Friday, February 28, 2020

Microreview [book]: Carved from Stone and Dream, by T. Frohock

Carved from Stone and Dream continues the trilogy of novels started with Where Oblivion Lives, and shows the range, stylistic invention, and writing expertise of author T Frohock.

In three novellas, and in Where Oblivion Lives, author T Frohock introduced us to the story of the Los Nefilim. Caught between Angels and Demons, these supernatural beings, riven by fault lines of conflict within their ranks, have been dealing with the stirrings of the first notes of the Spanish Civil War and subsequent rise of Phalangism (Franco-style Fascism) within their home country of Spain.  Furthermore, the Second World War is on the horizon, a threat not lost on a race of beings whose souls are born and again across the centuries. They know the melodies and notes of history, even as some of them might seek to steer it for their own ends and desires.

In Carved from Stone and Dream, Frohock skips ahead in time, and puts us in the aftermath of the Francoists coming to power. Thousands are fleeing the new regime across the Pyrenees, Nefilim who supported the Republicans included. It is that flight, and what that flight uncovers that drives the plotting of the novel. Frohock uses the real life plight of those fleeing from Francoist Spain as her basis for the Nefilim’s own internal struggles. At the same time, in a time and place, today, where refugees fleeing conflict and terrible conditions around the world are being met with suspicion, fear, hatred or even closed doors, this makes the novel uncomfortably and undeniably timely. Where Oblivion Lives was amazing in its period detail and richness of historical fantasy setting, Carved from Stone and Dream takes that and makes it even more relevant to today.

The novel’s strengths, as always are on the characters, their motivations, actions, and how that drives the narrative. Frohock’s work has always been character driven. Even in the middle of a Francoist rising, what really matters, and what really sets people down paths, sometimes colliding paths, is their own internal drives. Be it the drive to protect and save loved ones from ruin and disaster at the hands of the dark forces rising in Spain and elsewhere, or the drive for power, or even the drive for freedom and revenge, the novel makes choices matter, actions consequential, and  bonds of family and relationships central. Miquel, Diago and their son Rafael, as well as characters like Guillermo (head of the angelic Los Nefilim) and Jordi (Guillermo’s rival and brother, and the main antagonist of the novel) go through pain and effort, physically and mentally as they strive and struggle.

Frohock really knows her history, but keeps her historical fantasy strictly within defined bounds. In a way it could be seen as a secret history, none of the events and the fictional characters do not visibly change the actual historical events and setting. She uses the matrix of the real history of this conflict, tragedy and human crisis, one that is not as well or widely known as it should be, and weaves her fictional narrative in the interstices in a skilled fashion. She doesn’t cheat, either and make the darker Nefilim the reason and ultimate power behind the Francoists. Those human villains and what they do are our own fault, not pawned off as being the pawns of others. The darker Nefilim DO seem to influence Franco and company, but they are not ultimately responsible for them.

Readers of the previous work will be surprised by the change up in some aspects of the novel. While there is plenty here that is familiar, the characters, the character focused plotting, and the relationships, the more high level of seen and used magic definitely is new. Relatively small amounts of overt magic, above and beyond who and what the Nefilim *are* has been something that the previous novel, and the novellas, have employed rather sparingly. In Carved from Stone and Dream, however, Frohock changes things up in a radical way. Right from the get go, we get to see a lot more high magic used by all sides of the conflict. It is indeed as if in a civil war, you start pulling out the big guns, and the high level of magic used definitely was something new to me in Frohock’s writing. I think she keeps her usual character based focused and doesn’t allow the magic to dominate the narrative, but it definitely has a strong impact on events. The major set piece location is a fictional fortress set in a pocket dimension built into the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. All roads eventually bring most of the characters into contact with this place, and there are secrets even to this pocket dimension that amp up the magical quotient of the novel further. It did take some getting used to in order to really appreciate, but I value when an author grows and stretches her wings and tries new and interesting things.

The writing in this novel remains rich, evocative, powerful and poignant. On a line by line reading, the novel is a dark tapestry of language, phrase and word choice to discover, the author’s style distinct and very well developed. All of the characterization and worldbuilding really are brought to a keen shine in the author’s skilled hands. Even as Frohock tries new things, the quality of the writing remains high.

The thing to keep in mind about the novel, in addition to the usual that you probably don’t want to start here (You can start with Where Oblivion Lives, although the three Los Nefilim novellas really more effectively introduce the world and concepts and characters, but the author does provide spoiler free synopses at the beginning of the book), is the darkness of the novel. This is not an easy book to read. There are a few dark elements in the aforementioned novellas, but in terms of being dark and sometimes very hard to read in a squeamish mode, Carved from Stone and Dream definitely may not be for all readers. It’s an essential book, I think, in this day and age when we are building walls instead of bridges, and shunning and fearing strangers instead of welcoming them to our tables. But it is not an easy book to read. The period detail on how the French treated refugees from Francoist Spain is all accurate, it’s all historical, and it is more than uncomfortable to read. And the main driver of the plot, and what is going on inside of the fortress in the pocket dimension is pretty tough to take as well. This is most definitely not a light and nice book, and I myself needed a palate cleanser afterwards. The movie parallel to this novel is an obvious one on a number of levels- Pan’s Labyrinth.

For all of that, it is excellently written (Frohock’s best work to date), potent, powerful, and memorable. The list of source inspirations at the back of the book alone is worth the price of admission to those who want to know more about these dark events and how the author has woven them into their fantasy narrative.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for strong character focused historical fantasy chops
+1 for being willing to shift gears in tone and style

Penalties: -1 Darkness of the narrative may not suit all readers.

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

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

Reference:  Frohock, T, Carved from Stone and Dream [Harper Voyager, 2020]

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Questing in Shorts: February 2020

Since Thursday Morning Superhero went monthly, we've had a more flexible Thursday schedule here at Nerds of a Feather, and with that has come the potential for a new commitment for Questing in Shorts. Starting this month, I'm going to be putting out this column on the last Thursday of every month, so fans of the novelettes, the flash fics and of course the shortbois can set their schedules and come visit me then. That little piece of information aside, it's been a busy month with some great collections and new-to-me magazines, so let's dive straight in!

Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)

Aliette de Bodard's Subterranean press collection is as beautiful as you'd expect on the outside, with a Maurizio Manzieri cover and the standard level of Subterranean finishing. It's also an excellent collection that's largely comprised of pieces from the Best Series-nominated Xuya universe, which ranges from alternate history Earth stories in which the Western part of North America is colonised by China, and the Aztec empire of Mexica survives into the present day in a loose alliance with the power now called Xuya. The collection contains one piece from this Earthbound continuity "The Jaguar House, in Shadow", an intriguing political thriller which, along with the opening story "The Shipmaker", sets up the rest of the intergalactic political, cultural and technological traits of the Xuya universe very nicely. De Bodard's stories dealing with cultural clashes of some kind are highlights for me: from "The Waiting Stars", the tale of a young Dai Viet woman who has been taken from her family and raised in the Galactic Empire, to "Scattered Along the River of Heaven", a story of conflict and war and cultural revolution told two generations after the fact, de Bodard is quietly unflinching in her portrayals of displaced characters and their struggles to find connection with the different cultures they are surrounded by and yet, to some extent, alienated from. The absolute highlight on this front is "Immersion", a Nebula and Locus winning short story which alternates between Quy and another woman from the Rong people, both of whom wear Galactic (western culture)-made "Immersers" which allow them to communicate with Galactics but at the expense of their own culture and personhood. For Quy, who wears the Immerser briefly to help her family with business transactions, the experience is unpleasant but temporary; for the other narrator, it has become her permanent reality. The story's sense of isolation, and the various losses which the casual dominance of Galactic culture in this part of space has created, come around into a perfect, heartbreaking, circle by the end as the second narrator finds tentative connection in her isolating, but unique, understanding of both Rong and Galactic culture.

That's just a snapshot of what there is to enjoy here: "Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight", a triptych of loss and filial piety in a world where siblings can be spaceships, is always worth a read, and this is also the first time I've read fairytale retelling "Pearl" originally published in The Starlit Wood. Also present here are two stories from de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen universe: unfortunately, I don't get on as well with this series, and so I skipped rereading "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" - though, as it's a Hugo finalist, you probably shouldn't. "Of Birthday, and Fungus, and Kindness", the second Dominion story, is also the longest in the collection and original to this collection: it's a bit of a difficult one to assess having only read the first book in the series, but I did find it a fun read, combining delicate political machinations in a post-apocalyptic Paris ruled by the houses of fallen angels with the slow and hilarious disaster of a highly persistent mushroom infestation. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for a complete Xuya collection someday, but while we wait for that, this is an excellent start.

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)

This collection is one where the situation and format in which I read it made a huge difference to my interpretation and enjoyment. Having originally picked this up as an ARC, I'd been fitting in stories here and there around my commute, but I was bouncing off most of them as my exhausted Tuesday-brain struggled to put together the weirdness and to switch from one story to the next (the formatting, which didn't have page breaks after each story, really didn't help with this) . Frustrated but not totally put off, I found the physical book in a bookshop, bought it, opened it back up at the beginning, and read it in one sitting at a coffee shop - with very different results. Of course, that's not to say that Nudibranch - a collection which takes its name from the group of vibrantly coloured, delightfully bizarre sea slugs - is not a weird book. From the adopted-son-turned-farmhand-turned-government-weapon of "Saudade Minus One (S  ̶  1 =)" to the eponymous backwards time traveller of "Daishuku" to the transdimensional tongue-protecting monks of "Filamo", Nudibranch is, by turns disjointed, disorienting and completely at home from everything to mundane slice-of-life flashes to high-concept time travel. While it starts with the very high concept flash piece "Logarithm" (which, alas, did nothing for me), and is quite definitely a literary fiction collection in its sensibilities, there's also a lot for fans of speculative fiction and shortform worldbuilding to enjoy here, with some lush writing to boot.

Two things seem to link Okojie's diverse set of protagonists. First, quite a few of them find themselves shifting from high concept slipstream weirdness into utterly mundane scenes of London life (I mean, who can't relate to turning into a giant human liquorice and then popping over to the Horniman Museum?) Second, and more interestingly, the characters of Nudibranch almost all come undone at the ends of their stories. Some of the moments are ambiguously metaphorical, like the protagonist at the end of "Cornotopia", who goes into an experimental treatment for post-trauma depression and ends, once the treatment apparently begins to work, by shrivelling up "like a carcass that had finally stopped tricking people into thinking it could breathe"; or a horror-like cutaway like "Point and Trill", a story which begins as the mundane tale of a struggling couple going on a night-time paintballing retreat, and then takes some very dark turns. Then there's the quite literal falling apart of the liquorice protagonist at the end of "Kookaburra Sweet" and the bizarre yet fitting sacrifice of the big-dreaming protagonist of "Mangata". Regardless of how it happens, what runs through this collection is the sense that these are people who, once their varied circumstances play out, then effectively come apart, exciting the stage in a variety of morbidly fascinating literary flourishes. It may sound a bit much, but I still managed to finish the collection in one sitting without feeling overwhelmed by morbidity, so its not nearly as grim as all that. In the end, I'm glad I persevered (and spent money on!) Nudibranch, a collection whose strongest images I suspect are going to stay with me for quite some time.

The Dark, January 2020 (Read Online)

Catching up with back issues of The Dark was part of my to-do list this month, and as you can see from the issue I've decided to review, I mostly got there. January's issue, as always, brings two original and two reprinted stories, with both of the originals dealing with abuse and highly problematic parent-child relationships. In Clare Madrigano's "Mother Love", a woman looks back on her relationship with her mother, a woman with "a hunger she couldn't control". Its a story that turns the heat up gradually, even as it effectively sets out its destination in its metaphorical opening paragraph; as we learn more about the narrator's childhood and what she went through, things gradually get more and more strange, until the eventual conclusion seems both utterly unhinged and, somehow, completely unsurprising. "Forwarded", by Steve Rasnic Tem, also has a protagonist - this time a man named Tom - looking back on his time living under his father's roof, as well as the terrors he inflicted in turn on his younger (now also grown) brother. Unlike "Mother Love", which remains purely in the psychological horror realm, "Forwarded" offers some speculative terror in the form of an old imaginary friend, who turns up at a rather inconvenient time to further complicate Tom's engagement with his past. While neither story takes its premise anywhere particularly imaginative, both offer challenging but compelling perspectives on their respective horrors.

The first reprint in the issue is a creepy delight (well, not literally a delight, this is a horror magazine after all) from Angela Slatter ("No Good Deed"), featuring a woman who wakes up in a rather unexpected location after her marriage to Adolphus, with only the voice of a dead woman to explain her circumstances and lead her to survival and justice. Perhaps my favourite in the issue, though, is the second reprint, "The Man at Table Nine" by Ray Cluley. Cluley's protagonist is Nicola, a Polish woman now working as a waitress in a restaurant somewhere in the UK. Already dealing with bigoted coworkers and thinly veiled threats about her job security, Nicola is further challenged when she is asked to serve a bizarre regular: a man who apparently owns the restaurant chain, and who orders food and drink but never appears to eat it. As Cluley's portrayal of the guest gets increasingly bizarre and the reader theories start to get discounted (he's not a vampire, you guys!) the story builds a mystery that begins to feel oddly unthreatening, given Nicola's wider circumstances. Its not until the story's closing lines where the hammer drops and I shout "no" in the middle of my office lunch table, to everyone else's bemusement. Well worth checking out
Three Crows Magazine, Issues 4 and 5 (read online)

Image: Three Crows Magazine Issue 4 Cover

Three Crows is getting quite a lot of attention due to their recent interview with Tamsyn Muir, which is well worth reading for reasons out of the scope of this column (they've done other great work on this front too - their interview with Marlon James is also excellent). What I'm here for, as always, is the fiction, and I'd been drawn to this magazine by the fact that it's based outside of the Anglosphere and I'm trying to diversify out of US and the occasional Canadian-based magazine.

There are seven stories across these two most recent issues, and the best of them are very good indeed. In Issue 5, my favourite was "Thistle Eşref" by Luke Frostick, a long story about a hunter, Eşref, whose attempts to hunt down the dragon that's been terrorising the Kingdom lead him on a quest that's rather more epic and bloody than he bargained for. The character voice and the pacing of this piece are brilliant, with a lighthearted tone and constant weary asides from its main character that make it feel like a folksy tale by the fireside. The issue's opening piece, "In Dark Corners and Neglected Places" by Joanna Parypinski, offers a similar folksy feel, starting as a storytelling session by a grandmother keeping her granddaughter entertained during her knitting, and then turning into something significantly more sinister. And in Issue 4, the standout story was the deeply uncomfortable "Knowing Your Type" by Eliza Chan. Narrated by a controlling racist misogynist looking for a "perfect" Asian wife, the story revolves around Manami, the young woman who is the subject of the narrator's attentions, but who quickly makes it clear that she has no intention of being the victim of this piece. As we start to understand what Manami is doing before her predator arrives at the relevant conclusions, the story unfolds brilliantly towards a grim, and yet totally deserved, conclusion.

Unfortunately, what held me back from loving some of these stories felt more like an editorial issue than anything else. Despite some great premises, a few of the stories here lack the polish of the other venues I've covered in this column to date, and where particular stories are attempting to lean into a particular voice or style, the near-misses can be a challenge to look past. The most challenging story for me in this regard was Stephen Couch's "In Cube Eight", a weird space opera where a spaceship crew and its AI all dope up on psychadelic substances in order to attempt contact with an alien species (who have apparently been appearing as "elves" to people tripping throughout the ages). The premise is novel, and the narrative voice gets close to an old-school Kerouac-type tone which, if pulled off, would make this a really intriguing mash-up of genre - but there's just too many sentences that land a little too heavily, and line breaks that don't quite feel like they're in the right place, for this story to really shine. Its not a problem that prevented me from enjoying Three Crows as a whole, but it is something that I hope greater resources and attention might fix in future issues.

The Future Fire, Issue 52 (read online)

Image: The Future Fire Magazine Issue 52 cover

The second new venue in this month's roundup is officially my first British short fiction magazine (but hopefully not the last!) I've been somehow following The Future Fire on Twitter without putting two and two together and realising it's publishing exactly the sort of fiction that I want to read: progressive, diverse and socially conscious.

I'm slowly catching up on their back issues from 2019, but I wanted to jump straight in with their most recent edition for column purposes. There's one flash piece and four short stories in the prose offering here, covering everything from slipstream musings on a difficult childhood ("Pleiades for a New Generation" by Kathryn Allan) to a matter-of-fact witch in a hard, frontier land outsmarting an upstart Reverend with the help of her "friendly" local river ("The Third Angel Poured" by Julie Reeser). There's also a wonderfully weird story presented in the original Spanish and in translation: "The Salt in Her Kiss" by Malena Salazar Macia, translated by Toshiya Kamei, deals with a woman attempting to overcome the many male powers controlling her life in order to reach the sea; when she gets there, Ligeia proceeds to have an... encounter... with a pair of mermaids that causes an unexpected, but fitting, metamorphosis. In case you're wondering what can possibly follow mermaid sex, the story that really stole my hear was Aurelia Gonzalez's "The Wasteland Review", the story of a woman surviving in a post-apocalyptic world who discovers a radio, on which the planet's possibly last podcast is still being broadcast by two people who also have no idea if anyone is left to listen. It's a heartbreaking story that doesn't offer any closure or answers to the situation of its three separated protagonists, but its notes of hope and connection against all odds resonated with me well after I reached the end.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: The 2019 Nebula Awards

Joe: Upon seeing the list of Nebula Award finalists, our friend Renay announced “Award season BEGINS!!!” and even though nominating for the Hugo Awards have been open for more than a month and award season truly is eternal, I think she’s right.

This is the first major awards ballot to be announced this year, all respect given to the Philip K. Dick and BSFA Awards. As a reader, it begins.

Adri: On seeing this list my immediate thought was "oh wow, I'm glad I don't have to choose between these books." Then, I remembered that I'm going to.have to choose from an overlapping selection pretty soon. It's such an exciting list, made only more exciting by being primed from the other shortlists that have come out so far.

Joe: I’m not familiar with the shorter fiction, but those Novel and Novella ballots are great! What a lineup of novels! Gideon the Ninth and A Song for a New Day are two of my favorite novels of the year. I haven’t read A Memory Called Empire or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but those are two of the most well regarded and buzzed about books of the year that aren’t called Gideon the Ninth.

To that point, four of the finalists are debut novels. Surprisingly, that’s not unprecedented over the last ten years.

Adri: That’s true, although three of the four writers nominated for debut novels are previous Nebula nominees. Only Arkady Martine is, as far as I can see, totally new to the ballot.

One book we didn't talk about much last time was Gods of Jade and Shadow. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an author I would follow into basically any genre and I really enjoyed this Mayan mythology meets 1920s Mexico coming of age quest story. It’s great to see it getting some attention.

Joe: Gods of Jade and Shadow was excellent. It isn’t at the top of my list, but that’s only because there were so many great novels published that it’s a tough hill to climb. Well deserved for Moreno-Garcia, though. I’ve been delighted by every one of her novels so far.

Speaking of delight: Sarah Pinsker made the ballot for Best Novel! I absolutely adored A Song for a New Day. 

Adri: It’s so great when a personal favourite ends up getting more recognition than you hoped it would. I know in our previous conversation we wondered about A Song for a New Day’s chances, given that Pinsker is a multiple finalist in the shorter fiction categories but the novel itself perhaps hasn’t been as splashy as some of the others on this list. Hopefully this will get it in front of more readers!

Joe: She’s also a two time finalist this year! “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” is a finalist for Best Novelette.

Adri: While most of the ballot is familiar to me, there are some interesting surprises and things that have been off my radar. One of them is the sixth novel finalist, Charles Gannon’s Marque of Caine: fifth book in a series that I admit, I don’t know much about?

Joe: He has a long way to go, but Charles Gannon seems to be occupying the Jack McDevitt slot on the Best Novel ballot. McDevitt, of course, is a twelve time Nebula Award finalist for Best Novel. Charles Gannon is now a four time finalist, having previously been on the ballot in three consecutive years with Fire with Fire, Trial by Fire, and Raising Caine - the first three novels in his Caine Riordan series. I’ve only read the first of those, though I’m considering jumping ahead to Marque of Caine to see how it stands among some of truly the best novels of the year. I liked Fire With Fire fine enough, but it felt slight compared to Ancillary Justice, Hild, The Golem and the Jinni, A Stranger of Olondria, and the other novels on the ballot that year.

Adri: I did have Fire with Fire on my e-reader for a while thanks to the Baen free library, but I seem to have since taken it off without reading it, because it just doesn’t really seem like my thing. It’s interesting in that almost nobody I overlap with talks about these books, but clearly they have a dedicated following among SFWA voters. Maybe I’ll try again, although I suspect unless they turn up on a shortlist I consistently read for (i.e. the Hugos) they are going to keep getting pushed down the list.

Joe: My circles don’t completely overlap with yours, but I don’t see conversation about Gannon’s work either except a general sense that his novels are fairly well regarded, a general sense that is held up by four of his five solo novels making the Nebula ballot. That’s the real point of comparison with Jack McDevitt. McDevitt was a perennial Nebula favorite for almost twenty years.

Adri: I looked this up, and McDevitt was actually eligible this year for the eighth book in the “Alex Benedict” series; he last made the ballot in the same year as Trial By Fire. I know nothing about either series, but part of me wishes that if we were having venerated authors nominated every year in the same series, it could be someone like C.J. Cherryh. Eternal Foreigner, I could get behind.

Joe: I’d love to see a Nebula Longlist where we can see the even just the three or four books that just missed the ballot because here’s where things get interesting for me - I’m surprised that neither The City in the Middle of the Night nor The Light Brigade made the ballot. There’s no telling how, exactly, the Nebulas will translate to the Hugo Awards except that I think we both agree that A Song for a New Day feels more like a Nebula Book than a Hugo Book for whatever that means and whatever that’s worth.

Adri: I agree. Because the Nebulas don’t release voting statistics, they can feel like a closed box in this regard, albeit one that we collectively put our trust in to be delivering a result accurate to the voting base (and, hey, no 20booksto50k shenanigans this year!). Anders, Hurley and also The Future of Another Timeline feel like books that must have been bubbling just under. I wonder, also, about books like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and some of the other literary “crossover” titles we were looking at on the Locus list. Are those also in the hidden longlist, or is that not what SFWA voters were looking at when putting this together?

I didn’t raise it last time, but while I knew it was a long shot, I’m setting up to be consistently disappointed at the lack of Fonda Lee’s Jade War on all of these ballots. There is simply no series doing fantasy worldbuilding better than Lee’s right now, at least that I’m reading. I know sequels are generally at a disadvantage, but Jade City was a Nebula nominee two years ago and I’d like to imagine that it also only just missed out...

Your build-a-ballot prediction in our last conversation does very well against these nominees, delivering two from your first list (predicted two to four), two from the second (predicted one to two) and one from the last; it’s just that it didn’t fully predict the ballot, what with Marque of Caine coming from left field (though as it wasn’t specifically a Nebula prediction, we can argue that you’d have built in the Gannon fanbase if we were being more specific) . If you get to 6/6 for the Hugos, I shall have to send you a transatlantic beer…

Joe: Do I win the beer if it comes from my Build-A-Ballot or do I have to pick them all?

I definitely would have included a “Pick up to one of these” between Marque of Caine and Octavia Gone if we were playing for the Nebulas. History says we can’t rule them out.

I do think you’re setting yourself up for some disappointment with Jade War, which I fully agree was a fantastic book and I can’t recommend Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga highly enough. Both novels are just incredible. I would like to say there will be some hope later in the year with the World Fantasy Awards (which Fonda Lee tied for the win with Victor LaValle’s Changeling in 2018), but they don’t have a consistently strong history of sequels. I’ll be surprised if Jade War gets on the Hugo ballot. Where it should have better luck is after Jade Legacy is published and it is eligible for Best Series. I’ll stump for Green Bone Saga on Best Series. If that’s not what the category is for, I just don’t know.

Adri: We’ve been talking about the novel list so far, but how about some of the other categories? I think the one that most surprised me was novella, with Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water and Catfish Lullaby. I’ve read the former and Vylar Kaftan definitely wrote a fascinating book, though it’s hasn’t hit the top end of my own shortlist. Catfish Lullaby is totally new to me (though hopefully not for long). There’s also a classic-for-the-Nebulas Ted Chiang entry here, which I’ve got to read soon.

Also, compared to the last couple of years, it’s notable that there’s no sequels or projected series starters that I recognise here - unless you count P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which is set in the same universe as a previous short work.

Joe: I’ve read a surprising five out of six of the Novella finalists, only missing A.C. Wise’s story. I fully expected to see The Deep and This is How You Lose the Time War on the ballot, but the Nebulas tend to cast a wider net than the (relatively few) stories that are on my radar - probably because, if I have this correct, eligible works can be submitted directly to SFWA members so they have direct access to stories and novels they might otherwise have missed. And they have their recommended reading list. It makes a difference. It’s interesting and exciting that A.C. Wise has two stories on the ballot, her first two Nebula Award nominations. That’s a huge breakout moment for her. I’m not familiar with Wise’s fiction, but I’ve been following her nonfiction writing for a number of years now.

I do recommend reading the Chiang collection. It’s quite good.

This is also the extent of my knowledge for the rest of the Nebula Ballot. I expect to read Catfishing on Catnet this year and I’ve at least heard of Dragon Pearl. I haven’t played any of the games, and we can certainly talk the Bradbury and the weird conflict of comparing full length movies to single episodes of television shows if you’d like.

Adri: I’ve read all but one of the Andre Norton finalists as well, this year. It’s a pretty Middle grade-heavy category with a lot of authors who I am entirely unsurprised to see on the Nebula ballot. Two titles are from the Rick Riordan presents line, which is curated to include diverse books featuring elements of non-European mythologies and cultures, for fans of Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. I’ve read both Dragon Pearl and Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, and was compelled to Twitter-review the latter, which I thought was just wonderful. Likewise, Riverland by Fran Wilde is a delight, and while I didn’t enjoy the Peasprout Chen follow-up as much as I did the first, it’s still a fun book. The audiobook versions also feature songs!

Catfishing on CatNet is perhaps the only strictly YA title on the list, and it’s just as awesome and heartwarming as I hoped for when I heard there was a full-length “Cat Pictures Please” novel in the works. It’s also the title I think has most “crossover” appeal outside its demographic, to the extent where do I wonder how it stacks up with current young adult internet experiences compared to, say, the internet of fifteen years ago. The question about to what extent this reflects the preferences of the target demographic is an ongoing challenge of YA awards where most of the eligible voters are adults, but then again, I’m an adult, so all I can really say is “I love this shortlist” and not worry too much about anybody being down with the kids.

The only book I haven’t read is Cog by Greg van Eekhout, which I now discover has a robot dog on the cover and therefore I might need it immediately.

When it comes to the Bradbury… I still can’t quite deal with the fact that Captain Marvel only came out last year. It feels like it should be at least five years old by now.

Joe: I’m with you there. Captain Marvel was a delight, though, and this is a good reminder that I should watch it again. Higher, Further, Faster.

Adri: I guess I am intrigued that the list includes four TV episodes and only two movies (both Marvel). I’m also delighted that both of the series covered by our reviewers last year had episodes made on, which just confirms that we are a flock of great taste and class. Unfortunately, due to a combination of “No Disney+ in UK” and just being a bit useless with TV, I haven’t seen either of those series yet. I have watched Good Omens but I honestly couldn’t tell you which episode that is that’s been nominated - I liked but didn’t love that series, though I understand the appeal of the Crowley/Aziraphale relationship.

Joe: And that’s this year’s Nebula ballot. Of the stuff that I’ve read and I’m familiar with, this is a killer list. A few surprises, more in the omissions than the inclusions, but it’s also a case of “what do you cut?” because there’s not a good option for a cut. Final thoughts?

Adri: Only that I still don’t feel anywhere near the level of confidence I hoped I’d have for the novelette and short story categories, although I’ve read and enjoyed quite a lot of these: “And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas would have been one of my picks for our recommended reading list if I hadn’t read it after we wrote them, and that and Mimi Mondal’s “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” are definitely my picks from among the stories I’ve read on this ballot.

In many of the other categories, especially novel, I have no idea who I want to win and that’s making me very nervous for Hugo time. I guess it’s a very good problem to have, but wow. This ballot. Ugh.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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.

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

A fun, episodic pick-me-up of a space opera with a great crew of miscreants (and cats) at its centre

Cover Art by Julie Dillon
For all that we occasionally talk about reading moods, I think we often don't make enough of the fact that reading a book - or engaging in any media, really - is an exercise shaped by a particular space and time. For all that reviews attempt to offer a transmittable experience about things we've engaged with, so that our audience can figure out from our apparent tastes and reactions whether the thing will be a thing for them, there's inevitably going to be more to my experience with a book than I can hope to get across in a single review. Did I read it over a few nights in bed, or on the Kindle during my commutes, or in one big session in the reading chair over the weekend? Did I feel I had loads of time to read or was I dragging myself away from other distractions? Was it a holiday read, or a book that got taken on a family trip for extended hiding time? In the case of Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes' "Mass Effect meets Long Way to a Small Angry Planet" (with a bit of Julie Czerneda's original Clan Chronicles trilogy thrown in), this is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend for picking up after a week of knockout cold virus, when you're feeling a bit hopeless and tired and sad and all the storms are starting to blend into each other (literal storms, not metaphorical ones). This is a Beechams three-in-one of a book, one that cuts right through the (metaphorical) sinuses and loosens the gunk in the (metaphorical) lungs and makes you want to sit upright for the first time in two days.

In Valdes' galaxy, humans live amongst a galaxy full of different alien species, one of many barely-notable races (and their notability is for "cross-species horniness" featuring a galaxy full of different alien species (to who humanity are vaguely notable for their cross-species horniness but otherwise not very notable, in the grand scheme of things) held loosely together by the Benevolent Organisation of Federated Astrostates, or "BOFA" for short. Its a galaxy where many of the less savoury and gritty tropes of space opera are alive and well: seedy port stations exist, as do various forms of organised criminal enterprise, military brainwashing, and annoying elite patriarchal mansplainers, among other things.

At the heart of the story is Eva Innocente, captain of La Sirena Negra and this novel's former-smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold protagonist. Eva is running from various aspects of her past, including some family connections she'd rather not get drawn into, and has resigned herself to small, above-board jobs like transporting psychic cats across the galaxy with a well-meaning but mildly dysfunctional crew, when she receives word that her sister has been kidnapped by a sinister galactic crime gang called The Fridge; if she offers herself up as an asset and does some jobs for them, Eva's sister will be released, but if not, she'll be kept in cryostasis until her sister's death and then sent to the asteroid mines. Eva, being a captain of very little self-care instinct, decides to keep this information from her loyal crew and to try and handle what the Fridge throws at her alone, passing their increasingly dangerous missions off as standard contracts while also getting sucked into a broader galactic mystery about the ancient alien tech. Also, the cats stick around, though not perhaps quite to the extent that the publicity would lead you to believe (real "cats in space" afficionados might want to follow this up with Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear for some extensive meditation on feline adaptation to zero gravity space lifestyles). Still, there's definitely cats.

What I've described above provides... a start... to understanding the absurd ride that is Chilling Effect. While all of the above is being set up - that is, in the first forty pages - Valdes finds time to fit in not just the introduction to the crew and cats, but a slight to a gross Alien Emperor who decides he wants Eva for his harem and causes him to blow up everything in sight (hello, toxic masculinity, glad to have you with us tonight!), and a set-up of a romantic attachment between Eva and her engineer Vakar, a quennian who communicates emotions using smell and is described as being humanoid but with claws, scales, palps, and a cloaca. Admirers of Mass Effect's Garrus Vakarian will know where all of this is going, and there's even sparring and an offhand reference to flexibility. And, yes, some research. Anyway, once the book has got that set-up out of the way and people mostly stop shooting at Eva, its off on the various missions that make up the bulk of the plot, which begin as Eva paying off her service to the Fridge but evolve past that as the main plot advances, and the Proaarkh technology which seems to be at the heart of both the Fridge's schemes and those trying to play them comes closer to centre stage. I say closer, because there's no big space mysteries solved here (though I'm sure they're due to make an appearance in the sequel, given that ending).

Chilling Effect wears its tropes and inspirations on its sleeve, and that makes for a pretty episodic, video-game esque experience at times as we jump across the galaxy from cutscene to cutscene, encountering everything from the playout of elite dinosaur-alien love trysts to grim planets where all sentient species are fair game for hunting to cunning infiltration missions which inevitably stop being cunning after about five minutes. As someone who appreciates video games but has struggled in the past with game-ified books, I think what makes this work for me is how different the episodes are, as well as the continuity between the characters and their motivations which tie everything together even as we zip from set piece to set piece. Of course, this is only going to work if you're bought in to finding out just how many things happen in the space of four hundred pages, and not into watching one bit or another play out. Moreover, if we're talking video game protagonists, Eva is often required to react to the machinations of others around her who are actually driving the plot, rather than feeling like a driver of overarching events in and of herself. Ultimately, what makes it clear that the Proaarkh references are going to keep being a Macguffin, at least for now, is the fact that Eva and co. don't ever build any direct interest in it apart from "hey, this thing keeps coming up via all the people who are trying to ruin our lives". It didn't make Chilling Effect any less fun for me, but it does mean that those looking for something a bit meatier won't want to pick this one up with that expectation.

What is here is an adventure that does exactly what it says on the tin, and does it extremely well; those looking for madcap space adventure complete with a fun, if dysfunctional, space crew to hang out with will no doubt adore Valdes' take on the trope. It is, for non Spanish speakers like myself, best read with a browser turned to Google Translate close to hand, as while the text is completely understandable without knowing the exact meaning of the untranslated phrases, there are some Cuban turns of phrase that you're not going to want to miss.  With its commitment to fun, feelings, unashamedly weird alien romance, and a galaxy where you're never quite sure what's going to turn up next. I can't wait to read the follow-up and learn how Eva's journey unfolds. I just hope I don't have to get sick again in order to appreciate it.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Unapologetically weird but adorable alien romance that really works!

Penalties: -1 Episodic and low-agency "gamified" plotting may put off some readers; -1 I can't believe I'm saying this, but it could have had more cats...

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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: Valdes, Valerie. Chilling Effect [Harper Voyager/Orbit UK, 2019]

Monday, February 24, 2020

6 Books with Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and writer based in Canada. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues and her debut novel, 'Beneath the Rising,' is coming out in 2020 from Solaris Books. She can be found with some reliability on Twitter at @premeesaurus.  Today she shares her Six Books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading? 

As usual, I'm reading five books at once... but I'm really enjoying 'Dance of the Dung Beetles,' by Marcus Byrne and Helen Lunn. It's carefully researched and well-cited, but more than that, charmingly written. It's very much a narrative, a story not just about the beetles and their ecosystems, but also their interactions and influences on human culture and history.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I'm so excited for 'Piranesi,' by Susanna Clarke. I loved 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,' and everything that people seemed to dislike about it (the pacing, the jerk characters) just obsessed me; it's one of my favourite books of the last decade. And the premise of 'Piranesi' is completely up my alley. An infinite house with an ocean in it! A weirdo scientist doing secret research!   

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to read again?

Does it count if I've already started? I wanted to do a re-read this year of Michael Moorcock's 'Elric of Melnibone' series. I just read the first book and am on the second. I first read the series in 2017 and found it amazing how effortlessly and joyfully it sank into my weltanschauung, the way it changed my own writing at once, the way I started spotting its touchstones in other books. It felt like being inducted into a club I should have joined as a child, but somehow missed out on.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

What a tricky question! The first one that came to mind was Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Buried Giant.' The first time I read it, the ending destroyed me; I told people my heart was broken and I no longer believed in love. But the second time, I realized I had created an ending in my head that didn't exist in the text. It's deliberately written that way. The ending is the attitude you bring to the ending, it's the reader who decides whether it's happy or sad. It blew my mind.

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

Definitely Diane Duane's 'So You Want To Be A Wizard.' I was eight or nine and I think it was the first book I had read in which magic was not 'high fantasy' (like 'Lord of the Rings,' etc) but was incorporated into everyday life, and quite sensibly systematized in a way anyone could learn. (I don't think I communicated my adoration for the series very well when I got to meet Diane Duane in Dublin last year though.) Becoming involved with wizardry became my secret goal.  Which leads me to...

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

My debut novel, 'Beneath the Rising,' is coming out on March 3 from Solaris Books! As I had it described to me by an excited stranger at WorldCon last year, it's the story of a scientist who solves the world's energy problem... and creates a ton more. Contains world's most irritating child prodigy, her reasonably paranoid best friend, a genetically-engineered Pacific giant octopus, secret books, tricky magic, a cardboard decryption device, an alternate timeline, the general utility of a fresh new Sharpie, good luck, bad timing, a labyrinth, and a lot of sand. Available for preorder now!

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

Friday, February 21, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Poet King by Ilana C Myer

In The Poet King, Ilana C Myer sticks the landing, in completing the Harp and the Blade trilogy, a poetical and lyrically rich fantasy of the tumultuous return of magic to a fantasy land, and the poet central to the mythically infused events.

In Last Song Before Night and Fire Dance, Ilana C Myer introduced us to the realm of Tamryllin, a fantasy land where poets hold cultural and sometimes temporal power, and introduced us to Lin Amairstoth, a young would-be poet. Caught up in events, Lin not only was witness and participant in the unexpected return of real magic to Tamyrllin, but, in Fire Dance,  also political events in the neighboring realm of Kahishi. Also in Fire Dance, we were introduced to more characters, coming into their own in the now magic-returned realm, including would be poet Julien Imara.

In The Poet King, the titular character sets Tamryllin, and the world, on a mythic course that might yet destroy the land, instead of bringing him the power he seeks. The story of The Poet King is the struggle of Elissan Diar, the aforementioned Poet King (who rose to a position to take that power during Fire Dance), Julien and Lin as iconic, magical forces rise and soon start dictating the course of events, themselves. For the White Queen, she of Ice and snow, frost and rime, and the Shadow King, lord of Castles, seek to renew their long conflict...right on the lands of Tamyrllin and Kahishi.

As always, the strongest aspect of Myer’s writing is the line by line poetry and beautifully infused and evocative writing of the characters, landscapes and narrative. This is a book where word choice is important, and finely tuned to immerse and make the reader feel. Be it the glacial coldness of the White Queen, or the danger of the Shadow King’s Castle, or the struggles of Julien Imara in a puzzling otherworld, or the casual cruelty and power of Elissan Diar, this is a book whose language is meant and aimed at making one feel. And as in the previous two novels, Myer succeeds. What drew me through the novel, first and foremost, was the language.

Like in Fire Dance, The Poet King also surprised me with the plotting. Myer’s work is not a straightforward and simple progression, predictable events one after the other in a daisy chain. After Lin’s adventures in Kahishi, I wasn’t quite sure how and what the author would do to bring the narrative to a close, but now I can see and do see the entire shape of the trilogy. This is a novel, a trilogy about the return of magic to a realm long denied without it, and the consequences and unintended results of that. Myer takes the tack of having mythic forces become unleashed by the return of magic (from the end of Last Song Before Night) and uses the fact that a realm that has long been without magic is not as prepared for such beings and forces as they might think. The story of this novel is coming to grips with that, and dealing with the Law of Unintended Consequences.

So what The Poet King and the whole series seems to be, to me, is a story about the return of magic to a world without it, and the consequences, challenges and dangers of such an act. The return of magic is a story that is sometimes seen in set on Earth-based Urban fantasy novels. The Magic Goes Away is a story that is older than Tolkien and Middle Earth. Julie Czerneda’s The Gossamer Mage depicts a realm where magic is really just resident in one small realm, and the dangerous consequences of that. But a secondary world fantasy realm, that starts off relatively mundane and regains its magic, and finds it is a mixed blessing indeed is a much less common story, and Myer completes and capstones that story here expertly.

The Poet King effectively and decisively ends the story of Lin Amairstoth and her land of Tamryllin. The promise and aspirations going all the way back to the first chapter of Last Song Before Night comes to fruition in this novel. Poetry, song, the return of magic, for good and for ill, and mythic threat and promise all come to a crashing head and conclusion in the finale. It strongly reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar series, and I daresay fans of the latter should definitely discover the poetry and magic that Myer creates in her own (hopefully first of many) series. I look forward to where Myer goes from here as an author, and I urge you, reader, to pick up Last Song Before Night and discover her writing for yourself.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for poetic, excellent line by line writing, +1 Strong use of story and theme to tell a tale not often told

Penalties: -1 for a little roughness in getting started in the beginning, especially for readers who have not recently read Fire Dance

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

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

Reference:  Myer, Ilana C. The Poet King [Tor 2019]

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Interview: Myke Cole, author of Sixteenth Watch

Myke Cole's first novel, Control Point, was published in 2012, he's been putting out approximately a book a year since, alongside including short fiction, non-fiction, and even starring in television shows. If you enjoy Military Fantasy or Epic Fantasy (and now, with Sixteenth Watch, Military Science Fiction), Cole is an author you should check out. A veteran himself, Cole intimately understands the choices that soldiers make, and the long term consequences of those choices. He did three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. His work includes the Shadow Ops trilogy, the Reawakening trilogy, and the Sacred Throne series, and his short fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Weird Tales, and multiple anthologies.

Angry Robot is publishing Myke Cole's forthcoming novel Sixteenth Watch (available March 10), in which the Coast Guard must prevent a lunar war. This book promises to be low G and high intensity!

I was lucky enough to see Myke at ConFusion science fiction convention many years ago, and I remember him being funny, humble, razor sharp, and an absolute stand up guy. He's super busy these days, so I was thrilled that he found time to answer all my questions about Sixteenth Watch, writing about middle aged characters, being on TV, writing non-fiction and comics, and more!

You can learn more about Myke and his work by checking out his website, , or following him on twitter, @MykeCole.

NOAF: I love that the plot of Sixteenth Watch focuses around de-escalating a possible war. Your characters are trying to avoid a war by stopping it before it starts. Why did you want to tell that particular story?

Myke Cole: Military SF is a tried and true sub genre. It has a solid and reliable fan base that has a set of expectations that military stories will be about the military’s core function - to kill people and destroy property. While that is most certainly at the heart of what militaries do, it is only one of the things they do. Militaries do search-and-rescue, further diplomacy, provide aid, build infrastructure, develop new technologies and processes, and even influence pop culture. I’ve read a lot of Military SF, and I’ve been feeling for a while that these other aspects of militaries aren’t sufficiently explored, and the US Coast Guard, a military branch dedicated first and foremost to saving lives rather than taking them, was the perfect branch to do the exploring.

NOAF: The main character of Sixteenth Watch, Cdr. Jane Oliver, she's in her 50s, she's counting down the time to when she can retire. How did you develop her character? 

MC: Although it’s easy to forget since 2016 when this country has been saddled with a corrupt gerontocracy, America is a country that hates old age and lifts up youth at every turn. Older people are expected to disappear, or at least fade socially, to shut down their ambition, sexuality, and vitality. I didn’t realize how much that culture that impacted me until I crossed the line to where I’m closer to 50 than 40. It’s only as I become more interested in stories about people dealing with the second half of their lives that I realize how few stories are told about them, and in particular how few stories that deal honestly with the fact that while our bodies wither, our humanity doesn’t, and we have to grapple with the frustration of a heart that wants to write checks the body can’t cash.

NOAF: One challenge to writing Military Science Fiction and Military Fantasy is that not all readers will be familiar with military terminology and acronyms. What is common knowledge to active military members and veterans may be opaque to readers with no military experience. How have you handled this challenge?

MC: I have to thank my agent for this. When I was first doing my military fantasy Shadow Ops trilogy, I used military argot to the hilt. I used every acronym that I would normally, expecting my readers to pick things up by context. My agent read it and said “Dude. Take all that shit out.” And I was horrified. “But it’s authentic!” I cried, “it will transport the reader and make them feel like they’re really experiencing a military environment!” “Hell, no it won’t,” he said, “it’ll confuse them and throw them out of the story. Trust me, this book is so military, they can’t fill to pick up on that. Your first goal should be to make the book accessible to people who lack that first-hand experience. Put a glossary in the back if you want, but for the love of god, make another pass and take out 80% of these acronyms.”

It was hard advice to accept, but I’m glad I did. Because he was right.

NOAF: How did you come up with the title Sixteenth Watch? Is the number 16 significant?

MC: Astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) see sixteen sunrises and sunsets every day. In my fictional universe because of this, getting assigned to the ISS became called “going on the Sixteenth Watch.” Eventually, the term “Sixteenth Watch” became used by all branches of the military as slang to mean “any duty in space.”

NOAF: What was your favorite scene to write in Sixteenth Watch?

MC: I can’t answer this without giving major spoilers. Sorry. Suffice to say it’s a conversation between Jane Oliver and the Commandant of the US Coast Guard, a conversation that Jane (and hopefully the reader) expects to go one way, and takes a delightful left turn that, if I did my job right, will evoke a tear or two.

NOAF: As I was writing these interview questions, you posted on twitter that The Bronze Lie is done". What can you tell us about The Bronze Lie?  On a related note, of course I need you tell us everything you can about Hundred Wolves from Vault Comics!

MC:  The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy is my second history book. It takes Sparta’s complete military history and compares it to their mythic status as the biggest badasses in military history and asks the question “were the Spartans really so tough?” It’s essentially a book-length version of the argument I made in an article for The New Republic that came out last year. You can read it here

Hundred Wolves is my comics debut. I wrote the script of issue 1 and a synopsis for the whole story arc years ago, and pitched it around unsuccessfully. But then I got incredibly lucky when I pitched it to the legendary artist Tony Akins (he did Wonder Woman, Hellblazers, and Fables, among other projects). It just so happened that he’s into the same period of history that I am (17th C. Eastern Europe) and jumped on the opportunity. With him on board, I was able to sell it immediately, and it’ll come out from Vault Comics in April.

The comic is set in the 17th C. in the lawless borderlands between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It’s about two Cossacks - Andrei and Oksana - steel-eyed killers who made their living raiding with the Cossack band Hundred Wolves. They eventually gave up the raiding life to raise their daughter Yulia on a farm given to them by the Polish Count Ostoja in return for service. They looked forward to farming and raising their little girl in peace, but the old life won’t let them go. The Hundred Wolves still have need of their bloody-handed skills, and their new liege lord also knows their reputation as killers and badly wants to put them to use. I was really inspired by the badass family story in Saga and worked hard to channel it in this period piece.

NOAF: You write novels, series, novellas, short stories, and now comics. When you get an idea for a story do you know right away that it is novella length, or too long to fit into one novel? How do you determine the scale of the story and world that you are building?

MC: This is a great question and I’m afraid I don‘t have a ready answer. I have my idea and I begin by sketching it out as a 3-5 page treatment. Based on the feedback I get on that, I decided whether the idea is good enough to merit expansion into an outline (usually around 100 pages), and if that cuts the mustard, then we go for whatever the final form will be (novel, novella, comic script). But as for what its final form will be . . . honestly the story itself will dictate that to me and it comes clear only as I work on the project. Currently I have one really good idea I want to get to once I complete work on the comic (and the sequel for Sixteenth Watch . . . and the bibliography, maps and illustrations references I owe for The Bronze Lie), and I still haven’t decided it it’ll work better as a comic or a novel yet. I will say that my experience doing novellas with was so positive that I would be inclined to cut a longer work down if it meant I could publish with them again.

NOAF: You're also on TV! While us viewers only see the polished, edited version, you literally get to see what happens behind the scenes. Any funny or surprising stories from your experiences filming the Contact and Hunted TV shows? Is television something you hope to do more of?

MC: I love doing TV. For one thing, I love attention. I used to think of this as a character flaw (we’re all raised to be self-effacing and taught that seeking the spotlight is a sign of egomania), but I’ve come to accept that for better or worse, it’s who I am. TV is so much easier than writing. It’s grueling work (12-15 days when you’re shooting), but it’s compressed into a tight period (Hunted was two month’s work. Contact was one month’s work). I get paid more to do a single TV show than I do in a year of writing, and a book takes me 1-2 years to write.

But just like writing, just because you’re doing it at a professional level is absolutely no guarantee you will get to keep doing it. I thought that starring on two major network shows and having an agent at CAA (it’s really hard to get in there) meant my TV career was set. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The only real benefit of having done two shows is that I now have a gorgeous, professional “reel” (clips of me on TV) that I can show to other shows I am trying to get to book me. Otherwise, I’m basically at square one. So, I’m currently hustling for my next show and there’s no guarantee that I’ll get it.

It’s a lot like writing, to be honest. When The Bronze Lie comes out, I’ll have published twelve books all with major publishers. It means nothing. There is no guarantee I’ll sell my next one, and I have to work just as hard to make sure that what I am producing is punching at a level where it stands a real shot of being picked up by the majors.

NOAF: Thanks so much Myke!

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Hanged Man, by K D Edwards

The Hanged Man by K C Edwards broadens and deepens and improves the quasi Urban Fantasy story of expatriate Atlanteans living on the island formerly known as Nantucket.

The Last Sun introduced us to a fascinating world of Atlanteans, their world gone, living on the occupied island of Nantucket. A world where the most powerful Atlanteans carried terrible magical power, Rune, last heir of fallen House Sun, became wrapped up in the machinations of other, great Houses, and slowly coming into his own power in the process. An unusual sort of urban fantasy, The Last Sun was notable for its invention, its strong character focus, and the queer friendliness of Atlantean society.

Now in The Hanged Man, K.C. Edwards continues the story of Rune, and Brand, his bonded Companion, and their slowly accumulating set of friends, lover, and allies. The focus starts with Max, whom in a bit of linguistic trickery in The Last Sun Rune has been bound to raise from a young man to adulthood as his guardian. It turns out Max had been previously promised in marriage to the mysterious and powerful Hanged Man.And the Hanged Man is now aiming to collect Max for that purpose. Rune will not allow his charge to fall to that fate, and so a tale is told.

In The Last Sun, we were dropped headfirst into Rune and Brand’s world and their lives on New Atlantis (aka Nantucket). There was, I noted, a distinct lack of explanation of how we got here, Edwards preferring to focus on the immediate story rather than spending a lot of time explaining how and why Atlanteans exist and how we got to this point. I admired this forthrightness even as I wanted to know a lot more about the background. In The Hanged Man, we begin with a Prologue that clears up for me a lot of the questions I had in the backstory of the Atlanteans and how they wound up to diminished but still potent on the island of Nantucket. In two pages, I had a lot of my questions cleared up and launched me into the book. It also has the salutary effect of making it easier for new readers to start here rather than the first novel. I think that misses the opportunity to see the world from the beginning, but time is a limited resource, and between this prologue and how the author layers in references to the first novel, one could conceivably start the Tarot Sequence here.

That possibility of starting here is accentuated by the tonal shift between the first novel and the second novel. By and large, the first novel features Rune and Brand as relatively (by the standards of perception of the rest of their society) as low powered urban fantasy protagonists. Rune is from a fallen House, the last scion of it, and has a paltry portion of the power that he would have if his House had not been destroyed when he was young. Even with his good relationship with Lord Tower (and by now you can guess the Tarot theme to the Great Houses of Atlantis, yes?), he’s not quite in squalor, but he does have to hustle a bit in order to eat.

In The Hanged Man, thanks to events in the first novel; Rune is starting to come more into his own power and that talent is recognized, even as he starts off in circumstances only somewhat improved from the first novel. However, the novel ramps up quickly in terms of the magic and power we see, and power is temporal as well as magical. It reminds me of a similar shift in gears between Where Oblivion Lives and Carved From Stone and Dream by T Frohock, where the second novel definitely changes the formula and the power levels, bringing more and much more powerful magic and powers into play. Edwards gamely shifts into this gear change well, and it gives a different look at New Atlantis than as seen in The Last Sun. Rune is still relatively underpowered compared to his allies, because of his impoverished status, but he makes up for it with loyal allies and friends, and, even called out in the narrative, an inventiveness that is born of his relatively low power level. Rune and Brand HAVE to be scrappy and punch above their weight, be it exploring the haunted ruins of House Sun or facing off against the minions of the titular Hanged Man. So when we see the high octane magic, we get a true sense of the heritage, power and lost legacy that Rune has lost as the last scion of a fallen House.

Another instance where The Hanged Man improves visibly and significantly on its predecessor is including more female characters into the mix, female characters with depth, backstories and power and potency. The previous novel really relies on the Rune and Brand relationship, and thrives on that relationship. The book, it should be noted, is dude-heavy as a result, albeit queer-dude heavy. In this book, there is a change up by adding more female characters to the mix, starting with Corinne, a former Companion whose hiring of Rune and Brand propels much of the plot revolving around Max, and continuing on with a sheaf of female characters. Gloriously, this culminates with Lady Death, a young frost mage of power, beauty, confidence, and absolutely willing to mix it up, even with someone as potent as The Hanged Man. We get to meet a lot of the Major Arcana in this second novel, and she is far and away my favorite new character.

Fans of the first novel, though, should not be worried. The Rune and Brand relationship, Arcana and Companion is here, as strongly written and explored as it was in the first novel. This novel provides lots more touchstones for that relationship to work. Rune’s ward, Max, yes, of course, is the major touchstone, but also Addam, Rune’s new lover, is something the relationship explores. Also, when Brand starts interacting with other Major Arcana in a sustained way, that also shows change, growth and the depth of the bond between them. Some of the plot of the novel, too, explores what it MEANS to be a Companion, to be magically bound to an Atlantean, and Edwards explores that as well.

And that is really where the strength of the plotting of the novel lies. For all of the interesting magic and action beats and the cool set pieces that Edwards sets up in the narrative (and there are some really inventive and memorable things, especially the Battleship), the novel runs and runs and really develops from the characters, their interactions and their choices. That simple “trick” in the first book that gave Rune a ward leads, basically, to the concordant series of actions and reactions that ricochets throughout this novel. The titular Hanged Man is an antagonist, and still all of his choices and actions flow from his character. The conflict that Rune forces here and the action all sides take make sense. And no doubt, the events of this novel, the choices made (including a huge one by Rune) is going to pay itself forward on future plotting.

One nit: this novel significantly complicates the relationship map of the Tarot Sequence verse and a character sheet or guide would be useful especially for new readers. In short, though, The Hanged Man is an improvement and leveling up of an already intriguing and character focused book to carve out an interesting space in Urban Fantasy that is uniquely his own. With all of the revelations, changes and worldbuilding in this novel, I look forward to what Edwards can do going forward with these characters.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for rich and inventive expansion of worldbuilding, +1 for significant improvements in character balance from the previous novel

Penalties: -1 The Book probably could use a Dramatis Personae or other guide given the complexity of the world at this point.

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

Reference: Edwards, K.D. The Hanged Man [Pyr, 2020]

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton

A heartache-heavy Shakespearean rework that misses the energy of its progenitor

Cover art Larry Rostant; design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
I haven't engaged much with Shakespeare's history plays before last year, but that changed over the course of 2019 as I was able to take advantage of the Globe Theatre's entire "double Henriad" run: from Richard II to Richard III, with 3-6 Henries in the middle depending on whether you count by monarch or by play*. After seeing Richard II in a winter "standalone" production with all women of colour actors (Imperial Radch audiobook narrator Adjoa Andoh played Richard II! That's right, King Breq!), Henry IV was my reintroduction to the company's outdoor theatre, complete with £5 standing tickets, stylish branded ponchos, and - for the second two plays - a summer cold so bad it was all I could do to lean against the stage for 6 hours. All of that just added to the energy of a diversely cast ensemble production, complete with women playing Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. My mind, therefore, already had very clear casting for Lady Hostpur's reimagining of Henry IV and was very ready to see how an explicitly female, romantic take on the characters would unfold.

Lady Hotspur opens at a moment covered in the Shakespeare originals by the close of Richard II. Hal has been raised in court as part of the retinue of King Rossavos, who banished her mother ten years ago and has since been dragging the Kingdom of Aremoria further into debt and ruin. When Mum (also known as Celada) returns to claim not just her lands but the throne itself, she makes short work of the King and wastes no time in re-securing her position, despite some lingering Hal finds herself thrown into life as the Crown Prince, while her friend and the former heir Banna Mora falls from favour. Hal's only consolation is her love affair with Hotspur, a noble soldier whose radiance and temper are renowned. Hotspur, however, had her own loyalties to her land and friends, and things come to a head when Mora is captured by neighbouring Innis Lear which readers of Gratton's previous book will probably be very familiar with. For everyone else, myself included, Innis Lear ends up as sort of a cross between Fairyland and Wales, and whose presence causes the increasing distance between the influence text and Lady Hotspur's reimagining. Celada's court and Hal's circle end up divided over Celada's refusal to pay a ransom for her return, separating Hal and Hotspur and ending their relationship but not their mutual attraction. Mora instead entrenches herself in Innis Lear, picking up a magical husband and some prophecies, and the stage is set for some epic politics and warfare.

Except, this is Henry IV Part 1, so the extent to which we get involved in heavy politics is deeply dependent on how Prince Hal is feeling - and, it turns out, she's chafing under her mother's rule, and particularly the expectation that she marry a man for childbearing purposes (Lady Hotspur could be clearer on queer acceptance in the various lands, but the dominant belief in Aremoria appears to be that Hal and Hotspur's relationship is not taboo but should not be flaunted, especially at the expense of political childbearing alliances, whereas Innis Lear appears to be more fluid with things). With the help of Lady Ianta Oldcastle (hey, I understood that reference!) Hal sets up a shadow Court of Rogues in which she can drink and womanise to her heart's content, and generally avoid responsibilities. In the Shakespearean version, Hal's adventures with Falstaff, Poins et al. are treated as fairly uncomplicated, if sometimes quite vindictive and unpleasant, fun; the conflict in the Prince's character only really shows up in scenes with the King, where the weight of expectations is most clearly set out. Because Hal is a viewpoint character for her scenes in Lady Hotspur, however, everything including the Court of Rogues takes on a more morose cast, as she laments the loss of Hotspur and the wider upheaval which her new position has brought, including her inability to continue a friendship with Banna Mora and the expectations her mother has put on her for the future of the Kingdom. Coupled with Ianta Oldcastle's far more gloomy cast as a character who lost her position as founder of the Lady Knights under the previous King and has fallen into alcoholism as a result, there's an air of desperation and falseness about Hal's rebellion which makes it distinctly less enjoyable to witness. And that's not a mood constrained to Hal: Hotspur divides her time between worrying about the warlike machinations of her Aunt and Mother, worrying and being heartbroken over Hal and her unwillingness to step up, and worrying about Banna Mora. And despite their potential to shake things up - and the apparent authorial intent to have it appear as a more positive political space -the scenes and characters in Innis Lear sometimes get lost in slow melancholy of the book, especially with the whole "weight of ancient prophecies and bloodlines" thing hanging over everyone. Basically, this is a long, slow, sad, meditative book, and it's not afraid to make its audience wait multiple chapters between reasons to root for any of its characters.

The problem is, with all this meditative heartbreak, it becomes difficult for Gratton to truly convey the potential dynamism of the three women at Lady Hotspur's heart, despite the textual insistence that they are all something special. This is especially an issue for Hotspur, who we are told burns as bright as the sun, but all we ever really see of her is her constant deflated disappointment in Hal's behaviour and her conflicted, awkward feelings about the slow political and romantic situations she spends 95% of the book responding to. Hal and Banna Mora's respective positions and reputations are generally pretty well-deserved, but play out in a way which really stretches audience sympathy for them both in different ways, and ultimately neither Hal's redemption or Mora's arc into magical uniter of both countries really brought me around to them. The only character who really brings a genuine ray of sunshine into proceedings is Echarmet of Kurake Queen, a scion of one of Celeda's foreign allies (from a matriarchal society which I would definitely read about if the opportunity arose) and potential political match for Hal: and yes, I'm well aware of the irony of picking out one of the very few male characters in Lady Hotspur as a highlight, but Charm is great and deserves justice and nice things forever, OK? In fairness, part of Charm's, uh, charm, is his bringing a non-heteropatriarchal take into Aremoria's court, and essentially becoming one of Hal's lifelines from a direction that she's not expecting, and that's one of the elements that brings things to a still-slow but eventually pretty satisfying (and unexpected!) conclusion.

Ultimately, I suspect my main problem with much of Lady Hotspur is that it sits in the uncanny valley between the production I've watched and internalised as "Henry IV", and a completely standalone text. There's nothing at all wrong with slow, meditative queer medieval politics books, but if you are going to transform your title character from the fast-talking, fast-acting centre of a rebellion, who would literally move entire rivers for the sake of their own power and sense of what is right, into a woman whose only real character decisions are deciding whether or not to be with her feckless true love in the hope of changing her, and subsequently whether to stand behind another character (incidentally, I had to look up who Banna Mora's source character was - either Edmund Mortimer was cut from the version of the play that I watched, or just not interesting enough to remember) is one that's inevitably going to create a lot of "wait, what, why?" over those decisions. I'm not sure if this problem would be solved by lack of familiarity with the play, as well, as the disconnect between what we're shown and what we're told about Hotspur would still be there within the text itself. What I'm left with is something I really wish I'd enjoyed more than I did - a book that took a lot of work for a frankly very modest payoff. I'm still intrigued by what Gratton does next (especially if it involves some of Echarmet's Mothers) but, alas, Lady Hotspur isn't quite the knockout I'd hoped.

*If you're counting by monarch, there are also two uncredited Edwards in there. History is fun!

The Math
Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 It's genderbent queer Shakespeare, and we need more of this sort of thing forever

Penalties: -1 Struggles to portray the dynamism of its leads over their slow heartbreak; -1 I would have preferred a commitment either to being very different or more similar to the source text

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore". Read about our scoring system here.

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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: Gratton, Tessa. Lady Hotspur [Tor Books, 2020]