Thursday, November 26, 2020

Microreview: HENCH: A Novel by Natalie Zina Walschots

 In Hench: A Novel, Natalie Zina Walschots brings a ground level view of a world with superheroes and supervillains, with analysis, data and cost benefit analysis being as powerful a superpower as x-ray vision.

Anna Tromedlov (spell her last name backwards) has a problem. She’s a paper pusher in a variety of temp and short contract jobs for, primarily, supervillains. When she stumbles into a more permanent position with *the* premier supervillain, Leviathan, it seems that she might have it made. But then being in the wrong spot at the wrong time leads her to being physically and a bit psychologically  broken by a superhero. Anna gets mad, and more so, a determination for her to use her skills at analysis and data to break HIM and all of his kind in a far less kindly way. Revenge is a dish best served with spreadsheets and Pareto curves.  Exit Anna, enter The Auditor.

This is the story of Natalie Zina Walschots novel, Hench: A Novel.

Life is full of coincidences and ideas percolating at about the same time, and you will be forgiven, as I was, to talk about the 900 pound supervillain in the room, and what Hench parallels to: The Amazon series The Boys. Given the time and effort and the vagaries of publishing, Hench is not riffing off of or stealing from the series, but the harmonization of the story and the world between Hench and The Boys is unmistakable. A world which is just about ours, except Superheroes and Villains are common and accepted as a thing. Check. Superheroes being callous and uncaring about what sort of damage they do to others. Check. Superheroes having falling outs and all sorts of drama, to be exploited. Check. The Boys focuses on superheroes behaving badly and how grey characters deal with that, but Hench brings us the Villain side of the equation--how does someone who has wandered into the dark side of things, and then shoved there by superhero action, decide to take revenge, in a methodical and calculated way?

This is the heart of the book and where the book sings the best. We get to see Anna’s evolution, how she is radicalized from a temp hied by villains to a position of leadership, and how she uses her superpower, as it were, to apply data and analysis to the problem of how to take down superheroes. There is a lot here, that the author explores and unpacks--how does her relationships with others, outside of the Leviathans’ organization, evolves and changes as she rises from being Anna to becoming The Auditor. There is a lot of true-to-life office politics and maneuvering and a real sense that an organization, even one under a supervillain, is going to conform to norms and practices, archetypes and personalities, dramas and divisions, recognizable to anyone who has worked in a corporate office. Given my own role as being in a Quality department, I appreciated and enjoyed Anna’s role and arc within the supervillain corporate sphere. 

The novel is strong on representation and depiction of queer and transgender characters. It feels like a fully inclusive and diverse version of our own world.  I am ambivalent though, about other aspects regarding the worldbuilding of the book, which has both positive and negative qualities. On the plus side, we do get a good look at how superheroes and supervillains do their thing, with enough but not an excess of technobabble to make the reader break the suspension of disbelief as to how superpowers actually work. The novel does go into detail at points, sometimes very strong detail, and in others takes a more vaseline-on-the-lens look at how it all works. The author, and the book, know when to focus on character drama, for the most part, and when not to do so and to look at the fun of super powered individuals. On the other hand, the novel is a bit watery and waverly on exploring the ramifications of a world with superheroes --how long HAS the world had them? What is the background on that, and have they had a net influence on the planet? I am not certain the author has considered these issues, not even by the iceberg approach does it seem to be a there, there.

My major critique of the book is that it really feels like a first novel in some of the worst ways. There is a thread that runs through the book that hints and sets up Anna to actually BE a superpowered villain. Not just in some of the augmentations she gets (after being broken by a superhero) but there are a couple of points where Leviathan more or less states outright that he has more than a suspicion that Anna has powers of her own, latently, but this thread ultimately gets no payoff and goes nowhere. While the end of the book suggests that this COULD be a potential series, and there is much more for Anna to grow, having a touch back to this, even if it is going to be paid off in the second book, would have made that plotline and thread feel far more satisfactory and resolved. There is some roughness in other parts of the writing, too, but nothing out of the unexpected for a first time author.

Despite some of its roughness, I enjoyed Hench, and look forward to seeing what the author will do next. I get the sense that this is a story that the author has been extraordinarily eager to tell. There is a palpable and real anger and passion to this book, and to Anna's story that comes through on nearly every page.  With this under her belt, where she will go next is of interest. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Good follow through of central character and a look at someone who descends into villainy by a non traditional route, despite its comparisons to a major media property.

Penalties: -1 A major throughline of the book is not tied off or developed sufficiently

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10  an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Reference: Walschots, Natalie Zina  Hench: A Novel [William Morrow, 2020] 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

6 Books with Mur Lafferty and S.B. Divya

Podcasters and Writers Mur Lafferty and S B Divya, in addition to their own CVs of novels and novellas are the co-editors of Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology, in celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Hugo-nominated podcast, Escape Pod. 

Together, they tell us about their six books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

SBD: I just finished Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks, and I’m currently beta reading a draft novel from another writer. Of my recent reads, my favorite is The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson.

ML: I feel guilty not saying science fiction - but I’m reading some isolation murder mysteries. Just finished An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena and then started One by One by Ruth Ware. Then I’ll be moving to Even if We Break by Marieke Nijkamp. Recent genre books were Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir and Savage Legion by Matt Wallace.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about? 

SBD: Next up in my TBR are The City Born Great, by N.K. Jemisin and Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu. I’m also looking forward to Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne.

ML: Excited to read the Nijkamp book mentioned above, and then I’m looking forward to reading Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed and catch up on my T. Kingfisher books (Paladin’s Grace and Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking).

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?

SBD: I have so many great new books to read that I can’t keep up with! But I would love to have time for a re-read of two of my favorite books from my teenage years: The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge, and Dune, by Frank Herbert.

ML: I’d love to re-read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir and I am often listening to an Agatha Christie book for dissection and inspiration. 

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

SBD: I used to love Asimov as a kid, but I’ve found that I don’t care for his style anymore. Some personal behaviors of his have also put me off of recommending his books to others.

ML: I remember loving the puns and adventure of the Xanth books as well as the concept behind the Incarnations of Immortality by Piers Anthony, even while feeling that discomfort when reading about the depictions of women. I can’t even imagine recommending any of those to my daughter right now. 

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

Divya: if I have to choose just one, I’d probably say Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh. I greatly admire Cherryh’s prose as well as her ability to blend character-driven fiction with science.

Mur: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that there wasn’t a word for what Douglas Adams did, and novelist was the closest thing. He was a rare, absurd voice and possibly the person who I regret never meeting the most in my life. He showed me how space and absurdity could make for some amazing storytelling. 

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome? 

SBD: my latest is also my first novel! It’s called “Machinehood,” and it explores the meaning of intelligence as it relates to the conflict between human and machine labor. The elevator pitch is, “Homeland meets Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s also full of cool near-future tech, including tabletop biochemistry, microdrone swarms, self-organizing materials, and private rocket clubs. It’ll be out March 2, 2021.

ML: My book has no title yet! Waiting on marketing for that. I refer to it as “Murder She Wrote meets Babylon 5.” I hang a lantern on the fact that if there was a woman around whom murders happen and she had to solve them, no one would ever want to be around her. She escapes humanity to an all-alien space station, but eventually humans, and more murder, follow her.  

Joint Answer: we are, of course, very excited about the Escape Pod anthology, which we co-edited. It’s full of amazing authors whose stories have appeared at Escape Pod or who are otherwise connected with the podcast. It’ll be our first print anthology, and we hope our fans will enjoy having a book that represents 15 years of the fun science fiction that we’re known for. It’ll be out on October 20, 2020, in the U.K. and November 17, 2020, in the U.S.A.

Thank you Both!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Sweet Harmony by Claire North

A story exploring the brutality of perfectionism that manages to be pretty close to perfect.

Our bodies are flawed prisons. We’re stuck with skin that could be clearer, brains that could work faster, and smiles that could be brighter. And some of us go to great lengths to try to improve our bodily prisons so its tolerable. Great sums of money are spent to improve our aesthetics and mentality, but that want can never be satiated. And in a world like Sweet Harmony’s in which people can use nanotechnology to purge flaws, that want becomes heightened. Because what keeps us leveled is knowing that we share flaws. Stories, for example, are better when we identify and feel less alone by characters’ weaknesses. But when less people have weaknesses and tower over us with imposing beauty, our insecurities tornado into something worse and our venture to become better can turn into an impossible pursuit to perfectionism.

Sweet Harmony follows Harmony, a young woman living in a world in which nanotechnology (nanos) can not only improve your health, but your libido, mentality, and physicality. Harmony’s surrounded by people obsessed with superficiality, and the more she is deemed unworthy by them, the more insecure she becomes. She becomes beholden to nanos, with almost all of her expenditures dedicated to keeping her esteemed beauty. But that obsession comes with a price.

This novella tackles domestic abuse, unattainable beauty standards, familial conflict, selfishness warring with selflessness, and vocational biases. Not one of those themes is undercooked or scattered. The secret is that Claire North uses the nanotechnology as an underpinning to all these themes. The story spotlights Harmony’s experience and growing dependency on the nanos and touches all the themes along the way, never losing focus because as it moves from idea to idea, it’s always grounded in a center.

The nanos also work so well in the story because Claire North uses it as a powerful vessel for the worst of humanity to come out. Humanity’s universal want to be better becomes heightened and distorts people into base, perfectionistic, selfish monsters. Mentality and physicality may improve, but morality is something that’s left unchecked. Money becomes even less of something we use to satisfy our needs and transforms into something that satisfies our wants. Our perspective becomes skewed, our health becomes impaired, and a world of materialism and superficiality festers until a healthy smile is prioritized over a healthy heart.

The way these themes are communicated is done in a wholly fluid, impactful way. None of the characters are underdeveloped—they’re distinctly drawn. Nor does the limited word count dilute the story’s potency. Every word matters and the novella concludes in a satisfying way that didn’t leave me wanting. It’s wordsmithery and economy of language of the highest order.

By exploring the pursuit of flawlessness, Sweet Harmony illuminates so many of our flaws. It doesn’t arrive at any easy answers, but how can it? Insecurities are intractable, and every human will always be a different gradation of flawed. One weakness many of us have is never coming to terms with that. But Sweet Harmony prods its reader to try to get out of that rut. It pushes you to see yourself in the mirror or observe your imperfect work, and let you to be the best you can be, while shrugging off the fact that you’re not perfect. The key is to work to be better, but understanding you’re not the best. Sweet Harmony puts you through the ringer. It doesn’t arrive at a bursting light at the end of the tunnel, but there is a faint glimmer. Even though the light may not be perfectly iridescent, or even mildly stunning, it asks its readers to follow it, and is well worth the effort.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For never wasting a word or story beat.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!

North, Claire. Sweet Harmony [Orbit, 2020]

Monday, November 23, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah (2018 novel)

: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah

Location: Pakistan

Package Type: Book

Itinerary: Before She Sleeps is set in the futuristic Green City, in the newly reconstituted nation of South West Asia, a few decades after wars and a pandemic of mutated HPV have brought the old world order to its knees and caused the deaths of a disproportionate number of women. To rebuild itself, South West Asia has instituted strict citizenship rules which require women to be married to multiple men, and to have their fertility constantly monitored and artifically boosted in order to increase the population once more. It's a system which utterly disempowers women and has wide-ranging impacts on human relationships in general, and a small number of women have found a way out of the system, escaping to a haven called the Panah where they live underground and out of view of the authorities. However, to maintain the Panah, women are expected to engage in what is effectively sex work in all but the most literal sense: they are sent out to the homes of wealthy, allegedly trustworthy men, where they spend the night in intimate but non-sexual companionship - a form of relationship which is apparently missing from Green City under its current regime.

Sabine is one of the Panah's women, having grown up in a relatively stable, traditional family until the death of her mother under suspicious circumstances. Sabine is relatively content with her life on the margins with the Panah, although she is having trouble maintaining boundaries with one particular client; she's also an insomniac, and the other women around her express concern over her inability to sleep. Also prominent in the book are Lin, the niece of the Panah's founder and its current leader; Rupa, another member of the collective who, unlike the others, feels she was forced into this life and that she would have been content within the system if circumstances hadn't conspired against her; and Reuben, a senior Green City official and secret benefactor of the collective. When things start to go wrong for Sabine, she finds herself coming into the radius of Julian, a doctor whose commitment to medical ethics comes into conflict with the Panah's rules. The relationship between the two of them, and the attempts of the rest of the characters to untangle what has gone wrong with Sabine and whether she - and the Panah - can be saved, is what drives Before She Sleeps to its ultimate conclusion.

Travel Log
Before She Sleeps is an intriguing entry in the canon of patriarchal dystopia - a story set in a future west Asia that combines the phenomenon of "missing women" with a level of extreme government control over reproduction. Unlike the obvious comp title, The Handmaid's Tale (and if it seems dull to bring that up, I note that my copy of Before She Sleeps has a Margaret Atwood quote on the front cover and makes direct reference in the blurb, so the comparison is very much invited), Shah's book focuses on the lives of women who have in some way escaped from that system, drawing attention to the ways they (and female relatives) exerted agency before and after joining the Panah. It also allows Before She Sleeps to explore the crushing weight of patriarchy even for women outside its direct control: the Panah, far from being a utopian space for the women who find it, is effectively a brothel which gives its residents no choice in whether they want to engage in the work it gives them. That work exists at the mercy of elite men, and is particularly subject to the whims of Reuben, who becomes an increasingly antagonistic figure in the novel's landscape as it progresses. By portraying how constrained even an escape from the official systems of Green City is, the novel drives home the extent of patriarchy and the systems which prop it up, while still offering the reader protagonists with agency and decisions about how they live. Before She Sleeps also differs from The Handmaid's Tale in that the patriarchy it builds up is not a religious one: in this future, religiosity is frowned on as a relic of the past, but patriarchal attitudes towards women are upheld through a medical focus on their reproductive role and the insistence that good citizenship for women means doing one's reproductive duty to the nation, sacrificing all aspects of themselves for its continuation and a hypothetically better future. (Note: Like most books in this sub-genre, there's no space for trans folk in the world of Before She Sleeps, and the book itself doesn't have any exploration of how trans people try to exist in its world.)

As the book progresses, the focus shifts from a more mosaic novel approach with the relationships and circumstances in the Panah (including some flashback sequences), to a more narrow focus on Sabine and Julien - and it's ultimately their relationship and the circumstances in which they end the book that provides its tentative note of hope. While the second half was just as satisfying as the first in its way, and the growth of the relationship between Sabine and Julian, while fast, is nicely done. Julian is, perhaps, a little too perfect for the society he's grown up in: a doctor who prizes his own ethical integrity above his own security within the regime, and who immediately overcomes any ingrained biases against women (in fairness, as a younger man in a junior position he's apparently met very few of them aside from his mother) to form a bond of equals with Sabine and to continue to risk his job and his life for her well beyond the point where he might have an escape that would preserve his own position. Then again, Before She Sleeps isn't a long book, and it's clear that there are avenues that might have been explored had the book gone into more depth with some of its characters - a greater role for Rupa with more internal growth, or a more in-depth reckoning with the way men like Julien have taken in patriarchal attitudes and how that affects the way they react to the women of the Panah and their attempts to secure freedom. That said, Before She Sleeps does hang together effectively with the length and story that it does have, and I didn't feel that anything was missing that affected my enjoyment of its closing pages, even if they were quite focused on just two of the characters I'd originally become invested in.

Before She Sleeps is a worthwhile book, one that offers a vision of dystopian patriarchy that complements its forerunners (Maggie Shen King's An Excess Male is another interesting book, one that also takes place in Asia and deals with missing women and subsequent polyandry, which could easily be read in conversation with this) while offering its own speculative take. Before She Sleeps does contain mentions of rape (though no graphic depictions) and of other abuses towards women, and extensive discussion of pregnancy, including complications and miscarriage, so readers will want to be aware of that before taking it on.


The Adventure: 4/5
The Scenery: 4/5.
NerdTrip Rating: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Friday, November 20, 2020

Microreview [book]: How The Multiverse Got Its Revenge by K. Eason

Former Princess Rory Thorne finds that her actions, or inaction, may yet cause the multiverse to break once more

Retiring from being a Princess, one who was central to an interstellar conflict, isn’t as easy as it looks. Sure, Rory Thorne, blessed by fairies, has opted out of the politics and political games that got her in trouble for the first place. But when xenos, aliens show up seeking a weapon, politics drags Rory and her former companions and allies into the mess. And when that weapon turns out to be something unexpected, Rory is going to have to relearn something a Princess-turned-space-salvager has tried to avoid for years: Politics.

This is the story of How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, followup to How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse.

The narrative voice is a strong point of the novel and a real highlight that carries over from the first book. Voice and tone and grounding the reader into an immersive and distinctive voice is a way for a novel to center and be grounded, I think, especially given the gonzo weirdness of an unabashedly science fantasy universe. This is a novel, a world, a series that only puts the lightest of foundational touches to align the SFnal and Fantasy elements and it likes it that way. So tone and narrative voice carry the reader even as they wonder just how fairies, otherwise unexplained even as aliens, line up with spacecraft, space stations, and the magical art of arithmancy. Having recently watched the She-Ra reboot, I saw this sort of sensibility at work in a visual medium, and people who dig that science fantasy feel in She-Ra are going to like and accept that feel in the first novel, and here in the second novel as well. 

It makes for a relatively breezy and easy read, too. The narrative voice likes to do asides, comment on the narrative and otherwise be self aware of what is happening in a historical context. The conceit impressed in the novel suggests this was written long after the events by parties unknown. Readers who liked the writing style of the first novel are definitely going to appreciate its triumphant return in this novel and it is for me far and away the best thing about the novel.

There is a central plot and social question in the novel that doesn’t get explored or delved as much as it should be, and there is no way to really discuss the hole without spoiling it in detail. The very center of the novel, the central question it appears, and for lack of a better word the inciting incident that launches Rory and her friends and allies into an interstellar conflict is a weapon discovered by Rory and her companions. This weapon, called Rose, turns out to be sentient, a potential planet killer but with thoughts of their own. I immediately thought of the Doctor Who Episode Day of the Doctor and I am pretty sure other readers will too.

 Rose’s fate and who controls Rose become central to the novel, but the fate of Rose and how their fate is handled thereafter just doesn’t quite stick the landing. Given the importance, the game changing nature of Rose, Rose’s fate and the fate of those Rose interacts with just doesn’t come off quite right.  This is something that I felt for a lot of the book. Getting the band back together is hard after you dispersed it, and a lot of the novel feels like its treading water as a conflict happens in utter slowness, like molasses. The novel does wave in the direction, in its metatextual way (as noted above) of how war and conflict are depicted and how they are in reality, but too much of the novel feels like a slog. Rory herself just doesn’t come alive on the pages as she so boldly did in the first novel. There is a potential relationship/romance thing between two different characters in the novel, but that too, feels like it doesn’t come together, even in the denouement. It frustrated me. 

In all, though, the disappointing feel I get from How the Multiverse Got its Revenge is that it is ultimately unnecessary. It doesn’t snap and crackle like How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse. There is an interesting question posed in the entity of Rose and Rose’s rights as seen above, hopes and wishes, but this ultimately feels a bit underbaked and undercooked for all of that and given its resolution, it was not worth the effort for me. There is a bunch of interesting worldbuilding going on, but it's a thinly spread worldbuilding that leaves more frustrating questions than answers. There is a fair amount of butter but it's spread all over the bread too thinly to taste it.

Finally, there is a lack of essentialness to the book. I don’t know if there will be more in the series. The flashes forward mentioned in some of the narrative at the end makes it uncertain if there is going to be another book or if one is even really is indicated, but the events here, especially and tragically the central interesting question the book offers regarding Rose, are all in the end supernumerary and unnecessary. Like some sort of medieval angel in a morality play, a fairy does explain to Rory that her actions here HAS precipitated a wider conflict, that her actions in the novel have doomed the multiverse to conflict, but I just couldn’t buy it. The other possible paths and consequences and the nature of the threat seem to be pointing instead toward an inevitability of the conflict. Ultimately, the fate of Rose doesn’t make a whit of difference in the overall narrative and life story of Rory Throne and having spent many pages to be potentially invested in Rose’s fate, and how Rory connects to that, that’s a damning statement. 

In the end, the book simply did not satisfy me.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Strong narrative and authorial voice as first seen in the first novel.

Penalties: -1 worldbuilding so thinly spread that it raises more questions than it answers; -1 plotting and setup that are ultimately underthought and underdeveloped; -1 for the book, ultimately, not feeling   integral to Thorne’s story.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10 problematic, but has redeeming qualities

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Reference: Eason, K. How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge [DAW,  2020] 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Burning God by R.F. Kuang

Fang Runin's journey comes to a fitting close

Look, if you're here reading this review of the third book in a trilogy, especially one that's had the reach and popularity of The Poppy War trilogy, one of three things is probably true: you've read the previous books in the series and are looking to confirm whether the last one is going to live up to the expectations you've already developed about the series; you've avoided or bounced off earlier books and are wondering if my opinions are going to change your mind about if the series is for you; or you've read the book and you're wondering if I can a) contextualise what just happened or b) otherwise add to your reading experience with my #opinions. Let me put you all out of your misery quickly: Group A, the answer is yes, Group B, the answer is no, and Group C, I have no idea but I'll do my best for you. The Burning God brings to a close a very particular series in a way that stays very true to its core themes and aesthetic. If its what you're here for, you're going to like this one very much.

The Burning God picks up right where The Dragon Republic leaves off, with Fang Runin - a shaman able to harness the power of a super destructive god called the Phoenix - having thrown in her lot with a Southern Rebellion after being betrayed by the other rebellion forces she had helped to overthrow the Empress Su Daji. From that starting point, The Burning God proceeds to cover so much ground that it's hard to know where the scene-setting stops and the spoilers begin: there's the return to reclaim her southern home from foreign occupation by the remnants of the Mugenese troops who Rin and co. fought off in The Poppy War; her attempts to build relationships with rebel leaders who refuse to see her as anything more than an inconveniently powerful young girl; the reconnection with former enemy powers and the attempt to harness them to her cause; and of course, the reckoning with the forces of the Dragon Province, led by sometimes-ally mostly-enemy awkwardly-also-a-love-interest fellow Sineguard graduate Yin Nezha. Also thrown into the mix is the ongoing agenda of the Hesperians, the more technologically advanced, scientifically racist foreign power which has thrown its lot in with the Dragon's elites in order to further their own religious and cultural agenda. And, of course, the effects of the previous two books, including Rin's connections with the Cike, the Empire's now decimated shaman forces, her reckoning with her legacy as the last surviving descendent of the Speerly ethnic group, and her relationships with the few remaining allies she has from her time at the Sineguard academy. Getting through all of that is a serious undertaking, and while none of the events of The Burning God feel rushed, per se, there's certainly a relentless sense of action driving things through to their conclusion, and there were certainly emotional moments (particularly those involving Chen Kitay, Rin's oldest friend and ally) which could have benefitted from more space to breathe. I also suspect that the amount of shifting scenery in The Burning God was what allowed a transparent Tibet parallel called "Dog Province", complete with a reference to its people as "Dogs", to slip through sensitivity reading without challenge: an uncomfortable moment of unexamined, throwaway chauvinism that sailed far too close to oppression in our own world for my liking.

In-keeping with the rest of the trilogy, there are historical parallels here to the war between the Nationalist and the Communists, including a surprisingly understated (mild Cannibalism notwithstanding) version of the Long March from Rin's forces. There's also depictions of famine brought on by the war, and scenes of villagers turning on and punishing collaborators after occupation in various creatively brutal ways. Most of the descriptive brutality takes place at the beginning of the book, and I definitely felt there was a difference between the various horrors depicted, particularly towards the end: large-scale destruction seems to pass almost without comment from Rin, entire armies and cities just disappearing into the maw of destruction, whereas the pain and death inflicted on individuals outside the main battlefields is far more detailed and emotionally affecting. It's a difference that's very much inkeeping with Rin's emotional arc, as she progresses from a frustrated general trying to undo the horrors of war in her own home, to a leader drawn to increasingly bold and high-risk tactics to turn the tables on her enemies and secure herself enough power to do things differently. To me, it quickly became clear that it's Rin's emotional journey that provides the storytelling beats here rather than any hope of systemic change. Readers who know my tastes will know this isn't really where I personally wanted things to go, but that's really besides the point: The Burning God has always been clear that this is Rin's story, albeit one that draws heavily on its backdrop to inform who Rin is and why her journey takes place in the way that it does.

The way that this series takes on historical events in Sino-Japanese history has been extensively covered elsewhere, and I recommend this particular primer to understand where Kuang draws parallels not just from 19th and 20th century events but from classical Chinese stories as well. Having studied a bit of 20th century Chinese politics, what intrigued me most about the character work in The Burning God is how, more so than the other two books in the series, it plays with parallels between the characters of the series and the major historical figures whose cults of personality dominated what came next in our own history. Rin's attempts to establish herself as a leader in the rebellion - first one among many, and later as its head - are easy to compare to Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese communist forces and ruler of the People's Republic of China from the end of the civil war until until his death in 1976. But Rin has been through a great deal of other experiences, not least those shaped by her identity as a Speerly and a woman, both aspects which are absent in her historical counterpart. It's that tension between the historical record and the character's experience that made The Burning God's ultimate dilemma so compelling: when faced with a choice between embracing the feeling of total power over her people bestowed upon her by her god, or following the forgotten heroes of her own heritage along a different path, it's impossible to know what Rin will do until the book's last, dramatic pages.

I can't call The Burning God satisfying - it's not meant to be. It tells the story of a society that was broken from the very beginning, and whose subsequent experiences have only driven it further into ruin, and of a character whose attempt to escape poverty within that society turns into a desperate, miserable struggle for survival that was never going to turn out well. I come away from the Poppy War feeling I've read an important series, one that is likely to be talked about for a long time to come, and which readers should go into with their eyes open to the difficult subject matter it covers and the historical context on which it draws. For those who have been waiting for this moment: you're not going to be disappointed, but you are going to need a calming beverage and something to cuddle afterwards. Good luck.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 character work that blurs the lines of historical events and the book's own powerful mythology to great effect

Penalties: -1 There's so much ground to cover that some secondary characters don't get much time to breathe

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Reference: Kuang, R.F. The Burning God [Harper Voyager, 2020]

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Interview with Translator Andy Dudak

Thanks to magazines like Clarkesworld and Samovar, not only am I gaining access to more translated science fiction, but I'm also getting to see who the translators are. An author might write the most amazing short story the planet has ever seen. . . but if they didn't write it in English, I'm never going to see it unless a translator comes to the rescue.  

While on a Clarkesworld kick, I noticed that Andy Dudak's name cropped up over and over in that magazine, as a translator of Chinese stories.  When Dudak agreed to an interview about his work and experiences, I was over the moon!  His Mandarin to English translations have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Apex, Pathlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Dudak lived in China for 10 years, and the authors he has translated include Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Tang Fei, Jiang Bo, Bao Shu, A Que, among others.

An accomplished author himself, Dudak's original fiction has appeared in Interzone, Analog, Science Fiction World, and multiple anthologies. His story ‘Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing' was a finalist for the Eugie Foster Award.    You can learn more about Dudak's work and his translations at his website,, and by following him on twitter, where he is @Andy_Dudak.

Dudak let me pick his brain on everything from how he got his start, to how he managed to get his own fiction translated into Mandarin and published in China's Science Fiction World, what's happening right now in Chinese science fiction, and so much more.  And I was good, I promise, I didn't send him the fifty (at least!) other questions I wanted to ask.  Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: How did you get started with translating science fiction and fantasy? What languages do you translate? 

Andy Dudak: I translate Mandarin to English. I’d been translating contracts and other business-related documents for a few years, and I’d been writing my own fiction for many years, when Tod McCoy suggested I try translating fiction. This was at MidAmericon in 2016. That night I approached Neil Clarke at a bar con and asked him to give me a try. Neil had published a few of my originals by then. I think that helped him take a chance on me. A couple weeks later I was translating ‘Western Heaven’ by Chen Hongyu. Somehow, I never thought of this on my own. It’s all down to Tod really.

NOAF: How do you find works to translate into English? Does the author contact you, or do you contact the author? 

AD: I get a lot of commissions directly from Neil Clarke, who has a deal with StoryCom, a company in China that provides him stories for Clarkesworld. Neil and Ken Liu negotiated this deal with StoryCom years ago. So, about 2 to 5 times a year I get an email from Neil with a story attached, or several stories to choose from. At other times I’ve approached writers directly, either on WeChat or at a con, and asked them to let me translate a story on spec, betting that I could sell the translations. I’ve done this 5 times now. I’ve sold ‘The Heaven-Moving Way’ by Chi Hui to Apex, ‘Casualties of the Quake’ by Wang Yuan to Analog, and ‘Forger Mr. Z’ by Chen Qiufan to Asimov’s. Tang Fei’s award-winning story ‘Spore’ is still on submission, and a story by Gu Shi is currently at the rough draft stage.

NOAF: What do you do, when you run into a word or phrase in another language that just doesn't translate to English? What about rhymes or word puns, how do you deal with those?

AD: I often have to choose between literal or figurative translations of Chinese idioms (usually of the four-character Chengyu variety). Most of the time I go for a figurative translation, since as Ken Liu has pointed out, translating fiction is about recreating a reader experience, not just ferrying literal meaning from one language to another. For example, 九牛一毛 literally means “nine cows and one cow hair.” A good figurative translation would be “just a drop in the bucket.” There have been a few times I translated idioms literally, to preserve some Chinese flavor if I felt that fit the story, counting on context or an endnote to clarify the meaning. If I come up against something—an idiom or word or cultural reference—that stumps me, I go to my Chinese friends and colleagues for help. Luckily, after a decade living in China, I have a wide support network.

NOAF: You recently tweeted that you were working on translating a story that consisted entirely of dialog. Is translating dialog a different art than translating a paragraph of exposition, or are they about the same?

AD: This is the Gu Shi story mentioned above. Dialog is a bit different because you’re considering the voice of a character in addition to the voice of the author. But I also find it a bit easier because you’ve got an additional layer of context (you know who’s talking) to help you when it comes to ambiguous language.

NOAF: At the Virtual ConNewZealand Worldcon, you were part of a panel titled “Post The Three-Body Problem: What is Happening in Mainland Chinese Science Fiction?”. I wasn't able to attend the panel, so I'll ask you right now – what is happening in Mainland Chinese science fiction? Did The Three-Body Problem change contemporary Chinese science fiction, and if yes, how?

AD: I don’t know that Liu Cixin directly influenced style or subject matter, but his Hugo win shined a spotlight on Chinese sci-fi, which is extremely diverse. There’s no pithy way to characterize it. It’s as if the eras and genres of Anglophone sci-fi (Golden Age, New Wave, Cyberpunk, Cli-fi, etc.) are all happening at once in China. You have surreal Han Song, a kind of Chinese Kafka, contemporaneous with Chen Qiufan, whom you could compare to Paolo Bacigalupi. Both of those are crude comparisons though. What’s happening in Chinese sci-fi is a diverse flowering of styles, hybrids, and the utterly new. China is an entire civilization, and it has changed radically over the last 40 years. The science fiction reflects this. It is audacious (Tang Fei), socially trenchant (Hao Jingfang), grimly prophetic (Yan Leisheng), heartbreaking (Wang Yuan), psychedelically mind-boggling (Zhang Ran, ShakeSpace), dreamlike (A Que), and visionary (Jiang Bo).

NOAF: You've had your own work published in Science Fiction World, China's premier SFF magazine. Did you do your own translating? How is the publishing experience in China different than the publishing experience at an English Language magazine (such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Apex Magazine, Interzone, and other magazines where you've been published)? 

AD: I only translate in one direction, Mandarin to English. It’s easier if the target language is your native tongue. I could go the other way, but I would take forever and require a lot of help. It was Ladon Gao (@GaoLadon on Twitter, follow and hire him!) who translated my originals ‘Taste the Whip’ and ‘Cryptic Female Choice’ into Mandarin. ‘Taste the Whip’ ended up in Science Fiction World, the biggest sci-fi mag on the planet by readership. Ladon was my student at Beijing Language and Culture University, School of Translation and Interpreting. As to how publishing in China is different… much shorter response times! Incidentally, ‘Cryptic Female Choice’ also ended up in a prestigious magazine, with Tang Fei’s help. The magazine is Works (作品), and my story was in the same issue as Nobel-winner Mo Yan. Ladon is a machine, and a talented writer himself.  

NOAF: Thanks so much for this amazing interview Andy!

 POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.