Harrow the Ninth

Well… Tasmyn Muir delivered. For the prior book in the series, Gideon the Ninth, I ragged on the lack of a promised “weird” story. The frequently mentioned, quick description of “lesbian necromancers in space” seemed to not quite check all the boxes. Well I’m happy to report that Harrow the Ninth is weird. And oh my, is it weird in such a good way. There’s also lesbian necromancers and they’re actually in space!

I liked the first book just fine. I had a few complaints, but it was a good read. The sequel was a ride. Unreliable narration, a chronologically shuffled story, weird reality bending plot devices, disgusting body horror magic. All that and we get to follow a great character as the protagonist.

If you do read Gideon the Ninth, quickly follow it up with Harrow. You’ll be just as confused as you were for most of the first book, but how the theories in your head will build, shatter, and build again. It was a great read.

Gideon the Ninth

Diablo IV necromancers in space.

There’s this constant cicada-esque buzz around this book. It’s weird. It’s lesbian necromancers in space. It’s if Diablo IV’s necromancers (you know, blood, bones, and gross stuff) were the ruling class of a galactic empire. I did not expect this mashup of dark fantasy and sci-fi to be goofy. I also did not expect half the book to be a murder mystery. Despite the hype and wayward marketing, I enjoyed the book.

On first opening the book you are greeted by pages of dramatis personae. Pages of inscrutable names and titles like Harrowhark Nonagesimus, heir to the House of the Ninth, Reverend Daughter of Drearburh. Thoroughly disheartened and preparing for some real serious fantasy (and even more mysterious proper nouns), I was fairly shocked to meet Gideon, the titular protagonist. Expecting self-serious high fantasy, Gideon’s goofy attitude and modern humor was not what I expected from the book. Sure we get a big fat gothic fantasy burger, but it is embedded with that contrasting, but strangely delicious peanut butter flavor that Gideon provides (yes, burgers with peanut butter are incredible). Gideon is a plucky, foul mouthed, irreverent member of a cult inhabiting a small cold planet. The first sentence of the book tells you that in her planned escape, the three things she packed were her sword, shoes, and her dirty magazines. I was initially off put by Gideon’s goofiness. It felt out of place. I didn’t find her quips funny, but they didn’t exactly bother me either. Over the course of the book I grew to appreciate her and her silly, Michael Scott quoting self.

The book starts slow, with Gideon’s attempted escape from the Ninth House (that cult I mentioned), introducing Harrow, the heir of said cult. From birth, Harrow has tormented Gideon and she does a wonderful job at helping the reader to dislike her as well. Once the book is on its way, we follow Gideon and Harrow as they hang around an ancient haunted castle with all the other necromancer twenty-somethings in the solar system.

I liked several of the characters, but boy, even by the end of the book I was confused on who was who. Yes, each character has a fantastical name like Silas Octakiseron, but they also have titles, nicknames, and and house names. When you think you have one character’s name down, they are then be referred to by any of their other names. I guess those dramatis personae pages are there for a reason, though I don’t think a book should make a reader frequently refer to them. There’s this persistent mist of confusion throughout the book. Some of that confusion is intended, as we’re reading Gideon’s perspective, who has no clue what is happening around her. Apart from Gideon’s perspective and the naming issues, more confusion came from a semi-frequent feeling that I had accidentally skipped a page. It occurred maybe three times, but those three times felt noticeable enough that I went back and re-read bits to make sure I really hadn’t skipped anything.

Despite the confusion, I enjoyed Tamsyn Muir’s world. A galactic empire run by necromancers rules. The fact that there is a necromancer upper class and one faction of that class dresses like goth skeletons is hilarious, and the book knows it. Gideon talks about how dumb it is frequently and I love it. Muir is incredibly creative. I enjoyed the evolving, volitle relationship between Gideon and Harrow. I loved following Gideon around that strange, dilapidated castle meeting the other guests. Discovering hidden rooms and strange facilities. I loved so many of the weird little lines Muir gave to Gideon:

The violet of her eyes was dried-up flowers; her mouth was the color and softness of rocks.

Things were happening too much.

She kept looking at Gideon with the screw-ed up eyes of someone who had been handed an egg for safekeeping and was surrounded by egg-hunting snakes.

He gave the impression of being the guy fun sought out for death.

The man who’d put the sword to her neck was uncomfortably buff. He had upsetting biceps. He didn’t look healthy; he looked like a collection of lemons in a sack.

Lesbian necromancers in space. That’s all technically true, but not what I took away from the book. A character or two might be lesbian, but I wouldn’t say it’s a core part of the story. It fills in the picture, rounds out Gideon. In space? I mean, they talk about other planets a bit, They do travel through space for a couple pages, but most of the book takes place in one location. That tagline is eye catching marketing, but the book is more than the tagline while also not quite having much to do with it at all.

I enjoyed my time with the Gideon and Harrow. Despite some confusion. Despite some Calvin Ball with the murder mystery. Despite the initial off-putting goofiness. Even despite parts reminding me of playing a video game (collecting the things, going to locations, hitting the three glowing weak spots). Oof, writing all that makes it seem like I didn’t like the book. If you want read about some space wizards doing some disgusting bone, blood, and flesh magic while goofing around and solving mysteries, read this book. Heck, if you just like having a good time, read this book.

My Murder

Serial killer victims support group.

This has been my favorite book I’ve read so far in 2024. Normally I’d save such a declarative statement for the end. I had to put it out there early. Just go read it. Alright, let’s move on.

My Murder follows Lou, the victim of a serial killer, brought back to life. Well, cloned with most of the memories of her previous self, the “other her” from before the murder. The book starts about 6 months after being brought back. “Brought back” being an uncommon, weird thing in this world. Uncommon and frowned upon so much that it has only been done a few times with horrible rich people. Yet her and several other victims of a serial killer were brought back and now meet once a week in a support group. Each of the women in the group are still mostly what they remember themselves to be. But how could they not be different after a violent death and a very public second chance at life?

I love the writing of Lou. Author Katie Williams wrote her so well. Light sarcasm, the good kinds of puns, and depth all around. Reading Lou’s thoughts as she works through current and previous her’s relationships feels relatable. Lou is a new parent. Lou is a spouse. Lou has a job. Lou is trying to socialize as an adult. Lou is a murder victim. Okay, I don’t relate to that one. It all felt genuine as she reexamines herself and her place after returning from the dead.

I think what I appreciate most about the author’s writing, is that she takes her time on Lou’s relationships. She gives them a tangible nature. Lou feels like someone who is actually a new mother. There’s a spector of postpartum depression she (her “other her”) experienced. She mentions the intense fears, the odd little habits, that bright sunrise of new, incredibly focused love. She feels like someone who has been in relationships, experience in the ebb and flow of a long term commitment. She feels like an emotionally intelligent 30 something adult.

There’s this funny trick that with this book. It is going to be one of my favorite sci-fi books of the year (favorite books in general too), but it is in no way marketed as, or hinted at being a part of the genre. Cloning, VR, autonomous vehicles, and many other bits of set dressing are present, but none of that takes priority. No technical gibberish or futurish proper nouns are thrown around. Yes some of those things enable the story, but Lou and her new life are front and center.

This was a great book. When I picked it up, pages would fly by. I’d recommend it to just about anyone. For me, it feels like it had a little more weight because I am a recent parent, I love sci-fi, and have recently read a few murdery books. But in no way do any of those have to apply to you.

Howl’s Moving Castle (the book)

A fairytale of a playboy wizard, a woman with the trauma of being the eldest sibling, and a fire demon that will curse your bacon.

The first Studio Ghibli film I watched was when I was around age 20. I have no nostalgia for Hayo Miyazaki’s work, but I have loved each of his films that I’ve experienced. Even though I never watched Totoro or Kiki as a kid, his movies still evoke some strange sort of nostaliga. His movies definitely have a range, from the bittersweet tears of The Wind Rises to the gentle Kiki’s Delivery Service, but they all have a surrealness to them. That surreal aura bleeds into in a general cozy feeling, and you know I’m all about that cozy feeling.

After a wet, cold day, we decided it was prime Ghibli weather and we’d spend some time with Howl’s Moving Castle. It had been a decade or so since I last watched it, and man that is just a lovely movie. On watching, I noticed a little blurb that the movie was based on a book with the same name. About an hour after the movie ended, I started reading the book from 1986 by Diana Wynne Jones.

There are many similarities, but far more differences in the book from the movie. The Howl and Sophie from the movie are more gentle, more regal than their page-based counterparts. I love both versions. The Howl and Sophie of the book are less fairytale-esque characters, more flawed (and more charming for those flaws). The movie is a remix of the the book’s story, and while I was surprised by a few bits, most of the new beats were predictable. I had a few issues with clarity of action and characters, but overall it was nice 300-something page children’s book. It was pleasant. It had that coziness that Miyazaki brings to his movies. I appreciated the additional depth to Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer over the move. They stand as two distinct things in my mind. I’ll end up reading this with the kids at bedtime, and enjoy visiting them again.

The Wager

Empire, class, treasure, shipwrecks, and many detailed journal keepers.

From the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, The Wager tells a historical recounting of a poorly planned British Naval voyage in the 1700s that resulted in castaways at the edge of the world. I appreciated how much of the content originated from first-hand accounts. History books that lean a little too much on storytelling, inventing thoughts of the story’s subjects, or imagining facial expressions as they witness events never sit right with me. I appreciate making history digestible, but stating that Winston Churchill grimaced while sipping a glass of scotch is a bit too much. David Grann does none of that. Nothing seems to be invented for the sake of immersion. All quotes appear to be actual quotes. Actions of the people involved are those recorded by quite a few personal journals. It results in the events of The Wager being that much more incredible, especially once the voyage is underway and the handful of castaways make their ways back home to tell their disparate tales. Untangling the different versions of events, each with its own motives, reminds me that nothing is new.

Empires preserve their power with the stories they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t–the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.

David Grann, The Wager

I frequently put the book down to look up different indigenous people of Patagonia, find pictures or maps of islands and passages, and watch videos about how British Man-of-Wars (Men of War? Mans of War?) worked. If I had a gripe, it would be that I wish more context were added to the surrounding events, but I’m not complaining. A book that can stoke curiosity is great. But seriously, now I really want to read about the different peoples of the la Tierra del Fuego.

This was my first book by David Grann, and he seems to be a great author on historical events. Based on this read, I think I prefer him to Erik Larson. It was a fine book. I will check out more of his work in the future.

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone

Deaths will occur on pages 14, 46, 65, 75, 174, 208(ish), 218, 227, 249, somewhere between 243 and 250, 262, and 355.

I enjoyed this little Australian crime novel from the first murder to the last. Written from the perspective of Ernest, an author recounting a family reunion with a high body count. There’s plenty of humor to be found, but what I loved most was how the fictional author manipulates the reader. It’s playful. Right from the start he tells the reader in which pages there will be deaths, recommending you dog-ear them.

The book felt like a sibling to Knives Out and The Thursday Murder Club. The dysfunctional adult family at the core of the story is a train wreck you cannot look away from. Ernest, the protagonist, is what his name says, and an immensely entertaining narrator for it.

A great first book for 2024. It looks like the author, Benjamin Stevenson, has a sequel due to release in a couple weeks. I’ll be picking it up.

Favorite Books of 2023

Hello and welcome to the first annual, Books That Austin Really Enjoyed Awards. I read 22 books this year, which is a record for me. I’m over here finishing a 5k while all my Goodreads friends are wrapping up their ultramarathons with 100 books completed in 2023.

I read many good books this year, several of which will stick with me. For this post, I’m limiting my favorites to just three. Though I’ll throw in a few runners-up as well. So, without further ado, I present the winners in no particular order:

Thursday Murder Club book cover

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman. Fun, endearing, and a bit of wonderful chaos. Following a group of elderly crime enthusiasts around their retirement village as they try to solve a murder was joyful. I want to spend more time with the characters in the book. Luckily, there are a few more in the series. This first is a gem.

The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler. This one just lit up all the right spots in my brain. Near-ish future, slightly cyberpunk, story of a disgraced scientist and a corporate owned android researching a possible sentient species of octopus. Their story interwoven with that of a slave on an automated fishing ship, and the question of how to define consciousness.

Fairy Tale, by Stephen King. I had barely dabbled in King prior to this. I thought all his novels were thrillers or horror. I was wrong. This is surreal, modern fantasy. It takes its time to get going, but it luxuriates in story it tells. It is what it says on the tin. If you want a modern fairy tale with emotion and adventure. One that doesn’t attempt to be edgy, but has some real weight, read Fairy Tale.


The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Mary Poppins from Hell… or some other dimension.

It’s Neil Gaiman, what’s not to love? Bit of surreal urban fantasy, but in the English countryside (rural fantasy?). Pairs well with Neverwhere and Fairy Tale. Made me think of my own childhood. Not because I was terrorized by an otherworldly nanny, but the exploration and perspective it conveys.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

Nameless Protagonist of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

As a 7-year old in Tucson, Arizona, I would walk through the desert to get anywhere. Anywhere being desert hideouts or friends’ houses. Unless I was on a bike, that was what roads and sidewalks were for. When on foot, I wandered around poking at barrel cactus fruit while trying to not get my finger caught on its hooked needles, looking for lizards to catch, keeping an ear open for the almost mythical rattle of a copperhead. It was the more interesting way to go.

I probably should have listened to the audiobook version, which Neil narrates. If I could set Siri to sound like Neil Gaiman, I would. His narrations are a like wearing a comfy sweater.

The Mountain in the Sea

Sentience explored by a marine biologist in the future with her AI co-worker.

A well-paced exploration of consciousness, artificial intelligence, and self, without the same genre tropes we’ve seen over and over.

The book is set in the near future and follows a handful of characters. Mostly Dr. Ha Nguyen, a marine biologist who specializes in cephalopod intelligence, and Evrim, the world’s only sentient artificial intelligence. Together they attempt to research and communicate with a species of octopus that have possibly developed sentience, culture, and language. The Mountain in the Sea explores what each of those monoliths mean for humanity, what they could mean once we remove our projected experience from them.

The book is personal. The book is humanity under a microscope. The book frequently quotes two non-exstant books that I wish I could read, How Oceans Think and Building Minds.

The end goal of The Mountain in the Sea is to answer the question, what is consciousness? I like the answer that is reached.

The Other Books of 2023

The year still has a few weeks left, but here are a few short reviews of other books I’ve read in 2023.

Elder Race

This was a fun one. A story written from two perspectives. One, a noble woman from a medieval society, the other an anthropologist from a massively advanced technological civilization The prior viewing the later as a wizard, the later attempting to do his job while failing a Star Trek-ish Prime Directive to not interfere in primitive societies (while also dealing with depression). It’s a quick read. It’s fun flipping back and forth between the two perspectives, each chapter either fantasy or sci-fi. There’s one point towards the end of the book that is excellent payoff for the genre flipping.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot #2)

The sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built. A monk and robot walking through the forest didn’t feel as charming the second time around. It seemed like Becky Chambers was trying a little too hard to be philosophical and introspective. Like she knew her book was supposed to say something deep, but she couldn’t quite figure out what that parting wisdom was. You could definitely argue the same for the first book. As I’ve read more of her books, she frequently wavers on this line. I think more often than not, she doesn’t quite make it.

Six of Crows

Heists in a dark fantasy setting. At first I couldn’t stand the book. It felt like the author was trying a little too hard to be edgy. This isn’t your normal YA book, this one’s dark. I enjoyed it enough by the end, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.

The Fifth Season

I liked the book, but a good chunk of the third act felt out of place. Specifically the relationships that the book focuses on. They didn’t feel earned. It felt more like the author wanted to do something unique, and couldn’t find the right path towards that destination.

You could call this one grimdark. A lot of bad stuff happens… especially to kids. The world was mysterious and pulled me in. Won’t be re-reading this one, or the rest of the series.

Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion

The general ideas of this book were great. Men are fertile 100% of the time. Women are fertile for a couple days, unreliably, each month. A man could impregnate one woman every day for a year, while a woman can have a single child per year. The book continues on with the case that unwanted pregnancies are always blamed on women, when in reality, men are who cause all pregnancies. A woman can’t walk out on a pregnancy. As a society, we expect women to not just be responsible for their own body, but for men’s as well. Men should be the focus of stopping unwanted pregnancies. That’s all over simplified. The quality of the writing was varied. So were the points. Some really hit, while others felt out of place. Also, abortion access should be legally available everywhere.

The Man Who Died Twice (Thursday Murder Club, #2)

A pleasing sequel. It was fun to see Joyce, Elizabeth and the gang again. Didn’t feel as special as the first book, but still very enjoyable. Go read the first book. Heck, give it a listen. It has a wonderful narrator.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)

Feels very Firefly inspired. Especially the spunky engineer lady. Just replace her with Kaylee and I don’t think anyone would notice. Each chapter feels like an episode of a TV show. It’s a fun book with great characters in a universe that feels begging to be explored. I wrote more about it in my review of next book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4)

Before reading my first Becky Chambers book at the start of the year, I had heard this book was one of her best. I liked it fine. It’s better than the first book, but A Closed and Common Orbit remains my favorite of the series. This one is slice-of-life, but with aliens. It’s enjoyable, but not outstanding. One small irk, she mentions the “oh there’s not a word in your language for a thing in my culture” thing too many times. Like 5 time too many. She obviously has a lot of fun inventing these alien races, and they are fun to read about. I just didn’t love it. Thinking back on The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, there was a lot I enjoyed about the book, but also a lot I didn’t like. Chambers has definitely grown as a writer, but for most of the books of hers that I’ve read, she re-treads a the same ground. Frequently.

The Splendid and the Vile

I’ve read a few Erik Larson books. In the Garden of the Beasts probably being my favorite. This one was a little too loose. Too many threads. I still enjoyed learning about what a weirdo Churchill was.

Mistborn: Secret History (Mistborn, #3.5)

Oof. Sometimes I’ll read a single book or two in a big ‘ol series and then just stop. I like what I’ve read, but I feel like the author will ruin that feeling by continuing on with the story in ways I don’t enjoy. For example, I’ve read Dune maybe three times, but never any of the rest of the series. Secret History definitely falls in that category. It dives into what was happening behind the scene through the original Mistborn series. In an age where every single third-tier side character get’s their own TV show and an every possible plot line and multiverse is explored, I really prefer when not all questions are answered.

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries, #6)

I guess I missed this one last year? It’s another Murderbot book! What’s not to like? This time Murderbot is solving a murder on a space station. Enjoyable, though not my favorite in the series. If you haven’t read the Murderbot Diaries, I recommend giving them a try. Quick reads (novellas! They’re great!), fun character to follow.

Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall

The renaissance era was lousy with painters, we’re lousy with grifters. I have stubbornly refused to read/listen to anything crypto related. It’s always seemed like a scam. The financial crime investigative journalist, Zeke Faux, had a similar feeling. Instead of ignoring it he dove deep. Zeke spent a few years following the grifters, egos, and billionaires tied to crypto, from mansions to slave camps. His book feels almost too strange to be reality.