The whale is judging you, and the space jellies want their tentacles back.

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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Cover of The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. A dark blue profile of a woman's head against a red background. The woman's long hair flows like water behind her, and the white fluke of a whale rises out in the middle of the ripples. The author's name and title are in manila-colored font, and the T in "The" is written like an ancient rune, like an arrow pointing up.

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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Cover of the Binti audiobook. A dark background, in front of which you see a woman's face, with two hands spread open at either side of her face. She has dark skin, with streaks of red clay on both her face and her hands.

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?

 

9 comments

  1. I finally read Binti this year and loved it, too! Such a great story.

    And I read mostly for escapism, so I tend to avoid dark/pessimistic books. I need at least a happy-ish resolution, even if the characters go through darkness along the way.

    • Same! I need positive endings (ok, preferably *happy*), but at the very least closer to the sweet end of bittersweet. The Mercies felt like it was much closer to the bitter end.

  2. Sometimes it’s worth it to push through the first hundred pages of a book. One of my favorite books of all time was like that, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World. Some ideas are so complex that it takes a while for the author to set them up!

    • I’ve heard similar things about Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder — that you really have to push through the philosophical discussions to get to the story.

      I felt that way about the Jean Auel books, too. The author spends sooo much time on world building, sometimes to the detriment of story (especially in the later books…I have yet to finish the sixth one), but they were still worth reading for the fascinating views of goddess cultures and her theories about why the Neanderthals died out.

    • Ooh! I just watched a fascinating episode of Trope Talk (highly recommend!) that makes this exact point — that the whole idea that authors have to “hook” readers by the first page (or, as she puts it, “GRAB YOUR AUDIENCE BY THE EYEBALLS AND DON’T LET GO”) is a roughly recent thing, and may have taught us to give up on books that might actually be worth pushing through.

  3. The Blue Sword was the first book I had to push through to enjoy. Once I made it past the beginning, which set up touching moments later on, the book went much faster.

    I had the same thing happen with The Hero and the Crown.

    Thanks so much for sharing! Also, if you like living ships and sci-fi, Ann Mcaffree’s series on The Ship Who Sang may be for you. Also, Farscape is pretty good (sci-fi TV show).

    • Interesting! I read a few McCaffreys back in high school. I may have to return to her. I tried The Changelings recently, but didn’t get too far. The ideas were intriguing enough, though, that I’d consider trying again.

  4. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love the way you rate your books and that you have playlists to go along with your readings. I would have also struggled with the Mercies. I’m not very good at sticking with books that don’t hold my interest. Some of this could be because the majority of the books I read I need to be able to book talk to reluctant readers. The other part is just that I’m totally spoiled.

    Also! The title of that awesome space novel told in mostly investigative files is Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. 🙂

    • Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve seen Illuminae here and there around the bookwebz. The cover is intense!

      And thank you! 😘 It’s always awesome to hear that my posts are fun to read. Those ratings and playlists are some of my favorite features to write! The playlists, especially, because I’ve realized that some books are just more fun to read with a soundtrack 😄

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