Monday, August 31, 2020

New Books Spotlight

Welcome to another edition of the New Books Spotlight, where each month or so we curate a selection of 6 new and forthcoming books we find notable, interesting, and intriguing. It gives us the opportunity to shine a brief spotlight on some stuff we're itching to get our hands on.

What are you looking forward to? Anything you want to argue with us about?


Abercrombie, Joe. The Trouble With Peace [Orbit]
Publisher's Description

A fragile peace gives way to conspiracy, betrayal, and rebellion in this sequel to the New York Times bestselling A Little Hatred from epic fantasy master Joe Abercrombie.

Peace is just another kind of battlefield . . .

Savine dan Glokta, once Adua’s most powerful investor, finds her judgement, fortune and reputation in tatters. But she still has all her ambitions, and no scruple will be permitted to stand in her way.

For heroes like Leo dan Brock and Stour Nightfall, only happy with swords drawn, peace is an ordeal to end as soon as possible. But grievances must be nursed, power seized, and allies gathered first, while Rikke must master the power of the Long Eye . . . before it kills her.

Unrest worms into every layer of society. The Breakers still lurk in the shadows, plotting to free the common man from his shackles, while noblemen bicker for their own advantage. Orso struggles to find a safe path through the maze of knives that is politics, only for his enemies, and his debts, to multiply.

The old ways are swept aside, and the old leaders with them, but those who would seize the reins of power will find no alliance, no friendship, and no peace lasts forever.
Why We Want It: When I spotlighted Abercrombie's previous novel A Little Hatred, I noted "A Little Hatred may be an understatement. I expect a lot of hatred and a lot of violence and told in a way that only Abercrombie can." I was right. Once again I expect the title to be an understatement. There likely will be trouble with peace, but there will also be a lot of hatred and violence. Abercrombie is as good as he ever was. I can't wait.

Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi [Bloomsbury]
Publisher's Description

The long-awaited return from the author of the multi-million copy bestselling Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Piranesi lives in the House.
Perhaps he always has.

In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls.

On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite

Why We Want It: Clarke's previous (and debut) novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and I've been intimidated to read that thousand page foot noted door stopper ever since (I'll read it one day, I promise) - but that makes Piranesi a significant novel this year and something to pay attention to. As an added bonus, Piranesi is under 300 pages.

Ford, John M. The Dragon Waiting [Tor Essentials]
Publisher's Description

“The best mingling of history with historical magic that I have ever seen.”—Gene Wolfe

In a snowbound inn high in the Alps, four people meet who will alter fate.

A noble Byzantine mercenary . . .

A female Florentine physician . . .

An ageless Welsh wizard . . .

And Sforza, the uncanny duke.

Together they will wage an intrigue-filled campaign against the might of Byzantium to secure the English throne for Richard, Duke of Gloucester—and make him Richard III.

Available for the first time in nearly two decades, with a new introduction by New York Times-bestselling author Scott Lynch, The Dragon Waiting is a masterpiece of blood and magic.

“Had [John M. Ford] taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would’ve been George R.R. Martin.” —Neil Gaiman

Why We Want It: I wonder how many readers today have heard of John M. Ford. I never would have, except that there were two years I attended Fourth Street Fantasy Convention and Ford was often mentioned. They knew him, personally, and they spoke of Ford and his work reverently and with love. He was only 49 when he passed, which is staggeringly young. Long out of print, Tor will be republishing all of Ford's novels, starting with The Dragon Waiting - his most notable work.

Hairston, Andrea. Master of Poisons [ Publishing]
Publisher's Description

Award-winning author Andrea Hairston weaves together African folktales and postcolonial literature into unforgettable fantasy in Master of Poisons

The world is changing. Poison desert eats good farmland. Once-sweet water turns foul. The wind blows sand and sadness across the Empire. To get caught in a storm is death. To live and do nothing is death. There is magic in the world, but good conjure is hard to find.

Djola, righthand man and spymaster of the lord of the Arkhysian Empire, is desperately trying to save his adopted homeland, even in exile.

Awa, a young woman training to be a powerful griot, tests the limits of her knowledge and comes into her own in a world of sorcery, floating cities, kindly beasts, and uncertain men.

Awash in the rhythms of folklore and storytelling and rich with Hairston's characteristic lush prose, Master of Poisons is epic fantasy that will bleed your mind with its turns of phrase and leave you aching for the world it burns into being.

Why We Want It: I've been circling around Hairston's work for a number of years now and even though I should have read Mindscape or Will Do Magic for Small Change years ago, there is no better time to correct my lapse and read Master of Poisons than right now.

McGuire, Seanan. A Killing Frost [DAW]
Publisher's Description

When October is informed that Simon Torquill—legally her father, due to Faerie’s archaic marriage traditions—must be invited to her wedding or risk the ceremony throwing the Kingdom in the Mists into political turmoil, she finds herself setting out on a quest she was not yet prepared to undertake for the sake of her future…. and the man who represents her family’s past.

Why We Want It: Readers of the Feather who have paid any attention to what I write about will know of my established love of Seanan McGuire's novels. A Killing Frost isn't the place to start with Seanan McGuire, it is too tied into the previous novels, but longtime fans of her October Daye series will be ready for this. I know I was. Seanan McGuire delivers.

Novik, Naomi. A Deadly Education [Del Rey]
Publisher's Description

From the New York Times bestselling author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver comes the story of an unwilling dark sorceress who is destined to rewrite the rules of magic.

“The dark school of magic I’ve been waiting for.” Katherine Arden, author of Winternight Trilogy

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans.

I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.

At least, that’s what the world expects me to do. Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school itself certainly does.

But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either.

Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.

With flawless mastery, Naomi Novik creates a heroine for the ages—a character so sharply realized and so richly nuanced that she will live on in hearts and minds for generations to come.
Why We Want It: After making her mark with the nine Temeraire novels, Novik really broke out with Uprooted and Spinning Silver. Though there is always something classist about magic schools, there is also an appeal - and Novik's darker take on the concept is something I want to read. Naomi Novik is a master storyteller who has only gotten better and we can't wait to see what she does with magic schools.

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

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Interview: Rena Barron, author of Kingdom of Souls and Reaper of Souls

Photo Credit: Aaron Gang

Dark magic,  danger,  trading years of your life in a gamble to save everything you love. Ambitions, legacies, and courage.  An imperfect heroine who has to make the hardest decisions in the face of transgenerational trauma.  I told you all of that first, because once you see the cover art of Rena Barron's books, you'll stop reading and click right over to your favorite bookstore's website to place an order.

Rena Barron's Kingdom of Souls came out last fall to much acclaim. A YA novel where a teen protagonist inherits the power of her people, and the responsibilities of stopping an ancestral evil from destroying the world. Arrah is tenacious and driven, but is she strong enough?  How much is she willing to give up to get what she needs?  A powerful tale of witchdoctors, sacrifice, and ambition, this looks like an incredible read!   And don't worry about a cliffhanger ending, as the sequel, Reaper of Souls, will be here before we know it, in February of 2021,  with a third book in the works.  Film rights to the series were recently sold to Warner Brothers, with Michael B. Jordan as producer.

If the YA reader in your household has a younger sibling who isn't quite old enough for Kingdom of Souls, Barron also has a middle-grade title coming out this September, Maya and the Rising Dark. In this contemporary fantasy set in Chicago, when pre-teen Maya's father disappears, it puts her at the center of a battle between our world, the Orishas, and the Dark World. Can she save the world in time to attend ComicCon? 

Barron has loved fantasy stories her whole life. She read non-stop as a child, and yearned to see more characters who looked like her.  Kingdom of Souls first came to the attention of agents and editors during 2017 Pitch Wars, when it was titled "The Last Witchdoctor".


NOAF: What inspired you to write Kingdom of Souls?

RB: The world of Kingdom of Souls was inspired by tales of people in my community who practiced voodoo and the stigma around that tradition. In a sense, the story explores me coming to terms with how those tales shaped my perception.

I have rarely (if ever) heard of voodoo, witchdoctors, folk magic, or any traditions from Black communities presented in a positive light in western society. I wanted to write a story that could subvert that perception and paint this idea that magic isn't good or bad; it's how people choose to use it.

NOAF: You participated in 2017 Pitch Wars, and came away from that experience with multiple offers of representation for "The Last Witchdoctor". What was it like to participate in Pitch Wars? What do you know now, that you wish you knew then?

RB: Pitch Wars was a whirlwind of emotions, very little sleep, and frantic revisions. I met my most trusted writing critique partner and good friend, Alexis Henderson ("The Year of the Witching") during Pitch Wars. We spent most of the three months swapping pages to get our manuscript into shape.

I'd gone through ten years of querying different manuscripts and getting rejected prior to entering Pitch Wars, so I didn't really go into it with many expectations. Before I entered Pitch Wars, my last manuscript had gotten a lot of bites from agents, including requests to "revised and resubmit," so I felt that I was getting close. Speaking strictly from interacting with the mentees and sharing information, I wished I would've known that everyone's experience would be widely different.

NAOF: Arrah is such a fascinating character! She's so young when she has to make life altering decisions. When you were first working on this series, how did you develop Arrah's character? Did she change at all, from your original idea, to the Arrah that readers meet?

RB: In a sense, Arrah's trading years off her life in exchange for magic is a metaphor for the sacrifices and struggles that we face in everyday life. She is powerless in her world, but is she really? It's not magic that drives her desire to protect her friends and family; it's her heart, tenacity, and courage. Those are her greatest gifts. One thing that is subtle in her character, too, is that she is suffering from transgenerational trauma. Writing her character was an exercise in examining my own traumas. That was the key to her character for me. She's a survivor.

When I was first developing Arrah's character, I leaned heavily on exploring the expectations, disappointments, and challenges that she would face and how she would attempt to overcome impossible odds. I wanted her to feel real and well-rounded—not like a caricature.

NOAF: Arrah doesn't know everything, and she's not a perfect person (perfect people are boring, if you ask me!). She makes mistakes, and she's flawed. Why did you choose for her to make those particular mistakes? Why does she have those particular flaws? How do her mistakes and regrets shape her future decisions?

RB: Often we like our heroines to have superficial flaws, but I don't see that as true to human nature. Arrah makes mistakes; she's not perfect. She's flawed, driven, and relentless in her pursuit of what she believes to be right. The mistakes that Arrah make stem from her thinking that she has to be the one to fix the world. It's not a spoiler to say that she’s right, but she doesn't have to do it alone.

NOAF: Who was your favorite character to write?

RB: Arrah's grandmother is one of my favorite characters. She's the leader of her tribe, strong, iron-willed, patient, and always has a trick up her sleeve.

NOAF: Without giving us too many spoilers, can you tell us what's next for Arrah and her friends in Reaper of Souls?

RB: The end of Kingdom of Souls leaves Arrah in a really tough spot. She's going to have to reckon with her mistakes and decisions while facing bigger problems in Reaper of Souls. Expect to see much more of Arrah's friends—Rudjek, Sukar, Essnai, and the whole crew.

NOAF: That cover art though! I do not know how someone can not look at that cover art and NEED to pick up these books! Did you have any input on the cover art? Do you feel the cover art accurately portrays the characters and the story?

RB: I love that the cover of Kingdom Of Souls incorporates so many elements from the book. The throne, the lion head, the snake, and the bone charm are all important symbols in the story. The artist, AdeyemiAdegbesan, really hit it out of the park. I was very fortunate to provide early input into the design, and I pitched the idea of a girl on a bone throne.

NOAF: You grew up reading fantasy, outer space, and adventure. What were some of your favorites?

R.B. Most of the books I gravitated toward were adult. I think it was because I've always loved complicated stories more on the dark side, and I don't recall seeing a lot of that in kidlit at the time. I do remember enjoying the Last Vampire series by Christopher Pike, the Animorphs series, and anything by RL Stine.

NOAF: Thank you so much for letting me interview you!

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, August 28, 2020

Microreview [book]: Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

An In Nomine-like story of librarians of unwritten books, avenging angels, demons, and a book that could start a war between Heaven and Hell.

“Magical librarians” is a 50,000 foot high concept that is catnip to a lot of genre readers, I feel. The slight hint of the “Librarians Militant” in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End made me wish that someone would write those books. Genevieve Cogman’s fantastic Invisible Library series gives us interdimensional traveling librarians. And who can forget the Librarian in the Discworld novels, master of L-Space?

AJ Hackwith has a different and unique approach. Her librarian, Claire (not a demon, just a dead soul) , is the librarian of a wing of books that never have been written, books that want reality, books whose characters want shape and form. That library is not on Earth, and not in Heaven, either, but rather in Hell. And when a very special book becomes a prize, Claire seeks to bring it to the titular Library of the Unwritten.

There is a permanent ache in the soul at the idea that books that their would be creators have never put to paper and created have a life and existence of their own, in a library in hell. In the world of Hackwith’s novel, the version of me that exists in that world most certainly has multiple volumes in that Library, with characters as eager as Hero, a character who escapes his book in the beginning of the novel, to escape their books and find lives of their own.

After a set piece that establishes Claire’s ordinary job, the novel’s plot turns on a book that should not exist. Angels don’t write books, and neither do Demons--that’s the province of mortals, humans. But when there is evidence of pages of a bible written by the Devil himself, that’s something that gathers a lot of attention from both sides of the Celestial Divide. Such a rare item is by its nature a potent artifact, one that might start or finish a war.

In addition to the Unwritten Wing of the Library and its librarians (Claire, the head librarian, and her assistant Brevity, formerly a Muse) there is a wide cast of characters. The aforementioned Hero who escaped from a book winds up joining the plot, as do demons and angels of various stripes, struggling to find and grab hold of the book. The author does a good job giving each of the characters, not just Claire, clear story arcs and goals, giving them rich lives that extend through the narrative. The moments of action in this book are relatively infrequent, and characters in heated debate and discussion take up far more of the book. It’s fortunate that the characters are so well done, or else those scenes might drag on a bit too long otherwise. The author also has a penchant for switching point of view between chapters but still basically in the same scene, providing a variety of perspectives. Sometimes this causes some doubling and recapitulation of the scene from another’s point of view. What the characters are feeling and thinking is extremely important to the author and what gets highlighted in the narrative. This is not an action packed book, although there are some action sequences, this is much more focused on debate and thought. That said, with the exception of an epic showdown sequence in Valhalla, the action sequences are not the strength of this book in any event. It’s grounded and relies on the characters.

As I read the book, I kept thinking of the RPG In Nomine, and how the events of the book could fit into that universe or a similar role playing scenario. However, Claire is a human soul, and not a demon, so in the game (as well as in the book), she would have to think and act outside the box and without direct confrontation to deal with the higher power threats that she faces. The complexity of the characters, their agendas, external forces, and of course the MacGuffin itself all really resonated with me because of my experience with the game already preparing me for a fantasy world like this, and my enjoyment of Hackwith’s worldbuilding and character beats were enhanced by that mental connection. I particularly liked Walter, the keeper of the Gates of Hell. And, as it turns out, much more.

I listened to this book in audio and I have to said it was an immersive and enriching experience for the most part and I have almost no complaints about it except for one pronunciation of one of the character’s names. In the audio, the name of one of the angels (actually a Nephilim watcher) is rendered in the audio as something like “Ramiel”. Imagine my surprise, when checking the chapter titles to see who was upcoming as point of view characters, to see “Romeo” listed. I wondered for a bit if I was going to meet a new character and POV I had not met before, and only after listening to the chapter, realized the unusual pronunciation of the name. I also checked a physical copy to make sure that the audiobook just didn’t have the name of the character wrong in the chapter titles, too. Other than that annoyance, I found the elucidation of the voices of the characters, from Claire to Brevity, to, yes, Romeo and other POV characters to be effective and clear.

There are some first novel snags that I noticed, particularly in a bit of a lack of smoothness on the plotting. And there are a few events that I have questions about the effectiveness from a plot point of view, its a little bit of roughed deckle edged paper rather than being clean and concise and crisp. I fully expect future novels from the novel to improve in this regard.

The Library of the Unwritten is very clearly the first in a series, given the ending and how things ultimately fall out, and I am certain the premise and setup of the universe and how and what that denouement means gives plenty of room for further volumes. One could one and done the series here, there is a complete and full story on tap here, but clear lines for future novels.. Happily, a second book in the series is forthcoming. I slept a bit on this one, I intend not to make a similar mistake with its sequel

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for interesting worldbuilding and premise executed engagingly and well; +1 for a no nonsense librarian protagonist. 

Penalties: -1 for a few plot points that feel a bit undercooked compared to the main run of the plot.

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

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

Reference: Hackwith, A.J. The Library of the Unwritten [Ace, 2019]. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Questing in Shorts: August 2020

This is usually where I write an introduction, but after several attempts, it turns out I'm not in a very introduction mood at the time of writing this. Instead of worrying about that, let's just check out some stories!

The Dominion Anthology ed. Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenochovwe Donald

(cw: rape, domestic abuse, child death, violence)

I backed the Dominion anthology on Kickstarter when it was originally announced, thanks to its impressive line-up of authors from Africa and the African disapora, and the final product did not disappoint. Most of the stories here are on the long side of short and it means there's lots of meaty worldbuilding and character to sink into in each one. Many of those stories go to dark places - I'd like to see future volumes of this series, if it becomes one, make use of content warnings as well as the one-line descriptions summarising each story at the start of the anthology (which is a great idea!) The anthology had me hooked from its second story, "Red_Bati" by Dilman Dila, which deals with the life of a former service AI now being used as cheap space labour as it plans to escape its own decommissioning and find a way to live beyond the confines of how humans deem it useful. Eugen Bacon's "A Maji Maji Chronicle", one of the most lusciously written of the anthology, offers a story of power and magic in a world full of disjointed snippets of recognisable events. Then there's the powerful, if very troubling, horror of "The Unclean" (which definitely needs those content warnings), in which a desperate woman trapped in an abusive family and haunted by her child tries to recover him through a terrible act of magic.

And so it continues, through mythic tales of gods and humans and ill-advised magics, from the near-future corporate dystopia of "The Satellite Charmer" by Mame Bougouma Diene to the creeping horror of small-town Midwest racism in "Thresher of Men". Closing out the collection is one of my favourites: "Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon" by Ekpeki Oghenochovwe Donald, a story about self-actualisation in a village struggling to survive in a hostile post-apocalyptic world by upholding the maintenance of magical traditions and gender roles despite the harm they cause the protagonists. While some of the stories and styles here clicked with me more than others, there's undoubtedly an impressive range of talent in this collection, and it's the variety in the worlds themselves and the different stories they make possible which really make the Dominion Anthology stand out.

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 15

My magazine folder tells me that I've somehow missed reading an issue of FIYAH at the start of the year, which - coupled with how late I'm reading this latest issue - is the best indication yet that this year has not been kind to my poor addled brain, because new FIYAH is usually one of the highlights of each quarter. Still, these are good stories whenever you get to them. It's an unthemed issue, but with a strong running theme of death and memory. "Your Name is Oblivia" by Vincent Tirado was a standout for me: a woman working at a bar which serves memories - and sometimes requires them as payment - becomes rather attached to her customers, and in doing so starts to question some of the gaps in her own life, and the circumstances that led her to be there in the first place. The mystery element isn't particularly mind-blowing, but that's not where the heart of the story lies anyway; what made this one work for me was the oppressive, sleazy atmosphere of the bar where Oblivia works, and the tentatively sweet relationship she nevertheless manages to form with Donovan, who Tirado manages to make into an intriguing, plausibly alluring person with very little within the wider setting to make that reading possible. I also highly enjoyed "Red Cloth, White Giraffe" by Yvette Lisa Ndilovu, in which a woman watches her own funeral and the behaviour of the family she has left behind, and contemplates what she's going to do after her own death; I highly enjoyed the streak of pragmatism in the protagonist even as she deals with the unfairness of her situation and the relentless structural misogyny from both the living and the afterlife itself. And "The Last Testament", by Aurelius Raines II, features a young woman tech genius who I could happily have spent more time with, and the robot built to replace her dead brother. As the story twists between the poignant moments between Ada and Zahir, the not-siblings, to the circumstances that led to their current situation and Ada's plans for her future, it combines questions of justice with moments of genuine love and connection between the two that makes its ultimate conclusion all the more heartbreaking. Rounding off the issue (the longest story in it, in fact) is the weird but satisfying "The Black Menagerie" by Endria Isa Richardson - a story I have less to say about than the others, but nevertheless well worth checking out.

Clarkesworld Issue 167

It's been a while since I've reviewed a Clarkesworld, and honestly I started reading this one because I thought it had Bogi Takács' new novella in it, but I was a month out. But I finished what I started, and for my trouble I got a, uh, fairly mixed bag of stories for my tastes, including a couple which, despite reading less a week ago at the time of writing, I am... struggling to remember anything about at all. What is memorable for me in here, though, are some pretty dark stories. The Lori by Fiona Moore tells the story of Cooper, once the driver of a sentient tank, who returns to the foreign country where it went missing to try and track it down and retake control. As Cooper gets close to the tank, however, he starts to unravel the pattern of seemingly random targeting the "Lori" is inflicting on the people around it, and while the ultimate conclusion has a touch of sweetness to it, it's a moral that's wrapped up in a lot of senseless death among people that both Cooper and the Lori are alienated from. "The Plague" by Yan Leisheng is another dark, dark story (with CW: pandemic, in case you need it, as well as body horror), with a protagonist who is one of the few people who hasn't been infected by a plague that slowly turns people to silicon, and who is tasked with burning the bodies of the infected, a process which is described in great, unpleasant detail. The story of the protagonist learning about the plague, and about what it does, is intriguing, though the direction the narrative takes doesn't do much with the more moral questions about the transformation of life that the speculative element raises. Still, the imagery here is excellently grim, and the ending in particular is likely to stay with me for some time.

Also on the "grim but great" spectrum, "The Immolation of Kev Magee" by L.X. Beckett is a thriller-esque story about Breeze, and the small family and increasingly strange events that start coalescing around them as they try to survive in a future world ravaged by climate change and terrible capitalism. The combination of fragile found family (though it's not a happy ending on that front) and gritty dystopia kept me hooked on this one, and the way it turns its difficult ending into one of hope, purely because of the importance of survival in the world it creates, is heartbreaking and fabulous.

Transcendent 4 ed. Bogi Takács

There's a lot I could highlight in this collection which collects the best science fiction and fantasy with trans themes of 2018. But among its gems, I was particularly delighted by a pair of stories which dealt with small, quiet moments in the lives of their protagonists. "Sandals full of Rainwater" by A.E. Prevost, has its protagonist finds love and connection with a family from another culture, all of them immigrants to a place where finding work and surviving is challenging enough: it's a gorgeous story of overcoming cultural barriers (the protagonist's culture has no concept of gender, and they find the array of pronouns and genders in their new family's language bewildering and occasionally frustrating) and finding belonging and self-worth in a situation that doesn't have to be world-ending to be difficult. Then there's "Ghosts" by Blue Neusifter which deals with the world's kindest haunting, and a protagonist who offered messages of hope and encouragement in the magnets on their fridge. In an anthology that's full of talent, those were the two stories that nourished my own soul the most, and I'll definitely be looking out for more work by both of those authors.

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, August 26, 2020 Publishing, First Become Ashes, and the pretty pastel packaging of abuse

CW: Discussions of rape, rape apologism, abuse, slavery, racism, explicit BDSM. Spoilers for Docile by K.M. Szpara.

Imagine: you're on the internet one day, and you hear about a book. It's a new standalone, by an author with one previously published novel, and it looks gorgeous! Pastel blue cover, vibrant yellow birds, bold white font, all pointing to something romantic but maybe sad and thoughtful, a bit like All The Birds in the Sky or This Is How You Lose the Time War. The tagline promises a book that "blends pain and pleasure and will make readers question what is real, and what is magical." If you frequent Edelweiss, you may also have checked out the author letter, saying that "during a time when we are all struggling with isolation, Ashes asks what it means to support those we love when it's hardest." It's a lovely sentiment, one that pushes a lot of the right emotional buttons. There's some pretty dark stuff in the rest of the blurb - abuse and cult thinking - but on the whole, the book seems to promise something gentle and healing.

Perhaps, if you were around the internet for a few glorious hours on August 19th, you saw the publisher's next marketing image for this book, which surrounded the cover with a bunch of cutesy chalkboard "tags" - elements of the book's plot and main tropes pulled out to showcase its content, a device used extensively in fanfiction - and maybe, from that, you started to get a bit confused. Oh, so the pastel bird book has "cock cages and keyholding"? And "roadside S&M"? Huh, well it did say it would blend pleasure and pain, but that's a spicier variety of that concept than I might have expected from that cover! It also promises "[ASMR] Professional cosplayer washes and braids your hair," and "motel magic", and you know what, OK, books can be cute and spicy, and as long as this one remains very far away from YA, then, well, fine.

And then, maybe, you also notice "CW: Non consensual sex" at the top of the image, cut off by Twitter preview, in the same cute font as all the other tags. "Non consensual sex", to be clear, is a mealy-mouthed synonym for rape. It's the kind of wording you use when "rape" is absolutely the thing you mean, but, you know, it just seems so harsh, do we really have to say it? Can't we think of a less confrontational way to talk about the rape, so it doesn't interfere with the tone we're going for? The book's still pastel and still looks like it's full of gentle magic and it's still, apparently, about a heartwarming combination of BDSM and cute romantic tropes, but also rape. And, from the reactions of early readers, it's not a little bit of rape either, but multiple graphic scenes of rape, abuse and torture. Including the cock cages. Sorry to anyone who wanted consensual, cute-fun erection denial play to finally have its moment in mainstream speculative fiction publishing. Your princess is in another castle.

Of course, if you're familiar with this particular publisher's history with this author and their previous book, you might skip straight to thinking "for fuck's sake, not again."


The book is First, Become Ashes, by K.M. Szpara, coming out from Publishing in April 2021. It's a lead title, which, for the uninitiated, means it's got lots of marketing behind it and is expected to do well accordingly (in other words, expect them to keep banging on about it until next April and beyond). It follows on the heels of Szpara's previous novel Docile - a book about debt slavery which is also pastel, and also involves repeated, graphic rape which both text and marketing dance around calling out as such. Docile takes its premise to some pretty morally grey, unpleasant places, some of which are inherent in the clearly signposted slavery aspects, and some which definitely aren't. Both characters in the central, abusive relationship end up in a "reciprocated feelings with an open door for later romance" state by the end. If you know about Docile, your expectations for First, Become Ashes are probably quite different to if you're just scrolling through Book Twitter.

Side note: I want to avoid talking in detail about my feelings regarding the text of Docile, because it's irrelevant whether I think the book is good, or if it's "for me" (though, if you must know, it wasn't). These could be the best, most groundbreaking books ever and my frustrations with the marketing would still exist. However, I can't let it go by without pointing out these two critiques, from Stitch's Media Mix and Strange Horizons, of Docile's use of the slavefic trope without any critical engagement with the racial history of slavery in the USA.

Let me be entirely clear here. I have no issue with dark, troubling stories of abuse, rape and violence being told, when that telling is done thoughtfully and offered to the world in a way that minimises any potential for harm. There are difficult, painful stories that people - both writers and readers - find worthwhile things to take from. And by "worthwhile" I don't necessarily mean deep, exquisite life truths: maybe you occasionally read unpleasant things in the same way you occasionally get drawn into googling unpleasant symptoms of rare diseases at 1am. (If you don't like that sentence, substitute "you" for "I" and then if you still have a problem come fight me on Twitter). There are limits: when it comes to depictions of white supremacy, for example, there are stories that those who haven't experienced racism simply can't tell responsibly and thoughtfully. But, ultimately, there aren't objective moral boundaries on what human experiences can be depicted in fiction, whatever personal feelings and limits people have about their consumption of that media.

The responsibility to minimise harm, and to get the story to the right people while signposting it for those who know they won't benefit it, is still a bloody important part of the process, and one which different fiction mediums have developed different ways of dealing with, including the normalisation of content warnings particularly in short fiction, and of tagging in fanfiction spaces like Archive of Our Own (AO3). This is a process with both moral and practical imperatives to get right, because unless you're a deeply unpleasant person who gets off on hurting others, nobody benefits from having their story inflict unwanted pain and the loss of trust and future readership that causes (unless you're a publisher reaping sales money from an author you're comfortable with dropping if you don't think you can sell further books, but even then your reputation is at stake). Different spaces have developed different ways of dealing with this. AO3 uses a very different method than book publishers, in part because the act of choosing a book to purchase involves different expectations and investments than clicking a fic to read, from the time and money investment to the expectations of professional publishing versus unedited or “unbetaed” fanfiction on the internet. No system is perfect - AO3 may have clear, non-negotiable requirements for tagging rape/non con and other “major archive warnings”, but it falls down when it comes to racism and other fandom language (like “dead dove: do not eat”, the warning for an unapologetically horrible fic) requires insider knowledge to understand. But that doesn’t negate anyone’s responsibility to try.

The question of foreknowledge, and of the harm that stories can do in a particular context, is something that has particular challenges to negotiate when it comes to queer literature. With queer tragedy, and tropes like "bury your gays" and queer-coded villains having been deployed so constantly and thoughtlessly by non-LGBTQIA+-identified creators for so long, its understandable that many readers who seek out queer stories do so wanting assurances that stories will contain queer joy, happy endings, or nuanced personal growth, for queer characters. But suggesting that the world is objectively saturated with queer pain because the straights have already written enough of it is a deeply unfortunate stance for all of the queer creators who want to tell those stories themselves, in all their tragic, painful, heartbreaking glory. We may have opinions as readers about the balance of such stories; I do think it is still much more difficult to find stories celebrating queer joy than queer pain, and a lot of books still end in queer tragedy with minimal prior signposting. But, fundamentally, the problem with balance is not an inherent problem with the individual stories that exist on the imbalanced side of the scale, particularly when they are by marginalised creators who have the opportunity to take on tropes that have defined their own identities.

In a way, it's hard not to read the marketing of Docile and First, Become Ashes as a giant middle finger to that "purity" discourse. Everything about it seems to push back against the idea that there is something inherently wrong with queer books with dark themes being celebrated and given the all-star treatment as a hot new must-read title. Docile is unapologetically not a tragedy, despite all the terrible things that happen in it, and from what I know about First, Become Ashes, the same seems to be true. Certainly, watching some of the individuals involved celebrate the branding of Docile, I think the transgressiveness - yes, it's queer, it's a BDSM book, it's anti-capitalist (available exclusively in hardcover for £21.99!), it has a happy-ish ending for survivors and rapists alike, and it's PINK and TEAL in just the right shades for a matching manicure - is a huge part of the attraction. It's also, for those who know what to look for, making a point of aligning itself with known fanfiction tropes, which in itself can be seen an act of transgression for those who see fanfiction as an inherently disreputable form of writing (the Strange Horizons review I link above, for all its strengths, does rather fall into that trap). By making that cuteness into a point of transgressive pride, and tying together the queerness and the kink and the rape and the social commentary into one inextricable package, it becomes nearly impossible to challenge the appropriateness of any part of this without it feeling like a challenge to the whole thing. For those of us who consider ourselves vehemently on the side of queer pastel glitter pride, that's a deeply uncomfortable position to be in. And, hey, Docile had a content warning for rape! Not originally, but at some point between September 2019 and the next Wayback Machine capture in March 2020, that content warning became a thing, just like we all wanted! So what's the problem? 

The thing is, though, the desire to celebrate the transgressive blending of rape and happy endings (pleasure and pain!) plays out rather differently in an unmonetized fandom space than it does when backed up by a significant portion of a Big 5 Publishing imprint's marketing budget and social media reach. The use of tags in fanfiction can be playful, but they are ultimately there to inform readers of the exact content of a piece of media (however imperfectly), and let them make their own choices. When turned into a marketing tool, the incentives for "tagging" completely change to become about what will sell, and that completely changes what is appropriate and what is trustworthy. Likewise, the choice to pair your dark stories with an unexpected pastel aesthetic is one thing when you're choosing a Tumblr theme or commissioning an artist to draw your fic, but it has an entirely different weight behind it when you're printing 75,000 hardbacks to go out to major stores and sit on the shelf alongside all the other pastel aesthetic SFF books which are almost entirely not about rape and BDSM. Once you’ve started writing about the traumatic, abusive cock cages in your book in cutesy handwriting font, it’s possible you’ve lost the plot entirely... but even if there is an audience that would be good for, it’s certainly not all 25,000 Twitter followers of Publishing! These are not responsible choices; they deliberately obfuscate and misrepresent the book, and in doing so prevent potential readers - particularly those who aren't clued in on the past pattern via Twitter - from making fully informed choices about their reading. For other books, that might be annoying, especially at hardback price point; for one with this combination of sensitive topics, it's frankly dangerous.

At the time of writing this, the marketing image has quietly disappeared, and an extra line has appeared on the First, Become Ashes page on the Publishing website: “First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape”. (Here's the Wayback Machine's archive of the page without that line, for reference.) It's a welcome gesture - and a lesson that could perhaps have been learned from the previous book - but it's not one that addresses the deeper issues with this whole pastel package. Painful, dark, queer stories deserve to exist. They deserve to have traditional publishing deals and be lead titles. Most importantly, they deserve to be taken seriously, and treated carefully, and delivered responsibly into the right hands. Publishing does a lot of great work, and I am glad that they are willing to take a risk on the kind of story that Szpara is telling here, regardless of my feelings about the execution of Docile - but we need to demand better when it comes to how these stories are presented to the world.

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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

6 Books with Tessa Gratton

Tessa Gratton is the author of adult SFF, The Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur from Tor Books, as well as several YA series and short stories which have been translated into twenty-two languages. Her most recent YA titles are the original fairy tales Strange Grace and Night Shine from McElderry Books. Though she has lived all over the world, she currently resides alongside the Kansas prairie with her wife. Visit her at

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. It's a gorgeous, sharp fantasy genderbent AU about the rise of the first Ming emperor. The book alternates between the stories of a person who steals her brother’s destined greatness and uses gender like a superpower to not only survive and defeat whole armies and plot coups and fall in love, and a very angry eunuch who’s the general of the Mongol army and has been on a slow-burn revenge quest against the Mongols for twenty years. Their stories intertwine violently and oof I’m just loving it. 

2. What upcoming book are really excited about?

Wayward Witch by Zoraida Córdova. It’s the third book in her Brooklyn Brujas trilogy and follows the youngest of the Mortiz sisters to a fairy island hidden in the Caribbean Sea. I beta read an early version, but the ending is totally different now, and I am excited and Very Worried about my emotions. Zoraida also just published a new high fantasy book called Incendiary in May and it’s one of my favorite 2020 reads so far. 

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

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. This is my favorite book of the last decade—it’s so smart about people, about emotions and community and diaspora, very weird in some ways, but also deeply comforting, and about finding and creating home. I’ve been rereading it about once a year, usually in the dark of winter, but this year I’d lent it to my sister-in-law and so kept putting it off, even though I have it in other formats, too. I finally got it back in hand so it’s sitting next to me on my desk, waiting for that moment I give in and sink back into it. 

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

OK when I was a youth I refused to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles because there can be no Tess other than me. I am the only one allowed, and I couldn’t imagine reading a book with a character with my name. I avoided reading Tess even though it was on my senior AP summer reading list, and got permission to read a different Hardy instead. I picked Return of the Native and I loved it so much I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles on a whim and was so caught up I got into a huge fight with my entire AP class about the Very Nice Guy Angel Clare. Did you know Tess murders her rapist and dramatically hides from the police at STONEHENGE??? Where she spreads herself on what was believed to be a sacrificial altar? The book is depressing and melodramatic and highlights a lot of gender and class, ah, issues, but I couldn’t deny I was obsessed. 

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

There are so many I can trace parts of my writing to, but for a singular example I have to say Beauty by Robin McKinley. It was the first adult fantasy book I found—wandering away from the tiny shelf of Christopher Pike and Nancy Drew in my neighborhood bookstore into the section with the kind of books my mom read with spaceships and dragons on the covers. I was compelled by the cover, I must admit, an oddly colored, compelling painting of a woman surrounded by roses. The moment I identified it as a Beauty and the Beast retelling it had to be mine. I read it a hundred times I’m sure before I was fifteen, and even made a tape-recording of myself reading it so I could listen to my DIY audiobook while I rode my bike. I had the first ten pages memorized word-for-word. I reach again and again in my own work for the liminal space that book occupied to me: both mundane and magical, full of small moments that illuminated great truths about the characters and the world, filling me with longing for things I couldn’t quite name. I’m still trying to name them through my writing. And the looping, lovely narrative style appears again and again in my own first drafts, a fairy tale voice I aspire to constantly. 

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

My new book is Night Shine, a dark, queer Howl’s Moving Castle, about an orphan called Nothing who goes on a quest with a beleaguered body-guard to rescue a prince kidnapped by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls. It’s awesome because three of the four main characters are based on my favorite villain love interest tropes: seductive, maybe-evil sorcerer, wicked prince, and demon in disguise, while the fourth MC is the loyal bodyguard love interest trope. Plus I made everybody totally queer and genderqueer. 

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

Monday, August 24, 2020

Paying a visit to Lovecraft Country


SFF television is quickly becoming more active in discussions around the politics of race.

A lot has been made out of the fact that a significant portion of the audience of HBO's new Watchmen had not heard a word about the single worst act of racial violence in American history until they saw the first minutes of the first episode. A gripping reminder, perhaps, of the indifference that the contemporary America feels about the more shady bits of its backstory.

Turns out that I was actually better informed than many of my fellow viewers because I had some cursory knowledge about what went down in Tulsa in 1921 – thanks not to my keen grasp of history but to another piece of SFF: the novel Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The Greenwood massacre is something of a formative experience for important characters in both the newest interpretation Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, even though in the latter it is a more of a living memory for them as the story is set in 1950s.

I read the book a couple of years ago for Nerds of a feather, flock together and have since been waiting for the TV adaptation to materialize. Now that the first episode has been out for a week, I guess it's a good time to say a word or two about it. I'm obviously writing this without seeing eight tenths of the first season, so let's hope that the upcoming episodes won't render anything I say completely silly. Time will tell, for example, if we'll see the Tulsa events on screen at some point.

For television, Lovecraft Country was developed by Misha Green with people like Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams as executive producers. Ruff's novel-looking collection of interconnected tales was initially a proposal for a TV series, so maybe the process should be called reverse engineering rather than adaptation. Whatever took place, it carefully preserved very much of the source material, at least judging by the first two episodes. Not counting one gender-swap and surname changes, every character seems like they are lifted straight from the book.

The story starts with the protagonist Atticus Freeman returning home to Chicago through states that are unfriendly for black people such as he, and running into vehicle trouble on the road. Now we meet him on a bus as opposed to his own car in the novel, but either way, getting where they are supposed to go is way easier for whites when the car breaks down.

The problem of traveling in Jim Crow America and staying safe is a central to the plot in many ways. Atticus's family is in the business of publishing a guidebook called The Safe Negro Travel Guide which lists the establishments in which black customers can expect to be welcome and stay alive. Even though it sounds like one, it is not a dark joke. Books like that really existed, and having Atticus's uncle George compile them in the story provides an economic solution for drawing the extended family in sticky situations and adventures.

So, the show is called Lovecraft Country. George and Atticus are huge fans of pulp literature and science fiction, including H.P. Lovecraft, and they get into a discussion about his works right in the first episode. There's remarkably little love for Lovecraft to go around these days, compared to just ten years ago. Even though his problematic batshit insane racist views were discussed here and there, Lovecraft was one of the absolute greats of fantastic horror.

For decades, nobody questioned the fact that a World Fantasy Award trophy that was a bust of the author who had written, for example, a poem titled "On the Creation of Niggers” describing a creature that was half-human and half-beast. When the bulby-eyed Lovecraft statue was finally retired in 2015, his most ardent admirers were so unhappy that they even returned the trophies they had previously won. As much Lovecraftiana is published as before, but the most memorable new works explicitly take aim at the racial attitudes of Lovecraft and his works. Victor LaValle's "Ballad of Black Tom" rewrote the "The Horror at Red Hook" from the viewpoint of a black protagonist, and other such works are making it hard to even think about Lovecraft without considering his politics.

In Lovecraft Country, all the Lovecraftian monstrosities are there to make a very specific political point. Indeed, Shoggoths are roaming the night and there are things with way too many eyes and tentacles (and consonants in their names), but evil-wise they are nothing compared to the darkness of Jim Crow. It's a good premise, even though it reduces the Lovecraftian to a gallery of slimy monsters, missing all the bleak lonely horror that I would actually consider Lovecraft's claim to fame. Beings from alien dimensions and the fact that there used to be towns where non-whites are killed if they don't leave before the sun sets are both terrifying.

One could argue that all the Lovecraftian elements are more or less window dressing and could be replaced with other horror lore just as easily. What is borrowed from Lovecraft are some names of horrific creatures, obsession about ancient magic books and assorted plot elements. What cemented his reputation and got him canonized is, I think, the cosmic horror and the feeling of being alone and in constant danger in a cold, brutal universe.

This is a feeling you don't get to experience with Lovecraft Country. Here, good triumphs, family takes care of each other and the atmosphere is cozy. That's probably as anti-Lovecraftian as it gets.

The novel is a happy book about awful stuff in which nobody is really going to get hurt. In the last pages, we leave the black cast laughing together when they have again defied all odds and made it out of their latest adventure in one piece. It's not yet certain that the show will be all like that. Actually, the second episode which just landed might suggest that the main characters can get hurt more seriously here, but the future episodes will tell what kind of Lovecraft Country we are going to be able to visit this time.

I'm sure that somewhere there are Lovecraft nerds itching to remark that the story isn't entirely accurate in all bibliographic details, and they're right. Lovecraft's vile poem mentioned earlier was never published and it had not yet been even discovered at the time when Atticus, his father and uncle George are discussing it in Lovecraft Country. Personally, I don't particularly care as it makes a better story this way, but it's a bit fast and loose here and there. In all honesty, I don't think that actual black science fiction fans in the 1950s would be as understanding as Atticus and George are about the undertones of Lovecraft's work. At times they feel more like stand-ins for contemporary SFF fans, but that's how it is. Lovecraft Country is entertainment and not a dissertation. 

SPACEFARING KITTEN, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018. @spacefaringk

Friday, August 21, 2020

Microreview [book]: Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer

Jaime Lee Moyer’s Divine Heretic provides us with a story of a Joan of Arc who, while not being strictly true to the known historical facts, nevertheless brings us a fantastical story of a unique character in European history.

On May 30, 1431, a nineteen year old young woman was burned at the stake in Rouen. The capital charge: crossdressing as a man. The other charge, heresy, was not a capital charge save for a repeat offense. The nineteen year old had changed the flow of history with her support of the Dauphin,  Charles VII of France, helping him take key cities, and seeing him crowned at Reims. It is no exaggeration that without her and her claims of divine aid for the Dauphin, there would be no France, today.

The young woman was, of course,  Joan of Arc. In Jaime Lee Moyer’s Divine Heretic, we get to see a very different, and very personally focused look at her story.

The novel establishes that this is going to be a different, and an SFFnal take on Joan of Arc, early on in the novel. In our real world, Joan claimed that the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret in visions spurred her to support the Dauphin  In Divine Heretic, in the vein of her previous Maid Marian novel Brightfall, the author recasts these visitations are recast as being not angels, but rather something much more akin to Fae Princelings. Her Joan is quite quickly aware that the visitors are not from God, and so the novel sets up a tension between these three entities who very definitely want to manipulate Joan to do as she did in our own history--make her way to the Dauphin and help reclaim France, and Joan’s own desires for autonomy and freedom.

Thus, unlike the uncompromisingly outward face of the divinely inspired and bolstered Joan of Arc that we know from history, this is a Joan that is extremely reluctant to follow the commands of the “divine visitations”. The story of the novel is the tension between Joan’s resistance to those commands, what the trio of beings do to try and influence history through her, and Joan herself growing to maturity, and finding what she wants, what she needs, what she wants to stand for. Joan of Arc is a symbol of female power, autonomy, and strength, and in the novel, the author sets about to show how very human is, and yet show the core of strength that would be recognized far and wide.

So much of this story takes place before Joan ever meets the Royal Court and becomes the Joan of arc that we know. She’s a peasant girl, growing up in a devastated French village that sees periodic raids by the English. This Joan’s hatred of the English is not divinely mandated or inculcated, she doesn’t need angels or anyone else to have a justified hatred of the English. Where a lot of the novel’s strength lies is in giving a grounded and unvarnished look at what life, death war, and injury is like in 15th century France wracked and wrecked by the Hundred Years War. It’s a hardscrabble sort of life and a depiction of a life that in a secondary world fantasy would be lauded as being part of the grimdark tradition. The author’s previously demonstrated skill at evocating a historical time and place serves her very well here. She pulls no punches, characters injured or hurt take agonizing amounts of time to heal up, helping to further intensify the narrow and focused first person point of view on Joan and what she is going through. This is heightened by the trio of entities, who take action to make sure that Joan, as unwilling as she is, will go to her ordained destiny.

Readers who are coming to the novel who want the Joan of Arc that we know from history are, quite frankly, going to be disappointed in Divine Heretic and I would strongly counsel that the novel is not going to suit them very well. It’s very difficult, I think, to humanize a historical figure that quite literally has become a saint (Joan was retried 35 years after her death, and found innocent, and her stature, legend and myth grew until her canonization in 1920). There is a lot we just don’t know about her and the nature of her visions. Admittedly, even though the portrayal here is Joan's growth into a young woman, much of which we do not know, and is free for the author’s invention, when the historical events that we know of Joan and the events of the novel line up, this Joan is definitely and definitively different than what we see from the historical records. This is not a Joan who wrote harrying letters to the Hussites, for example. This is a pious Joan but not one of uncompromising idiosyncratic orthodoxy. The author uses myth and legend as the sources of Joan’s power and giving her the ability to inspire and bolster the French cause. And in the process, makes her invariably human, complicated, well rounded, and readable as a character.

I personally prefer the headcanon that Divine Heretic is an alternate historical take on Joan of Arc, rather than the Joan of Arc that we know. In that way and in my mind, that reconciles the sometimes vast differences of invention that the author brings to the character, and also some of the sequence of historical events. That said, it is a good and vivid alternative historical take on Joan of Arc while providing a view on her world and times that definitely applies to our own world. If novels really are about our life and times no matter when they are set, Joan’s story of a young woman striving for autonomy, strength and freedom is a message and story that resonates in 2020 as much as 1430.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

+1 Well depicted and well described sense of place for 15th century France, we get a good sense of Joan’s world and upbringing as seen by the author. +1 for a complicated and interesting unique look at Joan of Arc as a character. 

Penalties: -2 This is not the historical Joan of Arc you may be expecting from this novel

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

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

Reference: Moyer, Jaime Lee. Divine Heretic [Jo Fletcher Books, 2020]

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Nanoreviews: The Orphans of Raspay, The Monster Baru Cormorant, A Killing Frost

Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Orphans of Raspay [Subterranean Press]

After seven novellas, Lois McMaster Bujold is treading on familiar ground - Penric finds himself in something of a pickle and with a combination of smart thinking, luck, and Desdemona's help manages to make his way out of said pickle. This is all told with wit, warmth, and heart.

So it was and so it is with The Orphans of Raspay, where Bujold adds orphans and pirates (and not the fun pirates, at that - these pirates are fairly gross). It's not a romp, but on the other hand we never quite feel that Penric is in real danger. The question is how will he get out of it this time and can he protect the orphans at the same time? It's a Penric novella and it's written by Bujold, The Orphans of Raspay is a delight.
Score: 7/10

Dickinson, Seth. The Monster Baru Cormorant [Tor]

Adri already wrote about The Monster Baru Cormorant two years ago in a much longer form review. Her review is worth a read, I agree with much of what she had to say. The novel is one political maneuver after another, and for as much as Baru was able to play the political game with adeptness in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, she comes across as a bit out of her depth here in Monster as she is brought in closer to the power of Falcrest / The Masquerade and everyone around her has been playing politics as a game for perhaps more years than Baru has been alive.

Dickinson's writing is as sharp as it was in Traitor, but Monster is a much slower paced novel - not quite plodding, but let's call it deliberate since my opinion of Monster is generally favorable. Baru is willing to do almost anything to reach her goal of achieving enough power to both destroy Falcrest from within as well as save her home island. There are two significant moments of Baru demonstrating that, one so early in the novel it would almost not be a spoiler to reveal and one quite a bit later in the story. It is Baru willing to sacrifice her humanity, sacrifice almost anything and anyone. But, there are almost a few scattered moments of Baru questioning those choices - that maybe her scorched earth ambition might be better served with actual forward thinking and planning compared to taking each moment as a discrete entity. 

The Monster Baru Cormorant does not stand alone. So much of the context depends on Traitor, but it serves to whet the appetite to see how Baru might possibly achieve her goals and at what cost (as if the cost has not been high enough already. Dickinson tells a brutal story, but it's not quite one you want to look away from (even if sometimes you're reading with one eye open)
Score: 7/10

McGuire, Seanan. A Killing Frost [DAW]

Oh, my heart. It's somewhat odd to think that a significant event in the world of Faerie can feel somewhat minor key, but to be completely vague - it did, but not in a way that felt minimized. It felt deliberate and thoughtful, The heart of the novel is Toby's quest (it's always a quest with Toby) to find and restore Simon Torquill, her tormentor who has lost his memory of almost any good act and intention he had for decades.

McGuire's storytelling is as on point as ever. A Killing Frost is the fourteenth novel in the October Daye series and it feels as fresh as it did with the first couple of novels and as familiar as readers might hope. Seanan McGuire isn't afraid to break her readers hearts and then toy with them, but it is always in service to ever building and expanding and revealing the world of faerie, evolving what we know and what is possible.
Score: 8/10

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

New Books Spotlight

Welcome to another edition of the New Books Spotlight, where each month or so we curate a selection of 6 new and forthcoming books we find notable, interesting, and intriguing. It gives us the opportunity to shine a brief spotlight on some stuff we're itching to get our hands on.

What are you looking forward to? Anything you want to argue with us about? 

Bennett, Robert Jackson. In the Shadows of Men [Subterranean]
Publisher's Description

In the desolate flats of west Texas, two brothers purchase an old motel with the intent of renovating it and making a fortune off the population surge brought about by the fracking boom. Though each man is lured there by the promise of wealth, they are also fleeing something: a history of trauma, of failure, of family abuse, and shame.

But the motel proves to have a history of its own. Once the business of a distant relative of theirs, Corbin Pugh, the brothers begin to discover signs that it might have been more than just a motel back during the wildcatter days of the last oil boom.

As they live and labor in its dusty halls, fighting the crawling feeling that they are not alone here, they begin to wonder: what kind of a man was Corbin Pugh? What happened in the rooms he owned, so many decades ago? And is the motel changing them, warping them to become more ruthlessly ambitious and brutal—or is this what men must become in order to survive on the edge of civilization?
Why We Want It: Genre readers today are more familiar these days with Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy and the Foundryside novels, but they won't want to miss the realistically bleak In the Shadows of Men. Check out our review.

Ellis, Lindsay. Axiom's End [St. Martin's]
Publisher's Description

The alternate history first contact adventure Axiom's End is an extraordinary debut from Hugo finalist and video essayist Lindsay Ellis.

Truth is a human right.

It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government—and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him—until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human—and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

Why We Want It: I'm as suspectible to pre-publication hype as anyone else, but Axiom's End was just about as far from my personal radar as possible. I didn't connect the Hugo Award finalist Lindsay Ellis for Related Work with one of the buzzier debuts of the year, but the more I read and hear about Axiom's End the more I'm here for it.

Osborne, Karen. The Architects of Memory [Tor]
Publisher's Description

Millions died after the first contact. An alien weapon holds the key to redemption—or annihilation. Experience Karen Osborne's unforgettable science fiction debut, Architects of Memory.

Terminally ill salvage pilot Ash Jackson lost everything in the war with the alien Vai, but she'll be damned if she loses her future. Her plan: to buy, beg, or lie her way out of corporate indenture and find a cure. When her crew salvages a genocidal weapon from a ravaged starship above a dead colony, Ash uncovers a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that threatens to turn her into a living weapon.

Why We Want It: Along with Axiom's End, The Architects of Memory is one of the more significant science fiction debuts of the year. I'm fairly certain I met Karen Osborne a number of years ago at a Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, which has nothing to do with the novel itself, but I remember enjoying speaking with her then and I'm very happy to see Osborne's debut (I'm also 100 pages into the novel as I write this and it is excellent so far)

Muir, Tamsyn. Harrow the Ninth [ Publishing]
Publisher's Description

She answered the Emperor's call.

She arrived with her arts, her wits, and her only friend.

In victory, her world has turned to ash.

After rocking the cosmos with her deathly debut, Tamsyn Muir continues the story of the penumbral Ninth House in Harrow the Ninth, a mind-twisting puzzle box of mystery, murder, magic, and mayhem. Nothing is as it seems in the halls of the Emperor, and the fate of the galaxy rests on one woman's shoulders.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor's Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?

Why We Want It: From where I stand (or sit, as the case may be), Harrow the Ninth may be the most anticipated sequel of the year after Gideon the Ninth blew the doors off the genre last year. I've read it. Adri's read it. Whatever you are expecting Harrow the Ninth to be, it is not that. Harrow is perhaps the most unexpected sequel I've read, but it is as spectacular as you might hope - but it is a baffling, wonderful, everything-bending read.


VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. The Big Book of Modern Fantasy [Vintage]
Publisher's Description

From Ann and Jeff VanderMeer comes The Big Book of Modern Fantasy: a true horde of tales sure to delight fans, scholars — even the greediest of dragons. A VINTAGE ORIGINAL.

Step through a shimmering portal . . . a worn wardrobe door . . . a schism in sky . . . into a bold new age of fantasy. When worlds beyond worlds became a genre unto itself. From the swinging sixties to the strange, strange seventies, the over-the-top eighties to the gnarly nineties–and beyond, into the twenty-first century–the VanderMeers have found the stories and the writers from around the world that reinvented and revitalized the fantasy genre after World War II. The stories in this collection represent twenty-two different countries, including Russia, Argentina, Nigeria, Columbia, Pakistan, Turkey, Finland, Sweden, China, the Philippines, and the Czech Republic. Five have never before been translated into English.

From Jorge Luis Borges to Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock to Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett to Stephen King, the full range and glory of the fantastic are on display in these ninety-one stories in which dragons soar, giants stomp, and human children should still think twice about venturing alone into the dark forest.

Completing Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s definitive The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, this companion volume to takes the genre into the twenty-first century with ninety-one astonishing, mind-bending stories.

Why We Want It: It's the Big Book of Modern Fantasy. No, really, this is a massive diverse tome with stories stretching from the end of World War II to 2010. Knowing the editors VanderMeer, this is an extraordinary anthology and it won't hit the same old "best of" stories we've read in a dozen other anthologies. They read with a breadth and a depth that is incredible.

Vaughn, Carrie. The Heirs of Locksley [ Publishing]
Publisher's Description

Carrie Vaughn follows up The Ghosts of Sherwood with the charming, fast-paced The Heirs of Locksley, continuing the story of Robin Hood's children.

"We will hold an archery contest. A simple affair, all in fun, on the tournament grounds. Tomorrow. We will see you there."

The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley—son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian—only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man's life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day's work for the Locksley children...
Why We Want It: I read The Ghosts of Sherwood earlier this year and thought it was absolutely delightful. Vaughn's take on the Robin Hood mythos set years later and centered on the children of Robin and Marion is everything I didn't know that I wanted - and The Heirs of Locksley brings me more. 

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