Alone

A Big5+ review: The Invisible World of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab.

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wistful, melancholy stroll through the life of a perpetually young woman.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 442

Publisher: Tor Books

From the publisher: France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

I had a hard time reading this book.

No, it has absolutely nothing to do with V.E. Schwab’s writing style, which is some of the most elegant writing I’ve read. She manages the balance between explicit and implicit, decorative and spare in a way that makes her books a pleasure to read. Not only that, her exercise of her craft never makes you feel as though she’s self-conscious of her mastery, like a master cook making a simple classic perfectly (yes, I just finished the season of GBBO).

She will not remember the stories themselves, but will recall the way he tells them; the words feel smooth as rivers stones, and she wonders if he tells these stories when he is alone, if he carries on, talking to Maxine in this easy, gentle way. Wonders if he tells stories to the wood as he is working it. Or if they are just for her.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

No, it wasn’t just the melancholy that pervades much of the book, although that was what I told myself when I broke off and read three other books from when I started The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and when I ended it. Granted, I didn’t realize that The Fifth Season would be such a kick to the solar plexis, and The Salt Fields punched over its weight class, but, even so, neither of these books got under my skin the way The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue did.

The words ache, even as she thinks them, the game giving way to want, a thing too genuine, too dangerous. And so, even in her imagination, she guides the conversation back to safer roads.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

The problem was the shape of the melancholy in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. The Fifth Season and The Salt Fields both included tragedies that have touched on my life, and had I known that, I might have avoided them, but those reads were still important for the paths to understanding they offer. However, in both reads, the oppression that girds those stories is one I can get enraged and shamed and indignant about, and rail against the inhumanity that shapes that pain, but it is not a pain that I, in my more privileged status, have often experienced, and certainly not one that shaped me from childhood.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was an extended view of a more personal type of pain, that of the perpetual outsider. It resonated far more with my own psychological pain, and, thus, was much more uncomfortable for me. It’s not an uncommon type of pain among those of us prone to depression. I felt this book like an ache in the bones.

There is a rhythm to moving through the world alone. You discover what you can and cannot live without, the simple necessities and small goys that define a life.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

So as I took up the book for the final siege, at about 80% (thanks for nothing, Kindle) of the way through, Schwab’s skillful foreshadowing kept ratcheting up the tension I don’t usually experience in a non-horror, non-thriller book, a book someone described as “slice-of-life,” a description that doesn’t work for me because I experience those as more impersonal.

I was so tense even talking about it I couldn’t relax enough to turn that prior sentence into shorter ones. I kept taking breaks, checking Twitter and Discord to relieve that tension. How was this story going to resolve in a way I wouldn’t be crushed?

However, my initial response upon finishing the book was “Well played, Ms. Schwab, well played.” Poor endings often have a devastating effect on how you feel about a story; here, the satisfying ending had the effect of retroactively soothing me.

Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives—or to find strength in a very long one.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Someone on Twitter asked last night “Why do you read?” My response was that it’s the closest thing you’ll get to a mind meld—that it lets you see the world from someone else’s perspective. But the more honest response would be, to paraphrase the words William Nicholson put into the mouth of C.S. Lewis, I read to know I’m not alone.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue did not give me that in the same way, because I over-identified with the theme of the perpetual outsider. But it gave me something else: a heroine with courage and intelligence, someone that a perpetual outsider can look at with admiration. Someone that gives you hope.

Diversifying the voices in our heads

Inspired by Shut Up, Shealeas post on Diversity 101

I’ve always loved fiction that takes me other places, whether other times, cultures, or realities, so looking to include diversity seems a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you want fresh voices?

Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, and actively promoting diverse reading is required to help broaden our understanding of the human experience. It’s incumbent on those of us with white CIS hetero Protestant privilege to be good allies.

Shealea of Shut Up, Shealea posted an amazing primer on diverse reading, giving a call to action as well as definitions and suggested readings.

The larger call for diversity is a call for equal accessibility and opportunity for stories about marginalized lives *and* a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in.

Shealea, Shut Up, Shealea

Since I’m not in the publishing industry, anything I can do is indirect. I’d read awhile ago that self-publishing was one of the ways to help promote voices that aren’t getting taken up by traditional publishers. As long as we’re a capitalist system, the main way to create diversity is to make it a market demand. Buying, borrowing, and talking about those books is important.

If you’re an author considering self-publishing, promoting diversity can also mean affirmatively seeking out diversity in those doing the editing, cover art, layout, e-book formatting, etc. Now sometimes that’s tough—people have to self-identify first, as you don’t want to ask “Excuse me, are you nonwhite, non-Western, disabled, neurodiverse, or LGBTQA+?”

One of the people who helped me think about the question of representation in literature is Ian Hancock, a Romani linguist and activist. He pointed out was that the Romani, still frequently referred to as gypsies (considered pejorative by most Roma), lost the same percentage of their population as the Jews, but the Porajmos, as Hancock and other activists refer to the Romani share of the Holocaust, is not spoken of as often. Part of that is because the absolute number of Jews is much higher.

Hancock and others also point to the differences between the populations. The Roma have been systematically oppressed for generations, and are poor and largely illiterate, as opposed to the Jews, who have also been systematically oppressed, but are largely literate. As a result, there is no mindset for record-keeping, nor, as Hancock has put it, a Romani elite.

For him, it was necessary to have a percentage of Romani who became well educated to have representatives whose speech would be respected by the dominant Western white cultures. It’s kind of like the concept popularized by W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth.

Although there are controversies about some of Hancock’s opinions, the salient point is this: Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters. The Romani experience of the Holocaust illustrates that. The sheer number of deaths suffered by the Romani was not enough to raise awareness of the Porajmos; authors were needed to bring that forward. There is no diary by a young Romani girl; there is no parallel to Night by Eli Wiesenthal.

Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters.

As literacy grows, the barriers should be lower for those underrepresented voices to express themselves in ways that others can read and empathize with. It shouldn’t be about an elite—it should be available to help pave the way for people of all types to “live their best life,” to use a cliche. That doesn’t happen, though, without conscious thought, because the powers that be are still overrepresented in every aspect of publishing.

So it’s incumbent on all of us to read diversely and to demand diverse voices in our books, and to promote those voices. However, as an ally and reviewer, I’m sometimes in a bind—I’m not an authority on any of the experiences of these communities, but I’m passing my admittedly subjective judgment on books. My goal is to look at the writing as writing when looking at books by members of those communities—not addressing the validity of the experience so much as how well it is communicated to an outsider.

However, it’s trickier when it comes to characters from those communities. Who am I to pass judgment on the authenticity of the characters, particularly if there’s no overt self-identification by the author? Again, I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to the experts in the community. I won’t spot them all as I don’t have that finely honed sensitivity one gets about their own issues, but I feel that when a book starts rubbing me the wrong way about its depiction of a person of color or a LGBTQ character, then I should point it out.

I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Because, of course, even members of any of these communities will have different perspectives on their experiences which will shape their feelings about the characters in question. Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Shealea posed two great questions that stopped me because I rarely think of casual or nonreaders in this context, despite their existence in my immediate sphere:

  • How can you encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
  • Do you think that accessibility plays a large role in a person’s ability to read diversely?

The second issue is probably easier—yes, there is so much noise out there that finding diverse novels takes more effort than simply picking up whatever is on a rack in the drug store.

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

As to the first question: Is it a matter of providing “gateway” books (like comics or graphic novels)* by underrepresented communities to places where people are more likely to pick up a book? Or has the ubiquity of cell phones crowded out the possibility of someone picking up print places where we used to: doctor’s offices, hospitals, garages, or anyplace else where you’re trapped waiting on someone else?

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

If you’re ready to read, go to Shut Up, Shealea and find a book to broaden your frame of reference. Or, if you’ve exhausted her list, or need some other places to check out, try some of these sites:

Comments much appreciated!

(Many thanks to S., Fabienne, and HermitCrone for their assistance in helping me think through this post; however, no blame attaches to them for opinions expressed herein.)

* Not meaning any disrespect to comics and graphic novels, but they seem to be less intimidating that walls of words.

Train ride to the precipice

The Salt Fields by Stacy D. Flood

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella-length character study of a Black man during his transition from a life full of tragedy in South Carolina to an uncertain future up north.

Post WWII

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 128

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Publication date: 3/9/2021

Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss

From the publisher: On the day that Minister Peters boards a train from South Carolina heading north, he has nothing left but ghosts: the ghost of his murdered wife, the ghost of his drowned daughter, the ghosts of his father and his grandmother and the people who disappeared from his town without trace or explanation.

This beautifully written novella is a close study of the interior life of a man who has had to compartmentalize all his various tragedies. Some are particular to him; some are sadly endemic to being a southern Black man in 1947.

Some things we lose should be irreplaceable, and the thorns of the past or the future should always pierce the skin.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

If you want plot, there’s not going to be much for you; it’s a ridealong with the protagonist on a train ride from his lifelong home along the South Carolina coast toward the promised(ish) land of the north. He’s not even sure of his destination—just away from the ghosts that haunt his days.

I was longing to pass the time until the train until the train until the train actually moved us away, as if, at any moment, a cop or spirit or storm could come and trap us here in a pile of bruises or thick mud or regret.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The book resonates with a regret that Minister can’t quite articulate, although his observations of the world around him are acute. This is a rational man trying to deal with an irrational world, and his coping style is one of dissociation, to the detriment of himself and those he loves.

Mass graves didn’t surprise us. We believed in horror, and horrible men.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The style is elliptical at times, where the meanings of the interactions must be guessed at. Minister will tell you, in this first person account, of his interactions, of the facts, of what may be seen, but not always what is meant.

But I suspected it wasn’t just one thing, one argument, one slight, one memory, one word. We’re human beings. It rarely is one thing.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The other characters are deftly drawn: the disillusioned former soldier, the hyperactive man-of-the-world, and the elegant woman with an agenda. The protagonist only spends a short time with them, but they affect the remainder of his life in a way that’s surprising, given the tragedies that he endured before he met them.

An affecting, wistful, and tragic story of a life of alienation and of the consequences of choice, The Salt Fields may haunt you with its ghosts.


Sins of the past

The Jade Tiger by E.W. Cooper

r/suggestmeabook: I want a Prohibition era mystery with a woman who’s trying to escape her past.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 276

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Review copy courtesy of BookSirens

From the publisher: NEW YORK, OCTOBER 1928. The Big Apple teems with the glitter of Bright Young Things, Prohibition, and scofflaws-the perfect place for Penelope Harris to start her life over.

Reading the blurb, I thought the book would be more of a historical fiction, but if I’d paid attention to the cover, I’d have realized it was more of a mystery with a historical setting. The period was nicely evoked, though, with judiciously chosen details about New York City just as prohibition started, much about the alcohol itself, but also of the clothes, attitudes, and decor.

This was one of those books that was almost really good, but missed on a few fronts. First, the main characters, Penelope and Lund, were not as fully developed as I would have preferred. I was mostly supposed to empathize with them for extrinsic factors, such as Penelope’s attempts to avoid the press because they kept exposing her to public scrutiny, rather than really developing the characters.

Guests passed the windows in groups, laughing, talking. He wondered if he would see Penelope there, in a moment or two. Dancing past on another man’s arm. The quick pull of regret made him certain it had been a mistake.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The second problem I had with the story was the unnecessary switches of points of view. As I’ve said before, multiple points of view are tricky. For example, there was really little reason to include the point of view of the police officer McCain. I can only think of one scene in retrospect that couldn’t have been shown from one of the other protagonists, an argument between McCain and his supervisor about the course of the investigation, but that didn’t add enough to the book to justify the jarring nature of that additional POV.

A small clutch of guests stood near the radio without turning to take note, their laughter a little too loud, their drinking just a little too messy. That’s where Renee would be, all right—in the middle of everything, at the center of the music, where the chaos always began.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The mystery itself was more of a justification to expose the “Big Secret” that Penelope is trying to conceal than a traditional murder mystery. The “Big Secret,” when completely disclosed, is a bit anticlimactic because of the multiple retellings, diminishing the impact as each additional detail is exposed.

Last, too much of the characterization deals with things told rather than shown. Most characters are described by summarized stories of their past, rather than seeing them act in the present.

However, the plotting is good, and the writing evokes the period well, so I would expect to see books I’d like better from E.W. Cooper in the future.

Anything you can do, I can do better

A Boldly Daring Scheme by Lynn Messina

r/suggestmeabook: I want a frothy Regency mystery tinged with romance told by a female protagonist coming to grips with her own shortcomings.

Regency cozy mystery

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 263

Publisher: Potatoworks Press

Series: Beatrice Hyde-Clare Mysteries

From the publisher: Finally, Flora Hyde-Clare has wrest the narrative from Beatrice by finding her own compelling murder mystery to solve. Well, it’s not entirely her own because the victim is her cousin’s former beau.

As usual, Lynn Messina delivers. I’m pretty sure you could read this, the seventh in the series, without having read the others, as the protagonist is, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, the cousin of the Beatrice for whom the series is named.

Flora’s voice is different than that of Beatrice, upon which Messina should be congratulated. Beatrice, much more self-aware, would not make the kinds of accidentally funny comments that Flora does.

To be caught—gasp!—breathing hard was really beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. Mama might as well pack up my things and send me back to Sussex in disgrace.

Lynn Messina, A Boldly Daring Scheme

She could be unsympathetic, with her overweening concern for her standing in the ton and her desire for a particular red dress, but she is beginning to interrogate her own attitudes and actions which helps overcome the moments of small mindedness. She’s flawed, but redeemable.

Men can be so prickly in matters involving their integrity, for they are always so concerned about how others perceive them. They worry about appearing caddish more than acting caddish.

Lynn Messina, A Boldly Daring Scheme

The novel follows the usual formula of the woman trying to act independently in a world that won’t allow her to, requiring the intervention of an amused and charmed male, but that’s part of the joy of these books. There are times when a little security, a little romance, and a little formula is just the comfort read you need, and Messina excels at granting that bit of ease.

Fear and loathing in the Stillness

A Big5+ review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a gut-wrenching tale of the end of a world that has enslaved its most powerful magicians.

Apocalyptic climate fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 378

Publisher: Orbit

From the publisher: This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

You probably already know all this, but some of us are perpetually late.

The Fifth Season is of those reads where you’re so blown away you can hardly form the words to discuss it immediately after finishing. It’s searing and beautiful and tragic. I’m sure a fictional world has affected me like this before, but I can’t think of one. It’s more like after the first time I saw Schindler’s List, where the horror, strength, and beauty of humanity so potently mixed.

Essun, a mother who has tried so hard to live among the stills (the normies or muggles of this reality), is reeling from unspeakable tragedy. Damala, a young girl whose world has been shattered by her unexpected power, is betrayed by bigotry allayed with fear. Syenite, a young woman who has scrabbled for each jot of dignity, who is ordered to do something all her work should have exempted her from, but her talent is too precious to waste.

The world building is exceptional, mortared stone by stone. The characters are fully realized. The magic functions in a coherent way. The world is true to itself–none of those moments where you are pulled out of the story by internal inconsistency.

And it does what fantasy and science fiction are uniquely suited for: it holds up our societal ills in a way that enhances our view of reality through carefully planned fiction. The Fifth Season illuminates the realities of ignoring our environment as well as the cruelty of an oppression which masks itself as protection, but does it so artfully that you are compelled to keep reading through to the conclusion.

An amazing, emotional read, but not for the faint of heart. Will I read the two remaining books in the trilogy? I am equal parts desire and fear.

#FridayFlashbook: This Is How You Lose the Time War

A bookblogger roundup on a book that’s been around

Many thanks to Gary Mitchelhill of Rapidsnap at Deviant Art for the banner picture!

On Fridays, I’m going to be sharing reviews on a book on my TBR that I keep hearing about. Today, it’s the widely admired epistolary novella published by Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) that shows up frequently on r/fantasy, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War. Today’s roundup includes a thumbs down, which I’d generally prefer to do. Reviews are in alphabetical order—the audiobook review is last.

Before We Go Blog

An analysis supported by quotes. Ryan Howse is often very funny, although you can’t necessarily tell from this particular review.

Some people have said there’s not enough plot in this book, but I disagree. It’s just that the plot is essentially a romantic drama with science fictional conceits mixed in. The last act of the book does start putting the screws to the characters after their relationship has been built up, but it’s not a nail-biting thrill ride because that’s never what this book was about.

Ryan Howse, “Review – This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone,” Before We Go Blog

The Fantasy Inn

A brief, but evocative, rave.

From the moment Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone announced they were co-writing a novella, it immediately became one of my most anticipated SFF releases. I was dying to get this book, blurb unseen – because with these two authors, there was no doubt it would be amazing. And weird.

Sharade, “This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar et Max Gladstone,” The Fantasy Inn

The Thirteenth Shelf

A clever critique in the form of a letter. Review includes “Notable Aspects,” rating, and a TL;DR section.

How I wish, so fervently, to rise like Lazarus from the yawning depths of my shelves, that I may reach you before you sail downstream to the thread of future wherein you chance upon, This Is How You Lose The Time War. Though under the glittering constellations of my own beloved worlds, I still long to be your vanguard of yet unseen worlds, to carry once more the banner of warning upon which I break both time and heart.

Rin, “Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone,The Thirteenth Shelf

Tiny Navajo Reads

An audiobook review; narration by Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller.

 I honestly didn’t realize it was written by two authors until I started listening to it. I could hear the differences between the two letter writers and when they were read aloud, I could image Red and Blue indulging in their letters to each other, letters that are forbidden, letters that acknowledge there are differences in the other side, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.

Ashley, “Tiny Navajo Listens: This Is How You Lose the Time War,” Tiny Navajo Reads

Someday I’ll get through that TBR and have a chance to review it myself—I’m not sure I’ll like it, as I’m generally not a fan of epistolary fiction, but it seems like I really need to have checked out to be able to call myself a fantasy bookblogger.

Happy Friday!

The unassuming heroines of Jeju Island

Prepublication review of The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

r/suggestmeabook: I want an elegy for Jeju in the aftermath of WWII with memorable characters and hints of the fantastic.

Post WWII

Movie rating: R

Pages: 241

Publisher: Alcove Press

Publication date: 12/8/2020

From the publisher: In the aftermath of World War II, Goh Junja is a girl just coming into her own. She is the latest successful deep sea diver in a family of strong haenyeo. Confident she is a woman now, Junja urges her mother to allow her to make the Goh family’s annual trip to Mt. Halla, where they trade abalone and other sea delicacies for pork.

At the beginning of this tale, I was expecting it to be like lovely The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, and thought, “Oh, dear. See did such a great job of evoking the world of the Haenyeo that I’m going to spend the whole novel comparing them.”

The dawn sky was inky, but their eyes were accustomed to the darker pitch of the ocean. They navigated the shadows, bare feet steering.

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

Thankfully, that was not the case. Instead, it supplements an understanding of the period from different points of view, along with Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. These novels together give multiple points of entry into a time that the West (or at least America) knows little about.

When the gods go to war, the old woman warned, men always followed in kind.

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” and the view of the prelude of that war from Jeju, as portrayed by Sumi Hahn, is one which Americans would be well advised to learn about. No, we’re not heroes. Yes, we should be aware of the ways in which we have failed as a nation.

Dong Min frowned. “But aren’t we supposed to be the good guys?” The Lieutenant took off his glasses to clean them. He held them up to the light before putting them back on. “That’s the lie politicians feed soldiers to do their dirty work.”

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The characters are wonderful in this book; I fell in love with many of them. Junja reaching for womanhood, her grandmother trying to restore the legacy of her family from before the Japanese occupation, Suwol dreaming of a different life than tradition would saddle him with, Constable Lee searching for the food his mother used to make—each one eases into your heart, as quietly as the tide.

Suwol stopped walking. “Did you know that people in America don’t have to draw or pump their water? All they do is twist a metal handle, and water flows right into their homes.”

Junja tried to imagine such a device, but could not fathom how it would work without flooding the house.

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The insight into the spirituality of the Jeju women was quite taking. Be warned: ghosts, sea kings, dreams, portents—they all reside on this island. Even the origin story of the island is mystic. Shaman are respected here.

Their minister visited Junja’s village often, trying to convince everyone that the Christian God was more powerful than all the gods of Korea combined. “My grandmother says that anyone with a lick of sense would not allow a foreign god to meddle here.”

Sumi Hahn, The Mermaid from Jeju

The writing seemed a bit uneven in places. Early in the book, the sentences felt choppy and staccato, but as the story progressed, that sense of quick and unsettling movement smoothed out. But since the content of the book is a movement from naivete to knowledge, I can see how form echoes content, but I found it took me a little longer to get into than I think it would have otherwise. It was a distraction rather than an enhancement.

This is the first book where I’ve thought about a content warning. The beginning of the book is pastoral and feels like it’s going to be a coming of age story, but it pivots rather quickly from that narrative. There are some rough scenes in this book that are dictated by the reality of the Korean War period, and some of them come on you without much warning. However, overall, there is a lot of foreshadowing.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending, as it felt as though it petered out rather than having the same vigor as the story up until then. However, it was not a big enough issue to ruin the book for me, as some endings have in the past.

All in all, The Mermaid from Jeju is a worthwhile read, with some heart-rending moments and admirable sacrifices, an elegy for Jeju as it was, with some wistful attempts at redemption.

Advance Review Copy provided by NetGalley.

Gold fever meets hubris

A review of The Serpent and the Eagle by Edward Rickford

r/suggestmeabook: I want a docudrama showing the start of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés.

La Conquista

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 248

Publisher: Black Acorn Literary Press

Book 1 of Tenochtitlan Trilogy

From the publisher: Tenochtitlan, 1519. Strange, pale-skinned people have arrived on the coast of the One World. They hail from a far away land called Spain and fight for the mysterious Hernando Cortés. To confront Cortés’ army would be dangerous, but inaction may be even more dangerous.

Multiple points of view are difficult to manage well. First, there’s the problem of giving each character enough story that the reader remembers each one as the viewpoints are swapped out. Then, there’s the problem of making at least some of them sympathetic, although not all readers require that.

The Spaniards did not seem that different from the Mexica. Both did unspeakable things in the name of their beliefs, both prided themselves on might militaries, and both had only recently carved out a place for themselves in the world—yet neither had let this stop them from becoming a dominant power. A vast ocean had separated these kindred people for ages but they were finally reunited…and she suspected the union would be bloody.

Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

I’m a reader that does need to like at least one of the characters enough to look forward to seeing them each time they show up. At best, I was mildly sympathetic to two of them, both slaves of the Spaniards. But one, the Moor, is a supporting player, not one of the primary points of view, and the other, a female slave of the Pontons, doesn’t appear until almost a third of the way in. Since it’s difficult to make either the Aztecs or the Spaniards likeable, those two outsiders were the ones most likely to be sympathetic; I really wanted more of both of them.

“Maybe they can let the gods know it is most difficult to keep favor with our vassals when we insist upon more tribute.”

Motecuhzoma, Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

With what the author is trying to do, show a rounded picture of the Conquest, multiple points of view makes sense. However, even though the book descriptions sounds as though it will be primarily from the point of view of the Aztecs, it’s very weighted to the Spaniards, making it harder to keep track of the Aztec characters.

Cortés’ face soured as if he had consumed curdled milk. “Our people will never have to fear the Moors again. The have learned their place and from now on, they will grovel before us.”

Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

Overall, character issues plague the book, which, to me, is the essence of good historical fiction. The plot is somewhat predetermined, except where creativity is exercised within the holes in our knowledge. It’s the characterization that makes the difference–being able to imagine ourselves into that milieu and understand what made everyone behave the ways they do.

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking you were doing battle with the Sultan’s finest troops, though. Your enemy today had no cannons, no guns, no crossbows. You also had surprise on your side today. That may not be true the next time.”

Solomon, Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

The choices of characters to do that are quite good: a New Christian (a Jewish convert to Catholicism), the highest ranking general of the Mexica Confederach and sometime advisor to Motecuhzoma, a female slave from the region, and a former captive of the Yokot’an. However, the character development is lacking; we are given one or two characteristics or life story highlights to stand in for a deeper understanding of each.

But some of the characterizations are puzzling. There is the intermittent poor grammar of some, which I suppose is to indicate less educated characters, but it doesn’t seem to have a pattern and is patchy enough to just be distracting. I’m guessing the intent was to make it not conform to a particular English dialect, but, at first, I thought the incidents were proofing errors.

The soldier looked at him askance. “You mean this your first battling outside the Old World.”

To Vitale, Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

The opening chapter is a good introduction to some of the attitudes that will pervade the book. Aguilar, the priest and former captive, has been approached by Cortés, and it’s very clear that they feel a God-given superiority to the “Indians” and have no compunctions about plundering them.

The snake was dormant at the moment, but he knew it could not remain so. A snake did not wait; it lay in wait.

Edward Rickford, The Serpent and the Eagle

My first thought was, “Well, I almost choked on the first chapter of A Man Called Ove, but ended up loving it.” Sadly, I didn’t have the same experience here.

It’s clear that Edward Rickford thoroughly researched his subject, but, regrettably, this strikes me as a competently written docudrama, where the author doesn’t want to let the story get in the way of a good history.

Awards season, indies, and the tyranny of numbers

the ides of indies, a recurring discussion of indie publishing matters

Let’s talk about awards season and how indies have been faring in fiction. as well as the state of inclusiveness for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.* Kirkus Prize and the World Fantasy Awards have already announced their winners, Goodreads is in semifinal voting, National Book Awards will announce their winners on 11/18/2020, and the Booker Prize will be announced on 11/19/2020. I got award fever, so I’ll announce the Bibliostatic 2020 Year of Doom awards at the end (going to have to rethink that name—open to suggestions).

After we hear from the president of the academy and the PriceWaterhouse guys, there’ll be awards: Most inclusive award, Most indie friendly award, Sole SP award and much, much more!

But first, the analysis. I got out my handy spread sheets and did a whale of a lot of cut and paste as well as some heavy Googling (sounds like a weird sex act, but never mind). I’m sure errors have crept in, but I wanted to share what I’d learned. And, yes, I realize, it’s not a scientific sampling, but it’s still interesting.

Quick note on the data: I only took the Goodreads data from the semifinals for fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The Kirkus Prize was based on fiction nominees only. The Booker Prize information is from the longlist. For determining POC and LGBTQ+, I looked at the authors and protagonists as described in the summaries, and at the shelves on Goodreads. This is probably the part most subject for debate, because I have no idea what criteria was used for shelving.

83% of the nominations, unsurprisingly, are Big5 publications.

Not surprisingly, the Big 5 dominated the awards overall. Of 94 nominations, constituted of 90 separate books, the Big 5 took a respectable 83% (or 78 nominations) through all their various imprints. Sometimes it’s like following pirate maps to figure out which are Big 5. During my first run at researching, I thought Bookouture and Sourcebooks Landmarks were independent publishers, and congratulated them on being the only indies nominated in the Goodreads Mystery category.

Turns out, Bookouture used to be an indie, but was acquired by Hachette a few years ago. The founder was a former Harlequin marketing guy, but the website doesn’t have anything that would make you think it’s a Hachette subsidiary. It’s not until you do a little digging that you find Hachette is the parent company. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed about that tweet now.

Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, says it’s an independent publisher on its about page. Seems straightforward. As you, a seasoned reader will have guessed, it’s a little more complicated. Penguin Random House has a 45% ownership share in Sourcebooks. Is it then still an indie? Sourcebooks says yes; I’m not convinced, and I’m moving them to the Big 5 pile.

I just can’t bring myself to call Amazon’s imprints indie publications.

Then there’s Amazon. Not one of the traditional Big 5, but it’s hard to argue it’s an indie when it’s bringing in cash for book sales comparable to those hoary veterans: a whopping $5.25 BILLION compared to Simon & Schuster’s measly $830 million. (I’ll take that version of measly, please.) Granted, Amazon’s not making even most of that wad of cash from their own imprints, and it may not be quite the same kind of conglomerate as the Big 5, but it smells more like a Big 5.5, so its nominations are counted with those guys.

Genre fiction was a minority among the non-genre awards. Only a dystopia and a few arguably crime novels were nominated. Genres don’t get no respect.

And I have to talk about Shuggie Bain, and not in terms of its content. Shuggie Bain is listed as a publication of Grove Press in most awards—except the Booker Prize, which lists Picador, an imprint tracing back to Macmillan. So which one is it? Well, the novel is published in the US and Canada by Grove Press, but by Macmillan in Commonwealth countries.

That wasn’t terribly helpful to me when I was trying to decide what bucket to put it in, so I decided to look at the publication dates. Voilà! Picador/Macmillan: August 6, 2020. Grove Press: October 13, 2020. The widely recognized Shuggie Bain goes into the Big 5 pile. What a disappointment!

Follow the money.

Why do the Big 5 get so many more nominations? If you look at the total number of titles released in a year (around , they only publish around a third of all the different books published in the US each year, over 30,000 titles of the estimated 2.2 million worldwide and over 100,000 in the US alone. Oddly enough, when you look at the total sales, though, the market share of the Big 5 is (drumroll, please) 80%, fairly close to that of their nominations. Together, they make over $7 billion each year.

So, of course, they have the pull to get more attention for their books (and to make it pretty and neat). If you’ve tried self-publishing (or even book blogging), you’ll know that the challenge is being heard over all the noise. The Big 5 (and Amazon) have air horns and rock concert sound equipment. They’ll get heard.

There’s a world of difference between Grim Oak Press with its $6 million annual sales and Bloomsbury Publishing with nearly $214 million, right?

But how does that play out among indies? There’s Bloomsbury Publishing, home of Harry Potter, with the wealth that series brought, and then there are others that make far less than the million dollar magic goal. Grim Oak Press and Bloomsbury are both semi-finalists in the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Awards, along with lonely Hidden Gnome Press, Will Wight’s self-publishing alter ego. What are their chances against the other 17 books? I’m really asking; I’m no good at calculating odds—where are C-3PO or Spock when you need them?

Similarly, people of color and other traditionally underserved populations (what do you think of that euphemism?) are fighting that entrenched policy of racism and other nasty -isms. Money, power, elite…you get the picture.

Mystery, do better.

Overall, a rather surprising 35% of the titles (a total of 32) were either authored by and/or had a character in the novel that was a POC; LGBTQ+ rated 17% representation (total of 15). The standout for least inclusiveness was Goodread’s Mystery category, with no LGBTQ+ and only one Black protagonist written by the only Black author from the 20 titles in the semifinals. Interestingly, Mystery was the only group of nominees that had zero indie publishers.

And the winners are…

Award for the most nominations for a single book: Go, Douglas Stuart and his Shuggie Bain, nominated for four different prizes: Goodreads Historical Fiction category, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Honorable mention to James McBride for Deacon King Kong, which received nominations from both Goodreads Historical Fiction category and the Kirkus Prize.

Award for double appearance by single author: Jim Butcher appears twice in the Goodreads Fantasy category. Butcher’s double appearance was a result of the publisher splitting the intended single novel into two halves, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, because of the total length, to much muttering and grumbling among fans of the Dresden Files.

Award for only self-published: Will Wight is in the room, ladies and gentleman, and he brought his own damn self with Wintersteel.

Award for the greediest Big 5: Okay, perhaps I should say “most successful.” I’ll give you a hint: Unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of the Big 5. Yep, Penguin comes out on top with 28 nominations. Then there’s nearly a three-way tie: Macmillan and Hachette with 13 and HarperCollins with 12. Simon & Schuster, what the hell happened? You only got 4.

Award for most titles nominated from a single indie publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (do you see my surprised face?) takes this home with four titles: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas and Piranesi by Susanna Clark in the Goodreads Fantasy category and Apeirogon by Colum McCann and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid on the longlist for the Booker Prize.

Award for smallest of the presses to receive a nomination: Scrappy Tin House Books, whose annual revenue is an order of magnitude away from the next closest traditional indie publisher, has a nominee for the National Book Award, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

Award for most inclusive genre: Hello, Historical Fiction—13 total titles over more than one awarding group with either a POC character and/or author and/or LGBTQ+ characters. (I”ll give you a minute to sort out that sentence; suggested rewrites welcomed in the comment section below.) However, Fantasy had the most titles with both POCs and LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors.

Award for managing to avoid any indie nominees: We have a tie for the big fat goose egg. The Goodread’s Mystery category included all of the Big 5 plus Amazon, but no indies. The World Fantasy Awards listed books from Redhook, Orbit (both Hachette imprints), Tor.com (Macmillan), and Pantheon (Penguin Random Books). The tie-breaker: the award will go to the one which had the most total opportunities to include an indie. Congratulations, Goodread’s Mystery category, for your second raspberry, since you failed to include one indie among the 20 choices. (And, no, your own imprint doesn’t count.)

Award for most inclusive Award: Kirkus Prize, which only had one nominee that wasn’t either a POC or LGBTQ+ and awarded the prize to Raven Leilani for Luster. Yeah, it’s Macmillan book, but whatcha gonna do?

Award for the Award with the most nominations for indie publishers: Although several got up to 4 indie published nominations, only one had a significant percentage of them: Kirkus Prize, which nominated a striking 2/3 (or that annoying 66.66%) of its list from indie publishers. That would be more significant if it weren’t for the fact that Kirkus makes its money from reviewing books ($425-$575 a pop) and book editing ($500 minimum), and there’s potentially a huge indie market for them.


Although I had fun with this, the takeaway was all too depressing: $$=respect. Damn.

*Or whatever term you prefer; as a straight, CIS, white woman I don’t and shouldn’t have any preference, but can’t determine what the consensus is at the moment.