Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House
This is part fantasy, part murder mystery, part one of those novels about being a poor kid at a rich kids' school (in this case, Yale). There's also a bit of social commentary, basically along the lines of the-rich-eat-the-poor.
It's the story of a young girl, Alex Stern, who is given a scholarship to Yale. She's not really qualified -- she didn't graduate from high school, and in fact spent her later teen years, from 15 to 20, doing drugs and living on the street. This was due to her special "gift," the fact that she can see the dead, and she believes (and we believe, for most of the book) that this is why she was given the scholarship -- that her special talent outweighs her lack of preparation for an Ivy League school.
This is a world where magic and using magic as a tool in social engineering is common. So it makes sense that Alex would have been brought to Yale because of her skillset -- like a football player getting a scholarship even if he can't do calculus. However, when a girl turns up dead at on a triangle of land crackling with magic, Alex gets involved with investigating her death, and runs into deep trouble.
The magic is probably the best part of this. I don't really like fantasy, but this is sort of like realistic fantasy? If magic did exist, in other words, this is probably how it would work.
It's marketed as a YA novel, but it's pretty dark. I've read Bardugo's other books, and this is a step forward for her. She's always been good at characters, but here the plot is really well done, and the writing is excellent.
John Kelly, The Great Mortality
Yet another in one of the many books I'm reading about pandemics. Here, John Kelly takes a look at the 14th century plague, the Black Death, which killed one third to one half of Europe and Asia starting around 1330 and finishing (or the first wave finished) around 1350.
He looks also at the origins of the plague, the aftereffects of the pandemic, and the contemporary reactions to it, including a wave of pogroms and arrests/tortures of Jews, who 14th century conspiracy-theorists believed had caused the plague by "poisoning the wells." This last is far too reminiscent of the fucking loons we're seeing during this pandemic, though at least no one (yet) is being arrested, tortured, and burned alive thanks to their idiocy.
Kelly also looks at other pandemics, including the Plague of Justinian (the first known outbreak of Y. pestis), and ways in which mobility/trade create pandemic conditions. He makes the case that the Black Death is a result of Europeans seeking easier and safer trade routes into India and China, routes that took them through a region rife with a specific sort of marmot, the tarabagan. This marmot species is a carrier of Y. pestis, which is to say the plague. Merchants picked up infected fleas, which spread to rats at the taverns and inns along their route, and you can guess the rest.
This is readable and filled with data. If you're as obsessed with pandemics as I am right now, you'll like this one.
Lauren Beukes, Afterland
Another pandemic book. This one is a variation on the old what-if-all-the-men- died stories. See also Herland, Y the Last Man, Who Runs the World? and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. Also that Joanna Russ story, "When It Changed," and her novel The Female Man.
Beukes's version is readable, and has some nice bits. I like how we see the mother of a mixed-race black child from South Africa being appalled at how minorities are treated in the US. (They steal children from their parents here! This is where the police shoot black men!)
The subplot with the sister seems like a misstep, though, which pulls our attention away from the plague and the plight of the mother trying to save her son. Also, that subplot just isn't interesting. I think Beukes was trying to make the point that women can be violent and corrupt, same as men, but does anyone really doubt that?
In the end, I'm not sure this take adds anything to the micro-genre. Read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife instead. It does what (I think) Beukes is trying to do, and much better.
Carrie Vaughn, The Ghosts of Sherwood
This one is marketed like a book, but in print it's less than a hundred pages long. So really a long short story or a short novella.
I liked Carrie Vaughn's Bannerless, so I picked this one up when I saw the library had bought a copy. It's okay. Basically the story of an adventure Robin Hood and Maid Marian's kids have in Sherwood forest. The characters are well-done, and I like the point being made, about what happens after a successful insurrection.
The narrative feels very short, though. This probably should have been twice as long. An actual novel would have given Vaughn enough time to develop the story and the subplots.
Cecelia Holland, Until the Sun Falls
This is a re-read for me. Holland writes mostly historical fiction, though she also wrote a science fiction novel, The Floating World, which was how I discovered her.
Until the Sun Falls is about the Mongol invasion of Russia and the beginning of the invasion of Europe (which ends abruptly, because Ogedei Khan dies just in time). Lots of details about 13th century here, and lots of details about Mongol fighting and riding techniques. Good characters: Holland is excellent at writing characters who are a part of their own time, while making them human as well.
Maybe a few too many lengthy battle scenes? But I enjoyed all of this. The main characters are three fictional Mongol men -- Psin; his son Tshant; and Tshant's son Djela. We also meet most of Ogedei Khan's children and nephews and one of his daughters (who is married to Tshant and is Djela's mother).
Good writing and a lot of fun. Lots of slaughter, though -- the Mongols killed something like ten percent of the world's population during their conquests of the world. Psin and Mongke Khan talk this over at one point, wondering whether their belief that God has ordered the Mongols to conquer and rule the world justifies the amount of killing they have done.
The scenes with Djela are also good -- he's maybe six or seven when the novel starts, and we watch as he is shaped into a Mongol warrior, killing with zest and glee and absolutely no remorse.