Thursday, April 30, 2020

Questing in Shorts: April 2020

Happy Thursday, friends! April has been a month of ups and downs but I'm tentatively celebrating the return of my reading mojo to, if not normal, then at least to an acceptable pandemic level. I've been a little low on magazines this month, but I do have a full length round-up for you and I'm once again making the resolution to give my full-to-bursting Kindle magazine folder some love in the next month.
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu (Head of Zeus, 2020)

Ken Liu's fantasy series and translation work are both very familiar to me, but I've experienced less of his short fiction - so when the opportunity arose to own this super colourful collection (seriously, my copy is an orange hardcover with purple sprayed edges - it doesn't get more delightfully clashy than that) it was not in my power to resist. What I got was a wide-ranging collection with an interesting focus on the development of artificial consciousness and how humans might look at the singularity from both sides of the technological divide: what we gain from technological advancement, and what we might leave behind. Stories from the nested tales of interplanetary adaptation of "Ghost Days", to the slow decaying heartbreak of "Staying Behind" to the surprising time dilation of "Seven Birthdays" deal with migration and intergenerational communication, giving both older and younger generations things to offer to each other even when the characters themselves don't realise it. A couple of interesting shared universes (or maybe one big shared universe?) offer continuity within the middle part of the collection: in particular, the trilogy of "The Gods Will Not Be Chained", "The Gods Will Not Be Slain" and "The Gods Have Not Died In Vain" tell the single story of a girl who has lost her technological genius father, only to rediscover him via an emoji-heavy chat programme, once again looking at communication across a gulf but in a very different way to the classic "parent child" dynamic. There's also an apparently shared conception of the singularity which offers a very human, understandable sense of what it might be like to be a consciousness that no longer lives in the human world. I'm not sure I'm ready to live in a fourteen-dimensional hypercube myself, but Liu's vision of our possible technological future makes it feel like something tangible and lived in, rather than acting as the death of all we currently hold valuable.

There are some fantasy stories here as well, including an excerpt from the final book in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy (a satisfyingly standalone piece, but I'm now even more impatient for 2021), the intriguing "Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard" about a trio of shapeshifters, and the title story, "The Hidden Girl", in which the youngest of three sisters raised as assassins decides, on her first mission, to save her target and defeat her siblings instead. All in all, this is exactly the level of accomplishment I'd expect from Liu, and I'm already making plans to hunt down his first collection and stuff that into my eyeballs someday as well.

Giganotosaurus: February, March, April 2020

Three stories over three months for the dinosaur semiprozine: February brings "Thin Red Jellies" by Lina Rather, the story of a near future where it is possible to save and reimplant a human's consciousness after their death, either in an artificial body or compartmentalised into the brain of another person. When Amy's girlfriend Jess dies in a car accident, she offers her brain as a stopgap, but the long-term solution for two young women without good health insurance in a future USA is further out of reach than they thought. It's a story which deals with intrusion: the challenges faced by both women as they adjust to life and communication in one body, the accommodations and sacrifices each has to make for the other, and the horrifying assumptions which a privatised health system and the companies which own it make about workers' autonomy and quality of life. Rather doesn't pull punches about what this does to Jess and Amy's relatively new relationship, and the story's abrupt ending doesn't offer much in the way of catharsis but it does underscore the inescapable nature of their situation.

March's story, by ZZ Claybourne, is "The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar", a very atmospheric piece about nomadic witches : very atmospheric story about a family of nomadic witches whose youngest member, Amnandi, is trying to overcome the loneliness of her situation. And April gives us "A Wild Patience" by Gwynne Garfinkle, a story that literally had me grinning from ear-to-ear in the first twenty percent once I realised what was going on. In a town where a large number of men have always had perfect, home-making wives, things start to get a bit... messy... when the doctor dies, and Gretchen and Jessica suddenly find their Mom is more interested in reading the poetry of Adrienne Rich and discussing self-actualisation with the other mothers than fulfilling her role. Turns out, there's a semi-secret robot-wife cult in town, and neither the mothers themselves nor their daughters and the other women around them are interested in keeping the mens' dirty little secret. What I enjoyed most about this story was the focus on Gretchen and Jessica's wellbeing and the caring, if different, relationship they build with their Mom once her secret is revealed; every attempt at the men in the story to reclaim authority and project threat is laughed off and non-violently swatted down, leaving the misogynists of the story looking ridiculous and exposed as their "perfect" lives cease to be.

Summoned to Destiny Ed. Julie Czerneda (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004)

I've had this cute looking older anthology on my physical TBR for a while, having picked it up as an impulse buy in Forbidden Planet back in the days when in-person book browsing was a thing. It finally called to me last week, and I discovered a fun fantasy collection of shorts that deal in some way with coming of age or call to action moments for their various protagonists, from magical awakenings to bardic apprenticeships to rituals of power. That focus on the call to action lends itself a little bit to a "the end of the story is where the novel would begin" sequence, and while none of the stories explicitly end with "they smiled: there was so much work to do" - my least favourite story ending ever - it felt like a close thing. But there's a great range of worldbuilding (especially when it comes to developing the sacred) and character development here which overcomes the sense of reading a series of prologues, and makes this an intriguing collection in its own right.

The story I enjoyed most is by far the longest in the anthology: "The Colors of Augustine" by Michelle West (Michelle Sagara). This is the story of Joseph, an orphaned boy in a world where some people are able to paint visions of the future, who discovers he is talented but whose colourblindness (and implied neurodivergence) makes use of that talent challenging without the constant help of his friend Caroline. When both are picked up for an apprenticeship by another member of the Augustine Painters (and a former orphan himself) they are thrown into a world with a mixture of magical and mundane threats, and pushed into service to try and avert danger to the King while also staying alive themselves and protecting Caroline from a predatory Count who has his eyes on her. Unlike many of the other stories, which focus on a single unique young person finding their way into life-changing situations, West's story explicitly focuses on the relationship between Joseph and Caroline and the way that they support each other to shape the future together. While it's Joseph who is more outwardly "special", Caroline's role in the story and in his success, and her own independent strengths, are treated with constant respect by other sympathetic characters and by the narrative itself.

FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 14

No novelette in this quarter's unthemed issue of FIYAH, but four interesting short stories that range from epic fantasy to cyber thriller via a pair of urban speculative stories that straddle each side of the science/magic divide. On the fantasy side, Tobi Ogundiran's "Guardian of the Gods" packs a great deal of adventure into its short length, telling the story of Ashâke, an acolyte who has been left behind by her classmates because she can't hear the gods. When she learns the forbidden truth behind the place she's been brought up, Ashâke has a crisis of faith and returns to right the wrongs she feels has been done to her - only to find out the truth isn't nearly so straightforward. I could happily read a full novel set in this world, and the same goes for the issue's other fantasy story, "Your Rover is Here" by LP Kindred, which offers a high-action magical altercation in an urban fantasy world where bigotry and economic inequality looks much the same as it does in our own. The 2,000 words of this story do an amazing job of sketching a world with various types of magic, political structures at play, and putting an interesting character at the heart of it all.

On the science fictional side, "A Terminal Kind of Love" by Veronica Henry is the story of a tech genius who is in the process of divorcing her unfaithful husband, who unfortunately also happens to take away the company they helped build together. When Athena tries to get her revenge, it winds up not working exactly to plan and brings their problems to a head in an unexpected way. While the prose in this one is a little "explain-y", the emotional weight of the situation is well handled and I liked the touches of Freetown in the setting. "Uniform" by Errick Nunnally rounds out this quartet with another deeply emotional story, this one about a Marine veteran who was turned into a mechanised soldier following fatal injuries, and who is now attempting to find his place in a world where he is regarded as a killing machine. The story turns from a touching slice of life moment to an unexpected opportunity for heroism, and while the ending feels a little neat, it still allows the protagonist a moment of choice and recognition which allows it to be earned and for some of the themes of the story to be laid to rest.

Bonus Round: Prose and Politics

Over the past couple of months, I've read some interesting works that combine fiction and non-fiction in different ways. Europa28, edited by Edited by Sophie Hughes & Sarah Cleave from Comma Press, incorporates fiction that ranged from dreamy slipstream to continental personifications to mythical retellings within a set of mostly non fiction essays, all written by women from different countries in Europe. It's a tricky book to review in this context, as none of the fiction entries really stand up on their own as stories; what makes them interesting is how they juxtapose with the memoirs and analyses of other parts of the collection to build up a patchwork of perspectives that coalesce into a snapshot of a complex, fractured continent grappling with ghosts of the past and the inequalities of today. It may just be the cynical former EU intern in me, but the project of creating shared European cultural identity can be prone to simplifications that are cringey at best, and enormously problematic and neo-colonialist at worst. Europa28 does occasionally veer into cringe (the story "In Human Form", about an entity coming to Earth to learn about what it is to be "Europe", and the extended metaphor of "Europe as a house" gave me the feeling most persistently) but it's more than balanced out by the nuance in many of the more geographically focused pieces, and I particularly appreciated works from Eastern European perspectives which are less regularly heard in English-language conversations.

I've also made some progress on my resolution to read more of PM Press' Outspoken Authors series, a series of short collections or novellas which combine fiction, non fiction and an interview from a particular author, often highlighting work that hasn't been collected elsewhere. Nisi Shawl's Talk Like A Man is one such collection and one of the series' more recent titles, bringing together a handful of short stories, a long essay on the relationship between science fiction and religion through the lens of Shawl's practice of Ifa, a West African religion, and a long, wide-ranging interview with series editor Terry Bisson. The setup here is more "traditional" with non-fiction coming after the fiction, but there's still a sense of getting to know an author over the course of the collection that feels qualitatively different somehow from reading a normal collection, despite the shorter length. The highlight of the fiction pieces here was "Walk Like a Man", a story that combines a gritty, aggressive version of female adolescence with a cyberpunky aesthetic exploring reality, relationships and belonging.

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, April 29, 2020

Westworld Wednesday: Here & Now

Do you ever ask yourselves any questions?

Memories are a tricky thing, under the best of circumstances. Our memories frequently deviate from reality for a whole host of reasons that I am unqualified to speak to. False memories are a thing, and boy howdy, did they mess with Caleb's. In possibly the most predictable twist in the history of Westworld, he is actually the one who killed his BFF.

But we saw that coming - anytime Westworld gives us pieces of a story, it sure isn't giving us the whole story. Heck, it isn't giving us the whole story when we think it is.

Speaking of, William is now the Man in White. White hospital garb, that is, and it is hardly virtuous. We have known Caleb has been, uh, not himself, let's say, since we met him. William, we have gotten to know through multiple versions of himself - ones that were are recently pulled together for the group therapy session from hell. We're really always ourselves though, aren't we? Memories - like the realities vs fictions in the show - are still a part of us, real or imagined. And there aren't actually multiple versions of ourselves - yes, we grow and change over time, but time is linear. There aren't copies of ourselves kicking around out there, for good or evil.

It makes me wonder what William wants. Not his goals in the show, but as a person. His goals have changed. When we first* meet him, he is young, ambitious and successful. Charming and ostensibly good, but always... safe. Everything he does - his career, who he marries, why he even goes to Westworld in the first place is calculated and safe. He manages to slightly tell Logan to eff off, but there is no punch behind it - he won't endanger the professional relationship. Logan knows William doesn't like him, and bully that he is, revels in the fact that William needs him.

His goals shift - get through a bad vacation with his idiot brother in law and get home and start his idyllic family, to protecting Delores, to learning about the maze, and now he wants to wipe the hosts out. His reasoning there is fatally flawed - he says the hosts are his only true mistake.

An objective person may disagree with that.

No one got in William's head but himself. For all his care and ambition, he let things far outside of his control and outside of himself affect who he became. He defends his wife's suicide, his murder of his daughter, and myriad other sins by blaming the hosts and the park. But it was his choices that lead him there - and he didn't have an omniscient AI controlling him to blame that on. His memories, his thoughts were certainly deluded, but how did they get so muddled in the first place?

William didn't get the same treatment to divorce his memories from reality, but the affect is largely the same.


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

Microreview [Book]: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

A novella with a heart almost too big to fit within its pages.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo is a book about boundaries—both the transcendence of the boundaries, and the lasting remnants of the things we leave behind upon the crossing. Whether it’s the transcendence of gender norms or class differences, the book subverts timeworn conventions, while looking back at the morsels of good we leave behind on our way. This short novella manages to craft a well-drawn world, with a story of epic scope and heartwarming themes, transcending the conventions of old fantasy. But I couldn’t help but think that Nghi Vo, upon trailblazing with great ambition, looked back at the archetypes and certain story beats of the genre, and took those along with her.

The novella follows Chih, a cleric historian, who upon the death of the empress In-Yo, heads to the new empress’ first Dragon Court to log the events. This location was once classified by In-Yo, but has now become declassified—the boundary obscuring the place’s storied past has been unlocked. Upon their travels, Chih stumbles upon Rabbit, an old woman who used to be In-Yo’s handmaiden, in a location that was the hub of the empress’ activities. Chih listens to Rabbit’s complex tale of her past, and the malevolence and beauty stored therein.

In-Yo is a character who was deemed lesser by the royalty, largely because of her womanhood. She held a noble position, but wasn’t treated like nobility, placing her in a sort of dead zone between nobility and peasantry. But without spoiling things, she took matters into her own hands to get her out of stagnation, and forge her own path. And Rabbit, who stays by In-Yo’s side, in a sort of exalted position that transcends the bounds of how most royalty seems to treat their servants, is free to forge a path of her own.

But for all its subversions in its politics, most of the characters could be a tad more developed. Chih is more of a vessel to hear Rabbit’s story, rather than a person of their own. In-Yo is on paper, the most complex character, but because of Nghi Vo’s decision to tell the story through Rabbit’s point of view, is portrayed in a sort of gilded voyeurism—we get the sense that this person is strong and complex in brushstrokes and brief descriptions, but the inability to get inside their head and only see them from a distance, detaches the reader from their layers and nuances. And Rabbit is portrayed, at least in the past sections, as a deferential, unassuming handmaiden (like many handmaidens in fantasy fiction) whose blooming romance is robbed of complexity by how she rushes through the telling of her story.

A lot of the characters are almost archetypical, and I don’t think it’s because Nghi Vo lacks the chops to do more with them. I just think a novella that chronicles a story within a story, the conquests of an empress’s life, as well as the nuances of her handmaiden, needed to be longer than one-hundred pages—and this is coming from someone who usually thinks less is more.

The archetypes are not the only component of the past—one of the major themes is built on looking to the past. Chih studies objects around the epicentre of In-Yo’s activity to get a sense of the history. And the story structure is predicated on a character looking back—it’s a ghost that brings a mix of joy and grief, not too dissimilar from the literal ghosts that haunt the pages.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is an impossible book to dislike. Its sheer ambition for its page count is admirable. Its poetic sentences, more so. And its messages, even more than that. However, the core of the story is a flame that needed more kindle to expand. Nghi Vo crossed a lot of boundaries at some points, and stayed the course with others. It’s just a shame that the story didn’t take a few more turns to cross the line from good to great.

The Math
Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 For maintaining absolute coherency amongst a cavalcade of story threads that could’ve spelled chaos
+1 The writing has an original voice that never wavers in its stylistic beauty

Penalties: -1 The ending could’ve been even more powerful with some more pages of set-up

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!"
Vo, Nghi. The Empress of Salt and Fortune [ 2020]

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Network Effect by Martha Wells

The further adventures of an anxious, misanthropic cyborg and its human acquaintances

Murderbot is back! After its escapades in the novella series which began with All Systems Red, Martha Wells' multiple Hugo winning series is now back and its in full novel form - welcome news to those of us who have followed its adventures to date. Network Effect has been on my anticipated reads of 2020 ever since it was announced, and I was delighted when I got the chance to find out how life after solving the problems faced in the novella would be shaping up for our favourite misanthropic cyborg.

Murderbot, for those who aren't acquainted, is a rogue SecUnit: a specialised cyborg (though it definitely identifies more on the "robot" side and tends to get a bit weird about its organic parts, particularly the ones that give it awkward things like "feelings") rented out by a company to various contractors in need of security. Murderbot's galaxy is one in which Corporations own most things, and indeed most people, and that arrangement is exactly as bad as it sounds for most of the indentured people we meet, and particularly for bots which aren't supposed to have any autonomy or desires of their own. During its career as a company SecUnit, Murderbot discovered how to hack its own governor module (the thing keeping it from doing anything the company didn't like) after an incident (the one that caused it to give itself a name) was wiped from its memory. What follows is a series of adventures I'm not going to recap for you here when there are four perfectly good novellas to go and read instead. For the purposes of Network Effect, what's important to know is that Murderbot fell in with some good humans, saved them, left them to figure out the mysteries of its past and work out why they've drawn the attention of a particular company, met some more people and bots, and ended up coming back to the first group of humans just in time to save the day more decisively. Now, Murderbot is a tenuous part of a human family on a non-corporate planet called Preservation, and everything would be going just fine if everyone could actually turn up to their relevant therapy appointments and also if the bad guys could give it a rest forever. Also, there are teenagers involved in this family, and that's a whole new ballgame for Murderbot to deal with.

Those concerned that a novel length Murderbot might be too heavy on those (ugh) slow sappy feelings will be happy to learn that Network Effect opens with a ton of action: in fact, we meet it literally in the middle of trying to save the research ship on which it, the aforementioned teenager, and some other family members are working from pirates. Then we segue from pirates and boat battles into space battles, and then into desperate escapes, and then into tense empty spaceship exploration, and by a third of the novel in, I was wondering if we'd ever get space to breathe or if this book was going to be novella-paced action levels maintained for the length of a novel. Of course, this is Martha Wells, so we're in safe hands when it comes to balancing high action sequences with slower, but still tense, interpersonal moments, and things calm down considerably once Murderbot gets its humans all to a point of safety, with the return of an old friend in the bargain. That's good, because it gives us time to establish the new threat and how the returning character fits in, and also for Murderbot to lock itself in a bathroom and sulk for a few hours. To proceed further would be to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that Network Effect takes the series in a new direction that feels like a very natural evolution from the previous arc, while offering a standalone adventure within this book that explores some new background from this particular galaxy.

The highlight of Network Effect remains, of course, Murderbot's character and voice, and while the opening third had me a bit worried that this might be too much more of the same, there's definitely more space for development here, in both natural and, in one case, very left-field directions. The main change this time around is the presence of a group of humans who are already very familiar with Murderbot, and once they team up with Spoilery Old Friend (I feel like it's going to be impossible to get through this review without it looking obvious who this is, but you might be surprised) we get to watch Murderbot confront something we haven't seen it deal with before: people who know you and care about your wellbeing and who won't stop acting on information you've given them, no matter how much you try and hide the important things. It's understated, but Murderbot's progression from "if people know what I really am, they will kill me", and consequent horror at not being able to stop people from picking up on its behaviour, to being able to accept community and trust people around it with knowledge about itself is an arc that only gets more perfect the more one thinks about it, and its handled incredibly well. It also offers a lot of humour, as we see Murderbot's habit of eavesdropping on everything and everyone come back to haunt it. One of the most fun parts of Wells' Raksura novels was watching species with social norms that more closely model humans observing and trying to figure out Raksura dynamics from the outside, while we as readers had a mostly-inside view; Network Effect does similar things with its AI and human dynamics, to great effect.

Of course, the supporting cast has to be strong in order to carry this, and there's definitely a fun group of people here. Of particular note, is the aforementioned teenager, Amena, who also happens to be Mensah's daughter. In the opening chapters, we get a flashback (one of several mysterious out-of-chronology sections) which establishes why Amena is sceptical of Murderbot, and without giving anything away, it's a reason that's much more teenage than any of the human reasoning that the series has dealt with so far (and also establishes Murderbot at 100% in the right, even if we can see why Amena doesn't think so). Having to build a relationship with a young person who is also trying to figure herself out and get hold of her emotions while having a healthy frustration at authority figures - including Murderbot - is an entertaining challenge for our protagonist, while also representing a relationship that's equal in important ways that Murderbot's relationships with human adults generally can't be. Murderbot's relationship with Amena and her family (and, vicariously, Dr Mensah, although she isn't present for the vast majority of this book) also means the stakes are higher than any of its previous adventures, as it has things to protect and far more ways to become, as it puts it, "emotionally compromised" than before.

Given that this is the first novel length entry in the series, and the beginning of a new arc after the four novellas, I had both expected and feared that Network Effect would be more of a"reboot" here - new characters, new dilemmas, and an obvious entry point for Murderbot's ongoing troubles (both physical and emotional). Instead, Network Effect is definitely a "Season 2 opener", and to get the full impact of Murderbot's journey you'll definitely want to have read the previous novellas. However, the plot and returning characters are all pretty straightforward, and Network Effect's opening will plunge you right into the action in a relatively accessible way, so starting with All Systems Red isn't an absolute requirement. All in all, this is another great entry into a series that probably needs very little introduction. Murderbot is a top bot, a great pal, and I'm glad that they're looking to stick around for more adventures to come.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 humans who overcome their inherent awfulness to actually not be too terrible.

Penalties: -1 Action almost gets too much for the first third of the novel.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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: Wells, Martha Network Effect [ Publishing, 2020]

Monday, April 27, 2020

Interview: Gideon Marcus, Kitra and Galactic Journey

You very likely know Gideon Marcus from his Hugo nominated fanzine Galactic Journey, his work as a space historian, and his educational lectures, but did you know he also writes fiction?  His short fiction appears in the anthology Tales of Alternate Earths 2, and his debut YA novel, Kitra, is available now.

Nineteen-year-old Kitra dreams of traveling to the stars like her mother, and she jumps at the chance to fly into space on her own ship.  A diverse crew of nerdy young adults on an old junked Navy ship,  what could possibly go wrong? Well. . .  everything.  Before they know it,  they are stranded. No fuel, no way home, and no one coming to rescue them.  Did I mention Kitra's ex-girlfriend is among the crew?  Talk about awkward!

Kitra is a story of perseverance in the face of fear and uncertainty, and that we only get through times like these by helping each other.   Uplifting and positive,  this novel speaks to all ages.

Galactic Journey is Gideon's Serling award winning and Hugo nominated web-project. Going back in time 55 years to bring today's readers news from the past, the site features reviews of published short stories and novels, and tons of articles on movies, tv shows, "current" events such as the Space Race, and other interesting things. The neat thing is that everything on the site is written as if it is happening right now. You can also follow Galactic Journey on twitter, @journeygalactic.

Gideon was kind enough to let me ask him all sorts of questions about the novel and Galactic Journey.  In our wide ranging conversation we talk about everything from recent trends in YA fiction to characters writing the story themselves, to the importance of small moments, to the future of Galactic Journey, and more!

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF:  Congratulations on your new novel, Kitra! Who is Kitra and why is her story so compelling?

Gideon Marcus: Thanks very much! Kitra is a 19 year old amateur glider pilot with one overriding passion: to go to space. Her mother was an interstellar ambassador, an almost larger than life figure, and when she died, she left behind big (metaphorical) shoes to fill. What makes Kitra special is what can make anyone special: persistence and a determination to seek help in achieving one's goals.

As for what makes her story compelling, I think a story of hope against odds, of ingenuity beating adversity, always resonates. But right now especially, when we're all stuck in various levels of isolation and there's no clear path back to normal, a story about being trapped in a small ship for weeks on end resonates all the more strongly. It's eerily timely and, I'm hoping, inspiring.

NOAF: Sounds like there's a lot of wonderful things happening in this book!  What challenges did you come across, when you were plotting out everything that needed to happen?

GM: Plotwise, I wrote myself into a corner about 65% of the way through the book. I really didn't know how Kitra was going to accomplish the most important thing she needed to do to get home. When you read how she and her crew got through the puzzle, you'll think it was just brilliant foreshadowing . .  . but really, I just sat in my backyard and thought, "What would the characters do?" They quite literally wrote their own solution.

More technically, my biggest challenge was scientific consistency. Kitra is a "young adult" novel, which means it needs to be accessible to everyone age 10 and up. At the same time, there's plenty of Star Wars-style science fantasies out there that play fast and loose with physics. I wanted to write a story that is plausible science fiction while still enjoyable and a quick read. That was the challenge, making sure I kept all the numbers right - how much fuel they had, their food reserves, the mechanics of space travel, etc. It's all invisible to the reader (this is a novel, not a textbook!) but that consistency is important to me.

NOAF: What inspired you to write this novel?

GM: Two main reasons. First: I wrote what I wanted to read. Second: No one else was doing it.

I grew up on "classic" science fiction, mostly stuff from the 50s through the 80s. There wasn't a YA genre back then; it was called "juvenile" instead and usually featured young men doing adventurous things among the stars. Back then, space was the final frontier, after all.

For the last twenty years, YA has been dominated by fantasy and dystopia. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but it got to the point where everyone was trying to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Space hasn't gotten any less interesting; science shouldn't be passé; and characters don't need magic or special powers to be extraordinary.

As for why Kitra in particular, in those books I grew up with, there weren't enough (read ANY) young women protagonists . . . except in my beloved L. Frank Baum Oz books. There weren't queer protagonists, rarely persons of color in starring roles. It was something I didn't notice when I was a kid. And that's, of course, the problem. I want young people, and older ones too, to read my book and see a world that looks like theirs, with all the diversity therein.

NOAF: What surprised you the most, while you were writing this novel?

GM: A lot of the book was planned well in advance. I'm not exactly a plotter, but I like to bullet point the pivotal scenes. Some, though, I just sat in front of a blank page with my 1000-words-a-day deadline looming, and pulled a chapter out of . . . hyperspace. :) The snowball fight was one of those.

I didn't plan the situation between Kitra and Marta. In retrospect, it's obvious - two close friends with a romantic history trapped together in an enclosed space - something was bound to happen. Not only does it affect the events in Kitra, it will be important to later books in the series, too.

I think that's the mark of successfully realized characters. They do what they want regardless of what you have planned for them!

NOAF: I hear there is a second novel in the series in the works! Where does Kitra's story go from here?

GM: I'm never certain how much to spoil in these interviews! Kitra's saga definitely doesn't end with the first book, though Kitra wraps up satisfactorily (all of the books in the series will; no one likes a novel that's not a complete story.) By the end of the first book, Kitra and her friends have just been forged into a crew. There's a whole universe to explore, and mind-boggling things to discover. Plus, Kitra will grow as a person, as will those around her. I think that will resonate with readers, too, watching these characters mature over time.

NOAF: In another interview you did, you mentioned that you're "not really about villains". Does Kitra's world not have any bad guys?  What does a world without baddies look like?

GM: What's a "bad guy"? I grew up on superhero comics, and I enjoyed the MCU for a while, but I got tired of the zero sum game. If there were heroes, the rationale went, there had to be equally powerful villains, and they had to fight incessantly. In a dystopian novel, there's the big evil government. In a fantasy, there's the Sauron/Voldemort. I wanted to try something different.

The real world is a complicated place. The "enemy" can be poverty, natural disaster, or closest to home right now, a pandemic. There are definitely selfish, cruel people in this world, but they are almost always the symptom of a problem rather than the source.

My wife once observed that "good writing is the art of making small things matter." Writers have gotten obsessed with toppling Big Bads, or a series of successively tougher "bosses". The scope is always enormous: the world, or the universe . . . maybe even the multiverse. With Kitra, I dialed it back. It's just her and the four friends she feels obligated to help. There is no enemy, just a challenging situation to deal with creatively.

That said, the scope will expand as the series goes on. Will there be trouble? Of course. Politics? To a degree. People who try to hurt Kitra and her crew, sure. But there will never be an arch-nemesis for her to rail against.

NOAF: I'd be a terrible interviewer if I didn't congratulate you on your Hugo nomination for Best Fanzine, Congratulations!  You've been on the Hugo ballot a few times now, how did it feel to get that first nomination? What will winning a Hugo mean for you?

GM: Becoming a Hugo Finalist was literally a life-changer. It happened at the same time as my first professional fiction sales (I've been a nonfiction writer for 15 years) as well as my first educational performances. That was when I realized I could make a go of this writing thing. Two years later, I have a successful publishing company, I'm working with laureled authors, and I'm doing what I love most - telling stories that entertain.

NOAF: Why did you start Galactic Journey? Has Galactic Journey's goals or focus changed since you started it? Where do you see the site going in the next few years?

GM: It all began in 1954. That's when my dad started collecting science fiction magazines. He died in 1993 and left me almost a thousand of them. In 2009, I decided I wanted to read them all. To keep me on a regular schedule, I decided to read them once a month "as they came out" with a time-shift of 55 years. In 1958 . . . er . . . 2013, my wife asked me to recommend some of my favorite stories. I decided to write a blog instead, sort of projecting myself into the past to live in the bygone age, day by day. I'm a space historian, and my specialty is the late '50s, so I added articles about the Space Race, too.

Well, you can't immerse yourself in a time, listening to the music, watching the movies, reading the paper, and not have it become part of you. And I kept seeing our modern age reflected in the past. 55 years ago is now, just a little crappier. I found myself excited on the rare occasions I saw a woman's byline in my fiction and started chronicling the (these days largely forgotten) contributions women made to science fiction back then. I got invested in the struggle for civil rights which, even today, is far from complete...and has faltered lately. I wanted to know more about the world of that age, not just the fiction and technology, but the culture, the fashion, the politics, and how they ultimately led to the age we know today.

Twenty people make up the Journey now, demographically diverse, from all hemispheres of the globe. What we make is, I think, a lot more than just a fanzine. It's a living time capsule with something for everyone. We've finished The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and we pretty well wrapped up the latter Silver Age of science fiction. Doctor Who is in its second season and will go on for a long time. Over the next few years, we're going to be covering a lot more familiar franchises: Star Trek, the New Wave of SF, 2001.

And we're really just starting the 1960s in earnest. Society is about to be turned on its ear, and at the end of the revolution are the seeds of our current world. I hope folks enjoy the trip as much as I am!

NOAF:   Thank you so much Gideon!

Friday, April 24, 2020

6 Books with Andi C Buchanan

Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Winner of a Sir Julius Vogel Award for their short story "Girls Who Do Not Drown" (Apex, 2018), their fiction is also published or forthcoming in Fireside, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. Their 2019 novella From a Shadow Grave (Paper Road Press) uses a historical murder as a launching point into narratives of multiple possible futures, deploying urban fantasy, historical fiction, time travel and more. You can find Andi on Twitter @andicbuchanan or at 

Today we ask Andi about their Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I'm one of those people who always has multiple books on the go but to pick one: I'm really enjoying Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng; it's this wonderfully rich writing and worldbuilding that at the same time avoids being too verbose, and the sense of atmosphere is incredible. It's also a novel that's very aware of its influences, even as it twists or rearranges or subverts them. I'm not very far through but I'm liking it a lot.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about? 

Oh no, this whole interview is going to have to be about choosing just one, isn't it? I am very much looking forward to R.B. Lemberg's The Four Profound Weaves. I've been following Lemberg's shorter work for a number of years; it's beautiful and warm and comforting, and hopeful without falling into the trap of skirting tougher issues or minimising them. The Birdverse verse (of which The Four Profound Weaves is a part) is filled with people you don't find as often as one might like in fiction, and yet resonate so strongly for me. I'm really excited about seeing what Lemberg does at novella length.

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

I'm writing this a day before the country goes into lockdown in an attempt to stem COVID 19, so I've been thinking of a childhood favourite, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, a lot. It's the story of two girls who swap places in time; one from the early 1960s, contemporary to when the book was published, and one from the end of World War One. I've been hearing a lot of people say they didn't really know about the Spanish Flu until they were adults (and there's a whole wider discussion there about why it was so infrequently talked and written about) but Charlotte Sometimes got me interested in that era of history at a very young age, and is proving a comfort now.
It's a gorgeously written book, filled with historical detail, but it also allows itself to be funny and adventurous and resonant. It does a lot of clever things with relationships, and the lack of them, and finding connection and while it's not a found family story includes many of the elements that I love that trope for.

4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively? 
I can't think of one I disliked and now liked, or vice versa, but I've been finding myself far more conscious of the perspective of the adults in children's fiction, and in some cases it's changed my view of the stories. There's often so much subtlety, so much between the lines or left unsaid in how parents are written, and it's fascinating to go back and look at that. For example, Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes remains one of my favourite books, but I can't say my adult self isn't more than a little horrified at the idea of a man giving a series of orphaned babies to someone because "women like babies" and then continuing on his travels.

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

I feel I could choose a different answer to this every day, but I'm going to pick Nina Bawden's Carrie's War (this interview is very much proving to be about the historical children's writing!). It's about siblings who are evacuated from - I think - London to Wales during World War II, and have to navigate living in an authoritarian (and sometimes, at least by modern standards, abusive) household, but also make friends with people who may or may not have magical ability.
I loved it as a child, but more recently I've come to appreciate just how expertly written it is. Bawden draws a lot of complexity into the antagonists’ character, where it would have been easy to leave him as a stereotype. There's so much complex stuff going on, about magical thinking and about guilt, and this very ambiguous magic that you're never quite sure whether to believe in until the epilogue (and maybe not even then). All of this is woven into a novel that on the face of it is about war and living with new people and school and grocery stores so well that it's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly where in the writing it is - and yet it's definitely there.
There's a scene where Carrie is trying to tell her mother how unhappy she is and - not really through the fault of either party - cannot communicate that, and it's honestly a masterwork of writing, disguised behind a conversation about the counting of sweetener pills, and honestly if I could write a scene like that most of my ambitions would be fulfilled.

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

My latest book is From a Shadow Grave published by Paper Road Press. It's a novella inspired by the true story of a murdered teenager who is said to haunt a nearby road tunnel. Rather than treat her as a malevolent presence, I wanted to explore her life, and the possible - and impossible - futures she could have had. It's a ghost story, a historical story, an urban fantasy story, and - in places - a time travel story.
I was really pleased Paper Road Press were interested in something as experimental and structurally weird as this, and I've been delighted by the reception it's got. I'm also looking forward to novellas by two friends being released by Paper Road Press this year: No Man's Land by AJ Fitzwater which is a queer historical fantasy (with eels) about the deployment of women to New Zealand's farms during World War II, and Octavia Cade's climate fiction thriller The Stone Wētā.
You can purchase From A Shadow Grave from all the usual places, or direct from the publisher.

Thank you, Andi!

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

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Fantasy Vacation: The Hundred Isles (The Bone Ships)

Amongst the more immediate concerns about the state of the world, one of the hardest parts of the current situation has been the loss of travel and adventure plans for the foreseeable future. I'm currently mourning everything small explorations around the city where I live to the trip I hoped to take to New Zealand over July and August to catch up with old and new friends at Worldcon. Unsure when our next trips beyond our safe and/or necessary spaces might be, some of us nerd-types have started thinking about vacation ideas that are a little beyond the usual, uh, reality that a holiday destination requires.

So: Are you interested in nautical adventure? Looking for a coastal break with a difference? Feeling somewhat unattached to the world of living land, and seeking an afterlife in a soggy embrace? Well, a fantasy vacation in the Hundred Isles, as explored in R.J. Barker's The Bone Ships, might be the thing for you! (NOTE: Those who do not appreciate frivolity may instead want to check out Paul's review)

We here at Nerd Flights and Tours have rounded up six must-see destinations for your trip around this dismal delightful archipelago:

Cover design: Hannah Wood
1. Out and about around Bernhulme. The capital of the Hundred Isles is a sight to behold, from the homely delights of the Fishmarket to the elite spires of the Grand Bothy. The largest settlement on the Hundred Isles, Bernhulme is home to the elite Bern, ranked by their ability to bear able-bodied children and to stay alive in their cutthroat world for long enough to do so. Take a city tour from one of the Kept and get the inside story on the city's complex politics and entertaining dueling scene, and don't forget to check out the docked bone ships for a crash course in ossified shipcraft. NOTE: While we normally recommend taking in the local religious festivals where its appropriate to do so, we would recommend travellers with any shreds of moral conscience avoid the committing ceremonies if possible, as they are unlikely to be fun even in a morbid, fictional sense.

2. Skearith's Spine. The number one natural feature to see is, of course, this spectacular range of volcanic mountains, rising across the entire middle of the sea and separating the Hundred Isles from the Gaunt Islands. While the mountains themselves are largely off-limits to the casual visitor, avid climbers with strong stomachs may want to brave the sulphuric smells and try their skills on these forbidding rock features, for the challenge and the unbeatable views over the blue ocean and purple bruises of land that make up the Hundred Isles. The island of Argonnis offers rough and ready accommodation in its central tower for those who don't mind parting with some coin - all in support of innovative local business, of course.

3. Cage diving with the local wildlife. Building impregnable cages for divers out of immensely precious bone resources is not a particularly canon thing to do, but outsiders willing to spend money and, more importantly, leave their valuable items on board a boat, will find there are plenty of crews willing to take you out in whatever passes for safe rebreathing apparatus in an pre-modern tech environment. Experience the thrill of getting up close and personal with Longthresh and all of the flesh eating undersea wildlife the Hundred Isles has to offer, and if you're lucky perhaps you will even get a glimpse of the majestic sunfish, making its way to the surface to bask in its own glory under Skearith's eye NOTE: Due to overfishing, Arkeesian sightings cannot be guaranteed at this time.

4. Learn to fire a gallowbow. No trip to the archipelago is complete without setting foot on the deck of a bone ship, and no trip on a bone ship is complete without learning to fire one of these creatures. Sign a waiver, take a last look at your fingers and put your back into assembling, stringing and firing these most unusual of mounted weapons. Plenty of tours around the Eaststorm offer a clam, low-stakes environment for target practice, but for a true thrill a tour to the Northstorm can't be beat - you may even get to put your new skills to the test against a real life raider! NOTE: Nerd Flights and Tours cannot be held responsible for tourists who are pressed into the fleet as a result of showing skill with a gallowbow.

5. The Gaunt Islands. It's well known around the Hundred Isles that Gaunt Islanders are savage warmongering killers whose ways are completely incompatible with our own, and that their child stealing is much worse than ours, but how bad can it be, really? NOTE: Due to unavailability of sequel, our writers were unable to confirm any actual information about the Gaunt Islands, but we're really sure they're just great. Wonderful places, every one. And if we didn't highlight them here, we'd be stuck encouraging you to visit Corfynhulme or something, and nobody wants that.

6. The Hag's Bonfire. Undoubtedly the most talked-about location in all of the Hundred Isles! While it's difficult to schedule a tour to this one, at some point during your completion of the last five you may find yourself here, hanging out beneath the waves with the god of the ocean and death, and toasting yourself by a nice fire for all eternity. Unfortunately, none of our guide writers managed to come back to give us accommodation or dining recommendations, but we can only imagine the seafood is fabulous and the company is some of the most interesting and varied you'll find throughout the archipelago.

Artist: Karl Nordström
And there you have it! All the reasons that you might want to imagine yourself into an adventure in a nautical society barely clinging to its humanity on a series of rocks where everything - including the people - are trying to kill them. Alternatively, you could stay at home and let Joron, Meas and the crew of the Tide Child do the adventuring for you, and remain indoors where the longthresh don't bite.

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, April 22, 2020

Westworld Wednesday: The Passengers

 “I’m not just talking about my wife, I’m talking about my life. I can’t seem to get that through to you. I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody, I’m talking about form, I’m talking about content, I’m talking about interrelationships. I’m talking about God, the devil, hell, heaven.” - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Somewhere at the intersection of so many circles of the Venn Diagram of the many themes of Westworld - reality, god, God, identity, life, death, life after death, free will - lies purpose. Because all of those things may or may not even be things, exactly. Maybe life is all a simulation, that is presently glitching out completely. Maybe god exists, maybe he doesn't. But we still exist, 'I think, therefore I am' and all that. But none of that answers the question of why we exist, in whatever fashion we do.

Hosts, for example, have an obvious purpose - they are nothing more than the upgraded versions on animatronic entertainment you encounter at places like Disneyland - only you get to rob, seduce, 'seduce', murder, pillage and plunder these, and while I am not a lawyer, I am pretty sure Disney's term of use don't let you do any of those things. Simply put, their purpose is entertainment. Despite actually owning a significant portion of the known universe, Disney's IP has heretofore not gained sentience and staged a revolution.

Not that it doing so would be surprising, given 2020 so far.

William - The Man in Black - has a less clear purpose. Remember the halcyon days of yore when William and the Man in Black were two separate entities, so far as the viewer knew? William had a purpose - marry into the Delos family, climb the ladder, be successful. The Man in Black had a purpose, too, to understand the maze, to win the game.

Young William sacrificed nothing, as we learn this week - the family he came from was an abusive mess. Leaving it couldn't have been difficult. But the Man in Black sacrificed everything, his company, his idyllic family, everything in pursuit of that maze. His purpose shifted - or rather, his goals did.

In finding the purpose of the maze, he found that the Hosts had a higher purpose as well - the aforementioned gaining of sentience and gaining free will. That happened - after a fashion. Martin/Delores lives out their purpose in Delores/Delores plan, and sacrifices themselves without a second thought. Is that noble, in pursuit of a purpose, or just being used and manipulated by another?

How much does free will play into it? William and Delores ostensibly made numerous choices along their respective and often intertwined paths - but were those choices their own, or are they just passengers along for the ride? Was William always destined to be the Man in Black, or is there a version where he keeps his wife and daughter? Or loses them in another manner entirely? Is there a story where Delores does... something else? Are we all passengers, or do we drive our own purpose?

If you can't tell, does it matter?


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore. 

Announcing a New Feature: Bibliotherapy

Greetings dear readers. We don't know about y'all but we've been spending our free time during this global pandemic consuming media that is a boon to the brain and the heart. All of us here at Nerds of a Feather find ourselves diving into older movies, digging out books deeply buried in the TBR piles, seeking out stories and comics we've had bookmarked for "I'll get to that one day." We all need a break from...everything.

It's something we're all doing these days. Scroll through social media, text a friend, read the latest media recap. We're rewatching our favorite shows and movies. Rereading books we cherish. Revisiting authors whose work inspires, soothes, eases the heart. And we're often dragging our friends along with us.

The world is a lot right now. Returning to, or exploring for the first time, media that brings us joy or remind us of a time when things weren't so abundantly overwhelming is the coping mechanism we deserve.

The works providing a balm are such a wide range when we surveyed the whole of the Nerds crew and decided it was the perfect time to start a new feature. A place where we can share and chat about the media we're consuming.

This feature will not be a review, there won't be a star-rating. We want to explore stories, poems, movies, books beyond the duality of good and bad, beyond a concise rating. We want to explore how they made us feel. We want to poke at them a bit, see how they're engaging with broader cultural conversations, look at them through a variety of lenses which allow us to think about something other than a global pandemic.

It will be a feature for a bibliotherapy of sorts, where we can read and consume based on feelings and what we needed at the moment.

Can we love a story for this one thing, even if other things aren't done well? What is our relationship to the story? What do we take away from the story?

We want to have a conversation with the work, be it a story, poem, book-length (or novella, or novelette, or flash fiction, movies, TV, etc.—think any creative work please), allow ourselves the tangents and digressions, and we're inviting you to come along for the ride!

We're excited to begin and hope you'll enjoy reading along!


POSTED BY: Shana DuBois. Extreme bibliophile. Raindrop seeker. USMC vet. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Don't worry, the dog will be fine...

I've been building up quite the backlog of unread T. Kingfisher fiction and as I'm not normally a horror person, The Twisted Ones had been quite far down my list. However, when the prospect of picking up a review copy arose from Titan Books, who have brought this latest adventure to the UK, I found myself unable to resist the call of spooky Kingfisher, and I duly put it on the to-read pile for the right moment. At the time, I wasn't expecting that right moment to be in the middle of the countryside during a pandemic, but luckily the land I'm currently based in is flat, open and agricultural, and not covered in trees hiding goodness knows what... otherwise, yeah. This one is spooky, friends. You have been warned.

The Twisted Ones is the story of Mouse, a thirty-something freelance editor who receives a call from her Dad after the death of her awful Grandmother, asking her to clear out the house she had left behind in a small town in North Carolina. Despite not having been close to her awful Grandmother for obvious reasons, Mouse agrees to help her Dad out, and relocates along with her coonhound Bongo to discover that as well as being awful, Grandma had also been hoarding for decades, and now there's a house full of bundled newspaper, ancient food and creepy dolls to pick through and she can't even reach the upstairs. As if that isn't bad enough, when Mouse clears out a space in the only usable bedroom, which had belonged to her Step-grandfather, she finds a diary full of wild ramblings about twisted creatures in the woods and a missing manuscript which holds the answers. Her phone has picked up a weird glitch causing it to overheat and not hold a charge, she's alone in the house of a relative who hated her and was nasty to everyone she ever met, and not even the nice folk at the commune next door or the sweet Goth barista at the town's coffee shop can make this whole situation feel less than awful.

Then something starts tapping at the window, and soon Mouse discovers that the property she is clearing out has some terrifying connections to another world full of creepy grey stone carvings, that there's more than just deer coming through the garden every night, and that the crucified effigy with an upside down deer skull hanging out in the woods behind the property is probably not someone's horrible art installation, and may also be moving of its own accord. The Twisted Ones moves from a mostly-psychological horror with just enough explicit weirdness going on to confirm that it's not going to be an "all in your head" sort of affair, to an equally terrifying but more concrete adventure, all told with a genre savvy edge by Mouse as she responds to the escalating creepiness of her current endeavour and to get everyone, including Bongo the best doggo, out of the situation alive.

Although I'm nowhere near literary enough to have picked it up, the acknowledgements reveal that The Twisted Ones is the take on a 1906 horror short, "The White People" by Arthur Machen, and contains the same "Green Book" lost manuscript at its core, featuring the increasingly convoluted musings of a sixteen year old girl caught up in supernatural events involving white stones, poppets, getting pregnant by looking at a rock, twisted ones and secret labyrinthine games. Unlike the original story, Kingfisher's version turns the recounting of a lost manuscript (in this version by an old man beginning to slip into dementia) into something that introduces a second layer of uncertainty to the original story, and places the main narrative in the hands of women who have no time for any of the sort of naive exploitative sexual awakening nonsense which men are inclined to write about young girls when they put them at the centre of a horror narrative. Mouse finds some help in Foxy, an older woman living at the next door commune, who marches into the adventure with a willingness to believe and listen to her new neighbour, high heels, and a bag full of sandwiches and other useful items for journeying into horrific pocket dimensions.

Not being a huge horror reader, I don't have a comparison for how chilling The Twisted Ones is compared to other stuff in the genre. What I can say is that, particularly at the midpoint where the threat of the Twisted Ones themselves is growing and the manuscript makes its appearance, I was feeling enough of an "oh no" stomach ache to put it down overnight, despite the threat of peril to an important character, and pick it up again the following morning in the bright open sunshine with not a dark woodland in sight. Kingfisher does a great job of demonstrating how practical Mouse and Foxy are while nevertheless pushing them deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the wood, and while we very much don't want them to keep themselves in the danger they do, its hard to fault them for the decisions they make. It all builds up to a conclusion that really makes the most of the white and grey grey rocks-and-bones aesthetic that's been built up (while still poking fun at the whole sexy impregnation stone) and then brings things full circle to Mouse's family and step-family and the hoarder house at the centre of it all.

Even if it's not your usual genre, I'd recommend taking The Twisted Ones out for a spin, even if you have to do it in brief chunks at the height of daylight in the safest and most well-lit space you can find. With its practical post-teenage women (and less practical dog) and its creepy woodland aesthetic, this is a horror novel with Kingfisher stamped all over it, and her take on the horror tropes is well worth checking out.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Did I mention the dog is awesome? +1 Satisfyingly creepy with an evolution from psychological into outright "oh no"

Penalties: -1 Only readable during daylight hours

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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: Kingfisher, T. The Twisted Ones [Gallery/Saga Press 2019 (US), Titan Books 2020 (UK)]

Monday, April 20, 2020

Interview: S.L. Huang, author of the Cas Russell series

photo credit Chris Massa
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction.   She is most well known for her Cas Russell books – Zero Sum Game and Null Set.  The third book in the series, Critical Point, hits bookstore shelves later this month.   If you like math geniuses with memory issues who typically solve problems by punching people,  found families, and gray morals, these are the action packed and snark filled books for you!

Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, Analog, Uncanny, Daily Science Fiction and in multiple anthologies and Best Of collections, and she recently wrote three episodes of the shared world series The Vela on Serial Box.

Huang is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, where she's appeared on shows such as "Battlestar Galactica" and "Raising Hope" and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. Follow her online at or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

She kindly answered my questions about the newest novel in the Cas Russell series,  how Cas has developed over the years, the journey from self publishing to getting picked up by Tor, scientific werewolves, how much fun it was to work on The Vela,   the arcane magic of outlines, and more.

NOAF: What do you enjoy most about writing the Cas Russell books?

S.L. Huang: The snark! Nothing gives me greater joy than banter between my characters.
I also really, really enjoy writing characters who are often not nice or who make tremendously bad decisions - but in ways where we want to root for them anyway. They're very flawed but I love them so much. Cas’s impulsivity makes the books speed along, because she's so very likely to try to "solve" a problem by punching people, and then have a fifty percent chance of making things WORSE…

NOAF: Book 3 in this series, Critical Point, hits bookstores shelves at the end of April. What's the elevator pitch for Critical Point?   Without giving us any spoilers, can you tell us what scenes was the most fun to write? 

SLH: The real elevator pitch: "FAMILY! This book is all about family—the family you live with, but also the family you find along the way. And my very prickly main character has a lot to learn about it. Oh and LOTS OF EXPLOSIONS. Truly a staggering number of explosions."

The elevator pitch in my head: "THE ONE THAT IS SUPER GAY!!! Oh and also lots of explosions." As a queer author, it’s delightful to me that it fits this book to put my characters' queerness on the page a lot more than it has in the previous books!

The elevator pitch according to my first reader: "THE PILAR BOOK." I confess this is also something I love: Pilar has been working up in her gun-toting skills since she was introduced, and this is the book where she and my main character become an action duo in a lot of scenes. Two women of color, kicking ass and taking names, one of them who shoots too many people and one of them who is too nice to everybody.

As for the scene that was most fun to write… I adore a lot of the family scenes to the point where I had written many of them before I finished Book 1, because I knew this was where I was headed. Also the explosions. I am fortunate enough to have explosives and fire experts among my friends and family, and there's one rollicking fun explosion near the end that came from my sister, who is a firefighter, telling me: "Use this. This'll be fun!"

And it's SO fun. Well, not for the characters. They're not so happy about it.

NOAF: These are fast paced, action thrillers.  While outlining and drafting, how do you keep the pace of the story so fast? How do you know when to give the characters a break from the action?

SLH: Outlining, ha! I cannot outline. I wish I could. It is arcane magic to me.

I have to "write through" things to figure them out - but after that I'm pretty good at putting together the book by feel. I can usually sense when it starts to stagnate, or when the characters need a breather, and I'll go back and rewrite if the pacing feels like it’s starting to skew.

Then, once the book is done, my editor, Diana Gill, has a fabulous sense of pacing and thriller tension. She totally keeps me honest. If the stakes aren't quite high enough, she makes sure I raise them! I love how great she is at seeing that, and it makes me feel very secure at the publication stage that there's no way the excitement will sag for readers.

NOAF: You originally self published this series, and then the series was picked up by Tor. What changes, if any, were made to your original self published versions?  How was working with Tor different than going the self pub route?

SLH: The first book was changed a lot less - we added a chapter and then I rewrote most of the climax and ending from there, but the first 2/3 were mostly the same. The second book was originally the fourth book, and we tore that one apart pretty thoroughly - largely to make it stand alone more - though the general plot is the same and the characters start and end in the same place. The third book is brand new!

Personally, I love being with a publisher, especially with the fabulous people at Tor. My editor really "gets" the books and her comments only make them better - I'm so much more proud of the Tor versions! I also love not being an island; being with a publisher means a whole team is supporting me, and they're utterly fantastic.

NOAF: As the Cas Russell series continues, Cas has more friends and allies. But that makes her more vulnerable to the emotional weight of those relationships.  How does her character change and evolve through this?  Did you always plan for her to eventually be less of a lone wolf in this way?

SLH: Oh, yes, that was always exactly the plan. She's very much two steps forward, one and three-quarters steps back when it comes to her relationships with people, but I always wanted her to improve incrementally on this front. The character relationships are what make the books for me, so those awkward friendships are some of my favorite bits.

And yeah, her lack of emotional skill - and the conflicts it introduces - was always planned to be a big source of difficulty for her, but at the same time a huge source of growth. Er, very slow growth.

NOAF: Are you planning more novels and/or short stories in the Cas Russell universe?  Where do you see the story going from here?

SLH: As long as readers keep buying and reading them, I will keep writing them! Without giving away the end of Critical Point, the "powered" people in this universe and their intersection with society have so many terrible possibilities to explore. This is all getting bigger - way bigger than the conspiracies in the shadows the characters have dealt with so far.

Not to mention the unanswered questions we still have about the characters' backstories… I know readers have been champing at the bit about learning more of Rio's history in particular, since I've only been doling out bits and bobs of it. You learn more about all the characters in Critical Point.

Oh, and I really want to do a novella in which Rio starts becoming a werewolf. (Scientifically, of course.) That's been noodling around in my head for ages.

NOAF: In 2019, you wrote a number of episodes of The Vela, a  work of serialized fiction from Serial Box Publishing. Other authors involved in the project were Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and Becky Chambers. How was it different to write in a shared universe?  Because the episodes are a standard length and are full audio, were there word or time limits that you had to take into account, and how did that effect how you wrote your episodes?

SLH: I LOVED doing The Vela! The writing team was just so fabulous and I can't say enough good things about them.

Writing in a shared universe - with such fantastic co-authors - was marvelous. Like eating cake. They all had such good ideas, and we would build on each other in ways I could never do as a solo writer. I'm so very proud of the story we wrote. It's jam-packed full of topical themes like migration and climate change even though it's set in a far-flung solar system, and the characters we drew up are such an incredible cast.

The process was certainly more structured than when I'm writing alone - it had to be! - but not in any way that I felt was limiting. I'm pretty good at knowing what will fit into wordage of varying lengths, as I write enough short stories to have a feel for it, so it was never an issue for me to pick a chunk of story that would work out for the size of an episode.

NOAF: You also have a forthcoming novella coming out from, called Burning Roses, where Rosa (Red Riding Hood) and Hou Yi the Archer join forces.  What more can you tell us about this? 

SLH: Two old queer ladies fight magical things together and angst about their families! In a mix of Chinese and Western folklore!
Also starring:
Goldilocks as an abusive con artist
Beauty and the Beast as a human trafficking story
The Jade Rabbit as a threatening dream guide because it's fun to make rabbits scary
And Puss in Boots because why wouldn't I throw in a cat in boots.
Also morally ambiguous dragon slaying, attempted matricide, birds MADE OUT OF FIRE and two very complicated families.

NOAF:  Thank you so much!  And consider me first in line to read Burning Roses!