How Much of These Hills is Gold – C Pam Zhang

Summary: Ba dies in the night; Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam are suddenly alone in a land that refutes their existence. Fleeing the threats of their western mining town, they set off to bury their father in the only way that will set them free from their past. Along the way, they encounter giant buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, and the specters of a ravaged landscape as well as family secrets, sibling rivalry, and glimpses of a different kind of future.

Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it’s about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home. (Summary and pic from

My Review:  Because I read a lot, I don’t remember very specific details about a book unless I’ve read it fairly recently or there’s something really remarkable about it. Many books are somewhat forgettable to me as the years go by, which is why I love Goodreads and being able to look back at my reviews to see what I thought and why. Every once in awhile, a book will come along that is so different that I have distinct impressions and memories about it looking back, even several years down the road. I believe this is one of those books for several reasons.
When I think of this book, it is almost completely atmospheric. It takes place in a modified, somewhat magical or alt-version of gold rush. The cover of the copy I had was quite gold and orange. It takes place right after the gold rush (so that by this time most people were mining instead of panning for gold). The weather in the story is hot and dusty. As such, this book has a general overall impression of gold. It’s interesting. When I see a mental picture of the story, it takes place in sepia tone. I’m not sure what the author actually did in order to create this vision, and maybe I was just hallucinating, but it was very effective in creating a very specific atmosphere. The sepia-tinged gold feeling of the story contributed to the sparseness and otherworldly-ness of a well-known time period.
This book is written in a somewhat sparse manner. Not a lot of said, but a lot is implied and a lot is told. Zhang packs a punch in her writing. She picks interesting words and her characters think in interesting ways. I enjoyed seeing their perspective, and as they were Asian in an obviously predominantly white time and place of history, I really found it to be timely. Having different perspectives on historical happenings is a great way to not only learn the reality of what was happening (because reality can never really be found in only one perspective), but to also see what it would have been like for people who were not from the predominant race. It was very interesting reading about their reactions, but also the difficulties they faced and the hopes and dreams they had.
Here is my main complaint about the book—Zhang doesn’t tell the ending. Not just the ending ending (although she doesn’t tell the ending), but really the ending of everything. We are left literally hanging in almost every circumstance. What really happened? What was really said? What was really meant? Gah! As a person who likes to have things cut and dry and spelled out, this was very difficult. I’d be reading along, minding my own business, and then BAM! The situation would be over and the resolution would not be told (or even inferred). It was maddening. Perhaps someone with more imagination and less need to have thing spelled out would have loved it. For me, it was frustrating. It didn’t ruin the book, per se, but not ever knowing anything and having very little resolution is not my fave thing ever.
The story itself was pretty good and pretty interesting. I enjoyed the last 1/3 of the book the most. Because of the general sepia-toned non-knowing-of-the-ended-ness, the beginning was a little more confusing than the end. Also, the two main characters are wandering around and so it wasn’t as action-packed and interesting as the end of the book. By the end of the book, the characters had grown a little older and seen a little more life and so had become a lot more interesting. I actually wish there was more of the book dedicated to them when they were a little older.
Despite how short this book is, it certainly made an impression on me. Zhang creates very specific and carefully tailored story and atmosphere that is almost palpable, and an interesting take on an alt-reality of the gold rush told through the eyes of some unlikely and very interesting characters. It was an interesting read and one I’d recommend, especially to more advanced readers who appreciate authors who can work their magic.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars
For the sensitive reader: There is some language and reference to sex, but nothing explicit.
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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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