The books we love coming out this week include new titles from Ben Hopkins, David W. Brown, and Jeff Wheeler.
The hostility between the U.S. and Iran is a tragic lapse from a once-friendly relationship, according to this sweeping study. Historian Ghazvinian (coeditor, American and Muslim Worlds Before 1900) surveys American-Iranian relations back to colonial Americans’ support for Persia in conflicts with the Turks and Tehran’s perennial desire for closer ties to the U.S. as a counterweight against British and Russian domination in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Iranians’ pro-American outlook soured, he contends, when the C.I.A. orchestrated the 1953 coup against liberal nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and then lavished arms on Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s unpopular dictatorship. After the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, Iranian rage and American cluelessness precipitated the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. Ghazvinian blames present-day antagonism mostly on America, arguing that Iran’s conciliatory efforts, from arms-for-hostages initiatives to the Iran nuclear deal, have met with rebuffs, betrayals, and sanctions, as well as on Israel for playing a major role in sabotaging potential rapprochements. Ghazvinian distills much complicated history into a lucid, graceful narrative studded with vivid profiles, including a description of populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “[t]he son of a blacksmith, greasy and disheveled in appearance, so full of godly piety that he rarely dressed in anything more formal than a zip-up windbreaker.” The result is a nuanced, illuminating, and much-needed corrective to one-sided vilifications of Tehran.
With this superlative epic fantasy, Wheeler (the King’s Fountain series) launches his First Argentine series, which returns to the Kingdom of Cedigion to chronicle the turbulent events surrounding the first rulers of the Argentine dynasty. Wheeler twists medieval history and the Arthurian legends that inspire him into new configurations, and many elements of those stirring old tales echo through this swashbuckling coming-of-age story. Episodes from appealing hero Ransom Barton’s early life alternate with brief entries from the journals of Claire de Murrow, who grew up with Ransom in the court of King Gervase, where both were held as hostages to guarantee her parents’ loyalty to the crown. Through many painful trials both physical and emotional, Ransom wins his knighthood and loses his heart to Claire. Throughout, Ransom is stirred by strange bursts of strength and skill that suggest he’s one of the “fountain-blessed,” but while he fights ferociously in his duty to successive lords, his recklessness proves a liability that he must learn to overcome. Wheeler does an expert job of reintroducing his fantasy world through the eyes of sympathetic characters that fans and new readers alike will root for. This is sure to be a hit.
In this impressive debut, Buddhist chaplain Han offers an illuminating analysis of the intersection of race and privilege within American Buddhist communities. Along with Han’s accounts of her marginalization as a young Asian American Buddhist, she profiles 89 fellow Buddhists, providing a nuanced portrait of how those interviewed have practiced Buddhism in a way they feel is “in-between” older non-Buddhist Asian Americans, non–Asian American Buddhists, and Asian Americans of other faiths. Though Asian Americans make up most of the American Buddhist community, they are often dismissed as “superstitious” or exotic by white converts, according to Han. Han also explores the lingering mistrust many Asian Americans feel within the U.S. as a result of the many Japanese American Buddhists who were confined in WWII-era internment camps. Many subjcts express their frustrations about not seeing themselves represented on the covers of popular Buddhist magazines like Tricycle, at fashionable conferences such as “Buddhist Geeks,” or in celebrated books written by white converts and Asian monastics. By presenting an intricate and intimate mosaic of experiences, Han thoughtfully and successfully confronts stereotypes of Buddhism in the U.S.
Beckett’s smart, energetic Gamechanger gets a lively sequel in this outstanding work of science fiction. Earth is in negotiations with advanced alien Exemplar races who covet the solar system’s real estate but will at least pretend to allow humanity to remain independent from their intergalactic empire—if the Solakinder, as earthlings are now called, can prove their ability to advance technologically. But it’s not that simple; nothing is in this novel. The Solakinder are actually a confederation of humans and independent AIs, and humans themselves now inhabit artificial “Mayfly bodies” while their consciousness are safely stored away. This enables them to enjoy daily experience in perfect virtual simulations, and also means that everyone is constantly connected and able to vote in stakeholder polls to determine whether Earth pushes ahead or surrenders to the aliens. Frankie Barnes, stepdaughter of Gamechanger heroine Rubi Whiting, works for Project Bootstrap, struggling to develop #supertech that will impress the aliens. She must contend with murderous human saboteurs and the aliens’ suave representatives—and in her corner are a ragtag crowd of simulated humans and cartoon-animal AI characters, Earth’s best representatives. The plot leaps and swaggers on from there, driven by joyful confidence that the reader—like the characters—will accept huge helpings of razzle-dazzle strangeness. The result is as delightful as it is mind-bending.
Journalist Brown (Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry) brings to vivid life the 17-year effort to put together a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. At the heart of the quest is Robert Pappalardo, a plucky planetary scientist whose expertise was in “icy moons” (and who studied under Carl Sagan at Cornell). Dissatisfied with his life as a professor and at the request of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in 2006 Pappalardo “packed his life and his cat and pointed his car westerly” to California to build a program to find life on Europa. There, he “oversaw all decisions affecting the project science” and in 2014 met with the administrator of NASA, to whom he “made the science case for Europa.” Meanwhile, NASA was focused on sending robots to Mars, White House support for space exploration waffled from one administration to the next, and rival planetary scientists fought to fund their own projects. Not until 2015 was the Europa Clipper mission greenlighted by NASA. (Its launch date is still undetermined.) Brown skillfully braids biography, science, obsession, and accounts of bureaucracy-wrangling into this mesmerizing tale of “good, bare-fisted science.” Salted with pop culture references and humor, Brown’s fascinating outing will entertain anyone curious about space exploration.
British filmmaker Hopkins’s ambitious and satisfying debut uses a big story—the century-plus cathedral building project in Hagenburg in the Holy Roman Empire (now Lower Saxony)—to tell an even bigger story—the rise of merchants and the corresponding decline of the church through the 13th century. Characters play roles in the never-ending skirmishes among nobles, burghers, Jews, and the church, but they read like real people. Prominent among them are three siblings: Rettich, who buys his freedom and gets a job helping to build the cathedral; his brother, Emmle, who becomes a Jewish merchant’s gentile right hand; and sister Grete, the ambitious wife of a city trader. Also crucial: Von Rabern, the Bishop’s cranky but honest treasurer; Yudl, a Jewish boy torn between being a scholar or a merchant; and several nobles. What links them all is money, which is loaned, borrowed, stolen, and withheld, as goods, services, and secrets are bought and sold while the cathedral rises or stalls. Six hundred pages sounds long, but this deeply human take on a medieval city and its commerce and aspirations, its violent battles and small intimacies, never feels that way. This sweeping work is as impressive as the cathedral at its center.