Today’s post covers The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. The former’s a pretty tough read with an only slightly optimistic ending (hence the totally serious post title…#gettinmykickswhereIcan), while the latter is more optimistic in general, with just one seriously scary moment.
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Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The Mercies. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5 recurring appearances of that one whale you’re sure is supposed to symbolize something fateful and deep.
Recommended if you like: Tough stories about brutal misogyny. Historical LGBT romances. Characters who disappoint you, but in a believably human way. The Crucible, but set in Norway.
Playlist: I’m not sure how I feel about recommending a fun playlist for such a serious story, but, on the other hand, it might make you feel better to listen to some really badass women like Alanis Morissette, Ani DiFranco, Des’ree, and Little Mix while (and especially after) reading this one.
Bingo square: Book from the last decade (2010-2019)
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I figured that a book about fierce women living on an Arctic island and falling in love and fighting against Christian extremism and defending the indigenous community would be a good fit for me. To be embarrassingly honest, I guess I was secretly hoping for Frozen II, but where Elsa (I mean Ursa) gets a girlfriend and there are no painful exposition songs.
I guess I ignored the part about this being a historical novel. Meaning: a true-to-what-actually-happened-to-women-arrested-by-witch-hunters novel. Meaning: a story in which your fellow women aren’t inclined to jump in front of a sword for you.
Even the love story at the center of the novel felt tainted by this grim atmosphere. The cost of bringing Maren and Ursa closer together is the safety and freedom of other women, and I’m not entirely sure if that’s a flaw in the writing or if I’m just being naive. Part of me wants to believe the protagonists could just have been written better — stronger, more heroic. But another part grudgingly sees this as a message about how powerful fear and hate can be; even the best people can have moments of selfishness under duress.
I’m glad I read this. I’m glad I kept picking it back up, and pushed myself to the end, because it was at least a tiny bit hopeful. To put it vaguely, I was oddly relieved by how things turned out. It felt like a tiny bit of justice after all. And it really was fascinating to see how self-contradictory the witch hunters’ beliefs were. I mean, they believe God is the ultimate power in the world, but there’s also an equally powerful Devil, and ordinary humans can somehow control nature against God’s will? *puts on my skepticals*
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Nnedi Okorafor. Binti. Narrated by Robin Miles. Macmillan Audio, 2015.
Rating: 4.94 + (0.01 x 0 to the power of 10) out of 5 astrolabes that smell like roses when you activate them.
Recommended if you like: World-building that blends math and science with spirituality and magic. Heroes who use their words to solve wars. Space horror that’s briefly graphic, but not excessively. (Relatively) quickly-resolved conflicts.
Playlist: Maybe it’s cliché, but I’m thinking something really spacey and ambient. Anything by Com Truise, Monolake, Tycho (I could imagine the first 45 seconds of “L” playing as Binti first sees the ship), and Aphex Twin would do nicely.
Bingo square: Sci-fi/Fantasy
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This is one of those books I’d been meaning to read for years. I enjoyed Okorafor’s YA novel Akata Witch well enough, and though I only read the first few chapters of Zahrah the Windseeker, the concepts were intriguing enough to keep Okorafor on my radar. Now that I’ve heard Binti, I may want to go back to Zahrah to explore more of her unique bio-tech societies. I remember something about laptops that grow out of seeds… Likewise, in Binti, the narrator’s society has blended nature and technology, creating spaceships that are also living fish filled with plants that do more than just provide oxygen for the passengers.
And in Binti’s world, math and science are spiritual subjects that are meant to, very practically, save the world. The most adept scholars meditate on problems and formulas through a process called treeing. Though Binti comes from a very inward-focused culture — she completely breaks tradition by leaving home to study at an intergalactic university — she uses her homegrown skills and upbringing to find a peaceful solution even after experiencing a horrific attack.
In terms of said conflict resolution, I did need to put on my suspension-of-disbelief goggles a few times to accept how quickly things happened. As I understand it, the war between the Meduse and the rest of the galaxy has been going on for ages, and yet Binti manages to fix it in about a week? She really must be a Master Harmonizer!
Still, who doesn’t want to escape the real world of battles that never seem to end? Why not imagine that we could have the power of super-effective diplomacy?
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What are some of your favorite idealistic reads? What books have you pushed through, even though the subject matter was rough? Were you satisfied, or did you wish you had DNF’d it?