Thursday, February 21, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

This past week I had the good fortune of attending the Alita Experience with my family and watching the new movie from Robert Rodriguez and company. After hanging out with my family at Kansas Bar and solving some puzzles in Iron City, we were excited to check out the movie. We were all pleasantly surprised with the movie and hope that it does well enough to bring us a sequel. I have been reading the manga on ComiXology Unlimited and am impressed with the movie adaptation. Now I need to track down the anime from the 90's.

Pick of the Week:
Star Wars Adventures #18 -  This all-ages book continues to entertain as we are treated to some classic Jar Jar hi-jinx!  You may not have the same affinity for our clumsy Gungan friend, this short story focuses on Amidala helping Jar Jar find a lost treasure for Boss Nass. We are treated to a series of tests that Amidala conquers with her wit and bravery and Jar Jar stumbles through despite being a bumbling fool. If you don't want any Episode I flashbacks you may want to steer clear of this title. If you have a soft spot in your heart for Jar Jar and the intent of Episode I like I do then this will be right up your alley.

The Rest:
Sharkey The Bounty Hunter #1 - Mark Millar's partnership with Netflix continues with a sci-fi mini-series featuring a Bounty Hunter and his 10-year old buddy he agrees to take across the galaxy after arresting his uncle. Millar does a nice job introducing us to the seedy world that this series exists and to a cast of characters that are going to plan a big role as a billion dollar bounty has just been announced. While on paper it sounds a little Cowboy Bebop/Firefly-ish, I have a feeling that Millar will push the boundaries on what Netflix will allow him to produce and the story is likely to be more succinct as this is being developed into a film. While I wasn't blown away by the first issue, I am intrigued enough to see where this is headed. It felt like I just watched a pilot that I am green-lighting for a full season.

Wolverine: Infinity Watch #1 - With a cover like this there was no way I could avoid this book and am somewhat confused and itching for the next issue. Gerry Duggan gives the readers a quick summary of the events that have happened in the Marvel Universe over the past year and with how many times the Infinity Stones have re-written things, brought people back from the dead, and countless other changes, I am at a bit of a loss.  Having said that, Wolverine is back and the Infinity Stones have now been fused with the souls of select individuals thanks to Adam Warlock. It seems a new quest for the stones is upon us and I do enjoy a good quest. First stop is my home state of Texas to boot!

Guardians of the Galaxy #2 - When we last left this title a while back Thanos' body, minus his head, had just been taken by the Black Order following his death. Gamora, who just killed Thanos, fled after she nearly destroyed the world. Thanos had a plan to avert death by uploading his conscious into a worthy host and it is feared that Gamora is that host. The Black Order seeks to kill Gamora and the newly formed Guardians is leaning towards saving her. That is if Starlord can come to grips with the fact that Gamora "killed" him.

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie's foray into fantasy delivers on mythology and worldbuilding, told through a distinctly non-human lens.

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto
Image by Arcangel Images
Ah, ravens. They're smart, they're beaky, they come in murders, and many in our world are better Londoners than I am. They're also the subject of more than their share of both folklore and, through that, fantasy interest. Whether they're harbingers of death, guides to the spirit world, speakers of prophecy and truth or otherworldly tricksters, there's a lot of mileage in these feathery next-level dinosaurs. Now, in Ann Leckie's first novel-length foray into fantasy, a raven god is front and centre, alongside a cast whose human members often play second fiddle to their divine counterparts.

Many readers will be familiar with Leckie for her science fiction work: the superlatively brilliant Ancillary Justice, its sequels, and the same-universe standalone Provenance. On the surface, The Raven Tower is a very different book. We find ourselves in Vastai, a low-tech, small-scale polity, whose citizens fear and worship the forest, envy the better harbour of their neighbour (in one timeline, at least) and have come to rely on the blessings of a specific god to keep their town flourishing. Gone are the spaceships and corpse soldiers, but the presence of the gods themselves - who are very much real in this world, and regularly appear to humans - means that The Raven Tower feels just as connected with non-human intelligences as Leckie's previous works, and just as accomplished at giving those intelligences believable motivations and voices.

(The rest of the review has spoilers for a very early reveal. If you want to go into the Raven Tower without forewarning, stop reading here - or come back once you're 5% of the way in and know what I'm talking about!)

The Raven Tower leans into its myth-heavy, language-driven setting, not least by setting up a second person narrative: a mysterious voice who addresses the ostensible protagonist, Eolo, as if telling his own story to him. In the opening scenes, this narrator is present but not directly involved in the action, and the voice's narration of these scene-setting events - in which Eolo's companion Mawat, the heir to the Raven Tower, returns to witness the death of his father - feels oddly full of conjecture and uncertainty, as it reflects both Eolo's uncertainty and the voice's own unfamiliarity with him. This uncertainty is a jarring place to start a story, but it's worth the effort as we establish the parameters of the world of Vastai: a land ruled not by a monarch but by a "lease", a hereditary ruler given powers and privileges by their Raven god, but compelled to sacrifice themselves when the Raven's "instrument" (their animal body) dies. Mawat, who has been brought up expecting to ascend on his father's intentionally premature death, arrives back to instead learn that his father appears to have fled the tower and his uncle has taken on the Lease's position instead. This should be impossible, based on how the Raven has always operated, and Mawat's reaction to the discovery sets in motion a chain of events that threaten the very foundations on which the Tower and its inhabitants stand.

It very quickly becomes clear, however, that this is not just Eolo's story, but that of our narrator - and that our narrator is not, as it initially seems, a human servant in the Raven Lease's employ, but a god in their own right. Most often referred to as The Strength and Patience of the Hill (though, for the sake of simplicity and help anyone still skimming while hoping to not get too spoiled, I'll keep referring to them as "the narrator"), the character addressing us is revealed to be immeasurably old, potentially very powerful, and has sat unmoved through geological ages of change and comparatively recently found themselves interacting with humans. Existing fans of Leckie's work will find it easy to believe in her ability to turn this narrator - a large rock who hates almost all change on principle - into the novel's most compelling character. From here on out, the second-person adventures of Eolo and the humans of Vastai are interspersed with the narrator's history and their interpretations of the events of the present. In Leckie's world, gods gain power from human worship and offerings, and are able to change reality using this power - but they must be careful not to deplete their own strength in doing so. The risk a god of any size faces is how to ensure they can sufficiently impress and meet the demands of their worshippers - and, perhaps, see off challenges from rival gods in the process - while not giving up too much of themselves in the process, or making promises that force them into doing so in future.

What the narrator's identity does mean is that the characterisation and interactions of the human characters in the "present" sections are deliberately viewed through a lens of distance and opaqueness. It takes some considerable time to gain an understanding on Eolo beyond what the narrator guesses about him at the start of the tale, plus a few external observations which make it clear that he is a trans male character; many of the other human characters are given only hints of characterisation through understated or indirect means. While this is entirely in keeping with the position of the narrator and their understanding of humans (and selective interest in what makes them interesting), it did make the start of the novel slower and more challenging to get into than I expected. Leckie is so good at portraying human modes of affection and care (even when they're being filtered through non-human characters like Breq) that it's hard not to miss that here, but the comparative lack of focus on relationships and connection in the novel's early stages means that the connections that do develop on the page - not least that between the narrator and The Myriad, a fellow god who enjoys manifesting as a cloud of mosquitoes - are that much more precious and interesting.

As you'd expect from an author with Leckie's skills, the plotting, especially the weaving together of the past and present narratives, is spectacular. Central to this are the twin mysteries of the book's past and present: what's going on with that whole Raven Lease thing, and, somehow more interestingly, how did a rock whose sole previous experience with movement was "hover off the ground by a foot for a few minutes" apparently travel hundreds of miles to become linked with the Raven Tower? Again, likely because of the nature of the narrator, it was the human plotline that took longer to warm up for me, but once it does it's pretty great, setting up a culture whose elites are intricately tied to gods whose reality and power has never been questioned. Of particular note is the delegation from Xulah, a trio of foreigners who take an early interest in Eolo but clearly have their own agenda at play, involving their own snake god and Vastai's larger neighbour Ard Vustika. However - and given the banal content of some of these scenes, I can't quite believe this is true - it was the elements from the narrator's past that I found myself waiting for, time and time again. This means, just to be entirely clear, that I was comparatively speeding through sections on political intrigue and protest in order to get back to the narrator's time waiting out a mini ice age or establishing god-specific language for B vitamins. The characterisation is just that good.

Ann Leckie's last couple of books have been on the comfort reading side for me, and on a personal level, I did miss that from The Raven Tower. However, that should in no way be taken as a criticism of what it does deliver. The elements that make The Raven Tower dense and alien and unsettling are also what makes it so good, and if you give it time and attention, this is an immensely rewarding read. I'll be eagerly watching the skies for Leckie's next book, and giving any giant rotating stones and smart-looking ravens in my future the respect they clearly require.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 I have never been so interested in all-powerful sentient rocks

Penalties: -1 It's initially hard to get past the lack of connection with human characters

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Reference: Leckie, Ann. The Raven Tower [Orbit, 2019].

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Outcast Hours edited by Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin

There's a fine line between an anthology not really holding together and being intriguingly diverse. Every reader of The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin probably has their own opinion on which side the book ultimately falls for them.

It is very diverse: there are stories about a toothfairy, feuding apothecaries, a babysitter for criminals' children, a babysitter for homeless dogs. Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen's opening story is one of the best pieces of socially relevant occult gore short fiction I've ever read – I confess I didn't know there's such a niche before picking the book up.

Night is a great theme for a short story anthology. It is mysterious, atmospheric, intriguing, fleeting and uncertain – as all enjoyable art and fiction – so there's plenty of room to play with and not too many restrictions on where you can go. My main criticism of the anthology is that quite many of the stories leave these possibilities on the table and focus on night just being synonymous with darkness.

I mean, in some stories, night is not a mysterious landscape for whatever you can dream up. Instead, it's a place of nightmares. On the other hand, that's probably entertaining for readers who enjoy whispering to their protagonists that going down to the basement with an enigmatic, sargophagus-collecting millionaire in Karachi or to the home of a bit-too-eager Tinder date in New York City is arguably not the best thing to do if you're in this kind of a book. Nevermind the continent, your chances of living long and happy are going to take a dive.

However, this whispering business is not what I'm into when it comes to horror. I appreciate horrific stories that do a little more to make me afraid than relying solely on a spooky twist-ending, as demonstrated by Beckbessinger, Beukes and Halvorsen's great opening for the book. I fear that even that would have lost some of its power if the editors had decided to place it deeper in the anthology after some other horrors had numbed my senses first.

The best part of reading anthologies like this is of course discovering interesting new authors you had never heard of before. For me, the most promising new acquaintance is maybe Matt Suddain whose tale about two chemists in a weird fantasy (or maybe not) town that is too small for both of them is quirky, weird and suggestive with perfect dosages of each. Suddain delivers his simple story just right, which isn't that easy to do.

In the short space that each story is given, some tales feel that they would have what it takes for being longer, whereas some others seem a bit forced at this length. Couple of the stories would probably have worked better in the same form as China Miéville's ambient one-or-two-page microstories or vignettes sprinkled through the book, as not very much is always happening.

Because the stories are so short, there's a lot of them – 25 in total, not counting Miéville's nine short-shorts. There's something to like and dislike for everyone, and the best way to experience The Outcast Hours is perhaps not to accelerate through it (it's a rapid series of accelerations and sudden stops) but rather to read one or two before before going to sleep – or at any rate before the night comes.

Good night and good luck!

The Math

Base Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for variance and diversity

Penalties: -1 for the cheap scares, -1 for doing too many things at once

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

Reference: Murad, Mahvesh & Shurin, Jared (eds). The Outcast Hours [Solaris 2019]


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

Monday, February 18, 2019

Nanoreviews: The Breath of the Sun, Chaos Choreography, Magic for Nothing

Fellman, Rachel. The Breath of the Sun [Aqueduct Press, 2018]

The Breath of the Sun is a novel about the journey, not a destination. Rachel Fellman's debut novel is a deeply thoughtful meditation on mountain climbing, religion, relationships, regret, loss, and probably more.

There is a mountain so large the peak isn't visible and special suits are required to even attempt a serious attempt at a summit, a mountain so large it is revered as a god. There might be magic, it might be a less understood form of science. The story of The Breath of the Sun isn't about conquering of a god or about some mystical adventure. It's a personal story, an intense and icy travelogue, a character study, and it is absolutely wonderful.
Score: 8/10

McGuire, Seanan. Chaos Choreography [DAW, 2016]

After two novels focusing on Alex Price, Seanan McGuire returns to the protagonist of the first two novels of the Incryptid series Verity Price. Verity has given up her dreams of competitive dance and has turned to the family trade of being a cryptozoologist, dedicated to preserving and protecting those non human creatures the rest of the world only believes are myth (if even that). That is, until she gets a call to participate in an all-star season of Dance or Die, the reality dancing show she was once a runner up on.

Chaos Choreography is the fifth Incrytpid novel, so by this point you have a really good idea of what you're going to get. For a fifth novel, this is a surprisingly good place to jump into the series since McGuire does enough of the work to smooth the ride. Sure, you won't be nodding your head in understanding certain callbacks, but you have what you need. If you haven't been following the series, you get: a good dose of "weird" creatures being perfectly normal, conspiracy, action, murder, cultural understanding (and misunderstanding), attempts to be better, wise cracks, tension, and excitement. We learn more of Verity's family and the wider crytpid world. It's a delight.
Score: 7/10

McGuire, Seanan. Magic for Nothing [DAW, 2017]

Magic for Nothing is the sixth Incryptid novel and the first to feature Antimony, the youngest of the Price siblings. Magic for Nothing is all about the fallout from Verity's actions at the end of Chaos Choreography. The Covenant of St. George knows that Verity is alive and they're coming for the Price family. How to get some intelligence about what the Covenant is planning? Send Antimony under cover.

By this point you either trust McGuire to tell a hell of a story or you don't, and if you don't there's no reason to be reading this far into a series. McGuire tells one hell of a story and with Magic or Nothing we get our first look inside the Covenant as well as a deep dive under cover at a circus (plus a little roller derby). Through the first five novels Antimony has been a character mentioned, referred to and described, but never seen. There's been an outside view suggesting that she's a nearly homicidal child, but the truth is never that simple and Antimony is a far richer character than we could have guessed (besides being written by McGuire, which then we just know that she will be). Maybe don't start reading Incryptid with Magic for Nothing, but absolutely keep reading the series because this is another satisfying novel from Seanan McGuire.
Score: 7/10

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

Friday, February 15, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Song of All, by Tina LeCount Myers

The Song of All uses Saami culture and mythology, as well as a crunchy set of characters and motivations to portray a frozen and bloody tale.

Irjan just wants to live a peaceful life as a farmer on the cold fringes of the tundra with his wife, Sohja. He has a past that he has not told her about, and frankly would far sooner forget. But when an ambitious priest decides that his key to escape the hardscrabble life on the edge of civilization is to motivate Irjan to action by means of a violent tragedy inflicted on his family, Irjan’s course will affect not only himself, the life of his child, or his people, but the fate of two races.

This is the story of Tina LeCount Myers’ The Song of All.

The opening chapters of the novel felt a bit rough and rushed, with the inciting incident of the novel coming off tempo. The novel feels like its in too much of a hurry to get to that point, at the expense of setting it up better. I think it could have been foregrounded better. We only afterwards really get a sense of who and what and why, and what it all means.

Once the novel gets past that and we get into the meat of the story, the novel settles into its strengths. Once we get a real sense of what Irjan is about, the black tragedy of his arc makes for a dark, but compelling read. Combine that with the Japmemeahttun, the race of immortals that man once warred with and that some would see that war prosecuted again. Theirs is a dying, diminishing race, who are raging against the dying of their light, but the press of mankind means that their days do indeed seem to be numbered. The slow inexorable decline of their race brings to mind novels revolving around the tragic fall of the Fae, particularly in, say, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. Indeed, not to spoil some things revealed in the background of the novel, there are other parallels to be made, too.

But while The Broken Sword goes for Norse and Germanic myth for its taproots for its worldbuilding and sets it in our Dark Ages, The Song of All elects to go northeast, to the Saami and Finish cultures and mythologies and stay strictly in a secondary world. This is not quite borrowing from the Kalevala, but it is inspired by the culture and legends.  The author has a penchant for a lot of loan words, further grounding the worldbuilding in that culture. While the language of the novel is descriptive and immersive, the author does not go into tremendous worldbuilding detail. We feel the cold thin existence on the edge of the tundra, writing that seeps that cold into the bones, but it's written so that the reader can bring many of the details themselves, rather than going into deep depth of description. It’s evocative rather than plainly descriptive writing, but it works very well for that.

This is a novel that reads  much more like a saga than an epic fantasy novel, and a saga told to locals more than a secondary fantasy novel in typical fashion trying to build that out. One could imagine Irjan’s story, as written here, being presented for the benefit of the inhabitants of that world, who would already know what, for instance, a duollji is. The novel is far more interested in actions, and the consequences of those actions. So while the novel is light on traditional worldbuilding, it is very strong on plot. There is a rich tapestry of character stories and motivations here that, when the novel gets out of that early roughness, propels the narratives of the characters forward in a very readable fashion

Irjan's story is at the heart, but the novel is full of characters with hopes, agendas and plans of their own. The scheming Apotti (priest), Rikkar.. His assistant, Siggur, equally ambitious in his own right. The Japmemeahttun, Ailllun and Djorn, seeking to try and follow the precepts and traditions of their culture to keep their race alive. And more.

However, in addition to a bit of a rough opening, I was not entirely satisfied with the end matter of the book. The novel, after that very solid core, suddenly slingshots the narrative far into the future in the last, shortest portion of the novel. That future feels much more sketched in, world and character wise, as compared to the richness of what has come before. That section seems to exist more for an event to occur than anything else, and it left me questions about the intervening years and just what has happened in that gap. I do understand wanting to, and being motivated to skip the “dull bits”.  With the majority of the book being so deep and rich in the characters and the plot, this felt like a too brief wade into the future of the series (there is another book coming) and it feels like an unsatisfactory bridge to me, thereby, to it.

Overall, however, the vividity of the characters and the plotting, and the language of the novel made this an enjoyable and intriguing epic fantasy experience to read. I will be curious where the series goes from here, based on the events of that last section.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for immersive, poetic writing
+1 for a strong central character

Penalties: -1 for some roughness in the beginning that take some time to smooth out
-1 for an ending that feels like a compressed opening for a subsequent novel

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

Reference:  Myers, Tina Le Count, The Song og All, Night Shade Books, 2018]

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

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

This past week Tim Doyle had his final show in his Unreal Estate line of famous buildings/structures from pop culture at the Spoke Art gallery in San Francisco and it did not disappoint. I ordered three prints from the online sale and you can check out some of his work here featuring the Stonecutters, Princess Mononoke, Transformers, and other secret headquarters.

Pick of the Week:
Outer Darkness #4 - I saw a friendly tweet reminding me that the new Outer Darkness dropped this week and that John Layman was quite proud of this particular issue. That prompted me to purchase the second and third books, which slipped past my radar after enjoying the first, and after catching up it is important to note that Layman and artist Afu Chan have something really special in this book. Chan noted being inspired by Aliens and 2001: A Space Odyssey and his art shines through with how vibrant Chan makes the darkness of space feel.  A crew has been sent to the Outer Darkness on a highly classified mission to retrieve an individual that is crucial to the war. The captain appears to have his own agenda and is not making any friends in the process. Learning about the concepts of death and rebirth have really fueled this series in a way like no other book I've read. The ethical ramifications of retrieving souls and re-imprinting them on bodies are central to the book and the current twist of having a former God navigating the ship is one to keep an eye on.  I am glad I saw that tweet and was motivated to add a few additional books to my pull list this week.

The Rest:
Criminal #2- In a bit of a surprise, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips introduce a new story into the one they debuted last month. This book focused on former comic book artist Hal Crane who needed a handler to ensure he attends all of the appropriate events and a comic book convention over the weekend. Jacob, who was an aspiring artist and one of Hal's assistants back in the day, has been hand selected for the job and is trying to understand why.  Brubaker and Phillips toss in a couple of clues surrounding the shady death of one of Crane's co-workers and mention that Crane has a reputation for stealing art from editors desk to sell on the collectors market. It was an interesting turn, and one that is setting up a comic book art heist, but it didn't draw me in like the first issue. I am going to trust this team that the slow pace is intentional and look forward to resolving both stories.

Gideon Falls #11 - Like any other attempt to contact other dimensions, it doesn't bode well for those who are able to finally break through. Theh Weirdmageddon in Gravity Falls was a result of one such breach, the many horrors in Fringe, and it appears that there is a being between the realms that has been waiting for someone to return to the black between the different worlds in Gideon Falls. This was a very surreal issue that left us in a situation where there is now an invader in Gideon Falls and the implications are likely to change this series substantially.

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Microreview [book]: Ninth Step Station by Malka Older, Fran Wilde, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Curtis C. Chen

Suddenly Derailed

Tokyo is divided. In the (somewhat) near future, an war with China leaves Tokyo with a Chinese occupation and US-led military peacekeepers. The police force has to contend with both as they go about their duty of upholding the law. Ninth Step Station follows detective Miyako Koreda and her newly assigned peacekeeper partner Emma Higashi as they solve crimes, learn to deal with each other, and try to douse some of the fires that could result in a renewal of the war.

Ninth Step Station is a Serial Box product, which means I got to read the first 10 "episodes" which I assume comprise a season 1. Each episode is approximately novella size.

This format worked well for Ninth Step Station. With a limited number of authors, the deviations in voice and tone between each episode were pretty much non-existent. Every now and then, a character would do something a little out-of-line, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well each story flowed into the next. This is a police procedural, like Law & Order: SVU in a slightly futuristic Tokyo. Each episode follows a new case, but this isn't the kind of thing you could shuffle up and put into any order. Actions in previous stories have impacts later in the series, which is a nice touch. The stories themselves range from a really intriguing mysteries to a little plodding but not terrible.

Where they've nearly lost me, and it remains to be seen if I'm still in it, is the ending of the last episode. It's really not an ending at all. It's like they've built up to a crescendo and then stopped. I had to ask for confirmation that my copy wasn't missing some final chapter or epilogue. I was really put off by how it ends because it doesn't end anything, neither the novella episode nor the novel season. I want this series to continue, but I also expect some satisfying conclusion to the 10 episode season, and I didn't get that.

As with most serialized media, there's a chance this thing never sees a season two and this particular series will suffer badly for it. It stops mid-sentence (figuratively), and I'll be really unhappy if it doesn't continue. But the build up to that non-ending is totally enjoyable. It's an exciting, complex weaving of many strands of plots across personal and national conflicts.


The Math
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Chinese detectives Liu and Wong are perfectly crafted scumbags.

Penalties: -2 WHERE. WAS. THE. ENDING?

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


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Older, Malka, Wilde, Fran, Koyanagi, Jacqueline, and Chen, Curtis C. Ninth Step Station (Serial Box, 2019)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Born to the Blade: Episode 11

The first season of Born to the Blade has come to an end and in some ways it is with more of a whimper than a bang. There is finally evidence that the inciting incident that sparked the war between Rumika and Quloo was instigated and perpetuated by the Merkitan Empire. The war should perhaps continue, but the directed wrath of the nations should all be pointed in one direction.

It's never that simple, of course. There are alliances and vassal states and interests that supercede "truth".

My problem with "All the Nations of the Sky" is that it works better (for me) as "Episode 11" than it does as the season finale. Michael R. Underwood does an excellent job setting up future storylines that I would like to see the resolution to in a presumed Season 2, but any episode can do that. Perhaps this is an instance of expectation clashing with storytelling choices, but this season ender felt smaller than I would expect from a finale. My excitement for a second season lies in the overall strength of the first season than it is for how it specifically ended.

Moments of "All the Nations of the Sky" are quite good. The duel (both verbal and with swords) between Kris and Bellona was exceptional. The development of Michiko going back home to foment rebellion is one that I would happily take a full novel of by itself. But somehow, the collected whole of how it all pulls together as a single episode capping off the season fails to fully satisfy.

With that underwhelming endorsement, I should remind myself (and anyone else who has followed along with my scattered thoughts on the full season since I began this project in May) that as a full season, Born to the Blade is delightful. One episode does not make (or break) a season. If it turns out that Season 1 did well enough for Serial Box, I look forward to seeing what Underwood and his team of writers has in store for us next. Having Malka Older, Marie Brennan, and Cassandra Khaw on the writing staff is a can't miss writers room.

Previous Reviews
Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episodes 5 & 6
Episodes 7 & 8
Episodes 9 & 10

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

Series Review: The Harwood Spellbook by Stephanie Burgis

A trio of magical, historical romances offering the most engaging, well-realised type of comfort reading.

Art by Leesha Hannigan
As winter continues its reign of terror over this part of the northern hemisphere, I've been doing my best to introduce a steady diet of comfort reading into what can become a pretty dark and dense TBR. That's why I've been so glad to finally make time for Stephanie Burgis, and particularly her Hardwood Spellbook series, an alternate historical romance set in a magical regency era reminiscent of Zen Cho, or Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy. The series currently consists of two "main" novellas - Snowspelled and the forthcoming Thornbound, as well as a shorter prequel novella, Spellswept, set fifteen years or so before the events of the main chronology, and from a different point of view, but with many of the same characters.

The focus of the series is Cassandra Harwood, a young woman born to an elite Anglish family. For 1700 years, elite men and women have maintained a balance of power by which only women can go into politics, but only men are allowed to study magic, and for families like the Harwoods, male and female children are expected to follow that most elite career path exactly. That seems limiting in a number of ways, and Cassandra's path has put her in collision with the most obvious taboo: she's a talented magician and is desperate to study magic, taking the place of her older brother, Jonathan, who is more than happy to step aside and follow his non-magical passion for history. To complicate matters further, members of the Boudiccate, the council that governs the country, must be married to a mage - which means that, despite general acceptance of same-sex relationships and the understanding that not all men can do magic, politically ambitious women must marry from a very limited group of men.

Cover by Ravven
What's fascinating about the main series - and while Spellswept is a delightful story and adds a lot to our overall understanding of Cassandra and her future sister-in-law Amy, it's worth reading after the initial introduction to the characters that Snowspelled provides - is that by the time we meet Cassandra, she's not the driven mage struggling against discrimination in her chosen path. Instead, in her own words, Cassandra is no longer "functional". Having pushed herself too hard in pursuit of securing the respect of her peers, she's burned out her own magic and is now unable to cast any spells at all. Luckily for us, this doesn't signal the end of any of her adventures, and Snowspelled and Thornbound deliver a tense pair of magically-driven mysteries: the first, set in a snowed-in house party, and the second in the Harwood's own estate next to a menacing forest. In both cases, unknown human meddling has upset the balance with their near neighbours, the elves and the fae, and it's up to Cassandra to untangle the mixture of human and fantastical motivations behind the mystery and save the day, all without a magical spell in sight.

As a reader, it's hard it is not to fixate on Cassandra's lack of magic, and how happy she - and we - would be if it returned, and to unconsciously expect that as an ending. What Burgis does so well is not to dismiss or deny that disappointment, but to make it very clear that the happy endings Cassandra and her family (including magic-school-rival-turned-fiance-turned-ex-fiance-turned-husband Wrexham) achieve are valid and satisfying even if they don't lead to undoing her past mistakes. Cassandra's response to the overwhelming hostility she has faced in achieving her ambitions has been to close herself off and attempt to achieve things on her own - even though Spellswept makes it clear that she has always had allies among her family - and each entry in the series explores that in a different way. Along the way, the story makes it abundantly clear that despite not being able to single-handedly achieve the reform she wanted by pushing through with blunt force, Cassandra there are perhaps even better ways to achieve her goal while also working with the family and allies around her. All three of these books are capital R Romance, so Cassandra's reconciliation with Wrexham and Amy's relationship with Jonathan are big elements of the "happily ever afters", but I very much enjoyed the fact that these relationships don't take total precedence over other family ties or personal goals, even if they sometimes provide more narrative fuel. Of course, the satisfaction of these endings relies on the strength of the main characters, and all three novellas benefit from a main cast who shine even when the limited space available means others are less fleshed out. Llewellyn, in Spellswept, has a particularly unfortunate time of it, though astute readers will note that it's because he's actually the worst.

Art by Leesha Hannigan
The worldbuilding of these novellas is quite focused, and there's a satisfying symmetry and an interesting power dynamic to the "women are politicians, men are mages" thing even if it might not stand up to super close scrutiny as a system of power distribution. Thornbound does add an interesting wrinkle when a character points out how many countries have a traditional patriarchal structure, which might also overturn the Boudiccate any moment if women were to give up or amend the political structure in any way. Certainly, Cassandra's struggles to be accepted as a magician feel more like someone of a marginalised gender hitting a glass ceiling than the disbelief and in-group policing (and/or appropriation) which might follow a privileged person taking on a marginalised person's social role. That's not to say that the conflict the book recounts isn't already compelling, but I do wonder if the complexities of Angland's gender politics might be fleshed out in later volumes. I'd also love to see the apparent precariousness of this political system explored, especially as it holds an interesting mirror to the storylines with the elves (in Snowspelled) and fae (in Thornbound), in which treaties must be upheld because of the unknowable but almost-certainly-dire consequences for humanity if they aren't, as doled out by non-human intelligences who aren't at all interested in nice human answers. There's a lot to explore here, and while I can see this series leaning in to the "Lady Trent" tactic of glossing over anything Cassandra doesn't find interesting in her own story, its nice to have the perspective from Amy (and other points of view in future) to hopefully expand on some of these questions and themes.

Ultimately, this series is one which takes a generous interpretation of human nature and applies it to the concept of sacrifice - of what we give up, when, and how, of what it does or doesn't help us achieve, and about how to cut one's losses and accept the best circumstances available. While there are a couple of genuinely unpleasant characters, most of the interpersonal conflict in Cassandra's world stems from those who have given something up in order to protect what they see as the good of society: whether that be upholding a status quo and forcing themselves into a particular mould to do so, or pushing for reforms at the expense of their own wellbeing. The result is a trio of well plotted, tense, emotionally satisfying novellas which punch well above their length in terms of thematic weight. Comfort reading this series may be, but it's comfort at its most engaging, balancing trauma and intrigue with a great cast of characters and some very satisfying - romantic and otherwise - outcomes.

The Math:

Snowspelled: 8/10 Great introduction to the series, start here. Not-so-cosy winter themes perfect for cold nights under a blanket.

Spellswept: 7/10 A lovely diversion into the past. Slighter, but Amy remains a force to be reckoned with.

Thornbound: 8/10 A return to Cassandra and a great continuation of the overall themes, introducing new characters and settings and a fascinating central mystery.

Overall: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Reference: Burgis, Stephanie. Snowspelled [Five Fathoms Press, 2017]
"Spellswept, " first published in The Underwater Ballroom Society [Five Fathoms Press, 2018]
Thornbound [Five Fathoms Press, 2019]

Friday, February 8, 2019

Microreview [book]: Through Darkest Europe, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove's Through Darkest Europe tackles religious fundamentalism, prejudice and violence through his classic use of an alternate history world.

A pair of investigators visit a notorious backwater and corrupt portion of the world, a part of the world that resists coming into the modern era. The local autocrat is trying to hold down religious fundamentalists from running amok, women are expected to be seen (but covered up, of course) and not heard. Prejudice, racism, sexism and violence on the streets are a daily event. You probably already are imagining some place in the Middle East, or Central Asia, perhaps. You could likely see the investigators in your mind eye, maybe played by Chris Pratt and Tom Cruise. Americans abroad, helping democracy and freedom.

But since this is a Harry Turtledove alternate history novel, you would be wrong. The place is the Grand Duchy of Italy, in an alternate world where Europe is the backwater, and the investigators are from the civilized republic of the Maghreb of North Africa, in his latest novel, Through Darkest Europe.

The novel relies mainly on the setup, the world and the characters much more than a high throttle plot to propel the narrative. The two investigators come to Italy and get into trouble of all kinds, caught in the midst of secular and religious violence. Khalid, the Muslim, reaches across divides to find a relationship with a local woman,Annarita ,who struggles against the prejudices and backwater nature of her homeland. Dawud, is a Jew, and even in the modern world, still suffers prejudice there, and even more within the Grand Duchy. His is the older, mordantly funny observational type, a nice contrast to Khalid as lead. Turtledove carefully have Khalid note that in a more just world free of all prejudice, his partner would be the senior one.

In that line, too, this is not a “better” world by any means, although I have some unanswered questions about the world. With the center of civilization switched from Europe, history has rhymed if not repeated from our world, with devastating wars between Iran and Iraq mentioned. There is also mention of a Holocaust like genocide of millions of people, but it is not a Jewish Holocaust. His alternate world’s Dar Al Islam may be as advanced and modern as Europe and America in our world, but it is not and hasn’t always been peace and roses since the rise of Egypt, the Maghreb and the other nations.

And yes, friends, since this is a Harry Turtledove, there is a tuckerization, something I have spotted in his work since the days of realizing who a used car dealer in The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump was in our world. This time, the tuckerization I spotted was of a famous SF character, an alternate history character no less. I got a chuckle out of that. This novel is not quite like Matt Ruff’s The Mirage (one of the books that explores this novel’s theme in a different way)  in that regard which is replete with parallel versions of characters from our world. Turtledove can and does play with the net fairly high up. Ruff’s The Mirage doesn’t bother to try and figure out why the Middle East is civilized and America is a backwater, he just goes with it. Turtledove’s two small changes in the philosophy of a key scholar in Europe, and one from the Islamic World is enough to put things on a very different course.

And truthfully, some of the descriptions of what The Grand Duchy of Italy pulled at my heart in the same way that I felt when ISIS wrecked the ruins of the city of Palmyra. Italian heritage of their ancient sites is poor and the description of the neglect of those places in Rome, a couple of which I have seen for myself, was devastating. If the author meant to invoke the destruction of Palmyra explicitly, then for me, he succeeded.

I think, if anything, Turtledove could have been even sharper and more poignant in his flipped world and missed a couple of chances to do so. Since the novel almost exclusively takes place in peninsular Italy, I wonder if in Turtledove’s world that not only are the glorious remnants of the past falling down, but why haven’t they long since been sold off. Maybe a comment or two about Roman statues transplanted to Tunis or Alexandria. Heck, there is a mention of the obelisk in front of the (sadly very crumbling) Pantheon in this world. I’d think that if Egypt was a powerful country in the civilized world, they’d long since have put a lot of pressure on the Grand Duchy of Italy to give back the dozen or so obelisks the Romans carted off from Egypt two millennia ago. The very secularized North African nations of Turtledove’s world, I think, would have a higher appreciation for artifacts from before the time of the Prophet and seek their return. There is stated admiration for the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, for example, showcases this.

All in all, however, some of the value of Turtledove’s alternate histories is to see our world, or an aspect of what our world once was, through the lens of a timeline that never was and never could be. The book shows just how senseless religious fundamentalism really is, by showing that with just a couple of changes,the center of civilization could have been elsewhere, and the world turned upside down, with those forces of intolerance hate taking root elsewhere.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 
for an effective and believable alternate world

Penalties: -1
for unignorable weakness in plot and story.

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

Reference:  Turtledove, Harry Through Darkest Europe, Tor Books, 2018]

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

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

Before we hop into this week's trio of comics I thought I would share a Kickstarter for a board game that has grabbed my attention.  In Dead Man's Cabal, you play a necromancer who is trying to raise the dead to join you for a party. While the premise is simple as you gain skulls and spell cards in order to raise the dead, the variable phase order is what has me excited about this game. On your turn you get to determine one action for yourself and one action for the everyone. Do you maximize both moves knowing it will benefit one of your opponents? Do you settle for a move that isn't as good, but doesn't help anyone else either? There are a lot of tense decisions and the Kickstarter has already reached some cool stretch goals including 3D bones as currency and the art ranks up there with some of the best in the business. The next stretch goal is 3D skulls!  Check it out here.

Pick of the Week:
Batman #64 - This marks the start of a Batman and Flash crossover and I am quickly learning that I need to read more Flash comics. I will openly admit that I grew up as a Marvel kid and have primarily dabbled in Batman in the DC Universe. Batman and Flash are teaming up in this arc to deal with a crimewave that is sweeping Gotham. Batman seems to have some sort of insider knowledge on the attacks and we learn that Gotham Girl, who he once attempted to train, is trying to somehow save her brother who was corrupted by Psycho Pirate. Despite having one of the worst names in all of comics, Psycho Pirate is adept at manipulating people and played a pivotal role in one of the arcs that caused me to abandon this series. While that thought has me a bit hesitant for this crossover, the dynamic for Batman and Flash teaming up has me very excited to explore more of the DC Universe.

The Rest:
Vindication #1 - I wanted to like this book based on the premise, but it felt too cliche and hook me despite a solid cliffhanger ending. Turn Washington was wrongly convicted for a murder 10 years ago and has just been set free. The detective who worked the case disagrees, and is set out to make sure that Washington returns to his prison cell at the first sign of a slip up. There are a lot of interesting elements to this book, including some racial undertones, a corrupt system, and attention grabbing lawyers, but it fell flat to me.  I am currently enjoying the latest season of True Detective and wonder if my standards are elevated due to that series having captivated my interest. There is a good chance that this series will improve as we learn more about the murder 10 years ago and the similarity to a recent murder, but I am not quite there.

Star Wars #61 - It looks like we reached the conclusion of another arc and that the Rebels are going to have to engage with the SCAR Squadron in the near future as they have obtained some of their secret plans. This was a big reunion issue as Han and Chewy join forces again, Han returns to his true love the Millennium Falcon, and Luke rejoins Tula after she helped him and the Rebels escape. The highlight in this issue was a two page interaction between C-3P0 and an alien having what appears to be a tense negotiation, only to learn that C-3P0 was nearly advocating for new leg plating which he successfully obtains. It felt very authentic to the humor that has been sprinkled throughout this series and I remain in awe at how effective the comics are at filling in the gaps of the films and remaining very true to the original source.

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Microreview [video game]: Darksiders 3 by Gunfire Games (developer)

The Worst of Both Worlds

When I beat Darksiders, I thought it was the best Zelda game I’d ever played. It’s not Zelda. It’s really a mash up of a lot of good games, but its most obvious influence is the 3D Zelda games. Darksiders 3 most obvious influence is Dark Souls, but it’s not the best Dark Souls. It’s not even the best Darksiders.

The story of Darksiders 3 is convoluted, and it doesn’t help that there’s not much “in the previous games” lead up. The short of it is that you are one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, Fury (not an actual historic horseman, but whatevs), and you have to hunt down and kill the seven deadly sins. They’ve been set free on Earth in the middle of the apocalypse. Now there are demons, angels, and sins to kill.

After release, Darksiders 3 got a couple significant updates to address some of the major complaints reviewers had. One of those was “classic” mode, which was intended to make the game more like the previous two installments. I played the whole game in “classic” mode, and I still felt the Dark Souls influences in nearly every aspect.

In a game where you play as Fury, there’s a dearth of fury shown. Enemies rarely come in groups larger than three, and they’re mostly durable. It has a somewhat slow pace, especially compared to the rest of the series, with a focus on watching attacks and dodging them to counter attack and punish the enemy. I was slightly surprised at how few huge monsters there were, especially considering that huge bosses are staple of the series. The sins themselves are rarely bigger than Fury and follow the same approach as the basic enemies: watch the pattern, dodge, and punish.

There’s nothing really spectacular here. It’s an okay action game that obviously apes a lot of mechanics from Dark Souls. The problem is that Dark Souls‘ mechanics match its world and Darksiders 3 does not. Darksiders is a world of comic book action, heaven versus hell, four horsemen riding, deadly sins running amok. The sins are just bosses at the end of uninteresting dungeons. It mashes in some Metroidvania qualities by adding movement options when you get new weapons, and there’s some degree of non-linearity to the middle game. It doesn’t use the Dark Souls influence to elevate the world, and it never turns down the comic book influence to match the more methodical gameplay.

Darksiders 3 is confused about what it wants to be, and I hope Gunfire Games can sort it out by the fourth game and possibly the conclusion of the series. I’d hate for them to get to the end of it and never overcome the greatness of the first game. Darksiders 3 is not going to do it.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 the core gameplay loop works...

Penalties: -1 but maybe belongs in a different game

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 (still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore)

BONUS: I made a video to show off some of the gameplay. Enjoy!


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Gunfire Games. Darksiders 3 (THQ Nordic, 2018)

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: Locus Recommended Reading List

Joe: The Locus Recommended Reading List is out, which is always something of an annual event. I don’t think this is an original idea, but I’ve long considered the Locus Recommended list to be one of the best snapshots of what is going on in the genre in a given year. It’s certainly not exhaustive, and there’s always going to be favorites left off the list, but from a high level - these are most of the important and noteworthy SFF books and stories from the previous year.

What are your initial impressions of the list?

Adri: At this stage, I think I’ve read over 50 novels (and a sizeable number of novellas) published in 2018, but I have to say that every time the Locus list comes out I have a moment of screaming into the void over what a drop in the ocean that is compared to the number of fantastic books that come out. This year is no exception and for every book I’ve read and am excited to see here, there’s another one I want to catch up on or want to find out more about! That is, of course, a brilliant problem to have compared to the alternative of having read everything...

Joe: I’d give myself around 60 books from 2018 (a down year), including novellas, and I think I have much the same reaction. I quickly scan the list thinking “that was good, that was good, damn it I haven’t read that one yet, that was good, what the heck is Theory of Bastards, that was good”, and so on. Besides the fleeting joy of seeing stuff that I like get recognized, it’s the combination of discovery and reminders that I like.

For example, I’m pretty sure I first heard about this on the Coode Street podcast, but there’s a science fiction novel titled Condomnauts and it’s about galactic sexual ambassadors from Earth, because sex is diplomacy. I’m just so glad this novel exists and that it made the Locus Recommended list.

I am reminded that I need to read Sam Miller’s Blackfish City. I fully expect it to end up on one of the awards ballots, probably the Nebula.

Adri: Yes to both those things! Blackfish City is great but having read it, it definitely “feels” like a Nebula book - although, saying that without qualification feels a bit obnoxious...

Joe: No, I agree. Without being able to really put my finger on it (and without having read it), Blackfish City *feels* much more like a Nebula book in that same way that I’m not surprised Autonomous made the Nebula ballot last year and not the Hugo (while fully noting that Autonomous placed 8th in the nomination tally - but if you asked me if Autonomous would get a Hugo or a Nebula nomination, I’d have said Nebula).

Of course, I hated The Three-Body Problem and wouldn’t have called it for either award, so what do I know?

Adri: I mean, there’s nothing on this year's list that I would be as annoyed to have to read for awards purposes as I was with Death’s End, so that’s definitely a good starting point.

Joe: Ignoring for a moment the lack of recognition for our own Feminist Futures project in Non-Fiction since it wasn’t actually published in book form, are there any other glaring omissions that jumped out at you?

Adri: So, apparently I’m being contrary this year, because two of my novel nominees and four of my favourite novellas didn’t make the cut. Of those, I’m most disappointed not to see Before Mars, by Emma Newman - I caught up on both of the more recent Planetfall novels last year and they both completely blew me away, especially this. I also think it’s a shame not to see any Book Smugglers stories here, especially as this is the last year for their publishing wing; they came out with some really interesting novellas last year, including Accelerants by Lena Wilson and Between the Firmaments by JY Yang.

Overall, it’s quite interesting to see where sequels are being recommended and where they aren’t. I like that Tim Pratt’s The Dreaming Stars is here, as that’s shaping up to be a great series, and it’s nice to see Vivian Shaw’s irreverent horror-based urban fantasy, Dreadful Company, in the mix too, even if I’m still waiting for that series to capitalise on the potential of its female characters. Salvation’s Fire by Justina Robson - the second in a shared universe series kicked off by Adrian Tchaikovsky earlier in 2018 - is a bit of a surprise to me as the sole entrant for that series, but I do see the appeal even if I liked its predecessor better.

On the other hand, there’s no threequel love for Binti or the Wayward Children (in a much shorter overall novella list), and neither of John Scalzi’s novels - Head On and The Consuming Fire - get a mention. They’re my top contenders for the unusual “not on the Locus but made the Hugo ballot anyway” spot this year.

What did you expect, or want, to see here that isn’t?

Joe: The first thing I specifically looked for was Matt Wallace’s final Sin du Jour novella Taste of Wrath. I’m not entirely surprised it didn’t make the list simply because I’m not sure it’s received a fraction of the attention and love that the series deserved. I passionately and sometimes aggressively love those stories and it has been a perpetual disappointment to me that they haven’t been nominated for everything they are eligible for and even for some things they aren’t. I’m holding out for a Best Series Hugo nod, but maybe I shouldn’t hold my breath.

The second thing i looked for, and this was mostly out of curiosity, was whether anything from Serial Box made the cut. Nothing did. Because I’m that sort of wonk, I did a super quick check of previous years and the first season Tremontaine made the list. I’m not surprised by that either, because Tremontaine is an expansion of the Swordspoint world and I would expect to see Locus recognize Ellen Kushner. I do wonder if next year we’ll see recognition for The Vela or Ninth Step Station. Both seem like something that might get some extra attention, eyeballs, and acclaim.

Adri: Bookburners, helmed by Max Gladstone, also made in 2017 but I take the point about next year's list.

Joe: I didn’t notice it until you mentioned it, but the lack of Beneath the Sugar Sky from novella really does seem glaring. It’s perhaps my second favorite of the four (behind Every Heart a Doorway), and I have to think it’ll make the Hugo ballot.

Adri: Yes, it's on my novella ballot, and it's my runaway favourite of the Wayward Children series so far, although I freely admit there's a heavy dose of personal taste in there...

On the other hand, is there anything other than Blackfish City that’s jumped to the top of your TBR after seeing it here?

Joe: Sue Burke’s Semiosis. Would you believe I’ve had that on my Nook for pretty much all of 2018 and I still haven’t read it? Any mention of it has practically glowed with praise and I just never got around to it.

I do also want to read Chercher La Femme, the latest from L. Timmel Duchamp published by Aqueduct. Those two, along with Empire of Sand and perhaps Dread Nation are the ones to really catch my eye.

Adri: Conveniently for me, Semiosis just went on sale on Kindle UK! It’s been on my radar for a while and I’m really keen to check it out. The other one I’m very interested in is Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, a very intriguing looking fantasy set in a Mughal Empire-inspired world.

I’d actually had Chandler Klang Smith’s The Sky is Yours on my radar and then forgotten about it until now. I think in my mind, the neon cover got confused with the cover of Blackfish City, because apparently I can keep eighty different spaceship covers straight in my head but not two actually very different-looking city-based science fiction novels. Back on the list it goes!

Joe: From what I can tell, Locus tends to do a good job mentioning UK publishers, but just out of curiosity, how US-centric does the list feel to you?

Adri: Well, nothing jumps out as a glaring US-centric text, and I don't think there are any buzzy books that I've struggled to gain access to in the UK. One thing I did note is that there are a couple of things on my Hugo radar (although not my ballot) that are in “second wave” eligibility i.e. first publication in the US in 2018, which I don’t think the Locus list counts? Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was a 2015 UK release that won the Clarke, my heart, and a 2018 US edition (in that order), but I don’t think that counts for this list, and the lack of Tchaikovsky overall makes me a bit sad. Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman, was released by Small Beer Press in 2018, a year after originally being published in Australia, and it’s an absolutely searing take on colonialism that deserves a wider audience. I also noticed only one translation among the novels - Yoss - and surely there must be more worth noting? Jin Yong’s A Hero Born came out in English for the first time in 2018.

Joe: I expect Rachel Cordasco will have something to say about the lack of translation. I counted two (Frankenstein in Baghdad and the aforementioned Condomnauts).

The thing that jumped out at me with the UK publication is the Adam Roberts novel only with a UK publisher listed. I think Dave Hutchinson has had greater success in the UK than in the US. I just didn’t know if all of the books I was aware of was because they were more prominent in the US than in the UK, and if you’re more aware of them because of how they are positioned here versus books you’d actually see in the shops or discussed where you live.

Adri: Yes, I think the UK is pretty well represented in this list, at least based on the novel sections? Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series has definitely been bigger in the UK (although I can’t quite bring myself to finish it despite owning Europe at Dawn, for a couple of reasons). Ben Aaronovitch is also huge, and Lies Sleeping was a really great entry to the Rivers of London series (probably the best since the fourth), so I’m happy to see that get some love! Jasper Fforde’s new standalone (Early Riser) isn’t here, and a new novel from him is always a big deal, but I’m not sure it’s at the level of quality where I’d expect it to appear. From a publishing standpoint, only The Dreaming Stars makes it for Angry Robot but there’s a fair bit of love for Solaris, which is based in the UK.

But yes, an increase in translation is something I’d love to see on this list from a selfish standpoint - I don’t read nearly enough of it to know what I’d like to see here (and I bounced pretty hard off the misogyny in the Yoss book I previously tried), but I’d love it if Locus could solve that problem for me. Of course, there already are people out there doing that work, and not all lists can do all things, so I guess I'll cope.

Joe: To the point that we can look at the Locus Recommended list and extrapolate out to the Hugo and Nebula Awards (I believe there’s something like a 75-80% hit rate on novels and novellas), what would you expect to see make the final ballots? Or, at least, what would you not be surprised to see make the final ballot?

Adri: My money is on The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal making both lists: it’s been a huge hit (including with you!) and while I have somewhat mixed feelings about the duology as a whole, I think it deserves to be recognised. I think The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is also going places, although it will be interesting (and frustrating) to see if the first half of the plot, which takes place in a school with a teen protagonist, leads to people nominating it for the YA awards when it so clearly isn’t. And if Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning doesn’t make one or the other I’d be super surprised, given her short story wins last year. Finally, Catherynne M. Valente seems to fly under the radar of awards notice a lot of the time but there’s been a lot of buzz around Space Opera. While it’s not at the top of my personal list, as a fan of Eurovision I would not be sorry to see a book that takes its chapter titles from the contest’s greatest hits and its section names from the Captain Planet elements get some best novel love.

Joe: I agree that The Calculating Stars seems like as much of a lock as a book can reasonably be. I think it was a major hit in both nominating audiences and Kowal has been generally popular with both the Hugo and the Nebula crowds (she’s a two time Hugo winner for her short fiction and once more for Writing Excuses), plus the original Lady Astronaut novelette won a Hugo.

Space Opera seems likely. Like we discussed, Blackfish City seems reasonable for the Nebula. I won’t be surprised by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon getting a Hugo nod. Robinson’s novels tend to get nominated (Shaman did not, but I expect Aurora would have had it been published in a normal Hugo year). Revenant Gun? Record of a Spaceborn Few? I will be surprised if Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside makes the list. I just haven’t seen the conversation around it, and if his Divine Cities didn’t make it as individual novels, I don’t think this is the awards breakout. I won’t be surprised if Scalzi makes the Hugo ballot with one of his two novels.

The one I think you’re right about is Trail of Lightning. Traditionally, no. It’s not the sort of novel that gets recognized, but Roanhorse was so popular with “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” and Trail of Lightning was so well received, that I’d also be surprised if it doesn’t make at least one of the ballots.

I expect to be disappointed by The Poppy War missing out.

I also won’t be mad if something like The Red Clocks sneaks onto the Nebula ballot. Or Madeline Miller’s Circe, but I think that’s a stretch.

Oh! I forgot the obvious one: Spinning Silver. I can’t imagine an awards season where Naomi Novik’s novel isn’t nominated for one award, if not both the Nebula and the Hugo.

Adri: I agree with you for Foundryside, unfortunately, although its on my ballot and I think it’s just as worthy as the Divine Cities (which were robbed last year). And yes, Spinning Silver feels like a near certainty - insofar as anything is - too.

I think Revenant Gun is the thing on my personal novel ballot that is most likely to make the final list (because apparently I’m rooting for some serious underdogs this year - though I’m also cross-pollinating with Tess of the Road, my hands-down favourite book of 2018, which I refuse to contemplate not being up for the Lodestar). However, it doesn’t feel as certain as the previous two novels - which would be a shame, because I think it’s a much stronger book than Raven Stratagem and did some unexpected but quite satisfying things with its final-act character arcs.

Joe: The one book not mentioned so far that I do have on my Hugo ballot is Nicky Drayden’s Temper. I liked Prey of Gods, but Temper was Drayden leveling up. I’d expect it more on the Nebula than the Hugo, if it gets anywhere.

Adri: Yes - Temper is another one that narrowly missed out for me, but between that and Prey of Gods, Drayden is basically on my autobuy list for future novels. I do also have to note that I think she’s the only Black novel author not on here for YA (this is not to disparage YA at all, but the barriers to entry in that field are different to those in adult SFF), which feels frustrating after the glow surrounding Jemisin’s three-Hugo streak. There are people and publications out there doing great things when it comes to increasing representation of marginalised voices in the genre; we’ve not touched on the short fiction categories but I was really pleased to see FIYAH Literary Magazine represented with 6 stories, 5 more than last year, among lots of other good venues. But it’s frustrating to see PoC representation continue to fall on so few shoulders in the novel lists. I hope there will be more detailed analysis of this (Natalie Luhrs has done a great breakdown for the last few years) because it's something worth keeping in mind when using these lists.


Joe: Hey - I really enjoyed this. We should do another one, maybe when the Nebula ballot is announced.

Adri: Absolutely! Thanks for putting this together and I look forward to seeing what this year’s awards reading has in store...

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.

Joe Sherry is a co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.