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Title: Annihilation (Southern Reach Book 1)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Published: FSG Originals, 2014
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 195
Total Page Count: 218,840
Text Number: 664
Read Because: personal enjoyment, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A biologist joins an expedition into Area X, quarantined after an undisclosed event and now uninhabited. This is akin to the most compelling and surreal parts of the podcast TANIS, or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise—half terrain, half experience, entirely a revelation, thick with body horror and existential horror. The ending is substantial and convincing, which is crucial to this type of narrative. For better or worse, the bizarre usually needs a counterbalance, both to contrast and distract, so the intrigue isn't lost; here, that's the protagonist and her husband, a relationship which is bland and vaguely unlikeable. But the short length means most of the focus can be Area X itself, and VanderMeer's distant narration, a removed and precise take on New Weird's vivid imagery, is a strong fit. I really enjoyed this; it's easy to come up with this premise, but requires both creativity and discretion to drive it home, to make it profound but keep it on the edge of unknowable. This hit that balance, to satisfying effect.

Title: Empire of Ivory (Temeraire Book 4)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Books on Tape, 2007
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 400
Total Page Count: 211,240
Text Number: 665
Read Because: continuing the series, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Laurence and Temeraire search for a cure to the illness ravaging England's dragons. Unlike the previous installment, this book has a solid throughline. The plot makes for extraordinarily satisfying hurt/comfort—revolving around Laurence and Temeraire, but, unusually, also around other dragons and their captains; it's a welcome broadening of emotional investment, and works beautifully. This book also marks the series's first major departure from history (dragons aside, of course), and it's a telling change that directly addresses the racial issues that permeate the narrative. I was initially skeptical of the tendency to elide historical slavery and the fictional social role of dragons, but the way this development works, combined with increasingly diverse representation, specifically of Africans, goes a long way to resolving that. This series is super tropey, in its tone and relationships, which is what makes it so compulsively readable. But the underlying historical setting, with all its injustice and complication, tempers and enriches that tone. I'm remain in love with the series, but this volume in particular was fantastic. (And, that ending!)

Title: The Summer Prince
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Narrators: Rebecca Mozo, Lincoln Hoppe
Published: Scholastic Audio, 2013
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 300
Total Page Count: 211,540
Text Number: 666
Read Because: reading more from the author, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: The kings of Palmares Tres are elected by the public and ritually sacrificed by the queen, a symbolic role disrupted by the election of an unusually popular king plucked from the city's lowest social class. It's hard to introduce this novel's elements—nanotechnology, post-apocalyptic manufactured societies, celebrity, love affairs, art—in a summary; the book does a better job of it, of sinking the reader deeper and deeper into the larger-than-life, vibrantly detailed world of Palmares Tres. In another setting, the romances would be melodramatic; within this appropriately heightened tableau, they're bittersweet and symbolic, and refreshingly non-monogamous.

This is what I hoped for, after I read Love is the Drug and found it unsatisfying but saw potential in the author: I wanted that diversity, that eye for daily detail, that penchant for dramatic romances, explored within a creative and highly speculative setting. And the result is remarkable, grandiose and complicated and sincerely emotional, and one of my favorite books of the year.


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