I loved this. A fat slab of a book with pages to keep me deep in the story for days. Enough of a story that me — being out of practice with reading lately — couldn’t keep straight all the characters and peoples and factions and histories. The last novel I read like this was Saladin Ahmed’s brilliant Throne of the Crescent Moon, which seems very unlikely to be getting a sequel, as he’s off doing mad words for comics these days — which, for anyone who remembers his long Twitter dives into Golden Age comics, is probably his true home anyway.
Cairo, Djinn, the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, the Amu Darya, Afghanistan, East Turkestan (yes, I know that last one is awkward), Islamicate worlds where Europe sits far on the fringe, barely mentioned beyond the first chapter where it is already an “away, over there”. This was one on my list, along with a number of other authors, as part of an irregular, waxing and waning effort to read science-fiction and fantasy by non-Anglo-American women and non-binary authors. As usual, no idea where I first saw it, possibly the monthly New Reading list on io9, or maybe on the Twit. Well, I failed with the non- bit, cos S.A. is a white cisgender USA-ian.
I read G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen a few years ago, and (from memory) thought it slipped into awkward orientalism, and there’s a tendency for white converts to Islam (I kinda prefer to say ‘returning to’, but for the Anglo-American lot ‘convert’ is more apt) to be hella strict in going for Arabic, Sunni derivatives, like that’s the only Islam there is, and wrapping themselves up in a holier-than-thou Hijab. Fam, Islam don’t gotta be like that. S.A. doesn’t rock a hijab. Truth, when I saw her name, I thought, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and I live for the day that one ever writes sci-fi or fantasy.
S.A. spent time in Cairo, has done the study, speaks clearly about understanding her place as a white American woman writing Islamic fantasy and history, and her acknowledgements were filled with names that would know what she’s writing about. All that, plus interviews I’ve read with her, plus just how she wrote this story before I knew all these details, I believed it. It brings me a small joy for a story to begin with such unremarkable inclusion of Adhan call to Fajr (that’s the call to dawn prayer, or Sabah namazı), to have Islam so fundamental to a story — not as signifier of whatever white culture wants to denigrate, but a mundane thing which is lived in the world daily. It’s her debut, and frankly a banger, so I’m going to refrain right here from the usual high-class and bourgie criticism-ing I do — except please print it on better paper stock, she deserves so much better. Oh! And it’s the first of a trilogy. I’ll probably have read this again before the second part comes out.
I’ve been reading Charles Stross’ The Merchant Princes series since — I think — when I was in Zürich and had run out of available Iain (M.) Banks, and read Stross’ Accelerando, Singularity Sky, and Iron Sunrise, all of which predates when I started blogging about what I was reading. The original six-book series had definitely “Fantasy 4 Chicks” covers, and even by the standard of that mid-’00s cover-art genre was pretty awful. Nonetheless, nothing left to read and apparently it was the same Charles Stross, so off I went down that lot, the first two or three anyway — the last wasn’t published until I was safely back in Europe and living in Berlin.
And then they got a reprint and rewrite, turning the six into three, making those three the first half of a six-part series, with cover-art safe enough for The Menz who make up a large part of Stross’ readership. Empire Games was the first of the continuing trilogy, book 4 in the series, released early-2017; Dark State came out at the beginning of this year. Obviously I still buy Stross, pre-order even, but I haven’t enjoyed much since 2013’s Neptune’s Brood, the sequel to Saturn’s Children, largely because he’s been devoting the majority of writing time to his Laundry Files series, which he really needs to retire, but probably won’t cos it’s mad popular.
I’m not really in the “write 3000 words on every book you read” mode lately, so, yeah, solid but unremarkable middle book of the second trilogy. A lot of things happen, but primarily as set-up for the next and final novel, so nothing much gets resolved. Stuff happens in Berlin too, which, as Onyx said to me when I was blabbing about J.K. Simmons (aka Schillinger Tenzin — I swear knowing the Nazi from Oz is also the Airbender Tenzin messes with my head) in Counterpart, “The last thing I need to do it watch shows set in Berlin, talk about trigger warning. It’s like looking at an ex-girlfriend’s facebook.” Me: “They do ‘moody post-wall reimagining of 70’s Berlin noir spy thriller’ and I’m all oooosexy! and ‘Berlin why u not treat me like that?’” I just find something a bit off and troubling in his work these days, and not just the egregious stuff like when he played a trans woman for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks. When I first read this series, and Iron Sunrise and Singularity Sky, as well as some of his later books, I felt like him writing women was really believable, like he got it. These days it feels like he’s loudly blabbing queer and trans and brown women characters (including one in this novel who throws on a hijab to ‘pass’ as a Turkish woman in Berlin while on the run) but all I see is a white man. I keep reading him though, familiar but oh so problematic.
Two years of riding on Shimano PD-M540 pedals and the axles are destroyed. I seem to wear out bike parts like a grinder. And after my entire clipless pedal life being on Shimano, I decided to swap to crankbrothers. Which means I need to re-cleat my shoes. And need new shoes. My bike. Such a vacuum for money. But who cares? Let’s all enjoy the sublime engineering of a yet to be unboxed pair of Candy 3 pedals.
Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.