Despite last month being NaEverythingWriMo, I did indeed manage to read some books.
Willful Impropriety, ed. Ekaterina Sedia. Full disclosure: I'm in this anthology.
The theme is "unconventional Victorian romance," which for my money is the sweet spot of anthology themes: specific enough to give the book as a whole a coherent feel, but broad enough that it doesn't get repetitive. Some of the romances in here are LGBT, some are polyamorous, some are interracial (with attention to Victorian anxiety around such topics), some cross class boundaries, etc. Genre-wise, there are both mimetic and fantasy stories in here. So all in all, quite enjoyable.
King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild. This, on the other hand, was depressing. Well-written, mind you -- but the topic is Leopold's genocidal exploitation of the Belgian Congo around the turn of the century, so not pleasant reading. Especially since Leopold appears to have been a fundamentally awful human being. His sheer greed and megalomania are breathtaking: there's no sign that he believed he was doing something good in the Congo, bringing civilization or Christianity or whatever to the people there. He just didn't care about anything other than his own personal profits. He wanted a colony -- any colony, anywhere -- and he lied through his teeth to get one; then he treated it as his own personal money machine, declaring even at the end that "they may force me to hand over my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there." I just . . . I can't even wrap my mind around that. And I'm half-afraid that if I could, it would make me a worse person.
Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett. I meant to post about this in comparison to the Lymond Chronicles; I'm saying that now mostly as a reminder to myself for later.
As as usual with Dunnett, this was dense reading, with lots of details I had to just let go of because otherwise I'd go mad trying to remember everything. (Also, I had to give up on learning how to pronounce the Flemish names.) I'd tried it once before, and bounced off -- largely, I must admit, because I hadn't really looked at the cover copy, where it names Niccolo as Nicholas vander Poele, and therefore missed the critical link that connected the name "Claes" to the name "Niccolo." If you don't have that link, it's quite a long time before the book makes it apparent that Claes is a diminutive of the Flemish form of the Italian name for the protagonist. And without that . . . anyway, I don't think I'm going to love this series the way I do the other one, but it's still pretty compelling. Dunnett does good stuff.
Everybody Needs a Rock, Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall (illustrator). A picture book, which I read while in the waiting room at a doctor's office, out of sheer boredom. Cute concept, but it kind of takes on a lecturing tone, giving rules for picking a rock, with a "ur doin it rong" tone, and that makes the book less cute than it could be.
Legendary Cracow, Ewa Basiura. One of those "local folklore" books you can pick up in souvenir shops. There are various typos and grammatical errors, but as such books go, this one is pretty well-done. I have another by the same author, The Jews of Poland in Tale and Legend, which I'm in the middle of reading.
King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard. If I'm writing a *Victoriain't pulp adventure in an African-modeled setting, it behooves me to familiarize myself with the foundations of the genre.
Haggard is less racist than some of his imitators . . . which is not the same thing as being not racist. (Also, the only thing that saves him from being more sexist is the near-total lack of female characters in the story.) I coped with this in one of my usual ways, which is to auto-correct for narrator bias, and the upshot is that now I'm terribly disappointed that nobody has written a revision of this novel from Umbopa's perspective. He's by far a more interesting character than Quatermain; he has actual goals and motivations, he protags instead of just reacting to everything, and I can easily imagine a presentation of the plot events that gives them a very different, and less offensive, spin. So somebody get on it and write me that book. :-)
*Hat tip to matociquala for providing me with the term.
Also, I read months' worth of back issues from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which I have gotten seriously behind on.