Category: Speculative Fiction

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan #2)

Cover image for A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781250186461

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles–this they name empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” –Tacitus, quoting Calgacus, Agricola 30

In the midst of a coup, Lsel Ambassador Mahit Dzmare made a desperate bid to save her people from being swallowed by Teixcalaan by pointing the empire’s military might at a larger threat. On the edge of Teixcalaanli space, an alien threat has begun swallowing ships and planets. They are impossibly fast, impeccably coordinated, and seemingly impossible to communicate with. Military efforts to track and fight them have largely failed, prompting Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus to send for a diplomatic envoy from the Ministry of Information to try another approach. Former cultural liaison Three Seagrass seizes this opportunity, and dispatches herself to the front, stopping on Lsel Station only long enough to pick up the disgraced Ambassador Dzmare. It is not without resentment that Mahit answers Teixcalaan’s call, even as she is fleeing a fraught political situation on Lsel Station. Together Mahit and Three Seagrass will have many challenges to overcome—personal and political—if they hope to bring peace to the empire in this sequel to A Memory Called Empire.

A Desolation Called Peace continues the adventures of familiar characters such as Three Seagrass and Mahit Dzmare, as well as making some additions to the cast. Two of the most interesting new characters are the general Nine Hibiscus, and especially her adjutant Twenty Cicada who belongs to one of the empire’s religious minorities. Efficient and loyal, Twenty Cicada nevertheless has an unusual perspective that makes him something of an outsider among Teixcalaanlitzlim. A Desolation Called Peace also provides an increased role for Eight Antidote—the 90% clone of former Emperor Six Direction—who is heir to Teixcalaan. Although he is young, the coup has caused him to begin to recognize the reality of his future role, and cautiously, experimentally exercise some of his power. He is poised on the edge of a knife, young enough that few people take him seriously, but powerful enough that perhaps they should be paying more attention to the future emperor of Teixcalaan.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are interludes from the perspective of the collective we of the alien hivemind. Arkady Martine executes these with a dab hand, conveying an eerie otherness that often made my skin prickle. These alien ringships have appeared on the edge of Teixcalaan’s territory, and threaten Lsel Station as well. The Lsel council sees an opportunity to break Teixcalaan against a powerful enemy in order to ensure their own continued independence. This is a dangerous game, and not one Mahit necessarily supports, even as one of the councillors charges her to sabotage Three Seagrass’s mission. The alien interludes are relatively short, but on the whole the novel is made up of large, meaty chapters, though the character point of view shifts within each section. Eight Antidote in particular keeps the reader abreast of what is happening back in the capital, even though most of the action takes place at the frontier.

A Desolation Called Peace is in many respects a first contact story; Mahit and Three Seagrass are charged with the unenviable task of finding a way to communicate with the aliens, whose spoken language takes an audible form that makes Teixcalaanlitzlim and Stationers alike physically ill to listen to. Together they seek a diplomatic path, albeit one Mahit has been charged to undermine. Even without Lsel interference, Fleet politics also threaten to overtake their diplomatic overtures. One of the ship captains under Nine Hibiscus’s command, Sixteen Moonrise, has her own agenda, and it does not involve peace with the alien threat. However, the story also interrogates an important question: what is the difference between a human, a barbarian, and an alien? Who decides? Mahit and Twenty Cicada are particularly important to this exploration, as they in many ways sit outside the standard idea of a human or a Teixcalaanlitzlim, at least until they are juxtaposed with the new hivemind.   

A Desolation Called Peace is a complicated sequel with as much nuance as the initial installment of this series. The ending was more hopeful than I expected, but still bittersweet. It is the kind of book that does not pass easily away after you finish reading it, but continues to haunt your thoughts long after the final page.

You might also like This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Top 5 Fiction 2021

Although I took a blogging hiatus for much of 2021, I was still reading. This year featured a lot of comfort (re)reads, an unexpected dive into the romance genre, and lots of science fiction and fantasy. Here are my top five fiction titles read or reviewed–but not necessarily published–in 2021. Check back next week for my top non-fiction picks!

Boyfriend Material

Cover image for Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

by Alexis Hall

ISBN 9781728206141

Boyfriend Material is a fake dating romance featuring Luc the unmitigated disaster and Oliver the polished barrister. Lucien O’Donnell works for an obscure environmental non-profit but his real problem is his D-list celebrity fame as the son of two estranged rock stars. When the paparazzi snaps a compromising photo, Luc is forced to do damage control with the charity’s stodgy donors; he needs to find a respectable date for the annual fundraiser. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a criminal defense lawyer who also needs a date for a big event—his parents’ upcoming ruby wedding anniversary garden party. The secret sauce of this romance is that under his polished exterior Oliver is, in his own way, just as much of a disaster as Luc, with a string of failed romances behind him and a tense relationship with his family. But their chaos is complimentary, which is perhaps why their mutual friend Bridget has been trying to set them up for years (though Luc insists it is because they are her only two gay friends). I liked this romance so much I read it not once but twice in the last year and enjoyed it just as much the second time through. I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Husband Material, due to be published in the summer of 2022!

Tags: Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ+

The Heart Principle

Cover image for The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

by Helen Hoang

ISBN 9780451490841

Anna Sun’s life seems to be in free-fall. After burning out in her musical career as violinist following an unexpected bout of YouTube fame, she feels adrift. Then her boyfriend tells her that he wants an open relationship before they decide if they should marry. Steeling her nerve, Anna decides that if her boyfriend is going to sleep around, she can too. And this time she won’t pick a man just because her family approves. The Heart Principle is the third in Helen Hoang’s series of romances featuring people with autism as heroines or love interests; the first was 2018’s The Kiss Quotient. The series is tied together, and love interest Quan Diep is the business partner of Michael Phan, the love interest from the first book. With his motorcycle and tattoos, Quan is nothing Anna’s parents would ever approve of, but when a crisis strikes in Anna’s family, Quan is there for her in ways that are more than she ever could have expected from a fling. In fact, it feels a lot like love. Unlike the other installments in the series, The Heart Principle is written in the first person, lending a heart-wrenching immediacy to Anna’s struggle with her burnout, paralyzing repetitive behaviours, and controlling family. Despite this darker element when I was generally turning to romance for heart-warming fluff, I absolutely ripped through this book, and it may be my favourite novel in the series.

Tags: Fiction, Romance

The Jasmine Throne

Cover image for The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538527

Tasha Suri’s first adult fantasy is dark political intrigue rife with magic. The Jasmine Throne employs a large and complex cast of characters with competing interests, and the point of view shifts frequently. However, the two central characters are Malini and Priya. Malini is a princess of Parijat, but she has been exiled to an outlying province by her brother the emperor for refusing to go willingly to the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods. Priya is a maidservant in the household of Ahiranya’s colonial governor, but once she was something more, a forbidden history that lies dormant and half-forgotten. When the exiled princess is imprison in the Hirana, Priya is among the members of the governor’s household sent to attend her and her jailer. Ahiranya chafes under Parijati rule, but the dissidents do not agree on how to regain autonomy. Ashok leads the guerilla rebels, while Bhumika, the governor’s Ahiranyi wife, has married the enemy to try to keep her people safe from the ravages of life under the thumb of the empire by more diplomatic means. These are subtle politics with no easy answers; everyone thinks that their way is the right way, that they alone have drawn the right lines in the sand. In the midst of all this, Malini and Priya are drawn into an unlikely romance, but is far from the centre of the story, which focuses around imperialism and colonial politics.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQ+

A Memory Called Empire

Cover image for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781529001587

It has been twenty years since Lsel Station sent an Ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, and fifteen years since that ambassador last visited home when suddenly the Emperor Six Direction demands a new Lsel Ambassador. Hurriedly implanted with the outdated imago-machine of her predecessor, Mahit Dzmare arrives at the heart of the empire to find that the former ambassador is dead, likely murdered. Guided by her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, and the shadow of Yskandr provided by his old, possibly sabotaged imago-machine, Mahit must uncover the truth even as Teixcalaan seethes on the edge of a succession crisis. The secret of the imago-machine may be Lsel Station’s salvation, or it’s undoing. A Memory Called Empire provides a unique and well-built world, and a mystery that is steeped in religion, politics, and technology crafted by a writer who knows what she is about—Martine has degrees in history, religion, and city planning. Teixcalaan is a pervasive military and cultural juggernaut with hints of both the Byzantine and Aztec empires, among others. The threat of cultural if not political assimilation looms constantly over Lsel Station. After studying Teixcalaanli language, literature, and history all her life Mahit finally gets to experience the culture she dreamed of, only to confront the fact that to the Teixcalaanlitzim, she will never be more than a barbarian.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

This is How You Lose the Time War

Cover image for This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either faction being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. To say I was obsessed with this book this year is an understatement; I read it twice through and listened to the excellent audiobook as well!

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

What were your favourite fiction reads during 2021? Any unexpected trends in your reading this year?

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Mini Reviews

Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Cover image for Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

by Sue Lynn Tan

ISBN 9780063031302

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

As the daughter of the moon goddess Chang’e, Xingyin grows up in exile, her very existence hidden from the vengeful Celestial Emperor and his court. When her existence is discovered, Xingyin must flee the moon palace, descending to the Celestial Realm to make her way alone. There she finds herself in an unexpected friendship with Liwei, a young man who turns out to be the son of her parents’ (im)mortal enemies. As Xingyin learns to harness her magic and serves the very Celestial Kingdom that banished her mother, she holds out hope that by proving herself in the Celestial army, she can win back her mother’s freedom. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is a mythical romance and adventure, in which Xingyin finds herself caught between Prince Liwei, who is promised to another, and Captain Wenzhi, a fellow soldier who has risen through the ranks from nothing. But though her heart pulls her in multiple directions, throughout Xingyin is bound to her familial legacy, hoping to free her mother, and learn her mortal father’s fate. Sue Lynn Tan draws on Chinese mythology in this first volume of the Celestial Kingdom duology, using the legend of Chang’e and Houyi as the basis for her debut novel.

Expected publication: January 11, 2022

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy tale retellings

The Jasmine Throne

Cover image for The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538527

Tasha Suri’s first adult fantasy is dark political intrigue rife with magic. The Jasmine Throne employs a large and complex cast of characters with competing interests, and the point of view shifts frequently. However, the two central characters are Malini and Priya. Malini is a princess of Parijat, but she has been exiled to an outlying province by her brother the emperor for refusing to go willingly to the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods. Priya is a maidservant in the household of Ahiranya’s colonial governor, but once she was something more, a forbidden history that lies dormant and half-forgotten. When the exiled princess is imprison in the Hirana, Priya is among the members of the governor’s household sent to attend her and her jailer. Ahiranya chafes under Parijati rule, but the dissidents do not agree on how to regain autonomy. Ashok leads the guerilla rebels, while Bhumika, the governor’s Ahiranyi wife, has married the enemy to try to keep her people safe from the ravages of life under the thumb of the empire by more diplomatic means. These are subtle politics with no easy answers; everyone thinks that their way is the right way, that they have drawn the right lines in the sand. In the midst of all this, Malini and Priya are drawn into an unlikely romance, but is far from the centre of the story, which focuses around imperialism and colonial politics. The Jasmine Throne is book one of the Burning Kingdoms series, with The Oleander Sword expected to be published in 2022.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQ+

A Memory Called Empire

Cover image for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781529001587

It has been twenty years since Lsel Station sent an Ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, and fifteen years since that ambassador last visited home when suddenly the Emperor Six Direction demands a new Lsel Ambassador. Hurriedly implanted with the outdated imago-machine of her predecessor, Mahit Dzmare arrives at the heart of the empire to find that the former ambassador is dead, likely murdered. Guided by her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, and the shadow of Yskandr provided by his old, possibly sabotaged imago-machine, Mahit must uncover the truth even as Teixcalaan seethes on the edge of a succession crisis. The secret of the imago-machine may be Lsel Station’s salvation, or it’s undoing. A Memory Called Empire provides a unique and well-built world, and a mystery that is steeped in religion, politics, and technology crafted by a writer who knows what she is about—Martine has degrees in history, religion, and city planning. Teixcalaan is a pervasive military and cultural juggernaut with hints of both the Byzantine and Aztec empires, among others. The threat of cultural if not political assimilation looms constantly over Lsel Station. After studying Teixcalaanli language, literature, and history all her life Mahit finally gets to experience the culture she dreamed of, only to confront the fact that to the Teixcalaanlitzim, she will never be more than a barbarian.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

Winter’s Orbit

Cover image for Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758835

On the eve of crucial intergalactic treaty negotiations, the Emperor of Iskat summons her erstwhile grandson and commands him to renew a marriage alliance with Thea after the unexpected death of Prince Taam. Without Taam, there is no sealed alliance between Iskat and the rebellious outlying planet of Thea, and so Kiem must step into his cousin’s shoes and marry his widower. Affable Prince Kiem and reserved Count Jainan make a political match at the emperor’s bidding, but neither is expecting the simmering sexual tension that complicates what should have been a straightforward arrangement. Jainan strives to do his duty to bind Thea to the Iskat empire, while Kiem tiptoes around Jainan’s loss, unsure of exactly how deep the relationship between Prince Taam and Jainan may or may not have been. However, Jainan and Kiem’s public relationship comes under scrutiny when Taam’s death is deemed suspicious, and Jainan is identified as a person of interest. A slowly unraveling political mystery paired with a series of revelations about Jainan’s relationship with his dead husband kept me invested despite the slow burn between Jainan and Kiem. Winter’s Orbit is currently billed as a standalone, but I would absolutely read more in this world.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

Iron Widow

Cover image for Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

by Xiran Jay Zhao

ISBN 9780735269941

“Maybe, if things were different, I could get used to this. Being cradled in his warmth and light. Being cherished. Being loved. But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.”

When Wu Ruyi volunteered for Huaxia’s military as a Chrysalis concubine-pilot, her near-certain death in battle against the alien Hunduns was supposed to buy a better life for her family back on the frontier. When a male pilot kills Ruyi before she ever sees battle, the family receives no money for a death in service, and suddenly the second daughter, Wu Zetian, is facing pressure to either enlist or marry to help her family’s position. But her jiejie’s death only fans the flame of Zetian’s rage against the system that sacrifices scores of girls, while the boys who are their counterparts in piloting the mechas are national heroes. Zetian hatches a plan to enlist in order to get close to Yang Guang, the pilot of the famous Nine-Tailed Fox, and take her revenge for the death of her sister. But Zetian’s plan goes awry when she is dragged into battle by Yang Guang before she ever gets the opportunity to kill him. Against all odds, Zetian emerges from the Nine-Tailed Fox an Iron Widow, the rare girl who is capable of killing the boy in the yang seat rather than dying in the yin seat herself. Instead of killing her, the military assigns Zetian to Li Shimin, a convicted murderer who killed his own family, and was only spared only because his unusually high spirit pressure made him a valuable but volatile military resource, much like Zetian herself.

Iron Widow takes place in Huaxia, a science fiction setting that draws inspiration from ancient China. Huaxia hunkers behind the Great Wall, a defensive perimeter guarded by the Chrysalises in order to keep the alien Hunduns at bay. Many characters draw on famous historical figures in this science fiction context, including Wu Zetian herself, who takes her name from the Tang dynasty figure who was the only woman to ever rule China as emperor. However, the vibes here are much more mecha anime than historical fantasy, and the main body of the story follows Zetian and Shimin as they become the most powerful and most reviled pilot pair in Huaxia.

While being a fast-paced science fiction adventure, Iron Widow also reflects significantly on patriarchy and on how women can be complicit in the systems that oppress them. Zetian clashes with her fellow pilots from the moment she enters training. She encounters jealousy from the other new recruits because she has a high spirit pressure reading, and she is immediately assigned the rank of “consort” rather than “concubine.” Zetian also receives a less than warm welcome from some of the Iron Princesses, the elite women pilots who are part of a rare “balanced match” that means they are less likely to die in battle. Zetian has been subjected to foot binding, and her feet were broken and bound by her own grandmother to improve her marriageability. Every step she takes is painful, and the presence or absence of this pain becomes the way that she recognizes whether she is in reality, or the dreamlike mind-realm of piloting a Chrysalis.

Although piloting a Chrysalis involves a gender-based system derived from principles in Chinese medicine, Xiran Jay Zhao signals early on that they are not here to reinforce the gender binary. Rather, the entirety of Iron Widow is about questioning these divisions. Early in the novel, Zetian is in the woods with her friend Gao Yizhi—a rich city boy with whom she has formed a secret and unlikely bond—they see a butterfly with an unusual colour pattern. Yizhi has been teaching Zetian to look up information on his tablet—a device that is only permitted to men—and through this research she discovers that “biological sex has all sorts of variations in nature.” This lays the groundwork for Zetian to question the entire piloting system. Nor is this the only way in which Iron Widow is unusual; after setting up both Yizhi and Shimin as potential love interests, rather than rivalry the novel sees the three taking tentative steps into a polyamorous triad which notably does not just focus on Zetian but also develops the relationship between Yizhi and Shimin.

Over the course of the narrative, Zetian begins to move past the idea of personal revenge and turns her eyes towards the system that enabled her sister’s death. As she discovers the power to pilot she begins to feel responsible not just for avenging her jiejie, but for the lives of all the girls that will die if nothing changes. But she still doesn’t have the full picture of the world they are operating in, as is made clear by two important revelations that result from the battle to retake Zhou province from the Hunduns at the climax of the book. This new information sets the stage for Zetian, Yizhi, and Shimin to rock the very foundations of Huaxia in the untitled sequel expected to be published in 2022.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

One Last Stop

Cover image for One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

by Casey McQuiston

ISBN 9781250244499

“August looks at her as the train reverses past Gravesend rooftops, this girl out of time, the same face and body and hair and smile that took August’s life by the shoulders in January and shook. And she can’t believe Jane had the nerve, the audacity, to become the one thing August can’t resist: a mystery.”

Leaving her eccentric mother behind in New Orleans, August Landry moves to New York in search of a new start, a city where she might actually fit, and a new college where she might finally finish her degree. A childhood spent helping her mother try to solve the cold case of Suzette Landry’s missing brother and August’s namesake has left her wary and mistrustful, and New York seems like just the kind of place for a girl like her. But then August meets a beautiful, charming, mysterious woman on her subway commute. With her tattoos, leather jacket, and old-school Walkman, Jane Su looks like a 70s punk rock dream. But as August gets to know her she realizes that somehow—impossibly—Jane is literally trapped out of time, having become stuck on the Q subway line in the mid-1970s. Suddenly, the investigative skills August learned at her mother’s knee are more relevant than ever, even as she tries to keep herself from falling for the impossible girl on the train while also figuring out where she came from and how to get her home.

August is a prickly and mistrustful protagonist, carefully guarding her heart and cultivating her cynicism. We learn over the course of the book how she came to be that way, from her complex relationship with her mother to her nearly non-existent relationship with her grandparents. However, her opening up begins not with meeting her love interest Jane but when she moves into the crowded old apartment above the Popeye’s with Myla, Niko, and Wes. If you love a good found family story, this book delivers. August becomes part of their chosen family, and it is this as much as anything that begins to open her up to the possibility of being in love with Jane, even if it takes her a while to admit to her feelings. Falling in love with someone who might not be entirely real, who might disappear at any moment, is a fundamentally vulnerable act.

The subplot of the book focuses on Billy’s Pancake House, where August gets a job, and where Jane used to work back when it opened in 1976. As Brooklyn gentrifies and rent rises, the beloved diner is in danger of going out of business, but the community rallies together to try to raise the necessary funds to help Billy buy the building when he can’t get a loan. If the friends August meets in her new apartment become her found family, Billy’s is about the larger community into which they fit, and McQuiston slips in bits of history about New York and its queer community.

In terms of genre, One Last Stop is modern romance with a touch of the paranormal. Jane is stuck out of time on the train, and is capable of various feats that should be impossible, but she is fully corporeal and definitely not dead (per se). Additionally, August’s roommate Niko is a psychic, adding another touch of magic to the largely normal world in which the story is set. New York is otherwise New York as we know it. Content warnings for the book are available on the author’s site.

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

“It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction.”

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends?

The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. Between the exchanges lurks the Seeker, a mysterious figure that seems to be tracking Red and Blue’s correspondence, yet not betraying it to either the Commandant or Garden. They work opposite sides of the same missions, and spend other years never crossing paths, but always there is another letter, another conflict, another battle to be won or lost. Both sides are beautifully written—Red by Max Gladstone, and Blue by Amal El-Mohtar—so that while it was a relatively short read, I spent quite a lot of time on it, just luxuriating in the distinct voices and the beautiful prose.

This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either side being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. There are relatively few other significant characters, though both agents come face to face with the heads of their respective factions at critical junctures. They both work largely alone, and while they may embed themselves in a single strand of history for a while, it inevitably comes time to move on to the next mission. They become the singular most consistent point in one another’s lives, even as they never interact directly, always keeping their distance, ever mindful of being watched by their respective commanders.

The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Both Red and Blue have unique traits that make them especially good agents, but also set them slightly apart from their fellows. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. While they are naturally competitive, their romance slowly wins out over rivalry until they are forced into a final confrontation. The ending is hopeful, but as loosely defined as the time war itself, and the worlds of Agency and Garden, leaving the reader free to imagine what they will.

Canada Reads Along 2021: Hench

Cover image for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschotsby Natalie Zina Walschots

ISBN 9780062978578

“Doc Proton told me, ‘You make your own nemesis.’ I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was one of those things a rambling old hero said to sound wise. But it’s been absolutely true. Every evil, every great power that has ever risen to challenge me, every arch villain who’s ever been an actual threat, was someone whose path I altered. I set our enmity in motion every time. A tiny action can cause an avalanche.”

Anna Tromedlov is a hench. She does data entry and analysis for supervillains to pay the bills, and keep food on the table, making the trek down to the Agency for her next gig whenever the money runs out. She prefers to work from home, office work if she must, but never, ever field work. When she gets a new gig with a villain known as the Electric Eel, she thinks her temping days are done. Instead she finds herself pulled into the field, where a catastrophic encounter with a superhero known as Supercollider shatters her body. During her long recovery, Anna begins to wonder how many others like her have been harmed or disabled by the devastating overresponse of heroes. Using her talent for data analysis, she runs the numbers and starts the Injury Report, a blog where she calculates the cost of life and money caused by heroes. The math does not come out in their favour; they do more harm than good. When her work catches the eye of Leviathan—the biggest supervillain of them all and the arch nemesis of the hero who hurt her—Anna finds herself with a new gig using data to take down heroes in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie and marveled at the collateral damage wreaked by a battle in the middle of downtown Manhattan, to both bystanders and property, you will probably be fascinated by Hench. When we meet Anna, she is just a temp, taking any data entry job that she can get her hands on. Positions that play to her strengths, pay her bills, and keep her out of the field, where things can get really dangerous. After all Anna doesn’t have any superpowers, let alone invulnerability. Her talent lies in data analysis, and the power of a good spreadsheet to bring the world into focus. During her one trip into the field, she suffers both physical trauma and long-term anxiety as a result of her injury at the hands of Supercollider, and becomes hyper-fixated on calculating the cost of the damages superheroes cause to society.

Hench paints the world in shades of grey, arguing that the main difference between superheroes and supervillains is good marketing, and their perceived alignment with the institutions of society. Much of the book is about the mundanity of evil, in addition to the fallibility of heroes. Anna lives a surprisingly normal looking life for much of the book, going on dates, hanging out with her best friend, dealing with coworkers and office politics. She hires and trains new employees, fights and makes up with her best friend, loses out on a date because of the nature of her job. Sometimes she grits her teeth and does things that make her feel squeamish, and other times she acts with the righteous fury of an avenger who knows that the math supports her actions. What she never asks is whether she, or anyone else, should have the right to make those decisions at all.

In most respects, the world of Hench is entirely recognizable and mundane outside of the superhero system. Much of this world building happens very peripherally, and over the course of the book we learn that children are tested at the beginning and end of puberty for signs of superpowers, and those who are identified must join the Draft, becoming a superhero, or face being labelled a villain. Walschots has left the ending of this book open enough that there is definitely room for a sequel, and my hope for a follow up would be that it delves more into this system and the institutions that make superheroes and villains in the first place.

Hench was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and was one of two genre fiction novels brought to the table this year along with The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was defended by Rosey Edeh and eliminated on Day Two. Throughout the week, Lee repeatedly urged readers and his fellow panelists to look beneath the surface, and not dismiss Hench simply because it was a book about superheroes and villains. He praised the book for being subversive and inclusive, but also fun to read, arguing that this would make it accessible to audiences while also asking them to think about issues of power, accountability and collateral damage, and who gets a free pass in our society.

Scott Helman was one of the earliest panelists to critique Hench back on Day One of the debates, citing its moral relativism and nihilism as reasons that he struggled to connect with the book. It was clear that a sense of hope, uplift, or reconciliation was something he was looking for in order to be transported. Lee’s counterargument was that Hench leaves it to the reader to mull over the complexities of good and evil rather than offering easy answers. Roger Mooking also pointed out that Hench is a book that rejects easy binaries.

Day Three of the debates focused around questions about resilience, trauma, and accessibility of the texts, as well as which book most effectively expanded the panelists’ understanding of an experience different from their own. Olympian Rosey Edeh admired the way Hench took readers inside the experience of a person who had both an agile mind and a physical disability, illustrating the resilience of Anna’s character. The panelists also got into a bit of a sidetrack about the nicheness of superheroes, and whether that premise would be alienating for some readers, or if the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually signal that this concept has broad appeal and accessibility to audiences.

When the ballots were counted, Roger Mooking cast the sole vote against Jonny Appleseed, while Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread. Rosey Edeh and Scott Helman voted against Hench. The vote came to a tie for the second day in a row, with the tie breaking vote going to the panelist who did not vote for either of the books that were part of the tie. As the defender of Butter Honey Pig Bread, Roger Mooking naturally voted against Hench, making it the third book eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2021? Start here!

Canada Reads Along 2021: The Midnight Bargain

Cover image for The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polkby C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781645660071

“Beatrice didn’t want to hear what she would have if she were a man. She didn’t want to be a man. She wanted to be a magician.”

In Chasland, magic is the realm of men. Among women, only widows and crones can pursue the arcane arts. Married women are locked into warding collars that shield them from magic in order to prevent spirits from possessing their unborn children. Problematic daughters may be collared even before their weddings. Young women with magical talent are valued only as the mothers of the next generation of male magicians. Each year brings bargaining season, when the ingénues descend on Bendleton for a series of balls, parties, and marriage negotiations. Beatrice Clayborn is about to make her debut in desperate bid to save her family from desperate financial straits, but in her heart she would prefer to pursue life as a magician, even if it means being called a thornback. At the beginning of bargaining season, Beatrice finds a grimoire in a bookshop that may hold the key to making the greater bargain with a spirit and staving off marriage forever. But the book is taken from under her by the wealthy heiress Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe, who have traveled from Llanandras for bargaining season. Ysbeta is as desperate as Beatrice for a solution to the marriage problem, but she will need Beatrice’s help to decode the grimoire.

Ysbeta and Ianthe come from Llanandras, a country with a more liberal policy towards women and magic; women are only shielded during their pregnancies. Nevertheless, their mother has brought Ysbeta to the Chasland marriage mart in hopes of brokering an advantageous alliance for their trading company, regardless of the cost to her daughter personally. Ysbeta would prefer to remain unwed, and as she and Beatrice get to know one another, it becomes clear that her plans for the future involve neither marriage nor children. Beatrice, by contrast, dreams of a world where she can have it all, while her younger sister Harriet has made her magic small in order to focus on her own future bargaining season. I appreciated that the book showed women with a variety of dreams for the future, and centered their right to make that choice for themselves rather than positioning a single outcome as the ideal. Although the book is currently a standalone, I would absolutely read a follow up from Ysbeta’s perspective.

In addition to marriage, The Midnight Bargain also explores the conflicts between women created by the patriarchal system they live under. Beatrice’s own sister betrays some of her secrets to their parents when she believes something bad may have happened to her, only to unleash a worse punishment. When Beatrice and Ysbeta seek help from a network of women magicians, the power wielded by their families and the potential backlash of aiding the escape of two ingénues is deemed too risky for the rest of the network. Both girls are facing potential betrayal by their own mothers, who are shepherding their daughters towards a terrible future. I was particularly curious to know more about Beatrice’s mother, who makes some difficult choices in the course of the narrative that show she is not entirely at peace with her situation despite outward appearances. I particularly liked that Beatrice and Ysbeta became allies rather than rivals, even though their alliance is often an uneasy one since their aims are sometimes at odds.

Ianthe is Beatrice’s love interest, and a more tolerant and liberal-minded young man that she is used to meeting with. For the first time, marriage doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable; Ianthe listens to her ideas and would clearly allow her more freedom than her mother has ever enjoyed. In some ways, however, this complicates the narrative. Beatrice would be free to hate a husband she took only to save her family. If she managed to make the greater bargain with a spirit and become a fully-fledged magician, she would never regret passing up the chance to wed any of the local men. Ianthe represents a compromise she must decide if she can make without coming to hate him, or herself. C.L. Polk adds depth to their relationship by acknowledging the sacrifice Beatrice would still be making in marrying Ianthe; though he might seem the obvious choice, it would still represent a loss of Beatrice’s freedom and self-determination to place the key to her collar in his hands.

The Midnight Bargain was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh. She touted her selection as an immersive narrative appropriate for a wide range of readers, and also highlighted the fast pacing and linear narrative as benefits in a time when many of us are stressed and distracted. However, she also urged readers to look to the complexity beneath the surface, for a story about race, magic, complex friendships, and self-determination. The book has a subversive undercurrent that might initially be missed beneath the romance, magic, and world building, creating a richly layered story.

Day Two of the debates opened a round table format that allowed each defender a one minute opening statement, followed by a discussion of their books by the other panelists. Each defender was then given a thirty second closing before the votes were cast. The Midnight Bargain first came under fire from Devery Jacobs, who also spoke against the book on Day One. She argued that the book had some problems with repetition that made her feel like the author was spoon feeding her. Edeh’s rebuttal focused on the importance of repetition and reinforcement in a journey of the mind where the character is setting herself against society in order to achieve what everyone says is an impossible goal.

Roger Mooking’s criticism of the book focused more on the believability of the fact that Beatrice would give up the grimoire to Ysbeta in the bookshop, the inciting incident for the entire narrative. He felt that this was implausible, while Edeh argued that this moment, in addition to setting up the conflict, is a powerful illustration of Beatrice’s social training, the very thing that she needs to overcome in order to reach her goal. She is keenly aware of the problems her actions may cause her family, and also of the power imbalance between the Clayborns and the Lavans in terms of both their wealth and their station in society. That she concedes in this moment both kicks off the story, and provides an important act of world-building while helping us understand her character.

When the time came to cast the ballots, Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against The Midnight Bargain, with Lee citing the fact that he felt it was the type of story he had read many times before. Devery Jacobs had also voted against the book on Day One. Both Rosey Edeh and Roger Mooking cast their votes against Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, creating a tie between two books. Scott Helman, who initially voted against Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, was called in to be the tie breaker. Helman was a free agent today after the elimination of his pick, Two Trees Make a Forest, on Day One. Citing the fact that he became a little bit tired with the Regency aspect, and the wealth of the characters, he elected to eliminate The Midnight Bargain, making it the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2021.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho