Friday, July 31, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

After a grim start, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant finally restores some confidence to its troubled hero and her Empire-destroying schemes

Content Note: This review contains major spoilers for the end of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the first book in the series, and anyone picking that book up should be aware that it contains heavy themes of homophobia and queer misery. The Tyrant Baru Cormorant contains a plague as a major plot point, and also contains other elements of torture, body horror and gore that are discussed below.

Baru Cormorant is back for round three! In The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (which, in-keeping with the rest of this series' inexplicable name shortenings, is being published as "The Tyrant" in the UK) everyone's favourite provincial savant returns for another round of high-stakes political drama against the empire of Falcrest: the empire which colonised her island, killed one of her fathers and tried to cut her off from her own culture as a child, and also the empire which now counts her as among its most elite operatives. The first book in the series captured my heart and then broke it into a million pieces, and while I don't think I'm the same reader as I was five years ago, I still consider new releases in this series to be a significant event, and I'm especially glad we haven't had to wait too long between the previous book and this one.

When we left Baru at the end of The Monster Baru Cormorant, she had been captured by the Cancrioth, the secretive cancer-worshipping society which had been secretly influencing the Oriati Mbo confederacy and which could provide a political opening for Falcrest to conquer that society. It's safe to say that Baru wasn't in a great place for any of that book, as she steps up into her new position in the Empire while coming to terms with the death of her lover Tain Hu and the blame she carries for it, having watched the execution and refused to stop it and allow the Empire to use Hu as a hostage against her. The fight that led to Hu's capture and the end of the rebellion she led also gave Baru a major head injury which has led to lasting hemineglect. These consequences reverberate throughout Monster, and the while the ending of the book offers some interesting context as to how the hemineglect, in particular, has influenced her actions, it leaves any emotional healing from these events largely unrealised. Thus, it's a still rather static Baru who returns for Tyrant's first act: Falcrest's political situation has changed around her, but not much has changed from the opening of the previous book for her.

The first third of Tyrant deals directly with the fallout of her capture by the Cancrioth, and the introduction of their different leaders (all of whom carry a different hereditary cancer which apparently bestows ancestral memory as well as... y'know, cancer) is combined with a ton of body horror and outright torture. Baru survives their tender loving ministrations, only to become caught back up in the different factions of Falcrest and Aurdwynn (the country from which Tain Hu hails, and where Baru started her illustrious career) who have been hunting her down. The switch from the Cancrioth's visceral biological horrors to Falcrests ultra-sterile unpleasantness is effective at underscoring their respective awfulness and how tenuous Baru's position is between them, but it's a lot to get through, especially as there's no clear escape route or game plan for what might happen once Baru is out of immediate danger.

What a relief, then, that Dickinson has this all in hand. Once Tyrant gets off the Cancrioth ship, Baru's story gets a lot zippier, with certain spoilery but very precious events helping her regain faith in her abilities, enabling her plans and her scheming to return in force. For me, this was an enormously refreshing change:  while the grief and stress of Baru's recent past never leaves her, her breakthrough lets her reconnect with some of the more engaging aspects of her personality (including the youthful arrogance!) and start rebuilding relationships with those around her, establishing trust with some rather unexpected players to start moving things along. In renewing this confidence, Dickinson makes it a lot easier to get behind the twisty and mysterious schemes that drive Tyrant forward - and that's trust we very much need, as the plot navigates the complex political situation which the first two books have set up. On that front, it also helps that Aurdwynn and Taranoke are now firmly back into the picture alongside the Oriati Mbo, though unfortunately, the sections involving the Mbo still feel like the weakest parts of this story. It's just hard to invest in the characters here, particularly when the main action of this thread takes place in the form of flashbacks to the characters' past, compared to other, more immediately pressing, plot strands. There are other diversions too, notably to the small island nation of Kypranaoke, a former Falcrest colony now left to its own devices with a deeply dysfunctional post-colonisation political system and an experimental infection of a new deadly disease called the Kettling. A lot of the time, though, Tyrant is a homecoming for many of its characters, particularly Baru herself, and it feels the stronger for it.

The other sea change here, which began in Monster but is even more notable now, is Baru's increasing acceptance of her own queerness and her ability to be open with a wider range of characters without fear of retribution from the enforced "hygiene" of Falcrest itself. Although Baru does pursue sexual relationships in Monster after the death of Tain Hu, the discussion of these relationships and her categorisation of them starts to change significantly here, as she starts to recognise which connections are offering her positive connection, which are not, and which might but come with emotional and moral baggage that's higher than she's willing to pay. The introduction of certain characters with some loud, teasing but supportive opinions on Baru's entanglements is also a refreshing change (and I wish I could tell you who they are, but suffice it to say you will probably be delighted). While Tyrant recognises that Baru is still the product of conditioning, and her tendency to self-sabotage is far from gone, there's still welcome undertones of hope and levity piercing through the misery. There's still plenty of setbacks and horror, and some of those hopeful moments exist in the narrative only to make subsequent punches land a bit harder, but having ups with the downs nevertheless makes a huge difference in the reading experience, allowing us to hope alongside Baru that a victory against this all-powerful, overwhelming foe just might be possible.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant was a brutal gem of a book, one which pulled out all the stops (particularly the one labelled "queer misery") to tell its story of a young woman trying to go up against the empire which has destroyed her homeland, outlawed her sexuality and culture, and is now destroying the land of the woman she loves. Monster, its sequel, picks up where the first book leaves off, but in widening the scope of Traitor's story it becomes a rather different experience, one without much space to advance Baru's emotional state on the path towards healing. Tyrant begins as more of the same, but once it comes around to making good on its young hero's growth, it won back any trust I might have lost over the previous volume-and-a-bit. I understand there is one more volume to go before Baru's journey is done, and although Tyrant ends on a positive enough note for the characters that it doesn't strictly feel like it needs one, if it comes to it then I am ready to take down the empire with this terrible young woman, once and for all.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 A long awaited payoff in terms of character healing and growth; +1 New and returning settings and characters provide a strong, hopeful focus

Penalties: -1 The Oriati Mbo storyline still doesn't spark along with the rest; -1 The first third of the book is exhaustingly bleak and brutal

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: Dickinson, SethThe Tyrant Baru Cormorant [Tor, 2020]

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Microreview: Lisbeth Campbell’s The Vanished Queen

Lisbeth Campbell’s The Vanished Queen presents us a low-magic fantasy world where collective action and the power of revolution are set in a matrix of the story of a missing monarch, a prince opposing his tyrannical father, and a young woman struggling with the needs and costs of opposition to tyranny. 

In an autocratic Age of Enlightement era fantasy kingdom, a Prince and the daughter of a General find common cause against the Prince’s father’s tyrannical rule. Even as a resistance builds and works against the King, the King’s rule becomes more and more unbearable, both for personal as well as societal costs. And the resistance that Anza joins has plans of its own. And haunting the novel like a ghost, in seperate sections, we learn the story of the titular, long ago lost wife to the King. Her story, the heart of the novel even as it takes place years in the past, has an inescapable shadow over present events.

This is the story of Lisbeth Campbell’s The Vanished Queen.

The story focuses on two characters and you might be forgiven at first for assuming this is a cross-class romance, but while there is attraction between the leads, this novel’s romance beats are few and take a back seat to everything else. Anza is the daughter of a general whose father gets purged by the tyrannical and increasingly erratic King Karolje in an Age of Enlightenment fantasy world. She finds a journal from the mysteriously disappeared Queen Mirantha, and events draw her to use her educated position, a rare thing for a woman, as well as skills learned by her father to join the resistance against the King.

Prince Esvar, on the other hand, has been personally oppressed by his father for years. His autocratic behavior can no longer be tolerated. However, his father keeps him and his brother, the putative heir, Tevin, off balance, and is casually cruel to both. Tevin would make a better king, and Esvar wants to get Tevin into that position and end the tyranny of his father. His father’s cruelty and pitting members of the court against each other leads him to the unthinkable--to make contact with the Resistance, through Anza (whom he meets by accident) to try and pry the King out of power

The resistance, of course, with Anza on the one hand joining their ranks, and Esvar a possible ally, nonetheless have plans and plots and goals of their own. Oppose Karolje as they do, they nonetheless have goals and ambitions beyond just installing another despot on the throne. They are an organic force, and the power of people to rise up against tyranny and try and take power for their own, and not be used as pawns is a palpable and well drawn throughtline for their own efforts.

Finally, by way of a long lost journal, Mirantha, the Vanished Queen of the title, tells her own story of a much more personal struggle against Karolje. His tyrannical and overbearing nature is shown to have deep origins, personally, as she struggles in an abusive relationship with her husband, struggling to keep her heart and mind free and strong, and also to try and ensure the legacy of her beliefs and her personal strength are passed down to her children., The very last thing Mirantha wants, as we find in the excerpts from her journal and from the chapters from her point of view, is the very real possibility of Esvar and Tevin being molded into Mini-me’s, and fighting to prevent that. The use of third person present instead of third person past for her passages not only helps them stand out from Anza and Esvar’s threads, but also gives her plight and struggle a deliberately cultivated immediacy.

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in the novel as well. This is not a novel about a clash of armies, of a sweeping story to find the MacGuffin of power that will overthrow the dread Karolje, but instead this is the story of a city, it’s people and how it reacts and buckles and responds to tyranny and oppression from an autocratic ruler, and the worldbuilding supports that. Much can be divined about the world from the little details that the author provides here in terms of day to day life in the city and the culture of the society. One understated bit, since the characters in this novel really don’t have time for romance, is the bisexual default of members of the society. It’s not deeply relevant and central to any of the characters, but the fabric of the society is clearly marked as being far less heteronormative than our own.

Without trying to give too much away of how everything fits into place, I do want to say that the plotting and the lining up of the fate of the titular Vanished Queen and her legacy with the present time stories of her son, and also of Anza, all very nicely works together. The thematic resonance of Mirantha dealing with personal tyranny of her husband in her time frame resonates with Esvar’s struggles in the present, and both Esvar and Anza’s struggles with the political wide scale tyranny is real and strong. In addition, the plotting of both time frames, slowly over the course of the novel, intersects very nicely as well. I had wondered if the timelines had more than a thematic connection, and in the end, they most certainly do. It’s excellently written and polished, just like the characterizations.

The author could not have known, or intended it, when she wrote it, but the book’s themes and elements of the plot, in this moment of assessing authority, and the tyranny of that authority, the use of force against civilians, and even in this exact moment, the role of the army in that, makes the book’s author seemingly prescient. A weak leader holding onto power at every moment, a group of people around him of uncertain loyalty, using force or threatening force to put down opposition to his rule, and homegrown reactions to that rule having wide support? To say nothing of the control of information and news and trying to craft narratives, or use events to push a particular agenda.  The Vanished Queen feels like it is right in the cultural and political moment that IS 2020. The book’s nuance about how to respond to such rule, and its deep and sometimes uncomfortable questions about what response to such rule means and the costs of that response only heighten the book’s power and strength.

In short, this is a novel of political intrigue, and revolution, and what that look likes, from within the Palace and from without. The maneuverings of various people, and the personal and physical costs of those actions are where the plotting of the novel sings. This is a novel far more in the tradition of Sherwood Smith, say, than Django Wexler or Brian McClellan. It should also be noted that beyond being a secondary world, this is a fantasy novel with a relative paucity of magic. There is a plot-relevant ability to divine the truth magically, but not much more in terms of magic or supernatural elements to be found.

With engaging and deep writing, the themes presented in the book being relevant and resonant, and strong characterization, The Vanished Queen is a very potent fantasy novel. It’s not always comfortable to read, especially in the passages with Mirantha, and readers who don’t want to read about domestic abuse and sexual assault will do well to give the book a pass for their own mental well being. Mirantha’s story is inextricably woven into the book, and one could very well say is the POINT of the book. The front matter/dedication of the book is “For survivors. #RESIST.”

Other readers interested in a book where there is no one chosen hero, where the power of collective action and resistance are important, and who want their characters front and center in their fantasy fiction will find much to love in this book. Even better in many ways, the story is complete, a concise story told in one volume. (There certainly could be plenty of more books set in this world, but the story in this book is one and done).

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for engaging and deep-dive into character in the midst of a maelstrom.
+1 for its themes fitting very well in the topicality of our times with its story of revolution and the power of people to make change.

Penalties: -1 The darkness and events in Mirantha’s threads, with secual assault, is not for all readers.

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

Reference: Campbell, Lisbeth  The Vanished Queen  [Saga,  2020]

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Reading the Hugos: Lodestar

Welcome to what is likely the final entry in Reading the Hugos this year. As I noted last year, from the perspective of a reader who is not plugged in the YA scene and isn't a YA reader, the Hugo nominators did a good job again this year.

I do always wonder about visibility and this award. How widely are Hugo voters reading in YA? I tend not to nominate much for the Lodestar for that reason (this year I nominated Catfishing on Catnet and Anne Ursu's excellent The Lost Girl), but that is also an argument that can be made for Graphic Story or, if we're feeling nitpicky, the entire ballot. The Hugo Award (and the technically not a Hugo Lodestar Award) is representative of the tastes and opinions of those Worldcon members who take the time to nominate and vote. That's part and parcel of the process, which I suppose makes this paragraph somewhat excessive.

This year I was only able to read five of the six finalists. I missed out on Deeplight, which is the second time I've missed reading Frances Hardinge for the Lodestar. This year I have a good excuse - I was reading all of Seanan McGuire's Incryptid stories included in the Voter Packet (oh, my heart after reading the last of the Johnny and Fran stories).

Let's look at the finalists, shall we?

  • Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
  • Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
  • Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee (Disney/Hyperion)
  • Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
  • Riverland, by Fran Wilde (Amulet)
  • The Wicked King, by Holly Black (Little, Brown; Hot Key)

Riverland: I haven't read much of Fran Wilde's fiction, far less than I would have expected given how well regarded her Bone Universe novels are (start with Updraft), but I have fairly consistently bounced off each story of hers that I have read. Whether it is The Jewel and Her Lapidary, "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" or The Fire Opal Mechanism, I have a growing suspicion that I'm just not a Fran Wilde reader. That, no matter how good or how well regarded, these aren't the stories for me. It also means that I am unlikely to give Updraft a go, but that is a different point.

I had hoped that Riverland would be the book to buck that trend. It is completely unrelated to her Gem novellas, it's YA rather than strictly written for adults, it's a portal fantasy novel dealing with domestic violence. Riverland is beautifully written for those readers able to dive in and work their way through Wilde's storytelling. I know Adri gave Riverland 5 Stars on Goodreads, so there's at least one editor here who strongly disagrees with me on Riverland (this is not likely to be our only disagreement in this category) - but Riverland really locked down the idea that unless Fran Wilde is on an awards ballot I am actively reading for, I probably won't be reading more of her work. It is worth noting that this is written before I read any of the Short Story finalists, which does include a selection from Fran Wilde, so there's one more chance for me to connect with Wilde's fiction this year.

Dragon Pearl: Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy of novels are simply excellent. Each book was a finalist for the Hugo Award (as was the series as a whole), and justifiably so. I thought the series got better as it progressed, and it was pretty darn good from the start. I could not wait to see what Yoon Ha Lee would write next and what was next was Dragon Pearl, a YA novel from Rick Riordan's publishing line. A bit of space opera and adventure.

I absolutely love the idea of Dragon Pearl, of the novel's set up of a girl with hidden magic desperate to find and clear the name of her brother who is accused of desertion from the Space Forces. I loved how Min used her magic, how she cons her way into getting to the heart of what happened to her brother. So much of Dragon Pearl was absolutely delightful and weeks after finishing the novel I'm still thinking about the relationships Min made. Dragon Pearl is a wonderful novel of friendship.

That's what makes it so difficult to put my finger on why I didn't love Dragon Pearl as much as I expected. The individual parts are so excellent, but they somehow don't coalesce (for me) into a novel that reached the heights it should have. All the ingredients were there, the meal just didn't quite come together.

Minor Mage: I have much less to say about T. Kingfisher's Minor Mage, but it was an absolutely charming story of a boy who was training to be a magician but has far too much responsibility for his village compared to his age and training. Minor Mage is a quest story and I would have loved to have another hundred pages of it (Minor Mage is more a novella than full length novel). I look forward to reading it to my kids when they are older.

The Wicked King: When I wrote about The Cruel Prince as part of last year's Lodestar ballot it was my runner up, behind only the superb Dread Nation (The Cruel Prince placed fourth, Dread Nation was the runner up). Where The Cruel Prince was the first book in a series related to other books it did not require any familiarity with Tithe and the other Modern Tales of Faerie. The Wicked King, on the other hand, is the direct sequel to The Cruel Prince and if readers who don't remember the relationships in that first book will be at least half lost in this book, though Holly Black is a skillful enough writer that new readers will be able to keep up, just without some of the nuance.

I wrote last year that Holly Black is a master storyteller and that remains the case. The Wicked King is exactly the continuation of The Cruel Prince one might hope for, though this is not a series for the faint of heart or those who don't want bad things to happen to good people. Black does not pull punches.

Catfishing on Catnet: When Naomi Kritzer won a Hugo Award in 2016 for her story "Cat Pictures Please" (also a Nebula Award finalist) I assumed it was a one-off. "Cat Pictures Please" was a delightful story of an A.I. (artificial intelligence) who wants to help people and look at pictures of cats. Catfishing on Catnet is more than an expansion of that story, it's a complete reworking using that same central premise. Most impressively, it's seamless. Kritzer is not expanding a smaller idea into a shape it doesn't fit, she has a big idea that is bigger than just the one novel (good thing there's a sequel coming next year).

Catfishing on Catnet is a smart and warm hearted thriller that deals with internet privacy, personal identity and rights, friendship, stalking, and social networks - it is an absolute delight. In a category where some of the finalists don't quite work for me - Catfishing on Catnet is a favorite. This is as good as it gets.

My Vote 
1. Catfishing on Catnet
2. The Wicked King
3. Minor Mage
4. Dragon Pearl
5. Riverland

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Can Tamsyn Muir's queer gothic necromancy series get any better? Yes it can.

Cover Art: Tommy Arnold
All right, limber up folks, because today we're diving into one of 2020's most anticipated sequels: more lesbians, more space, more everything. As you'd expect, this will have spoilers for Gideon the Ninth, but I will keep the description of Harrow the Ninth as spoiler free as its possible to be in this riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma of a book - save for one thing, which I will call "The Big Question". If you have read Gideon the Ninth, you probably already know (and are possibly quite desperate to find out about) the Big Question. This is a safe space and I won't anybody who comes here needing to know *spoiler spoiler spoiler* before it gets naturally unravelled within the text. However, in order to help you out while making sure that this page is free of Harrow spoilers, all I can do if you want the answer to the Big Question is offer you a link to the most accurate way I can answer it. I'm sure this clears everything up and we can now all move on, yes? Good.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last surviving child of her insular death-worshipping family, has survived the trials of Canaan House and come out the other side a Lyctor: one of the Emperor's deathless servants, able to work with apparently limitless amounts of necromantic power and fulfil what she feels is her ultimate purpose in life. Unfortunately, she's also a complete mess, incapable of doing anything except screaming and vomiting for the first several weeks of her Lyctorhood - and once she reattains consciousness and finds out the whole deal with the empire and why her presence is now needed, things don't get much better either internally or externally. See, it turns out that in order for the Resurrection ten thousand years ago to have created the House system and restarted the sun, the Necrolord Prime and Emperor of the Nine Houses (a man also known as "John") needed to effectively kill the planets on which the nine houses are based and modify their energies into those on which necromancy itself is based. Only in the same way that murdered humans can end up as vengeful revenants, so too can murdered planets turn into planet-sized undead cosmic horrors, who can only be defeated by humans through complex and equally horrific acts of magic. The Emperor and his surviving coterie - all of whom have been around since the start of the process as well - have managed to take down some of the beasts, but now one is on its way, and Harrow and fellow baby Lyctor Ianthe need to train up to become part of the battle to vanquish it.

Harrow's present is interspersed with scenes from the house, and from the trials she faced... except these don't match up with our own experience of the events, particularly when it comes to the necromancer at her side. Because what Harrow remembers is undergoing the trials with Ortus Nigenand, the indolent, cowardly cavalier who fled the scene early in Gideon the Ninth and ended up making space for Gideon to join. Though Harrow doesn't have the information to figure this out, as readers we're pretty sure that these weird memories probably have something to do with why Harrow's Lyctor powers aren't working properly. Because - and this is your last warning for Gideon the Ninth spoilers - Lyctors need to take in and absorb the souls of their dead cavaliers in order to power parts of their magic, in particular their uncanny healing abilities and the ability to remain physically adept at self-defence while mentally battling in "the River": aka the weird necromancy subdomain which also allows for instantaneous space travel as long as you can survive all the ghostly horrors and the weird metaphors your new colleagues will use to explain it to you. Without Gideon's presence in Harrow's mind or memories, she apparently has no access to the most important weapons she has to stay alive, meaning there's no point in worrying how good a necromancer she is because she's not going to be able to survive to tell the tale.

The apparent development of a Gideon-free Ninth House adventure could outstay its welcome in other hands, especially if we weren't pretty sure from the very start that this absence is a mystery to be solved in the text. Instead, the combined present-and-not-quite-past narratives allow Harrow the Ninth to expand on some of the mechanics of necromancy through Harrow's eyes, and offer a better sense of just what this millennia-old system of houses has been set up for and what's behind the Emperor's mysterious disappearance from his own empire. There's also the introduction of The Sleeper into the past narratives, a deadly mystery force who appears to be unrelated to all the previous deaths, and who starts picking off the characters of Canaan house in a different order to the one we originally saw, though with similar effect. All of this is told in a style that, while  less overtly irreverent than Gideon's running commentary, still doesn't skimp either on the loving descriptions of human anatomy (this time around, the bones usually have specific names, because of course Harrow wants to tell you exactly what bone a construct has come from) or the occasional deployment of metatextual memeage used without knowledge by the characters (though there's at least one who knows exactly what they are doing). These moments regularly come at a point where they kick a scene from poignant and/or brutal to "I am now feeling all of the emotions", and reader, I did feel all of the emotions, messily and out loud.

As in Gideon the Ninth, the characters are delightfully human and also delightfully awful to each other. Because the First House has been pared back so brutally, and is comprised entirely of people who have killed their loved ones in order to ascend to their current powerful states, the dynamics and interactions between its members are claustrophobic and excruciating, and Harrow's weakness and... Harrow-ness... means that she very much becomes part of the negative dynamic as a written-off walking corpse. That claustrophobia makes it almost a relief to escape into the past Canaan, and to see the ways that relationships start developing differently in the murder house - particularly with Abigail Pent taking the fore, a character who only had the briefest time to shine in the first book. It's difficult to talk about the Canaan plot without giving too much away, but I will note that the way the dead characters are handled ends up being an advancement of plot lines rather than a relitigation, and this alternate reality ends up dovetailing with Harrow's present to build to a glorious climax.

And that's the real big question, with a book this dense and complex and self-contradictory: is Muir going to pull it off? In a word: fuck yes. It's that payoff to a deeply ambitious structure that really puts Harrow over the top, even when compared to its juicy but more classically-plotted predecessor; it takes serious talent to turn part of your sequel into a nonsensical retcon of the events of the previous book without completely losing your audience, let alone to turn that retcon into a vital strand of the plot and a vehicle for character growth in its own right. Even when it's refusing to take itself and its own genre seriously on the surface, every twist in Harrow's tale draws the audience deeper into its terrifying, ridiculous, mystical world and the people within it. This is a rare series that lives up to its hype and then some, and Harrow the Ninth one of the best books I've ever read.

The Math

Baseline Score: 10/10

Bonuses: +1 a split narrative that knocks it out of the park in terms of character development and timeskipping mystery solving; +1 bones

Penalties: -1 Hard to put down before the Big Question gets resolved, may impact on sleep and other basic life functions (but it's OK, it's a necromancy book); -1 Harrow's lack of upper body strength

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

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: Muir, Tamsyn. Harrow the Ninth [ Publishing, 2020]

Monday, July 27, 2020

Nerds of a Feather at Worldcon!

It's the week of the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, aka Worldcon, aka CoNZealand, and while we may not be travelling Aotearoa/New Zealand to enjoy the convention in person, many of us are gearing up for the next best thing. Virtual Worldcon is almost here, and several of us will be joining the online festivities for a celebration of all things genre.

If you're also "attending" Worldcon, look out for the Nerds of a Feather flock on the Programme in the following places (all times in local NZ time):

Phoebe Wagner

The Timeless Child and the Evolving Canon of Doctor Who30 Jul 2020, Thursday 12:00 - 12:50, Programme Room 1

The canon of Doctor Who has evolved and change over the years, from the initial regeneration though the Valeyard, the methods and numbers of regeneration, the Doctor's part-human (!) ancestry, to the Timeless Child. Which changes are accepted, which aren't (and which, like the part-human bit, are ignored), and which anger fans?

John Toon, R.W.W. Greene, Lynne M Thomas, Jim Mann (M), Phoebe Wagner
Kaffeeklatsch: 30 Jul 2020, Thursday 14:00 - 14:50

Reading: 31 Jul 2020, Friday 13:00 - 13:25, Reading Room 2

SF and Fantasy Comics and Graphic Novels31 Jul 2020, Friday 16:00 - 16:50, Programme Room 3

Comics are more than people in spandex costumes fighting others in spandex costumes. Sandman, Fables, Monstress, Saga, Bitch Planet, Y, The Last Man ... the list can go on. The panel looks at great SF and fantasy in graphic form and discusses the medium's unique strengths.

Catherine S. McMullen, Christopher Ruz, Phoebe Wagner (M), James Bacon

Paul Weimer

The Continuing Relevance and Popularity of The Lord of the Rings
29 Jul 2020, Wednesday 11:00 - 11:50, Programme Room 2

Tolkien started by writing stories for himself, creating his own world, his own mythology. Yet those stories touched millions and are still wildly popular. The Lord of the Rings often tops polls of favorite books of the last century. What makes it hold up so well?

Susana Polo, Mr Paul Weimer (M), Gina Saucier, Jodi McAlister, J J Mathews

Dungeons and Dragons: Still Going Strong Format
31 Jul 2020, Friday 11:00 - 11:50, Programme Room 3

D&D is as popular as ever -- more popular than ever?  Why?  And what twists do current players make?  How do want-to-bes get involved?

Cat Rambo (M), Mr Paul Weimer, Sascha Stronach

Adri Joy

Justice in SF and Fantasy (Panel)30 Jul 2020, Thursday 10:00 - 10:50, Programme Room 3

Methods of Justice in SF and fantasy are increasingly complex. It’s often not simply heroes and villains. Villains have become more humanised, and in some cases are even redeemed by the end. How are issues of justice handled well in SF? How has this changed over the years? What are good and bad examples?

Adri Joy, Brent Lambert, Fred Lerner D.L.S., Jenn Lyons (M), Melinda Snodgrass

NOTE: As a daytime-oriented person living on the other side of the world, Adri will also be hanging out in the Discord at unsociable-for-New-Zealand hours. Come say hi if you recognise the dog profile picture!

Photo: Paul Weimer

Interview: Devin Madson, author of We Ride The Storm

Devin Madson writes fantasy novels that revolve around fighting for what you believe in, loyalty, betrayal, risky alliances, finding friends in unexpected places, and fighting until they end, along with humor and stabbyness She's competed in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off twice, so she's no stranger to finding friends in unexpected places and fighting until the end. 

Madson self published We Ride the Storm in 2018, and then Orbit Books purchased the entire series. Fans of We Ride the Storm will be thrilled to hear that not only are the next two books books in the series completed and off to the publisher, but Orbit Books has also purchased Madson's Vengeance Trilogy, which takes place in the same world.  And if that wasn't an exciting enough 2018 and 2019,  in 2018 Madson won an Aurealis Award for her novella In Shadows We Fall.  You can learn more about Madson and her work by checking out her website, or following her on twitter, where she is @DevinMadson.

Taking place almost a generation after war nearly shattered the Kisian Empire,  We Ride the Storm follows a royal princess, a warrior, and an assassin as they come to listen to secret voices, understand their own history, and realize that the most unexpected person can wield the strongest power.  There is also lots of tea, beheading, and humor.  If you're a fan of Joe Abercrombie, this series is for you!

Madson lives in rural Australia with her family, where she enjoys playing video games and reading fantasy novels.  She promises that although she writes novels with tons of violence, that she is actually a very kind and squeamish person.    She was kind enough to chat with me about her experiences with SPFBO, creating the world and cultures in We Ride the Storm, her writing process, and our shared love of fried zucchini,


NOAF: In 2018, a large portion of the SFF blogosphere was introduced to your work through the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off). What can you tell us about your experience with SPFBO?

DM: The 2018 SPFBO was actually my second SPFBO experience, so I can say I’ve had both the meh and the wow experience with the competition. The year before, I entered The Blood of Whisperers, which I published in 2013. (It has since been picked up by Orbit, reworked, and is set for rerelease in August). I was knocked out in the first round, only a few weeks in, in one big long post cutting 23 books with a few sentences of review. So that was a bit deflating. Not bad though! It is at all times a respectful competition, so I was all ready to come back again when I had We Ride the Storm ready to go.

Which was… a far more stressful experience! I happened to draw a group with A LOT of great books in it. It was called the group of death and although I held on to a little hope, I was also preparing myself for what felt like the inevitable fall of the axe. When I made it to the semi-finals I thought well, that’s really what I was here for, to go that bit further than I had the year before. And then Booknest chose to cut one semi-finalist every day until they had a finalist announced and due to the time difference this was always being posted at about 4am my time and I was waking every morning in a panic and rushing to check. And every time it wasn’t me it only got worse because the hope was harder to ignore. To get all the way to the last two and get knocked out (to J. Zachary Pike’s excellent Orconomics) was GAH. Only to be caught by what they call the Senlin Safety Net and offered to other blogs GAHHHH. And picked up and put forward as a finalist by Fantasy Book Critic GAAAAAAAHHHHH. Look let’s just say it was a really intense and stressful time, because as much as you can tell yourself it’s not important, that it’s just a competition, that it has no bearing on the quality of your book, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of it and want to win.

Comparatively, the finals were far more chill. They started in 2019 and I first got contacted by Orbit in January, before they had really gotten underway, which ultimately made the finals less intense for me because I already felt like I had won in my own way. It left me very much cheering the others on and hoping I WOULDN’T win so someone else would be lifted up and seen.

NOAF: I'm sure Grimdark has been around since long before the SFF blogosphere and publishers of genre fiction "discovered" it, but it feels like Grimdark became its own thing maybe ten or fifteen years ago. In your opinion, how has the genre of Grimdark changed and evolved in the last five or ten years? Where do you think the genre is going?

DM: I don't consider my books to be grimdark so I'm not sure I can answer the question with any great authority, but grimdark has to be the genre I see the most contention about what it even IS. I hadn't actually heard the term before I became part of the online SFF community in 2017-18. Now I tend to use the definition (though to my shame, I cannot recall where I first saw it) that true grimdark is a book in which the world is awful and broken, bad stuff happens and the characters have little to no ability/agency to change the world for the better. I think a lot of the seeming growth in grimdark is actually the tendency to label anything with a lot of blood or cynical realism as grimdark, which is a bit like labelling all books with kissing as romance when a romance novel requires more than a romantic plot to be considered that. But to actually get to the question, I think if you take out the gritty epic fantasy books that often get shelved here, there are a lot of interesting things being done in the genre at the moment, although I do wonder whether, given the recent trend of the world toward uncertainty and chaos, it has the strong future it otherwise might have had. It will definitely be interesting to see over the next few years what form the majority of our escapism takes, whether the current trend toward lighter stories will continue to prevail or not.

NOAF: We Ride the Storm is told from multiple points of view,  including Princess Miko, Rah the Levanti, and Cassandra the Assassin. How did you develop these characters? What was your process to ensure everyone's inner monologue and worldview was unique?

I don't pre-plan things at the beginning of a first book, so I give these things embarrassingly little thought before I start. In this case, the fact that each of the characters comes from a very different background and culture makes their ways of speaking and seeing the world automatically quite different from each other. One thing I did consider before starting, was that it would be fun to play with the idea of slightly unreliable narrators, in that people from different backgrounds and life experiences have different truths about the same events. Depending on which character I’m working on, I tend to consider the way they would talk and how it might be unique from the others. Cassandra is very to the point and dismissive, Miko eloquent and well-educated, while Rah is physically pragmatic but idealistic and views everything through the eyes of someone who hasn’t been in this empire before and doesn’t know its ways.

NOAF: The Levanti are a nomadic culture, riding their horses across the plains. They are now being pushed out of their lands by farmers and land developers.  This tugs at my heartstrings so much I can't even! Can you tell us more about how you developed the Levanti culture, and what inspired you to have a culture like this in your books?

DM: I am not a planner, so it wasn’t something I considered as a theme before I started, but as soon as it was there, I took it and ran. I love the idea of people who are caught between old ways and new, between ideals and realistic ways of life, not only as individuals but as a whole society. The rock and a hard place idea of having to change or fade. It is a heartbreaking and fascinating source of internal tension. As for the culture itself, while the Levanti aren't based on any specific real-world culture, they are my take on the concept of the nomadic horse culture, which is represented in many places both in our history and in fantasy fiction.

NOAF: We Ride the Storm is the beginning of a series. Without spoilers (if possible), can you tell us where the story goes from here?

DM: Hmmm, without spoilers… well it's a four-book series and everything is written except for the last book. There is more respectful head chopping, more sneaky politics and big battles, soul magic (and the first explanation of the magic system in my world), more trippy necromancy and divided loyalties, and you get a fourth point of view character from the second book!

NOAF: What is your writing process like?  are you a plotter? a panster? somewhere in between?

DM: I am… all over the place. At the start of the first book of a new series I am a total pantser. I don’t plan or plot anything and often have no idea of either the journey or the destination. Or even who the characters are. We Ride the Strom started when the (original) first line popped into my head, "It's harder to sever a head than people think," and Rah and the Levanti were born from there.

But when it comes to later books, I find it much easier to have a vague plan in place. It’s easier to do because I already know the characters and the world and the conflicts and tensions, and can just extrapolate. I had a solid plan for the arcs of each character when writing the third book of The Reborn Empire, which helped me be sure I was heading in the right direction to tie it up in the four-book time frame. The only time I tried to plan a first book it ended up 99% different, with different themes and 5 extra point of view characters. Ooops.

NOAF: The day I researched you for these interview questions, you posted on twitter that you had started playing Animal Crossing.  I'm seeing Animal Crossing memes everywhere and half my facebook friends are playing this! What the heck is this game?

DM: I had actually never played it before this edition of the game, so my knowledge is nothing compared to people who know all the villagers and make amazing videos, but the best way I can describe it is like Minecraft but without monsters, with better graphics and a focus on cutesy, cinnamon roll capitalism. And very bad puns.

NOAF: Favorite spice mix and/or dipping sauce for fried zucchini?

DM: Ha! I do love my fried zucchini. I just eat it fried in butter though, because I’m very not a foodie. My ridiculous number of dietary issues make anything more exciting not worth risking. I am one of the few people who eats to live rather than lives to eat, despite my love of zucchini and chocolate. Separately. Tempted to try them together now though…

NOAF: Thanks so much for chatting with me!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Microreview [book]: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, a Dominion of the Fallen Story, by Aliette de Bodard

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, a Dominion of the Fallen Story is a delightful entry in the growing angelic apocalypse devastated Paris, focusing on a family holiday visit to the Dragon Kingdom by the heads of House Hawthorn.

Family visits with the In-laws during a major holiday can be awfully stressful. Ask the fallen angel Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn. He is visiting the Dragon Kingdom underneath the Seine river, the birthplace of his husband Thuan, along with a delegation from his house for Lunar New Year. It’s a time of feasts, celebration, getting to know the in-law’s family. For Thuan it's a chance to see his home and family for the first time in a long time, and show off his husband to his family. It also appears to be a time for the pair of them to walk right into a murder plot, a murder plot that may well be more than it appears...

So Asmodeus and Thuan find out in Aliette de Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, a Dominion of the Fallen Story.

A Dominion of the Fallen Story is a cause for celebration, and this story is no exception to that. Seeing Asmodeus and Thuan on Thuan’s home ground provides the writer as a writer and us as readers another view of the Underwater Kingdom of the Seine and just what pressure cooker of a complex and dangerous court produced the bookish Thuan in the first place. The insider/outsider perspective of the wedded couple returning, and using Thuan as our point of view, gives the story a delightful “Oh no, I am bringing my husband to see my family, I want them to love him as I do, and also keep him from going overboard when things go wrong.” . The strong point of view focus sticking to Thuan helps keep a good line through for the plot, as a murder that occurs right on their doorstep leads Asmodeus and Thuan into an ever more complex plot.

The story is nuanced in its basic premise. A fish out of water story at its heart, and the principals thrown into a murder investigation right off, the high concept of “A murder happens, and Thuan has to keep his husband from cutting a bloody swath to solve the problem, and yet the strictures of Dragon Kingdom society mean that creative approaches are needed” means that there are going to be funny culture clash and expectation smashing as you do put the oddest of couples (but they do care for each other deeply) into a situation where both of their talents are needed--and both of their cultural approaches and feelings are at time strong and useful, and also at other times, both are backfooted by who they are. A lesser story would just have it so that Asmodeus is constantly being restrained by his husband, And while the story does have some of that, the story also shows that Thuan, being constrained by propriety and society and expectations, doesn’t always have a solution to move forward, either. It’s a nice balancing act.

And most of all, it's funny and entertaining with great line by line dialogue and turns of phrase and situational comedy. At the time of this publication, of me reading this, and the writing of this review, the world faces a lot of stressful challenges. A short diverting time to see Thuan trying to keep Asmodeus from solving problems by causing bigger problems, and Asmodeus just trying to get through a sometimes outright hidebound society is played lightly, for humour, and it works.

Admittedly, this story doesn’t quite work if you haven’t read the Fallen novels. The character beats of Thuan and Asmodeus, especially, will fall flat if you haven’t read at least House of Sundering Flames. Like an intricate dessert of many parts, though, Aliette’s work just gets richer and better, the more stories and novels you read into it. Additional richness and complexity unfolds, but this is not an entry point into that richness.  I also fear those who have read the Fallen novels and fallen for the characters in that world might be disappointed that while we do have a delegation of people visiting the Dragon Kingdom for New Year, the focus is so strongly on Asmodeus and Thuan that they rest get short shrift, even when they briefly do appear. Given the author’s strength in writing characters, this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Overall, however, readers who have enjoyed the previous novels and stories set in the verse will want to know--is this story up to the standards of the previous work. Will I enjoy it? To them, I can unequivocally say “Yes”. Go get it.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent dynamics between Thuan and Asmodeusr; +1 for excellent language, turn of phrase, and outright delightful and funny bits.

Penalties: -1 for underutilizing the other previously seen characters who are present in the delegation but barely rate a mention.

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

Reference:  De Bodard. Aliette . Of Dragons Feasts and Murders [ JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. , 2020]

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

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Adri Joins the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards: Round 1 Results

Readers may remember that way back in February, I signed on with a group of fabulous fellow bloggers and SFF nerds on a speculative awards project: the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards. Each member of the jury picked our favourite reads across six categories: fantasy, science fiction, blurred boundaries, series, novella and short story. Since then, we've been working hard behind the scenes to read up on each others' picks, argue about each others' tastes and occasionally lament the many and varied challenges of keeping up a consistent reading schedule during a pandemic. Eventually, we got to the point where we could give our votes for the first round - whittling each category of 7+ nominees into a shortlist of two (well, sometimes three) top picks.

Read on for our finalists in each of the categories, and my thoughts on what made me happy in each one:

Best Science Fiction

Finalists: All City by Alex Di Francesco vs. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Thoughts: A Memory Called Empire was one of my favourites going in to this category, and despite some strong competition from other works, it remains my favourite of our space opera picks, standing out among a fun set of titles that all had something interesting to bring to the table. All City was a bit of an outlier among our finalist group, as a near-future narrative focused on the social fallout from a climate disaster in New York. It's an impressive book, although its bleak outlook makes it a tough read at the best of times.

Most of the books here were new to me, and of the non-finalists I want to particularly highlight The Outside by Ada Hoffman, with its fascinating own voices portrayal of an autistic protagonist trying to deal with intrusions of mind-bending cosmic horror in a galaxy ruled by artificial Gods. While Lovecraftian horror isn't generally my thing, I really admired the elements that Hoffman brings together here, and its a great addition to the Space Opera canon.

The Ballot:
  • All City by Alex DiFrancesco
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
  • Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell
  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
  • The Outside by Ada Hoffman
  • Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner
  • Velocity Weapon by Megan O'Keefe
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig - withdrawn due to author behaviour

Best Fantasy

Finalists: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron vs. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow vs. Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Thoughts: This was by far the trickiest category to make a decision in, and I don't think it's an accident that it's one of the categories in which we had a tie for second place, putting three works into the finals instead of two. Both Realm of Ash and Kingdom of Souls are works that I have reviewed favourably in the past, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Paul's review) was another favourite of 2019 and very much deserves its place on this list. Really, though, there wasn't anything from our shortlist that I didn't feel would have deserved a position in the second round.

The new-to-me works from our shortlist were The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker and The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, series starters which have both firmly captured my attention for future instalments.

The Ballot:
  • The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker
  • Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
  • The True Queen by Zen Cho
  • Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri
  • Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

Best Blurred Boundaries

Finalists: The Migration by Helen Marshall vs David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa vs Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Thoughts: This category ended up covering a lot of ground, from fantasy-adjacent near future SF to urban fantasy horror to superhero romance, but Gideon the Ninth had my heart going in and it still has my heart as we enter the second round. Muir's irreverant gothic space fantasy might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it sure as hell is mine. Here, its joined by The Migration - a tricky book to recommend right now for pandemic storyline reasons, but an interesting one nonetheless - and Suyi Davies Okungbowa's action-packed, unusually structured urban fantasy David Mogo, Godhunter. Do I still have my favourite? Yeah. But knowing my co-judges, the group decision on this one is still wide open.

Of the rest of the works, the big find here for me was The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen, based on The Bright Sessions podcast. I hadn't listened to the Bright Sessions (and I've still only finished Season 1), but I found Caleb and Adam's story to be just the kind of sweetness I needed at a certain stage of lockdown.

  • David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
  • The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen
  • The Institute by Stephen King
  • The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg
  • The Last Supper Before Ragnarok by Cassandra Khaw
  • The Migration by Helen Marshall
  • The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris

Best Series

Finalists: Elemental Logic by Laurie J. Marks vs. Rosewater by Tade Thompson.

Thoughts: The series category was one of the hardest for me, both because of the range of entries, and because, you know, there's a lot of books in a series and we had 8 of them to get through. In the end, I made it through at least 1.5 volumes in each of the series under consideration, with a promise to return to most of these worlds and characters at some point. It's also just an odd thing to judge the quality of a series as more than the sum of its parts, sometimes. For example, what to make of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time - Children of Ruin duology, with a first volume that feels utterly right as a Clarke Award winner, and a follow-up that's perfectly fine, but doesn't really match the boundary-pushing quality of its predecessor? Compare that to something like the Luna trilogy, which feels like it could almost be a single volume of epic political machinations in the way it manages its tension across volumes.

In the end, we've ended up with two quite different works in the finals: the strange, slow fantasy of the Elemental Logic trilogy against the tightly plotted science fiction thriller of Rosewater. From the rest of the ballot, I especially enjoyed discovering Swords and Fire, Melissa Caruso's cosy-with-an-edge tale of magical intrigue.

The Ballot:
  • Children of Time/Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky 
  • Elemental Logic by Laurie J. Marks
  • Empires of Dust by Anna Smith Spark
  • Luna by Ian McDonald
  • Rosewater by Tade Thompson
  • Swords and Fire by Melissa Caruso
  • The Winnowing Flame by Jen Williams
  • The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

Best Novella

Finalists: This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone vs. The Deep by Rivers Solomon

Thoughts: On the one hand, this was a wonderful category to read, with almost nothing that I didn't enjoy: even the most left-field entry here, the magical realist exploration of the Isle of Wight under Brexit that is Isabel Waidner's We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, was a total delight, albeit in an "I'm not sure what happened" sort of way. Special mention, also, to Wole Talabi's "Incompleteness Theories", and to Emily Tesh's Silver in the Wood, both excellent works of science fiction and fantasy romance respectively.  But there was only ever going to be one shortlist duo I wanted from this category, and I'm pleased to say that Team SCKA came through on this. Time War (Paul's review, Adri's review) vs. The Deep (Joe's review): let's go.

The Ballot:
  • The Deep by Rivers Solomon
  • Incompleteness Theories by Wole Talabi
  • Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
  • This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  • To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
  • Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • We Are Made of Diamond Stuff by Isabel Waidner

Best Short Fiction

Finalists: "The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor" by Maurice Broaddus vs "The Ocean That Fades Into Sky" by Kathleen Kayembe

Thoughts: I was all set to talk about the final two, but then I discovered that both of the magazine issues these come from have beautiful, complementary Julie Dillon art covers (side note: I have a print of the turtle lady and am looking forward to framing her on a wall very soon), and now I really just want to read the story about those two flying people from very different cultures coming together in a whirlwind romance that changes their societies forever. I mean, look at them. It could literally be a romance in a whirlwind. Giving you that one for free, fiction-writing readers.

But, no, these actual stories that I am actually here to talk about are great finalists, from an overall strong set of short fiction entries that ran the gamut from effective comedy pieces through to evocative flash-length vignettes through to longer pieces like our two finalists. The result is a pairing that's going to be one of the toughest choices in our second round for sure.


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, July 22, 2020

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Welcome back for another edition of Reading the Hugos, 2020 Edition. Today we're going to take a look at the six finalists for Best Novelette.

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

I would mention that only one work from my nominating ballot made the final ballot, but I only had one work on my nominating ballot - that being "The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye". I did not read much shorter fiction last year, but I'll always stop for one of Sarah Pinsker's stories.

Let's take a look at the rest of the stories on the ballot, shall we?

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, April 2019)
“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Fantasy Special Issue, September/October 2019)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, July-August 2019)
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (Forward Collection (Amazon))
“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll (, 10 July 2019)
“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))

For He Can Creep: I go into every story with the hope and the expectation that is going to be something special and that it is going to knock my socks off even if I'm not wearing socks. Basically, I'm looking for a story to de-glove my feet. The problem, and I fully recognize this is a deeply personal problem, is that "For He Can Creep" is a cat story. I am at best deeply ambivalent about cats and cat stories.Tell me a dog story, and you've got me. Tell me a cat story and I'm just not there. "For He Can Creep" is a story of cats fighting the Devil. There's more to it than that, but other than appreciating Nighthunter Moppet, this just isn't a story for me.

Away With the Wolves: Sarah Gailey's story of identity and transformation is absolutely lovely. It deals with friendship and pain, it's sort of a werewolf story but that's not really the point of it all. The physical and unrelenting pain that Suss feels is only relieved when she transforms to a wolf, but the heart of the story is so gentle, so perfect and welcoming. I haven't read all of Sarah Gailey's fiction, but much of what I've read has an edge protecting that heart. "Away With the Wolves" wears its heart on the sleeve.

The Archronology of Love: Yoachim was a previous Hugo Award finalist in 2018 for her short story "Carnival Nine" and while that has no bearing on "The Archronology of Love", I enjoyed and appreciated "The Archronology of Love" more than Yoachim's earlier story. As can be guessed by the title, this is a love story - though a doomed love story. To a point, the love story happened before the story and this is just the desperate search to find the last moments of a dead love - but that love is so infused in the story that it works.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye: This is the second time I've read "The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye" and it holds up to multiple readings, which isn't much of a surprise given the mastery Sarah Pinsker has shown over the past eight years (has it only been eight years?). There is perhaps less tension in the re-read, but Pinsker's storytelling and reveals are top notch. I mentioned earlier that this story was on my nominating ballot and I am pleased that it holds up so well in comparison to a ballot full of excellence.

Emergency Skin: Some fiction is intensely tied to the moment and "Emergency Skin" is absolutely a reaction to the now. It is ultimately a hopeful story, though it begins with a mission to a presumably ruined Earth to mine the planet for a desperately needed resource to help prolong the lives of those who are now living in some distant utopia. These are the people who were able to escape. Little by little Jemisin reveals the truth about who left, how they left, and and what then happened when the wealthiest and greediest oligarchs left a dying Earth. This is a reminder of just how good a storyteller N.K. Jemisin is. It is also a statement of the hope that can be brought by ultimately positive science fiction.

Omphalos: An omphalos is "a central point, a hub, or focal point", which is a useful thing to know going into the story lest you go through the opening of the story wondering about how Ted Chiang was going to play off of the idea of Omelas as N.K. Jemisin did with "The Ones Who Stay and Fight". He doesn't. "Omphalos"isn't that story.

I dig the anthropology of the story, the examination of this human society and the backgrounding of history and religion and science and how it is intrinsically tied up into a created universe and how, in such a universe, faith can be the most fragile thing of all.  When Ted Chiang is at the top of his game there is nobody better. "Omphalos" is top shelf Chiang.

My Vote
1. Omphalos
2. Emergency Skin
3. The Blue in the Corner of Your Eye
4. The Archronology of Love
5. Away With the Wolves
6. For He Can Creep

POSTED BY:  Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Interview: Meg Frank

Congratulations to Meg Frank, Hugo nominee for Best Fan Artist!

Creating jewelry, paintings, and everything in between, Frank's immersive artwork communicates feelings that can't be expressed in words. With a varied portfolio, their work spans nature inspired watercolors, abstract paintings that make galaxies and nebulae look close enough to touch, and functional, wearable jewelry, and many pieces that fall in between, such as the cover art for Journey Planet 45 - The Matrix.   Frank works on many projects within SFF fandom and publishing, including volunteering at many a convention, and curating the fiction in Fireside's forthcoming anthology Hope in This Timeline.

In 2019,  Frank did a series of pieces inspired by This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. In 2019 they also discovered alcohol inks for painting, and the artwork became a brighter, more fun, and sometimes glittery place.   A fan of glitter, fantastic hair and even more fantastic outfits, you can follow Frank on twitter (and see tons of their artwork and other great photos!) at @peripateticmeg.

Frank was kind enough to chat with me about their inspirations,  going on an art creation binge after reading This is How You Lose the Time War, growing up surrounded by genre and the star strewn skies of the Midwest, creating art that speaks volumes without a word, and more.  In spite of what they say, I am still convinced that Frank's studio spaces look like a glorious swirling galaxy, or perhaps maybe a magician's secret room.

Let's get to the the interview!

NOAF: What media do you typically work in? How did you first get started working with these materials?

Meg Frank: I've never met a medium that I didn't like, but you'll most often find me working with paints and jewelry. I started really focusing on painting as a hobby in 2014 while I was living abroad and sort of couldn't stop. Watercolors were first, then oils, inks (with brushes then pens) and most recently alcohol inks with resin and other inclusions.

Jewelry came a few years later - in 2017 my partner Sara Eileen, an extremely talented multi-media artist who made the porcelain for To The Moon and Back, took me bead shopping and I was hooked. I'd been playing with very basic wire flowers before then and silk was a revelation in terms of speed - knotting pearls is incredibly meditative work for me. I took a wire class from Elise Matthesen in 2018, whom I grew up watching making the most fabulous things, and I have to say it's an incredible honor to be nominated with them. I've always loved jewelry, it's a shiny, somewhat daily deliberation on how to present ones self. I feel terribly lucky to be able to work with Hillary Monahan and Becky Chambers of The Peculiarity Shop. They are both fantastic artists and Hillary is a boss with Etsy which allows me to focus on juggling so many mediums.

NOAF: How would you describe your art style?

MF: I would describe my art style as colorful. I go in a lot of different directions in terms of styles and mediums to express different attitudes, but my use of color is pretty consistent. Also, it has been noted on several occasions that a significant amount of my art includes glitter.

NOAF: What led you to create art that speaks to science fiction and fantasy fans?

MF: I think being raised by science fiction and fantasy fans probably did most of the trick. As a kid I was surrounded by (but not actually paying close attention to) media like Star Wars and Star Trek and Rocky Horror. I watched The Return of the King nab eleven Oscars when I was thirteen years old, and the Marvel reboot (Iron Man, 2008) came out the year before I graduated high school. Much of the media that in decades past would have been considered weird or dorky built just as much of my understanding of beauty as Annie Leibovitz’s photos or John Singer Sargent’s portraits.

Journey Planet 45 - The Matrix

NOAF: Do you have a piece or grouping of pieces in your Hugo voter packet that is especially meaningful to you? Can you tell us the story behind it?

MF: A number of the pieces that I made last year were very much influenced by This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone which is on the ballot this year and I cannot recommend enough. A very good friend smuggled me an ARC in March of 2019 and my brain was absolutely consumed. At 2’x4’ It Only Stings A Little is the largest wire piece I have ever done by a considerable margin - most of my previous work was necklace size, and it came tumbling out of my brain in about a week. Dark Blue, Dark Blue; My Careful Cardinal; The Garden Grows; and The Last Bloom are all nods to that story. There are many, many more.

Also, Be Still My Heart is me trying really, really hard to impress my partners and as I've been told it worked, I'm rather fond of it.
"It Only Stings A Little"

NOAF: What are your inspirations for your artwork?

MF: I would say that most of my work, the work that I love the most, comes from trying to express feelings that I just don't have words for. I can't say it, but I've got to say it somehow, and it turns out that I can get a lot of it out in color. Any time I'm overwhelmed with feelings (hey 2020!) I go looking for a paintbrush or silk.

I'm deeply interested in creating art that explores 'home' and all of the beautifully different and complicated ways home is built.

NOAF: Many of your paintings have these incredibly lush, velvety black edges that bleed into the abstract colors. Can you tell us a little about how you get this beautiful effect?

MF: I wish I had a more exciting for the how part of the this question beyond "I pour a lot of ink on the edge of the canvas and the floor," but that’s mostly it! Merging the colors is done by tilting the frames and boards I paint on as well as blowing through straws and several other pretty basic but silly to observe techniques. The why is more compelling to me - I grew up watching the stars in rural Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest with dark skies and that feeling of immersion is deeply comforting to me.

NOAF: You paint, you do beadwork, you do metal jewerly, I've got to ask, what does your studio/workspace look like? (My imagination is telling me your studio looks like a glorious swirling galaxy, but that can't be true, can it?)

MF: Due to the adventure that is living in New York I’'ve actually just split my workspaces so I'm no longer doing as much of my work at home. I keep most of my beadwork in the city, but I've moved a significant portion of my painting supplies to a place upstate where I have more room to work and don't have to worry as much about spilling permanent materials on the floor.

My beads are slowing creeping from my desk at home to adjacent counters and key bowls in a very lovely subtle sparkly way whereas my painting studio looks like there was a glitter explosion in a basement that is half library and half art supply store. There is work everywhere. Books and letters are tucked in around various projects and supplies. Possibly a significant amount of paint on the floor. Also, a hammock and a cat on a heating pad. It’s one of my favorite places in the entire world.

NOAF: Your studio spaces sound like heaven on earth! Meg, thank you so much for this wonderful interview!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.