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].

How to End a Game of Thrones

It was the best of times; it was the blurst of times...

[Warning: Spoilers Everywhere]

The year was 2006. My fiction reading list was maybe 60% science fiction but 0% fantasy. It had been this way for years, after my love for second world fantasy died on a hill called The Wheel of Time. Subsequently, I had internalized normative cultural discourses that devalue fantasy unless packaged as “magic realism.” Former NOAF contributor Jemmy, however, had other ideas.

At that time we were working for the same company, our offices strategically located in a neighborhood famous for its second-hand bookstores. We would often visit them during our lunch hour; without fail, Jemmy would pester me about this fantasy series that he claimed “changed everything.” But I was resistant, that is, until he bought me a copy of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and I relented.

So I read the first chapter, and then the next, and then the next. Within a few days I had devoured A Game of Thrones in its entirety, proceeding to devour its sequels, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. I couldn’t get enough, so I moved on to other series; I was most definitely back on the fantasy train.

I have issues with those 3 books, some quite serious, but for my money the worldbuilding, character development and punctuated narrative moments are as good as any in the genre. Furthermore, despite their heft, these books feel meticulously planned, tightly plotted and rich with narrative detail. Most importantly, they revived my interest in fantasy and led me to discover a range of authors I otherwise might not have read: Andrzej Sapkowski, Gene Wolfe, Elizabeth Bear, N.K. Jemisin, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliot, Django Wexler and many others.

I like to think of those first three books as a complete trilogy with an ambiguous ending. It’s a coping mechanism that helps me deal with the fact that the next two books - A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons - are such disappointments; a single, bloated novel in two 1,000-page installments; a failed attempt to “get to Mordor” that aptly demonstrates the importance of a good editor in no uncertain terms. And it helps me deal with the fact that Martin may never finish the series.

Enter the Series...

When Game of Thrones launched in 2011, I was excited. Early indications suggested HBO would go all out adapting the series. Like many fans of the book series, I hoped this it would serve as a catalyst for Martin to finish the series. Instead, it has finished the story for him. But more about that in a bit.

The initial season was a masterful adaptation of the first novel, which is far tighter in both narrative and geographic scope than its sequels. Many of the actors looked and felt exactly like their written counterparts; some – like Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister – were an improvement.

The second through fourth seasons captured much of what made A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords effective as novels, though they also amplified the shock value of their punctuated moments. In truth, there’s nothing in the show that isn’t also represented in the books, but the show frequently makes explicit what is relayed secondhand or merely suggested in the books. To put it another way, the books already make it clear how common murder, rape and torture are in this world, but the show positively revels in it. The effect is to cheapen their impact; we are frequently shown how grim and dark this world is, but little or no time is spent on exploring the implications and consequences of all the grim darkness. Not in any meaningful way, at least.

On the other hand, the show pulls off a fairly remarkable feat: adapting a sprawling fantasy epic for a medium that can do plot and character, but routinely struggles with the kind of myth- and world-building that are essential to second-world fantasy.

As with the books, though, things degenerate once the moves on to interpreting A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Though mercifully eliminating the horrid Quentyn Martel storyline, nearly everything else that made those books a tedious slog is recreated for television (only now with more rape and torture!). The low quality of storytelling from these books mars seasons 3 and 4, and (in my view) outright ruins seasons 5 and 6.

In season 7, Benioff and Weiss officially moved past the source material altogether (though apparently with some input from Martin). Like many fans, I was deeply skeptical of their ability to right the ship. In fact, I probably would have quit the series if I hadn’t been worried that this was the only ending we’d ever get. Only, I found the experience oddly liberating – for the first time since season 2, I wasn’t comparing the show negatively to the books, even to the books I didn’t care much for.

Season 7 has its share of head scratchers - most notably, Jon Snow’s incredibly stupid plan to risk half the elite warriors under his command on a commando mission to bag a wight to show Cersei (who, predictably, is unmoved). But it was dirty fun.

The narrative decisions in season 8 are better, but nearly all require more exposition than they are given. Danaerys becoming the “Mad Queen” is a perfect example: history is replete with individuals who begin as idealists and end as ideologues; who through struggle come to believe the ends justify the means; or who believe the justice of the cause confers infallibility onto its avatar.

By the season finale, It is clear Danaerys has become all these things - only we haven’t made that journey with her. Rather, it happens so fast that you’re left wondering if it was something Tormund said, or that time Jon didn’t want to kiss her. It would have been much better, and much more believable if we’d had a few more episodes of developing paranoia and anger.

The season finale is, in a word, polarizing. Long-anticipated series finales often are, and several times I’ve been on #TeamKvetch (e.g. BSG). But I found this denouement quietly gratifying.

Bran becoming king is a bit weird, until you realize the whole point is to devalue kingship. And I was neither here nor there on Arya the Pirate (though what a great spinoff that would make). On the other hand, I Ioved Sansa asserting the independence of the north - regardless of the fact that her brother sits on the proverbial Iron Throne. Jon rejoining Tormund and Ghost felt equally appropriate, as did Brienne honoring Jaime in the annals of the Kingsguard - a touching act that almost helps you forget that bizarre moment when their friendship became gratuitously (and unnecessarily) sexual.

My favorite moment, though, comes when Tyrion waits for the new Small Council - which includes Brienne, Sam and new Lord of Highgarden and Master of Coin Bronn - and nervously keeps adjusting the chairs. It’s a tiny detail, but one that speaks volumes to the endurance of hope.

I don’t know if Martin will end his books the same way, or if he will ever end them at all. I certainly hope he does. But if he doesn’t, then at least we have this - a poignant and cathartic end to the journey we started so long ago.

Monday, May 20, 2019

6 Books with Anna Kashina

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her "Majat Code" series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Her newest novel, SHADOWBLADE, has been released by Angry Robot Books on May 7, 2019. You can find her online at or on twitter @annakashina

Today she shares her six books with us.

1. What book are you currently reading?

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I just started it, but I am already spellbound. Books with fairy tale themes are my weakness, and this one has such a different take on it. I actually picked it up in a store while I was waiting for someone, and from the very first page, I couldn’t put it down. This almost never happens to me, and when it does, I treasure the experience.

I constantly wish I could read more. Between my day job, writing, and kids, reading becomes a guilty pleasure I have to get excuses for, rather than a normal activity. I really need to think of changing this somehow.

Now that I have picked up Uprooted, I will definitely read Naomi Novik’s other work.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

The Orchid Throne by Jeffe Kennedy. I am a big fan of her work, which is in the same genre as mine – historical adventure fantasy with elements of romance. Every Jeffe’s book is a treat, highly recommended to any fan of the genre, and I just can’t wait to read her newest novel. It’s the first in a new series, upcoming this September from St. Martin’s. I am excited!

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?

Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad. Coincidentally, it is also based on fairy tales ☺. I absolutely adore Discworld novels, and among those, the novels about witches and the night watch are my favorite.

I tend to re-read Witches Abroad every once in a while. It’s my comfort reading, and every word is just so brilliant.

There are close seconds among the Discworld novels, and I could easily add more to this list. I have a special shelf for them, and when I don’t have time to re-read them, I just tend to come and stare at them lovingly.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

At a risk of sounding nerdy, I want to mention War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It was my required reading in middle school, and I devoured it at the age of thirteen or so. While I did find the detailed war scenes boring, I loved everything about the “peace” parts, the depiction of the Russian high society, the characters, the interactions, the love affairs. Oddly, I didn’t think of it as a serious book (probably because I also tended to skim over the more philosophical passages), but more like a very entertaining sitcom.

When I picked up War and Peace as an adult, I was looking forward to the same enjoyment, to reliving the fund I had as a child. But it felt as if I was reading a completely different book. The characters seemed flat, depressed, predictable, and boring. The war scenes became more interesting, simply because I could now appreciate the intricate research that went into them. But, I simply couldn’t get into it. I put it aside fairly quickly and never returned to it again.

I had an opposite experience with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which started to make sense to me only as I grew up. I actually find it really cool that the same author can evoke such opposite effects with two different books.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Having grown up in another country, with very limited access to books – especially by foreign authors – it was the first fantasy I ever read. I fell in love with it. One my favorite things about this book is the worldbuilding. I am a very visual reader, and Tolkien’s hauntingly vivid settings stayed with me all these years and influenced the way I approach worldbuilding in my own books. When I close my eyes I can easily see the scenery from his books, even after many years. The way he describes forests… My novels are nothing like Tolkien’s, but this trilogy taught me so much about building and effectively portraying a world.

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome?

My latest book is Shadowblade, coming in May from Angry Robot Books. It is an adventure fantasy, featuring elite blademasters, fancy sword fights, and romance. It tells a story of a young girl, Naia, who overcomes enormous odds to become one of the top blademasters in the empire, and then is thrown into an elaborate political plot where she would need to apply her entire skill set to get at least a chance at survival. It’s set in a medieval world, visually fashioned after the Middle East, and it was enormously fun to write. I hope the readers get the same kick out of it as I did when I wrote it.

There are two reasons why it’s awesome. First, the cover. It features one of the best art pieces by Alejandro Colucci, and it is not only beautiful, but also the exact reflection of the book. If the cover speaks to you, this is probably the book for you. And yes, it’s also really silky. If you see it in a store, you’d definitely want to hold it and caress it. You know how people always say not to judge a book by its cover? Not the case here. You should totally judge it by its cover, which is absolutely irresistible.

The other awesome thing is that I believe Naia’s story delivers an important message. She is a young girl who starts out of a very bad situation and fights her way to the top – just because she never gives up. This is the motto I live by.

And yes, there are the sword fights. I tend to feature skilled warriors in my books, and I always wanted to write a novel that describes some of the behind the scenes work that goes into training someone to fight like this. This was one of the reasons working on Shadowblade was so much fun.

George R.R. Martin is Still Not Your Bitch, and other stories

When Neil Gaiman wrote his famous and infamous essay "Entitlement Issues" (most well known for the pull quote "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.") in 2009, it had been four years since the publication of A Feast for Crows and it still would be another two years before Martin published A Dance With Dragons.

In his essay, which was really more a response to a reader question, Gaiman noted that Martin (or any author) is not working on contract to the reader, that buying an earlier volume in a series does not entitle the reader to a later volume at any time other than which the author is ready to produce it.

I'm sympathetic to both the frustrated reader as well as the frustrated writer. I've been online for too long as I've gotten older and I'm aware of many of the issues preventing writers from getting that next book out, whether it is health issues, publisher issues, or just that book just being really fucking difficult to write, I get it. As much as someone can who doesn't actually write fiction can get it, I get it. It can still be frustrating for the reader when the next series volume doesn't come out when previous books were on a more predictable timeline.

It has now been eight years since the publication of A Dance With Dragons and in that time HBO will have begun and finished all eight seasons of Game of Thrones, the television show based off of Martin's novels (on the off chance any reader of Nerds of a Feather was not aware of the show or its source material)

I'm not here to legislate a single thing regarding what GRRM should or should not do with his time, how long it should take to write a book, or make any demands. I've seen the comments readers make online when Martin dares to mention Wild Cards or any ancillary project he might be working on or even any aspect of his personal life that doesn't involve the completion of The Winds of Winter. Frankly, those readers are assholes and I want no part of their vitriol. It is toxic. It is unhealthy. It is not what I'm about.

Ever since the show surpassed the books, I've been in the same place as every other reader who is watching Game of Thrones - uncertain as to how closely the show will mirror the novels and in what ways the show and books will be different. Will the series end at the same point the show does? Does Arya still kill the Night King? I've already lamented (in private) the difference in Sansa's storyline from the book to the show, and many readers have been disappointed by the absence of Lady Stoneheart in the show.

I still want to know how those stories will resolve, perhaps now more than ever. How close is the show to Martin's original plan? Assuming Danaerys putting King's Landing to the dragon was GRRM's idea, will the (mostly) vitriolic response to "The Bells" change Danaerys's story arc in the books at all?  Does it matter?

Of course, waiting for the next book in a series is nothing new to genre readers. In the eight years
since A Dance With Dragons, I've lost much of my eagerness and rapt anticipation for The Winds of Winter (which is not to say that a real announcement won't ratchet my excitement level up to eleven in a third of a second). It's been eight years since Patrick Rothfuss published The Wise Man's Fear and I've seen the same frustration (and hate) online directed at Martin also directed at Rothfuss. But fans of Melanie Rawn have waited twenty two years for The Captal's Tower, the concluding volume in her Exiles trilogy. The Mageborn Traitor was published in 1997. Even twenty two years isn't all that unusual in the genre, though.

It's not the most of original thoughts to say that even though I'm (fairly) patiently waiting for The Winds of Winter and The Captal's Tower and that year 948 Deryni novel from Katherine Kurtz that she hasn't even announced she's working on, I'm not really waiting for them. There's a LOT to read out there. I'm working my way through this year's Hugo Award finalists. I finally caught up on the Vorkosigan novels from Lois McMaster Bujold, which only means that I have three more Chalion novels and all of the Sharing Knife to go. Also, do you have any idea how far behind I am on Kate Elliott's work? Feminist Futures has reshaped what I want to read and when, and there's an ocean of great stuff out there.

I'm not saying that it isn't worthwhile to be frustrated when a favorite writer is taking longer than you'd like with your favorite series. I get it. But I also tell my four year old son that throwing a fuss isn't going to make the time go by faster. If he knew how to spell and type, he'd probably be on twitter complaining that having to wait three days to see grandma is an excessively long time. Everything is relative.

I've long disagreed with Gaiman, at least in part, with the idea that purchasing book one in the series only entitles the reader to that one book purchased. I agree with Gaiman that purchasing a book is purchasing a book and that yes, you are only entitled to the one book you purchased. There is, however, an implicit promise by the author that when a book is "Book One of The Gibbelhead Fountain" that there is an intent to deliver a complete story that provides an ending.

For those keeping score at home, I don't include a series where each novel stands on its own even if it is building a larger world and gradually a greater story on top of the individual discrete stories of the novel. Think Seanan McGuire's Incryptid or Diana Rowland's White Trash Zombie series.

This should go also without saying, but tied to that implicit promise is that besides the reality of the entire publishing industry is an understanding that life is a very good reason for a novel to not come out when "expected" - whether it is health, family, or simply because writing a novel with excellence is really fucking difficult.

What I don't care about is how long it takes for my favorite writer to publish the next novel in my favorite series.

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

Friday, May 17, 2019

Microreview [book]: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

The City in the Middle of the Night proves an intriguingly interested canvas to tell a story of survival, contact, social issues and much more.

The planet January is a tidally locked planet of ferocious extremes. On the day side, there is heat that can boil oceans and kill life. The dark side, for humans anyway, is almost impossibly cold. The terminator line, where the world always hangs on the edge of night and day, is the place where human colonists have settled. Like the badly programmed space probes of Niven’s Known Space, the colonists have found a habitable area, rather than a completely habitable world.

On this world , the author focuses on two characters. First is Sophie, a young woman of the city of Xiosphant whose early choice to protect someone she loves leads to her exile and an amazing encounter with the indigenous inhabitants of the world that changes her life forever. And then there is Mouth, whose darker history as a itinerant traveler along the terminator only slowly emerges in the narrative. Sophie and  Mouth’s stories, and the story of the ultimate fate of a world,  is the story of Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night.

The novel’s strength is the worldbulding and the canvas on which the author places the human characters. Tidally locked planets can be tricky depict in a realistic fashion. The author has put a lot of thought, however, into how you could have a human-habitable zone between two very inhospitable extremes and the science feels solid and real, although perhaps it is a mite exaggerated for narrative effect, especially the sea where you have boiling on the day side, and implacable glaciers on the other.  . A question I had about some of the climatological consequences of a tidally locked planet, it turns out, get answered later in the novel, showing the depth of thought she has put into her work.

Anders uses the base geographical facts and builds societies, both human and alien, that make it work The cities of Xiosphant and Argela are painted in brush strokes both large and small, the tyrannical and autocratic Xiosphant contrasting with the anarchic rule-by-mob families Argela, with explorations of the varying cuisines, fashions, societal customs and social pressures. Both are very flawed societies, both are backsliding from previous highs as a planet not really suited to humans constricts and erodes their way of life. That erosion is a constant societal pressure that gives room for the protagonists not only to change their own life, but the fate of a world.

The aliens also come in for a deep dive into aliens that are far from rubber forehead aliens, or even aliens with a vastly different biology and physiology, but still act and communicate in very human ways. The “Crocodiles” (who get rechristened by Sophie as the Gelet as the novel progresses) have to build a society, right from the base of how do they communicate on such an inhospitable world where speech would be difficult if not impossible in many areas outside the Terminator zone.

And for all their alienness, they still have relatable goals,ideas, wishes, and histories as well. There is a real sense of histories to this world, not only for the human societies, but the Gelet as well. And the novel is very interested in the social history and future development of the aliens as much as it is concerned with the humans. There is a real sociological and anthropological exploration of the various societies we see here, both in their internal workings and weaknesses as well as their external relations with each other.

For me, however, I found myself far more invested in the story of Sophie than of our other point of view character, Mouth. While the characters do eventually braid their stories together, particularly in the middle and later portions of the novel, I found myself wanting to return to Sophie and her journey again and again. It is through her eyes and her experience that the rich development of cities, of geography and of course the aliens comes through the clearest. I can see why, in the tradition of “viewpoint solves everything” why the author chose and even needed to break Sophie’s point of view in order to tell the entire scope of the story. It is that I was much more invested in Sophie’s eyes and perspective. But I do note that the author is very interested in flawed characters who often make impulsive, bad decisions, and feel extremely human and real for their strengths, flaws, and character traits.

I should note that the novel begins rather tellingly and interestingly with a mention that the document is a translation into “Peak English” which is used “Across several worlds and space nodes”. It is a very subtle way to suggest where this story might be going, especially given the sliding backward paradigm that we see throughout the novel. Both of the major polities are flawed and slowly failing cities on a planet that does not reward weakness in the least. But this translator’s note implies a happy ending for the planet right off the bat. This is therefore a novel where, if one reads carefully,  the balance of the anticipation lies in the “how” rather than the “if” this world can be saved. But yet, in the reading of the novel, it is easy to put that translator’s note out of mind and wonder if the world can indeed be saved. For, like its protagonists, this world is “broken, but still good.”.

While the denouement and the ending of the book is a bit weak and doesn’t quite connect the dots and complete the “Frame” that starts the book, I walked away from the planet of January, Sophie, , and the rest of the inhabitants quite satisfied with the world that Charlie Jane has made here. Tidally locked planets provide an amazing place to set stories, the kinds of planets that might really be out there, and the author has shown that amazing stories, intriguing aliens and interesting societies might develop on such a world. 

Further, the author seems invested in telling stories about worlds having to change to survive, a theme that her All the Birds in the Sky used for Earth, as a pair of protagonists tackle the problems of Earth in completely different ways. The City in the Middle of the Night continues that tradition, although the framing and the process is very different. The tone is very much darker than the prior novel, those looking for the breeziness of the first novel are going to have expectations dashed picking up this book. Overall, though, I look forward to more exploration of a theme that is clearly an abiding concern of the author, in her subsequent novels.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong and interesting worldbuilding on a tidally locked planet!
+1 for intriguing and non-rubber-forehead aliens

Penalties: -1  for a somewhat imbalanced set of protagonists
-1 for a somewhat wet firecracker of an ending

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

Reference:  Anders, Charlie Jane, The City in the Middle of the Night, Tor, 2019

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