Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Musings on The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

A grimdark fantasy with distinctly millennial undertones.

Image result for the poppy war

This post won’t be so much a review as some musings since others, particularly S. Qiouyi Lu’s review, capture the cultural and historical nuances of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War better than I could. Even so, the book moved me enough I want to write about it, and as it gains more and more readership, I’m not alone in my championing of the book.

The novel opens with a test. The Keju determines the limited placement of students at the academies, and war orphan Rin totally aces the exam, meaning she’s destined for military greatness if she doesn’t wash out Sinegard, the premiere military academy. Everything gets in her way from her lack of family connections, childhood of poverty, and gender. She catches a break when the eccentric master Jiang takes special interest in her. While his shamanism seems too mystical to be useful, Rin changes her mind when she’s visited by a god.

This description covers very little of the book, but I don’t want to give too much away. One of the things I loved is Kuang’s pacing. As suggested by the title, this book isn’t only focused on Rin’s early training but expands into the war that comes afterward. If reading that description reminded you of the most famous modern fantasy Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, then good. Kaung plays with many of the same beloved tropes from the eccentric mentor to Rin’s academic struggles. That being said, Kuang brings a different point of view to these moments, such as what happens when Rin menstruates for the first time (Kvothe never had to deal with that).

While I love fantasy novels like The Poppy War, Kuang’s story has taken a special slot on my shelf because, as a millennial, I connected to the novel on a generational level. No, Kuang did not include avocado toast. From the voice to history to worldbuilding, the novel captured how I so often feel as a millennial. While the USA school testing systems are vastly different than Chinese systems, I remember the pressure of the SATs and GREs--and the relief at performing well. Like Rin, millennials grew up in the shadow of a terrorist attack and hearing the propaganda surrounding a war. Due to income inequality, those millennials that made it into “the good schools” found a cultural gap caused by wealth. Like Kuang’s worldbuilding around opium and other hallucinogens, so many millennials have watched their hometowns and families destroyed by opioids while simultaneously voting for the legalization of marijuana. These issues have marked the millennial generation, and Kuang captures them on the page.

A final element worth mentioning is Kuang’s voice. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some fantasy language. I will fight anyone who complains that Tolkien is “stilted.” The Poppy War walks the line of traditional fantasy language but with updates, such as this line from Rin’s mentor Jiang when another master suggests Jiang should consider what people would say about him training Rin alone: “Probably that a master of [my] rank and standing could do much better than dicking around with female students.” I’m pretty sure most 500+ page fantasies do not use the word “dicking.” Of course Kuang’s voice expands beyond slang to the dialogue, humor, pacing, and sentence structure.

The Poppy War is the modern fantasy I’ve been wishing for. As a fantasy reader and writer, I believe in the genre’s power to provide a new lens to view and explore societal issues. R. F. Kuang uses the genre to capture the struggles of millennials in a grimdark book that any reader of modern fantasy will enjoy.  

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner is a writer and PhD student living in the high desert. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at phoebe-wagner.com

References: Kuang, R. F. The Poppy War [Harper Voyager, 2018]

Monday, July 30, 2018

Microreview [Book]: Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company builds on the strengths of the first volume in the series, delivering another solid urban fantasy adventure.

Dreadful Company is the second novel from Vivian Shaw in the Dr Greta Helsing series, following last year's Strange Practice. Readers who follow a fair bit of fanfiction may have already come across Shaw's works in the Homestuck, the MCU and Star Wars fandoms as coldhope. This background puts Shaw in a strong position to bring some of the most interesting aspects of transformative fiction to this original series, which takes such venerable members of the vampire canon as Lord Ruthven and Varney the Vampyre, and effectively sets them in a modern AU, showcasing them in a new environment without needing to focus on their process of adaptation. As her surname indicates, Greta is a descendent of Abraham Van Helsing -- though the family dropped the "Van" a while back -- and she's inherited the family business, but it's not the one you'd think: instead, she runs a medical practice dealing with the problems of London's supernatural denizens. Greta has built a strong community with the undead of London, and most of the undead cast have happily established their niche in 21st century London, and are strongly invested in protecting it against those who threaten it in any way.

Dreadful Company picks up the narrative some time after the end of Strange Practice, with Greta and Ruthven on a visit to Paris as Greta prepares to present a paper at a supernatural medical conference. Before they get there, however, there's time to visit the opera and get in their contractually required Phantom references. To Greta's surprise, while there's no ghostly apparition in Box 5, there is a creepy vampire in need of a haircut staring at her from another of the theatre's boxes. Said vampire quickly makes his terrible aesthetic and coven management skills - and his vendetta against Ruthven - into Greta's problem by abducting her to his lair in the conveniently atmospheric catacombs of Paris, where she comes into contact with the rest of his terribly-dressed coven and the mess they have made of 1) the city, 2) themselves and 3) the fabric of reality.

The coven, their politics, and the weird pet-creatures one of them keeps summoning through a rift in reality, are the highlight of Dreadful Company, which is for the most part a pretty claustrophobic narrative. Corvin, the coven leader, hits just the right blend of absurd and dangerous. His obsession with image, and with a particular type of stereotyped "vampiriness", gives Shaw lots of material to poke fun at particular aspects of the vampire myth, but at the same time the narrative is very clear that this isn't what makes him villainous: rather, its one symptom of his toxic fixation on power and control. Corvin's weary second-in-command, Grisaille, perhaps gets a more sympathetic ride in the book than I'd like, but he makes an interesting foil to Corvin's excesses. Greta's predicament, and the wider happenings in Paris, also pull in some other members of the supernatural community, including werewolf Alceste St. Germain, and "remedial psychopomps" Dammerung and Brightside, whose job is to seek ghosts who missed their trip to the afterlife the first time around. On our heroes' side, there's a practical, cooperative air to the inevitable rescue mission that reflects the attitude of Greta herself - she is a medical doctor, after all - and, again, contrasts wonderfully with the behaviour of the coven. Like Seanan McGuire's Incryptid series, Dreadful Company is a book where monsters are just people, and one of the underlying messages here is that healthy personal identities shouldn't be constructed from mystery and ego, even if you are an ageless vampire.

Unfortunately, I found Dreadful Company to be a book where my opinions on the aspects that fell short are unusually strong, despite how much I appreciated it overall. Some of those annoyances are pretty specific - for example, my initial excitement at learning Hell has a Monitoring and Evaluation department (my job! in a book!) didn't survive the descriptions of what that bureaucracy looked like in Shaw's world. I'm also tired of authors taking side swipes at "sparkly vampires": Twilight's vampire physiology was never an accepted feature of the genre, and that means its not a trope that needs deconstructing; rather, it's an innovation of a single problematic-but-successful female author whose work is now open to unquestioning mockery. It frustrates me that modern YA vampire tropes aren't given nearly the same care and critical attention in Dreadful Company as Victorian ones seem to be, and that comes across as a significant oversight in a series that is so focused on what vampire mythology looks like in a 21st century world.

I was also disappointed that, like Strange Practice, Dreadful Company is a highly male-dominated novel outside of Greta herself. In the previous book, several women appear briefly in the background as fascinating characters that the narrative is completely uninterested in, particularly Greta's colleagues at her surgery. Dreadful Company moves us to Paris, thwarting any chances of seeing those women again for now, and instead gives us two women in Corbin's vampire coven: Lilith, Corbin's partner, who is introduced to us via a male POV character as highly strung, stupid, shallow and irrational, and is given very little opportunity to prove us wrong before the narrative overtakes her (she's also the aforementioned pet-summoner); and Emily, the youngest vampire, who is also portrayed as out-of-control and useless although, thankfully, given more space to grow. It's also hard to miss the fact that Greta spends over half of this book trapped with Corbin and awaiting rescue - although she's far from passive through this process, or the eventual escape. I know I have high and specific standards when it comes to representation of women in my reading, and there's space for books that focus on interesting male characters, but the Greta Hellsing series has been particularly disappointing in that it feels like it shouldn't be falling short on this front to the extent that it has so far.

With that said, I'm aware that I'm passionate about the things I disliked in Dreadful Company precisely because I am so invested in the ways the series is going right. I like Greta, even if she could do with diversifying her adventuring companions occasionally, and the underlying themes of this series are strongly in line with what I want to read in the limited space I have for urban fantasy in my wider SFF diet. I'll be continuing to keep an eye on this series as it comes out, although I will likely be scanning initial reviews and previews of Book 3 quite hard for evidence of more not-men in the narrative driving seat beyond Greta herself. Still, if you want down-to-earth, self aware urban fantasy with an excellent critical eye for horror tropes and transformative, character driven fiction, this is definitely a series to look out for.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Surprisingly adorable hair monsters!

Penalties: -1 Twilight alone has not made a generation of young women believe vampires sparkle by default; -1 Please can we have some powerful but matter-of-fact ageless supernaturals who aren't dudes in Volume 3?

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10, "A mostly enjoyable experience."

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: Shaw, Vivian. Dreadful Company [Orbit, 2018]

Watching the Hugos: Dramatic Presentation. Long Form

As the deadline for voting comes to a close, we're going to continue our series of Watching the Hugos with a look at Dramatic Presentation: Long Form. This year all six finalists are feature length movies. I've seen four of them.

I'm also slightly embarrassed to admit that I have not yet seen Get Out. I've had it on my DVR for...well...for far too long. The thing is - I have two small children, one of whom is a challenge to get to bed at a reasonable hour, and I just don't watch as many movies as I would like to. I do still read a lot of books, so I've got that going for me. I expect that whenever I watch Get Out I will end up regretting not seeing it sooner so that I could put it very high on my ballot.

So, with that said, let's look at the finalists.

Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve
Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele
The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson
Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi
Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins

The Shape of Water: "What a peculiar movie," I said to my wife when we finished watching The Shape of Water. We knew there was a romance between a mute woman and a fish man creature monster. What we didn't know what the Cold War era aspect of the story, the drama between Soviet agents and those from the United States. We didn't know of the callous evil of a man just doing his job for his country and how all of that ties together and informs the love story. It was nothing like we might have expected, and though it was good and bittersweet, it wasn't the amazing movie we might have expected. Perhaps we weren't the target audience for this movie.

Thor: Ragnarok: Cate freaking Blanchett and Tessa Thompson. They owned every scene they were in. Actually, I got the sense every actor was trying to one-up the next and chew scenery with panache. Normally I would say that is a recipe for disaster, but under the directoral hand of Taiki Waititi, it works. The movie is a fun romp and a semi charming delight from start to finish. The pacing and the tone is just right. They give us the MCU version of World War Hulk and a whole bunch of action, quips, wit, and some seriously emotional moments. It's a delight and my favorite of the three Thor movies. Could have used more Natalie Portman, though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The more distance I get from The Last Jedi and the more I think about it, the more I appreciate it. Perhaps I appreciate it all the more in the face of all the criticism I've read about how it was destroying the childhoods of a vocal contingent of fans and that this wasn't "their Luke".  I wrote about The Last Jedi at length, but one point I wish to mention again here is that one of my favorite aspects of the movie is the same thing I see the criticism of, which is the handling of Luke Skywalker. Luke tried to rebuild the Jedi, failed, saw how his failure made things worse (in his view), and retreated. In some ways, Luke's journey mirrored that of Obi-Wan's. It's not perhaps the Luke I hoped to see in the movies. I've read most of the novels, I had a strong idea of what Luke's journey would look like. But it's the journey that made sense once The Force Awaken was made. It worked. It was effective, if occasionally uncomfortable. The Last Jedi was wonderful, and I wanted more of it.

Wonder Woman: This is the Wonder Woman movie I always wanted and barely hoped that I would get. It might also be one of the few super hero movies that actually needed an origin story. Diana in the present day was perhaps the right introduction in Batman v Superman, but stepping back gave a richer story than occurs in most. Gal Gadot was perfect as Wonder Woman and though certain beats of the movie were pretty standard, the telling was exceptional and the importance of having a female led superhero movie was matched by just how damned entertaining this was.

My Vote
1. Wonder Woman
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
3. Thor: Ragnarok
4. The Shape of Water

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

Friday, July 27, 2018

Microreview [book]: The Black God's Drums by P Djeli Clark

The Black God’s Drums is an interesting window into a character and her Steampunk-with-touches of magic alternate New Orleans

Creeper is a teenager living on the streets of an alternate 1880’s New Orleans, often spending time near Les Grand Murs, the huge wall used as a airship dock in this world’s version of the Big Easy. Creeper has big dreams of being crew on one of those big airships, but to get a chance at that, Creeper is going to have to help the captain of one of those airships stop a plot to unleash a devastating weather weapon designed by a Haitian scientist and coveted by the Union, Confederacy and everyone else.

Welcome to the world of P Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums.

Creeper makes for an appealing and strong protagonist. The book doesn’t really feel like YA story to me although it has some traditional elements of that. The youth of the character, the coming of age story, the relatively breezy pace, and the general tone do earmark it in that direction. There is plenty here for readers of all ages to sympathize and identify with her, as she learns to really understand her connection to the orisha, Oya, and her own other talents besides. Captain Ann-Marie, of the Midnight Robber, is every inch the steampunk airship captain that can and does serve as an exemplar and a role model for Creeper, and a character with her own agency in her own right. I wouldn’t mind a novella from *her* point of view.

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. There are hints that the world beyond what we see is similarly not the one we know, either, but really, Clark could tell many stories just in the North America and Caribbean around New Orleans. There is just simply a lot of canvas here for the author to unleash her protagonist and other characters upon.

My major beef with the novella is that for the story it is trying to tell, which does have a sequel hook in the offing, is that it feels a little bit breezy and short for all that. The line by writing is very good, crisp and neat, and I was intrigued by that world we see. But for all of that, i think there could have been a little more meat on the bones of the story. While leaving a reader wanting and wishing for more is always a good hook for future stories and novels, it is more frustrating when it comes to the actual story being told. I wanted more “there there” on the story I was getting. It’s not a complicated or particularly twisted story, it is a clean and straight story that feels more like a long novelette than a pitifully short novella. I also am of the opinion that while short stories and novelettes can do “one thing”, by the time you get to novellas, having an additional subplot or two helps enrich the characters and the world. This novella is lacking in that regard

That said, I found the world depicted here to be an intriguing one, and if that sequel hook in this novella does pan out, the promise of this first novella can be completely fulfilled in a subsequent, and hopefully more substantial work.

The Math
Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a stunning and immersive alternate world with a ton of potential.

Penalties : -1 for being far too breezy and short for the story being told

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


Reference:  Clark, P. Djeli:  The Black God’s Drums [Tor, 2018]

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

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero - SDCC Recap

Another San Diego Comic Con is in the books and I am safely home and exhausted. I got to share the experience with my 10-year old son and it was a delight to experience everything that SDCC has to offer through his perspective. While it did prevent me from checking out the Deadpool panel and offsite experiences (my friend grabbed me a Deadpool toilet seat cover!), it was great to see how much there was for someone his age to do.

Actual photo from my phone of the scene Laika brought from The Box Trolls

Best Overall Experience:

Laika Live
I dedicated last week's post to it, but after soaking in all four days of the con it is clear that Laika truly cares about each person who goes through its exhibit. You could sense the passion from the employees as we were invited into their amazingly beautiful world. My concerns that it was a rehash of last year's exhibit immediately vanished as they brought a piece of their studio to San Diego. For more about Laika Live check out last week's post.

Best Hidden Gem:
Stern Pinball Lounge
Tucked away in the Marriott Maquis right next to the convention center lies one of the best kept secrets of SDCC (although they would like that to change). This marks the second year that Stern Pinball was an exhibitor and partner and upon arriving at the lounge I immediately regretted not attending last year.  In addition to offering over 20 pinball machines set on free play, Stern hosted high score contests and tournaments with some impressive prizes. Stern showed off its newest machine, Iron Maiden (which the band plays on tour), designed by Keith Elwin (the Michael Jordan of Pinball and current #1 ranked player in the world) and featured machines with such licenses as Guardians of the Galaxy, Adam West's Batman and many others.  All of the machines were occupied the entire time I was in the lounge, but players happily allowed the next player to step up upon completion of the game.  It is rare to find the calm in the storm that is SDCC, but this lounge somehow managed to accomplish this despite being a stone's throw from the action.

The Golden Ticket:

Lottery Based Ticketing
With a move to an online lottery for most exclusives and autographs (a move that worked exceptionally well in my opinion), the Funko booth was the hot ticket as it granted you the right to their typical offering of coveted exclusives. While the Funko lottery gods were not on my side, the lottery saved people from camping out just for a shot of what they wanted and allowed con goers to focus on alternative options. I did manage to get a time spot for Hasbro and was able to get my daughter a delightful Chewie and the Porgs set that put a huge smile on her face. I just hope she lets me play with it too.

Loved seeing Double Dare on the floor!

Final Thoughts:
This year marked the first time in recent memory that there was a lack of hype around the panels. I say this from a hype perspective, and don't mean it as a knock in the programming. The lack of Marvel Studios was felt, but fans were able to line up closer to the actual start of panels and there was little to no drama getting into the big halls. While some fans noted their displeasure, it really felt the the convention was more accessible to new attendees. I had reservations bringing my son to this event (despite seeing thousands of happy kids each year), but I am pleased to report that it was a memorable experience, the volunteers and employees of CCI did a great job, and I am encouraged by the positive changes that the convention is making and has planned for the future.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Nanoreviews: Deep Roots, Heroine Complex, Witchmark

Emrys, Ruthanna. Deep Roots [Tor.com Publishing]

It seems somehow worth mentioning every time I write about a work so deeply inspired and influenced by the Lovecraftian Mythos that on the surface, I have very little interest in Lovecraft. It's not a selling point, it's something to overcome. Then I read Ruthanna Emrys' debut novel Winter Tide and fell in love. Lovecraft was the seasoning to a family and cultural story of extermination, survival, and belonging. 

Deep Roots is the second volume in The Innsmouth Legacy. Emrys takes Aphra away from coastal Massachusets and into New York City. Aprha is looking for lost members of her family, of her race. She finds New York is a city filled with humans, yes, but also with aliens and monsters and any number of inhuman denizens. Deep Roots is a well crafted and deeply engrossing novel. I relished the opportunity to spend more time with Aphra and her community and I look forward the next volume whenever it comes out.
Score: 7/10

Kuhn, Sarah. Heroine Complex [DAW]

Heroine Complex is set in a modern day San Francisco that is just like our San Francisco, except that there are really weird cupcake demons (not a euphemism) that pop out of portals and which are vanquished by an Asian-American super heroine. Heroine Complex is an absolutely delightful romp of a novel which I did not want to put down (and as such, only put it down twice and then only because I have two small children who needed attention). I loved the backstory relationships in the novel, the development of Evie Tanaka from beleaguered personal assistant to full on heroine in her own right, the banter and creativity of the writing, and the escalating action sequences. Straight up, Heroine Complex is a lot of fun. 
Score: 7/10

Polk, C.L. Witchmark [Tor.com Publishing]

I'm not quite sure how to best describe, or even talk about, Witchmark. It's a war novel focused on the home front. It's a mystery. It's a novel strongly focused on privilege. It has something revealed very late in the novel that I really want to talk about and in reference to another historical and famous science fiction story, but I can't because it would give away far too much of the novel and a capsule review isn't the place for that. It's a romance. It's queer. It's quietly fantastic in most sense of the word. There's magic and medicine, secret societies and secret identities. Witchmark is gentle only in the sense that there are distinct manners in the characterization and it's set in a quasi World War II era England where those manners and being proper matter (but in a completely different not at all England but still sort of England world). The rest of the novel is a continual kick in the gut laced with moments of grace and love. Witchmark is a lovely novel and an excellent debut from C.L. Polk.
Score: 8/10

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

Microreview [Book]: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Early Riser is a constrained experience compared to Fforde's more expansive series, but still sparkles with trademark wit and weirdness.

I am contractually obliged to begin all reviews of Jasper Fforde by thanking my mother, who got me in to his writing (and out of a period of teenage pretentiousness in which I thought I only wanted to read "the classics") by sending The Eyre Affair to the Eurasian continental pole of inaccessibility, where I was living at the time. The Thursday Next series, with its blend of whimsical worldbuilding and little England nostalgia, turned out to be a much better prospect than endless rereads of War and Peace, and a combination of further shipments and lucky bookswap finds meant I got to enjoy the entire series (regrettable incident with a US edition of Something Rotten aside*) at exactly the point where I was most susceptible to its charms. It's with that love for his work that I approach this new volume -- Fforde's first new book in four years -- so to say my expectations were high is something of an understatement.

Fforde's novels are all set in alternate visions of England or Wales, in which a recognisable set of British cultural elements have been broken down, stirred around, reconstituted with a completely different logical framework and a more or less authoritarian atmosphere, and embedded into the overarching "what-if" propelling that particular story. In Early Riser, the skew comes from the fact that humans in this version of Earth, where climate apparently works completely differently, have evolved to hibernate through winter. This single biological change precipitates a massive shift in how human society has developed, with a significantly altered pattern of mortality and technology; yet somehow the path of development has still thrown up such recognisable fundamentals as Mini Rolls, Rick Astley, the class system, and the Welsh seaside village of Mumbles. A few crumbs of worldbuilding hint at how the world outside Wales copes with hibernation, what with weather and seasons still not being the same everywhere, but this isn't very fleshed out: Early Riser isn't a watertight worldbuilding experience, but it's a very fun one.

It's important to note that writing nostalgically about 20th century British culture in 2018 is a significantly more politicised exercise than it used to be, and there's definitely an "edge" to the world of Early Riser that's more reminiscent of Shades of Grey, Fforde's foray into outright totalitarian dystopia, than Thursday Next's weird Swindon (jingoism around over a hundred years of the Crimean War aside). Hibernation means more than just cosy references to comfort food and trashy TV: there's also highly centralised governance and increased corporate power as everyone relies on giant dormitories and dubious technological innovations to survive the winter at the cost of human dreams. Throw in the state campaigns to encourage women to reproduce as much as possible, and unfair stigma directed at the "undeserving awake", people who for medical or personal reasons can't simply fall asleep all winter and therefore require more food and care within the dormitories, and you've got a world that can't possibly be mistaken for rose-tinted nostalgia. Like Shades of Grey's Eddie Russett, our protagonist Charlie Worthing starts out as an unthinking supporter of the system, but ends up caught up in events that force him to think more critically about his place in society. Early Riser's political stance is gently scathing, but it's scathing nonetheless, and the way the plot integrates the act of dreaming -- pointless timewasting, to Charlie -- is particularly hard not to read into.

The plot takes place over winter, as Charlie signs up to become a Winter Consul in order to secure his rights to a scarce drug that helps most who take it to survive the winter, but prevents people from dreaming and causes one in two thousand people to awake as a "nightwalker" (i.e. zombie). Charlie fails to question the cursory interview he undergoes to sign up for this incredibly dangerous job, and it's not until he finds himself stranded and overwintering in the dangerous Sector Twelve that the ramifications of his decision sink in. The mysterious happenings in Sector Twelve include a weird collective dream, a senior Consul and a Sector Chief who don't seem to realise they share the same body, and a wintry phantom which murders the unworthy to a Rogers and Hammerstein soundtrack. Charlie is a fairly reactive protagonist through most of this, and doesn't really have much agenda beyond survival, but the plot progresses at a decent pace anyway and the supporting cast are generally an enjoyable bunch. The unique Ffordian worldbuilding elements do not disappoint, and there are a few particularly fine moments where completely left-field elements of society or hibernation-human biology are casually mentioned in a way which makes it clear that they haven't come up before because Charlie doesn't think they're at all notable. It's a very satisfying way of constantly reminding us that we are dealing with a very different human culture, and it helps balance the obvious but plot-irrelevant holes in the wider worldbuilding.

That said, while Early Riser is another magnificent entry in Fforde's bibliography, it didn't wow me to the same extent as The Eyre Affair or Shades of Grey did; I'm quite happy that it's intended to be a standalone, and don't feel a great need to explore any more of this particular world beyond what this volume offers. Everything just feels more constrained than Fforde's other work, and while part of this is just the claustrophobic hibernal setting, I suspect it's also just built on a smaller scale. The weird details and tangents are just interesting enough to carry the story they are in, without leaving much additional food for thought. It's highly obnoxious to judge a work based on the timelines of the author's unfinished series, but I suspect for a lot of long-time fans, Early Riser might be a mixed experience: great fun, a promising sign of more to come, and yet not quite what we were waiting for. That said, being a standalone at least means it doesn't end with more tension, wrapping up Charlie's story and its world-changing implications in a swift but ultimately satisfying conclusion.

US readers might have to wait until 2019 for this one, no doubt due to the extensive localisation team required to research the cultural equivalents of Jaffa Cakes and Ambrosia Rice Pudding. However, for those with access to it, Early Riser is a recommended read for Fforde fans, and also provides an excellent introduction to his work for those who might  prefer to start with a completed story instead of an ongoing series. You can thank my Mum for the recommendation, if you like.

*To get real for a second, English toddlers don't pick "boogers" out of their noses. They pick "bogeys". I don't make the rules.

The Maths
(Sorry, but I can't write "Math" on a review of Jasper Fforde. I just can't.)

Base Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Features a sisterhood of professional mothers with names like "Fallopia" and "Zygotia"; +1 Literally made me go out and buy Jaffa Cakes.

Penalties: -1 It's good Fforde, but it's not peak Fforde, you know?

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10, "Well worth your time and attention"


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.

Reference: Fforde, Jasper. Early Riser [Hodder and Staughton, 2018]

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Microreview [book]: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Jeannette Ng rewrites the missionary tale to create a new type of gothic fairytale.

Content Warning, which is also a spoiler. Please highlight between brackets if you are interested in the CW: [incest]

Here at Nerds, all of my book reviews have focused on YA literature, but I’m going to break my streak for a book so in my personal wheelhouse I have to write about it—Under the Pendulum Sun: A Novel of the Fae by Jeannette Ng.

Ng’s backflap bio describes her writing as “gothic fantasy with a theological twist.” My original interest in the novel came from the basic plot description: missionaries are sent to convert the Fae in the newly discovered land of Arcadia. I’m sure some of you are thinking—wow, sounds super boring. Meanwhile, I’m flipping out because OF COURSE missionary societies would have sent missionaries to evangelize the Fae. What a perfect plot.

Part of my interest stems from a unique childhood that involved reading a lot of missionary biographies. From Jim Elliot’s story of martyrdom as written by his wife Elisabeth Elliot in Shadow of the Almighty to Torches of Joy: A Stone Age Tribe's Encounter With the Gospel about Christian writer Ted Dekker’s parents (and his childhood). And of course, the Christian library my family occasionally visited (we went to plenty of regular libraries, too), carried the entire collection of Christian Heroes: Then & Now by YWAM (at one point in my life, I could have told you without Googling that the letters stood for Youth With a Mission). In fact, I hadn’t realized how much I’d absorbed from those narratives until reading Under the Pendulum Sun. While according to Ng’s bio, she comes to this material from an academic background, damn, did she get it right.

The novel starts with Catherine Helstone (a nice nod to Wuthering Heights, one among many) searching for her brother, who has been sent to spread the Word of God to the Fae, but Laon has only sent unsettling and abrupt letters, and even those stopped arriving months ago. When she arrives in Arcadia, Catherine is presented with the bizarre and familiar fitting for any story of the Fae. Ng’s worldbuilding really shines in the descriptions of Arcadia. I’m not an avid reader of fairy stories, though I enjoy them when I do pick one up, but Ng’s world felt fresh, not just a rehash of Andrew Lang. As you might guess from the title, the sun swings in a pendulous arc across Arcadia, but the moon dangles from a fish (imagine a deep sea humpback angler). The descriptions of the Fae rarely repeat and vary from the more traditional gnomes to beings made of sand.

In fact, I wanted more. Queen Mab keeps Catherine and Laon corralled in a castle and denies them entry to the interior of Arcadia, so much of the book is spent in the castle with few forays beyond the gates. While a perfect setting for the gothic genre, Ng’s descriptions of Arcadia were so compelling I wish the Helstones had gone beyond the castle. That being said, a castle in Arcadia is no ordinary castle, and Ng hides plenty of surprises throughout the ponderous corridors to keep readers turning pages.

While gothic and fairy genres are certainly niche enough, the missionary aspect brought a breath of fresh air to the genres. Ng carefully takes the reader through the traditional tropes of missionary biographies: journals, converts, translating the Bible into the local language, including racist comments that so mimicked the voices I remember from my childhood I found myself underlining and tabbing throughout the book. For example, “Selfishly, I had thought myself abandoned. I spared not a heartbeat for those that languish in the grim empires without word of the Redeemer.” Such a line could have come straight from Elisabeth Elliot’s Shadow of the Almighty.

By capturing this proselytizing tone, Jeannette Ng uses the age-old fairy story to remind the reader of one of colonialism’s pillars—religion. Untimely, Ng rewrites the missionary tale, fusing it with fantasy, in a gothic novel where religion fails.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for accuracy on missionary stories

Penalties: -1 for pacing at the end—cutting fifty or so pages might have helped the book

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10* “Very high quality/standout in its category.” Read more about our scoring system here.

*One caveat, which is not a criticism. This novel is very niche. Folks might find the missionary aspect grating, but this unique look into colonialism merits a reading.

Posted by Phoebe Wagner

Ng, Jeannette. Under the Pendulum Star: A Novel of the Fae [Angry Robot, 2017]

Monday, July 23, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Series

It's time for another installment of Reading the Hugos and it's time to either go big or go home. Since I'm already sitting at home while I write this, I think I'm going to go big and cover the abundance of excellence up for Best Series.

There is so much goodness here that it isn't even fair.

Best Series last year was a trial run, a special one time category (pending the ratification at the WSFS business meeting at last year's Worldcon) - which makes this the first full year of the category. I'm probably the only person who is going to think of things like this.

If last year was a proof of concept and this year represents the very high bar we should expect from the Best Series quality, we're looking at one of the strongest categories on the ballot year after year. The series I ranked lowest on my ballot is exceptional. The only challenge here is that there is a lot of reading to do to at least get a brief overview of each series, let alone do a deep dive.

Let's take a look at the finalists for Best Series.

The Books of the Raksura, by Martha Wells (Night Shade)
The Divine Cities, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway)
InCryptid, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)
The Memoirs of Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan (Tor US / Titan UK)
The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor US / Gollancz UK)
World of the Five Gods, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Harper Voyager / Spectrum Literary Agency)

The Books of the Raksura: I've only just come to Martha Wells via her excellent Murderbot novellas, though I had long intended to get to her novel length work - whether her Ile-Rien novels or The Books of the Raksura. What better time than now?

This isn't necessarily a new thing for fantasy (or science fiction), but I don't read many novels with non human protagonists. The Cloud Roads is one of them. The Raksura are humanoid (sometimes), but are shapeshifters and I don't quite now how to describe their other (primary?) forms. Dragon birds? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. What matters is the story of Moon, a raksura who doesn't know what he is. The Cloud Roads serves as introduction to the wider world and the series as a whole. The reader discovers along with Moon what it means to be a raksura.

Wells is a fantastic and accomplished storyteller. I regret that I'm only able to evaluate the series based on the first (excellent) novel, but as with every series on the ballot, I've run out of time to read more than I have. The good news is that I've discovered another series that I'm really excited to read more of.

Incryptid: After a five year gap between reading the first and second volumes of McGuire’s October Daye I was ready to fully embrace the series and spend the summer immersed in McGuire’s world. That plan was shot to hell when Incryptid, one of McGuire’s other series, was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Series. With the inclusion of the Best Series category, there is a LOT of reading to do for the Hugo Awards and Toby Daye was just going to have to wait.

Discount Armageddon introduces readers to Verity Price, a cryptozoologist / ballroom dancer spending a year in New York City where she has to decide if she’s going to take up the family trade of studying and protecting “supernatural” creatures from humans OR if she’s going to embark on a full time career in ballroom dance. It’s a conundrum. All of those legendary mythological creatures we’ve read about? They’re real and many of them are living among us, some in disguise, some in hiding, and some just living in the sewers. They’re not like the myths, but they’re even more fully realized than what we might come to expect. They’re people, except a completely different species. Several species, actually. The Incryptid novels are so silky smooth, but tense and occasionally intense. There’s plenty of action and new monster trivia and deep dives into particular creature cultures. The first two focus on Verity Price, the third on her brother Alexander as he works in Ohio doing his own thing for the family. The change in perspective was initially jarring, but McGuire handles the new viewpoint character perfectly and midway through I realized Half-Off Ragnarok was my favorite of the three Incryptid novels I have so far read.

I thought this was going to be the summer of October Daye, but it may well be the summer of the Price family. I will only have read the first three novels in the series by the time Hugo voting ends, but I will be working my way through the rest of the series this year. I’m hooked and I’m ready for the next four (as of this year). Maybe I’ll get back to Toby Daye next year.

The Stormlight Archive: I wonder if there will be a point in the future where Brandon Sanderson's entire Cosmere will be up for Best Series. I can see it happening. Happily, this finalist slot is for the three books so far published in The Stormlight Archive: The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer. These are each epic fantasy writ large. Sanderson's magnum opus. Each volume is approximately a googolplex of something long (words, pages, doesn't matter). They're great, but damn. It's a lot.

That's not really a complaint. Just a statement. At this point I've only read The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Both were exactly what I was looking to read at the time I read them. Oathbringer has been on the nightstand by my bed since before it was published, looming, intimidating. I know I'm going to love it, but it's a commitment.

Regardless, The Stormlight Archive is an achievement of worldbuilding and long form storytelling. With only three books published thus far, the overall shape to the series is just beginning to form. Which is why, as good as these books are, I have a very difficult time saying this is the Best Series. It's one thing voting for an incomplete series that is mostly done It's another thing voting for a series that is only 3 books out of 10 complete. It's a good batting average in baseball, but it isn't good enough to push it to the top of my ballot.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent: There are two novels part of a Hugo Finalist series which I seriously regret not reading sooner. One is A Natural History of Dragons. The other is written by Lois McMaster Bujold and I'll talk about that one soon enough. Despite all of the praise Marie Brennan's novel received, there was something about the combination of the book cover (which is gorgeous, but not selling me as something I want to read) and the idea the series was "memoirs" of a "lady" that I found offputting enough to never pick up the book. Though, I did borrow it from the library once only to return it unopened. That was so very much a mistake. A Natural History of Dragons is absolutely wonderful and that wonder is tied to the glorious voice of Isabella Camherst.

Isabella is the titular "Lady Trent" of the series, and concept of A Natural History of Dragons being the first volume of "The Memoirs of Lady Trent" means that the much more accomplished Lady Trent is narrating her life and adventures. Late in life, Lady Trent is known as the foremost expert on dragons but in these early days, little is known by anyone. So, the first novel and presumably the series as a whole is a story of discovery and adventure. If the rest of the series is as good as A Natural History of Dragons, we're in for something special and I really, really should have been reading these books as they were published.

This does mean, of course, that I have only read the first volume of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and can only place it on my ballot based on one book rather than the full set of five. That's just the way this category goes, unfortunately. It is also a mark of just how good A Natural History of Dragons is.

The World of the Five Gods: Before the Hugo finalists were announced, I had read five of the six Penric novellas set in the World of the Five Gods, but none of the novels. So, I read The Curse of Chalion and re-discovered that I should always read everything written by Lois McMaster Bujold without question. My only defense is that I had not yet read anything by Bujold when The Curse of Chalion was first published in 2001 - but that's not much of a defense because she had published many books in the Vorkosigan series by that point (winner of the 2017 Hugo for Best Series, naturally).

The Penric novellas are very good. The Curse of Chalion is exceptional. With complete honestly, I was slightly angry when I finished it. Not because I didn't like it, but because I wasted so many years that I could have been reading this wonderful book and series. Next up, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt. The truth is that readers should never sleep on Lois McMaster Bujold because she's always going to deliver a fantastic book and reading experience. As I mentioned, the Penric novellas are very good, but they only hint at just how good The Curse of Chalion was. The strength of Chalion pushes the entire series up the ballot.

The Divine Cities: Despite being my favorite of all the finalists up for Best Series (and the only one I had fully read prior to the announcement of the ballot), I have struggled to figure out my angle into writing about The Divine Cities. Each novel in the series was fully exceptional in its own right and, equally impressive, the sum of the series is even stronger than the individual volumes. The Divine Cities is urban epic fantasy with dead gods, magic, bureaucracy, and wretched tragedy (this could also be a description of a Max Gladstone novel). Each novel is self contained, but builds strongly off of the emotional beats of the previous work. You don’t need to have read a previous volume, but the emotion of City of Blades is strengthened by having gone on the journey of City of Stairs. The opening of City of Miracles works as a standalone set piece, but the rawest power comes from having lived the characters.

Somehow I have less to say about the Divine Cities than I expected, except to say this: City of Stairs, City of Blades, and City of Miracles were each among the best two or three fantasy novels published in their respective years. I can only give these novels my highest recommendation. They are absolutely fantastic. The trilogy hits the mark in telling a complete story spread across decades. If you like epic fantasy, you should read these books. If you like good books, you should read these books.

My Vote:
1. The Divine Cities
2. The World of the Five Gods
3. The Memoirs of Lady Trent
4. The Stormlight Archive
5. Incryptid
6. The Books of the Raksura

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

Microreview [book]: So Lucky, by Nicola Griffith

So Lucky is an urgent, angry, vital, powerful novel.

Mara Tagarelli is used to being in control. She is the driving force behind a multi-million dollar AIDS nonprofit. She trains martial arts. She is accustomed to her body doing exactly what she want it to do when she wants it to do.

In the same week, but otherwise not connected, Mara's wife of fourteen years leaves her and she (Mara) is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  The divorce and the diagnosis are not connected, but symptomatic of the direction Mara's life is headed. Things are being stripped away bit by bit. Her friends who fade away. The sympathetic smile from the martial arts instructor coupled with how she also seemed to close off at the same time. The microaggressions of inaccessibility and invisibility. The growing sense of defeat as her body begins to fail.

So Lucky is an angry and aggressive novel. Mara's default mode is to fight back, to challenge herself and to challenge the problem, except this is a problem that doesn't respond quite as well to punching back. 
The last time I had been this angry, this afraid, I trained my body to be a blade. But now I had MS.
I don't know if I'm using the right words to describe So Lucky. I don't know Mara's anger. I don't know disability or what facing daily microaggression feels like. Nicola Griffith makes you understand and she makes you care. She brings the reader as deep into Mara's head as possible. Mara's rage and fear is palpable. Rage over her loss of control and loss of autonomy. Fear over being a target for violence, for the greater opportunity for being a victim.
Having MS did not make me a different person, it did not make me better or special, just a person with impairments. 
So Lucky is a novel of identity. Griffith directly addresses the question of how a disability does and does not define a person. While there is anger underpinning so much of So Lucky, I don't want to ride that idea too hard. So Lucky is also a beautiful novel. Some beauty is soft and painted in gentle tones and soaring music. This is not that novel. Some beauty is hard, edged, and razor sharp. If I describe So Lucky as a beautiful novel, it's because Griffith's edge is so finely honed, so cutting that the beauty is in its danger. The beauty is in how cleanly it can cut deep while barely leaving a trace.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 because even though Nerds of a Feather is a genre blog and So Lucky is maaaaaybe 1% genre (which is honestly stretching a different point the novel is making about Mara into something that a genre reader might process differently / incorrectly), this is a novel I read in one sitting and just had to tell someone about. I can't imagine it won't be on my list of the top novels of the year.

Penalties: -1 because there are moments where So Lucky is perhaps a touch too strident. This is a small issue, but worth noting.

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, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Microreview [book]: From Unseen Fire, by Cass Morris

From Unseen Fire is an imaginative reimagining of the end of the Roman Republic, in a world very much like 1st Century B.C. Earth, with the addition of magic.

The Dictator is dead!

It is a time of turbulence in Aven. The longtime dictator of the Republic is dead in his villa, and as power abhors a vacuum, the suppressed political forces in the city and in the Republic are on the move. Men from every political stripe are trying to shape the future of the Republic to their vision.

And a family of three strong women have their own ideas as to what their future, and what the future of Aven, should be.

In the meantime, in Iberia, a tribal leader has a vision of an Iberia no longer under the thumb of Aven, and the will and desire to make that vision into a reality.

This is the world of From Unseen Fire, a debut novel from Cass Morris.

The world of Aven can be summed up as “Roman Republic Analogue with Magic” The names are mostly similar-but-different, from the city name to the provinces. The Gods seem to be the same in name and portfolio. The dating system is Ab Urbe Condita, from the Founding of the City, the same as Rome herself used. Historical characters have renamed analogues. When I first heard of the novel and the pitch that “The Dictator is dead”, I jumped to the island of conclusions that this was a story of the aftermath of Julius Ceasar. Instead, judging from the date of 689 AUC (67 BC), this is really a different story--about the aftermath of the fall of Sulla, the Dictator of Rome who in our history very much helped pave the way for Julius Ceasar to rise to power. And in some ways, one of her major characters, Vibis Sempronius, a charismatic politician who returns to Aven in the wake of the fall of the Dictator, is indeed an analogue of Gaius Julius Caesar.

The characters of the novel are it’s strongest highlight. While Sempronius does appeal as a major main character and a plot driver (especially once I realized he was the analogue to Gaius Julius Ceasar), it is the Vitelliae who really shine as characters in the novel. The three sisters Aula, Latona, and Alhena and really shine as a trio of characters, and Latona is one of the central point of view characters in the novel. They work well independently and as a family whole that support, reflect, and refract each other. We get a lot of the worldbuilding of the day to day life of a powerful House from their stories. Beyond that though, the character arcs are what are important, and Latona’s relationship with her sisters, her husband, Semipronius and others are a deep dive into who and what she is--and what she *wants* to be.

Beyond the characters, and beyond using Rome as a template for her world, the innovation that Morris uses in the novel is to imagine an ancient world with magic. She takes great pains to keep the active existence of magic from having changed history out of complete recognition too much (mainly in the fact that combat magic is very much discouraged in this verse). While this is “Rome with Magic” and the history, culture and geopolitical situation is somewhat analogous to 1st Century B.C. Rome, it is not exact, and the author does make some interesting invention to make this world her own, primarily in focusing on the culture of magic and how it would influence Roman society.

The external plot of the novel, the rise of a leader amongst the Luisetanians named Ekialde, shows more invention still. Instead of the Gaul-analogue being the major focus of late Roman Republic external politics, here, Morris has chosen the Spain-analogue as that focus and external political problem to stir the pot of Aven politics. That plotline, though, does come off as more of a sideline to the politics of Aven. There is conflict and battle, but the author is much more invested in social and personal conflicts than in military ones. Readers who want to see extensive pages of Aven military arms and glory are going to be disappointed. Readers who are looking for an alternate look at the last days of the Roman Republic in a Rome with magic are definitely going to find lots to love.

The novel does show some first novel roughness, in execution and in concept. When dealing with the Roman Republic, eliding the place and role of slaves is a choice that I think could have been handled somewhat better than what the author chose. While we briefly get their point of view, it feels very much like “the good slaves” sort of view of Roman history, avoiding the real issues and conflicts involving that institution in Roman history. In addition, an alternate Rome that merely and simply borrows Roman Gods in name and role feels like a missed opportunity. While it does make for a convenient shorthand to appropriate those Gods, since this is already a Rome where history is not precising mirroring our own, there was a chance for creativity here.

That said, these flaws definitely are outweighed by my delight with the book, and really, a novel about the end times of an analogue of the Roman Republic is a book that is practically designed for me to highly enjoy, especially when executed to a good level. Given that the ending of the novel seems to be aiming Sempronius for this world’s analogue to the Gallic Wars and his true ascent to power, I am invested and most interested in how Morris’ version of Rome will evolve alongside...and differently, from our own history.


The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a strong set of characters, good use of women in a patriarchal setting. +1 for an intriguing magic system.

Penalties : -1 novel misses some opportunities to interrogate and look at some aspects of Roman culture, especially slavery. -1 for some first novel roughness in some of the ideas and execution.

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

Reference: Morris, Cass From Unseen Fire [DAW, 2018]

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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Fan Writer

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos, our regular summer series covering as many Hugo Award categories as possible. Today we're looking at the Fan Writers. If you're not familiar, those are the writers doing exactly what I'm doing here (only better) - writing about science fiction and fantasy and the various intersections with real life and politics and awards and with other works and with absolutely anything connected to the genre at all - except that we're all doing this work and this writing because it's a conversation that we value and the writing is meaningful to us. Hopefully it is meaningful to others. 

This is somewhat difficult category because the award is for a person, not for an individual work. Like the Campbell, we're trying to compare a body of work against a body of work and figure out which has the most weight and which has the most importance. I doubt it is possible, but here's my look at the six finalists for Fan Writer.

Camestros Felapton
Sarah Gailey
Mike Glyer
Foz Meadows
Charles Payseur
Bogi Takács

Mike Glyer: I find File 770 a valuable resource for fannish news within and around science fiction and fantasy. Glyer’s Pixel Scroll roundups are a quick daily check to see what’s going on, what I might have missed, what I want to miss, and what I should consider paying attention to. While there is writing involved in setting up the Pixel Scroll posts, it’s not what I look for out of fan writing. There is value in the writing of the news roundups, and I value those but it’s not “fan writing” in the sense of what I want out of a fan writer.

For his actual fan writing credits, Glyer does strong work in eulogizing the passing of notable fans. He brings out stories and lives that many readers may not have known of those who have been important in the building of fan convention community over the decades. As a whole, though, Glyer’s fan writing does not appeal to me. The most notable bits of writing are those where he engages with the Sad and Rapid Puppies (in previous years, but occasionally addressed in 2017) as well with Jon Del Arroz, who seems to be an offshoot of those campaigns. It’s not enough to push Glyer’s fan writing farther up the ballot or above No Award.

No Award.

Bogi Takacs: I’ve seen Takacs pop up on my twitter feed commenting on various aspects of genre, but I had never read much of their writing. Based on the writing samples including in the Voter’s Packet (and suggestive from their Twitter bio), Takacs is focused on marginalized communities intersecting with science fiction and fantasy. To be quickly reductive, Takacs is Hungarian, Queer, and Jewish – all of which comes through in the focus of the included writing samples – it is a case where identity is part and parcel of the writing. Bogi Takacs’ voice is vital and important.

Camestros Felapton: I was most familiar with Camestros from his commenting over at File 770 and the occasional link back to his own blog. Here, he has included a much more robust Voter Packet entry than most. Half of his fan writing is the stuff I would be looking for from a contributor to Nerds of a Feather. The other half really annoys me. The annoying half is stuff like Timothy the Cat, Ask a Triceratops, A Cat Reviews La La Land – the stuff that isn’t straight up essays and reviews and is more Felapton playing around. I’m being a little harsh here and I’m probably stretching the truth when I say that half annoys me. The truth is it just isn’t my thing and I think it detracts from the stuff that I do appreciate and do like. It’s a small knock down compared to some of the other very strong writers on the ballot.

Sarah Gailey: Years ago Jo Walton was writing fantastically compelling essays at Tor.com. Whether she was revisiting her favorites like Steven Brust and CJ Cherryh, looking at the Hugo Awards, or whatever else struck her fancy, she was killing it. She was killing it to the point there was some chatter about nominating her for Best Fan Writer. I can’t source this, but I remember her writing, telling people not to nominate her because she wasn’t eligible – because this was paid writing (though not well paid) and Tor.com was a professional publication, if mostly for fiction. I’ve since struggled with that idea in other categories, not nominating the lamentably mothballed Rocket Talk podcast because it was hosted at Tor.com as one example. I still struggle, though I think that fan / pro ship has pretty well sailed regarding whether the fan writer gets paid and whether a podcast is hosted on the website of a professional entity (see 8-4 Play in 2016 for Fancast).

I bring all of that up here because the three contributions from Sarah Gailey in the voter packet are from Tor.com and Uncanny Magazine (a semiprozine, which is an entirely separate discussion). Is it fan writing or is it paid professional writing? I’m still not sure where the line is, and I’m not sure it is a battle I have in me to fight today.

Whether you view her writing as fannish or professional, Sarah Gailey’s essays are superb. With clear eyes and clear writing, Gailey gets to the heart of whatever she is writing about, digging deep below the surface to hit a point of view that perhaps isn’t as talked about as often in wide open spaces.

Foz Meadows: It's no secret that Foz Meadows is smart as hell as a fan writer. She has twice been a finalist for Fan Writer (2014 and 2017) and that's no mistake. She writes deeply incisive commentary on all the fannish stuff that I enjoy, but brings a perspective that I both appreciate and need. Whether she is writing about Star Wars or Final Fantasy or Godzilla or digging into why someone who wants "realistic" rather than "diverse" books might have a problem with perspective, Meadows brings nuanced truth and understanding.

There are many ways that I appreciate fan writing because there are many shapes that fan writing can take, and Meadows is among the best.

Charles Payseur: Out of all of the writers on the Fan Writer ballot, I was the most familiar with Charles Payseur. After all, for three years he was an important contributor to Nerds of a Feather. He was our short fiction reviewer. We were sad to see him leave at the end of the year, but recognized he was moving onward and upward. He’s been doing his own thing at Quick Sip Reviews and was branching out to other venues, including The Book Smugglers (a Hugo finalist this year for Semiprozine). Any time I’ve needed to get a quick take on a short story, I went to Quick Sip Reviews to see what Charles had to say. Charles is sharp, incisive, sensitive, considerate, passionate, and thoughtful reviewer and essayist. If I ever wrote (and published) a story, I would want Charles to review it. He’s one of the best and most prolific short fiction reviewers out there.

My Vote
1. Charles Payseur
2. Foz Meadows
3. Sarah Gailey
4. Camestros Felapton
5. Bogi Takacs
6. No Award
7. Mike Glyer

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