Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Weight of our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

A well-crafted delight for YA fans seeking horizon-broadening historical fare

Cover Art by Guy Shields

As a historical YA set in Malaysia with only the lightest of speculative elements, The Weight of our Sky is a bit out-of-lane for this blog, but the author overlaps with a lot of the Twitter writing people that I follow, and this debut has been on my radar for quite some time. I've spent some time in Southeast Asia and am familiar with a fair bit of the region's 20th century history, but I knew little about Malaysia and the complex historical relationships between its ethnic groups. The Weight of our Sky focuses on once incident in particular: the riots set off on 13 May 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, in which hundreds of people (with wildly diverging "official" and "unofficial" death tolls) were killed in sectarian violence largely between Chinese and Malay populations in the city. This is an event that clearly still looms large among Malaysian communities and I think it's particularly important for a book like this for me to note that what follows is an outgroup review and only likely to be insightful to those, like me, coming from an outsider perspective with limited understanding of the specific cultural context. For a more ownvoices take, I recommend The Quiet Pond for a perspective from the Malaysian diaspora.

The protagonist of The Weight of our Sky is a Melati, a young Malay Muslim woman who, since the untimely death of her father, has been suffering from what she feels is possession by a malevolent djinn: trapped by compulsions and by obsessive thoughts about the death of her mother (symptoms which are recognisable to a modern audience as OCD), she is already struggling when the events of May 13 begin.  Caught in the cinema where she and her friend have been watching a film, Melati narrowly escapes the first round of violence, and is taken in by an older Chinese woman, Auntie Bee, who looks after her in the days following the riots. Despite being from ethnic groups on different side of the conflict, Melati connects with most members of the family and integrates into the small community they build while trying to survive the now-lawless city. Still desperate to get back to her mother, however, she convinces the family's younger son, who is volunteering with the Red Cross, to take her out on his trips - and soon learns how dangerous the streets still are and how much courage and willpower it will take to survive, and help others, in the circumstances.

The book wastes no time getting into its historical events, and the opening chapters provide all the necessary information to understand Melati's society and the immediate trigger to the riots. It does so while placing significantly more weight on Melati's personal history, and particularly the symptoms and progression of her illness. Melati's battles with OCD, including her self-talk and her constant rationalising and bargaining with herself over compulsive behaviour, are front and centre of every chapter, and its all-encompassing nature gives her character a broadly relateable and satisfying arc without overstating her agency in a complicated political situation. It also allows Melati to be somewhat distracted about the underlying factors of the riots and for characters to be able to explain these to her, making them more accessible to modern readers, particularly those who may not have a background on the ongoing tensions between communities in Malaysia. By not dwelling on the immediate political triggers and relying on their explanatory power, Alkaf's story manages to drive home the overwhelming senselessness of the ethnic tensions that are driving people to violence, while gently exploring some of the social factors that have made the communities' lives harder through the eyes of a painfully fallible young protagonist.

The treatment of Melati's OCD, particularly in this time and place, could have easily been a story by itself without the historical trauma, and it's treated in a way which feels very real. Melati makes sense of her suffering by assuming is that that there is a djinn in her head who needs constant appeasement through rituals in order to ensure her mother stays alive (or to at least stop the thoughts about her death; the book is deliberately vague and illogical, just as mental illnesses themselves are). The use of this device is explained in the author foreword, but even without the particular cultural touchstones, Melati's internal dialogue makes an unpleasant kind of sense to anyone who has dealt with intrusive thoughts or negative self-talk, and we can only watch in sympathy as she is paralysed with her compulsive behaviours at the worst possible times, or locks herself into vicious cycles where every tiny failure or trauma contributes to a confirmatory bias in which she is the sole person responsible for the fate of her loved ones.

For most of the book, the threat of violence is constant but with the exception of an early incident the individuals who are actually committing the violence remain in the background. Instead we see people who are trying to do their best in bad situations, who have been assaulted offscreen and are now trying to survive, or who condone the racial hatred behind the riots but aren't actually going out and perpetuating it. There's what feels like a deliberate disjointedness between the attitudes of people Melati actually spends time with, no matter how difficult or racist, and the senselessness of the rioting and death that's taken over her city; it drives home the extent to which the causal factors behind the riot - or any incident of this type - just don't justify violence in any rational sense. It's perhaps a little convenient that the one character who is being set up to play an active role in the fighting is then talked down at the very last minute, avoiding the very complex human spin that would put on the tentative reconciliation and collective grief the book ends with. On the whole, though, I think the narrative makes the right choices when it comes to showing how the violence takes hold, steering away from any too-easy explanations or straightforward villains to hang the blame on in favour of presenting a difficult political situation in a way that fits the narrative.

The cultural aspects of the story also feel well told, and I could imagine this level of nuance towards an existing culture and historical moment from anything but an own voices story. My particular favourites were the older women in the story: Auntie Bee and Mak Siti- are fantastic characters, imbued with all the cultural gravitas and expectations of being obeyed that an older "Auntie" has in the cultural context. There's a particularly magnificent scene where, on finding her way back to her home, Mak Siti tells Melati off for not coming home on the night of the riot because the fish she'd cooked had gone to waste. It's a statement so ridiculous that even Melati has to work out whether she means it, but the narrative simultaneously makes it clear that Melati needs to take her Auntie's worries seriously, no matter how banal and unreasonable they appear, while also understanding and caring about the emotion and worry that provoked the statement in the first place. Of course, the Aunties are just a small part of an ensemble that encompasses Chinese, Malay and Indians, young and old, military and civilian, and there's generally impressive character work on display making the individuals and small communities Melati comes into contact with feel real, even when their role in the plot is small (and again, sometimes a little too convenient).

I'm hesitant to call any book "required reading", and Alkaf herself notes that there are plenty of reasons not to read the book given its subject matter and potential trigger points. However, Alkaf doesn't treat her subject matter in a gratuitous or deliberately shock-inducing way, and if you're prepared for a difficult read, The Weight of our Sky is accessible a a book dealing with a traumatic historical event is likely to get. That it's a book about an event in 1969 Malaysia with limited visibility on a global stage, published in English for an international audience, makes it something I'd recommend to any non-Malaysian reader seeking to broaden their horizons and engage with events outside the limited slice of history that so often informs our perspectives.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Balances two enormous issues - the riots and Melati's OCD - with skill and sensitivity

Penalties: -1 Plot occasionally verges on the too-convenient

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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference:  Alkaf, Hanna. The Weight of Our Sky [Salaam Reads, 2019].

Monday, July 15, 2019

Joe's Books of 2019: Part One (January - June)

Good morning and welcome to my cataloging of all of the books I read in the first six months of 2019. I started this feature several years ago and it's something I really enjoy doing. I love making lists of books and I only review or even write about a small fraction of what I read in any given year. Doing all twelve months in one go would be overwhelming, but six months seems about right to me.
What I read during the year is not all about the new shiny, but I do try to keep up with some of the more prominent works of the genre coming out each year (and works that should be more prominent than they are). Even before the television show, there was no lack of conversation around The Expanse novels, but James S.A. Corey is doing some of the best work of their career with Tiamat’s Wrath. It’s the eighth novel in the series, and with the resetting of the deck with the time jump the previous novel, Persepolis Rising, they are reaching for new heights. Tiamat’s Wrath is all the richer for the journey of the previous seven novels, but damn, James S.A. Corey is at the top of their game.

Also on the top of her game is Charlie Jane Anders. The City in the Middle of the Night is her second speculative fiction novel and it is a tonal departure from her Nebula Award winning debut All the Birds in the Sky. The City in the Middle of the Night is reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work with her Hainish novels, which is perhaps as high a compliment as one can give a novel. Expect to see this on awards lists and Best Ofs.

I am willing to go out on a limb right now and say that it is exceedingly unlikely that I am going to read a better novel in 2019 than The Light Brigade. We thought we were waiting for the final volume in her Worldbreakers Saga, but what Hurley has been doing the last few years is leveling up and then leveling up again. The Stars Are Legion and The Light Brigade are her two best novels and The Light Brigade is Hurley taking another step forward as one of the most important and vital writers working today. The Light Brigade is that damn good, people.

Not published this year, and I’ll mention it again when discussing some of the more explicitly feminist works I’ve read this year so far, more readers should pay attention to Isaac Fellman’s The Breath of the Sun. It is a quiet and extraordinary novel.

With Seanan McGuire on the Best Series ballot for the last three years (twice for October Daye, once for InCrytpid), I wanted to read a whole lot more of her work. I’ve adored a LOT of her work (Every Heart a Doorway is one of the best stories I’ve read, Into the Drowning Deep is spectacular), but until last year I hadn’t delved deeply into her longer series work. Last year I began her Incryptid series and feel head over heels for it. This year marked my big push to catch up and catch up I have. That Ain’t Witchcraft is the most recent Incryptid novel and it is just lovely. October Daye had been on the backburner for years after thinking Rosemary and Rue was just okay. I’m now four novels into October Daye and by the time this essay goes live it’ll be five. I have a ways to go, but I will eventually read all McGuire’s novel and novella length fiction. I’d say all of her fiction, but likely I won’t get to all her shorter work and I’m sure I’ll miss a comic book or three. What you shouldn’t miss, though, is her standalone (for now) novel Middlegame from Tor.com Publishing. Seanan McGuire is a powerhouse and Middlegame is a more ambitious novel in terms of form and craft and she absolutely nails it. Also, don’t sleep on Alien: Echo written under her Mira Grant persona. It’s set in the wider Alien franchise and it is a killer (!) YA horror novel.

Another writer I’ve made a major push on this year is Lois McMaster Bujold. I was tired of being behind on her Vorkosigan series and I read eight novels and novellas I had left. Now I’m sad, because I have no more new Vorkosigan to read. It might be time to make that next push into her Chalion and Sharing Knife universes. I was delighted by Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. I would love another novel from Ivan’s perspective, and I hope that The Flower of Vashnoi suggests that we’ll see more Ekaterin stories. Miles can’t have all the fun, after all. Cryoburn was excellent, but there is certainly room for more stories of Miles as Lord Auditor.

 If you’ve followed these twice annual essays, you may remember that one of my favorite things to do early in the year is to follow The Tournament of Books, a March Madness style bracket of novels pitted against each other in a completely frivolous and absolutely serious tournament. It’s been an opportunity for me to read stuff I might otherwise have never discovered (Homegoing! Pachinko! The Mothers!) and is something my wife and I enjoy discussing together (the venn diagram of our reading habits only partially overlaps). Some highlights this year include Tommy Orange’s debut There There, the Pulitzer Prizing winning novel The Overstory, from Richard Powers, and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I wasn’t able to get to Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) during the tournament, but do still plan to read it this year before my attention is gobbled up by next year’s tournament.

In a technical sense, our Feminist Futures initiative ended last year. We published 16 essays and reviews, from October though December, but in a sense Feminist Futures is forever because I’ve pushed myself to make changes in what I read and to continue to seek different voices that I may have overlooked. There were several books I planned to write about as part of Feminist Futures that I just did not get to during the main run of the feature. Pamela Sargent’s More Women of Wonder, a follow up anthology to her seminal Women of Wonder is just as good as the first and focuses on more recent (for the time) novelettes – though there is a Jirel of Joiry story from CL Moore. More Women of Wonder includes an Alyx story from Joanna Russ and a Hainish story from Le Guin which can serve as a mini prologue to The Dispossessed. The other anthology I had hoped to cover for Feminist Futures was Sisters of the Revolution, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. With stories ranging from 1978 to 2012, Sisters of the Revolution looks at what came after the crest of second wave of feminist science fiction. It is as good as advertised.

Having read two of Pamela Sargent’s anthologies, I wanted to take the time to read one of her novels. The Shore of Women reminded me in many ways of Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, though it is important to note that Sargent’s novel was published two years before Tepper’s. They take very similar approaches to the idea of segregating women in a more “civilized” and advanced city and forcing the men out in the wild except to provide seed for the women to reproduce. I prefer The Shore of Women. I also reviewed Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Watchtower, an excellent fantasy featuring queer characters – something that was far more groundbreaking in 1979 than today. The novel holds up otherwise. Not specifically from the Feminist Futures project, but I would point to Isaac Fellman’s Breath of the Sun (published by Aqueduct) as an excellent feminist fantasy novel published last year.

Also, worth looking at – Adri reviewed Dreamsnake following Vonda McIntyre’s passing and Vance reviewed Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. I read The Female Man last year for Feminist Futures but couldn’t come up with a direction to write about it, and Dreamsnake remains on my must-read-this-year list.

 Since Hugo Award Season is eternal, I am reading: this year’s finalists, novels and novellas that may be in consideration for next year, and beginning a project for later this year looking back and previous Hugo Award winners. I think that just means I’m reading science fiction and fantasy. Anything more might cause my head to explode. I’d recommend Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos to get a year by year dive into the Hugo Awards from the beginning up through 2010. It’s a deeply personal consideration, informed by Walton’s tastes, but as with so many of her essays, highly engaging. Also on the Related Work ballot is Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, an excellent four-way biography of John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard of scientology fame. It is a vital look at a part of the genre’s history. Also part of this genre’s history, They’d Rather Be Right won the second ever Hugo Award for Best Novel and it is generally known as the worst Hugo Award winner of all time. Naturally, I read it. It sure is a book.

More excellently, and on the Lodestar ballot for Best YA Novel, I can only give my highest recommendation to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. It is so much better than I could have anticipated, and I already had very high expectations.

 I am somewhat off my unspoken goal pace of reading an average of one short story per day for the full year. I think I borrowed the goal from Bridget McKinney of the 2018 Hugo Finalist SF Bluestocking (but don’t worry, I’ll give it back), and though I don’t think I’m going to make it anymore, it is probably reasonable for me to read at least 200 stories this year published in anthologies and collections. Two of my most anticipated were Ted Chiang’s Exhalation and Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. It’s been seventeen years since Chiang published his last collection (Stories of Your Life and Others) and Exhalation lives up to the anticipation. Chiang is one of the genre’s best short story writers of all time. He’s not prolific, but what he puts out is of the highest quality.

Compared to Chiang, Sarah Pinsker is very much a newer writer in the early years of her career – though she has been publishing for seven years and her short fiction has been rightfully recognized for excellence from the start. Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea is Pinsker’s debut collection and at the very least, I’ve been following along with her award nominated fiction for the entire time. It doesn’t get much better than one of Sarah Pinsker’s stories.

I’ve read eight collections or anthologies so far this year, which even though it’s not quite meeting my borrowed goal, it’s a whole lot more short fiction than I’ve read in recent years. I’d also like to spotlight Kat Howard’s collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone (also a 2019 publication), and New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl. Both are very much worth checking out. With an eye to some older fiction, I’ve read two feminist collections noted above (More Women of Wonder and Sisters of the Revolution) and Judith Merril’s 1956 anthology SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (see my conversation with Adri and Paul).

Finally, I would like to take a look at my reading statistics for the first half of 2019 as it relates to gender. This is something I've been thinking about and working on for a number of years now and I have found that I tend to do a better job at meeting my goals when I check in after every month and continually monitor my progress. Even with five years of thoughtful reading choices, it is so easy to find myself reading fewer women than I would like.

It should go without saying, but I know there will be misunderstanding if I don't. This isn't about denying one set of books (written by men) for another (written by women). It's not. This is about embracing as much as possible. This is about discovering new favorite books and new favorite authors that I never would have discovered if I didn't make a point to see out authors I've "always meant to read" but never have. How many of these women have written my favorite books, if I only I took the smallest amount of effort to find them?

Ultimately, I want to read everything. All the books.

If my count is correct (and I have been known to miss a book or two, despite my obsessive list making), 67 of the 91 books I've read were written by women (73.62%).

I should also note that I am only counting those writers who use female pronouns in my count of female writers versus male. Any mistakes in this count are mine alone and I apologize for any misunderstandings I may have propagated.

Here are my stats from the last four years for a point of comparison.
2018: 68.42%
2017: 51.50%
2016: 56.21%
2015: 58.59%
2014: 45.92%

Now, on with the lists!

1. The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman
2. The Breath of the Sun, by Rachel Fellman
3. Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala
4. Komarr, by Lois McMaster Bujold
5. A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold
6. Winterfair Gifts, by Lois McMaster Bujold
7. Born to the Blade: Season One, by Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw, Marie Brennan
8. 1634: The Galileo Affair, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis
9. The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka
10. Magic for Nothing, by Seanan McGuire
11. Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold
12. Diplomatic Immunity, by Lois McMaster Bujold
13. Sisters of the Revolution, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
14. More Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent

15. Lioness Rampant, by Tamora Pierce
16. Tricks for Free, by Seanan McGuire
17. The Recitation of the Most Holy and Harrowing Pilgrimage of Mindy and Also Mork, by Seanan McGuire
18. There There, by Tommy Orange
19. Outside the Gates, by Molly Gloss
20. Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones
21. New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl
22. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold
23. Tor.com Short Fiction: January-February 2019, by John Chu, Elizabeth Bear, Mimi Mondal, J.Y. Yang, Mary Robinette Kowal, Annalee Newitz
24. The Parking Lot Attendant, by Nafkote Tamirat
25. Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
26. Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller
27. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
28. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje 

29. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
30. The Fall of Io, by Wesley Chu 
31. The Bastard Prince, by Katherine Kurtz
32. Alliance Rising, by C.J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher
33. Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, by Vylar Kaftan
34. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
35. Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman
36. On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas
37. In the Shadow of Spindrift House, by Mira Grant
38. A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, by Kat Howard
39. The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

40. Sparrow Hill Road, by Seanan McGuire
41. SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (1956), edited by Judith Merril
42. Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
43. Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, by Scotto Moore
44. Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold
45. The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
46. The Test, by Sylvain Neuvel
47. Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
48. Watchtower, by Elizabeth A. Lynn
49. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
50. Assassin's Price, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr
51. Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace
52. The Red Wyvern, by Katharine Kerr 
53. Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, by Sarah Pinsker
54. An Artificial Night, by Seanan McGuire

55. Wild Life, by Molly Gloss
56. The Last Time I Lied, by Riley Sager
57. The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent
58. The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
59. The Flowers of Vashnoi, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite
61. Atmosphaera Incognita, by Neal Stephenson

Astounding: John W. Campell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee
70. Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon
71. Storm of Locusts, by Rebecca Roanhorse
72. On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard
73. The Dragon That Flew Out of the Sun, by Aliette de Bodard
Hunting Party, by Elizabeth Moon
76. That Ain't Witchcraft, by Seanan McGuire
77. The Measure of a Monster, by Seanan McGuire

78. Exhalation, by Ted Chiang
Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire
81. Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman
82. Tiamat's Wrath, by James S.A. Corey
83. They'd Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Reilly
84. A History of the Hugo, Nebula, and International Fantasy Awards, by Donald Franson and Howard DeVore
85. Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland
86. The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
87. Terran Tomorrow, by Nancy Kress
88. The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black 
89. All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey, by Betsy Mason
90. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green
91. Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata

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

Friday, July 12, 2019

Microreview [book]: Brightfall, by Jaime Lee Moyer

Jaime Lee Moyer’s Brightfall provides a new and magical spin on the post-Merry Men life of Marian, Robin and his companions in Sherwood Forest

The rebellion led by Robin, Earl of Loxley, and his companions in Sherwood Forest is long since over. The companions, while in touch, have mostly gone on their separate ways  Even the power couple of Robin and Marian are estranged, Robin having gone to a Monastery years ago for reasons not very clear--especially since this leaves Marian as a  single mother to raise two children. Fortunately, Marian’s powers as a witch help make up the gap. However, when it turns out that members of their former band  and their loved ones are dying in mysterious ways, Marian suspects a Faerie connection, and she will have to work with her estranged husband to find the truth of what is happening and why before that death comes for her and her children.

This is the core story at the heart of Brightfall, a Historical Fantasy novel by Jaime Lee Moyer.

Robin Hood stories are of course extremely common, it is a legend, story, myth that is endlessly reinventable for any time and place where there is injustice, power imbalance, and those who would give up their own comfort and power to help others. It’s one of the core stories of humanity, and many cultures have one. The swiss marksman William Tell is very much in this same vein as Robin Hood. Zorro also gets some of his roots in Robin Hood. A book I read last year,  a Chinese literary classic, The Water Margin by Shji Na’ian, could be thought of very inaccurately as “Robin Hood in Song China”.

Less common, however, is exploring what happens when the true King (Richard the Lionheart in the case of the Robin Hood myth) has returned. It is usually happily ever after, into the sunset, and the story ends. You occasionally get a movie like “Robin and Marian” but they are rare. MOyer decides to venture into the same sort of territory. Marian and Robin married after the well known events, but then parted years ago for reasons only fully explained and realized in the narrative. The Marian that Moyer describes is a single mother, stronger than she herself thinks, independent, nurturing, caring and willing to do what is necessary to protect those she loves. Making her a witch and connected to the decaying world of Faerie, whose influence on England is surely and steadily waning, gives her additional agency as well.

The other characters in the novel, human and otherwise, are the strength, power and richness of the novel. Beyond Marian herself, Robin comes off as a prat at first, someone to intensely dislike and hate because of his abandonment of Marian. The reasons how and why he did so, and his ultimate connection with the unraveling of the plot, humanize him to a degree, but the writer’s and reader’s intended sympathy comes off the page intended for Marian. Even by the end of the novel, I still thought he was a prat for his actions, even if I ultimately understood the how and why of them by the end of the novel.

 Marian, as a witch, has a bond with animals, magical beings, and the Fae. These connections help make Marian Moyer’s in a solid and unique way, making her stand out and providing plenty of characterization. and I particularly liked Bridget, the fox.  There is also a dragon, much diminished in these less magical times that she lives in. The Fae themselves come across as alien, inhuman, oddly passionate, strange, ethereal and in the end, characters of their own. It came as no surprise to me how the ultimate antagonist of the book was tied to the main characters of the novel. The problem and issues are very much social and character based ones, and even if the Fae are alien, the motives of the ultimate antagonist makes sense in that alien context. Solid and deep character relationships are a core feature of Moyer’s books, and Brightfall continues in that tradition.

And yes, since this is a Jaime Lee Moyer book, there is a ghost involved in the doings.The ghost’s identity and tie to the narrative, and to Marian, and ultimately to the plot, make sense, although I think it could have been fleshed out a tiny bit more. As it stands right now, the ghost’s presence feels a tiny bit vestigial for my tastes. The ghost is for the most part much more relevant to the character of Marian than to the plot itself, but we don’t feel that as much as we might or should.

I did like the Sherwood Forest that Moyer depicts. The cover of the book is a map of Sherwood Forest itself, and there is a good sense of place that we get to 14th century Sherwood Forest. We get a variety of settings, starting with the relatively safe and protected home of Marian, and journeying outward to more stressful and more fraught locations for Marian. The geography of the story gives the sense of a journey outward from relative safety into a more dangerous world, to confront a danger that, unaddressed, will eventually come and destroy that haven of safety, even as all of this occurs within the bounds of the famous forest.

Overall, Brightfall is a strong character study of a post-Sherwood Marian, with a good set of characters around her that richly fill her magical forest.

The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a really strong and well developed main character and character relationships throughout the novel.

Penalties : -1 A little lack of use of things like the Ghost and a few other aspects of the world could have used some more heft.

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

Reference:  Moyer, Jaime Lee , Brightfall  [Jo Fletcher Books, 2019]

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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero - SDCC Offsite Edition

If you ever find yourself in San Diego during SDCC and are not fortunate enough to have a badge to the convention center, there is plenty to do without a badge as the Gaslamp is transformed during SDCC.  Some of the activation require a badge, but most are available to the public and a lot of fun. Be prepared to wait, but if you can brave the crowds and the long lines there is a lot to do.  Here are five offsite events that I hope to partake in this year.

Amazon Prime Experience:
Amazon is building its own offsite experience to highlight The Boys, Carnival Row, and The Expanse. This massive activation is across the street from the convention center and allows fans to enlist in a UN peacekeeping mission for The Expanse, team up with some vigilantes to cover up a crime scene for The Boys, or visit a Victorian lounge as you find a safe haven from Carnival Row.  I have seen some pictures of the ongoing construction for this offsite and it is impressive. Fans can check it out Thursday through Sunday at SDCC.

Conan is bringing his show for the sixth straight year and I am hoping to make it to at least one show.  In addition to hosting his show for four nights, the Team Coco House is returning to highlight some of the talented writers from his show and tickets are already sold out.  Conan remains a hot ticket at SDCC and there is no mystery as to why.  His show is wildly entertaining and his activities always pack some amazing swag.  I remember a great potholder I got at an art activation many moons ago.

Warner Bros. is promoting its new series that follows Batman's butler as he gallivants around 1960's London.  If there is one thing I love, it is figuring out a password to gain access to a secret location. Running Thursday through Sunday, fans will have to discover a password to gain access to the Velvet Rope. Inside they can play blackjack, enjoy drag and cabaret performances, and learn more about the world this series is set.  I am very intrigued by the premise of this show and hope I can figure out the password!

Detective Pikachu:
With the pending release of Detective Pikachu on digital video, Ryme City is getting the Comic Con treatment and an immersive offsite event will open on Wednesday during preview night outside the Omni Hotel.  The event will run through Sunday and participants will get to explore Ryme City, check out prop displays from the film.  As a big Pokemon fan I am very much looking forward to immersing myself in Ryme City with my son.

Funko Fundays:
This year's theme for Funko Fundays is Freaky Tiki Fundays and I am extremely fortunate to return for my sixth Fundays and get to take my son to his second. I am looking forward to the entertaining show that Funko always provides along with some food, drink, and exclusive Funko swag. This event blew my son's mind last year and he has been anticipating returning to this the entire year.

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Listening to the Hugos: Fancast

Welcome to Listening to the Hugos: 2019 Edition! This is exactly the same as Reading the Hugos, except since I’m listening to the fancasts and not reading transcripts, it seems a little weird to keep the same series title. Listening to the Hugos is also a much better title than “Doing Things to the Hugos”, which just sounds dirty. As such, we’re just going to move on.

This year’s lineup has some familiar names: The Coode Street Podcast, Fangirl Happy Hour, Galactic Suburbia, and The Skiffy and Fanty Show are all previous finalists, with the first three of those having been finalists last year and Galactic Suburbia previously winning in 2015. In the eight years of the category, The Coode Street Podcast has only twice missed the ballot and both times during the Puppy years. In 2015, it was one vote off of the ballot and in 2016 it would have missed the ballot regardless of shenanigans. Of course, both Fangirl Happy Hour and Skiffy and Fanty would have made the ballot in 2016, so that’s a rabbit hole we can go down forever.

Only one of the fancasts I nominated made the ballot, that being the ever present Coode Street Podcast. In particular, I feel the lack of Sword and Laser not being a repeat finalist this year. That was one of my great discoveries after being a first time finalist last year. Also, I briefly got to meet Veronica Belmont at the Losers Party and tell her how much I enjoyed the podcast. Embarrassingly, I didn’t realize the gentleman she was with was her co-host Tom Merritt until much later, so I completely missed a) congratulating him and b) acknowledging his presence in an otherwise really quick exchange near a beverage line. So much fail on my part. Sword and Laser is still an absolutely lovely podcast and one of my favorites to listen to. I’d love to see SFF Yeah make the ballot some year, the excitement of Sharifah and Jenn is infectious. Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men should really be recognized for their X-cellence in podcasting, X-specially since they hit a side of fandom that is not often recognized in this part of the ballot. Ditch Diggers is still crushing it, but I’m not sure if they declined their nomination after winning last year.

Fancast suffers from some of the same issues that many of the down ballot categories do, though perhaps “suffer” is the wrong word. There is a lot of institutional memory built in here for fancasts which are consistent year after year. With a core of listeners who are frequent participants in the Hugo Award process, it is not surprising to see a number of finalists come back year after year. I’ve said this about a number of other categories, but it does make me wonder a little bit about the health of the category, but on the other hand it does also give a snapshot of what the genre and fan conversation and communities may have looked like over a several year period. A positive takeaway, though, is that the only repeat winner was SF Squeecast in the first two years of the category. Both Be the Serpent and Our Opinions Are Correct are new to the ballot and are new to being a podcast.

Shall we lend these fine podcasts an ear?

Be the Serpent
, presented by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske and Jennifer Mace
The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Fangirl Happy Hour, hosted by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, hosted by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch
Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
The Skiffy and Fanty Show, produced by Jen Zink and Shaun Duke, hosted by the Skiffy and Fanty Crew

Galactic Suburbia is an Australian fancast which has now been a finalist for the seventh time. It previously won in 2015. I am now on my third year listening to it very specifically for the Hugo Awards because I want to be fair to each finalist when voting in a category, but this has never been among my favorites in any given year. I appreciate that Galactic Suburbia is very much a conversation between friends and we’re just listening in, it is also quite clear that this just is not the podcast for me.

Be the Serpent is hosted by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske, and Jennifer Mace. I listened to Episode 7 (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells the Story) and Episode 19 (You and Me and Our Boyfriend Makes Three) for consideration and randomly, one more recent episode (not for consideration) that was published right after the announcement of the finalists in the hopes that Be the Serpent would be my new favorite podcast. It was not. I dig the interplay between the three hosts and how they play off of each other, but where I wasn’t grabbed by the podcast was that I was generally only interested when they were talking about something I was already interested in, rather than wanting to float along on the wave of their conversation into topics that I didn’t know much about. That’s really the mark of a podcast that works for me, when I want to go on a journey and discover a new bit of awesomeness. As a general rule, discussions of fanfiction don’t work for me. Unexpectedly, those fanfictional discussions at Be the Serpent work for me more than I expected but not enough that I wanted to keep on with most of those conversations. Rowland, Markse, and Mace are very engaging hosts and Be the Serpent is just on the edge of a podcast that I want, but isn’t quite there. I’ll give it another shot next year if Be the Serpent makes the Hugo ballot a second time.

Fangirl Happy Hour: Hosted by Renay Williams (Lady Business) and Ana Grilo (The Book Smugglers), Fangirl Happy Hour is a three time finalists for Best Fancast. I said this last year, but what I like best about Fangirl Happy Hour is the passion of both Renay and Ana. Straight up, they care. They are about what they love and they care about the genre. From their discussions I am reminded that everyone comes into science fiction and fandom from different directions and via different media, that there is no “one way” to be a fan or to be part of fandom because fandom is not a single discrete entity, but rather a large bulbous mass of smaller fandoms that intersect and cross pollinate and stay the hell away from each other. I may dip in and out of Fangirl Happy Hour as the mood or the season strikes me, but they are a vital part of the genre conversation and we’re better off because they’re here doing the work.

Our Opinions Are Correct: It’s fairly impressive for a podcast barely a year old to pick up a Hugo nomination, but when that podcast is hosted by Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz there’s no question that listeners will find it and pay attention. They describe themselves as a science writer who sometimes writes science fiction (Newitz) and a science fiction writer who obsessed about science (Anders), and I wonder if it is that intersection that informs how they put together this show. As a general rule, they’re not talking about the hot book of the moment or the new genre conversation of the week. Each episode is themed to a particular topic and how it relates to science fiction, whether it is capitalism, Doctor Who, democracy, utopias, or transgender science fiction.

I do listen to Our Opinions Are Correct, but I’ll often let an episode sit for several weeks while I listen to something else. It’s not appointment listening for me. I mostly like the podcast, but I’m not as enthusiastic as I thought and hoped I would be. Also, I absolutely hate the theme music. Our Opinions Are Correct is chock full of smart conversation and is definitely one to check out if you’re looking for a SFF podcast that’s not *just* book talk.

Skiffy and Fanty: This was a bit of a surprise for me. The Skiffy and Fanty Show was on the periphery of my consciousness for a number of years now. I think I tried an episode when I first started to listen to podcasts and it didn’t grab me at the time. I’m familiar with one of the producers, Shaun Duke, from the old blogging days. One of the Skiffy and Fanty hosts is the ubiquitous Paul Weimer, which astute readers will recognize as one of our staff writers here and from pretty much everywhere in the genre conversation. Since I wasn’t a regular listener, I picked three of the episodes noted in the Voter Packet. I listened to Ep 347 (Black Southern Specfic: A Discussion with Eden Royce and Troy L Wiggins), Ep 353 (interview with Rebecca Roanhorse), and At the Movies #67 (Black Panther, w/ Faridah Gbadamosi, Justina Ireland, and Brandon O’Brien). These were all fantastic conversations! I was engaged from the first minute and I wanted more.

Skiffy and Fanty appears to be a monthly episodic show for the main numbered episodes, but Skiffy and Fanty is also comprised of sub-shows under the umbrella – Torture Cinema, Reading Rangers, Speculative Fiction in Translation, Righteous Kicks, Totally Pretentious, Screen Scouts, Signal Boost, At the Movies, Thrawn and On and On, Into the Wardrobe, and possibly something else that I missed in checking out the “Full Experience” feed. There’s a lot of content.

Maybe it is because I further cherry picked episodes I was interested in from an already curated recommendation list of episodes, but I am excited to listen to more from Skiffy and Fanty. The “Full Experience” is likely to be much more than I’m looking for, but I’ve subscribed to the feed of the regularly numbered episodes, which appears to be mostly interviews and curated discussions.

Coode Street: Hosted by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe, The Coode Street Podcast is the one I have most consistently listened to over the years and have come to most look forward to the intermittent episodes as they are released. It is always a delight and a treat when I see a new Coode Street episode pop on my podcast feed. Strahan is one of the preeminent editors working in the field today and Wolfe is a noted genre critic and commentator. The conversation is easy, friendly with a couple of very light jabs when they disagree on a point or on a book, and the best way I can describe Coode Street is that it is like sitting at a bar next two guys who are having a really great conversation. It’s clear they know SFF, though it’s equally clear that they have their own blind spots and preferences that I don’t always agree with. There seems to be a marked preference (at least on the part of Strahan) to have the Hugo Awards be more for science fiction than fantasy, and a common refrain is to clarify that a particular work is or is not science fiction (or fantasy). That is one of the places I butt heads with their conversation is that I am big field science fiction for categorization (by which I mean that I often use “science fiction” to mean science fiction, fantasy, and sometimes speculative horror – mostly because I don’t often say speculative fiction in conversation) and they often seem to feel that it is an important distinction whether a work is science fiction. That’s picking a nit, though, because this is the science fiction podcast I look for first, especially when we get around award season, end of the year lists, and looking forward to the next year lists. I love that stuff.

My Vote
1. The Coode Street Podcast
2. The Skiffy and Fanty Show
3. Our Opinions Are Correct
4. Fangirl Happy Hour
5. Be the Serpent
6. Galactic Suburbia

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