Friday, May 24, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Undefeated, by Una McCormack

The Undefeated uses the life history of a journalist to tell the story of impending fall of a galactic civilization in an oblique, interesting manner.

There are many ways to tell a Space Opera story. Big space battles with fleets of ships using their silicon ray weapons to destroy the enemy. Or perhaps a story of diplomatic intrigue, where the main character journeys to the heart of an Empire , using words as a weapon to direct, and divert the fate of worlds. Or even have an Opera company tour a bunch of worlds in a spacecraft of their own.

Una McCormack’s The Undefeated goes for a subtler, more oblique approach, by using the life story of a famous, award winning journalist, Monica Greatorex,, whose journey back to her home planet braids with not only the story of her planet’s annexation into the Commonwealth, but of the enemy who seeks in turn to overthrow that Commonwealth.

It’s a very subtle story that McCormack chooses to tell here, in a very muted palatte that provides a more literary and measured approach to a space opera verse than what you might expect from the premise, or the cover. Greatorex’s return to the planet of her origin, which is shown to be going against a tide of refugees and people fearful of the mysterious returning enemey is a slow and stately opening that holds out a few mysteries to keep the reader going--who and what really are the jenjer? Why is Greatorex returning to her home planet, now? What does all of this do with her career, with the conflict, with the fate of the Commonwealth.

Once she is on the planet, the narrative picks up, and firmly splits into two timelines. In the present, Greatorex returns to her now abandoned  hometown, in the backcountry of the world, a town of leisure and money that came across like a high-end tourist town in a distant place, like a West Yellowstone, Idaho, or a Taupo, New Zealand. Torello might also parallel well to a Jackson’s Hole, Wyoming, since it is explicitly stated that only the wealthy come to it.

Her arrival in Torello  brings that other timeline to mind, showing her growing up in this town, and seeing events from a child’s perspective and from deducing things in her present-time stream of thought. The story from her childhood is one of colonialism and societal conquest, as the Commonwealth, seeking to destabilize Sienna and have the independent planet fall into its orbit and control. This narrative works as counterpoint to the present, when all who can flee the planet, can, and also reveals the role Sienna has played in the burgeoning enemy threat. In addition, we get the full biography of how and why Greatorex became a famed award winning journalist and completes her story.

All this makes the novella high on introspection and parallel themes, and very low on other meters that space opera are generally measured on. The worldbuilding is done with a light hand. I would have liked to have learned a lot more about Sienna, and Old Earth and other places, but McCormack uses words sparingly and carefully. Much like Greatorex, the author uses weapons carefully, like weapons, to greatest effect. The Earth she describes, though, reminds me, in the vaguest sense of Karl Schroeder’s The Million, and I think there is definitely a class argument that McCormack is advancing here, with the main character herself very aware as an adult of her power and privilege--and how that power and privilege are, in the end, not lasting things.

I do wish a few things had been fleshed out a bit more, especially in the setting. Greatorex, we come out of the story completely understanding from start to finish. The world, and even the enemy, are a little underwritten for my taste. I’d have liked for a little less economy of words. The other thing to note is that this is definitely not a space opera story if your expectations are for the big wide canvas that space opera provides. Even given its limited environment and “sets”, this is a highly insular and introspective story that is used to illuminate a couple of larger stories we thereby get a very limited viewpoint on.

That is part of the frustration and genius of this novella. It crisply tells Greatorex’s story, that tells the Space Opera story, but it is a looking through the keyhole into a world I want a larger viewpoint on. The ending of The Undefeated  makes this a crisp and complete story in one volume, I don’t see any real need or structure to continue this story structure. For readers who want a complete and concise story in one volume, this is definitely a story to sink into, get to know a life, and get out of, all the while pondering the essential sociological question it raises.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for a very well drawn personal story.

Penalties : -1 for expectation management issues--the story is far more introspective than the the genre, the cover or cover copy might lead you to believe., -1 for some bits of the setting slightly underwritten for my taste

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


Reference: McCormack, Una The Undefeated [ Publishing, 2019]

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

Game of Thrones: The Wheel Turns On

Note: this essay contains SPOILERS and also barely concealed frustration.

And so, after eight years of TV, and longer for those who have been reading the books, we know who gets to sit on the Iron Throne (or, uh, not) for the next generation of Westeros' future. After laying waste to Kings Landing, Danaerys Targaryen is killed by her lover-nephew; the ticking time bomb of Jon Snow's heritage suddenly gets stopped by a show of very selective influence from Dany's remaining loyalists, and our remaining heroes fail to scrape together enough other named characters to hold a crisis meeting on what should happen next. It turns out that the best option is apparently for Bran Stark to take the Iron Throne and to rule over six of the seven kingdoms, allowing his sister to secede with the North and fulfil the long-held dream of independence for that coalition of regional accents. The Dothraki and the Unsullied then sail away without a fuss (collectively deciding to crash Missandei's home, which I'm sure is a great place for a frustrated and aimless military force to just show up), Arya disappears off in the other direction, and Jon Snow goes back to the wall to be the last Targaryen again. At least, to the internet's delight, he gives his direwolf a proper pat.

After all the battles and the deaths, and the point of no return in the previous episode, the last scene before the "epilogue" stars a bunch of mostly-men, many of whom are literally appearing in this scene for the first time having silently replaced more memorable and now more dead main characters, as they silence the only remaining person of colour in the cast, laugh down the idea of democracy, and award the "best story = best claim to the throne" prize to Bran, a character whose trajectory has been so slow and dull that it was cut from an entire season without causing anyone any disappoint whatsoever. Somehow, despite lampshading the fact that Tyrion's dwarfism precludes him from having the popularity to rule, neither Bran's disability nor his chronic lack of statesmanship, trustworthiness and personality raise any eyebrows, and the scene does a decent job of making him seem like a rational, safe choice. This is mostly achieved by drawing attention to the fact that he's not interested in the actual ruling business and is going to leave that in the "safe" hands of his small council (which includes Bronn, whose only other scene this season was to rock up and threaten some people with a crossbow, because somehow Bronn is the kind of character for whom indifference to altruism and the value of human life is endearing rather than deeply disturbing). Also, he's a man, which given the arc of this season probably helps, even if none of the characters make specific reference to it.

If you're reading this thinking that I don't sound very impressed by the whole thing... good catch. What's harder - impossible, I think - to really get to grips with is whether that sense of deflation, where the send-off of our remaining faves is supposed to stand in for a full wrap-up of the narrative, is itself a fitting narrative choice. After all, in many ways this ending brings us back to where the story opens. When Ned Stark is drawn to Kings Landing, it is around fifteen years since the heroic events of Robert's Rebellion, and we are thrown not into the righteous upheaval of those events but into the decline of the peace made afterwards, as King Robert struggles in an unpleasant political marriage while surrounded by people who are better at playing the game than he is. Robert and Ned's heroic revolution, freeing the Seven Kingdoms from a mad King's failing dynasty, is immediately shown to have created something not much better than what it replaces, and soon the entire continent is in even worse disarray than when the Rebellion began. It's hard to see how a story whose opening is one big subversion of a righteous takeover could end satisfyingly with another righteous takeover, no matter how good the claim to rule might be. The reign of Bran the Broken is a weird choice that doesn't seem to really reflect Westerosi political values, and my reading is that that makes its own sort of sense: this is not a happy ending or a final throw of the political dice, just an in-the-moment choice that brings this particular period of upheaval to a subversive, questionable close.

In making this the climax of the story, of course, Game of Thrones has to discredit the opposing arc: Danaerys' eight-season long quest to "break the wheel". Now, clearly there have always been tensions in Danaerys' strategy: her absolute belief that she is the rightful ruler of Westeros, a land she's basically never set foot in, because of her family heritage, doesn't feel like a natural fit with her equally strongly held idea that traditional heirarchies should be abolished (not that she's the first to hold such contradictory opinions by any means). The show's handling of race and imperialism as she conquers her way around around Essos doling out crucifixions and roastings is a subject that needs far more space to unpack than I have to dedicate here. That said, the change that Danaerys has advocated for over her complex eight season arc - and the way that change has been taken up and championed by more interesting and criminally under-utilised characters like Missandei and Grey Worm - doesn't automatically get thrown out of the window the second Danaerys herself goes beyond the point of audience sympathy.

No, it takes the death of Missandei, and the removal of Grey Worm's own conscience and agency in the final episodes, to bring us to a scene in which, for a second, Tyrion's silencing of his perspective - while a nameless white male lord laughs away the entire concept of democracy and the humanity of the poor - feels like an OK thing to have happened. Go sit in the corner, Grey Worm, and think about how you shouldn't have killed those Lannister prisoners, and then we'll let you come and talk when - oops, nah, we just decided everything without your faction's voice. It's rushed and contrived but Game of Thrones manoeuvres its final act into a position where the weight of characters who want to maintain status quo, or a near version of it, is just strong enough for us to sign up to their perspective without realising what that means for the other characters we may have been rooting for, in however problematic a way.

And so the wheel turns on, unbroken. The Unsullied and the Dothraki sail off for Naath, the wildlings return north of the wall - the gate closing ominously behind them despite there being, you know, no Night King any more and also a big hole in it over on the east side. A few people rise, and a few who had risen fall back down again, and the lives of the vast majority of Westerosi continue well off camera. The attempt to make things better by doing away with the old system has failed, and the lesson is that the old system is really the only thing we've got, and all we can do is keep trying to make it work despite the cracks that have already appeared. The wheel turns, unbroken, and that's what this series we've all just spend the decade watching leaves us with: change isn't going to work, so let's find the people least likely to fuck us over in this broken system.

To which I can only say: Dracarys.

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.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

My prep for San Diego Comic Con continues as I secured tickets to one of the bigger events, Funko Fundays, that was my son's favorite part last year. While the stress of that is behind me, there is a lot of work to do to ensure that our final hurrah goes off without a hitch. If any of my fellow nerds are prepping for SDCC I hope things are going well for you.

Pick of the Week:
Redneck #20 - Donny Cates appears to be taking this series straight towards more bloodshed. We learn that JV and July are seeking the help of Carrona to save Bartlett.  It turns out that Carrona created Bartlett a long time ago and is a powerful vampire well versed in Mexican vampire magic which I hope is a real thing. Carrona is willing to help, but it will cost the vampires the system that was put in place that banished a lot of demons to Mexico and would potentially unleash them on the rest of the world. Cates teases a couple of other new characters and it is clear that the upcoming war is going to be violent.  I am digging the new arc and love that Cates took this series south of the border.

The Rest:
Star Wars Age of Rebellion: Jabba the Hut #1 - I can't help but wonder if this title was an excuse to give the fans a little bit more of Boba Fett.  While it was interesting to see how Jabba manipulates those around him, there is something satisfying about a Boba Fett on the offensive and not flying into the mouth of the sarlacc. Getting an inside look at Fett working directly for Jabba was entertaining as was watching an army of Jawas fighting with their own battle droids.  I love the thought of the Jawas fixing a bunch of old droids from the Clone War days to help them with confrontations on Tattooine.  I am not sure if this is an ongoing series or not, but I would pick up the second issue as this was chock full of entertaining nostalgia.

Bone Parrish #9 - We are nearing the end of this series that features the street drug ash, made from dead bodies and the factions that are competing to control the supply. The cartel makes a power move destroying a lab and the Winters appear to be close to losing their power in the ash game. I returned to this book after taking some time off and need to go back to see how we reached this breaking point and the impact that the visions are having on the characters. Cullen Bunn remains adept at delivering books with a unique horror twist.

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

Game of Thrones Recap (by someone who read a few books and is on Twitter)

After eight seasons, numerous awards and breeding an obsessive fanbase on the level of Star Wars or Harry Potter, the Game of Thrones TV has aired its final episode. Maybe you need catching up on all that has transpired, or maybe you just want to relive all the best moments from the TV event of the decade. We here at NoaF have you covered.

There's just one catch: I have never seen the show, so I am just going based off what I know from my friends who tweet about it, and that I read the first few books up until the crow one, I think.

So pull up a chair for a semi-NSFW and possibly spoiler-ish but I can't be sure recap.

Season One: okay look, there is only one good thing about Game of Thrones, and that is that it kills people. This is the hook, that the guy who is the traditional fantasy hero gets his head cut off in (I think?) the first episode. Also: Ned. His name is Ned. Possibly my favorite thing is that they try to fantasy it up to "Neddard". This is a dude who definitely had his books dumped in a puddle when he was at, uh, Stark High or whatever. What a dorky name. He deserved to die. Also: Sean Bean.

Also, we get on the incest train super early. Based on what I remember, it follows the book pretty closely, which is to say: there is incest, attempted child murder, successful child murder and rape. So, so much rape. I think there were some wolf-things? That were symbolic? Did that go anywhere? I feel like they got offed sorta quick in the book, but maybe I am wrong. Anyway, season one wraps up with a lot of people dead and raped. Also 'Robb', Neddard's oldest, is in charge of their kingdom and they leave the [ten minutes of Googling] Seven Kingdoms.

Finding the best meme was the hardest part of this
Season Two: It's called "Game of Thrones" but there is only the one pokey throne, right? What's up with that? Shouldn't there be multiple thrones? I get that there are houses, because nowadays anything fantasy has to have houses or some such grouping, but I don't think they EACH have a throne - do they? I feel like that should be addressed in more detail. Maybe if there were thrones - plural - they wouldn't have to fight over the one. Look, I'm just trying to help.

Sorry all but I am really stuck on the names here. How do we have 'Robb', 'Ned' and 'Joffery', all really close to real world names and then have junk like 'Slynt' and 'Daenerys'? Did I even spell that right? I neither know nor care.

Speaking of Daenny, the one little bit I saw was her brother getting offed, because he is probably the most annoying character in all of literary history, so I made sure to watch that clip. I don't know what season that happens in, but it happened, so I am telling you about it. I think he was supposed to be king or something and he whined a lot about that (until he died, obv).

The White Walkers are establishing themselves as (A) a real thing that exists and (B) a real threat to the World of Men or whatever this particular fantasy approximation of medieval Europe calls it. Which raises the question of why there is a big-ass wall that the Stark clan has been up there saying ominous things and manning said wall all there years, if the threat is just a myth. Either way, they are here now and ready to make memes. The kid who got hucked out a window goes up past the wall at one point and has a vision quest or something. It's probably important.

Season Three: ooops, the whole raven thing takes place in this season. Anyway, he goes up beyond the wall and becomes Professor X. Meanwhile, the incest twins aren't a thing anymore and Jamie loses a hand. He gets some sort of redemption arc, or garners some sympathy according to twitter.

The important thing is that this is the Red Wedding season, which was great if you had read the books and could be all smug when people were always like "OMG GoT has soooo many twists and kills off soooo many people". You could look very knowing and tell them "you have NO idea". Then the Red Wedding happened and people FA-REEK-ED. It was glorious. It also revealed the flaw in the whole 'kill-everyone-who-seems-important' plot device, namely you stopped caring about anyone until they had been around for a while. It also started to telegraph that, hey maybe Jon Snow and Dragon Girl are the ones who really matter.

Season Four: We are in LOST/Wheel of Time territory now. Lots of stuff is going on, and I care about exactly none of it. This is about where I bailed on the books, because the writing was on the wall about Martin never writing another dang word. According to Wikipedia, Season three covers about 2/3 of A Storm of Swords, while Season Four is the rest. This is a crime. Fantasy writers, please learn brevity.

In any case, things are happening. Daenareays gets married against her will to Aquaman (is he who kills her brother? I think he was), and then falls in love with him, because of his very large [sounds of Joe ripping the keyboard from my hands from 2,000 miles away] [all our Hugo hopes are dashed forever] I'm not sure if the show makes it clear, but the book was VERY DETAILED about why she fell in love with him.

Then Aquaman, in true GoT B-character style, dies. Dannyerrous gets three dragon eggs around this time, but they are obviously not REAL dragon eggs, because dragons aren't real, just like the ice dudes aren't and oooooooooh I get it. Wait, isn't the series called A Song of Ice & Fire? Why is the show called something different? This joke post is getting FAR too involved. I have SO many questions and I don't know if the show has answers. Are we allowed in the Hugo losers party so I can ask GRRM these things?

Season Five: Like eighteen people have tried to rule and died in the last several seasons. At the time, their lives and deaths were SUPER important and you had very definite opinions about how they died, but now you can't name them, except the one whiney kid (no, the other one).

Also, the Stark girls have started to come into their own. One was super whiney at first, and she is getting to be a real bad ass. And the other one is... there? I think? Or did she die? Arya! That's it! Are ya... still alive? She is! Glad we settled that.

On the other continent or whatever, Denny Tarpaper has an army of freed slaves, which the people she got them from didn't count on and they get killed. Seems like the sort of thing they should have seen coming, or at least put in the contract. Also, I think in the book, they do the standard "give them a puppy and then make them kill it" bad guy thing. Is that in the show? I feel like there would have been more tweets about puppy murder.

Puppy murder aside, Season Five is is season that launched a thousand shirts, when Tire Iron uttered the immortal phrase "I drink and I know things", thus giving alcoholics a great catch phrase and permission to use alcohol abuse in place of a personality. It doesn't work, gang, I have been trying for damn near 34 years.



All this is to say, season six doubles down on middling middle episodes and I don't actually know what happens. It seems like no one else, including the actual audience, writers, showrunners, or creator of the whole damn thing do either.

I'm sensing a pattern.

Season Six contains the Hodor episode. That is the only plot point I gleaned.

Season Seven: As a writer, I am so envious of George R. R. Martin. First of all, only ERB has ever called him out on the R.R. thing. Second, he is living every writer's biggest fantasy - making millions of dollars off your book being turned into a massive success while you don't actually do any writing. Wikipedia says seasons seven and eight are based on his outline for Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. HIS OUTLINE. Let me in on this scam, I am BEGGING.

Also, did winter ever actually come? Or is it a metaphor for the night king? According to my twitter feed, he is a very big threat, mostly by nature of one menacing gif. Maybe he pronounces it 'jif'. Now THAT'S evil.

Speaking of, and I say this with every cynical, nihilistic bone in my body: Who is the bad guy here? I mean, is it just 'everyone' and that's the message? I guess Jon and Bran (is his back from his walkabout yet? Rollabout? This IS Lost, isn't it?) are pretty cool. But maybe the, uh, walkers? are actually the good guys. Have we listened to their plans for healthcare and infrastructure? Normally I am not one for talking to an army of the dead bent on destruction, but it's not like the humans are doing such a bang up job. Y'all have towns. Hold a town hall or something.

There are alliances, betrayals, etc, but literally no one cares at this point. Dragons or GTFO.

Season Eight: WE MADE IT Y'ALL! So many hours gone. So much emotional investment. I mean, from you. I spent like 45 minutes, and most of that was looking for a tweet I couldn't even find. Fun fact, a close friend got married recently, and I was his best man. I didn't find out until, like, the week of the wedding that it was (lightly) Game of Thrones themed. I posited they may have missed a few key ideas in the series about romance and weddings, but it went unheeded, and no one (so far as I know) died at his wedding, which was sort of a let down.

On to the show. I am going to serious up for a second, because I know a lot of you care very deeply about this show, so as far as I can tell, there are three(ish) things you need to know about season eight:

  1. Jon and Danny have sex, then stop having sex, because it turns out they are related, which everyone hopefully saw coming the second they both survived more than a full season. 
  2. Bran is the king! Horay for the KLDA!
  3. Season Eight is horrible.
And that's it! It ends on a season full of great moments... well, a few I guess. It ends on a underwhelming note that leaves fans dissatisfied, upset and/or outright angry. For that, at least, I can call it one of the most entertaining shows of all time.


 Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories (which should be on YOUR summer reading list). You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ode to GoT Nihilism

When a genre accumulates enough history, traditions, tradition-conscious fans and demolition-ready clichés, a certain kind of work will emerge: something that takes everything a little further, makes it a little more believable and makes everything that came before look a little silly.

That's what happened to superhero comics in 1980s with Watchmen (by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, 1986-87) and Dark Knight Returns (by Frank Miller, 1986), and now it has happened to audiovisual epic fantasy. Or, well, to be fair it probably happened almost a decade ago in 2011 when we first found out that unexpectedly decapitating the show's protagonist is indeed possible and not all dwarfs in fantasy have to be small fake Scots who are heavily invested in the mining industry.

For those in the audience who had read Martin's books there was nothing unexpected in Ned Stark's death (or any of the other Stark deaths), of course, but majority of the millions of viewers (including me) has never read a single line of Song of Ice and Fire. 

So, Game of Thrones is finished. What are we left with?

A monumental piece of work that all future fantasy shows will probably be compared to, whether that makes any sense or not. Just as any morally complex superhero work interrogating its genre and history will always be measured against Watchmen, any piece of fantasy television that tries to look beyond the Manichean moralities of Tolkien is going to be evaluated with Game of Thrones at the back of everyone's head.

Whereas Watchmen was "the superhero story to end all superhero stories" (which it of course didn't do), Game of Thrones maxed out everything in the epic, post-Tolkien fantasy: more characters, more exquisitely constructed world, more nihilist politics and royal succession play-offs, more mysterious religions, more brutal battle scenes (nevermind the goofy military tactics in season 8), more sex and incest. It's a "fantasy TV show to end all fantasy TV shows", in the sense that all future fantasy entertainment will be informed by GoT on some level.

Watchmen seemed like the ultimate takedown of superhero lore. Wholesome, child-friendly superheroes were exposed as reactionary superjerks, alienated superhumans or in the very least a bit unstable people with unorthodox sex drives — that is basically the history of superhero comics in 1987-2019. I can safely predict that going forward, heroes in epic pseudo-medieval fantasy shows will have to make difficult and morally grey choices, suffer brutality and brace themselves for some complex, deadly scheming.

For me, the special ingredient of the show was always the nihilist outlook, something quite nonexistent in pre-GoT audiovisual fantasy. Despite all pompous talk about honor, gods or good and evil, there's no getting around the fact that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun (or it's medieval counterparts), as Mao Zedong opined. Nobody is safe and cruel things happen to people who don't deserve them. These themes will probably be developed further in post-GoT shows. Hopefully they'll be a little more thoughtful than the bulk of "edgy" 90s superheroes and choose to emulate other aspects than just tone-deaf brutality and sexual violence.

One can perhaps make the case that it was in some sense visionary to butcher children, soon-to-be mothers, old women and animals on-screen in the most popular and most expensive TV show of all time to underline that nobody is ever safe. However, I was more impressed with less bombastic lessons of nihilism, like Littlefinger's plot (in season 4, I think) featuring Ser Dontos Hollard, the fat lord who Joffrey wanted to kill but Sansa Stark saved by making him the court fool in some earlier season. Dontos's thank you speech to Sansa about his house's demise is heart-breaking — we think we know the character and sympathize with his bleak circumstances — but later it turns out that it's all part of an elaborate hoax put together by Littlefinger.

Playing with characterization and audience expectations, it's the small details like this that made the show really memorable for me. Sadly, poignant details cleverly playing with the characterization and audience expectations are exactly what was missing from the final season. What also seems to have disappeared somewhere along the way is the show's nihilist attitude altogether. Sure, Daenerys becomes a cruel despot in the end, but that is easily fixed with a knife through her heart, and justice and harmony prevail.

What in seven hells is that?

This was supposed to be a world in which Hollywood morality is challenged and everything is complex and precarious. I really feel we would have deserved an end in which all the good lords and ladies of Westeros are ready to stab each other in the back to get just a little more power. Instead, all we get from the final minutes of the great struggle for power is the phrase "Uncle, sit down" — like the democratic presidential primaries needed any more weaponizable pop culture quotes at this point.

POSTED BY: Spacefaring Kitten, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018. 

Reading the Hugos: Novella

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2019 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the stories up for Best Novella.

For those keeping score at home, three of the finalists were on my nominating ballot (Beneath the Sugar Sky, The Black God's Drums, Gods Monsters and the Lucky Peach).

It is also worth noting that once again this category is packed full of stories from Publishing, which is both fine if taken in the abstract and troubling when considered as part of a trend. This year, like last year, five of the six finalists published by Publishing. Two years ago had four of the six finalists. It is only three years ago, in 2016, that only managed two of the five finalists, but they had also only just launched their novella line the previous fall and had fewer eligible titles.

The good news is that Publishing puts out a LOT of excellent fiction with their dedicated novella line (with the occasional novel and novelette thrown in) and because of Tor's prominence in the field, their reach, and their reputation - the work is easy to discover. The bad news is that I can't see how this sort of publisher dominance is a good thing for the health of the category or the field. We are beginning to see the same category dominance with the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. There are other publishers putting out high quality novellas (Subterranean, Tachyon, and PS are three significant publishers that come to mind), but it's a harder length of story to place. I've said this before, but I'd like to see a wider variety of publishers make the short list in coming years. Of course, I'm guilty of the same because I read most of what Publishing puts out each year because it is easy to get and the quality is high.

On to the finalists!

Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson ( Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

The Tea Master and the Detective: It's funny how memory works compared against what I've actually written about a particular story. In this case, my memory says that The Tea Master and the Detective was not that remarkable and I was continually surprised at the praise I saw lobbed at this novella. Then, I check to see if anyone wrote about The Tea Master and the Detective for Nerds of a Feather and I find out that I did, and that I liked it.

My review: "The Mindships of de Bodard's Xuya universe remind me somewhat of Anne McCaffrey's Brain ships, which is not so much a point as a random observation. The Tea Master and the Detective is a murder mystery with a sentient ship and a prickly detective uneasily working together to figure out how a body abandoned in deep space was killed. The novella is far better than my description. The excellence here is in the interplay between The Shadow Child and Long Chau and their characterization, development, and backgrounds."

The scoring on the review did not suggest The Tea Master and the Detective was among the best of the best, but it did tell me that the experience of reading Aliette de Bodard's story was stronger than how it subsequently lived in my memory. Regardless of which is more true, it is not the strongest of this year's finalists for Best Novella. (my review)

Artificial Condition: I do occasionally wonder about the occasional tendency to not love subsequent volumes in a series as much as the first. It's not something that fully holds up as a concept, Seanan McGuire in this very categories puts the lie to the concept - as does any number of other series. But it feels more common to build all the excitement about the first book and then merely appreciate and enjoy the second, third, and fourth books.

That's my not-a-problem with Artificial Condition, which is simply that it isn't All Systems Red (winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award) and while I thoroughly enjoyed Artificial Condition, it didn't reach the heights in my imagination as All Systems Red did and in that way, it suffers a bit in comparison. That's not fair, and a four star reaction is only a disappointment when compared to a five star response.

I do expect to see The Murderbot Diaries on the Hugo ballot in 2021 following the publication of a full length novel next year, and perhaps that is where Murderbot truly shines - not in the discrete entry of a single story but as the wider arc of Muderbot's story. I do also recommend Adri's essay on the first three Murderbot novellas as a stronger bit of counterpoint to how the overall journey is so affecting.

Binti: The Night Masquerade: At the point I am writing this, I could easily flip the placement of Binti: The Night Masquerade with that of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. The Night Masquerade is the conclusion of the Binti trilogy, with Binti back home in Namibia and trying to rescue her family and stop a war.

It is difficult for me to discuss The Night Masquerade without looking at the Binti trilogy as a whole because its success here is more than in part in how good of a job Nnedi Okorafor did in wrapping up Binti's story arc. That it was never quite the story I expected after the first book did not lessen the excellence and the raw emotion of The Night Masquerade. It's a damn good story with heart.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach: Everything I had to say about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach last year still stands. This is a spectacular story: "This story is cool as hell. It's set in an ecologically wrecked future where humanity is only just beginning to emerge and re-terraform our planet back into something hospitable. That by itself would be enough to get me interested, but add in some time travel and fantastic characters and ooh, damn, Kelly Robson tells one hell of a story. It's a novella that feels far bigger than it is and even then, I wished for at least one hundred more pages despite the story ending perfectly. I wanted to spend more time in the past. Time travel could be used for amazing things, but is often used for tourism rather than research (though, the travel in this novella is a research trip). The historical detail is fantastic, the interpersonal and interhistorical drama is on point, and I wanted more of every bit of this story." (my review)

The Black Gods Drums: In his review, Paul Weimer wrote that "The real richness of the novella is it is delight in invention, with an eye for creating a world that is rich for the potential for story and adventure. From the palpable existence of very active orishas, to an alternate history with a Confederacy, Haiti as a Caribbean power, and, naturally, airships, the world that Clark has created is a fascinating one that we only get a small short-novella taste of, but I want to read more of. The vision of New Orleans as a freeport where the Union, the Confederacy, Haiti and other powers all meet and trade, complete with extensive airship facilities is a compelling and fascinating one."

I was blown away by The Black God's Drums, by the characterizations and action and worldbuilding, by Clark's storytelling. As good of a novella as I thought it was when I first read it, The Black God's Drums has only increased in my estimation the more time has passed. (Paul's review)

Beneath the Sugar Sky: This third novella in Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series offers some of the sense of nostalgia of Every Heart a Doorway, but with a far greater sense of adventure. Beneath the Sugar Sky offers a feeling of homecoming for the reader, laced with the complete nonsense of the world of Confection.

From my review: "Beneath the Sugar Sky is filled with wit and biting commentary on how children are perceived and all too often squeezed into boxes they don't belong in order to fit the ideas and dreams of their parents and other adults, and how pervasive that can be. It's also a delightful adventure story filled with charm and wonder and it's a book I did not quite want to end because I wasn't ready to say goodbye." I adored Beneath the Sugar Sky. (my review)

My Vote
1. Beneath the Sugar Sky
2. The Black God's Drums
3. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
4. Binti: The Night Masquerade
5. Artificial Condition
6. The Tea Master and the Detective

Our Previous Coverage

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Five Unicorn Flush by T.J. Berry

An entertaining sequel, though its characters are more compelling than its plot stakes

Last year's Space Unicorn Blues was a fascinating concept, the magical fantasy-space opera mashup that took its narrative to surprisingly dark places, with galaxy-wide exploitation and one of the most hard-headed and stupid human societies I've seen represented in fiction for a while. That book told an entertaining story with an ending that left the main strands of plot satisfied while setting up plenty of material for a potential sequel - a continuation which is now a glorious reality.

Five Unicorn Flush picks up close to where Space Unicorn Blues left off, six weeks after all of the Bala - the group of magical aliens who all look like creatures from western European folklore - are transported by a powerful third race from the human -controlled space where they had been exploited and used for parts and onto a secret far-off planet where they can start again. As this transportation also includes all Bala artefacts in human space, and these include all of humanity's known FTL fuels (of which the most reliable is unicorn horn) this has a pretty major effect on humanity's empire - called "The Reason" while also making it nearly impossible for the Bala to be pursued. Unfortunately, there are a couple of very persistent individuals left on the human side, one of whom is Jenny Peralta, disabled Maori space captain whose testimony ensured that humans and the Bala would be separated, despite losing her dryad wife in the equation. Meanwhile, on their new (very pink) home, the Bala, under the unicorn leadership of Gary Cobalt and his father Findae, are trying to make the best of what turns out to be a difficult planet to make their home on. Throw in some continuing meddling from the Pymmie, the all-powerful third species who called this time-out in the first place, and the continuing interference of Cowboy Jim, the useful but awful white man from the first book who is now masquerading as a Reason officer, and you've got all the ingredients for a seriously packed sequel that lives up to the weirdness of its premise.

Five Unicorn Flush shines brightest in its characters. Jenny is a great protagonist, a deeply flawed mess of a woman whose past - especially with Gary - contains inexcusable crimes intertwined with moments of selfless brilliance. What's perhaps unusual about Jenny is her level of self awareness and how she processes her guilt, which separates her out from the mountains of thoughtless bringers of carnage or tortured yet righteous anti-heroes who somehow always find justification for continuing to do the things that caused their guilt. Jenny fought against the Bala, and exploited Gary, and now her regret means that she acts in different (though not any less reckless) ways towards other people and in pursuit of her goals. In the first book, Jenny's largely sympathetic portrayal grated on me, but I think the greater distance from the Bala and increased remorse in her point of view mitigates that - it also helps that the details of her history with Gary aren't spelled out in nearly as much detail this time around. The other thing that makes Jenny stand out is that she's disabled - left without the use of her legs after a wartime event - and now in chronic pain following a partial attempt by Gary to heal her. The narrative strikes a great balance between showcasing Jenny's talents and giving her a ton of ingenious action sequences while never letting us forget that, when the gravity is on, Jenny is a wheelchair user, with all the accessibility challenges that brings in the thoughtlessly designed environments of Reason ships.

Compared to Jenny, Gary is a blander protagonist, though not to the point where his chapters are less enjoyable. The strength of his arc here lies in his understated but important interactions with his father, Findae, who has just returned to the Reason after a hundred year nap. Findae's expectations on how the Bala should live, up to and including the assumption that unicorns should remain benevolent but absolute rulers without consulting the opinions of the other groups they rule over, clash significantly with his son's experiences and attitudes towards leadership - and, of course, as Gary is only half-unicorn, he has a significantly harder time throwing that assumption of divine right around in the first place. Like in Space Unicorn Blues, Gary spends quite a lot of time getting told off, beaten up, and even dissolved by acid, and while he comes out of these experiences physically unharmed (thanks to some immortal unicorn healing powers) the way he internalises and deals with being a punching bag makes his development here interesting to follow.

Unfortunately, Five Unicorn Flush's plotting doesn't quite live up to the promise of its main characters. Nearly half of the book is spent switching between Gary's relatively passive attempts to placate the rest of the Bala and encourage them to make a go of their new home rather than disappearing back into the stars, while Jenny engages in a technically plot-relevant but very sidequesty-feeling heist on a generation ship full of cannibals, which involves her getting frozen to near-death and shot out into space without a suit all in the space of a few short hours. While it's a fun sequence, especially with the interactions between Jenny, her ship's AI, and the AI of the ship they have entered - it does slow the book down at the point where the plot could really do with some extra introductions to keep everything ticking. Once the heist is done - complete with introduction of an elf ghost who turns out to play quite an interesting role in the overall plot - and things heat up on the Bala's planet, Five Unicorn Flush does kick into gear, but it then has to contend with some rather left-field character reintroductions (yes, it's great to see Ricky from the first book again, but... she's been where this whole time? Did I forget something that would have made this make sense?) and yet more pointless-feeling sidequests before its eventual, slightly rushed climax. As a second book, much of Five Unicorn Flush's climax relies on developing emotional beats from its predecessor - and I can't imagine the heart of this book would work if you haven't been on the previous journey with Gary, Jenny and all - while also setting up some interesting plot hooks for further instalments. That's all well and good, but it's a shame that it comes at the expense of this volume standing up well alone.

Despite this, Five Unicorn Flush is great entertainment, set in an imaginative universe that leans in to the absurdity of its premise while using it to interrogate high stakes scenarios with moral weight behind them. Like Tim Pratt's Axiom series (also published by Angry Robot, who clearly know what they're doing when it comes to this particular strand of science fiction), and Alex White's Salvagers, this is highly entertaining space opera with a nice mix of standard and novel plot elements that I'm still invested in for at least the next volume.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Fun but weighty worldbuilding

Penalties: -1 A slow-to-start plot that doesn't stand up well alone

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: Berry, T.J.. Five Unicorn Flush [Angry Robot, 2019].