Friday, May 31, 2019

Microreview [book]: Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes

The Best Kind of Big Mess


An odd phenomena that’s been enabled mostly by Twitter is that I sometimes find myself a fan of an author before I’ve ever read their books. Authors have author friends and retweet them, and the authors I like and follow on Twitter retweet their like minded friends so I end up liking authors whose written works I’ve never read. I find this strange because I can’t imagine how this would happen before Twitter. Maybe reading author interviews in a magazine, or recommendation lists, but the sort of intimate knowledge of who an author publicly associates with seems to be something that’s been uniquely enabled by internet social media, namely Twitter. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I largely like Sam Sykes the person but this is the first time I’ve read a Sam Sykes novel and now I very much enjoy Sam Sykes the author.

Seven Blades in Black starts with Sal the Cacophony recounting her deeds from a prison cell. I was immediately skeptical of how much I would enjoy this because I (mistakenly) thought it would emulate the storytelling of The Name of the Wind, which is a novel I did not like and did not finish (“wow Kvothe, great at everything” - my review). Within this framework, Sal takes us on a hell of a ride as she hunts down a list of fellow Vagrants who have wronged her. Sal has a large handgun (named The Cacophony), a bunch of magic bullets, a magical scarf, and that’s about it.

This novel is an exercise in trusting an author. When it starts like another novel I didn’t like, it proved me wrong to misjudge it. When it doesn’t explain its setting or history from the start, it respected my patience by giving me enough to keep going and eventually answering my questions. When it threw “TEN THOUSAND YEARS!” and “Eres va atali” at me without a whole lot of context, it explained what those phrases meant at a time when I would appreciate their meaning. I don’t want to explain these things here because I found a lot of enjoyment in keeping those questions in the back of my head. All this boils down to a recommendation that if you’re put off by the first couple chapters because you’re confused, please keep reading.

With that in mind, Sykes expertly builds a world where Sal can get in over her head, alone or with friends, and dig herself out, and make you root for her, even knowing that she’s a terrible person. This is a thick book but it’s a very rewarding read. Over the initial skepticism hump, I was utterly hooked from beginning to end because the characters were compellingly written and the story was well paced. There are moments in media that make me feel things. As an unemotional lizard person, those moments are rare for me, and rarer still in novels. Sykes sets up a couple moments like that in this novel, where all the little things add up to meaning, and it's very well executed.

Sal the Cacophony makes a huge mess and suffers for it and I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t get answers to everything, but I got enough answers that I don’t feel like I was led on. It is well worth the investment and I can’t wait to read the next Sam Sykes novel.

 ---

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 you're really going to like this unlikable character

Penalties: -1 requires a modicum in trust that your questions will be answered

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)

***

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

Reference: Sykes, Sam. Seven Blades in Black (Orbit, 2019)

Microreview [book]: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January uses an in-book book, and a discursive method to tell an ornately beautiful story about the power of Doors and stories.





January Scaller lives a peculiar life. The daughter of a man who travels the world on behalf of a rich and powerful man interested in curiosities, her education is idiosyncratic, peculiar, and she is rather sheltered. The appearance of a Door (and that is a capitalized door), and later, fatefully, a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” changes January’s life forever, revealing truths of her heritage, her origins, what happened to her mother, and her own power.

This is the story of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow.

The novel is a rather slippery fantasy to try and get a hold of. Is it a Portal fantasy, as the back matter and the title suggests? Yes, and no, the Portal aspects of the fantasy are not the central theme. Is it a coming of age story, of a young woman coming into herself? Yes, but there is much more going on with theme, history, theory and thought on it. The book is, however, a fantasy about the power of stories, and where stories come from, and how stories, for good, and bad, accurately and inaccurately, shape us and mold us, and make us what we are--and sometimes, if we find the right story, what we want and need to be.

The novel starts gamely enough, introducing us to the protagonist, who briefly encounters one of the world-spanning Doors. This brief look into another world taken away, the novel shows the course of January’s life as she is given the titular book. The Ten Thousand Doors is a Book of Gold¹ for January. Large portions of the book are taken up by text of this book within the book. What seems to be a conceit at first at reading what seems to be a scholarly work (there are even footnotes) slowly pulls back to reveal the true nature of the book, and January’s connection to the book, to the story within the book, and why and how the book came to her.The book unlocks January in other ways as well, propelling her from her life in Locke House into a wider world, into wider worlds. This is a novel about the power of story and how stories and books can shape who we are and who what we want to be. What is an implicit theme in a lot of books where reading is important to a protagonist,  is explicit and face forward, here

The plot in the book is a constant state of unfolding and reassessing what has gone before, as revelations as to who January is, who here parents are, and their relationship to the story in the book unfolds more and more. The author takes a patient approach to these revelations, allowing the reader a chance to try and work out what is going on before the text makes it explicit and unmistakable. Looking back, the clues are all there right from the beginning as to the true state of affairs, but the joy is stepping through the many doors, and seeing the unfolding of the story as a whole. The author seems to be writing for the moment when a reader, with a new revelation on the page, connects the dots back to a prior event and realizes what really occurred, and its provenance for the protagonist and her world.

The writing is beautiful and evocative. The portions in the present, with January’s story and coming of age, are wonderfully invoked. From sensory descriptions and evocations of place in all senses, to word choice and rhythm, January’s story renders very well. And at the same time, the rhythm of the book within the book is distinctly different and equally well done in it’s pitch and tone. The author manages the feat of having two very different and distinct voices of writing style within the book, braiding them together as the book within the book braids with the main plot of the novel.

If the book has a major weakness, it is in its unconventional approach and focus. That sort of focus, without a large drive forward means that it lacks a bit of the punch on the more basic levels of plot and action. The novel’s focus on the things it does very well means that the plotting of the main line of those beats itself doesn’t come off as well as when the novel is discoursing on story, or exploring what it means to unlock a story. This is a novel to savor in and think about stories and Doors and what has happened already, and what it means now,  much more than turning the page to find out what happens next. It’s a novel that invites and encourages reflection backward more than looking forward, which does rob the novel a bit of momentum that it could sometimes use. This is, I find, is a book for people who have already found their Book of Gold and are seeking to unlock many more Doors.

For those readers, however, this book is a jewel. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an excellent debut, whose words about story and the power of story suggests that the author may have many more stories beyond this one to tell us. I for one would like to read them.

¹Book of Gold is a term from Gene Wolfe, a Book that unlocks the world of literature for a reader. In this book, the 10,000 Doors of January unlocks January’s entire subsequent life.

---
The Math
Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for beautiful, deep writing, both in the book within the book and January’s story
+1 for contemplatively interesting thoughts and explorations of the nature of story

Penalties : -1 the plotting of the antagonists and their action is pale comparef to the richness of January’s coming of age story

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

***
Reference:  Harrow, Alix  The Ten Thousand Doors of January [Orbit, 2019]


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

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

The big news this week is that Joe Hill's NOS4A2 debuts this weekend on AMC. The story follows a special young lady who ends up tracking down Charlie Manx, an evil being who appears to be immortal and traps people in Christmasland.  I read the book many moons ago and the series looks to be amazing. The first episode is on June 2nd at 9pm.



Pick of the Week:
Batman: The Last Knight on Earth #1 - Reunited and it feels so good! Scott Snyder has paired up with Greg Capullo for a limited Batman series. Batman has awoken from a 20 year coma only to learn that his entire life has been a dream. The characters he has been fighting all of these years in Gotham are his caretakers in Arkham Asylum and he is the person who killed his parents in Crime Alley all of those years ago.  Clearly this is not truly the case, but Batman has to fight his way out of the Asylum and is on a quest to learn the truth. My favorite scene involves Bruce confronting his captors and learning that the cowl was merely a device added to a straight jacket to help with his electrotherapy.  Watching Batman in a straight jacket with a cowl fighting in Arkham is truly memorable.  I am curious to see where this is headed and thrilled to read a book written by Snyder and drawn by Capullo.

The Rest:
Star Wars: Darth Vader Dark Visions #4 - This mini-series of one shot issues veers off course a bit as its focus is more on a rebel who is dealing with issues from his past that prevents him from potentially taking out Vader early on in his rise to power. While it highlights the power of Vader and the Empire, it also humanizes the rebel forces and serves as a reminder that everyone has their flaws.





Stranger Things: Six #1 - This series focuses on an earlier resident of Dr. Brenner's lab who is know as subject Six. She has just joined the program after her parents recognized that she has special powers. There is something holding her back, but she is starting to have visions of the upside down. While it doesn't quite capture the nostalgia of Stranger Things, I am hopeful with the direction this prequel is headed.







Daredevil #6 - A new arc of Daredevil is here and I am not entire sure what to think of it. Daredevil hasn't been seen for months and Matt Murdock is working as a parole officer. The Owl is gaining power and a frustrated Mayor Fisk is reaching his breaking point. This issue feels like the calm before the storm that is going to force Murdock out of retirement despite the fact that he says he has never been happier. What poor tragedy is Murdock going to face that will bring him out of retirement? While there wasn't any foreshadowing in this issue, I fear for Foggy's well being.





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

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Welcome back for another edition of Reading the Hugos, 2019 Edition. Today we're going to take a look at the six finalists for Best Novelette.

Novelette is inherently a weird category. There's not really a substantial difference between a short story and a novelette, except that a novelette is just a little bit longer (but not as long as a novella, which really is a different form).

I would mention that only one work from my nominating ballot made the final ballot, but I only had one work on my nominating ballot - that being The Only Harmless Great Thing, a novelette I admired for how accomplished it was even if I wasn't fully passionate about it.

Last year's ballot had two stories connected to recent novels, but each of this year's stories stands fully alone. Shall we take a look at the stories on the ballot and see how they stand together?


If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November- December 2018)
When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)


When We Were Starless: This is a somewhat peculiar story, mostly in the set up of a tribe of scavengers on a desolate planet haunted by ghosts. I found that set up far less interesting than the idea of the tribe (eventually) being brave enough to adapt and overcome their superstitions. I also appreciated the touches of gradually revealing this is a post humanity world (whether it is Mars or Earth or something else is unclear) which leads to the reader picking up on what the ghosts are long before Mink (the protagonist) does.

The more I think about "When We Were Starless", the more I appreciate the work Simone Heller does here - I wanted to put the story down very early and move on to something else, but I'm glad I held on.


The Thing About Ghost Stories: I get the feeling that I should read more stories from Naomi Kritzer because every one I have read has been absolutely wonderful. The title here tells the story, "The Thing About Ghost Stories" is a story about ghost stories, but it is also a story about being told ghost stories and about memory and loss. Kritzer builds and builds and by the end, "The Thing About Ghost Stories" is all heart.

This is a lovely story, though I'm not sure its richness really holds up in comparison to the other stories on this ballot.


The Only Harmless Great Thing: I find myself in the minority regarding my lack of appreciation for The Only Harmless Great Thing. There was no question that this was going to one of the year's biggest and most notable stories and which would likely be in contention for all of the awards, but my first reading of the story left me flat. Not that my connection is essential for a story's success, but I didn't get what Bolander was doing with The Only Harmless Great Thing.

It took a second reading, after the announcement of the Hugo Award finalists, for me to engage more with the story Bolander was telling even if I still couldn't love it as much as its more full throated supporters.. For what it is worth, when Shana DuBois reviewed The Only Harmless Great Thing she said "there is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection" and that "Bolander's prose is some of the best I've ever read. Period. It is artful and sharp as a razor's edge." The Only Harmless Great Thing won the Nebula Award this year for Best Novelette.  (Shana's review)


If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again: I like to consider myself fairly well informed with the state of the science fiction and fantasy field, but I somehow missed that the Barnes and Nobles blog was also publishing short fiction - though if my math (and their tagging system) is correct, Zen Cho's story is only the fifth they've published and one of only two in 2018.

"If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again" features an imugi (a giant serpent) trying and failing over thousands of years to turn itself into a full fledged dragon. It is a delightful and charming story about perseverance, love, and self belief with an absolutely perfect ending. If this is the sort of story the B&N SFF Blog publishes, I'd like to see more from them.


The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections: What a beautifully constructed story. Much of "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections" is, in fact, told across one meal - but the temporal part of the title is important, because each course brings with it the transportation of memory, allowing Connolly to work flashbacks and a slight episodic format within what is otherwise a traditional narrative flow.

If not for "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth", this would be my clear favorite of the novelette finalists. The blending of food, memory, and vengeance is satisfying and excellent. I have somehow missed Tina Connolly's career up to this point, but I fully intend to catch up with her work.


Nine Last Days on Planet Earth: Told in nine episodes spread across some eighty seven years, Daryl Gregory's "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" is not the story of a different sort of an alien invasion, though it is also that. Initially, it seems to be dealing more with a boy growing up, but the passage of time means that "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" is more about life, of loss, of grief, of heartbreak, of change, and really of humanity. And yes, with alien plants invading and gradually taking over the planet with the speed of plants.

"Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" is a beautiful, moving story. Absolutely lovely. More of this, please.


My Vote
1. Nine Last Days of Planet Earth
2. The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
3. If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again
4. The Only Harmless Great Thing
5. The Thing About Ghost Stories
6. When We Were Starless


Our Previous Coverage
Novel
Novella

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Questing in Shorts: May 2019

Another month ends, another set of short stories is here! Like last month, I seem to have been on a mini themed collection kick, with two unsettling volumes from the nexus of speculative and literary fiction. Of course, there's some magazine reading to go around too, and I've already got plenty more lined up for next month's reading.

Let's dive in:

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


Machado is new to me as an author, and I therefore didn't know what to expect from this collection, but visually we were off to a good start: It's not my usual habit to review books based on how physically nice they are, but I think it has to be noted that Serpent's Tail have produced a volume that's positively pettable, and could also be useful when sending visual "GO" signals over long distances with its neon green cover. The niceness of the volume sets off an intense and brilliant set of stories full of sex, death and the mundane made dangerous, which play with the concept of voice and empowerment in various, usually heartbreaking ways. Machado's women record their own worlds and experiences because nobody else will, and they are not believed in a world which is literally not set up for their existence. It's relateable and queer and stunning in both the literal and metaphorical senses.

The standout among standouts is "The Husband Stitch" (Read online), a painfully good opener which really sets the scene for Machado's talent. It balances the mundane world of a woman who marries her childhood sweetheart young and then raises their child, with an overwhelmingly claustrophobic sense of threat from the outside world; a threat compounded by the lack of belief anyone else places in her, and the lengths she has to go to claw out any respect for her space and autonomy. This is physically represented in the story through a speculative device: the protagonist has a ribbon tied around her neck, for which she has, and needs, no explanation, telling her husband he also can't touch or ask about it. The narrative's regular return to the ribbon and to what it means to each character culminates in a shattering, exhausted betrayal, that feels inevitable even as we're desperate to stop it happening.

The rest of the volume takes us through many of the same themes in new and inventive ways, and while nothing quite reaches the outstanding heights of "The Husband Stitch", it doesn't need to do be gripping, high quality work. My honourable mention here has to be "Especially Heinous", a novella told in the form of capsule synopses for 12 seasons of fictional Law and Order: SVU episodes. I have not seen any Law and Order: SVU, but luckily the story is accessible with no prior knowledge of anything but the most general tropes about police procedurals. Again, sex, death and misogyny are out in force, along with an increasingly bizarre interlocking narrative about betrayals, doppelgangers, ghosts with bells for eyes and an endless parade of rape victims whose murders go unsolved but not uncatalogued. Brilliant stuff.

Rating: 9/10

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah


Here's the second of this month's debut collections which straddles the line between literary and speculative fiction. Adjei-Brenyah's volume of 12 speculative stories sits, as the inside cover quote from Roxane Gay suggests, in a spot quite close to the vicious satire of Childish Gambino's "This is America", or of the film "Sorry to Bother You", taking elements of racism and capitalism and holding a magnifying glass to their most absurd and dangerous elements. It's a collection with lots of big speculative ideas and not a lot in the way of catharsis, from the opening story, "The Finkelstein 5", about the backlash to a man being acquitted for murdering five black children with a chainsaw; to the trio of stories at the Prominent Mall's clothing department, where a nameless star of sales survives Black Fridays where customers and salespeople fight for their lives over bargains in the winterwear department, only to be passed over when a talented white woman starts working in the same section; to outright science fictional stories like "Through the Flash", in which a community finds itself infinitely reliving the day before a nuclear attack, working through their newfound impunity for both their best and worst impulses.

Because of its heavy satirical elements, it feels even more impossible than usual to write an objective review of Friday Black, because any reader's reaction is going to depend on whether they are willing to suspend their disbelief over the elements which are called out and exaggerated. All I can say is that for me, Friday Black very much hit the mark, where similar stories (for example, Robert Jackson Bennett's Vigilance: the perfect example of a "YMMV" satire among our team) didn't work for me. "Zimmer Land" was probably the point where this was most noticeable, a short story in which Zay, a young black man, works at a theme park where guests (who, unsurprisingly, all appear to be racist white conservatives) get to live out experiences like foiling terrorist plots and taking down suspicious people in their neighbourhood in a supposedly safe environment. The combination of meaningless, politically motivated violence and the platitudes about self-actualisation which the park's management justify it with is on-the-nose to the point of absurdity, but Zay's characterisation and spin on the events around him, even as park management takes the "experience" in a direction he's deeply uncomfortable with, makes the experience engaging, real, and exquisitely difficult.

Rating 8/10.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 276 and 277 (Read Online: 276 277)


I am cherry-picking my coverage of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, because after the last batch that I reviewed in March there were a couple of issues which weren't too memorable for me. I'm fairly certain that this is my fault and not the stories themselves - having looked back over the list of stories published, I definitely remember having very good feelings about stories like "Undercurrents" by Charles Payseur (in Issue 274) and "The Red Honey Witch" by Jessica Paddock (Issue 275) - I suspect I just read them at the wrong time. However, the pair of stories from Troy L. Wiggins and Dayna K. Smith in Issue 276 really made me sit up and pay attention. Wiggins' story, "Fury at the Crossroads", brings a strong sense of place and character to a post-disaster world in which humans have gone to war with the Gods, dealing with an agent named Fury who, along with her haint mentor/companion Junebug, is trying to find the source of a taint of the land she's in - a mystery which will bring her directly into conflict with those now trying to claim this land away from the deity Fury serves.

In "Hangdog", Dayna K. Smith delivers me the historical werewolf story I didn't realise I wanted so badly. It centres around Grinn and Buddy, a pair of shapeshifters on the road who find a hanged soldier who has apparently been killed for being a werewolf. Of course, werewolves don't die of hanging, so poor Jonas is still alive and he soon manages to rub some of his bad luck off on the pair as they are accosted by another man, who turns out to be the only non-werewolf in a lineage of shapeshifters and wants Grinn or Jonah to give him the legacy his family have denied him. As a standalone story, the elements that go into this are little bit on the conveniently coincidental side, but that's more than made up for by the great worldbuilding, particularly the visceral descriptions of the shapeshifters and what their wolfiness does to their sense of self and their interactions with other beings. From the biography, there's a novel version of this universe in the works and I'm already fully signed up for more adventures with Grinn, Jonah and Buddy as and when they come our way.

Issue 277 delivers two bone-themed stories of which the highlight is R.K. Duncan's fable of an accomplished diver trying to do the impossible for his family business, "The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat". It's heavy on the elements that make Beneath Ceaseless Skies' "Literary Adventure Fantasy" so much fun: an engaging self-contained story among ordinary people in a world which feels like it goes far beyond the tiny corner we get to see. The city of Ranzak's history, geography and magic all comes into play as Navid's family are tasked with creating a powerful coat made from the enchanted bones of rebels which now lie in the silt of the city's river, on an ambitious deadline. Navid is the best diver in the city, and loves his job, but it takes more than skill for him to find the materials he needs, and things might not turn out the way he hopes. It's a classic-feeling story in an inventive world and I'm always on board for aquatic adventures.

Ratings: 7/10.

FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10: HAIR (Link/Soundtrack)


FIYAH's hair themed issue is here, bringing with it a trio of slipstream-type short stories jumping from modern day settings, which all contain black women dealing in some way with hair that isn't hair: flowers, snakes and feathers respectively. The first, "In That Place She Grows a Garden" by Del Sandeen, deals with a setting that should be familiar to anyone who pays attention online: a girl in her junior year at high school who falls foul of the dress code for her dreadlocked hair. When she bows to the pressure to cut it off, she finds herself instead sprouting flowers - and protected by the creatures that pollinate them. It's a story framed as a small but jubilant victory in a world that's otherwise against the protagonist, and it's evocative stuff. The second story, "My Snakes" by Frieda Vaughn contains a mixed race protagonist whose mother has no idea what to do with her hair, and her relationship to painful relaxers and their impact on her self-perception and the way others see her. Stranded through the story, which is told in snatches of scenes over decades, is the myth of Medusa, and the light speculative elements as the protagonist finds dead snakes on her pillow and laments their lifeless obedience during her years of relaxers, finally restoring them in an act of triumphant ownership over her own body. Shari Paul's "No Late-for-School" changes tone again and uses the form of a blog entry to tell an event in the life of Delilah, whose now-ex boyfriend gets her into some magical trouble with an ex-girlfriend and transformative magic. This might be the first time I've specifically seen blog language and format used to this effect in fiction, and the mode of narration fits the story perfectly, letting Delilah tell her story with humour and agency and to put what is objectively a pretty horrifying incident into her own slightly understated, social media-fied context.

Having put together these three similarly-premised (though distinct) contemporary stories, the issue's novelette takes the plunge into high fantasy for "While Dragons Claim the Sky" by Jen Brown, the story of two women in a world where magic is channelled through hair, and hairdressers therefore hold the ultimate potential for power. Omani is eager to go to the best magical academy in the land, but finds that getting the scholarship money she needs to attend from the empress herself is going to be harder and more problematic than she thinks - until Myra walks through the door of her mother's salon with an invitation to join a major tournament that could win them both the attention of the Empress, if Omani's magic can help her win. On reaching the capital and learning more about the political world she's about to enter Omani ends up bound up in acts of rebellion that go well beyond her expectations and comfort zone. It's a refreshing change of pace from the contemporary stories before it which offers a great alternative take on the issue's theme, rounding off another good set of stories from this Hugo Semiprozine finalist.

Rating: 7/10

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.

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 [Tor.com 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.

Season Six: Game of Thrones twitter: HOW CAN YOU NOT WATCH GAME OF THRONES? IT IS THE CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE OF OUR TIME!

Also Game of Thrones Twitter: WHAT THE #^%$ IS THIS GARBAGE? WHO WROTE IT, A DRUNK MONKEY WITH A BROKEN TYPEWRITER?

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.

-DESR


 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 Tor.com 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 Tor.com Publishing. Two years ago Tor.com had four of the six finalists. It is only three years ago, in 2016, that Tor.com 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 Tor.com 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 Tor.com 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 (Tor.com Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com 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
Novel


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].