Friday, August 26, 2016

Microreview [book]: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

A powerful must-read


I’m going to start off this review by admitting to a bias: I once stated aloud “Colson Whitehead is one of our greatest living writers.” I’ve not only read all of his books multiple times, but I also routinely try to force them onto other people. So I might be a little biased when I say that his latest is a great and important and powerful book. But, let’s make this very clear, I’m so ridiculously biased towards Colson Whitehead because he’s such a phenomenally talented writer. Each of his novels, starting with The Intuituonist and going up to Underground Railroad have been drastically different while still being beautifully and excitingly written.

Underground Railroad uses some tropes of genre, including alternated history and fable, to tell the story of Cora. Cora, a slave on a hellish Georgia plantation, decides to try escaping via the Underground Railroad. Here, though, in Whitehead’s intricately re-imagined past, the Railroad is an actual underground railroad, complete with tracks and locomotives. Here is one of the descriptions: “The locomotive was black, an ungainly contraption led by the triangular snout of the cow-catcher, though there would be few animals where this engine was headed.”  Once Cora begins her escape, she goes through a series of places on her way to freedom. The book jacket copy makes an allusion to Gulliver’s Travels and it’s an apt one. This feels like a mythic heroic travel narrative, but one that is grounded in the horrifyingly real.

One of the aspects about the novel that, for me, showed Whitehead’s brilliance the most was how he approached the awfulness of Cora’s situation. He never shies away from violence and the gruesome nature of people, but he also never revels in it. There are no gratuitous moments and, because of that, it is even more deeply shocking and horrific when awful things happen. We, as readers, are not allowed to get inured to what Cora’s life is like.

By the end of this novel, I was not only deeply moved but I also felt like I had been through something. There is beauty in the horrible world of the novel and there is power in Cora’s strength, but the novel also reminds us that we are always only a few steps away from history and from the horror that people can do to one another.

This is a novel that everyone should read. I hope it gains Whitehead all of the acclaim and spotlight that he deserves. I hope it also causes readers to reflect on the world we live in.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for gorgeously evocative writing and for using alternative history tropes to such amazing effect

Penalties: None, it's one of the best books I've read in years

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10 "

Reference: Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad [Doubleday, 2016]

POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Thursday Morning Superhero

As we near the end of another beloved series, I feel like reflecting on series that I miss, but that ended things properly on their own terms.  In no particular order I salute The Sixth Gun, Y: The Last Man, Locke and Key, Mind MGMT, and Sweet Tooth.  I hold a special place on my bookshelf for you all and enjoy revisiting your stories on an annual visit.  Chew will find a place on that shelf soon, but other series that seem to overstay their welcome and moved on.

Pick of the Week:
Chew #57 - All of the pieces of this bizarre puzzle are starting to come together.  Either John Layman is a genius, or he is doing one amazing job at connecting the dots in one of my all-time favorite series.  We last left with Tony Chu having to eat Mason Savoy to gain his knowledge of the avian flu.  Amazingly enough, Layman managed to utilize various food based talents as the root of the cause.  This somehow brings together all of the various cibo-related individuals we learned about throughout this series and this issue brings us to the source of their powers.  I don't want to give Layman a big head, but the way that everything is coming together is mighty impressive. The only negative thing I can say about this issue is the final message conveyed to Chu from Savoy.  I am going to pretend that it isn't true and that somehow Chu will find an alternative.  From what Layman has hinted at on social media, I don't think anyone is going to survive this series.  I'm still bitter about Poyo.

The Rest:
Star Wars #22 - I had thought this series was starting to cool off, but then we are treated to a high-octane issue with an immensely satisfying payoff.  The Rebels are trying to sabotage a Star Destroyer with the assistance of the Millennium Falcon and its standard crew.  This issue feels like watching a classic Star Wars battle with near misses, X-Wings sadly going down, and Luke using the Force to guide his actions.  In order to avoid spoilers I won't spill the beans on the payoff, but this issue, which felt like a simple and fun action oriented issue, ends up being a huge strategic move by the Rebels that should pay dividends immediately.  

Dept. H #5 - Matt and Sharlene Kindt's murder mystery under the sea has really picked up in this issue.  There are a lot of suspects as to who had the means and motivation to murder Mia's father.  This issue really intensified things in terms of how far our culprit is willing to go to prevent Mia from getting to the bottom of things.  This series features and incredible story and the visuals that I've grown to love from Kindt.  His watercolor style is absolutely stunning and really adds an erie element that works incredibly well for this series.   A reader in the letters sections compared this book to Bioshock, and while there are stark differences, the haunting underwater vibe is very similar.

True Stories #2 - Derf Backderf has collected some of his comics from The City, ranging from 2009-2014.  I was introduced to Backderf's autobiographical style in the amazing My Friend Dahmer, his account of growing up with Jeffrey Dahmer (a Nerds of a Feather Best Comic of 2012!), and this book has a similar feel.  This book is a collection of one page comic strips of first or second-hand accounts of people watching.  It is a nice slice of life book in which we are all flies on the wall observing humanity and all of its flaws.  Good stuff.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Microreview [book]: Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Its greatest fault: being too short to develop its tantalizing ideas/relationships further!

Nagamatsu, Sequoia. Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. Black Lawrence Press, 2016.
Buy it here.

As my dozens of fans worldwide are no doubt aware, I’m generally not a fan of short story anthologies. That’s because there are only two types of short stories: (1) short stories so good the reader laments their shortness, wishing for a longer treatment, and (2) bad short stories. Ultimately, why read either one? Needless to say, I went into this assignment (and, you know, all other assignments) with a snarky, judgmental attitude.

The one glimmer of promise for this volume is that it’s a self-anthology, i.e. all short stories by the same author whose order, presumably, was also carefully considered by same, so it’s not as though it’s a typical third-person ‘throw it all in—the readers will never know the difference’ anthology hack-job.

The opening story in the volume took some time for me to get used to, but once I did, it fell neatly into category (1) above. (Not to ruin the suspense of this page-turner of a review, but I’m happy to report that actually all the stories were category (1)’s!) My reason for liking this story, about a family torn apart (in one person’s case literally!) by ‘kaiju’ (mega-monsters like Godzilla, etc.), was not so much the Japanese pop culture subject matter, though I’ll be the first to admit I like that stuff, but because of the central mystery: how, in just a few pages, did Nagamatsu manage to make me care about the characters involved? It’s written in a whimsical, nonlinear manner, from multiple perspectives, and although one of the central characters in this family drama had, it turns out, died years earlier, somehow I felt myself choked up imagining the trauma of this loss on the surviving family members. If you’d told me beforehand that I’d be crying at the end of a few-thousand-word story, I’d have chortled (a word that doesn’t get used nearly enough) right in your face, but sure enough, that’s what happened.

And it kept happening, for almost the entire collection! I began to perceive certain patterns to the stories, or perhaps to Nagamatsu’s own preoccupations: nearly all the stories (except, e.g., the one about the neck-extending yōkai and the one about the Kappa) feature a three-person family from which one person has been (usually violently) ripped away, and the stories, their supernatural content notwithstanding, are really all about bereaved family members making sense of their trauma. So even if you’re not really into the notion of, say, ghost visitations by a dead son inspiring his father to make a special fireworks display, I think you’ll find the way the father and the mother separately deal with their loss quite touching.

But that doesn’t absolve Nagamatsu of responsibility for writing category (1) short stories: almost any of these stories, in my novel-tinged opinion, would be better as novellas or novels, because that would afford Nagamatsu greater space to develop these triangular relationships more fully. So we’re back where we started, in the frustrating limbo of short story-land…let’s hope Nagamatsu will escape next time into the fully-fledged playground of the novel, because I can say with certainty that his ideas are great, and deserve longer treatment!

The Math

Objective assessment: 7/10

+1 for introducing a (hopefully!) wide audience to many of the coolest Japanese folk tales and supernatural legends, i.e. Kappa, rokurokubi, and more;
+1 for somehow making me care, in only a few short pages, about characters literally just brought to life on the page a few moments before!
+1 for the dendrophilic name!

Penalties: -1 for letting all these good ideas wither on the stupid vine of short storydom
-1 for the impossible-to-abbreviate title (a.k.a., WWGWAWWIG)

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 “It’s a bit of all right” in Australian, “kinda awesome” in American, and probably something silly like “capital” or “gobsmackingly good” in ‘English’ 

[For those unfamiliar with our draconian scoring method, see here.]

This little fireside chat (with the caveat that I’m not currently anywhere near a fire, and am not, in fact, chatting with anyone either) was brought to you by Zhaoyun, purveyor of exquisite long-form fantasy & science fiction and yes, even (ugh) short stories since forever, and reviewer at NOAF since 2013.

Extra-special bonus: +1 to Zhaoyun for using ‘chortled’

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Obligatory Hugo Awards Reaction Essay

The winners for the 2016 Hugo Awards were announced on Saturday night and I would like to offer a hearty congratulations to all of the winners. I've listed them below and for those who don't quite remember who all was nominated, here is a link to the full list of finalists.

Best Novel: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Best Novella: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (
Best Novelette: “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Issue 2)
Best Short Story: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer ( Clarkesworld , Jan 2015)
Best Related Work: No Award
Best Graphic Story: The Sandman: Overture written by Neil Gaiman, art by J.H. Williams III (Vertigo)
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): The Martian screenplay by Drew Goddard, directed by Ridley Scott (Scott Free Productions; Kinberg Genre; TSG Entertainment; 20th Century Fox)
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): Jessica Jones : “AKA Smile” written by Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, and Jamie King, directed by Michael Rymer (Marvel Television; ABC Studios; Tall Girls Productions; Netflix)
Best Editor - Short Form: Ellen Datlow
Best Editor - Long Form: Sheila E. Gilbert
Best Professional Artist: Abigail Larson
Best Semiprozine: Uncanny Magazine edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, and Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky
Best Fanzine: File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
Best Fancast: No Award
Best Fan Writer: Mike Glyer
Best Fan Artist: Steve Stiles
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (not a Hugo): Andy Weir

There is one other link I would like you to keep in mind as we go through this, which is the final results and statistics. I'll be using the information contained there quite a bit throughout this essay.

First things first: The Fifth Season won for Best Novel and I am beyond thrilled. Novel was an overall strong category (my thoughts) and Jemisin's novel was my pick of the bunch. Here's my review of The Fifth Season. 

This is really cool because, besides the fact that I loved it, all the predictors were going to Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Uprooted would have been a strong choice and Ancillary Mercy was an excellent novel, but The Fifth Season is really something special as a fantasy novel and I am so glad that this book won. It's so damned good I want to gush about it to everyone. 

So, I'm happy, right? The night ended on a high note and it was an overall excellent list of winners (Binti!) that we can all mostly be excited about and thrilled for. Right?

There's a reason I started this by talking about how excited I am about The Fifth Season winning a Hugo. I don't want to lose perspective here that the best fantasy novel I read last year won the award I care most about.

Throughout my category by category coverage of the Hugo Award finalists, I made a choice to not focus too much on how any given work was on the ballot (see, Novel), except in the instances where doing so would be unavoidable (see, Short Story). I wanted to focus on the work itself, because even though the Rabid Puppies placed 64 works from their slate onto the final ballot (before any withdrawals), as I said back in April, "this year the Rabid Puppies presented a cross section of works that are legitimately good and worthy...and works that are quite obviously there to represent a giant middle finger to people who care about the Hugo Awards".

The one unspoken thing that went through my mind while I looked at the work that did make the ballot, much of it through Rabid Puppy means, was "I wonder what isn't on the ballot because of this damned mess"

That link to the voting and nominating statistics I mentioned earlier? This is where it becomes important.

Let's look at the Novelette category,

Best Novelette (1975 Ballots)
And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead”, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
Folding Beijing”, by Hao Jingfang, (Uncanny 1-2/15)
“Obits”, by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)
“What Price Humanity?”, by David VanDyke (There Will Be War: Volume X)
“Flashpoint: Titan”, by Cheah Kai Wai (There Will Be War: Volume X)

 Four of the five finalists were on the Rabid Puppies slate, which is not news at this point, but what we didn't know for sure is that Brooke Bolander's story would have not been on the ballot except for Jonathan Moeller declining his nomination for "Hyperspace Demons", which would have made it 5/5.

So what happens if we take the Rabid Puppies out of the conversation?  Well, if we look at the nomination chart we use the 414 nominations Moeller received as our baseline for the category. King's "Obits" received 443, but it was also on my ballot, Cheah Kai Wai received 441 and David Van Dyke 437. I hesitate to say that Moeller would not have received any nominations on his own, but for the sake of this exercise we're going to use his number as the total number of RP nominators in this category.

Obits drops to 29, What Price Humanity to 23, and Flashpoint: Titan to 27. Folding Beijing, however, would still have 162 votes.

Novelette would have looked like this:
"Our Lady of the Open Road", by Sarah Pinkser (214)
"So Much Cooking", by Naomi Kritzer (196)
"Folding Beijing", by Hao Jingfang (162)
"Another Word for World", by Ann Leckie (157)
"The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild", by Catherynne M. Valente (157)

I'm not going to spend much time analyzing the category that could have been, but I will say that I loved the stories by Sarah Pinsker and Ann Leckie and nominated Pinsker's. "Our Lady of the Open Road" was also the Nebula Awards winner for Best Novellete. It's really damn good, folks. Go read it.

Whether you think this would be a stronger list of finalists than what actually made the ballot is up to personal preference, though my opinion is that this would have been a MUCH stronger category. When I wrote about the announced finalists in April, I said that I wasn't angry, I was just disappointed and this remains true. I am disappointed because a group of individuals are taking their nominating orders in lockstep from someone who has a stated goal of burning down and destroying the Hugo Awards and that he doesn't care about the awards.

For the most part, I don't play the game of deciding who is and is not a "fan" or a "true fan" or "any other kind of fan" of science fiction and fantasy. If you love these stories, even if they're not the stories I necessarily appreciate, you're a fan and you're as much of a fan as I am. We're just fans of different stuff. If you tell me that "What Price Humanity?" was your favorite science fiction story published in 2015, I believe you. It's not mine, but I believe you. Hell, "Obits" was near the top of my list and was the top of my Novellete ballot. Our tastes might not diverge as fully as you think.

But, and this is where I'm going to go against what I just said, if you're telling me that you nominated "If You Were an Award, My Love" for the Hugo Award was one of the five best fucking science fiction or fantasy short stories published in 2015...I don't think you're actually a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I don't think you can be. I don't think there is any way that "story" can be nominated for an award for "best" anything except as part of a concerted effort to tell Rachel Swirsky, John Scalzi, and anyone who gives a damn about science fiction, fantasy, and the Hugo Awards that we can all go collectively fuck ourselves because that's what the story is. It's a big middle finger to anyone who calls themselves a fan of science fiction and fantasy. And as much as you may legitimately hate and not understand the appreciation and love for "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love", nominating "If You Were an Award, My Love" is saying that you're not seeking the best of genre, you're seeking to get even, to get yours. It's not the same thing.

This is also where the divergence of the Sad and Rabid Puppies was this year. "Sad" Puppies came together to talk about science fiction and fantasy, participate in the process, nominate their favorites, and complain about the finalists like everyone else does. Sounds like a fan to me. Let's call them fans and perhaps dispense with the puppy nonsense, shall we? Unless they want to continue to claim it, in which case, okay. The Rabid Puppies came together to take over an award, nominate some stuff that actually is really good and also nominate some stuff for no better purpose than to take a steaming dump on someone else's lawn and they did it as a disciplined group. That doesn't sound like a group of fans, does it? It sounds like a group which enjoys trying to break someone else's toys and make others feel bad. 

Let's look at the Short Story category.

Best Short Story (2451 Ballots)
Asymmetrical Warfare”, by S. R. Algernon (Nature 3/15)
"Cat Pictures Please", by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
The Commuter, by Thomas A. Mays (Stealth)
“Seven Kill Tiger”, by Charles Shao (There Will Be War: Volume X)
If You Were an Award, My Love”, by Juan Tabo & S. Harris ( 6/15)
Space Raptor Butt Invasion, by Chuck Tingle (self-published)

Once again, note that the declined nomination from Thomas Mays (after the announcement, this time) is what allowed eventual winner "Cat Pictures Please" to make the ballot. This time we're going to take 387 as the number of Rabid Puppies nominating in this category as that is the amount of the lowest RP nominee, "The Commuter". "Assymetrical Warfare" had 452 votes, "Seven Kill Tiger" had 424, and "If You Were an Award, My Love" had 398. I can make an argument than 398 is the number I should really use and that a number of Core Rabids were disinterested in Thomas Mays, but I don't think that 11 will make a huge difference.

Without RP participation, the Short Story category looks like this:
"Cat Pictures, Please", by Naomi Kritzer (367)
"Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers", by Alyssa Wong (253)
"Wooden Feathers", by Ursula Vernon (200)
"Today I Am Paul", by Martin Shoemaker (189)
"Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer", by Megan Grey (181)

Again, I think this is a stronger category than what was on the final ballot as a result of the Rabid Puppies, but this time I think I am objectively correct because Short Story contained two stories intended as nothing more than a big middle finger to the genre community, such as it is. "Space Raptor Butt Invasion" was the other one, if you weren't sure. It's just that Chuck Tingle flipped the script by his good humor and positivity throughout the process. His story still ended up below No Award, as it should have been, but while the nomination remains a bit of a stain on the award if you look back from twenty years out, it is one that still backfired on the Rabid Puppies and gave fandom another ally (and one with a fantastic sense of humor). But talking about Chuck Tingle is an essay all on its own and really doesn't get into my overall wistfulness about the ballot that could have been.

I'm not familiar with "Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer", though I remember it being discussed around Sad Puppies 4. Look! Participating and nominating stuff you love can get it on the ballot! Well, it can, but when an organized group comes in, you don't get to see any of your favorite things unless that group just happens to also nominate them (like grabbing Daniel Polanksy's excellent The Builders in novella - great story, got caught up in the damn RP slate).

This also serves as your annual reminder that every vote matters. To get to a category that is near to my heart, if you take out the RP slate, Fanzine looks like this:

File 770
Lady Business
Journey Planet
A Dribble of Ink (in its final year of eligibility)
Rocket Stack Rank

A scant two nominations behind in sixth place, the venerable and now defunct SF Signal. Four nominations behind SF Signal, oh, a little blog called Nerds of a Feather!!  We're number 7! We're number 7!  Two nominations behind us, Mad Genius Club. Nominating matters, people. Not slating matters. Also, Black Gate might have also been in the mix for that final slot (they declined, after being on the RP slate)

So what's the takeaway here? There's nothing really new, except that way the Rabid Puppies attempted to stack the ballot was different and this year they used some more legitimate "shield" targets and as a general rule, the voters could tell the difference and voted accordingly. Abigail Larson is an excellent artist and does fantastic work. Unfortunately, Matthew Callahan in Fan Artist took a big hit as part of a the RP slate, but his Star Wars Galactic Warfighters project is one of the best things I've seen in this or any other year of fan art. He had my vote and the eventual winner (not part of RP) honestly doesn't measure up or belong in the same conversation even though they work in very different media. I wish the voters would have looked past the RP connection here for Callahan has they did in other categories.

I don't know that there is a takeaway, except to wonder if there will be a mess next year and if so, of what size and shape. I hope not. I hope that the people who care about the award will stay and play and those who don't will take their energy and interest somewhere else. It's disappointing when the conversation has to be so much about everything else except for the nominees and finalists because one person has enough followers to change the whole thing. 

Also, thank you very much for every one of the 60 people who nominated Nerds of a Feather. Thank you. Thank you.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Contributor Profile: Shana DuBois

The flock is growing! In a moment of introspection, we noticed a Shana sized hole in our collective hearts and knew immediately that we could not go on without trying to fill it. Happily for the flock, Shana DuBois agreed to come on board and fill that hole. 

Many of you know Shana from her contributions to the lamentably defunct SF Signal, her own blog BooksAbound, twitter (@booksabound), and Luna Station Quarterly. She is also relaunching the SF Signal Mind Meld at the Barnes and Noble Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog. What we're saying is that she's awesome and that we're really glad to have her here. 

So, please give Shana a hearty welcome. 

And - as per tradition, here is Shana's Contributor Profile.

NAME: Shana DuBois

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: Tennessee (apt to change at any given moment)

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Short Fiction, Fantasy, Mythology & Fairy Tales

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: People looking down on other fandoms and the lack of diverse offerings in all genre mediums.

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Werewolves. Or maybe Vampires? Possibly Robots. Werewolves are definitely on the list. And Robots.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Hahahaha, the stack is massive. However, a few titles are: Los Nefilm (Frohock), The Devourers (Das), Goth (Otsuichi), Join (Toutonghi).

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: A Head Full of Ghosts (Tremblay), The Geek Feminist Revolution (Hurley), Heart of Veridon (Akers), The Vegetarian (Kang), Silver on the Road (Gilman).

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: Beyond Redemption (Fletcher) and The Telling (Sirowy)

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: Storm has always been my favorite superhero. My favorite super-villain would be tied between Loki and the Joker.

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: The same shifting powers as Mystique.

THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Guardians of the Galaxy and Green Lantern. Two very different movies and I enjoyed both.



I JUST WATCHED [FILM Y] AND IT WAS TERRIBLE: This is harder for me to pin down because if a movie looks like it will be crap I don't waste time watching it. Batman v Superman falls into this category.

EVERYONE SHOULD SEE [FILM Z] BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE: Raise the Red Lantern. I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago and it remains one of the most powerful films I've seen. It can be hard to track down but worth it.

BEST SCIENCE/SPECULATIVE FICTION SHOW OF THE PAST 10 YEARS: Because of the recent airing of Season 10 for X-Files I am going to make the executive decision to allow its inclusion for the 10 year limitation.

WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: Brace yourself...I haven't watched either series.


GAME OF THRONES--LIKE OR DISLIKE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BOOKS: While I own the seasons, I have yet to watch them all so I can't yet comment on deviations.

Nanoreviews [books]: Dark Run, Flesh & Wires, An Apprentice to Elves

Brooks, Mike. Dark Run [Saga Press, 2016]

The novel opens with a mercenary crew getting a job to smuggle some cargo into "Old Earth" on a particular date at a particular time. The job goes sideways. As jobs like this do when they open the novel. The motley crew led by a man named Ichabod Drift (it's that sort of book) wants some revenge. Dark Run is somewhat, well, dark, but fun and fast paced and is a very solid debut from Brooks. It's a little bit of space opera and space western and it's well worth a look.
Score: 7/10

Hatton, Jackie. Flesh & Wires [Aqueduct Press, 2016]

Jackie Hatton's debut novel of feminist science fiction takes on one of my favorite tropes, which is the post-apocalyptic novel - except that this isn't really the story Hatton is telling, it's just the framework. After an alien invasion (and I so love typing those two words), the Earth is left with scattered pockets of deeply scarred survivors. There are few men and a number of the women are augmented by another group of aliens with technology so advanced it might as well be considered magic - except that Flesh & Wires is deeply rooted in the survival of humanity and of the survival of one particular community led by a woman named Lo. I couldn't put Flesh & Wires down and expect it to be in the end of year conversation for my favorite novels of the year. I want more of this.
Score: 9/10

Monette, Sarah and Elizaebth Bear. An Apprentice to Elves [Tor, 2015]

If you haven't been reading Monette and Bear's Iskyrne trilogy, you've really missed out. Also, you may not want to start with An Apprentice to Elves. While each of the three volumes mostly stand on their own, they do build from each other and build the relationships between the characters and over the course of a generation. Monette and Bear have crafted a hard world above an arctic circle complete with companion wolves, battles with trolls and wyverns, an invading army threatening the culture of the northlands, the expectations of family and the feeling of being an outsider in a different culture, and so many other things that I just can't put into words. While I do recommend starting with A Companion to Wolves (my review) to get the most complete experience, I highly recommend the full trilogy.

Score: 8/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Microreview [novel]: The Root by Na'amen Gobert Tilahun

You'll want to set aside some time in your calendar to do nothing but read this book...

Erik thought things were weird enough being a former child television star and current social pariah having to navigate bullying and a home life that's…well, not exactly the most peaceful. When he finds out that he has honest-to-goodness super powers and is part of a conflict stretching back into prehistory? Well, what defines "weird" officially changes. And it kicks off an adventure ripe with secret organizations, parallel worlds, mysterious and hungry darkness, and more hidden agendas than a dozen spy movies. In short, it's a lot of fun, with a chorus of amazing voices and characters, a deep and interesting setting, and a fast pace and brilliant action with just enough tragedy, romance, darkness, and hope to keep me glued to the pages and grumpy af that I have to wait for the next book to come out.

If it sounds like that is a lot to fit into one book, I kind of agree with you. It's not short and it is full. Mostly it splits its action between two parallel stories. In the one, Erik is learning about his powers and the political situation on Earth between the Organization and the Agency, two rather faceless entities that come down on opposite ends of an ages old feud between the children of the gods. In the other, Lil is being trained in magic languages in Zebub, a dimension that mirrors Earth but that is being attacked by a mysterious and deadly force. In both settings, powers determine hierarchy and privilege, and in both children are being trained as warriors to fight in this ancient war whose origin has been lost through conflict. And having the true origins of this war be lost is an interesting choice because at the same time that it allows the characters to sort of handwave the particulars away as "unknown" it also means the reader isn't bogged down with how all these religions could possibly be brought into one explanation. It might not be the most satisfying for those really wanting to dig into how it all works or got started, but for me it was a way for the book to say "hey, try not to think too hard about that and maybe look instead at all the awesome and off-the-wall shit happening." Which worked for me because that's the situation Erik finds himself in, having to put aside his questions in favor of trying to do good now.

It's also a lot to fit into one book because there's a lot of things to keep track of. The plot is split between the two storylines that slowly converge but there's also a number of viewpoints within each storyline that fleshes out the worlds and offers some hints and insights into things that the main characters aren't aware of. Juggling so many perspectives is by no means easy but the novel pulls it off with style, giving each person a unique voice and mission, popping into certain characters' heads only once before darting away to the next thing. None of these asides from Erik or Lil felt insignificant, though, and each helped to push forward the plot and solidify various motivations and intrigues slowly simmering in the background. For all that Erik and Lil take up most of the real estate, this novel is about factions and loyalty and betrayals, something that the jumping around helped me keep track of and which made the individual personalities that much more real and compelling. The personal beats are definitely present, the jealousies and the budding loves and the everything.

And can I say that I just love all the different relationships and people in this book? Because it is amazing to me to find a book with such a diverse cast, where queer characters outnumber straight ones, where characters of color outnumber white ones. I love all the ways the characters connect and form friendships and rivalries and alliances. The way that Erik starts to have feelings for his mentor while still dealing with the shit from his impressively dramatic breakup with his first boyfriend who ended up in jail because of it. The way that Lil finds herself coming into her own power and her own feelings and sexuality and there is just so much to like about this. I want more, okay? I want whole books that explore the side characters because they are so alive. No one is treated as disposable, as flat. They all have inner lives and inner fires and I want to see them all get their own books. Their own series! Their own shared movie universe! And I might be getting ahead of myself a bit but seriously this is about the most fun I've had with a book in a long while.

And really this is one of those reads where most of my frustrations stem from the fact that it's the first book in a series. That the world building could have been a bit clearer to me in parts didn't really bother me because I expect the lingering questions to be answered in future books. What exactly happened to sever the Blooded from their Zebub counterparts is hazy but I'm guessing that central mystery will push forward the overall plot of the series, and the book definitely earned my trust that it will be awesome when the reveal eventually happens. Similarly, the book covers a lot of ground and in doing so seeded a lot of conflict that didn't exactly get a chance to breathe. Just when it seemed like some hinted-at plot was about to be revealed something completely different would happen and kind of shatter my expectations. Which again, I liked, but it did mean that by the end there was a whole lot still hanging in the air that didn't feel resolved. This gives a lot of momentum going into the rest of the series but I fear this might mean I will definitely have to reread this first book directly before the next to be able to remember all that was going on. Which isn't the worst problem to have, I'll admit, given how fun the novel is.

In the end, I think the novel succeeds magnificently at setting the ground rules for the setting and revealing an amazing cast of characters and just enough of the world to make for a compelling and deep experience. While there are a few things that are left to be ironed out in later books, this first taste has left me ravenous for more and I very much look forward to seeing where the series leads.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 8/10


Negatives: -1 for not tying up loose ends so much as throwing a dozen news threads into the mix at the end of the book

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "very high quality/seriously go read this now and then weep that the second book isn't out yet" see our full rating system here.

POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: Tilahun, Na'amen Gobert. The Root [Night Shade Books, 2016]