What I've been reading
Azura Ghost, by Essa Hansen
Back in March, I read Azura Ghost, the second book of Essa Hansen’s Graven sci-fi space opera series. My review, in brief: I am really, really looking forward to book three.
I’m won’t dig much into plot—it picks up where the first book lets off (which I re-read and discussed back in Issue Four)—but there’s a few things I think I can safely note, like Hansen’s prose style, which remains an interesting sticking point for me. I like it, but I also recognize that it can feel a little texturally angular, like a chewy cookie topped with crunchy nacho chip bits. It slows me down, just a bit. (I mean this as praise, strangely.)
On the gibbering fanboy side, I remain enthralled with the universe(s) she continues to build. The core of the story is a familiar blend of adventure and drama and relationships and cool fight sequences and action set-pieces, but there’s a fine layer of abstraction and spirituality and strangeness that I’m not getting elsewhere at the moment.
I think I forgot to mention this in Issue Four, when I reread the first book of the trilogy: my first time through Nophek Gloss, I was a skitch concerned that there was a lot of untapped potential in the multiverse Hansen was creating; none of that bothered me, my second time through, earlier this year, my senses better tuned to what she was actually doing. (Chalk up a point for the value of a good re-read.) That said: she does raise the stakes in Ghost. The series is not a slow burn—the first book literally opens with the ending of a entire people’s way of life—but Hansen is clearly making cool choices about how she paces revelations.
As for the characters inhabiting these universes, the villains, in particular, I find complex, often, perhaps, sympathetic (he says, with a rising, multi-step question-mark tone on those closing syllables?). Through them, Hansen plays with ideas about power, and who has it, and where it comes from—just how much power power itself can have. To be clear, these folks do terrible stuff. And yet! There’s roots and nuance to their means and ends, doing things both with and because of their power. It makes for good dramatic tension; she kept me guessing, looking for more.
I’ve mentioned needing more space opera in my life. This series isn't filling the gap left behind by my beloved Expanse series and Protectorate series by James S. A. Corey and Megan E. O'Keefe; it's doing something else, its own, different thing. I’m glad it does.
The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks
I am a 44 year old nerd and I’m still relatively new to fantasy. It feels like something I read both from an interest in it—I like big quests, and I can not lie—but also from an interest in my interest in it. What makes me like this stuff? What am I looking for when I look for this stuff?
So I’m out here casting my net into the genre, somewhat consciously looking for both old-school and more contemporary stuff. Hence, The Sword of Shannara, the first book of Terry Brooks’s epic high fantasy series. I gather the original trilogy was partially responsible for popularizing fantasy as it exists today, and, I mean, Sword was fine—it definitely feels like I should have read it in high school, yeah, and yeah, it’s a bucket of Lord of the Rings paint splashed across the side of a speeding wizard van. Yeah, my brain slipped into cruise control for large swaths of it, which is, occasionally, nice. (I course correct pretty hard after this one.) I understand later books get better, in many regards (forget the Bechdel Test—the first book would barely get a dollar from Billy Eichner), which is good to know. I’m tentatively good for the next two books, I think. Sometime? I seem to be bad at following up even on some series I’m really excited for; I just finally ordered the rest of John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen series, which I started at the start of the year. Series, right? Series.
Fun fact: Brooks ended the forty-plus-year-old Shannara series late in 2020. I'm curious about the fantasy zeitgeist-y take on that. Did he end it well? Are people still paying attention? Does it matter? He’s ridiculously popular, right? And yet I sense little buzz around the series ending. Am I nuts for dipping into Shannara in 2022?
On Freedom, by Maggie Nelson
All that said, after 700 pages of not-Gandalf and the not-hobbits, I felt like I needed to crack open my skull and stick a defibrillator into my brain, so I finally started On Freedom, 200 pages of Maggie Nelson thinking, thinking real hard. If you see me on those streets, stand back: there may still be sparks shooting out of my eyes.
It’s been a long dang while since I’ve engaged with such rich, lengthy critical analysis, but Maggie Nelson is great, and the book never felt draining. I’ve read a handful of things by her over the last 20 years, ever since I first crushed hard on her after reading “A Misunderstanding” on Poetry Daily, way back when the Internet was still fun, hell, way back when I still read poetry on the regular (note to self: maybe actually try reading poetry again?), but this was a different mode from her than I’m accustomed to, and it took a spell to get the feel for it. Whether or not I even got up to its speed, I at least eventually felt like I was allowed to be in the room with it.
In this book, Nelson explores the idea of freedom, which is so much more than an eagle-flag-tear bumpersticker concept in her handling, through the lenses of art and sex and drugs and the environment. Each section felt a shade less opaque or intricate for me than the previous. Not that she built a cohesive, clarifying argument, brick by brick; this book is decidedly not reducible to a tweet, or even a hashtag buckle up Twitter thread. It’s more that I felt there were fewer angles of interest for her to approach each successive concept. Nor did every angle necessarily resonate for me. Nor should they! Nor need they! But, like, to pick on one example, if you pressed me on it, I’d struggle to adequately explain to you how she drew relevance between environmental collapse and queer criticism; it felt a little like bringing a basket of apples and oranges to a knife fight. Which is not to say that her reading of sexuality is less than engaging; her earlier discussions of art and sexuality are where I felt like she was most overflowing with considerations and connections, particularly in her ongoing interest in recognizing agency (freedom!) in and restoring it to individuals to whom it may otherwise have been elided or denied, which all in turn contributed to my (good, I think) feelings of bewilderment in the early sections of the book.
As a work of criticism, I’m astounded at the amount of material she synthesizes, here; you could spend years playing catch-up. (Or, well, I mean, I could.) I won’t even pretend like I’m beginning to do the book justice. I also realize in retrospect that I probably left a lot on the table by not reading through her endnotes—I think there was a lot more going on at the back of the book than I originally realized. Which is all to say the book is eminently suitable for study and discussion, without devolving into pure academic esotera; she brings in just enough autobiographical perspective to lighten the load and forge a connection with the reader. She's a deeply sympathetic reader, which I found quite refreshing.
If you read my previous issue (which was so long ago, now! I am so far behind on this!) you know I had some stro-o-o-ong feelings about two specific books in this year’s Tournament of Books. I promptly stopped paying attention once one of those books was booted out (boo) and the other of those books looked like it was going to run away with the Rooster (hiss). Suffice it to say, when I finally went back and checked the results, I was shaken. Sometimes, we can have nice things.
Cover reveal for N. K. Jemisin’s next book! (Interesting that it’s now noted as a “duology.” Am I wrong that it was originally a trilogy?)
I’ve never read Sheila Heti, as far as I can recall, but I listened to her recent episode of the Lit Up podcast. I do wrestle with the question of going negative in this newsletter, though by default, in challenging myself to write about every book I read this year, I know I’m going to veer that way, at times? Still, there’s a nice bit in the episode about how she explicitly does not want to go negative in writing about books or art. It’s nice to hear.
Jill Lepore, author of These Truths, a great book you would have witnessed me having a breakdown over in real time if I had been doing the newsletter last year, also has a fantastic podcast called The Last Archive. I’ve binged straight through season two. Everything really is awful! I’ve never so desperately needed a new season of a podcast before, as I do season three of this one, in which she is set to explore something radical: options, for where we go from here.