Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Questing in Shorts: July 2019

This edition of Questing in Shorts is brought to you by "Adri is tired and overestimated how much review writing she could get done during a weekend where she was also attending YALC." YALC - the UK Young Adult Literature Convention - was wonderful: a great mix of stuff to engage with and the benefits of attending a con slightly outside one's core interests mean there's lots of horizon broadening stuff and also no need to get too worked up about getting in for early giveaways or hopping between endless desirable authors. The fact that the con is held concurrently with London Film and Comic Con also means there's the occasional celebrity guest wandering around, and this year Jason Momoa was adopted as the con's unofficial mascot due to very regular walkthroughs on the way to and from his signings.

Enough of the unrelated Momoa intrusion. July has been a slim month for me in terms of magazine reading, but I've still got plenty of anthology goodness plus a dip into some serialised fiction from your friendly neighbourhood Serial Box. Shall we dive in?

Meet me in the Future: Stories by Kameron Hurley

Art by Carl Sutton, design by Elizabeth Story
Because Hurley is such a prolific essayist as well as a fiction writer, and is so open about many elements of her writing journey, I already knew that short fiction hasn't been her natural habitat as a writer, and it's ground that gets covered again in the opening to this collection. It's an admission that might seem odd at the start of a short story collection for many writers, but fits with Hurley's reputation as someone who has got where she has through putting in the work: something that's very much on display in this high quality short story collection.

Hurley's forte generally involves scenarios with senseless and claustrophobic violence, full of plague and rot and viscera, and when collected into one short burst of death energy after another, it can get quite relentless. The bludgeoning effect of each story's brutality is only occasionally balanced out by characters whose fates we can really get invested in, and it can really start to add up, meaning that this is a collection that's worth offering a prolonged spot on the bedside table to be dipped into occasionally. I was also surprised not to encounter more stories set in the same world, which I had picked up on as a feature of Hurley's work from previous engagements (I've been a Patreon subscriber of hers on and off for years, which is where quite a few of these stories come from). The world of Nev, a corpse-jumping former soldier trying to survive, turns up in both "Elephants and Corpses" (excellent) and "The Fisherman and the Pig" (fine), as well as a story in the world of The Stars are Legion and the original short fiction version of "The Light Brigade" (still brilliant on its own as well as read in conversation with its novel cousin). However, I could easily have spent more time - and am fairly sure there's more stuff - set in the world of stories like "The Red Secretary", and plenty of other worlds (like "The Plague Givers") which could hold much more. Perhaps its because its the worlds of these stories and not their characters or plots that stay with me that I'm always keen to spend longer in them - and I'd love to see Hurley take on a more mosaic style novel with her worldbuilding skills and short story expertise. Regardless, the stuff that is in this collection is near universally strong, and if Hurley's novels are up your alley then this is one to look out for.

Rating: 7/10

Tor.com March/April 2019 (Download)

This set of five stories - packaged for subscribers to the free ebook bundle in late May - bookends an "issue" permeated with explorations of death and grief with two stories about intelligent dogs. Of these, "Knowlegeable Creatures" by Christopher Rowe takes the form of a period murder mystery in a reality where certain types of animals are "knowledgeable". Connolly Marsh is an investigative dog who bites off more than he can chew when he gets brought into a case of blackmail and murder by none other than the perpetrator of the murder. It's an entertaining mystery with a satisfying edge of Victorian horror to it. At the back of the collection, "Mama Bruise" by Jonathan Carroll is the deliciously weird story of a couple who realise that the family dog has been imbued with the spirit of the woman's dead father, with increasingly bizarre and dangerous consequences for both them and the dog. 

Sandwiched between them, and lumped here into the category of "not about dogs", are some equally strong tales. "One/Zero" by Kathleen Ann Goonan takes a powerful look at the effects of war on young children, offering a tenuous and painful thread of hope in its speculative future among the exploration of grief and loss. "Blue Morphos", by Lis Mitchell takes on questions about belonging and autonomy, in the story of a woman who joins a family whose members all take on a "second life" as other objects or creatures when they die. Despite pressure from family members, including her partner and other women who have married into the family, the narrator is firm in her decision not to take on a second life, but struggles to have this respected and to explain the decision to her daughter. I was reminded during reading of Zoe Medeiros' "My Sister is a House", which has similar ways of looking at family relationships through non-human reincarnations, but tonally these are very different stories and they explore quite different surrounding mythologies and family structures. Rounding off the group is Rich Larson's tale of a reluctant killing machine superhuman, "Painless". Rich Larson is a prolific author but one who crosses my path surprisingly little, and I enjoyed this story without being blown away by it. Taken together, this is a collection that hangs together thematically despite probably not being planned that way, and I still think the option to read Tor.com stories in ebook (provided you're not too worried about reading them as they come out) continues to be a good option. Despite the strength of the individual stories, however, I'm unimpressed that Tor.com chose not to feature any short fiction from authors of colour over this two month period.

Rating: 7/10

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

A year after the release of Raven Stratagem, it's time to go back to the world of reality-bending calendars and the military technologies they make possible! This collection is, as the title would suggest, entirely set in the Machineries of Empire world; stories range from "The Chameleon Gloves", set in the pre-Heptarchate era, before the system of factions became what it was, to "Glass Cannon", a direct sequel from Raven Stratagem which brings Shuos Jedao and Ajewan Cheris back in a fun and explosive way. Between these longer pieces (the post-trilogy story is a novella) is a whole bunch of flash fiction ranging from poetic worldbuilding exercises ("How the Andan Court") to cute sidelines about the clean-up of cat hair in space, ("Irriz the Assassin-Cat"), to more emotionally resonant moments, mainly involving Jedao, offering additional snapshots and the occasional "what-if" about the characters' inner lives.

While there's lots to love about the world of the Hexarchate and much of that is on display here - "The Robot's Math Lessons" a story about how young Cheris originally learns machine language and starts befriending robots is particularly endearing - this is a collection with Jedao at its centre, and those who don't find the character compelling are likely to find themselves skipping forward. Though I'm generally a fan of the lad (and was really impressed by the direction taken in "Raven Stratagem", I did get a bit sick of him during the sequence of flash pieces focusing on his human life; it was nice to reach "The Battle of Candle Arc" and the turning point around then, and things get a lot more varied at that point. Even if you're skipping through some of the flash fiction, however, Hexarchate Stories is worth picking up for its longer pieces alone: Hugo finalist heist "Extracurricular Activities" is here and still brilliant, and "Glass Cannon" is practically essential reading for anyone who enjoyed the novel trilogy, and forms an intriguing potential bridge to further Hexarchate adventures. Kudos also for the design and curation of this collection, which includes author notes after every story that help elaborate on the process and intention behind each piece. It'll only work if you've read the novels, but if you're following along, this is going to be a welcome addition to your Hexarchate experience.

Rating: 8/10

Alternis: Season 1 by Andrea Phillips, Maurice Broaddus, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and E.C. Myers.

Cover artist not credited
Alternis marks the first time I've followed along with a Serial Box serial as it's being released, and it was an interesting experience to follow Tandy Kahananui through her trials as the newest member of Team USA in a very high-stakes video game. We are introduced to Tandy as she attempts to troubleshoot some bugs in her game, Alternis, a fantasy MMPORG that she's poured a decade of solo work; however, when she's sucked into an alternate version of her game which appears to have been directly taken from her design, she soon discovers that a super-secret version of her game that has been set up as a virtual political arena, with each nation entering its own team and competing on a leaderboard in a pact that is supposed to reduce conflict in the real world. Having stumbled upon the secret, Tandy is quickly scooped up to play for her country, whose members - elite gamer Dante, military veteran Ben, and team leader Etta - all have varying reservations about bringing her up to the level needed to contribute to their missions.

Alternis is literary RPG, meaning that there are trappings of game design within the prose: characters have hit points, experience levels and need to keep track of their spells and abilities, just like a real game. One of the benefits of Serial Box's productions is the ability to switch between prose and audio, and the sound for Alternis is particularly good: Summer Glau's narration is engaging and enjoyable (particular kudos for the male voices), and a range of specifically-composed music and sound effects add realistic depth to the game conceit, especially for more heated action scenes. I was glad to discover the additional dimension the narration provided, especially for tense scenes where the sound design really lifts the writing up a notch. Of course, it's matched by solid writing from a talented team, and I felt the respective author styles here melded well together, with only subtle differences in tone from chapter to chapter. Jaqueline Koyanagi's "Quickened Soup for the Soul" was a particular highlight, focusing on a deeply weird, interesting aspect of the game in some depth - to say more would be a spoiler, as it's quite far in, but it's great fun.

Where Alternis didn't work for me was in turning its genre conceit into a story whose wider stakes felt genuine and interesting. While the character arcs improve with time - starting from a bizarrely juvenile point given that these are supposed to be elite operatives on a high-stakes political mission - the story never really sells the idea that the work of Tandy and co. is to secure the USA's position on a global stage, or indeed that them losing to the likes of Canada and South Korea could actually translate into a rebalancing of the world order towards countries which seem to have the same resource and population size (and national stereotypes) as they do in our world. The episode in which other teams start making an appearance - including the aforementioned South Korean team, who are all super-synchronised ninja-types, as well as a Russian team made up of three beefy dudes with one smart, cold, calculating woman - is particularly excruciating for its reliance on tropes, and despite flashes into what's going on in the real world, the political plot remains frustratingly weak. While I enjoyed Alternis for what it gets right, and I can see the attraction of LitRPG, the weaknesses were hard for me to ignore, and I'm not sure this is a serial I'll be continuing if it moves into another season (as it probably should, given that ending!)

Rating: 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.