reading reports: The Waking Land, All the Light We Cannot See

On my Habitica (task management RPG, highly recommend) checklist, I’ve set reminders to read a chapter of good fiction and a chapter of nonfiction every day. I don’t always manage to read both, but I do try really hard. I find that keeps the writing mind humbled and inspired, and it keeps the academic mind asking questions. This also means I read a lot of books, which I’ll blog about below because I really like to talk about books!

So! Spoiler alerts!

The Waking Land (Callie Bates)

This book features one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen on an fantasy book. Seriously. Just look at it. I want to steal this cover and make it my own (except my character cannot control nature, so alas.)


I was really excited to read Callie Bates’ debut. We share an agent, and I very much trust Hannah’s taste in books. Three chapters in and it was clear why Hannah liked it–revolution, reclamation, and political intrigue are big themes in The Waking Land and I am all for it.

This is a story about Stockholm Syndrome and conflicting loyalties. I admit I was frustrated with Elanna’s (MC) inner dialogue for about the first third of the book–she seemed to want one thing one minute and another the next. First she wants to escape Eren, then she wants to go back, then she wants her parent’s love and approval, and then she resents them. But upon reflection, what else would you expect from a young girl whose world has just been upturned? She doesn’t know what she wants. She shouldn’t know. She ought to be grappling with her loyalty to her adopted country, her love for her parents, and her innate affinity for her native land. She wouldn’t be a real fully formed human being if she wasn’t. We’ve grown so used to expecting the protagonist to have a singular, firm goal (and indeed, that’s what we’re taught at writer’s institutes) that we forget that sometimes things are far more complex. Callie Bates pulls off that complexity elegantly.

Misc–I’m not super well-versed in European history, but I’m pretty sure at least some of this is inspired by the fight for Irish independence. The names–Fionnlach, Ruadan–and native language of Caeris (“mo cri, mo tire, mo fiel), read as Irish to me, though of course everything lies behind a veneer of a fantasy.

Overall, a really nicely written debut. It’s rare to find a European YA fantasy that feels as fresh as this one does. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the rest in this trilogy.

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

I try to make my way through the list of Pulitzer prize winners every now and then, because I don’t have any academic training in English, so I rely on awards lists to show me the standard of good writing/what I should aspire to imitate. I also really, really like World War II.

This is a book about records, radios, and beautiful things in the worst of times. The plot takes a while to materialize, but when it does, it’s breath-taking. I didn’t mind the slow pacing because I was just so struck by the immense attention to detail. Doerr’s sentences are packed in with context-specific objects and images (“Men brawl over jobs outside the Zollverein gates, and chicken eggs sell for two million reichsmarks apiece, and rheumatic fever stalks Children’s House like a wolf”), which reveals what must have been a monumental, intricate research effort. Most of the prose describes setting. Wartime France becomes alive. I am a history geek, so I reveled in it.

I’m sure there’s not much praise I can give this book that hasn’t already been written. I loved the young characters–brilliant, conflicted Werner and brave, curious Marie-Laure. They are both intricately sketched, courageous, and resilient, and I nearly cried when they finally found their ways to each other. Well. The last three chapters basically had me crying from through to the end. Please go pick this up if you haven’t already.

Non-fiction Stuff

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the non-fiction books I’ve read in the past month. Some of these were for thesis research, and others were just for fun.

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Herbert P Bix): a fascinating biography of Japan’s wartime emperor, his childhood and education, and his hand in Japan’s wartime decision-making (read: war crimes.) My knowledge of Japanese history is largely filtered through Chinese history, so it felt good to expand my horizons a little.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Chris Hedges): I think that everyone who writes fiction about war, especially SFF writers, should read this book. It’s a short, easy read about how war seduces and gaslights, how it draws us into nationalistic fervors and destroys culture. Our excitement over heroic myths and bloody battles is an impulse that needs some serious, critical examination.

The Miracle of Dunkirk (Walter Lord): confession–the Boyfriend and I read this as preparation for watching Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (which was awesome), because we are nerds and that’s what we do. I really liked how the book was structured as an amalgamation of anecdotes and different perspectives (much like Nolan’s film) rather than any linear narrative. If you want a nice jumping in point for WWII, this might be the book for you.

In other news, I just saw some cover roughs for The Poppy War and I am SO EXCITED. I told my editors that the cover needed to depict WAR WAR TERRIBLE WAR, and that’s what we’re getting. Get pumped for the final image!

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