Favorite (or most influential) fiction read in 2019:

January 2020 is almost over and I realized I never got around to posting my favorite fiction titles of 2019. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Hollow Kingdom by Kira Buxton
  2. Entropy by Aaron Costain (graphic novel)
  3. The Devourers by Indra Das
  4. The Pre-programming by B.L.A. and G.B. Gabbler/Anonymous
  5. Esemtu by Karin and Raphaela Springer  (graphic novel)
  6. Immortal Lycanthropes by Hal Johnson
  7. Necessity by Jo Walton

Favorite (or most influential) nonfiction read in 2019:

  1. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
  2. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
  3. Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question by Benedicte Boisseron
  4. Messy Eating: Conversations on Animals as Food
  5. Making Kin Not Population                     
  6. Native Studies Keywords                   
  7. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick [Technically a favorite from last year too, because I didn’t finish it until January 2019]
  8. Gods and Robots by Adrienne Mayor
  9. Useless Magic by Florence Welch [Technically also poetry/fiction]
  10. Almost Lost Arts by Emily Freidenrich

These books shaped my past year and I’ve reviewed all of them on this blog. Fiction picks to come soon!

Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Favorite quote (the crow, S.T., is talking to the reader here):

“More breathtaking than the image of the Greek mythological angel Ichabod who flew too close to the sun, a glossy sheen of feathers drifted down to the ground in front of me.”

 

Goodreads reviews I also agree with:

This book is perfect for the person who reads or watches a zombie apocalypse story and thinks, “yeah, but what happened to all the ANIMALS?” Also if you like the deep first person dive into animal consciousness and society á la Watership Down. 

 

There’s humor, tragedy, and heroic kinship shown in this animal story. I was both glad and disappointed at the end as the surprise didn’t seem plausible.

 

There are some truly touching meditations on grief and loss, as well as hope, perseverance, and family. In a few parts the plot meandered, there were a couple of side stories told from the perspective of other animals that didn’t end up adding much, and the editor probably could have knocked off at least 20 pages, but I enjoyed the experience of exploring Seattle with a crow and a bloodhound, and I learned a bit about bird anatomy along the way. 

TBR: A Killing Game (A Curtis Westcott Crime Thriller, #1) by Jeff Buick

Born into a wealthy and powerful Boston family, Renee Charlebois has it all. Except for one small detail – she’s been abducted without a trace. Who took her, and why, is a mystery.

The case gets dropped on Curtis Westcott’s desk, but Boston’s Chief of Homicide has little to work with. No clues, no body, no motive. Renee had no enemies, no financial skeletons in the closet, and no bitter ex- boyfriends. Curtis and Aislinn Byrne, his go-to detective on tough cases, work the file hard but come up empty. Then Westcott attends a party and overhears a story that catches his attention – he and Aislinn have their first break.

They dig in and unravel a complex series of crimes tied to Renee’s disappearance. As they peel back the layers they are convinced Renee is still alive, but that her abductor is on a precise schedule and has every intention of killing her. It’s a bizarre and twisted game, and time is quickly running out.

A Killing Game is Book One in the Curtis Westcott series, set in Boston.

 

I don’t know if I like this game.

Read more on Goodreads. 

Book Review: The Devourers by Indra Das

This is a trans narrative. It tries to subvert heteronormativity, but leaves that task to the very end in a way that feels more like an afterthought. The execution of its core message is undermined by weak plotting, when it could have been a stronger message if it had owned it sooner rather than later. Also, it’s a narrative that puts hope in future generations, where children literally eat their parents to become them and learn from them. Even though the “twist” of the book is not unexpected, it’s a haunting work of horror and beauty; one of my favorite fiction books I read this year. But there is an imperfection there that I cannot quite overlook or make excuses for. It left me questioning cis women’s role in this conception of the self.

I use “trans” as an umbrella term, inclusive of non-binary identities. At first, you can’t tell the gender of the (arguably) main character/person encountering the “Werewolf.” It’s told from their POV at the start and the book ends with their POV as the frame, so that is why I might argue they are the MC. The gender mystery is fantastic and goes on too long at the start to not be noticed. I was almost shocked when you realize the gender of the professor. I won’t spoil things.

And we are not dealing with “Werewolves,” really, though that’s a good description. They’re very vampiric in their need for “offerings” of blood. But Werewolves are the closest subject to what they are—beings with another being inside them, waiting to come out. This feeds into the trans message at play here. But the “monster inside me” trope is repeatedly subverted by the fact these creatures can become what they eat. The memories and forms of their victims live inside them and want out.

The syncretic joining of Eastern and Western mythos and culture was a splendid attempt. William Blake is mentioned more times than I could count, for some reason that didn’t quite work for me (Tyger and tigers are meant to spark the imagination and fear, I’m sure, though it grates against the wolves/canines the story also invokes). But I liked it all the same.  Greek mythical concepts are also dropped here and there, working well enough. To another degree, it was jarring at first to read about Vikings and the Mythic wolf Fenrir in an Eastern setting. It starts to fit better as you go along. The two main Werewolves in the story are white men traveling and chomping through India—it was quite the aberration and reminded me, for some reason, of the novella Travel Light. It’s “for children,” but part of that story is set in old Byzantium, which I think is a nice capsule for the East-West vibe depending on what you’re shooting for. Toward the end, I was getting manga/anime Inuyasha vibes, where the bipolar beast can turn scary real fast, yet a woman seems able to tame their violent impulses. The way the creatures “turn” and speak to each other is also very anime-esque. Many formalities and “hyping,” as I like to say. Beyond this, it reminded me of the book Immortal Lycanthropes (also for children), with shape-shifting characters who do not exactly understand their origins or know what to call themselves, who forget details over time, who may not pay much attention to history since they have so much of it. But they are more than just shape-shifters in The Devourers. They are cannibals and hypnotists and evolverers. Much like the Automatons in The Automation, the creatures can learn entire languages by becoming one with the human (that they feed from, in this case). Their memories are overridden by the human memories and “fade” in and out. The mechanics of this in The Devourers, however, is a bit more vague and mysterious — never explained. There’s no real need.

Also like The Automation, this is a meta fiction. The footnotes delighted me. The chapters shift perspective between characters (and text, technically), which surmise and dispute each other; the footnotes are an extension of that multi-layered-ness. Das states at the end that he did his research, but makes excuses for any potential historical inaccuracies by noting this is just a fiction. Yet, he ultimately does not need to do this. In the work, that which the professor is transcribing is a translation in itself. There’s believability that much will be “lost in translation” to make it understandable to the professor, and then much lost again when the professor tries to explain things for us, the everyday reader. This is the best executed aspect of the book. This is not the issue I had with the story.

Where I do take issue, there are spoilers. —————————————————-

In the book, the one cis female character, Cyrah, seems purposeful only for her ability to reproduce and protect the half-human, half-Werewolf son she is impregnated with. These Werewolves are always (except one or two times) presented as hyper-masculine, despite their homoeroticism. This seems to counter the concept of choice for what/who their first forms look like and equate men/the masculine as violence and strength. Cyrah  calls them out at one point, saying “‘But I see none of you wearing the shape of a human woman'” (213).  It seems the “Werewolves” rarely consider being something female, even though it is an option.  Fenrir tells her “we are the devouring, not the creative” (pg 69). He sees Cyrah as someone with “one self and one soul” (38). Thus, not multiple-formed. Not trans. Female, then, equals reproductive to Fenrir at that point, something the Werewolves are not.

Then 200 pages in, Fenrir accuses Gévaudan of helping Cyrah only to taste her blood and experience her memories of Fenrir, of wanting to consume her so that he might wear her and have Fenrir love him in return. It’s not very clear why Gévaudan  was helping her until this point, honestly. Before I assumed he wanted her only as bait for Fenrir. Because, again, the narrative’s not overt in saying the shape-shifters can really be/want to be female until this point. There doesn’t seem to be a need for them to be female, if doing so means they still cannot have babies (how sexist of them, that they would default to men, then?). The narrative makes it seem like it’s always been a concept these creatures could present as female, but it’s not played up until then. Gévaudan’s reason for the change of heart (why he decided not to eat her) is not very clear, either. It’s hard to catch on to his motivations. Would turning female disgust him?

Cryah decides to keep the baby — her son, Izrail. This turns into a literal self-sacrificing love and it is only through giving up everything to her son (being eaten by her child) that the child and mother can be transformed. This is a dangerous narrative, where cis women only have value by giving themselves up entirely to the children they birth.

It is not the rape scene (or the mentions of “piss” and “genitals” that seem to bother other reviewers) that makes me cringe. It is the fact that women are not given voice until they are coming through a presenting-male character. Cyrah is only given words when her son writes as her/allows her to write her narrative through him to give to Alok. The act of transcribing her story seems to give Alok courage to come out/identify as trans at the end, also claiming her voice as theirs by saying “I am Cyrah of Lahore. I am Fenrir of the far Norse lands” (302). Alok entitles themselves to her narrative because they, like Izrail, give it new life. Cyrah has no autonomy until she gives herself over to male-presenting characters/to the larger-whole.

Her son entertains the idea of becoming her/presenting as her some day and giving her freedom. That’s her only freedom? She could have been eaten by any of the “Werewolves” to get that same freedom. Izrail also eats Fenrir, which is likewise problematic for me, because now he and Cyrah are one. She cannot escape him. But, I guess she made that choice.

At the very end, we are shown one “Werewolf” that leads a tribe/pack who clearly presents as female. It seems tacked on. It was like Dr. Who’s latest female doctor. Pandering to make up for skipped opportunities.

The fact there are women inside these creatures (eaten women) also undermines the believability for me – the plausibility. I do not believe something that imbibes the memories and emotions of women would NOT know that what he was doing was rape.  Sure, Fenrir gets it more than others in that time period might, and even women have the ability to think less of themselves, but it still does not ring true. Was he only eating horrible people? Good riddance to them, then.

Did I miss something? Is the story saying he had never eaten a woman?

Other goodreads reviews I agree with:

Meanwhile, in the present, there also isn’t any reason for our enigmatic werewolf stranger to choose to reveal this hidden past to the professor. Sure, there’s sexual attraction, but the revelation of secrets seems unnecessary. The plot point is really just a vehicle for what felt to me like a rather self-absorbed musing on sexual orientation and gender identity, with Alok’s character a stand-in for the author.

 

 I appreciate the attempts to use multiple mythologies at once, to bring extreme viscerality to writing, to relay some sort of (very, very mixed) messages about colonialism and post-modernity, and to de-exoticize modern India.

 

“So…Alok is transgender? Um, what? It’s fairly obvious throughout the book that he is bisexual, but there are NO hints whatsoever that he identifies as a woman. I get that the author was trying to parallel the “second skin” of the werewolves/djinn, but that was completely and totally out of the blue. … It comes across as a comparison of gender fluidity with monstrosity – which I realize was not the author’s intent, but should be considered nonetheless. Honestly, Alok’s characterization was pretty poor throughout the book, but this just blindsided me. It is obvious that he feels alienated, even from his parents, and he is especially drawn to the stranger; but, again, there was no evidence (maybe there was, and I missed it?). It didn’t feel authentic but just another metaphor in a book already teeming with them. I would be interested in hearing how others felt about this ending.”

 

And it’s also a unique approach to a culture that stubbornly refuses specific aspects of how typical human culture is defined – by sumptuary/sartorial rules (though there’s some preference by tribe, despite this), by clearly articulated histories (oral or written – the stories and records passed down by these characters are done so as aberrations or exceptions to this norm), by a distinct language (they speak “amalgam,” absorbing fragments from those they literally devour, but have a special, shared word for human). They have a fierce devotion to certain rituals and taboos, though you could count those on one hand and they all get broken by the end of the book by the transgressing characters.

 

It was in the “devouring, not the creative” mindset of the shape-shifters that Indra explores the traditional roles and balance of power between men and women: “Women create. Men inflict violence on you, envious and fearful, desperate to share in that ability. And it is this hateful battle that keeps your kind extant. You have taught me that your race’s love is just a beautifully woven veil, to make pretty shadows out of a brutal war.” pg 213. One of the main points of this story is that this particular view is not true, but you can see how a creature that only continues to exist through constant violence, could interpret the relationship between the sexes like that. Love and hate are opposite sides to the same coin after all. “I’ve never loved a man in my life, but I’m not fool enough to think that there are no men and women in this world who truly love each other, and love their children together, and did not conceive them through violence and pain.” pg 225.