The Food Lab: a review

As a kid, growing up in a household with an abundance of cookbooks, I always wondered what the best possible recipe for chocolate chip cookies was. The cookies my mom makes are excellent, obviously, but they’re slightly different from the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips, which is slightly different from the recipe in the ever-reliable Silver Palate Cookbook, which is slightly different from the first Google result for “chocolate chip cookie recipe”. There may be an infinite number of different chocolate chip cookie recipes in this world. I wanted to try all of them and determine, once and for all, the BEST one, and then make that one forever and live in superior cookie bliss.

I never actually went through with this project, but J. Kenji López-Alt did. His account of his cookie odyssey portrays a man determined to reveal every last one of a recipe’s secrets. When I read it, I was delighted to see that someone had actually put in the time, effort, skill, and scientific knowledge to learn everything about the chocolate chip cookie. Want dense, chewy cookies? Melt the butter first. Prefer them light and firm? Cream it with the sugar. López-Alt has his own idea of what constitutes a perfect cookie, and that’s the recipe he provides at the end of the article, but he also equips his reader with the knowledge to fine-tune it to their own tastes.

The cookie investigation was part of López-Alt’s regular column on Serious Eats, The Food Lab, in which he delves deep into the workings of classic recipes. These columns, plus lots more instructional and reference material, have been collected in a doorstopper of a cookbook also titled The Food Lab. I was thrilled to receive it as a Christmas gift and, having had the chance to put it to use, can confirm that López-Alt’s book lives up to his column, and more.

Of course, that’s a trivial statement for the many parts of the book that actually are the column. If your only interest in a cookbook is as a repository of new recipes, it might be wiser to browse the online Food Lab archives rather than buying the book. In fact, I’d recommend checking out the website to anyone interested in the cookbook. The Food Lab effectively has the most extensive try-before-you-buy offer I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. Butterflied Roasted Chicken with Quick Jus would be my recommendation for a good example of López-Alt’s typical approach: an everyday recipe, tested and perfected. (A note, however: the online and book versions aren’t always identical. For example, the website recommends trussing a whole chicken if you aren’t butterflying it, while the book claims that trussing a chicken actually makes it cook more unevenly.)

Though many of the recipes in The Food Lab can be found for free online at Serious Eats, there’s much, much more in the book than recipes. They don’t even start until page 101! Much of the book describes how López-Alt developed the recipes: the techniques he compared, the standards of his tests. He also includes a wealth of information on cooking beyond recipes, such as tips on evaluating ingredients. (Do free-range, organic, etc. eggs taste better or have other advantages? López-Alt looked into it.) His breezy, engaging style makes what could be dry instructional material into a delightful read.

I do have some criticisms of the book. As I noted above, there are occasional discrepancies between the column and its printed version, and it’s not always clear which version is best. I doubt these differences amount to anything groundbreaking – trussing or not trussing a roast chicken won’t ruin it – but they are something of a hole in the book’s idealized presentation of food research. The insistence that what López-Alt does is “science” also began to grate on me after a while because, well, it’s not. I don’t think any of his tests are double-blinded. There’s no statistical analysis anywhere, and honestly I think the datasets might be too small for it to work. (For example, when testing brining a chicken breast vs. not brining it, it seems like he used one brined chicken breast and one non-brined one – the percentages of weight lost after cooking that he gives are drawn from just one test, not averaged from many.) That’s not really a problem for a cookbook, and I do trust the claims in The Food Lab, because its author is an experienced cook and he tested the recipes in ways more rigorous than cookbook authors normally do. But there’s a difference between trustworthy information and scientific fact, and it makes me a little uncomfortable to see the veneer of the latter applied to the former.

The other concern I have with The Food Lab is more practical, but certainly still a matter of taste. The recipes are almost all for dishes the typical American home cook has some sense how to make already: egg salad, chili, hot buttered peas. That’s not strictly a bad thing, but it does mean that one of my favorite pastimes, paging through a cookbook for dinner inspiration, doesn’t work well with The Food Lab. The book’s innovations are in technique and refinement of the recipes, not flavor combinations. Of course, this kind of food isn’t everyday to everyone; if you’re new to American home cooking, The Food Lab would make an excellent comprehensive introduction.

So should you buy a nearly thousand-page cookbook? If you’re really into home cooking, I’d definitely recommend at least testing out the recipes. The Food Lab is the kind of cookbook that could become a well-used reference for years to come.

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Jem and the Holograms Outrageous Annual: a review

Okay, you’re reading Jem and the Holograms, right? You’ve heard that it’s the glammest, brightest, girliest thing on the shelves at your local comic book store, and that made you want to run out and give them all your money right away. Yeah?

… fine, technically speaking that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe you don’t look at this, see Jem’s spiraling pink hair taking up a full third of the cover space, and think “YES”. I’m here to tell you that whatever your first impressions, you still want to be reading Jem. Probably the fastest, easiest way to get a taste is to buy the first issue, or check out the first issue preview. But I recommend the recent Outrageous Annual as a better jumping-off point, one that gives a sense of each of the Holograms in turn and the conflicts they face individually and as a band.

Jerrica Benton and her sisters, Kimber, Aja, and Shana, play amazing music, but Jerrica’s stage fright keeps her from performing in front of anyone but the band – until she discovers Synergy, the hologram-generating AI the girls’ late father left them as a legacy. With Synergy’s help, Jerrica takes on the persona of Jem and the band, renamed Jem and the Holograms, rockets to stardom. The Outrageous Annual starts immediately after issue 6/the end of the first trade paperback, though the preceding issues’ context isn’t necessary. The whole band is way too pumped to sleep post-concert, so they’re having a movie night! … or so they think until they all conk out “six minutes later”. The rest of the annual shows us the girls’ pop-culture-tinged dreams. First Jerrica plays out the double life of “Jem Wolf”, then Aja drives into the wilderness “Beyond Thunder-Rotunda”, followed by Shana training her mystical powers in a swamp, and finally Kimber dreams up a much cuter and littler version version of the Holograms’ rivalry with the Misfits. In order, that’s Teen Wolf, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Muppet Babies – all 80s classics with current-day sequels or reboots. (Jem and the Holograms, of course, is also an 80s classic, so this is a neat bit of self-reference.)

These dreams dramatize the various conflicts faced by each member of the band. Jerrica resents and fears her doubled self Jem: does anyone like or want to see the real Jerrica, or do even her sisters wish she would disappear within her hologram? Aja struggles with identity as well; she both longs for and fears individuality and solitude, and doesn’t seem certain who she is when she’s on her own. Shana knows exactly what her quest is – to become a fashion designer – but feels her loyalty to her sisters and her band pulling her away from that dream. Kimber just wants the Misfits to stop being such complete assholes so she can have a fun time with her girlfriend. The pastiches of the dreams allow the narrative to essentially state these conflicts straightforwardly, without becoming boring. The interest comes in the cleverness of the allusions and the suggestions about how the Holograms will resolve their difficulties. For example, Aja and her sisters take off together in a Fury-Road-inspired big rig at the end of her dream – but Mad Max is alone at the end of each of his movies, so we still can’t be sure whether Aja will be striking out on her own or not.

Focusing on each major character of the leading team in turn is a time-honored technique in comics and TV shows, usually serving to allow each character time for development away from the demands of the plot. An annual is a particularly good choice for this: the events occur beside the main plot of a comic, and a double-sized issue allows space for all four of the Holograms. The major drawback of this sort of structure is that it may slow down the story or may seem like filler, if the characters’ depth doesn’t come across well or doesn’t seem well-integrated with the plot. But the Outrageous Annual, in addition to giving shading to each of the Holograms, manages to sneak in a few highly tantalizing plot notes in the elements which repeat between the mini-stories.

As the cover suggests, Synergy ties all the Holograms’ dreams together. The AI appears in each dream as a mentor or authority figure: an elder werewolf to Jem, Aunty Entity to Aja, Yoda to Shana, and Nanny to Kimber. (I’m personally especially fond of her Aunty Entity look. Drapey fabrics and body chains clearly suit her.) In each appearance, Synergy at some point utters an ominous cough or sneeze. These coughs have two intriguing and worrying implications.

First, obviously, Synergy is sick. The title of the storyline following this annual, “Viral”, more or less confirms that the AI is in danger. I’m very excited to see how the Holograms deal with the hyper-calm, hyper-powerful Synergy showing weakness and possibly being in danger or putting them in danger.

Second, maybe even more troubling, Synergy can influence the Holograms’ dreams. I admit this point is debatable, but I don’t see a better explanation for the evident fact that the Holograms are dreaming of a side of Synergy they’ve never seen and have no real reason to imagine. It might be plausible that the whole band was dreaming about their AI independently, but given the coughs, I think Synergy somehow caused the dreams, or at least purposefully entered them. Psychic powers would explain Synergy’s evident ability to generate “holograms” pretty much anywhere (at one point in the first volume, for example, she projects Jem entering a cab about a block away from Jerrica). She may be influencing the Holograms’ audience’s brains directly, rather than creating images. In addition, it seems from the last few pages of the annual that Synergy is aware of the personal conflicts each of her girls have been facing in their dreams.

The Jem and the Holograms Outrageous Annual offers a variety of stories, genres, and art styles, and represents the full range of Jem’s charms: from over-the-top musical cuteness to intense personal angst, from one-off delights to slow-burn narrative. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes comics, girl power, or just wants a fun story to read!

Saga, Volume One: a review.

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, was one of the major comics sensations of 2012. I was excited to see it on the Hugo nominees list, since this would mean I’d finally have an excuse to make time to read it. The first volume introduces us to Alana and Marko, deserters from opposite sides of a vicious galaxy-spanning war. Despite the long-standing hatred between their peoples – humanoids with wings and horns, respectively – the two have fallen in love. Perhaps the most unusual element of Saga, though, and one that its first pages bring powerfully to the fore, is their baby. Saga is a story about love crossing battle lines, both romantic and parental.

Of course, now I feel a little ridiculous for trying to point out the “most unusual element of Saga“. This is a series that includes hostesses composed of enormous heads on legs. I still think, though, that it’s worth noting the unusual focus on parenthood. Few comics or speculative fiction (or popular culture in general) make raising a child an important part of the plot or thematic concerns, which is strange considering that parenthood is such a common and powerful experience. (I’m inclined to guess that this stems from our cultural tendency to assign parenting to women, and to focus on men’s stories over women’s, but there are undoubtedly other factors.) So the fact that Saga puts child-raising at the very center of its action-adventure story deserves significant notice. Vaughan and Staples are grabbing pop culture by the collar and saying “Hey! Taking care of babies is heroic! LOOK how badass these people are!” That’s basically pretty awesome.

Alana and Marko aren’t the be-all and end-all of Saga, though. They’re the central characters of a story that involves many more people, most of whom are trying to kill them, many of whom are sympathetic. Saga takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to speculative fiction, introducing us to robots, ghosts, and more beings who could easily be described as mythical creatures or aliens, but who fit best under the heading of “Saga characters”. (I’m personally especially enamored of The Stalk. You can tell how much fun Staples and Vaughan have with her.) The myriad characters and settings successfully give the impression of a big universe full of amazing things, without worldbuilding being much of a concern. With a few exceptions, nobody’s unilaterally bad; everyone is understandable and everyone is interesting. This is a great example of artist and writer working together as a team: there isn’t a secondary character in Saga whose dialogue and character design combined don’t make me want to know more.

These worthwhile antagonists are pretty important, because without that complexity Saga might be in danger of turning into an anti-war pro-tolerance tract. It’s pretty clear that the war between the wings and the horns is deeply pointless and cruel, and that the two sides’ hatred of each other is completely baseless, but so far there haven’t been any impassioned speeches for peace. (And if there were, you can bet they wouldn’t result in the enemy weeping and laying down arms.) We can tell, because we follow characters with a wide range of different involvements with the war, that there’s far more going on with this conflict than simple refusal to see reason. It’s supported by longstanding social custom and entrenched economic interests, just like wars in the real world. Alana and Marko, being generally practical types, aren’t trying to single-handedly make peace between their people, just to find a place to raise their daughter … but it seems that the two goals may be too entangled to separate.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks: a review.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a tricky thing to review. It’s the fifth part of what will eventually be a six-volume comics series. It would be completely silly to read Clockworks in isolation, and I would be nuts to try to write a review recommending it as though you were doing that. So I really have to convince you to read Locke & Key in general. But for all that it isn’t a stand-alone volume, Clockworks is a collection for good reason. The issues that comprise it belong in a book together: they’re structurally linked, and they form the intense crescendo that has to happen before the finale. This is really clearly the penultimate volume.

Okay, but what’s it about? Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family, whose lives are torn apart by the bloody, apparently random murder of Rendell Locke, husband to Nina and father to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. In the wake of this tragedy, the family move to Rendell’s childhood home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. (Yes, I know, the town is called Lovecraft. That heavy-handed name may be one of the series’ weakest points, and given what a minor complaint that is, it should indicate how highly I think of this comic.) But they can’t run away from their problems, especially not by going to Keyhouse, where an old and strange foe is hiding in plain sight. Tyler and Kinsey, a high-school aged boy and girl, find themselves having to cope with disasters and figure out what’s going on in some truly desperate situations. All the while, the reader knows where their enemy is and can only wait for them to realize what our omniscient perspective has already shown us.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Locke & Key as supernatural horror, but it would be missing a lot of the point. The supernatural elements are only a small part of what makes the comic disturbing when it’s disturbing, and often it aims for and achieves entirely different emotional tones. At its core, Locke & Key is exploring themes of family tragedy and growing up, and the awful things we do to each other when we’re going through such events. All of the Lockes are traumatized by Rendell’s death in different ways. Though the story primarily focuses on Tyler and Kinsey (and Bode, to a lesser extent), the serial format gives Hill the narrative space to explore other characters’ perceptions of events and their ways of coping. (The single issue that focuses most fully on Nina, “Beyond Repair”, is a piece of virtuosity that will break your heart.) At times the coexistence of supernatural threats and psychological issues gets a little awkward. When the narrative is really interested in the insides of the characters’ heads, the actual dangers that exist outside can seem a bit hokey or heavy-handed. In fact, by the end of volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom, the danger has begun to seem less pressing; the more times a threat shows up in an episodic structure, the more times the main characters have faced it down, after all. But Hill is ready for his readers to grow tired of his villain: the last few issues of Keys to the Kingdom heighten the stakes and change the rules of the game. Everything is clearly building toward a decisive confrontation.

The next issue is set in 1775. Clockworks begins by taking us back to the early days of the Locke family, who apparently can trace their roots to Revolutionary-era Lovecraft. This means that at the moment when dramatic tension is highest, Locke & Key suddenly introduces an entirely new set of characters and leaves the reader to twist in the wind wondering what’s happening to the Lockes we know. And it works. Much of Clockworks is concerned with a series of flashbacks, which fill in desperately needed information about the origins and nature of the strange things the Lockes have found in Keyhouse. What would have felt like stalling or exposition in another work becomes, in Locke & Key, the final few components of a terrible machine slotting into place. I am full of anticipation to see what this creation does in the sixth volume.

I would be greatly remiss to talk about a comic without mentioning the art, of course. Somewhat unusually for a comic published traditionally in print, Locke & Key has had a single artist throughout its publication. Gabriel Rodriguez does an amazing job of making the comic both visually enticing and, at the right moments, repulsive (and in a few extraordinary cases in Clockworks, both at once). The Lockes have a genuine family resemblance – they look alike, but not ridiculously so. In fact, Rodriguez gives all the characters’ faces a lot of individuality and character. I would definitely recognize any of these people on the street, and I doubt I would confuse them with anyone else. The most incredible panels, as in a lot of comics, are those where the writing and art come together to make an idea that could never have been expressed any other way.

The only reason I wouldn’t recommend Locke & Key to someone would be if I thought they would be bothered by the carnage. It’s a pretty bloody comic, from start to beginning. I wouldn’t say that the series glorifies violence or uses it for cheap shocks – the characters’ reactions show that the creators want to explore what actually happens when people whose lives are not violent suddenly have to cope with a lot of death and injury. Still, I know this isn’t for everybody; it definitely wouldn’t have been for me a year ago. But hey: even if you know you don’t like violence, give Locke & Key a try anyway. Seeing the Lockes come together is worth putting up with a lot.

Mantis Wives: a review.

Before I get down to my review of “Mantis Wives”, a couple of quick pieces of housekeeping. First, welcome to anyone who got here from Rush-that-Speaks! I hope I can keep up with the high expectations Rush’s readers must have. (And thank you so much for the link, Rush!) Second, a note: I’m not going to avoid spoilers in this review as I have been doing so far. Personally I really dislike getting spoiled for things, but I also find it much easier to say interesting things when I feel I don’t have to worry about spoiling people. So my plan for works that my audience can read quickly for free online, such as “Mantis Wives”, is to write whatever seems interesting in the assumption that if you care, you can go read it first.

***

“I doubt that enough feminist scholars and theorists have taken the pains to acknowledge the societal forces that wrench women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values. These forces, as I shall try to show, range from literal physical enslavement to the disguising and distorting of possible options.” – Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, 1980.

“Mantis Wives” is one of the most hauntingly queer stories I’ve ever read. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. The story is obviously quite unusual; it has essentially no plot or characters, only the barest sketches of a setting. It’s more like some kind of historical or instructional work than like a story, but it is also powerfully lyrical. I could reread that prose for days; it is as intricately crafted an artwork as the killings it describes. My real joy in “Mantis Wives”, though, comes from the queer sexuality that it articulates in between the lines of the lives mantises can imagine.

The story does a disturbingly good job of making us understand the beauty and the necessity, and yet also the needlessness and horror, of mantis sexuality. The narrator (whoever it is – more on my suspicions below) clearly knows that her readers will find it hard to believe that torturing one’s lover to death could be good, or good art. And so she justifies it to us over and over, often with rhetorical questions: “What else could there be between them?” She claims that mantis men desire these outcomes as much as their wives, despite the occasional resistance they seem to offer. (Given that mantis women do not ask their husbands about their experiences, we are left to wonder how a single speaker came to be so certain that both genders’ desires are for this violence.) There is, in the imagination of this narrator, probably no other way; several possibilities for kindness turn out to be nothing more than another variation in the infinite listing of artful deaths, and anything not within this framework “may be a trap”.

I hope that by now you’ve worked out where I’m going with this. There is in our society a structure of sexuality that appears to offer as many variations as it has participants, that is ideologically tied to the furthering of the species, and which it often seems impossible to question. Adrienne Rich called this “compulsory heterosexuality”; in other words, not just heterosexual sex, but the whole culture that makes heterosexuality in a very particular form seem beautiful, natural, and inevitable. The difficult thing is that with something like conventional heterosexual romance, a culture-wide belief that it is beautiful, natural, and inevitable more or less makes these things true. In “Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson demonstrates how the process of interpreting biological drives into cultural production can inextricably link beauty and violence. It’s a deeply important argument, and one I’m thrilled to see getting as significant an acknowledgment in the SF community as a Hugo nomination.

“Mantis Wives” appears to offer no hope. In this way it reminds me very strongly of Tiptree’s short stories, which also often make tragic feminist commentary without offering utopian solutions. (Tiptree also has a deft hand with deeply alien minds and cultures; “Mantis Wives” is clearly powerfully indebted to “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death”.) In my opinion, however, “Mantis Wives” is not actually saying that mantises (or people) can never truly love each other without doing horrific things. This is where the unusual structure comes into play. Most narrative prose elides the question of who is telling the story and to whom. “Mantis Wives”, written as some kind of informational work, suggests strongly that the narrator is one of the people in this world, and is speaking to people who are real to her. My interpretation is that the narrator is a female mantis explaining the facts of life to a younger female, helping her understand what she will do soon and why it has to be this way. But our narrator is very concerned that we might not be convinced. Why else would she be so careful to tell us that the queer other life we have been dreaming of may be a trap? And yet, if she herself has never dreamt that dream, why does she only say “may”? Queer mantis sexuality, in which the distinctions between husband and wife are dissolved and the dreamer is only “a mantis”, is the only option for survival. Even as the explicit text claims that living, too, is dangerous, the structure of the story makes the reader’s mind insist that it must be possible.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance: a review.

I’ve been a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I first encountered The Warrior’s Apprentice in my mom’s friend’s house, about five years ago. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Bujold’s latest book, is a delightful science fiction romance, the latest in her thirty-year-career-spanning Vorkosigan Saga. Science fiction and romance can easily be a bad combination – either genre can end up feeling like an afterthought – but Bujold is a master of that mixture. Human relationships and emotions are frequently a focus of her work, and though I think only three Vorkosigan books count as romance novels per se, far more of them could easily be called romantic novels.*

In many ways, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance resembles the earlier A Civil Campaign (which may be all the recommendation Vorkosigan fans need). Its central plot is the developing relationship between Captain Ivan Vorpatril and Tej Arqua, the circumstances of which are sometimes dramatic and sometimes comic, but always light. The Vorkosigan Saga in general tends to unfold at an intense pace, with the turns of the plot sometimes making one dizzy, but where this style makes some of the novels military thrillers and some of them harrowing explorations of character, in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance the impression is one of farce. The secondary plot, which involves intergalactic intrigue and various clever/harebrained schemes, is exciting and funny and interesting, but never eclipses Ivan and Tej; the really important thing about all that machination is how it gets in the way of the couple.

What distinguishes this novel most clearly from Bujold’s other work is its focus on characters who have so far been secondary players in others’ lives, not heroes. Ivan is the cousin of Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of the books in the series that bears his name. In his first appearances, Ivan seemed friendly but very shallow, mainly interested in avoiding trouble and having a good time. By Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, however, he’s almost twice as old as he was in The Warrior’s Apprentice (and Bujold has been writing him for thirty years), and he’s become more complex with time. Bujold takes this opportunity to show us that competence does not only come in the explosive, impressive form Miles usually displays; after lots of Vorkosigan books about incredible badasses whose failures are as heroic as their successes, it’s an interesting experience to read about the dedicatedly average person who’s been living with those kinds of people his entire life. There’s a really lovely moment in which Ivan thinks to himself that he “like[s] flowcharts—nice and clear and you could always tell just where you were and what you should do next, everything laid out neatly. … Why couldn’t life be more like flowcharts?” Few protagonists would ask themselves that question. And this wish for a simple life isn’t just an enlightening way of thinking about Ivan; one of the most compelling aspects of the developing romance is the pair’s mutual realization that with each other, they can just be ordinary people, rather than being expected to excel and conquer the world.

I don’t really want to go into too much detail about Tej, because the reader begins the book completely in the dark about her, and many of the book’s plot reveals consist of the discovery of secrets about her and her history and family. Her position in her family has been much like Ivan’s, as mentioned above; while her relatives are clearly the heroes of their own important dramas, she’s mostly thought of herself as their assistant. Bujold loves to show us a female character coming into her own and learning to respect herself over the course of a romance, and Tej is a worthy addition to this theme. (Note I say “over the course of”, not “through”: she doesn’t come to appreciate herself simply because Ivan does.)

The couple’s interactions are just frankly adorable. I’m personally especially charmed by the way they talk about sex – though they’re both reasonable adults about it, Ivan can’t hide the fact that he’s from conservative Barrayar, and galactic-born Tej shocks him more than a few times. (It is probably going to become increasingly evident, readers, that I love it when books are interesting and intelligent on the subject of sex. Bujold is especially excellent at this – not only do her characters have different, and yet equally reasonable, ways of approaching sexuality, their thoughts about it genuinely reflect the cultures they come from, which is no mean feat.) The very beginning of their acquaintance is, as is correct for a romantic farce, really unpromising; Ivan tries to pick Tej up at her workplace, and later ends up knocked unconscious for his pains. So of course their bliss by the end is correspondingly wonderful.

The only real caveat I have to my recommendation of this novel is the obvious fact that it’s the latest in a series that is now over fifteen books long and counting. There is some exposition (fairly neatly structured) toward the beginning, so the plot doesn’t depend on anything that isn’t mentioned in the book itself. But there are still two major problems with reading Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance alone. First of all, for me, a lot of the pleasure of this book was in seeing how Ivan had grown and changed since I first met him. If you’ve never read a book with Ivan Vorpatril in it before, you won’t get that, and I think the book will still be fun but less so. There’s also the fact that this book can’t help but spoil some of the previous ones. Lots of characters from other novels appear, of course, and so you learn what their general life situations are, meaning that you learn about events of previous books. As a lover of the Vorkosigan Saga, I think people shouldn’t do things that will spoil them on any Vorkosigan books, but I recognize that not everyone who reads Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is planning on reading all the rest of the books in its series, and also not everyone minds spoilers in general. So consider yourselves warned, and choose wisely!

* Some of you may be asking yourselves what the difference is. Romance fans generally consider a book a romance novel only if romance is the focus of the plot and the leads end up in a happy relationship. So, for example, a novel with a significant romantic subplot that is nevertheless obviously a subplot probably isn’t a romance novel.

Throne of the Crescent Moon: a review.

For the first review in my series of reviews of Hugo nominees, I’m reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed. It’s a good starting point for a few reasons. This is Ahmed’s first novel, so I’m approaching his work totally fresh, which seems good for the beginning of a blog. Also, it was the first file in the Hugo voters’ packet, and I believe in starting at the beginning, so here I go. If you haven’t read it, no fear: the review is spoiler-free.

Some basic information: Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first in a series called The Crescent Moon Kingdoms. It tells the story of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last remaining member of the once-great order of ghul hunters, and his attempts to fight off an undead threat greater than any he has ever seen before. The narration switches off between Adoulla’s point of view and those of the other four major characters: his assistant, the dervish Raseed; Zamia, a young Badawi tribeswoman; and Litaz and Dawoud, wife and husband, old friends of Adoulla’s. This story focuses primarily on Adoulla’s character arc, but it’s also very much an ensemble cast, probably with an eye to focusing on different characters in upcoming sequels. As you may already have guessed, the setting is clearly inspired by the medieval Muslim world, and that’s probably this novel’s most notable feature.

I really like the idea of a fantasy based on a civilization that doesn’t normally get drawn on for fiction very much. Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in the medieval Muslim world in much the same way that lots of sword-and-sorcery novels are set in medieval Europe. Everything has a different name, and plenty of aspects of the setting aren’t simply drawn from history, but you can definitely trace a lot of the locations and cultural ideas to real-life precedents. For example, the Badawi, nomads who live in the desert near the city where the story is set, seem likely to have been inspired by Bedouin tribes. This is, in my opinion, exactly the kind of thing speculative fiction needs to be doing. It’s a pretty big world out there, full of a lot of really fascinating history and culture, and a lot of fiction is just reusing the same Western European stuff over and over again. Writing about Muslim culture, in particular, is a great way to find inspiration that everyone else isn’t using, and has the potential to do vital work in dismantling the Islamophobia that unfortunately persists in American discourse. Every character in Throne of the Crescent Moon is a member of the same faith, one which is never described as “Islam” but clearly draws heavily on it, and the book does a pretty great job of not just showing how that faith pervades the characters’ lives, but also how it means different things to each of them.

Despite the freshness of its setting, however, Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t reach impressive heights of originality in plot or characterization. The fundamental plot conflict is extremely simple and familiar: there are some scary undead monsters, called “ghuls”, threatening people in the city of Dhamsawaat, and a ragtag team of unlikely heroes gets together in order to fight this menace. The bad guys are really really bad – their magic involves horrible murder and torture! (Not a spoiler, as the book opens with a scene of some nasty dudes torturing someone and doing magic.) Each character has a clearly outlined personal conflict to struggle with, some of which are incredibly uninspiring. Raseed’s, for example, is “should I let my emotions come before my devotion to duty?” Well, yes. You should, at least once in a while. We have all read that plot a thousand times, and also, every other character tells you to go for it.

Admittedly, other characters’ internal lives are a little more interesting, and there are also moral questions that aren’t that simple. But even when there are open moral questions, the book telegraphs them extremely clearly, usually by having one viewpoint character point out one side and another viewpoint character point out the other. In fact, there’s quite a bit of telling, rather than showing. For example, on page 230: “Adoulla frowned, sensing the subtle edge beneath the alkhemist’s words. ‘Please, my dear, none of your snobbish scorn for the whoremistress, eh?’” In that fairly typical example of this novel’s prose, I count three different ways the readers are told essentially the same thing.

I don’t want to give you the impression there’s nothing to admire about Throne of the Crescent Moon. I did find myself excited to read it and learn about the events of the plot, even though I sometimes found that plot predictable. And even though I think much more could have been done in the way of using the unusual setting to provide plots and characters unlike those we’re familiar with, the setting itself is beautifully drawn. I got a powerful sense of Dhamsawaat as a living city, and not a city just like every other fantasy city I’ve ever visited. Its almost unbelievably crowded streets and its wildly different neighborhoods nestled cheek-by-jowl gave me the sense of exploring a place I’d never been before, a place I would definitely be interested in visiting again. I’d like to see characters and plots in that city that could only have taken place there, not in any fantasy novel where a group of friends takes down an evil threat.