Some Books I've Loved (Summer Recs!)
I’m late with this, but here are some books I’ve recently loved. I hope that you, dear reader, might love them, too.
The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard
A year ago I read Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, her first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series. I fell in love with her Gothic-tinged world of fallen angels and Parisian ruins. The sequel, The House of Binding Thorns, is a worthy successor that—dare I say it?--may be even better than the first.
The first novel was a taut, atmospheric murder mystery set in House Silverspires. In the follow-up novel, the action shifts to Silverspires’ rival, House Hawthorn. A few characters from the first novel make their reappearance. Philippe, an outcast Vietnamese Immortal, is trying to resurrect a dear (and dead) friend. Madeline, a mortal alchemist addicted to angel essence (a drug which is the distillation of angel magic), has been dragged reluctantly back to service in House Hawthorn, and is simply trying to survive. The head of House Hawthorn, Asmodeus, is back and sarcastic and cruel as ever. Much of this book, however, is given over to an entirely new cast of characters. And while I was a bit sad at seeing so little of Philippe, there is abundant recompense in these new characters. Thuan is a badass dragon prince and spy who has infiltrated House Hawthorn under the guise of a Houseless teenager of the streets. Francoise and Berith are two Houseless lovers simply trying to survive: Francois is mortal (and heavily pregnant); Berith is an ailing Fallen angel who may die before her mortal lover does. The author’s world of magic and ruins is deepened and expanded in this sequel. The watery dragon kingdom under the river Seine is more fully explored, and the fates of the dragon kingdom and House Hawthorn become entwined. We also learn more about the Vietnamese (termed “Annamite” in this book) diaspora community in Paris. Indeed, for me one of the delights of this book is seeing the strength of this human community, and how it enfolds both Philippe and Francoise (and by extension, Francoise’s partner Berith).
A murder mystery was central to the first novel of this series, The House of Shattered Wings. In the House of Binding Thorns, de Bodard deftly juggles several mysteries. Who is smuggling angel essence into the dragon kingdom? What is really behind Asmodeus’ decision to ally with the dragon kingdom? Who is kidnapping Vietnamese dockworkers and why? Dragon prince Thuan, human Madeline, and others must play detective. Multiple factions battle for power, double-crosses abound, and de Bodard cleverly ties together the different narrative threads. As always, her prose is utterly gorgeous and richly evocative. She moves smoothly from gritty urban realism to scenes of sweeping magic and primal myth (the image of a carnivorous grove of trees is particularly haunting).
As the action builds and accelerates, I found myself reading the last third of the novel at a fast clip, hardly able to put it down. Events sweep to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. This is a wonderful read, as beautiful and brutal as the first novel of the series, and with characters who may be even more emotionally compelling.
*I have a crush on Thuan, that sweet but badass dragon prince. His interactions with Asmodeus are delicious.
**Francoise and Berith are wonderful.
***Madeline really comes into her own. I confess that I found her viewpoint the least compelling in The House of Shattered Wings, but she captured my heart in this book.
And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe by Gwendoyn Kiste
I’ve been a fan of Gwendolyn Kiste since first discovering her dark fairy tale, “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray,” in the online pages of Shimmer. I was delighted to see her first collection debut this spring. Kiste has a gift for braiding darkness with beauty, for finding the arresting image and evocative line. There are fiercely retold fairy tales in this collection, creeping horrors, a science-fiction dystopia, and--amidst the darkness and fear--glimpses of freedom and light. “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” remains one of my personal favorites, but “The Tower Princesses” (which plays with the tale of Rapunzel and tropes of trapped princesses in a contemporary setting) tore at my heart. I loved the building tension in the science fictional “The Five-Day Summer Camp.” I loved the way Kiste depicts body horrors with beauty, as in her tale, “Skin Like Honey and Lace.” And I love her exploration of painful emotional truths, as in her concluding tale, “The Lazarus Bride.” Her stories vary in subject, but they are all united by her immediately compelling voice. If you like darkness and tension illuminated with gorgeous prose, this collection is for you.
Tender by Sofia Samatar
Oh, and where do I begin with Sofia Samatar? She is one of my writing heroes. Her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, have truly changed the way I approach my own writing (my review of The Winged Histories is here). But she is master of the short form, too, and it was through her short stories that I first found her. Her first collection, Tender, is everything I hoped for, and more.
Samatar has the ability to evoke entire worlds and character histories in a remarkably short space. The first story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers" (which was nominated for multiple awards) is a prime example of this. We never learn much of the narrator’s mother, or of the mother-daughter relationship; the mother is a yawning absence in the narrative as well as in the daughter’s heart. But we do feel that absence, reflected and refracted through the daughter’s relationship with another (emotionally) abandoned girl. The story deftly evokes whole emotional worlds through rich, carefully chosen details within its brief space. Samatar performs similar magic in tales such as “The Closest Thing to Animals” and “The Red Thread”—but in these cases suggesting entire science-fictional near-future worlds as well as character backgrounds.
Samatar’s stories range through space and time: there are stories set in contemporary America as well as historical pieces in America, Africa, and Vienna. There are stories set in rich secondary fantasy worlds, and stories set in the future. Samatar draws heavy inspiration from settings and histories in the Middle East and Africa, but she also draws from a myriad of other influences.
While most of these stories have been previously published, not all are easily available, and two of the longer stories appear here for the first time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” is gorgeous, strange, rich fantasy that becomes progressively more surreal. And “Fallow” is a heart-breaking novella of survival in a future colony on a distant planet.
While reading, I kept underlining phrases that struck me:
“There is enough cruelty in the world,” she told me softly, “to justify all the music ever made.” (“An Account of the Land of Witches”)
There is no end to writing, I think, no end to the project of rescue (“Fallow”)
These sentences are beautiful; Samatar’s prose is always beautiful. But I think these particular sentences also exemplify the humanity in Samatar’s work. There is the acknowledgement of human suffering, along with the acknowledgement of beauty and art. There is the concern with memory, stories, reclamation. “Fallow” is the longest story in the collection, and perhaps the most heartrending. It’s a slow, rich read that only gradually reveals the colony’s truth to the reader. And in its devastating last lines, it pays tribute to human endurance, to the decision to endure despite terrible and unavoidable loss.