Friday, October 18, 2019

We're Growing

We are very happy to announce that Adri has joined the Nerds of a Feather editorial team. Adri is an incredible writer and has been an asset from the moment she agreed to come on board more than a year ago and we're quite thrilled that she has agreed to take on some extra responsibility.

We've got some pretty awesome stuff in the works here at Nerds of a Feather. Adri will be coordinating a lot of our non-review content (interviews, blogtables, the return of We Rank 'Em, etc) as well as continuing to publish her excellent reviews and essays. We may also have a couple other ideas kicking around that we think you'll all find interesting and worth checking out (including next year's major reading project!).

We are excited for what the future has in store for Nerds of a Feather and we're glad that Adri will be a major part of it. 

-Joe, Vance, The G

Microreview [book]: Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas, now available widely in the US for the first time, introduces readers to an alternate historical modern Roman Empire with just a touch of SFF.

Marcus Novius Faustus has a problem. He’s the nephew of Gaius Novius Faustus Augustus, the Emperor of the Roman Empire in 2757 AUC (2004 AD in our terms). Uneasy lies the crown and uneasy lies the head of the young man who might well be the heir to the Emperor. Such a man is a target for the ambitious who might eventually seek to become Emperor themselves. Already, his father Leo, the former Heir, and his mother, Clodia, have recently died in a car crash. An accident, or something more?  And so after a unmistakable assassination attempt kills someone else by mistake, Marcus is on the run from whoever is hunting him and his branch of the family.. However, with air travel, magnetic trains, and more modern technology, is the Empire large enough to run away in?

Sulien and Una have a problem, too. Siblings in Britannia, they have been separated for years, as they have long since been sold into slavery. As bad as slavery is, Sulien has an additional issue. He has been caught with a free woman, accused of rape, and so has been sentenced to die by crucifixion. Even as his sister works to free him, that break for freedom is going to have serious consequences. And of course the Romans of all people understand the threat of slave revolts, even small ones. And so both Sulien and Una and thus put on the run...only to run into a certain member of the Imperial Family doing the same thing. But Marcus has a destination, a goal, a possible secret sanctuary for slaves on the run in the mountains of the Pyrenees.

Romanitas was the debut novel of Sophia McDougall, finally now in wide release in the United States.

The novel rises and is strong on the strength of the central characters. For all that this is a story of escapd slaves and an attempted assassination gone wrong, given a global Roman Empire and all that implies, this is a small scale novel with characters not going tremendous distances, and the novel itself feels tight and cloistered. That tightness of location and characters mean that we do get a deep dive into Marcus, Una and Sulien as people, as characters. There is a power dynamic in showing Marcus as vulnerable as escaped slaves Una and Sulien while being on the run. Arguably the second most important person of the Empire is laid as low as a pair of  escaped slaves, and McDougall masterfully contrasts and sets off the three characters. Although there is very good view of the interior of the Imperial Palace as the family, and others try to figure out what has happened to Marcus, and find him. But it is the bottom-of-the-pyramid more than the rarefied echelons of the Imperial Family that the novel truly sings and excels at. We get a really good sense of what desperate people trying to escape the eye of the Vigiles or the army trying to find them, and a society in general whose reaction to slaves on the run is extremely negative. I strongly enjoyed the sibling dynamic between Una and Sulien, as well as their relationship with Marcus. Other characters are strongly delineated as well, like the merchant  Delir and Makaria, Marcus’ cousin.  In the end, however, it is the trio of main characters where we spend most of the viewpoint in the book, and most of the strength of the character development.

There are very mild hints and aspects of the book that move it away from a strictly alternate historical text and more fully into the realm of SFF¹.  Both Sulien and Una have what can either be classified as psionics in an SF mode, or magical powers in a fantasy mode. Una has mental telepathic and mental influence powers in an Emma Frost mode. Sulien, on the other hand, has a preternatural ability to heal himself, and others. These powers are not overwhelming to the plot, but their us does drive character and it does drive decisions that influence the plot. This world does not seem to have these powers as common, or perhaps Una and Sulien are unique in their abilities.

My major criticism of the book is more of a preference and stylistic one more than anything else. This 21st century Roman Empire, even with the occasional neologistic word and reference thrown in, doesn’t feel as quite Roman as I imagined. There are flashes and hints here and there of a Roman world, but the Eternal Empire that McDougall creates here does feel, at turns, a little generic in its description and action. I wanted some more surviving  Roman-ness in her 21st Century Roman Empire.

Although the characters themselves don’t know it, I did appreciate that the author does explain the divergence at the end of the book in the appendices. While some alternate history novels do like to have characters wonder openly about the divergence point and muse what would have happened if things had gone another way (ie. to a world similar to our own), McDougall’s characters do not have the time to wonder what would have happened to make the Roman Empire go a different way, and eventually fall. I found the divergence point to be in a similar spot to Alan Smale’s Clash of Eagles. Those novels are set in what we would call the early 13th Century AD, and the conquering of North America is still in progress, whereas Romanitas is set in what we’d call the 21st Century, with a far more modern technology and viewpoint, and North America is long since settled (and split with Nionia, the Japanese).

The novel has two sequels, Rome Burning and Savage City, due for re-release in North America. This first novel does feel like the opening act to far more global events, bringing the more epic and world spanning events into play. So while the scale of this story is relatively small, I look forward to, now that the characters are established, how McDougall expands her narrative, scope and world in subsequent volumes.

¹This formulation is based on the premise that Alternate History without any other speculative elements is not fantasy or SF, but a subgenre of its own. Thus, Guns of the South, which has time travelers, is clearly SF, and Michael Livingston’s Shards of Heaven with magical artifacts, is fantasy, but Through Darkest Europe by Harry Turtledove, which has no other speculative elements other than the change in history, is less SFFnal.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a strongly delineated set of characters whose actions, character development and plot marry very well together. +1 Because Rome

Penalties: -1 for a bit of a pale and generic feel to that modern Roman Empire. It’s not quite as Roman as it *could* be.

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

Reference: McDougall, Sophia  Romanitas [Gollancz, 2005,2011, Orion Books, 2019]

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

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

This week's big comic book news is that Netflix has picked up Jeff Smith's Bone for an animated series! With the rise of Disney + and other streaming platforms, Netflix is going to have to rely heavily on its original programming and the addition of one of my family's favorite series has me quite excited.

Pick of the Week:
Gideon Falls #17 - I am beyond thrilled that this story from Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino has being developed into a television series.  The new arc reaffirms how gripping this universe is and how intriguing the allure of the Black Barn is. This book won the Eisner for best new series in 2019 and Sorrentino should have a strong chance of winning an Eisner for Best Writer/Artist as the visuals are some of the most effective I have seen in print. This arc opens with Norton's father trying to regain his own consciousness after being taken over by a being in the Black Barn. Watching his internal struggle completely draws you in as a reader and puts you in his mental space. In addition to the gripping element of Norton meeting his sister and father despite having no memory of them, Father Fred and Dr. Xu are tasked with something big from a group of priests. This arc is setting up to be quite intense and I look forward to seeing what direction it goes.

The Rest:
Trees: Three Fates #2 - Sasha's investigation into the murder that took place last night is uncovering few answers and more questions. The autopsy confirms that the body was dumped at the site and that an altercation, leaving one person injured, accounts for the blood at the scene. That is the gist of the ordinary parts of this tale, but the supernatural elements bring in some fortune telling, time travel, and sabotage from a mysterious visitor that will likely cross paths with Sasha.  Having never read the original series in its entirety, there are elements that are confusing, but Warren Ellis does a nice job of developing a mystery that draws the reader in.  I am really enjoying the first two issues of this series and it reminds me a bit of Dept. H from Matt Kindt.  That is a compliment.

Captain America #15 - As Captain America still seeks to clear his name, he learns that this will be a difficult task as long as Fisk is Mayor.  He is coming to grips that the Daughters of Liberty, who are protecting him, have a different approach for finding answers and are likely tracking his every move. He isn't sure how much he can trust them, but they have given him little reason not to.  The investigation in to who framed him takes an interesting twist as some surveillance footage that was not easy to obtain reveals that the Scourge of the Underworld may be behind it.

Star Wars Adventures: Return to Vader's Castle #3 - This week's spooky issue gives heavy reference to Little Shop of Horrors, but instead of Aubrey II, we have a pet sarlaac which is causing more mayhem than a State Farm Insurance commercial.  The story sheds some light on Asajj Ventress prior to her joining the Sith.  Like the other issues in this series, it is an entertaining read a good break from the heavier titles I enjoyed this week in Gideon Falls and Trees. Definitely not my favorite book by a long stretch, but one that is entertaining and appropriate for some light October reading.

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Deep, by Rivers Solomon

The Deep is a novella filled with pain and despair and rage and a glimmer of hope. It is built off of real history and pulled in unimaginable directions. The Deep is a must read novella in a year full of must read books.

"Remember," she said.
This was their story. This was where they began. Drowning.
"Submit," Yetu whispered, talking to herself as much as to them.
The Deep is a story borne out of the legacy of slavery, of the horrifying reality of slavers crossing the Atlantic Ocean and dumping the bodies of pregnant women over board. It is a story borne out of wondering about what life might grow out of that death. The Deep is a story of origins and new beginnings, of the horror of institutional memory and what it costs the individual.

Rivers Solomon takes the song "The Deep" from Clipping and gives it further live and character, gives it a different perspective and richness that the song hinted at but that Solomon had the room to explore across 176 pages that wasn't possible in the same way Clipping could do in five and a half minutes. Clipping's song "The Deep" was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form in 2018.
"We grow anxious and restless without you, my child. One can only go for so long without asking, who am I? Where do I come from? What does this all mean? What is being? What came before me, and what might come after? Without answers, there is only a hole, a hole where a history should be that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities."
As the sole historian for the wajinru, it is Yetu's role and responsibility to remember the history of their race. Except for the historian, the wajinru functonally do not have long term memory or a sense of identity. With that lack of memory for the individual, the annual Remembrance gives live to the group because without it they would continue to forget who they are and where they came from. That sounds superficial, but Rivers Solomon and Clipping are not concerned with the surface. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the novella's title (and the song's) is more than just the depth where the wajinru exist.

The wajinru's gradual forgetting of their cultural past causes great pain and desperation and it's tied to a loss of individual identity as well. It is the "endless longing" quoted above. It's more than symbolic. Born from the bodies of the pregnant women thrown into the ocean by slavers, the wajinru are something new and the creation of the wajinru is so awful, so painful, that over the course of generations they adapt so that only one must bear the weight of history. The rest are blessed and cursed to forget. Both are with heavy cost.

I have never read anything like The Deep.

Solomon's writing is incredible. With only a few sentences I felt the water, the pressure of the deep, the movement of current and body. The water almost became a character and, not to mix metaphors too much, grounded the story into a particular location that the reader can sense.

The Deep is a novella filled with pain and despair and rage and a glimmer of hope. It is built off of real history and pulled in unimaginable directions, except that it was imagined and we're all better off because Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes, and Rivers Solomon saw the possibilities of building something beautiful out of raw horror.
"What is belonging?" we ask
She says," Where loneliness ends"
The Deep is is a must read novella in a year stuffed full of must read books. This is essential reading.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 Despite the horror of history, The Deep recognizes the beauty and magnificence still present in the world.

Penalties: -1 Much of the story is Yetu's reluctance to subject herself to the performative memory, but if anything, The Deep may be a touch slow in moving Yetu to the Remembrance.

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

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Strap in, Nerds: it's time for LESBIANS IN SPACE WHALES

Image result for escaping exodus nicky drayden

Nicky Drayden is a favourite of ours around these parts, given her track record of delivering wild and weird forays into science fiction and fantasy (often simultaneously). Now, in Escaping Exodus, we get a take on space opera that feels totally Nicky Drayden, while also being very different from both her previous novels. As you'd expect, its a novel of unexpected twists and sudden escalations, with some ridiculous-in-the-best way worldbuilding and characters who are far from blameless in the disasters unfolding around them. It's probably the only story you'll read this year which squeezes in both a stuffy, politically intricate coming-out ball and a plot-relevant episode of tasteful alien void sex (yes, there are tentacles) without ever making one or the other feel out of place. It is, in short, a trip. Expect no less.

Escaping Exodus follows Seske, a member of the ruling elite who is destined to take over the beast's matriarchal society, and her friend Adalla, a beastworker whose family perform the manual labour required to keep their spaceship running. And when I say spaceship, I mean "gigantic, ineffable space beast with enough room for a human-sized city inside its body", because that's what this society are building their home in. Its supposed to be a new model, after the death of their old beast: an apparently regular occurrence which requires the transportation of their homes and people, and the meticulous recreation of the city layout and structures they've build over centuries. However, things start going wrong more quickly than anticipated after the move, and Seske and Adalla find themselves taking different paths to the same realisation about how unsustainable and damaging their way of life has become - and how few options they have to genuinely change it. For Seske, this means trying to prove once and for all to her Matris that it is she, and not her Matris' very very taboo second daughter, who has what it takes to take over as leader and to find some appropriate spouses to go with it. For Adalla, living up to her Ama's expectations as a heartworker - one of the most prestigious but dangerous of tasks for a beastworker - would be challenge enough, without adding in the complication of a young, mute worker who inexplicably has her father's eyes. Seeking out a friendship with the Grisette leads to secrets about the Beast's maintenance which Adalla finds it impossible to overlook, and takes her into the less privileged side of Beastworker life.

Societally, Escaping Exodus offers a matriarchal and matrilineal system, upheld by the tradition of "motherlines" and a complex system of marriage that gives Ursula K. Le Guin's four-person Sedoretu a serious run for its money, and further divided between a ruling "Contour" class and everyone else. That a system in which marriage is between six women, three men and a single child would create an exponential decline on a cubic scale doesn't really get addressed, but it adds to the overall feeling of a decaying society trying to maintain some semblance of itself while potentially engineering its own downfall. (I should note that trans people exist in Escaping Exodus, but they are in a society that's prejudiced against men and highly fixated on appropriate social roles - so be warned for some blunt prejudice from characters when it comes up). Like a lot of stories that open on a world of alien injustices, one of the most constant niggles in Escaping Exodus' plot is the fact that both Seske and Adalla, despite being dissatisfied in different ways, are fundamentally ignorant of the exploitation that allows their society to function, but are very quick to get upset when it gets conveniently pointed out. To be fair, both have some pretty significant events to act as turning points, which staves off some of the worst of the character whiplash. There's also secondary characters like Doka, a match made during Seske's super fun coming out ball experience, who feel injustice in different ways again to Seske and Adalla and seek to rectify what seems most urgent to their own experiences, making the world of Escaping Exodus feel richer in the process.

For a lot of the book, its this richness of worldbuilding that proves the main draw of Escaping Exodus, with a plot that, despite its twists, doesn't have a lot of clear forward direction. Both Seske and Adalla vacilate between worrying about their own personal dilemmas and becoming preoccupied with the wider fate of the ship, and it takes about two thirds of the plot for both of them to stop effectively being sightseers and to start really stepping up as protagonists. In another book, that would be a complete dealbreaker, but the layers of worldbuilding and of societal exploration that Escaping Exodus heaps on reduced it to a minor issue. From the bioengineered weirdness that is the Beast ship, to the anthropological nuances of the human culture with its intricate hair braiding and complex marriage taboos, from the unexpected symbiotic relationships people form with the Beast's various gut denizens to details about how privacy and continuity become markers of privilege, there's There's just too much to take in, and after all despite their relatively privileged positions, it makes sense that these two young adults aren't immediately in control of the events around them, which after all have taken quite some time to get to the point of crisis they are now at.

Once that final third kicks in, however, things go from bad to worse to "I don't even know if this is going to work out or not but, hey, go for it" in quick succession. There's the release of huge amounts of new knowledge, of the ship's origins and current situation; there's trips out into space and back again using some pretty unconventional means, there's the whole alien sex thing mentioned above (I know you've been waiting to find out where that slots in, and... really, you just have to read it). It's at this point that things go from feeling weird but deliberate, to kind of messy, and its probably going to be up to the individual reader how much of that messiness is a feature and how much is a bug. As with Drayden's previous novel, Temper, its a bit disappointing to see a few satisfying plot strands disappear without trace, and there's glimpses of plotting that in different hands could have been an entire trilogy (but then, I said that last time). It also becomes a story that hinges on forgiveness, in all its unpredictable forms, and some plotlines and conflicts are dropped simply because one or both parties decide that it's no longer worth maintaining them. It leads up to a conclusion that feels about as satisfying as anything could, in the circumstances; this isn't a story that's been set up to have an easy answer, but it brings Seske and Adalla full circle to confronting their relationship to each other, and to the position of increased responsibility they now bear to the world, in all its goopy living weirdness, around them.

Escaping Exodus isn't a book that will work for everyone, but if you've found yourself enjoying previous works from Drayden, or wanting more space biopunk along the lines of Kameron Hurley's The Stars are Legion, or with feelings about Homestuck Act 6 that are still with you to this day, this is one to check out. On a personal level, I adored Escaping Exodus, and for all its odd choices and occasional unevenness it had me gripped from start to finish. Seske and Adalla's story is unlike anything I've ever read, and as an intricate look at a very different culture, it does everything it needs to be a roaring success.

The Math:

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Intricate worldbuilding in the stomach of a giant tentacled space beast; +1 teenage protagonists who rise above their plot-mandated naivete to head up an interesting cast of characters

Penalties: -1 An accelerated, messy final third which is likely to disappoint those who want things neatly tied up

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Drayden, Nicky. Escaping Exodus (Harper Voyager, 2019)

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Dune (1966, Best Novel)

Dossier: Herbert, Frank. Dune [Chilton, 1965]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: Dune is the story of Paul Atreides. Heir to the one of the most powerful noble Houses of an Galactic Imperium tens of thousands of years in the future, Dune tells of his story of his family’s fall, and his rise again among the Fremen natives of the planet Arrakis, the titular Dune. Along that journey, we learn of the long running genetic breeding program that has gone somewhat wrong to produce him early as the kwisatz haderach, a man with prodigious powers of prescience and mental power. Dune follows Paul as he learns to harness his superior abilities to avenge his family’s fall, and topple the Emperor who ultimately orchestrated it all.

Legacy:  Until the advent of Star Wars, I think I can reasonably argue that the most influential work of space opera in science fiction was Dune. Although Star Wars quickly took pride of place in that regard, Dune has been a novel that has influenced astronomy (a crater on the moon, and features on the Saturnian moon of Titan are named in honor of Dune and its locations), music, video games, and a raft of science fiction. The novel is the first science fiction novel to really grapple with the problems and issues of the ecology and ecosystems of an entire planet in a deep dive sort of way (the novel;s origin lies with Herbert researching a never completed nonfiction article on the Oregon Dunes). Dune is the origin star, ultimately, of writers who go heavily into the worldbuilding side of SFF.

I do find it interesting that the literary style of the novel is far less influential and employed today. The third person omniscient style of the novel, which sometimes switches protagonists within the same paragraph, much less the same page, is a style that has not been imitated much since. It’s really difficult to pull off well. When it is done badly, it gets derided, for quality as well as stylistic distaste reasons, as “head hopping”. But the third person omniscient style allows Herbert to present a variety of characters with well rounded personalities and more importantly agendas that make the novel complex, dense and endlessly fascinating. Novels, in general, especially with a single point of view, do have an artificiality to them, since we sit just in one person’s point of view all the time. That’s how we see the real world, but that’s not how the world actually is. By having a third person omniscient endlessly shifting set of points of view, complete with long strings of mental thoughts, one really gets to know the characters, their plots, plans, and their world in a way that is very difficult to replicate, or to capture in other media. Listening to the audiobook, as I did recently, requires a careful ear to pick up changes in perspective.

Although out of the purview of this essay, it must be noted that Herbert ultimately wrote a slew of sequels to the novel, extending the history of the Atreides family and those around them for thousands of years into the future that Paul saw there in the sands, and the attempts to break that future. In addition, the son of Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, together with Kevin J Anderson has continued that tradition with a large number of novels set in the same universe. 

In Retrospect: Dune was and still is one of my heart novels. I discovered the novel right in my teen years, and fell hard for a story of “another misunderstood Paul” who was the son of a Noble House, but even so, unbeknownst to him, was the most special person in the entire universe and destined to become Emperor of Everything. This is heady stuff for a teenager to absorb, its catnip to a certain class and stratum of SF reader that I was a member of. And so I fell for the book, hard, and read and re-read Dune over the years, and discovered and consumed the 2.n adaptations of the novel.

The novel still holds power for me. Several years ago, a brand new gorgeous Folio Society edition of Dune was an auction item for a local con. I *had* to make it mine, and I did.

But 2019 is thirty years and change removed from my first contact with the novel. There is a lot to unpack to look at Dune, from the perspective of 2019. A lot of the major structure of the novel and its plot looks very different in 2019 than it did in 1965, and some of the novel has aged very badly as a result.

Let’s take the premise. Paul Atreides winds up, with his mother, taking refuge among the Fremen natives of the planet Arrakis, and grows to lead them, and to lead them as an army against the Harkonnens and ultimately the Emperor as well. If one wanted the quintessential example of the white savior trope in science fiction, it would be difficult to do better than Dune as an example. In a time where Science fiction is recognizing and celebrating own voices, Dune feels much more like a missed opportunity. With such a wonderful culture as the Fremen, why, precisely, do they need Paul? If I were, in the mode of the movie Yesterday, were to submit Dune as a novel today in a world where it did not previously exist, I’d make Paul, or his equivalent, a native of Arrakis.

Then there is the gender and sexual politics of the novel. The place of women in the novel does feel very 1960’s in tone and style. Sure, people like Jessica and the rest of the Bene Gesserit have power, and schemes, and long range plans. But the unrelenting patriarchal nature of the Empire also strikes a very discordant and sour note in this time and age. The narrator of the novel is reduced to being a prize to be won without any real agency of her own within its bounds. Science fiction can, and has, done better, since.

And then there is the Baron. The Baron, now, is probably my favorite character in the novel. When I was young, I identified as Paul, because Herbert very deliberately wrote Dune that way to have teenage readers identify with his main character. It’s part of the power of the novel, even today. But as I have aged, I have come to appreciate the manipulativeness, the daring, the scheming and the power of the Baron. The idea that a novel, movie or other work really rests on the strength of the villain is true in Dune as well, as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has plans and designs and personality in plenty. The issue with him, today, is that in depicting his evil and venality, his non heteronormative sexual preferences are presented as prima facie evidence that he is evil. This sexual deviance =evil person equation simply is offensive in this day and age. I am ashamed I didn’t see that, back in the day, but I can’t mistake it in the novel now. There is plenty to show the Baron’s nature without the editorial commentary and shading of the novel that so tightly ties that evil to his sexual preference. The novel simply doesn’t need it and it is hurtful to non heteronormative readers.

Given all of its problems and issues in the modern age, though, there is an undeniably power of the monomyth that makes Dune one of the most powerful SF novels, then, or now. The extremely complex narrative, style and worldbuilding is probably the only reason why the novel has had so few adaptations on the screen. I am delighted to see news of a new one, but I do wonder how the director and producers will ensure that the issues mentioned above are dealt with so that a movie of Dune in this day and age can offer something for everyone.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 9/10 

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga

Enemies to lovers Victorian medical mayhem

Sibylla is a princess, in a world where only the elite (including the royal family) are born with magical gifts, leading to jealously guarded bloodlines and inbreeding within the nobility. Roger Weathersby is a resurrectionist and aspiring doctor, trying to fund informal medical studies by providing the cadavers which medical professors need to dissect and learn from. Despite the differences in their background, almost insurmountable in such a status-driven society, Sibylla and Roger are former friends and had a brief romantic history in their teenage years, but that's very much behind them - until Sibylla decides to bring it up in a letter, and then Roger is arrested for a series of murders he didn't commit and the only way out of being hanged for them is to submit to an ancient form of enslavement which will give Sybil complete control of him for the rest of his life. If this seems like a good basis for a slow burn romance, you're right - but Resurrectionist of Caligo isn't delivering this in full. Instead, this is a story about the two protagonists coming together over the injustices and prejudices of their highly stratified society, and attempting to leverage their limited agency to bring down a killer who the rest of the world seems uninterested in bringing to justice.

Resurrectionist of Caligo moves in two very different worlds: the intersection of the working class and academia which Roger inhabits, needed by but never accepted by members of the latter; and Sibylla's repressed court existence, dictated by her Grandmother the Queen. The range of characters in the former turn out to be significantly more interesting and sympathetic than the latter (Sibylla has three "Cousin Eds" who I didn't even try to learn to tell the difference between) and Roger's story also escalates much more quickly, with far more immediate consequences, than Sibylla's, meaning for much of the book it was his sections I was most engaged by. In contrast, much of what engages Sibylla: her return from several years of enforced seclusion after refusing an arranged marriage to her cousin, and her designs on making a mark in diplomacy with a neighbouring-closed off kingdom - are issues that feel only tangentially related to the main plot as its presented to us. This is thoroughly driven home by the scenes in which Sibylla engages with the sections of society which literally pray to her (as a sort of fertility goddess, which she has mixed feelings about) and finds out about the Strangler through a plea for her intervention; she resolves to do something about it but is soon blown off course by external events and ends up more engaged in her Grandmother the Queen's marriage schemes instead.

The plot itself moves slowly, and its one of those books whose blurb conditions don't actually get set up until quite far through the first half - with the effect that a lot of what should be the first act is spent speculating on how its going to get to the promised premise. Once there, Roger's criminal conviction ends up being a curiously weak barrier to allowing him to continue exactly as before, although it does bring him into the orbit of a slightly hard-to-pin-down but entertaining brother. What this means is that the effect of what should be a deeply tense and uncomfortable magical binding - one which comes with a presumption of criminal guilt and infamy which ought to be life-changingly horrible - is undermined until the last act, when it comes home to roost in a pretty significant way; even then, we don't get the scenes of what this binding means day to day for Roger and Sibylla until the novel's aftermath, when it feels like that bringing that reality home a bit earlier would have underscored some of the intended tension of this particular setup.

The strength of Resurrectionist of Caligo is in its synthesis of the history of medicine with an intriguing gene-linked magic system providing a basis for the magical talents of the royal family which will make those with a basic understanding of dominant and recessive genes go "oh, it's related to that". The driver of medical curiosity in this story from Roger are what allow his sections to really shine, and there's enough real-world science and history of medicine in here to make the system satisfyingly scientific without being overreliant on "realism". Sibylla's sections of the narrative do a good job of demonstrating why the "purity" of the royal family's bloodlines, with their party tricks, are important enough to create their inward-looking political system, with so little interest in the outside world that even the overtures of an important neighbour at a point of possible crisis are barely enough to break through tradition. In this context, the eventual direction of the mystery makes a horrible sort of sense, although it's also a smack to the face of the rare forces in the novel who are attempting to address the injustice in a slightly more systemic way. Class warfare might eventually become a part of this world, but its certainly not the focus of this particular story. Add into that the homogeneiety of the society, both in Sibylla's circle and Roger's, and the result is a pretty conservative read - oddly so, given the incorporation of a Victorian aesthetic into a distinctly more closed off monarchy means jettisoning the aspects of global imperialism that made Victorian culture possible in our own world.

As noted above, this is not one for people looking for a capital-R romance: although Roger and Sibylla have a romantic history, the enemies-to-lovers-with-a-history romance element is being set up as a long game, if it's happening at all. That said, there's clearly still feelings between the two, which are well explored despite being from the perspectives of two characters attempting not to admit it to each other or themselves, and the "will-they-won't-they" angle is likely to be just as enjoyable to many readers as a happily ever after. There's also a complicating factor in the form of an enigmatic emperor, around whom Sibylla apparently forgets all pretences to diplomatic nicety in favour of entertaining but ill-advised escapades - not necessarily out of character for a young, sheltered woman with a demonstrated lack of impulse control, but it's a little convenient. The emperor doesn't bring a huge amount of character beyond his role as a third point in a love triangle, but there's potential for this to get quite nicely complicated in future volumes, if that's where the series is going.

All of this adds up to a book that I enjoyed, and which certainly has elements of novelty - particularly the synthesis of medicine and magic - but which struggles to meld together its dual narratives, stoke the tension of its creepy central magic premise, or bring enough texture to its wider worldbuilding to really make the concept sparkle. However, fans of Victorian-era fantasy (who don't mind reading a homogenous version of that worldview) will no doubt enjoy the setting, and fans of enemies-to-lovers who don't need an HEA will find Roger and Sibylla's dynamic scratches that itch, especially if the promise of further books in the series comes through.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 A satisfying mesh of medicine and magic

Penalties: -1 Sibylla's subplot meanders compared to her more exciting co-protagonist; -1 Weaknesses in the overall setting aren't overcome by the novelty

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Trimboli, Wendy and Zaloga, Alicia. The Resurrectionist of Caligo (Angry Robot, 2019)