starlady: a circular well of books (well of books)
What I'm reading
Gregory Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire. I started this on the plane today--it's a history of male/male sexuality in Japan from 1650-1950, and it's very, very good. If this sounds like something you're interested in, you should totally read this book.

What I've just read
I finished Lost Burgundy, the final volume of Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle on the plane this morning. It's really, really good. I knew it would be, but she totally stuck the landing, and sold me completely on the frankly weird premise by the end. I was even reminded, a very little bit, of Anathem. Highly recommended. (Sidenote: it says a lot that the only one of the contemporary academics I liked was Vaughn Davies.)

I also read Malinda Lo's Natural Selection on the plane--it was in my Kobo app, and I'd forgotten about it. It was short, but I liked it; it's a story about Amber that's a prequel to the Adaptation duology (though it won't make any sense without having read the first book), and it expanded on Amber's background in a way that I really enjoyed. Write more books, Malinda!

What I'll read next
I'm on the cusp of a really intense three months of reading, so I can't make any promises, but I did get the first volume of Revival at the Strand in New York last weekend, and I have a lot of other comics stockpiled. We'll see.

starlady: "I can hear the sound of empires falling." (burning empires)
Gentle, Mary. Ash: A Secret History. New York: Eos Books, 1999.
---------. Carthage Ascendant. New York: Eos Books, 2000.

I said a while ago that all my new reviews are impelled by people saying egregious shit on Twitter. That's not quite true, but this is definitely one of those reviews. This time people are saying that GRRM writing female characters in Game of Thrones was revolutionary…because there had never been female characters in epic fantasy before?

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.

Ahem. I don't imagine that inarticulate with rage is really a good look on a book reviewer, but I offer the following as, I hope, a refutation of the idea that there were no female characters, much less female authors, in epic fantasy before George R. Rapefest Martin. (Actually, in what fairness to GRRM that he deserves, I remember GoT being less rape-tastic than, say, Terry Goodkind. But still.)

The Book of Ash, which was published in one volume in the UK and in four volumes in the US, follows female mercenary captain Ash in the wars of the late 15thC in Europe. Ash's company principally fights both for and then against the Duchy of Burgundy, of all principalities of Europe the richest and the most glorious, but also the heart of the continent, as becomes clear when the Carthaginians invade, intent on absolute conquest. Ash, who since a very young age has heard a voice, a military genius that advises her on tactics in battle, soon finds herself at the heart of the all-out conflict, and her company along with her.

I suspect that these books are comparable to Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman sequence (and I haven't read them yet, so don't spoil me) in that the books start out on the terra firma of one genre premise and then gradually shift very definitively into something else entirely. Suffice it to say, with minimal spoilers, that I was wondering by the end of the first book whether it was techno-Orientalist.

By the end of the second I definitely didn't quite get everything that was going on, but well before that, I was hooked. Ash's world is drawn as vividly as any I've read, and it's amazing to me that Gentle got her master's in war studies after writing this book rather than before it. Ash herself is believably complicated and, at times, frustrating, as well as believably vivid--the constant comparisons between her and her cowardly husband's attitudes towards war and combat are instructive. The series also is definitely thinking about gender, both in the person of Ash (who is not the only woman in the books, or on the battlefield) and of her company's doctor, and their thorny relationship. There are also just a lot of women wandering around in general, which is both historically accurate and depressingly remarkable for the genre.

Kate Elliott asked me on Twitter whether the books pass the Bechdel test; they do, but the women are mostly talking about war. Given that war is the subject and the setting, there is quite a lot of vividly described violence in these books, including some gender-based violence and at least one rape. I found these scenes much less exploitative than comparable scenes in books by male writers, on the whole, but YMMV.

The one false note in the whole, for me, is the frame tale concerning the academics and editors preparing to publish the Ash manuscripts at the turn of the third millennium. They're almost universally incredibly annoying, and ironically, given her consummate mastery of medieval society and warfare, Gentle utterly biffs how academic publishing works, probably for the sake of dramatics. First I started skipping the in-text footnotes and then I started skimming the appended emails, and that vastly improved my reading experience.

All in all, these books are a brilliant, discomforting alternate historical fantasy with more invention than many writers can muster for their entire careers. As [personal profile] cofax7 remarked to me, Gentle swings for the fences; though I haven't yet read the other two books and can't say if this is a home run, it's well worth reading, and recommended.

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