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Monthly Archives: November 2017

“Penric’s Fox” by Lois McMaster Bujold

This installment in the Penric and Desdemona series takes place before the two most recent installments. Penric is called in to consult on a murder mystery, which becomes of more personal interest to him when it’s revealed that the victim, like him, was carrying one of the Bastard’s chaos demons.

We were first introduced to shamanic magic in Penric and the Shaman, and I enjoyed getting a more extensive look at it here. The mystery was also interesting, and there was one scene with Penric’s patron, the princess-archdivine, that humanized this formerly remote figure.

Like the previous Penric novellas, this is a quick read, but Bujold packs a lot of characterization and plot into the relatively small space. And Penric’s story isn’t over yet: a new novella, The Prisoner of Limnon, is already available. It picks up where Mira’s Last Dance left off, bringing us back to Penric’s current adventures. But Penric’s Fox is an engaging detour that’s well worth reading.

“Bats of the Republic” by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic is a difficult novel to classify. One of the two interweaving stories it tells is a dystopian science-fiction tale of walled cities in which people live according to a rigidly regimented “life-phase” system. The other takes place in the 1840s, and seems at first to be historical fiction. But as the main character, a naturalist charged with bringing an important message to a general in Texas, continues his journey, more and more odd things begin to happen. The stories, told in alternating chapters, become more closely interconnected as both progress.

I do most of my reading on my Kindle, but I’m glad I bought a hard copy of this book, as it’s absolutely beautiful. The naturalist, Zadock Thomas, sketches some of the more notable animals he observes during his travels, and the book includes a few pages of his sketches. The message he’s carrying is also included—but not just as text on a page. At the end of the book is an actual sealed envelope containing the message. The layout and text font (and even text color) is different for the two storylines of the novel, and a ribbon bookmark is included. All in all, the production values of Bats are stunning.

One of the main themes of the book is the idea of history repeating itself. From the reader’s perspective, one storyline is set in the past and the other in the future. Some of the future-storyline characters are descendants of those from the past-storyline, and there are character relationships and plot elements that both storylines have in common. Whether this is just because human behavior tends to follow certain patterns, or because one storyline is influencing the other—and if so, which is influencing which—is an open question.

Bats of the Republic truly deserves to be called wildly inventive. It may be a bit too “weird” for some readers, but if you’re a veteran reader of sci-fi and fantasy wishing that there was something new under the sun, this is exactly what you’re looking for.

“The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” by Louise Erdrich

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Louise Erdrich has written a number of novels set in and around a fictional Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, she tells the story of the reservation’s resident priest: his struggles to mediate between Catholicism and the faith of the indigenous people, his involvement with a woman who eventually becomes a candidate for sainthood, and a momentous secret that he has kept for decades.

One of the great strengths of the book is the way it brings the culture, traditions, and beliefs of the Ojibwe to life. Erdrich herself is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa people, who, along with the Ojibwe, are part of a larger group known as the Anishinaabe. In particular, the antics of Nanapush, a contrarian figure who becomes a close friend of the priest, are at times humorous and at other times unexpectedly moving.

The juxtaposition of hilarity and seriousness keeps things interesting for the reader. Some of the events that happen in the novel border on the absurd, as when an alcoholic reforms after a cart accident causes a statue of the Virgin Mary to be launched through the window of the shack where she’s lying in a stupor. Other scenes portray a transcendent beauty, as when the main character is overwhelmed by the music of Schubert. Still others are sorrowful or deeply unsettling. All are written with equal skill.

The one disappointment I had with the book is that, based on its description on Amazon, I expected the prospective saint to be the main plot thread of the story. Yet she seems to fade into the background for most of the tale. That’s not to say that she doesn’t feature in some intense scenes, and an investigation into her cause for sainthood is the framing device of the novel, but she didn’t play as central a role as I expected. This may be a fault of the description rather than the book itself, though.

“The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin

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The first two books in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy have received deserved accolades for their compelling characters, vivid setting, and a plot that keeps the reader turning pages. In The Stone Sky, Jemisin sticks the landing, successfully bringing plot threads and character arcs to a satisfying close.

The Stone Sky resolves mysteries that were set up in the earlier books, such as the origin of the stone eaters and the nature of the Guardians. When a story reaches this point, it can sometimes feel like a letdown. This book avoids that pitfall by having some of the answers be truly awe-inspiring (or terror-inspiring, as the case may be). It also suggests the truth of an old quote: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery.” The ancient civilization that built the obelisks isn’t the oldest civilization, and there are hints that other cultures may have known things they didn’t. This allows the setting to maintain a sense of wonder even as the directly plot-relevant mysteries are being solved.

We also see the payoff from character development that has been building up over the first two books, primarily Essun’s gradual acceptance of being able to rely on other people. One moment, in which several characters agree to undertake a perilous journey with her, is particularly touching.

Finally, the book establishes the reason for a narrative convention that I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Season: having some chapters written from a second-person point of view. While I still think second-person POV doesn’t read smoothly over such a long story, the full revelation about why these chapters are written that way is one of the reasons why the novel (and thus the series) ended on a strong note.