What I Read in July

Welcome back to the blog! I’m pleased to say your local blogger devoured quite the stack this month, owing to the abundance of free time that comes with summer break, and some wonderfully readable sci-fi and fantasy picks. Once I cleared a couple flops, I had a reading month of nearly uninterrupted delight, and I can’t wait to share it with you.


55. Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder

The story begun in Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study continues in this rather frustrating sequel. Taking a completely new direction mid-series is always a gamble, and in this case, it resulted in an across-the-board fumble: far from the political intrigue of the first book, we follow a half-baked mystery, meet characters who are either under-utilized (Leif, Irys, Cahil!!!) or under-developed (Goel, Roze) and forego the potential of Snyder’s original premise for something that never manages to overcome the feeling that it’s little more than a diversion. Still, there are pieces of truly original worldbuilding to be found and surprising developments in the series’ magic, both best appreciated with the allowance that neither are fully realized.


56. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Try as I might, I just can’t get hooked on the Queen of Mystery. This novel, the first in her Miss Marple series, has all the ingredients for a satisfying ensemble piece––a full and distinctive cast, an unlikely observer, and a small town whose currency is idle gossip––but a barely-there detective in Miss Marple and a trite, predictable choice of killer kneecap its attempts at suspense. There are also several indistinguishable government authorities on the case, none of whom make a lasting impression. It’s a shame, too: there are several dynamics in the story that humanize the characters involved, and a missed opportunity to take a closer look at the family of the deceased and introduce some complexity into the equation, but each character is merely an intriguing silhouette––and nothing more.


57. She-Ra: Legend of the Fire Princess by Gigi D. G.

If you’re a fan of the Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, this spin-off graphic novel is essentially a filler episode, though an enjoyable one that’s on par with the show’s best one-off adventures. There’s an effort to include the whole ensemble, a trade-off that accepts minimal time for each character to shine in exchange for the appearance of everyone’s favorites (a gambit that, admittedly, worked on me, given that I was downright giddy to see Entrapta). As far as lore goes, this volume isn’t essential, but it does breach some interesting questions about the runestones that pay off if you slide Legend of the Fire Princess into your watch or re-watch where it’s set, between seasons two and three.


58. Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s short works of science fiction are more-or-less dependable stunners: here and there a story is more heady than it is affecting, but even then, the hypothetical, and Chiang’s keen observation of humanity in the face of some new technology or paradigm, is more than enough to carry it through. At its best, this collection had me crying in the airport (courtesy of the title story), but even at its mildest, it had me churning obsessively over its themes, however unmoved by the characters I was (“The Lifecycles of Software Objects” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”). Word of advice: don’t skip the story notes! They’re as fascinating as the stories themselves, and beckon a well-worth-it reread.


59. Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray

Claudia Gray’s delectable sequel to her multiverse romance A Thousand Pieces of You boasts everything a good middle volume requires: the stakes are dialed up both plausibly and bombastically, the beliefs our protagonist, Marguerite, rested on to get through the first book are challenged in a way that wrecks everything we think we know, and the ending is devastating––wickedly so. Though the parallel universes explored here aren’t quite as lusciously developed as they are in book one, Gray sets a promising course for the series finale, with a resonant set of villains and skillfully placed dystopian undertones. I can’t wait to see what universes she has in store for us next.


60. Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch

Following Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes, this sequel’s efforts are more mixed: as a fantasy that straddles grounded politics and lofty magic, its increasing dependence on the latter messes with the effectiveness of the former. That said, Raasch’s settings and supporting players are in top form start to finish, and it’s only really at the end that magical developments truly overshadow her dependable strengths. As a follow-up, it adds mostly believable caveats to the victories we saw in Snow Like Ashes, and slides an extremely compelling complication into the romance that bloomed there as well. There’s reason to believe the third installment will be messy, but Ice Like Fire makes a good stand as a worthy answer to the first.


61. Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Following Renegades, Marissa Meyer’s original superhero story, Archenemies broadens the trilogy’s scope with a distinctly ethical bent, yielding a volume that is as suspicious of the superhero tradition as it is willing to put its flashy sensibilities to good use. Dealing heavily in the politics of powers––and the slippery slope of their regulation––is the perfect pivot for this second volume, whose increased focus on minor antagonists keeps its big bad fresh and shrouded in ambiguity ahead of the series’ conclusion. Archenemies leaves its lead characters wanting, however: Nova’s status as a yet-uncompromised spy takes the bite out of the enemies-to-lovers romance, and “they killed my parents”-itis is a disease endemic to contemporary villaindom––it does no favors for an otherwise complex superhero story here.


63. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Though it doesn’t eclipse Jane Eyre in my eyes (what can?), I’m still immensely grateful to have made my way through Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette. The gothic sensibilities very much shine through in this book, with a healthy dose of possible phantoms, visions, and candlelight, but there’s also something to be said for Brontë’s prowess in the realm of the grounded and real, as she looks at the charmed lives of her shallow wealthy characters with a critical eye, and leads her enigmatic heroine, Lucy Snowe, away from the fanciful, at both its light and dark extremes, for a mean that is all the more rich for the comfort it refuses to provide.


64. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

Month of sequels this turned out to be, it’s only fitting that I ended it here, with the follow-up to Catherynne M. Valente’s whimsical, episodic The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is a tale whose resonance sometimes falters, but never fails to sprinkle asterisks on the first book’s absolutes where needed. Valente’s digressions, made in the tradition of Oz-esque children’s literature, are always outwardly charming, but not always in service of the book’s thematic ends, though, to her credit, the truly important moments hit where they should. As an answer to a story that could very well function as a standalone, it’s good at making itself necessary without then rendering the now-series self-defeating. That, in itself, is a gift. May all sequels tread down its path.


Thank you for stopping by! Tell me about your July in books in the comments below.

Enthralling Politics and Shaky Magic in “Ice Like Fire”

This review contains major spoilers for the first volume in the trilogy, Snow Like Ashes! Read at your own risk.

On the heels of 2014’s Snow Like Ashes, Ice Like Fire, its sequel, follows a tattered country trying to rebuild itself, a Queen chafing against the restrictions of her new crown, and the unleashing of ancient magic that may have been better left hidden.

Meira, whom we met among the scrappy band of rebels in book one is––surprise!––the reigning monarch and magic-bearer for the kingdom of Winter, a land of constant snow. Until the events of Snow Like Ashes, Winter was in shambles, its fields barren, and its people confined to work camps courtesy of the kingdom of Spring and its ruling tyrant. In Ice Like Fire, Winter is once again the keeper of its lands and its rightful heir holds the throne, but now, owing to its need for defense and resources, it’s occupied territory, and once again at the mercy of an untrustworthy power.

Spanning across four “Season” kingdoms of author Sara Raasch’s creation (the two mentioned above, plus Summer and Autumn), as well as four “Rhythm” kingdoms with specialties in culture and industry, Ice Like Fire is a tale deeply invested in aftermath. Now that Meira is Queen, what of herself must she sacrifice to fit the role? Now that Winter has to fend for itself, where will it get what it needs to survive? And, should any of its more powerful neighbors try anything, how will it withstand attack?

When Ice Like Fire focuses on these more grounded concerns, even when something entwined with its far-flung magic system is at stake, it sticks the landing almost every time. Raasch is marvelous at using Winter’s occupation by the Rhythm kingdom Cordell to drive a reasonable wedge between her Winterian characters. Where William, the seasoned former leader of Winter’s rebels, is keen to accept Cordell’s aid even on pain of losing sovereignty, Mather, Meira’s childhood best friend, sees an invasion in disguise. The resulting conflict is fiery and personal, but not melodramatic, owing to Raasch’s skillful tailoring of ideology to the substance of character. William––jaded, cautious, grief-stricken––is the perfect opponent for Mather’s young, stubborn pride.

The same goes for Meira and the impulsive decisions she makes while struggling to restrain her own pride and suffering the indignity of ruling a country entirely dependent on another. She clashes with Mather in this volume, with qualms that feel organic and true, but for the most part, she’s trying to keep her footing in a romance with Theron, her former fiancé, and prince of the very kingdom she suspects is trying to make a meal of her own.

In Theron, Raasch makes the compelling choice of foolish optimism, an angle which then lets her tease out the nuances of Theron’s tension with his father, the king of Cordell, while also shining insight on his deepest moral flaw: his refusal to acknowledge his countrymen as Winter’s oppressors. Without the will-they won’t-they in place for him and Meira, Raasch might have stumbled in keeping tension alive for them in book two, but putting this into play, she gains both a source of intrigue and a burgeoning indictment of a character who could otherwise be written as all-good. Instead, it is his very goodness––his blind faith in the powerful––that makes him dangerous.

Coupled with the introduction of some enticing new characters (the ruling family of Summer, in particular) and the usual varied and textured lineup of settings, the Snow Like Ashes series remains sweeping and absorbing in its second volume, but there are deeper mechanisms at work, setting the stage for book three, and those, forebodingly, grind at the edges of the story Ice Like Fire is trying to tell.

Raasch’s prose is apt where it concerns description and dialogue, but introspection, especially through Meira’s parts in first person, is both clumsily executed and too-often leaned upon. The tool of a character taking a paragraph at chapter’s end to announce their plans already reads as a bit trite, but Meira is never not putting the foot down in her stream of consciousness, with increasing detail and density of page time.

The end of chapter five runs for nearly a page of plotting before landing on “I will not return from this trip without a way to keep my kingdom safe.” Chapter twenty-eight ends with five pages of almost unbroken deliberation––it gets worse as the book progresses, and more and more comes to rest on the workings of its nebulous and excessively powerful magic system. It almost comes across as Raasch trying to make sense of her own creation, with a half-declaration, half-explanatory monologue slapped in whenever something of a magical nature needs to shift.

And the magic, exposed by the plot’s greater reliance on it in the second volume, is fast coming into relief as the series’ greatest weakness. A vague magic system isn’t necessarily a death knell: it’s something that good political worldbuilding, like Ice Like Fire‘s, can work around. But in centering the magic, both with the discovery of an ancient source known as the Magic Chasm, and with the onslaught of a manifestation of evil known as the Decay, Ice Like Fire leans on weak scaffolding that probably would’ve held up fine were it not for the additional weight.

Now, everyone’s fighting over world-ending magic, as opposed to something more grounded, like land, or food, or autonomy, and we discover in the process that the magic itself isn’t all that interesting. It doesn’t have any limits capable of forcing conflict, nor is it a skill that we can watch our characters struggle to acquire, so…what is it?

I hesitate to say nothing, if only because I so desperately want Frost Like Night to be the answer of complexity this magic system needs, but the floor most definitely sways underneath it as we proceed on, and the climax is almost always where stories like this falter. What this portends about the landing Raasch may or may not stick, I’d rather not say.