What I've been reading
Age of Ash, by Daniel Abraham
Age of Ash is the first book of a new fantasy trilogy by Daniel Abraham, who is one half of the duo behind the pseudonymous James S. A. Corey, author of the now-complete nine-book Expanse science fiction series. I love the Expanse; I figured the least I could do to thank Abraham for co-writing those books would be to keep reading his stuff, and while I wait for the next books from the Corey partnership, I was curious to see where Abraham would go next on his own.
The story takes place over the course of a single year in the city of Kithamar, with a primary focus on on Alys, a commoner and a thief. Thanks to a heist gone wrong, she stumbles into mysteries well outside her usual station in life. Kithamar is a city with old roots and an independent spirit, formed by the uneasy merging of conflicting, class-conscious cultures. While the core mystery of the book takes us to the upper echelons of society, there’s little high-court intrigue here. Even as (or perhaps because) Abraham spends the most time with Alys and others eking out lives in the grimiest areas of the city, I admit to feeling that the main cultures that formed Kithamar once upon a time were never quite explored or differentiated enough for me to feel convinced by them; maybe future volumes will expand on this side of the world's lore. But I think that's a quibble against the large and lived-in feel of the city itself, a diverse and complex place in a way that feels like a natural extension of the solar-system spanning Expanse series, like a stew reduced to a smaller pot; here, crossing a bridge across the river that divides the city can feel, for its characters, as critical as floating a space ship through a wormhole gate.
All in, this was a fun read, easy but substantial, one that, not incidentally, felt complete. While it’s clearly the first book of a trilogy, with critical threads left oddly dangling by the end, the primary action of this story is resolved by the end, which is a refreshing approach from this kind of book, where most things I read or am interested in these days feel like extended segments of longer sagas. I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of this series takes shape.
The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan
When I re-read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad earlier this year, I think I said that I like it fine but don't love it. I'm not head-over-heels for her take on the novel-in-stories mode. It’s interesting, sure, but I’m not sure the stories cohere for me into the most interesting portrait; it's neither quite the novel I crave, nor the subversion of convention I anticipate.
I stand by that deeply lukewarm take, after having read The Candy House, which, whatever the woo-woo language the marketing around it used, is a direct sequel to Goon Squad. But, seeing how Egan uses House to further develop out her world into an alternate-future vision through which she lightly interrogates our contemporary social media landscape…I think I need her to keep going. I need her to go trilogy, here. Or maybe to even keep piling up books set in this world, to go forward and backward in time until there’s hundreds of stories set here, connecting and intertwining in an escalatingly byzantine fashion. I want one of those if-you-know-you-know "Name&Name&Name" shirts with like seven or eight hundred names running&running&running all the way down it. Then I want to take those books and I want to cut all the stories out and I want to shuffle them and read them out of order and I want to see what happens, what strange connections chance might create. Maybe what I actually needed the most from the first book’s pointillism was more of it.
Which is all to say that if I thought the first book was a notch over-rated, I think maybe this one is a notch under-rated, and while I'm not in a rush to go back to them, I do kind of also want to read them back-to-back, just to see. Maybe there's a breakthrough around the bend.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Having read Eileen earlier this year I got the Ottessa Moshfegh bug and have loosely committed to reading everything she’s written. Next up was her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the story of an incredibly sad woman who maybe doesn't realize just how sad she is when she decides to go full Prescription Sleeping Beauty.
I liked this book; it probably shouldn't have worked, as an experiment in nearly unplottable story-telling, but she kept me hooked through to the end. There's a twisted, dark sense of humor here, one more overt than whatever mild undercurrent may have rippled beneath the surface of Eileen. It made me laugh out loud more than once, which surprised me, and then made me feel more and more uncomfortable, as I realized where the novel was going, and what Moshfegh was up to with it. Not quite cringe, but definite squirm.
I believe this book became a bit of a sleeper (ahem) hit during the height of the pandemic. Makes sense! Still, I perhaps preferred the creepier, gothier tone of Eileen, to this one's slightly more abstract, conceptual mode. Not to go full-on tautology here, but, this felt like a second book—the next step of a writer whose evolution I'm more than happy to follow.
Gold Diggers, by Sanjena Sathian
First time I'm doing this this year, but I'm writing about this book out of order, because the books I read on either side of it—issues 14 and 15, to come!—are the kinds to which I must give space. Tacking this book onto either of those issues would feel unfair.
Gold Diggers, by Sanjena Sathian, is a story focused on Indian-American social expectations. Neil is a high schooler growing up under the weight of both familial and cultural pressure to achieve. Thanks to his long-standing and unrequited crush on his neighbor Anita, he gets caught up in the consumption of a magical lemonade that—via stolen gold—saps the energy of others in order to enhance one's own drive and accomplishment.
For as much as I liked the social novel aspects of the story, and its focus on the experience of an immigrant culture and all the pressure and baggage that comes with that, the book's plot felt frustratingly uninteresting to me. There's a tragic turn midway through the story that was genuinely affecting; for a while it had me thinking I was dealing with a well-executed unlikeable narrator, which held my attention through to the back half of the book. But all that felt like it was offset by an awkward late-novel heist sequence—perhaps meant to be humorous, but to me, souringly dull—and some discordant turns of character that felt like electric pre-storm air dissipating without a single lightning strike. I'm not one-hundred percent sure I know where I wanted the novel to go, but it wasn't where it went.
But, but, but, as a social novel, there's a lot going on here, which makes it worth checking out, if that interests you. The book spoke to me from a similar space as Minae Mizumura's An I-Novel, in how it probed into the impact and pressure of American culture on those perceptively outside it. And while I don't know enough about the concept of generational trauma to discuss it, or maybe even identify it, I do wonder if there's a certain degree of that going on here, too; if nothing else, it's safe to say the influence of generations upon each other is strong in the book.
It's not that Egan went all that hard-core sci-fi in House—the conceit of memory capture, upload, and sharing is an interesting but basic what-if parallel to the conscious sharing we do via social media—but it's enough to make things interesting, and it did make me wonder what her full-on sci-fi epic would look like. She proved in Manhattan Beach that she can take us to evocative, unknowable places; what would her Solaris look like? I'd read the heck out of that.
Part of my issue with the Egan books is just me, of course. I don't read much short stuff. I'm bad at reading story or essay collections. And I know she's doing this other thing with these books, but as a reader, as me, as deeply flawed reader me, reading these books starts to feel a bit less like fun and a bit more like work. I'm looking for that perfect balance, and I'm not finding it here.
I'm interested in how most of the primary characters of Age of Ash are women. I want to know if he did a good job with that; it felt to me like a conscious choice and an interesting choice on his part, and it felt like he pulled it off well enough, without the book being explicitly about gender, at least to my semi-aware reading of it.
Molly Templeton wrote about Age of Ash on Tor.com better than I wrote about it here. If she's right about how the three books all take place over the same year then there's an interesting thing happening here that parallels what Marlon James is doing with his Dark Star trilogy. While also being wildly and completely different. I'm intrigued.
Sanjena Sathian wrote about autofiction for The Drift. I like her take, here.
"Not quite cringe, but definite squirm" makes me, well...cringe. Sigh. If I ever find my newsletter editor, I'm definitely going to fire that guy.