Roo searching for revenge. More spy stuff ensues, though with more shakes-after-killing and the like than in a Bond film.
T. Kingfisher, The Seventh Bride:A miller’s daughter is forced to marry a lord who turns out to be a lot more sinister than you might think, even if you know how this goes. Fairy-tale elements nicely melded with pragmatism and invention (the clock wife and her world of dream logic).
Alaya Whiteley, The Loosening Skin: In a world where humans moult every few years, losing whatever romantic love they had (which can be felt in the discarded skin), a movie star carries out a horrific act against his former bodyguard/lover, who has an extreme form of moulting that leaves her revolted by her past lives. Later, as science develops anti-moulting drugs, various related characters try to figure out what that means and what happened to the bodyguard. It was okay I guess but I didn’t get much out of the AU.