It’s been a literal century since I last sent a letter. I don’t know when I’ll send the next one, or if I will. Feel free to delete or unsub (or both!) if you find this unwelcome. If not, read on!
Each winter I take a break and try to read as many books as I can. It’s a fortifying behavior, both a recovery and a steeling up for the year ahead. Here, in no particular order, are some of the books that I have drawn from this year and years past.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr / John Crowley
Ka recounts the adventures of a crow named Dar Oakley, who—nearly two thousand years ago—ventured to the underworld with a young girl and stole the gift of immortality she meant to acquire for her fellow humans. From then, Dar Oakley lives and dies and lives again, crossing from the world of crows (Ka) into the world of humans (Ymr) and back, as the two become more and more the same, broken, place. I read this last winter, and will shortly pick it up again.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea: Stories / Sarah Pinsker
In the titular story from this collection, the world has gone to hell, and those with means have absconded to the sea, in cruise ships where no one gets off at port. One morning, a woman from one of the ships washes up to shore in a rescue boat, alive—but only barely. In this and other stories in Pinsker’s collection, there is grief and anger and hope, even when so much seems worthy of despair. The final story is the kind of gobsmackingly brilliant tale I want to hate her for writing (but don’t).
Gideon the Ninth / Tamsyn Muir
The cover blurb to this novel promises “lesbian necromancers in space,” and the pages within do not disappoint. Gideon is an indentured servant in the Ninth House, her freedom curtailed by her childhood nemesis: the necromancer Harrowhawk. When the Emperor invites Harrowhawk to partake in a deadly trial, she cajoles Gideon into joining. What follows is a kind of haunted house mystery, in which Harrowhawk attempts to uncover the secrets that will make her immortal, while Gideon tries to keep both them and her newfound crush alive. The tale is hilarious and romantic and gory in equal measure, and I loved every minute of it.
The Cass Neary Crime Novels / Elizabeth Hand
“My life, who could pretend there wasn’t a big fucking hole in it?” Cass Neary is in her 40s, broke, and mostly lost. Her knack is for noticing—and capturing—damage, and where she goes, there’s inevitably a lot of damage to go around. I consumed all three of these books in three days and cannot wait for the rumored fourth book to land.
The Inheritence Trilogy / N.K. Jemisin
You've probably already read Jemisin's widely-acclaimed Broken Earth Trilogy (if not, do get on it), but have you read everything else she’s ever written? No? Well here’s a good way to correct that error: The Inheritance Trilogy is an epic of (literally) Greek proportions, concerning a group of gods and their godling children as they love and fight among themselves and their human creations. There are murders and trysts and demons—the children of god-human couplings—and a tale that spans thousands of years and generations of mortals who both worship and abuse their fickle deities. The collected edition includes a short story that follows the trilogy which alone is more than worth the price of the cover.
The Earthsea Cycle / Ursula Le Guin
The first book in Le Guin’s famed Earthsea cycle introduces Ged, a young and brilliant, albeit cocky, wizard who attempts to use magic he doesn’t fully understand, with dire consequences. The tale reads like many a classic fantasy story, but some core elements are subverted: Ged is dark-skinned, and a flawed hero, unlike the impeccable white heroes of so many other fantasies. The subversions continue in the books that follow, in which Ged eventually loses his magic, and a young girl—burned beyond recognition—becomes the hero. I regret I never got the chance to read these as a child, as I’m certain they would have changed me. As an adult, I return to them again and again.
The Left Hand of Darkess / Ursula Le Guin
A human envoy from a collection of planets known as the Ekumen, Genly Ai arrives on a planet known as “Winter.” This other world is mostly glacier, with a thin strip of habitable land which several nations share uneasily but peacefully. The people of Winter vacillate between genders, living most of the time as neither man nor woman, but regularly and briefly changing into one or the other to partner. The envoy’s solitary mission is to welcome them to the Ekumen, but to do so he must first find welcome himself. I have read this book over and over and still find something new in it with each read.
The Mere Wife / Maria Dahvana Headley
This is a take on Beowulf, and it’s masterful. Gren is a boy raised by his mother, Dana, who served in the war after 9/11 and returned home, pregnant, unaware of how she came to be that way. The neighborhood she grew up in has been demolished and rebuilt as a walled, wealthy, suburban enclave; even her mother’s grave has been built over. She crouches in an old train station beneath a nearby mountain, hidden and—temporarily—safe. The story weaves threads of segregation, police violence, PTSD, the rage and terror of suburban housewives, lost limbs, and children in love. A mesmerizing, sawtoothed allegory, perfect for long winter nights.
Hild / Nicola Griffith
From the scant historical record of Hild of Whitby, Griffith spins an extraordinary story of a girl who learns to navigate the world of kings and thegns. Hild is fierce and clever, learning through observation and performance that she can effect events that would otherwise only be manageable by the sword. Griffith’s immensely detailed research brings seventh-century England into relief, but it’s her resolve in letting Hild emerge from that world that really stuns. Every sentence is a bright, sharp stone demanding your attention.
Angelmaker / Nick Harkaway
Part noir, part old-school Bond thriller, part apocalyptic science fiction tale, and completely magnificent.
Lilith’s Brood / Octavie Butler
One of Butler's primary obsessions is with human evolution and change: how must we adapt in order to continue to survive? Nowhere is that obsession more provocatively explored than in this collection of novels. The story begins with a woman named Lilith, who survives a disastrous war on Earth only to find the planet invaded by aliens, themselves refugees from a world they can no longer remember. Lilith’s struggle is complex: she defends humanity while also becoming complicit in what is arguably its undoing. But the ways in which humanity is undone—physically and otherwise—are fascinating and challenging and hopeful.
It isn’t a working letter without a cocktail recommendation, and besides, you need something to drink while you read. I love a good martini, but its cousin, the gibson, is even better and criminally absent from most restaurant menus; let’s fix that. Go ahead and buy cocktail onions for a quick fix, but if you want to really knock this out of the park, make your own.
2 1/4 oz gin (I stock Tanqueray, but Beefeater or Plymouth would also be great here)
3/4 oz dry vermouth
1 cocktail onion
Add the onion to a chilled cocktail glass. Pour gin and vermouth over ice and stir until very cold—a few seconds longer than seems reasonable. Strain into the glass with the waiting onion and enjoy.
Thanks for reading! Please do reply with book recommendations if you like. For those of you in the northern hemisphere: the days get longer from here on out. Rest up and be well.
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