Summer 2020 reading: queens, bandits, goblins, and a galaxy far, far away

Lockdown summer reading

I got my reading bug back halfway through lockdown, just in time for summer. So instead of going out with my friends, I’ve been reading some standalone fantasy, a little bit of science fiction, and a whole lot of Star Wars.

The Queens of Innis Lear, by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of Innis Lear, by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of Innis Lear is a retelling of King Lear set in the fantasy island kingdom of Innis Lear as it undergoes not only a succession crisis but also a crisis of magic. The island is dying, and has been since the death of Lear’s wife Dalat sent him into a single-minded obsession over the stars, neglecting the root magic of the island. Gaela, Regan, and Elia must figure out how to rule the island before midwinter, when a queen must be crowned.

The richly drawn world in which Innis Lear sits is exactly the escapism I needed at the beginning of this pandemic. Gratton really knows how to make a world lush and immersive, from traditions to wars to landscape to people. And in that world, the characters whose motivations are so deeply rooted in it are so very understandable, even the villains. I saw myself in Gaela, my heart bled for Regan, and I wanted to shake Elia—just a little—even while I was desperate for her to succeed.

Queens of Innis Lear is a goddamn Shakespearean fantasy epic, and if that’s your jam I can’t recommend it enough.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

Maia is the fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, half-goblin, long relegated to a country estate with an abusive guardian, and utterly uncared for. Until one day, his father and three older brothers die in an airship crash, and Maia finds himself the new emperor. Maia has to find his feet quickly, before he loses what precarious control he has over the government and the querulous noble houses.

Katherine Addison has a real gift for characters. While high fantasy, with unfamiliar names and titles, can sometimes be confusing, everyone in this novel stands out, from cameos to major roles. And I felt something for every character, whether love or hatred. (Mostly love. Mostly for everyone in Maia’s household.)

I sincerely appreciate how The Goblin Emperor doesn’t waste time with feints and fake-outs about Maia failing to live up to his ideals. In a kingdom stacked against him, it’s Maia’s uncompromising certainty that he will not be the same kind of emperor as his father that sees him through. And it’s the same goodness in him that draws people to him. Every real friend and ally he finds throughout the novel come to him because of his conscientiousness, his sense of justice, his kindness.

A story where kindness wins is a story I really needed right now.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, by Zen Cho

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, by Zen Cho

Zen Cho has described her novella The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water as fanfiction of a wuxia TV series that never existed. I see it—and I love it. Cho zooms us into a tiny slice of a big world: while a guerrilla war rages against an colonising power, we focus on a single group of bandits trying to complete one job. Their task is complicated, however, by an uninvited tag-along. They’re joined by a nun, a votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, called Guet Imm, whose temple has been destroyed. Because of her, things go sideways for the group, and for second-in-command Tet Sang in particular. This is a great little story that manages to examine how to envision a future when you can’t live with your past while still being fun to read.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Why did I wait so long to read this?!

Murderbot, a cyborg robot designed for security, is assigned to a survey team on an uninhabited planet. It spends its time watching drama serials and trying not to let anyone discover it’s hacked its governor module to allow it free will. Things go south for the survey team, and Murderbot discovers it actually wants to protect these humans.

I love Murderbot. (I actually feel conflicted about calling it that, but I feel conflicted about calling it ‘it’ too, so that’s just a reification of how sad and shitty it is to be Murderbot.) I knew the character was supposed to be relatable, but I didn’t realise how specifically relatable to me it would be.

Murderbot is bad at humans. It doesn’t like talking to them, it doesn’t like them looking at it. Unlike most SF robots, Murderbot is very bad at controlling the expressions on its organic face. Murderbot copes with life by sinking into fiction. I can’t help but see myself in Murderbot, as well as a character I desperately want to have good things happen to, and when the survey team realises that Murderbot is its own person and almost without reservation accepts it and wants it to be comfortable with them, I just went all gooey inside.

All Systems Red is a story about a deeply traumatised person finding a form of redemption and acceptance through the transformative power of platonic love, and I bloody love it.

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights, edited by Chris Bain, Patrick Weekes, Matthew Goldman, and Christopher Morgan

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights, edited by Chris Bain, Patrick Weekes, Matthew Goldman and Christopher Morgan

A collection of stories by Dragon Age writers set in Thedas, Tevinter Nights is a sneak peek of what’s to come in Dragon Age 4. There’s plenty of material to ponder over if that’s why you’re reading, and there’s a handful of callbacks to the previous games too. Highlights of this collection were the story ‘Callback’, which is shameless nostalgia-bait for Inquisition, and does it so, so well; and ‘Dread Wolf Take You’, which was not only ominous foreshadowing but also just a cool story; and ‘Genitivi Dies in the End’, which is just super fun, even if it didn’t involve the characters it does.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, by Karen Traviss

Star Wars: the Clone Wars, by Karen Traviss

I’m no military SF fan, and besides being a Star Wars novel—maybe because it’s a Star Wars novel? I guess it’s sort of in the name—the novelisation of the film The Clone Wars is very much military SF. Karen Traviss’ background as a defence correspondent really shines through in this novel. She clearly knows what’s she’s on about, and that experience gives the galaxy far, far away real depth and grit. Especially when it comes to the clones.

No lie, I read this novel for the clones alone. (Surprising no one who knows me.) Traviss has a real feel for clone culture, presumably by way of her familiarity with a soldier’s life, and because of that her portrayal of the clones is sensitive, nuanced, and full of insight.

But it’s not just the clones Traviss makes compelling. I never thought I’d grow to like Jabba the Hutt so much! But Traviss’ characterisation in Jabba’s perspective chapters is so spot-on and sympathetic, I have a new appreciation for the character. I also enjoyed her depiction of Ahsoka not only as the chirpy teenage girl we know from the film and TV show, but as a Togruta, whose alien ancestry makes her especially suited for warfare as well as sometimes unsettling to humans.

I’m not the biggest fan of the film, but this novelisation knocked my socks off.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Wild Space, by Karen MillerStar Wars: the Clone Wars: Wild Space, by Karen Miller

Wild Space is the second book in the Clone Wars series, following on from Karen Traviss’ novelisation of the Clone Wars film. I actually read this one third, after Traviss’ No Prisoners, which should actually come chronologically after Wild Space.

Making a snap judgement as I am wont to do, I think it’s clear that while Traviss’ preferred subjects are the clones themselves, Miller is an Obi-Wan Kenobi stan. Looking at the series as a whole, I think the authors coming at the subject of the Clone Wars from different angles is absolutely a good thing. But this did mean I was a little confused as to what the story actually was for a good long while—because I expected more, y’know, clones.

What didn’t help is that the book starts with a flashback to the opening battle of the war, on Geonosis, and then spends the rest of the first third of its pagecount mucking about on Coruscant. Finally, as the focus narrowed, I discovered what the book was actually about: it’s an idiots-to-friends story between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bail Organa!

I am one hundred percent in love with this concept. By the end of the prequel trilogy, Obi-Wan trusts Bail enough to hand over one of Anakin’s twin babies to him, but we never see much background to their relationship. Miller gives us that story in true fanfiction style—by sticking them in a cramped spaceship together for a super secret mission, then, when they get to their objective, putting them through absolute, unrelenting, Sith-induced hell. I get the feeling Miller has a thing for putting Obi-Wan in particular through the physical and emotional wringer—which I’m perfectly fine with, especially given how much the Star Wars films and TV shows seem to enjoy it too. Also thank you, Karen Miller, for the sweaty shirtless Jedi fanservice in this novel.

Given how much I liked the main story, I just wish the other faults of this book had been ironed out. I didn’t need to see Anakin and Padmé’s relationship issues, I didn’t need to read quite so much gloating inner monologue from Palpatine, I didn’t need Yoda’s perspective on the clones or Anakin’s opinion on his new battle cruisers. I didn’t even need to see the attack on Coruscant that sets up the main plot. It felt like Miller was trying to cram as much big picture as possible into the window of time before the story narrowed to two characters—and it didn’t work.

And personally, I’m not sure this exactly qualifies as a Clone Wars story, apart from that it happens to take place during the Clone Wars. Obi-Wan and Bail both lived before and after the war. Their mission wasn’t particularly related to the war. There were basically no clones in this book, and when there were they might as well have been replaced by non-clone characters. To compare to Miller’s series co-author, Traviss’ novels feel very rooted in the time and place, while this might easily have happened somewhere, somewhen, else.

Even despite its flaws, I still find myself thinking about this book days after finishing it. Because of the subject matter, this book was an emotional ride, and Miller wrapped it up with grace. This book is a cautious recommend for Obi-Wan nerds like me. (But ignore that truly awful cover. It will only hurt you.)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: No Prisoners, by Karen Traviss

Star Wars: the Clone Wars: No Prisoners, by Karen Traviss

Not longer after the events of the film, The Clone Wars, Captain Rex is assigned to bring a batch of six shinies—brand new clone troopers—for a ride on the Republic cruiser Leveler as it tests new, experimental weapons. The new clones are new members of Torrent Company, 501st Legion, which was almost entirely wiped out on Teth during the events of The Clone Wars. And because Anakin wants some time alone with Padmé, Ahsoka is sent along with Rex for what should be an easy, uneventful mission.

Obviously, everything goes wrong. Hallena Devis, Republic spy, is trapped on JanFathal, a planet in the middle of a revolution against its tyrannical Regent, and she needs extraction. Leveler is the only Republic ship close enough to help, and just happens to be helmed by Devis’ lover, Captain Gilad Pellaeon. What’s more, there’s a wandering sect of Jedi who are keen to help—Jedi who broke off from the Jedi Order because of the Order’s growing militarism and its rules on attachment.

No Prisoners is all about love. I mean, in the vein of The Clone Wars novelisation before it, it’s unflinching in the face of the horrors of war. But what this book really wants to talk about is love and war, how love leads to compassion and how war necessitates that compassion only go so far, and no further.

Djinn Altis, an unorthodox Jedi master, points out the cruelty of breeding a race of people—the clones—just for war, and the moral failure of the Jedi Order in accepting it. Callista Masana, a Jedi who can use the Force to commune with machines, is willing to meld her mind with a ship’s weapons system, but refuses to consider doing so with a battledroid, for fear of inevitable empathy. Hallena Devis, the most morally grey character and the one who struggles with morality the most, is a spy for the Republic—she feels for the people around her on JanFathal, understands their struggle, but even so she has to betray them.

And Rex. Can I talk about Rex? This book really leans into just how young the clones are. Those who serve with the clones see them as men—Captain Pellaeon, for example—but Master Altis notes how they feel ‘like children’ in the Force, and his Jedi followers see them as kids. The Clone Wars novelisation saw Rex bitter about the loss of his company, and when some of his boys die in No Prisoners, he’s heartbroken. At this point in time, Rex is struggling with handling the loss of troopers under his command (and to be honest I’m not sure he ever gets hardened to it). And Ahsoka sees this, and it triggers her own conflict.

(I love the way Traviss writes Rex and Ahsoka’s relationship: the real, close, odd friendship between a Jedi general’s young padawan and his technically younger but more experienced clone captain.)

At parts, the book leans too far into its themes and gets a little preachy. Master Altis and his followers are particularly prone to Socratic dialogues on the nature of war, love, and the Republic. But I didn’t mind, because a) their viewpoint is my own, and I like to feel validated, and b) this is such an emotional book. There’s so much suffering in No Prisoners, I don’t mind a little discourse about what it’s all for.

If you’re into The Clone Wars series, and if you’re as fond of clones as I am, this book (and the Traviss one before it) is for you. It’ll make you sad, but that’s what this period in Star Wars history does best.

Ahsoka, by E. K. Johnston

Ahsoka, by E. K. Johnston

I’ve had this book for an aeon and only just cracked it open off the back of my household’s Clone Wars rewatch. Ahsoka, Anakin Skywalker’s accidental padawan, has my whole heart and always will, so I was already supremely invested in this book before I even turned the first page.

Ahsoka finds the eponymous heroine after Order 66 and the end of the Clone Wars, a fugitive ex-Jedi hiding from Imperial forces, just trying to keep her head down and survive. Fleeing from Imperial scrutiny on the planet Thabeska, she winds up on the Outer Rim farming moon Raada, where she makes a living as a mechanic and grows close with the farmers there, including Kaeden Larte, the first person she meets. While Kaeden begins to develop feelings for Ahsoka despite not knowing anything about her past, Ahsoka deals with the trauma of the loss of her Jedi family. But the Empire has a plan for Raada, and Ahsoka is determined that this time she’ll save the people around her.

This book tells the story of a pivotal part of Ahsoka’s history between The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels—how she goes from alone, helpless, and hunted, to Fulcrum, intelligence agent for the nascent Rebellion. While there are some continuity issues—Ahsoka was published before the final season of The Clone Wars aired so the exact events don’t quite match up—Ahsoka’s struggles feel grittily real and her victory, of sorts, fully earned.

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of ViewStar Wars: From a Certain Point of View

I’ve been quietly coveting this book for actual years—since before it even came out—and when my partner bought it for me a few weeks ago, I was beyond excited to read it. I wasn’t disappointed with this one after my long wait. From a Certain Point of View celebrates 40 years since Star Wars: Episode IV was released with 40 stories looking at the events of the film from different and often unexpected perspectives.

The stories range from the surprising—Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘The Baptist’ tells the story of the monster in the Death Star trash compactor, and ‘Of MSE-6 and Men’ by Glen Weldon is a silly yet kind of tragic gay twist on certain Imperial personnel—to the deeply touching: for example, Gary D. Schmidt’s ‘There is Another’, about Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s first conversation in a long, long while, and Pierce Brown’s ‘Desert Son’, the story of Biggs Darklighter’s final moments, made me well up. An honourable mention goes to Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction’s ‘The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper’—even in the middle, where the seemingly neverending Tatooine cantina stories began to blur into one another, this one stood out as genuinely the best Star Wars short story I’ve ever read, and quite possibly the best caper story I’ve ever read too.

From a Certain Point of View has the feel of a reboot or a re-cut of Episode IV: it has the shape of the film you know, and even the feel, but the faces are new. This is my favourite kind of transformative work—the kind that makes you look at the original media anew, with different eyes. Having read it, I don’t think I’m going to be able to watch the original in the same way again. This collection deepens and complicates A New Hope, and I love that.

There’s a lot of uncertainty and despair going around at the moment, and I know that reading—fiction, specifically—is helping me cope with the state of the world and the UK in particular. What’s that thing Tolkien said about prisoners and escapism? Yeah, that. I hope I can hold onto my reading habit as the year slopes down into autumn and whatever fresh hell that will bring.

If you’re reading this, I hope you’re able to find some escapism of your own, too.

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