Monday, December 17, 2018

Microreview [Book] Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Among the ranks of Butler and Atwood, Ink portrays a future that seems all too close for comfort.

Image result for ink by sabrina vourvoulias

Imagine a world where a tattoo determines your citizen status. Ink follows Finn, a reporter for a struggling newspaper as he works (and falls in love with) an informant named Mari. Written in a noir style (though rising to lyricism throughout), it's hard not to imagine this book in classic black and white. What separates it from other near-future dystopias (if we can even call it that considering the current political climate) is the "magic" based on Latin American history. Throughout the novel, Mari's jaguar "twin" washes over her features at times and guides her when the world is too much.

While the novel opens with a focus on Finn the reporter and his informant-turned-lover Mari, it continues expanding into four point-of-view characters each occupying a different role in not only the story but in the world. Abbie is the daughter of a woman organizing the new internment camps for "inks" and Del is part of a local business that hires temporary workers. As their stories grow closer together and intertwine, Mari grows in her power but also her ability as a storyteller. Fairy tales whether true or false, become another form of escape.

Ten years ago when Ink first hit shelves, it would have been a difficult read. Now, the images of tattoos, GPS trackers, internment camps, border dumps are all too mainstream. Just like Twitter in the novel, these stories fill my timeline. This past weekend, a brief discussion popped up on my timeline regarding good speculative fiction: it's not meant to predict the future but warn against a type of future. Ten years ago, just coming off the Bush presidency, immigration, racism, sexism, and so on, weren't great, either, but Ink warned against a certain future. Plenty of people listened and worked diligently to avert it, particularly in communities of color, but here we are. It can get worse, as Ink shows, and this warning should ring loud to the people and communities systematically empowered (that's us, white folks).

It's hard not to talk about social justice as this new edition comes out, but that's also a disservice to Vourvoulias' work. Much like Atwood's Handmaid's Tale or Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, this novel is incredibly engaging. It's fast paced, action-packed, full of myth and magic and truth, and displays Vourvoulias' talent as a writer as she navigates four distinct points-of-view and these characters' engaging voices. While the subject matter hits hard, the novel is an adventure.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for being one of those books that is an IMPORTANT READ in this day and age, if you feel me. 

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10, “Mind-blowing/life-changing.” Read more about our scoring system here.

Reference: Vourvoulias, Sabrina. Ink [Rosarium Publishing, 2nd Edition, 2018]

Posted by Phoebe Wagner

Friday, December 14, 2018

Microreview [book]: In the Vanisher's Palace by Aliette de Bodard

Aliette De Bodard’s In the Vanishers' Palace provides an entirely new spin on an old story, bringing her multivariate strengths in genre writing to bear in a enthralling novella.

The story of the Beauty and the Beast, bound relationship to a monster as a price for a service or favor, is a story that spans the globe, and strikes at the heart of a lot of myths and tropes about family relationships, gender politics, power dynamics, autonomy, freedom, choice and a whole lot more. Beauty and the Beast is far more than dancing animated clocks and the song “Be Our Guest”. In The Vanishers' Palace, Aliette de Bodard takes the Beauty and the Beast story in new directions, giving a strong critique of some of the tropes, interrogating others, and providing a queer friendly narrative, amongst many other strands, in a densely packed novella.

In the Vanishers' Palace is ultimately the story of Yên, a young woman in the village, the “Beauty” and  Vu Côn, the latter being the Dragon, the “Beast”. It is their interspecies, queer relationship that is the heart of the novella, as Yên, as the price for the Dragon performing a service of healing for a member of the village, is carried off to where the Dragon dwells, the titular Vanisher’s Palace.

The relationship map starts there and spirals outward on both sides. Yên and her mother have a very tense and strained relationship, to say the least, with the members of the village and their status within it is tenuous and perilously close to expulsion or worse. That fraught set of relationships is extended, for Yên, when her role at the Palace is made clear--to become a teacher for Vu Côn’s twin children, Dan Thông and Dan Liên. Young, rambunctious, curious, inventive, eager and prodigal dragons are quite the challenge for an “indifferent scholar” such as Yên to suddenly have to deal with, especially since they have their own plans and ideas and a complex relationship with their mother. The relationship dynamics, quite frankly, is a major reason to read De Bodard’s work and if you want your fantasy full of complex and interesting character beats and evolving relationships (above and beyond the ultimate queer romance between human and dragon), she is the author you have waiting to read and this book is the book to get hooked into what she does on those fronts.

And there is a ton of excellent immersive worldbuilding here going on too. I also enjoy the richness of her worlds, from the small details described to evoke place and time, be it an impoverished village or the weird wonders of the Palace, all the way to how and why she builds her worlds. She has a magic system that slowly gets spooled out for the reader to understand, to cypher, to become a scholar of even as the main character learns and grows in that sphere. There are the inhuman, alien, weird, and enthralling rooms and sheer odd spaces of the Vanishers' Palace itself. Yên is in a dangerous place in this palace, and soon learns that warnings to beware certain aspects of the palace are far from idle ones. The Palace is a multidimensional phantasmagoria of a place, inspired by Southeast Asian culture and Escher prints alike.

And then there is the wrapper of the entire milieu and setting that is revealed as the novella goes. This is, as it soon comes out, a post-apocalyptic magicpunk sort of world, where a high civilization of magitech collapsed, leaving a very dark and dangerous world, full of perils and threats. Why couldn’t Yên and her mother easily leave the village, given that they were oppressed there? Because the world outside the points of light of villages is a dark and fallen and dangerous place (this reminds me of her Fallen novels and stories in this regard), and to travel outside the villages is immensely dangerous. Vu Côn herself, and the Palace are tied to the fallen civilization, themselves, in ways they do not quite understand or admit even to themselves. The Vanishers' legacy, then, hangs over everyone and everything. By using this, Aliette provides a polished bronze mirror to look into and see a fantastical world in the reflection thereby.

In the Vanishers' Palace provides all that one might want out of an Aliette de Bodard (including a mention of fish sauce!) and serves as a strong piece of her oeuvre. It provides, at novella length, a way to get a sense of some of the themes, language, style and concerns of her work that offers a key to immersing oneself in the oeuvre of one of the leading lights of fantasy and science fiction today.

The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for enthralling writing
+1 for rich and immersive worldbuilding
+1 for a completely successful reinterpretation of an old trope

Penalties : -1 for a little bit of wavering in plotting

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 very high quality/standout in its category

Reference:  de Bodard, Aliette, In the Vanishers' Palace [JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.,2018]

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

While the news is about a month old, I don't think I have shared that Hulu ordered a pilot based on Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire! Lemire is one of my favorite creators and Sweet Tooth is in my top 5 comics of all time. I am curious to see how the comic will translate to the small screen and hope this gets picked up.

Pick of the Week:
The Batman Who Laughs #1 - When I learned that Scott Snyder was teaming up with Jock for a new Batman miniseries that brought shades of horror back to the Dark Knight I was quite excited. I am happy to report that the first issue didn't disappoint as Batman is now confronted with a Joker/Batman hybrid from another realm. Apparently Joker, no matter what the realm, has a fail safe that will release Joker toxin if anyone were to actually kill him. The Batman in the other realm was successful and is now a Batman who has been poisoned by the Joker toxin and is a force to be reckoned with. Nobody is sure why he has made the trip to this realm, but it isn't good and Batman is desperate to team up with his Joker in a feeble attempt to stop this mad man. Definitely a bit cliche, teaming up with your arch nemesis, but cliche plays well in Batman and I am curious to see where this is headed.

The Rest:
Miles Morales: Spider-Man #1 - In preparation for the movie that is coming out this weekend I thought I should read some Miles Morales. I haven't read any since he debuted many years ago and a reboot is the perfect time to start! Saladin Ahmed does a great job reacquainting the reader with some events in the past that have led Miles to his current predicament. In addition to learning about Miles' school, friends, and personal life, we are taught a bit about his family and are led into the story that is going to drive the first arc. It contains spoilers so I won't go into details, but it is an interesting premise that brought The Rhino to town and I am excited to read more. I will likely share this book with my son who is very excited to see the new movie this weekend.

Birthright #34 - We are reaching a turning point for this series and Mikey is forced to confront his younger brother who has been taken over by a magical toxic brought by the witch Kallista. Mikey refuses to fight his brother and we are treated with flashbacks of their relationship prior to Mikey's disappearance.  This was an interesting issue, and while it contained its fair share of violence, really focused on the relationship between two brothers. Despite their differences and how much they have changed due to recent events, they remain connected by a powerful bond. I am a bit worried for what will happen in the next issue, but excited to see Joshua Williamson start to steer this series towards its conclusion in issue #50.

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Recent Recommended Short Fiction, December 2018

As an SFF fan who gravitates towards novels for the bulk of their reading, I am now used to the annual panic of reaching the end of the year, when recommended reading lists start coming out and people start thinking about their Hugo nominations, and realising that I've barely scratched the surface of the excellent short fiction that has come out. In the second half of this year, I've got better at doing something about it - I've taken some time to curate and make sure that I'm reading the subscriptions I have, in formats that I like (i.e. ebooks - web-based fiction reading is a big nope for me). I'm happy to report that the effort has paid off, and it means I have some recommendations to share!

Not So Stories, edited by David Thomas Moore

As the name suggests, this collection from Saga Press riffs off Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, but through a lens which explicitly addresses and unpacks the colonial legacy of those stories and the wider implications of having a white Edwardian impose and define the folklore of another continent for generations of young people. The result is a mix of "animal fables" and human narratives, with the defining thread being about stories and storytelling rather than the exact form of the Just So Stories. Although the jumps between "timeless" animal fables and more contemporary tales are a little jarring at points, this is still a well-curated collection that was very easy to get through in one sitting, and there's a range of talents on display here. For example, "How the Ants got their Queen" is, on the surface, a straightforward retelling of the history of colonialism and of the history of nations after the colonial power leaves, but the style and the reimagining as a story of ants and pangolins makes it one of the strongest stories in the collection. "Queen", by Joseph E. Cole, is another great entry (and an author debut!), telling of a meeting between the Queen and a young girl, and the story which the Queen imparts. There's also some wonderful "lighthearted" entries including "How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off" by Paul Krueger, "How the Tree of Wishes gained its Carapace of Plastic" by Jeanette Ng, and Zina Hutton's cat-based story of gods and belonging, "Strays Like Us".

Rating: 7/10

Uncanny Magazine Issue 25, edited by Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damien Thomas and Michi Trota. (Read online for free!)

Uncanny is an institution with a deservedly beloved place in genre fiction at the moment, and this, the first issue in their fifth year of operations, is about as close to perfect as I can imagine a single magazine issue being (a feat which is particularly impressive given it comes on the heels of the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue, which also had a great deal to recommend it.) In "How to Swallow the Moon", Isabel Yap kicks off the issue with a fairytale retelling drawing on Filipino myths about the bakanawa - a moon-eating serpent - as part of a queer coming-of-age love story with twists that will be satisfying to anyone who enjoys this form of myth-exploration. There's also a T. Kingfisher story which is sure to be an instant hit, particularly with those who like the more ribald notes of humour in her other work. "The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society" is based around various males of the magical persuasion getting together to commiserate about Rose, the woman who got exactly what she wanted - without any pesky heartbreak or murder - out of their various fey liaisons. Also in the issue are a Sofia Samatar reprint, some great short fiction from Monica Valentinelli and Cassandra Khaw, and an insightful essay about Diana M. Pho about how writing fanfiction has shaped their work as an editor (and some poetry, which I'm absolutely no good at analysing the quality of, but hey, poetry!)

For me, though, the standout was "The Thing About Ghost Stories" by Naomi Kritzer: a story about a researcher who catalogues stories of the supernatural, and how this leads to final contact with her mother, who recently died after a period of living with Alzheimer's. Kritzer has such a wonderful light touch as an author, letting the main character cope with the grief of losing her mother -- to an illness where much of her was already "lost" before her passing -- in a way that feels real without being heavy. I think short fiction soars when stories pair interesting supernatural (or science fictional) ideas with evocative emotional content, and Kritzer crafts an outstanding example of that here.

Rating: 9/10

Awakenings, edited by The Book Smugglers. (Read online for free!)

Like many, I was sorry to see the Book Smugglers' announcement that their publishing wing will be closing at the end of December, but 2018 is a hell of a year for them to go out on, with six strong stories ranging from short to novella, all collected in this year's-end anthology. It's a lineup that showcases what I like most about the Book Smugglers' editorial line: their eye for diversity, for emotionally driven stories without easy answers, and for young adult themes like coming-of-age within the short fiction world. As you'd expect, "Awakenings" gets a pretty broad interpretation across the stories here, which range from epic fantasy to alt-historical first contact to transhumanism and stories of magic school. It's perhaps a more painful collection than I was expecting; it turns out some "awakenings" lead us only to death or pain, and others can be ambiguous at best. Still, nothing feels forced or unearned, and if one story ("Timshala" by Leah Cypess, the only novella of the bunch) feels like it ends right at the point the fun should start, that's a narrative decision that's given plenty of in-text justification.

My favourite of the six is the first: "When the Letter Comes" by Sarah Fox, a story about being left out of easy magical answers and having to work through your own transformation - and the power that brings. Also worthy of note is the deeply unsettling novelette "Nussia" by Michele Tracy Berger, which is probably the best story here, but gave me stomach ache with its unforgiving vision of an alien teenager's highly publicised stay with a Black family in the 1980s. The Awakenings stories are all available for free online but, at least until the end of the month, you can also avail yourself of the handy collected version, which also puts insightful author interview after each story.

Rating: 7/10

FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 8: Pilgrimage, edited by Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins

The theme of this FIYAH issue is pilgrimage, and its a topic that brings out an impressive and very different quartet of stories. "Bullet", by Stephen Kearse, tells the story of a pilot flying a "bullet" ship designed to destroy an entire planet across two years of space, and their attempts to either sabotage or come to terms with the journey they've decided to undertake. In "Magicians Trial" by Sarah A. Macklin, a young woman returns to the birthplace of humanity to take the test that will allow her to become a sorceress: a test that requires her to confront and address different aspects of herself. It's not spectacularly original, but Macklin handles the tropes well and those who enjoy fantasy coming-of-age stories will find satisfaction in how she allows her protagonist to triumph after solving the puzzles put in front of her. 

Then there's "Pedaling", by Tuere T.S. Ganges: a story very much in conversation with Octavia Butler's Parable stories (to the extent where they could plausibly be set in the same world), about a diverse group of teenagers travelling a lightly post-apocalyptic society trying to survive and to support those they meet. The use of Butler's "so be it, see to it" affirmation, and the care and community which the teenagers bring to each other - completely subverting the usual stereotypes that would be attached to a gang of teens of colour in a world like this - was heartwarming, and the plot gives them a nice way to showcase their talents and humanity against a deliberately two-dimensional white supremacist enemy. Rounding out the prose fiction is "Saudade", a story of survival in a post-spaceflight Korea, which I liked least of the four but still more than holds its own. (There's poetry too, including a great take on the Rapunzel myth by Doxa Zannou.)

Rating: 8/10

Fireside Magazine October - December, edited by Julia Rios.

Fireside's fourth quarter (which, for full disclosure, I read through a monthly ebook subscription rather in their physical "Fireside Quarterly" issues, although I envy all who receive the latter!) contains one S-rank among all the As: "STET" by Sarah Gailey, an unusual piece told in the form of marginal editorial comments on the first page of a journal article. Contained within this inventive structure is an excruciatingly good - and bitter - tale about artificial intelligence and the value of life in a world of machine learning and algorithms. The story also effectively addresses the tensions between lived experience and "professionalism", as the author of the article struggles to retain her rage at the technology they are writing about in the face of editorial concern that wants to separate their individual, emotional identity from the argument they trying to make. To say more would be to spoil the effect of the piece itself, which you honestly just need to read immediately.

That's not the only thing to look out for this quarter, of course. In "And I Never Named Her" by Renee Christopher, we follow the protagonist on a hunt for a mysterious creature, whose form and identity haunts them throughout the process. "Birch Daughter" by Sara Norja is a fairy tale of rescue and adventure, with bears! "Cleaning Up", by Brian M. Milton, is a fabulous tale of supernatural janitorial heroics, with a bonus talking cat. And December also brings a reprint of "All The Time We've Left to Spend" by Alyssa Wong, which was one of the outstanding stories from the Robots Vs Fairies anthology from earlier this year.

Rating: 8/10 overall (but STET is at least a 9 on its own)

POSTED BY: Adri 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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Microreview [Book]: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky stands well on its own but, when coupled with The Calculating Stars, is a masterpiece.

"Do you remember where you were when the stars came out? I was with my husband, on Mars."
After reading The Calculating Stars (my review) earlier this year, I wrote about how Mary Robinette Kowal did more than achieve a sense of wonder, she brought the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and directly into readers hearts. The Calculating Stars was a masterful novel that will surely find a place on many Year's Best lists and a number of awards ballots. It's a lot to live up to, but the near perfection of The Calculating Stars only serves to whet the appetite for The Fated Sky.

The Fated Sky picks up a few years after the end of The Calculating Stars. There is a fledgling base and colony on the moon, regular round trip missions from the earth to the moon, and the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) is planning for its first Mars mission. Each of the two books are tagged as "Lady Astronaut" novels and Mary Robinette Kowal won a Hugo Award for her story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars". We know how the progression of Elma's story, where she ends up. It isn't about spoiling the ending, the beauty of The Fated Sky is in the journey. In this case, a journey to Mars.

I watched Hidden Figures (again) earlier in the day that I wrote this review and while the stronger comparison is to the first Lady Astronaut novel, The Calculating Stars, the story of the three black women overcoming institutional, societal, and personal prejudice and racism resonates with the story being told by Mary Robinette Kowal. It's not the same thing, let's be clear of that. The story of Elma York is the story of a white woman overcoming sexism to reach the stars, but as Kowal acknowledges throughout the two novels with the experiences of the men and women of color, there is still privilege in that prejudice. There is back story in the Lady Astronaut novels touching on the racism and oppression faced by black men and women in the United States as seen through the lens of the astronauts of color who have to work harder and receive fewer opportunities than their white counterparts. This is seen even in the character of Elma York who, despite her own struggles with systemic prejudice, is still advanced over those peers who do not share her skin color. To Kowal's credit, this is something continually acknowledged and addressed.

Knowing that Elma York eventually does arrive on the red planet and early enough to receive the moniker of "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", the opening of the novel serves to move characters and story around to get Elma onto that Mars mission. One of those characters moved is Helen Carmouche, Elma's friend and, incidentally, a woman of Asian descent. It is a case of a minority once again being bumped for a white astronaut, and that for a white astronaut who hasn't done the same amount of work and has to catch up to the training of the rest of the crew. It's not that Elma York is not a qualified or skilled astronaut, it's that Elma is also a bit of a celebrity astronaut and her presence will help maintain the funding required for the mission. Taken in isolation, this is perhaps not a big deal. But, these things are never in isolation and are always an accumulation of slights and indignities. A notable and important part of The Fated Sky is Elma's growing understanding of her privilege and of the discrimination faced by some of her peers, as well as Elma's working through and working out how to support those peers in a way they would like to be supported.

The beating heart of The Fated Sky is the training for and journey to Mars, as seen through the eyes and perspective of Elma York. It is so good. The sense of wonder from The Calculating Stars is still there, but it's different now. Elma has already been to space. There's still joy in the voyage, but it's not new. It's not shiny. It is wonderful. Training for Mars offers its own set of challenges, but Elma does not have to prove that she belongs in the program the same way she did in the previous novel.

Space travel, however, is something else. Kowal gets across both the monotony of the daily routine tasks of space travel as well as the hair's breadth precariousness of the whole enterprise, where a clogged toilet is a serious health concern and not cleaning the lint traps in a dryer can be a life threatening emergency.

Kowal shines in the intersection of the interpersonal relationships with the science and drama of space travel. Elma is as beautifully written as she was in The Calculating Stars, but there is a greater internal depth to her characterization. She continues to strive to overcome her imperfections, to do better as an astronaut, a colleague, and a human being. The most remarkable achievement in The Fated Sky was how Kowal handled the character of Stetson Parker, the misogynist (and all around asshole) senior astronaut who spent much of The Calculating Stars working against Elma's achievement. Here he is the mission commander making the on-the-spot decisions and judgments. Parker issues with Elma remain. They don't like each other, seldom give the other benefit of the doubt, and we well remember his background. He was Elma's antagonist in The Calculating Stars, but Kowal shows his humanity in The Fated Sky. He's not exactly likeable, though even Elma notes that he can be remarkably charming and that he knows how to manage people on an individual level during a mission or training scenario. A detente is reached, if not actual peace, when Elma and Stetson can begin to understand each other as people rather than opponents. At no point does Kowal diminish or sweep aside the very real issues with Stetson Parker as a person, but how his character is developed and explored is fascinating to follow.

The Fated Sky may not have the same newness and sense of wonder that only a first book in a series can have, but it delivers in all the ways that matter. The raw joy of being in space is there. The amazement of landing on a new planet is palpable, where it doesn't matter if you are the first man or woman to place your foot on that soil. The simple fact of being there is wondrous and Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey that emotion so perfectly the reader experiences it.  The Fated Sky stands well on its own, but when coupled with The Calculating Stars it is a masterpiece.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 because Kowal overcomes the difficulty of losing that initial sense of discovery of the first novel and still delivers a novel just as powerful and wondrous as The Calculating Stars.

Penalties: -1 because even when she makes mistakes, Elma sometimes seems to be leading an overly charmed life of everything going her way.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10, "very high quality/standout in its category" See more about our scoring system here.

Reference: Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky [Tor, 2018]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

Nanoreviews: Jade City, Moon of the Crusted Snow, Space Opera

Lee, Fonda. Jade City [Orbit, 2017]

Any commentary on Jade City which does not mention The Godfather is avoiding the the obvious comparison. The thing is that even though the comparison is obvious and easy does not mean that it isn't apt and on point. Jade City is the story of two rival gangster clans vying for control of Janloon, a city of on the island of Kekon. The No Peak and Mountain clans control neighborhoods and collect tribute / protection money from businesses in their districts and are in a perpetual state of armed rivalry with each other for more territory and resources.

Fans of crime and mob fiction will find plenty to love here. The setting of Jade City feels much like a 1970's era city and the novel plays out like The Godfather with Magic. The novel is told much more from the perspective of the No Peak Clan, so the characterization there is much stronger, coming across as both familiar and fresh. To give balance to the narrative, in just a few bold strokes, sentences, and scenes, Fonda Lee absolutely nails down two major characters of the Mountain Clan and breathes greater life into the war between clans.

Jade City is one of the best novels of 2017 and my only regret is that I did not read it earlier so I could have nominated it for all of the awards.
Score: 9/10

Rice, Waubgeshig. Moon of the Crusted Snow [ECW Press, 2018]

Imagine something goes wrong. The power goes out, phone lines and cell towers are down, an isolated community becomes completely shut off and forced to be self reliant during a hard northern winter. There are bare hints of the wider world and whatever the greater societal problem is has little bearing on the lives of this Native community.

Moon of the Crusted Snow tells the story of a remote Anishinaabe community in northern Canada. Knowing a novel is post apocalyptic sets up certain expectations in the reader and Waubgeshig Rice subverts those. This is a novel of quiet survival, of social pressure and changes in the face of disaster, of community, of maintaining a way of life in the face of what otherwise seems like the impossible. In a sense, Moon of the Crusted Snow reminds me a bit of When the English Fell, David Williams' novel of a collapsing world told from the perspective of an Amish community.

I appreciated the deliberateness of the storytelling, how tight the novel is to limited character perspective. It would be so easy to reveal too much of what the wider global (or even regional) story might be, but Rice holds back and Moon of the Crusted Snow is all the stronger for it.
Score: 7/10

Valente, Catherynne M. Space Opera [Saga, 2018]

The most common reference point for Space Opera is the legendary Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a novel of galactic absurdity. It was a bold statement the first time I heard it made and it remains a bold statement now that I've read Space Opera. The thing is, it is not an unreasonable claim that Space Opera is today's successor to Douglas Adams' classic. Now, only time will tell is Space Opera holds up in decades to come or if we'll talk about Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes in the same tones that we do Arthur Dent, Marvin, and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Valente's novel is Eurovision in Space and it is absolutely delightful and once Valente gets Decibel Jones to that Megagalactic Grand Prix, the novel kicks into high gear and maximum absurdity with high entertainment and real emotion. It's one hell of a novel.
Score: 9/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Microreview [book]: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand is an immersive and compulsively readable epic fantasy that draws on traditions and cultures and milieus, the Mughal Empire, a culture and heritage hitherto rarely seen in the Western fantasy tradition.

Mehr is the daughter of the Governor of Irinah, the now-province of the Empire that her mother, long since estranged and gone from her life and her father’s, comes from. As he never married her mother, and now has a wife from the core of the Empire, the status of Mehr, and her younger sister Arwa is illegitimate and thus constantly imperiled. Her stepmother has very strong ideas what it means to be the daughter of the governor, and her control over the household, and the lives of Mehr and Arwa is ironclad. Worse, the sisters are of a persecuted and despised minority, the Amrithi. The desert dwelling Amrithi are treated with fear and scorn for the magical power in their blood, a power that Mehr does not think she shares herself, even as she tries to live within the traditions of their culture as best she can. But when Mehr’s very real ability comes to the forefront and manifests, the Empire suddenly has a use for Mehr, and a fate that she may not be able to escape.

This is the story of Tasha Suri’s debut novel, Empire of Sand.

Mehr and her story are the heart of this story. The novel opens with building up her life within the world of the Governor’s Palace and how her status is on the edge of a knife. Her absent birth mother, her stepmother Maryam, Arwa and her relations with the servants of the palace and people beyond provide a relationship map that helps define and highlight Mehr in the early stages of the book. Later, we meet her father, and we meet the man whom the Empire has determined she will marry, Amun. As the setting of the novel moves from the palace to the temple that the Empire has sent her, the relationships and connections around Mehr change sharply, and it is Mehr’s need to remain true to herself, even in a very foreign place, where trust is a dangerous card to play.

Empire of Sand reminded me as I started to read it and progressed deeper into the novel,  of Kare Elliott’s first Spiritwalker novel, Cold Magic. Non-European culture, check. Young female protagonist with the potential from a heritage she does not understand with supernatural ancestry, including an absent birth parent. Check. Growing up in a relatively sheltered and enclosed locale, and then taken away from that locale by means of an unexpected, forced marriage to a mage, whose relationship is thorny and a subsequent plot driver. Check. I do think that readers who enjoyed the Spiritwalker series would really enjoy what Suri does here in Empire of Sand.

The world that the author portrays is also fresh and interesting and something new and different. The author was inspired by the Mughal Empire in Northwest and North India for the cultures and society we see in the novel. Using that template, we are portrayed a world of a grasping empire, seeking to conquer all and sundry, including cultures and kingdoms very different than the center. Setting a novel in a distant desert province of an Empire doesn’t *sound* new, but there is a rich authenticity that is portrayed on the pages. With sleeping gods, supernatural beings, and the reality bending Dreamfire storms that periodically afflict Irinah and beyond, it is a rich and well developed world. From the corridors of the palace, to the stark beauty of the desert, to the temple of the Maha, all of the locations that Suri invokes in the novel richly put me as a reader into the setting. I particularly liked the daiva, which we meet early in the novel, and their ties and connections to both humans and Gods a mystery and piece of the world that is slowly revealed as the plot unfolds.

While I see the necessity of the strand, I think that the chapters where we break Mehr’s point of view to show other points of view, particularly her friend Lalita, do not feel as crisp and does not feel as deep, as the main narrative with Mehr. This secondary strand does provide for a lot of shorthand for when that strand finally intersects Mehr, but I don’t think the story in that strand is anywhere near as cohesive as Mehr’s story. I was always ready to go back to Mehr and what she was doing, instead. I had a lot of buy in to her story and her relationships, much more than any other character.

Overall, Empire of Sand is a rich and very promising debut in a world with a central character that I want to know much more about. Empire of Sand delivers on fantasy “Beyond the Great Wall of Europe”, and in spades.The ending of the novel makes it clear that this is the first in a series, but the ending of this novel is a satisfactory one for those who want an “off ramp”. A complete, and most excellent story, is told in this volume.

The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a strong main character with believable and deep relationships
+1 for rich and immersive worldbuilding

Penalties : -1 for less effective switches in point of view that do not resonate as well as the main narrative.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: well worth your time and attention

Reference:  Suri, Tasha Empire of Sand  [Orbit, 2018]

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