Very mild spoilers ahead for CL Polk's Witchmark, Tamsyn Muir's Gideon The Ninth, and Linsday Ellis' Axiom's End. I've done my best not to spoil anything crucial while still being able to discuss my own feelings and first impressions, but I can't guarantee my writing conforms to your comfort levels. If avoiding spoilers is of primordial importance to you, please stop reading here!
Earlier in the summer, I read and very much enjoyed Witchmark by CL Polk, the first novel of the Kingston Cycle and her first published novel. I loved the book's atmosphere, setting, as well as Miles, the protagonist. The writing's ability to evoke something not-quite-Edwardian was enchanting. Furthermore, Polk understands the tropes of fantasy, romance, and mystery, and carefully knits them together to create a story that evokes familiarity (such as with the Imperial Edwardian vibes) but keeps you guessing, too (especially with the emotional arcs between the characters).
Witchmark's core mystery leading into the philosophical investigation of the deep injustice holding together the book world's universe was thought-provoking. Parts of the investigation scenes reminded me a little bit of The Bletchley Circle, in the best way. Despite the magic suffused throughout the characters and setting, it all manages to feel very “low tech” nonetheless, which makes the investigation scenes feel all the more possible because you could see yourself engaging in the same kind of detective legwork — I think my favourite mystery novels are all like that — and the plot's stakes feel much more wrapped up in the emotional and personal than in the mystery. The queer romance woven into the detective narrative, while pretty lovely in its sweetness, was for me less interesting than the fraught relationship between the protagonist and his family members. I enjoyed Polk's writing, world and character building very much, and am looking forward to checking out the sequels!
Proposed Tea Pairing: I would recommend Earl Grey with honey lavender syrup. Syrup preparation method: Infuse dried blue lavender in water for a few minutes (I generally can tell I've added enough lavender when the water looks almost blue — but you'll definitely want to taste it as it steeps to see how you like it) before straining the lavender out. Add the lavender infusion to honey in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and and wait around 1 minute before removing from heat and let everything settle for half an hour in the saucepan. A fragrant addition to tea and tea lattes!
The second book I read this summer was Tamsyn Muir's Gideon The Ninth, another first novel. I actually picked up the physical copy of it back in pre-pandemic days, back when such things as “going to the bookstore with a fellow bookish friend” was basically a pleasant but not too exceptional occurence. It was heartily recommended to me by my old classmate Lambert as “Awkward Lesbian Necromancers In Space” and the book certainly lived up to that tantalizing description!
Muir's writing is pretty irreverent, stuffed with UST, memes and easter eggs. Its also admittedly pretty impressionistic when it comes to “hard” world-building. But Gideon shines through its narrator, who I found extremely likable. I'm not going to lie, I was actually pretty sad by the end — though not in the worst way. (I may have stayed up until dawn to finish the novel and then spent an hour watching the morning happen, processing the ending... yep, I was very invested in the protagonist!)
While I really enjoyed Gideon, I have to admit I'm left lukewarm by the thought of reading further. A few friends have warned me the series goes in a direction I may not enjoy, so while I heartedly endorse (re)reading Gideon for the giddy pleasure of that narration style, I don't think I'll be continuing with the series in general. (Though I'll be remembering the author's name!)
Proposed Tea Pairing: What about an herbal tea? Something to help with heart grief and how bitterness, spice, and beauty might mix. I think I would want to try a mixture of motherwort and heart-shaped linden, violet and rose petals, cinnamon bark and shiso/tulsi. Drunk with a spoonfull of honey, of course!
The third book, Lindsay Ellis' Axiom's End, is a book I was very curious about beforehand, as was a ton of the internet according to her sales figures. Also, funnily enough, this is another debut novel!
Overall, while the book had some characterization choices I wasn't thrilled by, I enjoyed her take on the “monster boyfriend” (in this case “alien-gender-irrelevant-cross-species-awkwardness”) plot meets “extremely tense first contact story.” I was curious if her strong authorial voice from her YouTube essays would feel different in fiction — and, at least in my opinion, it did! While one can never really say so definitively, I do feel like I would have enjoyed the book had I never heard about its writer beforehand. I also very much appreciated that the ending wasn't a brutal emotional cliffhanger, even if it was evidently clearing the way for the upcoming sequel. Ellis' love for the craft of storytelling shines through particularly nicely there.
As I was daydreaming about this post, I wondered — considering the alien's “gender” is not a real thing — about the narrative choice (as opposed to the marketing one, I guess) of conserving a “he” pronoun for the alien. The train of thought then ended up at the station of “Why must the monsters and villains always be queer-coded, though?” This really isn't an attempt to problematize the book, it's more of a musing, as this question goes a long way back. I'm not a historian, but it seems to me as if villains and monsters have been queer coded in Europe (and forced onto the Americas par la suite) for pretty much as long as Christianity has been around.
All told, musings about what would be an appropriate pronoun in English for an extraterrestrial technobiological entity and all, I had fun reading Ellis' first novel, and will probably pick up the sequel.
Proposed Tea Pairing: For this thriller sci-fi novel, I think I would recommend yerba maté flavoured with grapefruit rinds, a tiny bit of cardammon, and a dash of ginger! Yummy and perfect for autumn, too.
Just before I end the blog post, I just want to include a quick shout-out to the Argo Bookshop, the bookstore where I coincidentally procured all three of these books. They've also occasionally been promptly delivering books to me to my door since the pandemic started, as I'm in an at-risk category and not able to take public transport. Thank you very much for keeping me in books, Argo team!