Friday, October 23, 2020

Microreview: Nucleation by Kimberly Unger

Nucleation by Kimberly Unger interestingly marries a first contact story, a technothriller, and strong speculative elements with twenty minutes into the future virtual reality tech.

“We are live. We are live. We are live.”

Those are the tag words for a VR pilot of a waldo to let their handlers know that the connection is good and they can get down to business. Helen Vectorovich knows them well as one of the best VR pilots in the business. But when a project to construct an extrasolar operation through a micro wormhole kills her NAV (navigator), it seems that the fact that there may be aliens on the other side is the *least* of Helen’s problems.

This is the story of Kimberly Unger’s Nucleation.

First Contact stories are a staple of SF. First contact in space, on alien planets, through portals, via radio and other signals. There are many changes to ring on that concept. I confess that the idea of a VR pilot making first contact via the waldoes they control is one that I had not thought of, and while, like everything, surely someone has thought of this before, it still is stunningly fresh and interesting. The author goes an excellent job with the fog of war that a first contact with the means at hand  that we have here--using telepresence robots to contact what appear to be the alien equivalent of the same. This cunningly allows the aliens to both be inhuman and not rubber forehead aliens and yet at the same time having a common basis that could allow the first contact to be more than an incomprehensible

The tech of the VR is another highlight. The author’s dayjob and long experience with tech really come to the fore here, and the novel is chockablock with it. This is a novel that understands current technology, sees where it is going and presents a future VR experience to the reader that feels like it’s 20 minutes into the future. Waldos in SF are as old as Heinlein. What Unger does here with them is to really link in and key in on the user experience, the user delights, joys and potential hazards of using the technology at very long distances. The robotic future of space travel that we seem to have gotten instead of the manned version imagined by SF writers in the 20th century gets a real examination here. Unger marries this with a 21st century understanding of how corporations and corporate power will be on that frontier and using that tech--where they will cut corners, where they will be forced to innovate, where they will conflict and clash with other corporations. There are notes from the world of Cyberpunk of corporate predation, but it feels more in line with our own present (again, the author’s personal experience really leveraged here)

The novel goes even more speculative in having the waldos going extrasolar (via wormholes), having some kinds of artificial intelligence and envisioning a future where waldoes might be used to mine asteroids and other objects. The author doesn’t spend a lot on this tech itself, just how the wormholes work or how that came to be isn’t the focus of the novel. The premise of extrasolar exploration via robots, with micro wormholes used to put those robots into other systems is the gimmie here. It is how they are used, how the operator (like Helen) controls and operates them, how their handlers monitor those operations is where the meat and potatoes of the tech and its implications lies. I wanted to know more about it, but knowing more about those on a technical level aren’t essential to the core story.

The novel provides a well rounded and very human protagonist in Helen. She’s our sole point of view, which can be a bit awkward at times and the author goes through some pains to make sure she is witness to some important events and there is just the slightest bit of shoehorning. It’s not a real defect of the novel, merely a consequence of that tight on person point of view. The author leverages this in all sorts of ways in putting us in Helen’s head and giving us a perspective for us to try and “figure out” along with Helen just what machinations, aside from the potential alien contact, are going on. She makes for an appealing and immersive character whose triumphs, successes, and boundary pushing all feel very natural and real.

If there is a real weakness, I think that a couple of the elements of the technothriller beats don’t quite come off quite as well as the rest of the narrative. The plot points and the story beats come along great and propel the plot, but whenever the focus shifts too far away from the VR experience or the experience within Far Reaches as a campus, the novel loses a bit of its steam and power. This may well be because the technological experience and grounding of the main line of the novel is so vivid, strong and immersive that when Helen is out of that environment, the novel loses a half step.

Nucleation ends most satisfactorily and with a good solid ending, but there are clear lines for potential sequels and follow ups. First Contact, after all, is just the beginning of a story involving human-alien relations. I am interested in seeing where the author goes with the story from the ending of this novel, and hope the strengths here can be leveraged further on with more of Helen’s story.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for an unique spin on a first contact story
+1 for immersive and detailed SF and tech elements with the virtual reality gear that really shows the strength of the author’s knowledge and lines of invention

Penalties -1 for some of the technothriller elements outside of the core setup not being quite as brilliant as the central elements.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 

Reference: Unger, Kimberly Nucleation [Tachyon, 2020]. 

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

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Microreview [Book]: King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

A story that expertly tackles a number of topical issues and adds a dash of magical realism to create something sublime.

In many ways, humanity is similar – made from the same fabric – yet the times have found ways to knot our fabric up into warring sects. Our nuances override the potential kinship of our shared fundamentals. Some cultures have been raised more so than others to perpetuate racism, homophobia and stoicism, setting up a sort of dam that blocks opportunities for acceptance or cathartic tears. King and the Dragonflies is centered around that fabric, and through a story of love and understanding, tries to unknot our shared cloth, and should make some readers a little more well-rounded than they were before opening the book. It’s marketed as middle grade, but like some of the most special works in the genre, has the potency and perceptiveness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any novel.

King and the Dragonflies follows King, a boy whose older brother Khalid recently passed away. At Khalid’s funeral, King sees a dragonfly, and becomes convinced that his brother has taken the form of said insect. Meanwhile, Sandy, one of his best friends came out as gay to him, and he’s been ostracizing Sandy for fear of going down with him in homophobic humiliation. But there’s something more to the situation – both in terms of his brother’s involvement, and King’s personal feelings to the matter, which I will not spoil.

King is Black, which is vital to the story, as both racism against his people, as well as homophobia carried by a portion of the Black community is explored. The novel presses the paradox that the racism Black people experience and fight against is comparable to the level of hate and narrow-mindedness exhibited by homophobes, and yet Queer and anti-racist movements aren’t always interwoven. That contradictory dichotomy is heightened when Sandy, who is white, meets head-on with the traditionalist Black teachings of King’s family. And it’s heightened even more when Sandy’s family – including the father who is the sheriff of the town - has a besmirched reputation of being blatantly racist.

There’s so much emotional suppression in King and the Dragonflies, in which what characters say often oppose what they think. But the novel takes King and some of the supporting characters on a transformative journey, in which they become comfortable with what they keep hidden, until they no longer feel a need for suppression. If the novel starts out with a obstruction that blocks out translating thoughts into action, each page turned in the book moves the characters progress a little bit forward and gnaws on that obstruction, until a close approximation of liberty is granted.

For those who enter the book with the expectation of a lot of speculative fiction elements, you will be disappointed. The book is very loosely magical realism, with Khalid’s alleged transformation into a dragonfly being the most prominent fantastical element. The story later builds on the premise of time and space being fluid, and without spoiling anything, it ends up eclipsing the dragonfly as the most salient fantastical element and the greatest symbol of King’s grief and development.

The fabric of our world could be so smooth, in which prejudices are flattened out into indistinct fallacies. But instead, our world is a patchwork, with threads frayed off and inaccessible to others. Some patches are rough to the touch and seem to have no way of mending. But there are some pieces that are detached but capable of threading into more fabric. King and the Dragonflies speaks to readers, both of the middle grade and adult age, of how to weave into areas that you were ignorant of. Even if a dragonfly doesn’t grace you with its beauty and land on your fabric, you have comfort knowing that you’re attached to even greater things.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For covering incredibly heavy topics with full-forced depth while being accessible to a middle grade readership.
+1 For insightful and incisive observations and emotional depth.

Negatives: -1 For an ending that ends a little too conveniently and quickly.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!

 Callender, Kacen. King and the Dragonflies [Scholastic Press, 2020]

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Interview: Eliana González Ugarte and Coral Alejandra Moore of Constelación Magazine

If all goes well, come this January a brand new and very unique speculative fiction magazine will be grabbing your attention. Constelación Magazine will be a quarterly magazine that will publish each story in both Spanish and English. Authors are encouraged to submit in either Spanish or English, and the magazine editors will take care of the translation service. The editors expect fifty percent of the fiction they publish to be from authors from the Caribbean, Latin America, and their diaspora.  You can learn more about Constelación Magazine at their website, and at their Kickstarter page. They even have a 0.5 Sample issue you can read!

Constelación Magazine is crowdfunding through Kickstarter, and as of the drafting of this post, they are past the 50% funding marker.  As soon as I heard about Constelación Magazine, I reached out to the co-editors Coral Alejandra Moore and Eliana González Ugarte to see if I could interview them about their new project. They kindly looked past all my over-excited exclamation marks and smiley faces in my messages.

Coral Alejandra Moore

Coral Alejandra Moore's fiction has been published by Diabolical Plots, Zombies Needs  Brains, and Secrets of the Goat People.  She is the author interviewer at Lightspeed Magazine, a submissions reader at Uncanny Magazine, and she is the Social Media Manager for The Dream Foundry. Eliana González Ugarte resides in Paraguay, where she has won more than 10 short story awards. In 2017 she co-wrote the screenplay for Alas de Gloria, an animated film about the Chaco War that is currently in production. Under her pen name, Morgan Díaz, she writes Litrpg novels in the Vindication 2.0 series.  

Eliana González Ugarte

Why am I so excited for this magazine? Oh, so many reasons! The authors won't be responsible for finding a translator, they can submit in Spanish or English, whichever language they are most comfortable with. And for me, personally, there is something special about seeing a story in another language.  The shapes of the sounds are different, the details of the patterns are different. Sure, sure, Samovar Magazine does this, and they do it beautifully. But having more magazines that do this? That's even better.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: I am so excited for Constelación Magazine! When and how, and why did you decide to make this magazine a reality?

Coral Alejandra Moore: The entire process of building Constelación from the idea to what you can see on the website and social media now was really organic. Eliana and I met at a virtual convention called Flights of Foundry in May of this year, and a few weeks later we met again at the Nebulas convention. We both happened to be a in a zoom room where John Picacio and Mary Robinette Kowal started talking about Spanish language speculative fiction because of Eliana's experience with it, and that got the hamsters in my brain turning. A few emails, and Twitter DMs later, Eliana and I were already moving forward at warp speed, and we really haven't stopped since then. Lots of people got quarantine puppies during the pandemic, but we got a quarantine magazine!

NOAF: What makes Constelación Magazine different from other speculative fiction magazines out there?

Eliana González Ugarte: We take stories in both English and Spanish! One of our goals is to publish more Latin American and Caribbean authors who may not be able to submit their stories directly in English, or they’d have to first pay someone to translate it for them in order to be able to submit. 


NOAF: The first year of the magazine will be funded through Kickstarter. Crowdfunding always looks so easy, but in reality it can be gut wrenching. Why did you decide to go the crowd funding route?

CAM: Of everything we talked about, that was actually the point that it took us the most time to decide. And even after we decided we were going to do a Kickstarter, we went back and forth several times about the amount we'd try to raise. In the end, we decided to do a Kickstarter and start at a higher goal because the other options left us making a product that would have been nice, but wouldn't have been exactly what we wanted. We decided to reach for the stars.

It is a little nerve-racking, but it's fun too. We've gotten to talk to a lot of people we might not have otherwise met while doing this fundraiser. We've been able to work with artisans to get some of our rewards which we're both really excited about.

NOAF: For Kickstarter backers, what are some of the backer rewards? And what's with the Capybara?

CAM: We have so many great rewards and you can see them all here! Hand-carved silver filigree ball-point pens made in Paraguay, fountain pens made of woods native to Puerto Rico, and speculative fiction, both digital and print, in three different languages, just to name a few.

The capybaras? Why, have you seen some? :) Okay, well, we thought we needed something cute to make into swag for our Kickstarter because who doesn't love cute swag, right? And Eliana had made some watercolor nebula capybaras a few years ago for something else, and the idea that became Tobias, our 2021 mascot, evolved out of that. Now we have watercolor constellation capybaras in a rainbow of colors and we may never be able to feed them all, but at least they are good for snuggling! 


NOAF: Your first issue is scheduled to go out in January, and the Kickstarter ends on November 1st. That doesn't give you a lot of time to get everything together for that first issue. What all is already completed for the first issue? What yet needs to be accomplished?

CAM: No, it really doesn't give us a lot of time, but we've got a really good team of people put together for the first issue, and we think we can get it all done. We have a cover from John Picacio on the way that we should unveil in the next couple of weeks. We plan to have an original story by Malka Older and a reprint from Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Once we pick out our stories from the submissions pile, we need to translate everything, then do the ebook formatting, then put them up on the website, and that's pretty much it. No problem! *faints*

NOAF: Are your story submissions open? If someone wants to submit a story to Constelación Magazine, what's the process?

CAM: We're opening to the public for submissions for our first issue on October 15th (which it is today as I'm writing this but is most definitely in the past now as you are reading this--time travel is funny!) for two weeks. We'll open again on December 15th for our second issue. All of the details about our issue themes are on our submissions page: There's also a link there to our Moksha page, where writers should submit their stories.

NOAF: Are you hiring translators? If someone wants to do translation work for you, how should they get in touch with you?

EGU: What we’re doing is pairing translators with stories. A lot of great translators have reached out to us by email or social media, and we’ve invited them all to our Discord so they can stay on top of our process. When we decide on the stories we’ll be publishing, we’ll contact the ones we feel will be a good match for that particular work, based on their previous experience and/or interests. Anyone interested in helping can email us at

NOAF: You're about to launch a SFWA qualifying Spanish / English entirely bilingual speculative fiction magazine. How's it feel? (are you excited? Nervous? Terrified? bouncing off the walls?)

EGU: It’s a little of all three and bounces back and forth. Constelación is our baby, and just like new parents, we’re still learning how to nurture it so it becomes the vision we’re aspiring for. For the both of us, working on such an amazing project during such a hard year has been a lifeline. When you pour your heart out working towards something you love, life becomes immeasurably easier to deal with!

NOAF: Thank you so much! If you can't tell, I'm really excited for Constelación Magazine!

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.  

Microreview [book]: My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

What if Stranger Things and The Exorcist had a child? A book child. 

Grady Hendrix is probably best known for Paperbacks from Hell, a nonfiction tribute to the outlandish and fun world of horror novels in the 1970s and 1980s. But he's also an accomplished horror novelist in his own right. My Best Friend's Exorcism is, in essence, Hendrix's attempt to write his own "paperback from hell" - an endeavor you might expect to go the full hipster route, complete with all the winks, nudges and avalanche of pop culture references that weigh down similar exercises, like Ernest Cline's Armada. Credit Hendrix for instead threading the needle, and producing a novel that is both loving paean to the paperbacks of yesteryear and a legitimate horror novel with a solid emotional core. 

My Best Friend's Exorcism tells the story of Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang, teenagers and best friends in late 1980s Charleston, SC. Both attend a prestigious private school, but whereas Gretchen comes from a wealthy family with a sought-after address, Abby is a latchkey kid on scholarship. In their review, the AV Club offers this succinct synopsis of the plot:

Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang are entering their sophomore year of high school, part of a four-girl clique both popular and academically successful. Abby and Gretchen have been besties since grade school, possessing the kind of near-telepathic communication and her-before-me selflessness that characterizes the most intimate friendships. So naturally, Abby is the first to notice when Gretchen returns—after disappearing for the night during a sleepover—a little… different. Soon, she barely recognizes her oldest friend, as Gretchen begins executing progressively more malicious schemes that rain down disaster upon everyone in her orbit. Surely, Abby reasons, this can’t be the work of her friend. Someone or some thing has taken hold, and is twisting her, forming her into someone fearsome and new. After a school assembly visit from a bodybuilding troop of Christian brothers, Abby suspects her worst fear might be true: The devil has taken her best friend.

This is not a YA novel, though it has a certain YA sensibility. At its core, My Best Friend's Exorcism is a novel about friendship, and more specifically, about the kinds of friendship you only make when you're young, still forming as a person and so struggling to make sense of the world and your place in it. It feels emotionally authentic, which is not something I take for granted with genre fiction. Honestly it's pretty rare for me to feel to wholly invested in a genre novel's characters when you discount the plot and setting. But I'd honestly read this novel about Abby and Gretchen and their lives even if it didn't have anything to do with demonic possession. 

Of course it is also a novel about demonic possession, and it's here that Hendrix really threads that needle between serious horror and campy retro fun. The story of Gretchen's possession is unnerving, unsettling and at times pretty shocking - but it's also peppered with elements of humor, especially when the '80s-tastic exorcist comes into play. The result isn't exactly funny and isn't exactly scary, but by blending the two, he does capture the feel and thrill of those old paperbacks. 

It's worth noting that this isn't a gory book - it certainly has its moments but, in the aggregate, it's pretty low on the gush and splatter. Instead it burns slow, amping up the creep factor and occasionally venturing into the macabre. A lot is left to the imagination, which as often is the case, ends up in a darker place than the book itself.

Next comes the question of who the book is for, and I imagine some people will bounce of the retro '80s concept. That, in turn, begs the question: could someone less invested in '80s nostalgia enjoy the book as much as I did? I think so. You will get more mileage out of the book if you've also sung the wrong words to "Against All Odds," but the story and emotional core are strong enough that your enjoyment doesn't hinge on it. And this is what sets My Best Friend's Exorcism apart from many other entries into the '70s and '80s nostalgia cottage industry - the nostalgia is pretty well backgrounded.

There are also lots of little details I appreciated as well, many of which suggest things but don't outright say them. For example, we know Abby's family is struggling financially but she attends an elite school on scholarship - we get hints throughout the novel that her family has fallen on hard times, and *might* have once been prominent in the community, but it's never stated outright. It may not be true at all. I always like this kind of approach, the kind that leaves questions to be answered by your imagination. 

Bottom line, this is a fun book that delivers mood, thrill and more than its share of heart. It's also hard to put down, and leaves enough questions unanswered that I'm already contemplating a re-read. One complaint: it's too short. I would happily have spent another one or two hundred pages with Abby and Gretchen. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for this is how you do nostalgic art; +1 for copious references to Phil Collins

Penalties: -1 for it's too short

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


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist by Lola Robles

: Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist

Location: Author lives in Spain, story takes place on another planet

Package Type: novella

Itinerary:  When linguist Rachel Monteverde is sent to the planet Aanuk to document the languages spoken there, she finds a paradise covered in lush, vibrant, beautiful forests and gorgeous beaches, friendly people, and a natural color palette that is nearly overwhelming.  The friendly Aanukiens had been a nomadic people, but now some of them live in a small central village, hosting caravans, traders, and visitors such as Rachel. 

Shortly after arriving, Rachel realizes that the year she's been given is no where near enough time to complete the project. She finds the Aanukien way of life to be idyllic, and she's fascinated by the vibrancy of their language - so many completely different words for blue or red or yellow or orange, so many completely different and complicated metaphors. And yet no words for corruption or lying, no beating around the bush, whatever the Aanukiens are going to say to you, they're going to be direct about it. And their poetry! How they describe compassion and longing and grief!  The scarlet forest dims in comparison to the Aanukien poetry! I'm not a poetry person, and the prose poem about compassion brought tears to my eyes.

But documenting the language of the Aanukiens is only half of Rachel's mission. She was sent to Aanuk to also learn about the Fihdia, a tribe who lives in the caves by the ocean.  Everytime she asks her hosts to take her to meet the Fihdia, the conversation abruptly ends.  Surrounded by visual stimulus, the Aanukiens struggle to comprehend the lives of the Fihdia, who are all genetically blind. When Rachel does finally get to meet with the Fihdia, will they teach her their secret language? Will it cost her the friendships she's already made?

My only complaint is that I wish this book was twice as long. The lead-up to the end feels rushed, I feel like the author had more to say. Or maybe it's just that I wasn't ready for the story to end. 
Travel Log: If, like me, you love language, and people talking about language, and people guessing about how and why languages and metaphors evolved the way they did, and how your environment can shape your language and your language can shape how you think, this is the novella for you.  If you're looking for weird aliens or space battles or intrigue and betrayal, thank you and please exit stage left. 

Monteverde is a very quiet book. It's very pastoral and poetic. Once Rachel meets the Fihdia, there is this whole subtle unspoken conversation about how your immediate life experience shapes how your community uses metaphors, and how your culture will, over time, shape your language to meet what you need. 

Only on the 3rd read through, did I pay close enough attention to the "About the Author," to learn that Lola Robles has low vision, which makes we wonder how much of herself did she put into the Fihdia? She herself may not be able to see 30 different shades of light blue, but that lack doesn't take away from the vibrancy of her life. 
Reading stories like this make me want to binge the podcast Lexicon Valley. 


The Adventure:   4.5/5
The Scenery:   4.5/5
NerdTrip Rating: 9/10 

Follow author Lola Robles Moreno here and translator Lawrence Schimel here. - ed.

[Note: this dossier has been adapted from an earlier review.]
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.  

Thursday, October 15, 2020

6 Books with Ausma Zehanat Khan

 Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women in North America. She is also the award-winning author of The Unquiet Dead and The Bloodprint, the first book in The Khorasan Archives. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

Today she shares her Six Books With Us

1. What book are you currently reading? 

I read a few at a time, so I’m reading S. A. Chakraborty’s The Empire of Gold, the conclusion to her incredibly accomplished fantasy trilogy. I love the world she’s conjured up, the complexity of the magic, and also that it’s just such a great adventure with these unforgettable characters—funny and heart-wrenching at the same time. I’ve also begun R. F. Kuang’s The Dragon Republic, though I haven’t recovered from The Poppy War, which was about an orphan girl turned shamanic phoenix who wields devastating power. This series is turning me inside out, which is the highest praise I can give. And I’m also reading Kona Winds by Scott Kikkawa, a fascinating crime novel set in Honolulu featuring a Japanese American homicide detective. The voice and sense of place are so good!

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about? 

Midnight Doorways: Fables From Pakistan by Usman T. Malik. I just recently read this collection of short stories/novellas and I couldn’t sleep for a week. It’s fantasy/horror, set in Pakistan, and Malik has imagined these worlds that are so familiar to me, yet also so intriguingly jarring and distorted. His prose is gorgeous, surprising, terrifying, and his themes are so deep—one story is a tribute to the students killed in a terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, which is my father’s hometown. Reading these stories I felt at home, but also completely hollowed out—such is Malik’s power. I also can’t wait for Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin. This is romance in the You’ve Got Mail vein, but it’s set in a multicultural city and focuses on themes of Islamophobia. It’s sweet, hilarious and deeply moving. It’s one of those books that makes you feel seen, while helping you to remember what the good fight is all about.

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

My answer to this is usually any book in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series, but this time I’m going to say A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This highly praised novel is about Russia’s abuses in Chechnya in the late 1990s, and when I first read it a few years ago, it completely broke my heart—it just made me feel so much. It’s not graphic but it doesn’t gloss over suffering and cruelty either, pierced by this moment of a religious ritual of astonishing beauty—one silent, perfect thing in the lives of a persecuted people that war criminals couldn’t steal. So I have to prepare myself to read this book again because of how painful it is, yet I’ve never forgotten the beauty and power of Anthony Marra’s storytelling.

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

My answer to this doesn’t quite fit the question but I’m going to charge ahead anyhow. I’ll say Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi. This is a fictional memoir describing the great Moroccan feminist icon’s childhood lived among women. I first read it when I was in my early twenties, and at that time it was just a gorgeous study of what life was like for women and girls in another place, another time, and within another culture. Since then, I’ve re-read it several times, and now I see how deeply rooted its feminist themes are—how much it has to say about women in public space, about women’s independence in conservative, patriarchal societies much like the one I come from, in terms of my Pakistani Pathan/Pashtun history and identity. So I always felt that sense of connection with this book because Mernissi’s world was very similar to the one my mother grew up in, but I didn’t fully appreciate the strength and persuasiveness of Mernissi’s arguments about women’s freedom and autonomy. Now I understand Dreams of Trespass so much better.

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

It has to be the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert. I read it as a young teen and it set fire to my imagination. I loved it immediately because I recognized its heavy reliance on the Arabic language, and on Islamic history and mythology. It felt to me like Herbert had treated that history with respect—that he’d imbued it with the majesty and beauty that should be its due. As this brown kid growing up on the Canadian prairies I was so taken with the idea that there was this book out there in the world for me when I’d never seen any aspect of my identity on the page before. So the magic for me began early. I’ve re-read Dune more than any other book I own, I know its dialogue inside out, and I’ve just grown to love it more as an adult. There’s so much to it: the worldbuilding, the characterizations, the story. The use of the Voice in Dune and the role of the sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit was definitely an influence on how I conceived of my Khorasan Archives fantasy series, but also the lesson that readers should be deeply invested in your characters, because I cared so much about Paul’s fate, and I adored Lady Jessica, Gurney Halleck, Stilgar and the Duke. 

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

My latest book is called The Bladebone, and it’s the conclusion of my Khorasan Archives epic fantasy series. My lead characters, Arian and Sinnia, are gifted warrior-scholars imbued with the powerful oral magic of the Claim, and in The Bladebone, they wage a final battle to bring down the ruthless patriarchy of the One-Eyed Preacher. The Preacher has subjugated women in the world of Khorasan, and now Arian and Sinnia confront his powerful sorcery in a final battle. If you’re as fascinated by the Silk Road as I am, and if you love fantasy with feminist themes, this may be the book for you.

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

Microreview [Book]: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner

 A fluid sci-fi mystery that offers moments of brilliances for both the future of AI and humanity.

Life is changeable and elastic for the lucky ones. Obstructions can be molded for their benefit. Laws are twisted into an effigy of what they once were, but it doesn’t matter to those in power, as long as they can reap more benefits from it. Even planets and moons that have a different calendar than ours will bend before the dominant's conquest, as they find ways to circumvent things, developing artificial lights to create the exact length of an Earth day. An Unnatural Life tackles the issues and contradictions of colonizers by facing them with those elements, along with a new threat: artificial intelligence.

A murder has been committed on Europa, allegedly by a rogue AI named 812-3 against a human. Aiya, a human and lawyer is asked by the AI for an appeal, claiming he’s (Aiya identifies the AI as male) not guilty. Unfortunately, there are no laws for AIs on Europa, so when Aiya takes the case, she forges a precedent that could not only acquit 812-3 but leave a long and lasting impact for all AIs on Europa. Things become heated, as it becomes increasingly clear that most humans deem artificial intelligence as lesser beings and thus deserving of the brunt force of the law. That's just one of the ways on Europa that AIs live An Unnatural Life.

While the power structure’s absorption and consolidation of norms is the most prominent theme in the novella, the book also takes a good luck at fidelity, whether it be romantic or otherwise. There is a forbidden romance in the story, and without spoiling anything, it echoes how the powerful, when in a relationship with a less advantaged person, is purged of any guilt when things go awry, as all the ire is targeted toward their partner. As for the less romantic fidelity: all people on Europa must be paired with a partner--the partnership doesn't have to be romantic. Aiya is paired with Pari, a woman whose friendly tie with Aiya becomes increasingly frayed while Aiya receives more blowback for building and bolstering AI rights. I found this relationship to be the one of the most engaging, as the rapport is adeptly established early on, making the dissolution of it more painful. But the most engaging dynamic is the eccentric voice of 812-3 bouncing off the more conventionally logical Aiya—it’s the crux of the novella and the story is better for it.

Unfortunately, those winning character dynamics don’t extend to Aiya’s interactions with tertiary characters. That’s partly because their conversations are rushed as quickly as the human’s repulsed reaction against societal cracks, but also because I found many characters to be underdeveloped. Very quickly, the tertiary characters are established to have one characteristic, and everything they say afterwards is in line with that single characteristic, without ever expanding in breadth.

But my biggest gripe with An Unnatural Life is that it misses opportunities that prevent it from breaking out into something inventive. It lays the groundwork for showcasing an original bent on the injustices inflicted on AI as a proxy for injustices inflicted on human minorities, but it fails to extend as far as it could be. Its unfulfilled achievements are like a reaching arm that tires before it fulfills its grasp. Added worldbuilding and character development would’ve turned a good story into something truly special.

An Unnatural Life has a lot of pre-established moldings of the genre: subjugated AIs, a sci-fi courtroom drama, cybernetic organisms mirroring minorities—but there are moments of brilliant originality. Moments when it stretches out of its molding and strives to be something greater. By the end of the novella, it’s fair to say that humans should show common decency to all beings and give them more space to explore and develop individuality that’s relevant to their culture and not be part of a conglomeration of their dominance. Trapping them in norms when they should expand into idiosyncrasies is a shackle that robs them of further potential and vivacity. The same outlook could be attributed to the growth of this story.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 For covering heavy topics with incredibly clear prose.

Negatives: -1 For an ending that doesn’t live up to the engaging buildup.
-1 For not having enough worldbuilding to fully immerse you into the story.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!

Wagner, Erin K. An Unnatural Life [Tordotcom, 2020]


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Microreview [book]: Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

A thought-provoking, pedal-to-the-metal space opera with characters to root for.

Eris,a fierce soldier for the Novantae resistance to the vast and oppressive interstellar Tholosian Empire, has a secret that only the higher ups in the resistance know: she once had a very different life. Once she was Discordia, the putative Heir to the Empire, a woman who became as bloody handed and bloody minded as her brothers in the competition to be her father’s successor. She left that to join the resistance, and is teamed up with Cloelia, who doesn’t trust Eris for pretty solid reasons even above and beyond her prior life. Eris and Clo’s latest mission brings their attention to three individuals fleeing the Empire--and a plot that could kill millions on both sides of a long running war. 

The story of Eris, Clo, and the other members of the resistance facing off against the Empire’s dread plan is the heart of the story of Elizabeth May and Laura Lam’s Seven Devils.

Let’s start with the main question: Does the novel smash the Patriarchy? Oh yes, yes it does. The novel has lots to say about autonomy, the rights of women, freedom, authority and male systems of control. It does this on a character level, showing how Eris/Discordia twisted herself into the system to produce an Heir, conforming to the expectations of her father. We also see Rhea, whose sexuality and sexual nature were used and abused by her captor, and Ariadne, who until recently had no real autonomy of any kind. The Empire is a masculine and male power structure and that alone makes it worth taking on. It is not exclusively that, however: it is a controlling, grasping entity that's clearly depicted as an overwhelming force of oppression and control. This is especially shown with the Oracle, a supercomputer AI system of controlling soldiers and even ordinary citizens in a very oppressive fashion. 

The novel is full of classical and ancient historical allusions. The bit about Eris once being Princess Discordia works even more when you know what Eris was Goddess of. The Novontae were a tribe of Picts who clashed with the Roman Empire, mentioned in the Geography of Ptolemy. Tholosian comes from Tholos, a type of central plaza building in the Greek and Roman world. Clo (Cloelia) is named for an legendary woman from early (age of Kings) Roman history. And on and on. You can have a lot of fun of “who or what is this named for?”. The fact that the authors didn’t simply do a riff of classical names and instead have chosen them very carefully to suit just makes it all the better. 

The novel’s structure enhances and works well with the themes and the plot. The points of view are mainly Clo and Eris, with a few POVs from Rhea, Ariadne and the third of the Refugees, the warrior Nyx. This variety of points of view gives an excellent rounded approach to all of these characters and how they work, but the secret sauce that the authors bring are the flashbacks. Thematically or plotwise tied to the present day action, again and again the novel will switch to a point of view sometime in the past. These points of view give all of the characters a chance to be seen before the events, and give context to the events in the present day. It’s a way to establish character, provide clarity for the present, and thus provide growth.

The meatiest of these flashbacks is Eris/Discordia, since there is a question that the novel only really answers toward the end: why would the Heir to the Empire, a bloody handed woman playing the game of the patriarchy extremely well, turn against the Empire, and how? The how and the why of this heel-face turn is the central character question, and maybe the central question and theme of the novel. Grokking Eris' story, her pain, her power, and her journey is the key, I think, to understanding just what this book is doing. 

I loved the variety of Seven Devils in terms of skills, knowledge, weaknesses, strengths, and how their relationships around each other weave, grow, and change. Discordia/Eris is the A-class star in this firmament, but how could I not feel for Ariadne, the cinnamon roll technical genius prisoner living all of her life, alone? Or Rhea, trapped as a sexual plaything seeking her freedom. Or Clo, a scrappy mechanic pilot with a mechanical leg who will just not stop trying to do the right thing. There is a character here for everyone, and there are also tentative moves toward a romance between two of them, showing a light of hope and joy in a dark and turbulent narrative.

To that point, the novel hits the pedal early and hard - with an opening sequence that reminds me of the Black Widow - and only pauses for breath when necessary. This is a novel with a lot of action and adventure beats; the downtime elements are there to let a reader recover just enough to be ready for the next bit. The aforementioned use of flashbacks allows the authors to pair an action sequence with a quiet moment, and to vary it as to when and where that occurs in the narrative. It’s hopeless to try and figure out where one author or the other may have written a passage, it is smooth gear shifting like in a well tuned racing car. I was never bored. In fact sometimes I had to slow down my reading because it can be an overwhelming rush to engage with this book. 

About the only thing I didn’t like, because it niggled at me all the time, was that there was a tad too much handwavium of some of the technology. The technology of a novel like this is firmly Not the Point, and most readers, I think, are not going to care, but I found myself too often wondering about how some of the technology actually works at an interstellar, and nearly intergalactic scale (and that is of a piece of the handwavium: a spiral arm, to say nothing of whole galaxies, really is huge, larger than what this novel fees like). 

The novel is in many ways a pilot double-length episode of a TV series that sets up the characters, gives them an imminent and big problem and sets up the board for many future adventures; it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that the Empire is not toppled in this book. The plotting is done well enough that I didn’t feel cheated that there is potentially much more to come from the titular Seven Devils. They are, in a real way, only getting started by the end of the book. With the team set up for more striking at the heart of patriarchal empire, I definitely want to see more from Lam and May in future books.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a strong set of central characters with stories, arcs, passions and tensions that really come alive even on this huge canvas; +1 for riveting action and adventure beats that keep the pages turning. 

Penalties: -1 Some discordant elements of the worldbuilding niggled at me.

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

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

Reference: Lam, Laura and May, Elizabeth. Seven Devils [DAW, 2020]

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

A grim but effective tale of interplanetary conflict and societal loyalties

Content note: Sexual Slavery, references to rape and sexual abuse

The First Sister opens on a solar system at war between the Icarii, humans who live on Mercury and Venus and have harnessed advanced technology based on a mineral that's only found there, and the Geans, who claim Earth and Mars and rely on scavenged tech and a radicalised religious population to maintain their own strength. With poverty and inequality rife in the societies of both sides, two very different individuals are thrown into the war for their own survival, and both have their already fragile loyalties tested as they start to uncover the reality behind the structures that govern their cultures.

The first of these characters is the titular First Sister, who serves on a ship as part of the Gean's religious order, and is effectively a comfort woman for the soldiers who use her to confess their sins and are then entitled to her body. The Sisters undergo an ambiguous procedure which removes the memory of their names, and prevents them from being able to speak; even the title "First Sister" is a transient one, a position which she has won by ingratiating herself with the captain of her ship; if she loses the position, the protagonist would go back to being completely nameless. Because of her rank,  First Sister has made herself exclusively available to the Captain, winning herself a reprieve from sexual assault from the entire crew, but at the opening of the book her former Captain leaves, breaking his promise to take her home with him, and she is forced to try and build a relationship with the unorthodox new captain, Saito Ren. It should be noted that while the threat of rape hangs over First Sister due to her position, and she euphemistically mentions a couple of past assaults, there are no depictions of rape or anything more than brief unwanted physical contact during the story's present.  There also aren't any instances where "safe" characters suddenly turn on her for shock value. Lewis does an effective job building up the horror of the Sisterhood and what they are expected to do without having to resort to the shock value of actually depicting rape, and I'm grateful to the book for treading that line so effectively.

Providing the view from the Icarii side is Lito Sol Lucius, a man from a poor family on the Venusian city of Cytherea who has risen to become a duelist, training at an elite academy to become one of the Icarii's Special Forces. All Icarii soldiers are given neural implants and in the case of the duelists, they are paired with another soldier, one becoming a "rapier" and the other a "dagger", both playing slightly different roles in their missions with the rapier given tactical command. Lito has recently lost the dagger he was paired with, Hiro Val Akira, after a mission on the contested asteroid Ceres; now it turns out that Hiro is not dead but that they may have defected from the Icarii, and Lito is given a new partner and charged with tracking them down. Interspersed with Lito and the First Sister's chapters are "recordings" which it quickly becomes apparent are from Hiro's point of view, as they recollect the events that led to their disappearance, as well as their own family history as child of the dynasty which created the implants and much of the other technology that makes Icarii society function.

The First Sister sets up a grim world, where at least for the first few chapters its hard for us to think beyond the characters' survival. This is particularly true for First Sister, whose distress at being abandoned and put at risk of losing her tenuous sense of security is incredibly hard to read. However, as the characters start to get a little more comfortable in their circumstances and find the space to start questioning broader elements of their situations, things start to get juicy very quickly. The relationship between First Sister and Saito Ren, while uncomfortable in some of its romantic elements (this isn't a romance plotline, just to be clear, and those feelings seem to be largely one-sided), sets up some really interesting questions about Ren's history and current views; equally intriguing are the glimpses we get of the Sisterhood, and the motivations of the Aunt on the ship who attempts to use First Sister to gain information on the captain. As Lito is less confined, it is through him that we see some of the wider world of The First Sister, including Ceres - which has recently changed hands from Icarii to Gean control - and the Asters, a culture of humans who have undergone extensive genetic modification to live in the less habitable parts of space, and are now considered a separate species and constantly discriminated against in Icarii society. Both characters' positioning is effective in showing the war crimes and oppresiveness of their respective societies, from the horrors of the Icarii neural implant process, the threats made against Lito's families, and the treatment of the Asters, to the normalisation of sexual slavery in Gean religion and the secretive, misogynistic nature of the power structures behind it.

After an uncertain start, I was intrigued enough by the character-driven mysteries of The First Sister that it kept me reading very effectively. Being the first book in a series, the climax of this novel answers some questions, but it leaves the character arcs hanging to some extent, particularly when it comes to a reveal around one specific character which upends a lot of what we thought about them throughout the book. In a way, both First Sister and Lito achieve some of their initial goals, only to have the realities of the world they live in make those goals far more complicated than they first thought. It's an odd climax in some ways - that character reveal mentioned above didn't do much for me at all - but satisfying enough for a series opener even while I might have preferred some more closure for the amount of emotional turmoil some aspects of this story put me through. That's probably me expecting too much from grimdark adventures though - and if you go into this expecting that to be the case, I think you'll enjoy it just fine.

Having noted above that I think The First Sister deals sensitively with the sexual violence inherent in its premise, I was much more disappointed with its depiction of disability, which comes across as much less thought through. One of the defining characteristics of the Sisters is that they can't speak, due to the mysterious operation conducted on them when they enter the sisterhood. They have a sign language, but knowledge of this is restricted to the sisters themselves and their Aunts, and writing is considered taboo, meaning that there is no way for First Sister and her kin to communicate with the soldiers around her. This inability to communicate freely with the sisters she doesn't think she can trust and the Aunt who is actively putting her into a dangerous situation is an effective part of the book - but it's done in a way that minimises the role of sign languages as complete, useful languages in their own right. There's nothing to suggest that the sign language that the Sisters use is incomplete or limited in vocabulary, but even in the opening chapter First Sister laments that it's their "only" language. More frustratingly, a late plot point involves some sisters regaining the ability to talk, and these characters immediately express relief and jump to using spoken communication even though they already had the ability to sign and mutually understand each other. What starts out as a rather on-the-nose symbol of the Sisters' powerlessness becomes tied up in an assumption that sign languages are an inherently lesser form of communication, and that's an inaccurate and deeply unfortunate portrayal given the number of people who use sign languages either exclusively or alongside verbal communication and most certainly aren't "voiceless" in any metaphorical sense.

That aside, The First Sister is a book that's highly effective in telling the story it wants to tell - and it's a story that I found myself drawn into despite not initially being convinced by its grimness. While I'm reserving my full judgement to see how things play out in later books, this is a story that's got a lot of interesting places it could go and, linguistic ableism aside, I'm intrigued to see what First Sister, Lito and their friends get up to next. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Feels a lot of care went into sensitively writing the sexual slavery aspects

Penalties: -1 An ending reveal that didn't really do it for me; -1 Throws sign languages under the bus for the sake of its metaphor around "voicelessness"

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy

Reference: Lewis, Linden A. The First Sister [Hodder and Staughton/Skybound Books, 2020]

Monday, October 12, 2020

Nerds on Tour: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour, dir. (2014, film)


Location: Iran (Persia)

Package Type: Film

Itinerary: Here in Bad City, there's a ditch where the town dumps its dead. That should tell you a lot about Bad City. Arash lives in Bad City, but he's a good dude. In a city full of drug dealers and worse, Arash works hard, and has worked for years to save up in order to buy a classic car. His pride and joy.

Arash also takes care of his widower father, who is addicted to heroin. It feels like a pain-pills-gave-way-to-worse situation. But Arash's father, Hossein, is nevertheless in deep to a drug dealer, who takes Arash's car as partial payment. This dealer guy sucks a lot. So none of us feel too bad when he picks up an innocent-looking Girl, tries to convince her to become a prostitute, but instead she grows fangs and murders the dealer for his blood. Not a huge loss, and when Arash comes by to try to get his car back and finds the dealer dead and mutilated, it's the easiest thing in the world to take his money, and his unsold drugs, and dump his body in the ditch where these things go.

Turns out, Arash isn't a great drug dealer! He tries to offload some of his stuff at the club, but a pretty girl instead convinces him to ingest some of it himself. So Arash gets blitzed. Stumbling around, lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, dressed in a Dracula costume, Arash comes upon The Girl. An actual vampire. He assures her that he is not to be feared. It's only a costume. He is harmless and charming, so she takes him home.

That's where things get more complicated, and where they begin to unravel.

Travel Log: Let the Right One In is the character-driven, off-the-beaten-path vampire movie par excellence, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night owes a lot to that earlier, Swedish film. While the plot points and age-ranges differ, the vibe is decidedly similar. 
And in a low-budget film with only a small number of characters, it must be said, it's pretty easy to predict the ways in which these few characters might intersect. That doesn't take away, however, from the charm of this film. 
For a movie where people have their limbs bitten off, bodies are routinely dumped in ravines, and drug addicts are used as prey, it's a super-charming adventure! Throughout, the audience knows more than the characters, so one of the most interesting balancing acts the movie pulls off is the shifting of perspective between Arash and The Girl. The ways in which they come to see each other, and to interpret one another, are the areas in which this movie really shines.
It was a little disappointing to learn that, though the film was written and directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour and billed as "the first Iranian vampire movie," it was actually shot in California. It's set in a fictitious Iranian city, though, and the actors all speak Persian. The Iranian life it depicts is one of nightclubs, music, drugs, prostitution, and wealth disparity. It's probably a vision of Iran that many Westerners wouldn't expect, and a depiction that would make it dangerous, if not impossible, to actually shoot the movie in Iran. Hence, the California stand-in. Walking into this sphere of decadent nightlife, wearing a traditional chador covering, The Girl presents as something very different from what she really is. She looks like a modest, possibly devout individual, when in fact she is the most powerful — and depending on your definition, unholy — being in the film. It's a clever redirect that plays on cultural codes and expectations. 
Also, it must be noted that the movie has an all-time great movie cat, and the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.  


The Adventure: 4/5
The Scenery: 4/5.
NerdTrip 8/10

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather since 2012, fan of vampire movies since the local channel showed that blue-tinted print of Dracula one Halloween, lo these many years ago.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Microreview [book]: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

The author’s talents for complicated space opera with interesting characters translates wonderfully into secondary world fantasy beyond the Great Wall of Europe.

Gyen Jebi has a problem. In their occupied homeland, an artist like themselves has a hard time finding a job or steady work and not being dependent on his sister. Dire circumstances causes them to go to the conquerors, the Razanei, for potential employment. Jebi (or Tsennan, as they also have obtained a Razanei name). A series of events lands them in the Ministry of Armor, painting symbols on that control and animate an automata dragon. As they work at his new job, Jebi finds themselves in conflict with his sister, his heart, his conquerors, and his desires to try and free Arazi, the aforementioned  dragon.

These complicated threads of character and story are central to Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant.

The story runs and runs cleanly and excellently on the heart and soul of the characters and how they interact and collide with each other. Jebi/Tsennan is our center and our point of view character throughout the novel, giving us a newbie-perspective to the world of the Ministry of Armor as well as being a plot driver when they (Jebi uses they/them pronouns) decide to take drastic action. Jebi’s sister Bongsunga is definitely dreaming of the Hwagugin reasserting their control over their land (which has been named Administrative Territory 14 under the Razanei rule) . Hafanden, deputy minister of Armor, and really the person with the “Boots on the ground” in Hwagugin, has dreams of making the automata dragon, Arazi, work again after the previous person in Jebi’s position failed...although how is not immediately clear to Jebi. There seems to be a mystery about that. And then there is the Prime duelist for Armor, Vei, who winds up having a complicated relationship with Jebi, and has unclear ties to Bongsunga and Hafanden as well. It’s a rich brew for drama and character that the author works masterfully into the narrative, plot, and world.

The world that Lee presents is a secondary fantasy world that is as rich and interesting as the Machineries of Empire. It’s a realm much like our own Korea, with the Razanei standing in for Japan. The worldbuilding notes, contexts and worldbuilding notes, from the use of language, positioning, family structure, art and culture definitely all reinforce that and the novel sits proudly in the tradition of authors like RF Kuang and Fonda Lee in imagining a fantasy world firmly grounded in East Asia as its cultural base in a way that much fantasy has Western assumptions and baselines. Using early modern Korea as the base of their world (in addition to the aforementioned dragon, there are mentions of things like tanks) allows the author to investigate and interrogate a lot of colonial themes and ideas. Not only is the Razanei imperial aggression explored, but in the same vein as the words of Kuang and Lee, it is the “west” that is distant, mysterious, threatening and meddlesome. These three authors now, and other upcoming authors, are using the experience of Western imperialism as an inversion of the “mysterious and inscrutable east” trope that unfortunately ruins a lot of fantasy fiction that has an East at all. It’s more than high time that some of the legacies of 19th and 20th century narratives in terms of the West’s cultural and physical imperium over other parts of the world are addressed and used in fantasy fiction in a nuanced and interesting way, and the author rises to that challenge. 

The other interesting part of the worldbuilding, and it also goes that cultural imperialism, is how the magic works. As Jebi learns when they are put to work in the Ministry of Armor, the painting and delineation of magical symbols for automata requires extremely special inks (the title, Phoenix Extravagant is one such ink). The horror and the for me painful aspect of this is that the magical inks are created by the destruction of works of art. In order to create the controls for these weapons of war, beautiful works of art must be destroyed. This makes a tension throughout the novel, as Jebi is additionally aware of the damage that they do, even as they come to form a bond with Arazi, the Dragon. 

And finally, the writing is just vivid and beautiful. As noted above, this is a novel about art and the uses of art, and the book itself channels the power of that art--but the art of writing and vivid writing that immerses you into the characters and the world. The pain and striving of Jebi to find a place in the world, life under the rule of the Razanei, and finally, the dragon, Arazi, come to extraordinary life. Readers of the Hexarchate novels who want to follow Lee into fantasy are going to find a lot they loved in the sheer writing power there, here in a fantasy format. The plot and situation are more streamlined than the Machineries of Empire. There is plenty of intrigue, revelations, characters set against each other and conflict, but readers who might have thought the Hexarchate a world too baroque for their tastes might find the world here more accessible and relatable.

With these heady themes of art, colonialism, power, subjugation, revolution, family, love and more, Phoenix Extravagant is a strongly depicted and rich novel. It’s not heavy on action, although there are conflicts, it is a novel where the theme comes through the strongest. It's a stunning change of genre for the author, and one that excellently works. Phoenix Extravagant takes its place alongside the works of other authors exploring fantasy in a new and fresh way, and I am very happy to commend it to you.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a strong and resonant story and theme for our times. 

+1 for an interesting world using an East Asian template that is refreshing, diverse and enthralling

+1 for vivid and excellent writing.

Penalties: -1 The strong focus on theme might frustrate readers more interested in the other fundamentals of the novel.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 Very High Quality/Standout in its Category

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

Reference: Lee, Yoon Ha. Phoenix Extravagant [Rebellion Publishing, 2020] 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Microreview [book]: Empire of Gold by, S.A. Chakraborty

Plots, plans, secrets and lies brings the story of Nahri, Ali, Dara and the entire city of Daevabad  to a conclusion.

By the end of Kingdom of Copper, second in the Daevabad Trilogy, the protagonists of the series are definitely in a “end of the Empire Strikes Back” sort of position. Nahri, the center of our story, the half-human (Shafit) healer, has been transported out of the city along with Ali, son of the now fallen Ghassan. Now that she is back in Cairo, thousands of miles away from Daevabad--now what? Meanwhile, Banu Manizheh now rules Daevabad, her lightning strike against the city absolutely successful. Even worse, Dara, who had incited the entire trilogy by coming at Nahri’s call and bringing her to Daevabad, is under Manizheh’s orders. Even as he disagrees with Manizheh’s tightening fist over the city, he finds himself less and less able to resist her commands and her excesses.

Thus the story of S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold brings these stories to a climax, with the future of not only characters, or a city, but entire peoples hang in the balance.

Years have passed since the start of the first book in the series (City of Brass) and the passage of time, and how it has affected the characters, as long lived as some of them might be, is a theme that weighs upon the novel. Time, and the past, and history are both illuminating, and also shackles and restrictions on them, past being prologue, and trying to transcend their pasts, to live up to their potentials, or, sometimes, not to live down the darkness of their pasts. This theme runs through all of the three major characters. Nahri’s story is of finding the true nature of her heritage and integrating that with what she wants to do with her life--to escape Daevabad, or to return and save it? Ali’s own heritage and past, and a hard set of choices as to who he really is, and what that can make him be now, is explored. And then there is Dara, once a weapon, trying to find freedom, and then caught again in the role of the past. The author works these themes hard on the characters and it is the playing of these threads that drive the decisions of the plot.

Once again, though, the author prefers to have the really powerful characters not to be our viewpoints, being forces that the characters must deal with, bargain with, or overcome. The book provides us with a wealth of this, from Manizheh, now empowered and in control of Daevabad, to new characters like Sobek and Tiamat. The theme of pasts and living up to the deeds of the past and finding a way to the future , or living it down. This is a quasi historical fantasy novel that is heavy on character history as motivation and legacy. And we do get some revelations, and reactions to those revelations about that history, throughout the narrative. For the most part, it helps fill in the gaps of motivations and desires of the characters.

But the strongest thing in the book and the series as a whole is the immersive, lush, and evocative language that the author brings to the fray. From the destruction of neighborhoods in Daevabad as Manizheh holds onto power, to Nahri’s joyful return to Cairo, to Ali’s dread bargain and meeting with a primal power, the description brings the reader into the action, into the characters, into the story in a deep and abiding way. The author uses sense, and description, evocation of emotion to really give us a feel of what the characters are feeling and the environments they are in. I never have a problem with “heads in white rooms” in the author’s writing, be it strong and pointed conversations, or action set pieces. I fell in love with Daevabad again, even as it suffers terribly. Ta Ntry, which gets visited in the book, is a wondrous place brought to vivid life. And so much more.

The main issue I have with the series conclusion is one that I see in some series that unfortunately this book falls prey to and it involves the page creep and a misalignment in the series structure as a whole. If a book spends its forematter in posing questions and a scenario and laying the pieces for its answer in the back portion, so does a series. This last volume, instead of “answering questions” spends a lot of effort on lovely worldbuilding and recomplication and new plot elements that in some ways feel a book too late and in some cases fizzle out and feel like a false flag. Subverting reader expectations on plot elements that take up a good chunk of the final volume and wind up being not significant in the end feels like a cheat to the reader and to the series. A lot of what the author brings here is fascinating and I lapped it up on a worldbuilding level, but on a plotting level, it works far less well.

Empire of Gold is definitely worthwhile to read as a series finale, but it didn’t quite reach for the titular gold of a series finale that brings the entire series together in a near perfect say. It is just a solid work of silver, instead.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent use of language and description to provide an immersive experience

Penalties -1 for not quite sticking the series landing in terms of plotting and answered questions

Nerd Coefficient
: 7/10 

Chakraborty, S.A. The Empire of Gold [Harper Collins, 2020]. 

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

6 Books with Stina Leicht

Stina Leicht writes science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Her next novel, Persephone Station is a Feminist Space Opera scheduled to debut 5 January 2021 via Saga Press. She was a finalist for the Crawford Award in 2011 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2011 and 2012. She has also written four Fantasy novels: Cold Iron, Blackthorne, Of Blood and Honey, And Blue Skies from Pain. Currently, she is working on another SF novel titled Loki’s Ring due to be published in 2022.

Today, she shares her 6 books with us:

1. What book are you currently reading? 

How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin. It’s a masterful short story collection that ranges from Steampunk to hard SF. Great stuff. Read it!!!

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about? 

Maria Dahvana-Headley’s Beowulf translation. No woman has ever had their translation of Beowulf published before. Translations are very much affected by the person that translates them. I understand this really affected the interpretation of the story. I’m so very looking forward to it.

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

Terry Pratchett is my go-to when I’m stressed. Needless to say, I’ve been re-reading a lot of Discworld lately. (Oh, Covid-19. When will you finally go away? Heh.)

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

When I was a kid I read John Christopher’s Tripod series. The whole thing about kids being the only ones free to think for themselves really appealed to little mousy me. Sometimes I pick up books I loved and re-read them. I did and holy shirtballs, that one absolutely did not hold up at all. It’s so sexist for a start. It’s also badly written in general. I couldn’t even get through it. Just wow.

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

I’m going with Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s prose was the first to blow my mind. The story was amazing and his command of his craft top notch. The older and more experienced I become as a writer the more impressed I am. I don’t believe I’ll ever be as good as he was. But you know what? One can always try anyway. It’s good to have goals.

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

My next novel, Persephone Station, is scheduled to debut in January of 2021. That seems forever away, really. Soooo… this whole thing starts with sexism in the movie industry and Geena Davis. During the 1970s a great deal of progress was made in getting more roles for women. Sadly, in more recent history to number of women’s roles in cinema have been shrinking. (There’s a regular report on the statistics at The problems with sexism don’t end at the Bechdel Test—particularly if there are no women in the film at all. Anyway, I’m an Akira Kurosawa fan. One of my favorite things to do is pair up one of his movies with the American/Italian remake. For example: The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. So, when the 2016 version came out I was extra sensitive to the fact that the only woman in it is the romantic interest/helpless waif. Hey, if you’re going to remake a movie—remake it. So, I thought I’d write a gender-flipped version with women of color and zero romance. Look there’s nothing wrong with Romance. However, media about women almost always contains a relationship. The number of stories where the Win-scenario for a female character is not a romance is almost zilch. It’s so bad that any series with a woman on the team inevitably winds up with the woman sleeping with her coworkers. Every. Time. That just doesn’t happen all that often in real life—not compared to the number of times women DON’T sleep with coworkers.

You know what? Women need adventure stories too, damn it. Particularly older women.

Persephone Station is the book I wished I’d read in my twenties or thirties or forties. If I need stories of women doing things while not giving a shit about whether a man loves them, other women must need this too. So, I did. And I had so much fun writing this book. I really did. It’s a military action adventure in space. Women working together, being competent, and being good friends.

And no one sleeps with their coworkers.

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