Friday, October 30, 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? 

Harrow, Alix E. The Once and Future Witches [Orbit]
Publisher's Description

In the late 1800s, three sisters use witchcraft to change the course of history in Alix E. Harrow’s powerful novel of magic and the suffragette movement.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters — James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna — join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote — and perhaps not even to live — the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

An homage to the indomitable power and persistence of women, The Once and Future Witches reimagines stories of revolution, sapphic love, motherhood, and women’s suffrage–the lost ways are calling.

Why We Want It: When she wrote her breakout Hugo Award winning story "A Witch's Guide to Escape" Harrow dealt with both witches and portal fantasies. Her debut novel was all portal fantasy. This, her second, returns to witches. That's more anecdotal than anything, but interests me all the same. The real reason we're excited for The Once and Future Witches is because her previous novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January was fucking excellent and we'll read anything she writes. 


Kuang, R.F. The Burning God [Harper Voyager]
Publisher's Description

The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R. F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the sh
amanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?

Why We Want It: Let's face, we're gluttons for punishment and want our hearts stomped repeatedly. Lucky for us, we have R.F. Kuang to do exactly that because the first two Poppy War novels have been brutal and perfect bits of epic fantasy filled with betrayal and incredible personal sacrifice. There's no way this ends well for any of the characters and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Lethem, Jonathan. The Arrest [Harper Collins]
Publisher's Description

From the award-winning author of The Feral Detective and Motherless Brooklyn comes an utterly original post-collapse yarn about two siblings, the man that came between them, and a nuclear-powered super car.

The Arrest isn’t post-apocalypse. It isn’t a dystopia. It isn’t a utopia. It’s just what happens when much of what we take for granted—cars, guns, computers, and airplanes, for starters—quits working. . . .

Before the Arrest, Sandy Duplessis had a reasonably good life as a screenwriter in L.A. An old college friend and writing partner, the charismatic and malicious Peter Todbaum, had become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. That didn’t hurt.

Now, post-Arrest, nothing is what it was. Sandy, who calls himself Journeyman, has landed in rural Maine. There he assists the butcher and delivers the food grown by his sister, Maddy, at her organic farm. But then Todbaum shows up in an extraordinary vehicle: a retrofitted tunnel-digger powered by a nuclear reactor. Todbaum has spent the Arrest smashing his way across a fragmented and phantasmagorical United States, trailing enmities all the way. Plopping back into the siblings’ life with his usual odious panache, his motives are entirely unclear. Can it be that Todbaum wants to produce one more extravaganza? Whatever he’s up to, it may fall to Journeyman to stop him.

Written with unrepentant joy and shot through with just the right amount of contemporary dread, The Arrest is speculative fiction at its absolute finest.

Why We Want It: The description from the publisher is a touch pretentious because, really, fuck you about this not being post apocalyptic or dystopic when technology stops working. That's exactly the tradition Lethem is working with and he damn well knows it, regardless of how the the publisher wants to market the novel. I haven't read Lethem in thirteen years since the incredibly disappointing You Don't Love Me Yet - but his earliest work was inventive and exciting even as he slid farther away from genre while still touching its edges. Regardless of what the publisher wants to call The Arrest, it's the sort of thing I like to read.

Muir, Tamsyn. Princess Floralinda and the Forty Flight Tower [Subterranean]
Publisher's Description

When the witch built the forty-flight tower, she made very sure to do the whole thing properly. Each flight contains a dreadful monster, ranging from a diamond-scaled dragon to a pack of slavering goblins. Should a prince battle his way to the top, he will be rewarded with a golden sword—and the lovely Princess Floralinda.

But no prince has managed to conquer the first flight yet, let alone get to the fortieth.

In fact, the supply of fresh princes seems to have quite dried up.

And winter is closing in on Floralinda…
Why We Want It: Taking a pause between Harrow the Ninth and the forthcoming Alecto the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir has a shorter and completely unrelated work. I'm not familiar with her short fiction before Muir exploded on the scene with Gideon the Ninth - but I'm excited to see what else Muir can do.

Polk. C.L. The Midnight Bargain [Erewhon]
Publisher's Description

From the beloved World Fantasy Award-winning author of Witchmark comes The Midnight Bargain, a sweeping, romantic new fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Regency England, where women’s magic is taken from them when they marry. A sorceress must balance her desire to become the first great female magician against her duty to her family.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever
regret the path not taken?
Why We Want It: I'm not as familiar with C.L. Polk's fiction as I'd like to be, but Witchmark was superb, I have Stormsong on deck at home and I remember a long time ago she wrote several episodes of Shadow Unit. Shadow Unit, mind you, is one of my favorite things - which doesn't have a lot to do with the fiction she's written since Witchmark, but it built up an immense amount of goodwill on my part. The Midnight Bargain is also one of the first books published by Erewhon Books, the imprint founded by Liz Gorinsky (Hugo Award winning editor) - it's a pairing I don't want to miss.

Sanderson, Brandon. Rhythm of War [Tor]
Publisher's Description

The Stormlight Archive saga continues in Rhythm of War, the eagerly awaited sequel to Brandon Sanderson's #1 New York Times bestselling Oathbringer, from an epic fantasy writer at the top of his game.

After forming a coalition of human resistance against the enemy invasion, Dalinar Kholin and his Knights Radiant have spent a year fighting a protracted, brutal war. Neither side has gained an advantage, and the threat of a betrayal by Dalinar’s crafty ally Taravangian looms over every strategic move.
Now, as new technological discoveries by Navani Kholin’s scholars begin to change the face of the war, the enemy prepares a bold and dangerous operation. The arms race that follows will challenge the very core of the Radiant ideals, and potentially reveal the secrets of the ancient tower that was once the heart of their strength.

At the same time that Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with his changing role within the Knights Radiant, his Windrunners face their own problem: As more and more deadly enemy Fused awaken to wage war, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead
the coalition’s envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and either convince the spren to join the cause against the evil god Odium, or personally face the storm of failure.
Why We Want It: The Stormlight Archive is Brandon Sanderson's Magnum Opus, a ten volume series likely spanning decades of work even if we don't consider the other tangentially related  Cosmere based novels that will bring the total upwards of thirty. This is doorstopper fantasy and Sanderson is the truest successor to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time that we are likely to come across, for everything that entails.


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

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Questing in Shorts: October 2020

I had an unintentionally great month for reading shorter queer fiction in October, with a whole new publication of flash fiction delights and a great collection! And next month: Questing in Shorts goes ON TOUR.

Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Issue 11 (read online)

Five stories and two poems in this issue of Anathema, ranging from dark horror to hopeful near-future space travel to a Vietnamese fable-like story reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. I loved them all, but a couple really stood out for me. I've been meaning to read Iona Datt Sharma's work for a very long time - Not for Use in Navigation is on my e-reader and everything - and I finally got to follow through on that with the opening story here, "Heard, Half-Heard, in the Stillness": the story of Ekta, a young Indian woman who has been training her entire life for an Indian space programme that has just had its funding pulled. The story deals with Ekta's complex emotions: her dreams have been crushed, and her new cousin-in-law is being awful about it, but it also means she can spend more time with a family and home she loves. Slice-of-life near-future space-age stories is quickly becoming one of my favourite short story subgenres, as this month's roundup can attest, and this is a great entry into my very small canon of stories I like.

My other highlight of the issue was "We Have Evacuated, Have a Good Day" by Jendayi Brooks-Flemister. In the face of an oncoming "Category 6" superstorm, a woman goes to Loris, the small town in which her elderly grandfather still lives, to try to evacuate him out of the storm's path: but he refuses to go, and she refuses to leave him, and so they live out the disaster and its aftermath in his home. The set-up of the story leads us to expect a tale of connection across the generations and the very different lives and values of the two characters, and we get that in some ways even as Brooks-Flemister completely subverts it in others, taking the potential for cathartic reconciliation and turning it into something that at first feels more real and then abruptly goes somewhere very unexpected. By the end we, like the protagonist, can't help but smile and accept the situation the story serves up: a weird and yet fitting end to an otherworldly disaster.

Baffling Magazine, Issue 1 (read online)

This is the first issue of a new online publication by Neon Hemlock Press, edited by Craig L. Gidney and dave ring, offering up a tasty collection of Queer Weird fiction from a quartet of great authors. It kicks off with an opener from Jewelle Gomez, author of The Gilda Stories - a groundbreaking 1991 novel about a Black lesbian vampire. Gomez's story, "Merida, Yucutan: 2060", is a near future tale with Gilda at the centre, pitching its hero into a world where pollution and degradation of the earth has pushed people into desperate circumstances, many of whom are choosing to abandon Earth for opportunities on other colonies. At the story's opening, Gilda is also choosing to leave, but its events give her pause to consider her responsibility to, and hopes for, the planet she is leaving behind. It's a story that didn't resonate with me as much as it might have if I'd read The Gilda Stories (it's on the TBR!), but even on its own it offers an intriguing vignette on the decision to stay and fight for a world, even when it has done such harm to your ancestors and to you.

"From The Deep" by Izzy Wasserstein is a spooky underwater story, starring an explorer descending into a maybe-supernatural extraterrestial ocean only to hear a song from a past connection which threatens to overwhelm her. "Cellars, Caskets and Closets" is a dense, lush prose poem in which the narrator brings to life a labyrinth of their own internal creation: at once a chase through a crumbling house and an exploration of coming out and the internal processes around it. Finally, "Velvet" by Nino Cipri is another flash piece about a boy living in a suburb with lots of deer, who has a nightmarish, slipstream-y encounter with a moulting stag. After my experiences with Cipri's collection, I'm always pleased to read a story by them, and while this is an understated one in some ways it rounds out this issue very nicely.

This first issue of Baffling was over all too quickly, but I was really impressed with how strong the publication's identity felt even in this short first hit. Gidney and ring clearly know what they are trying to achieve here, and I for one was highly baffled by it, so I think that all worked out well.

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel by Julian K. Jarboe

With a title like that, there was no way I was going to let this collection pass me by, and it more than lived up to that initial expectation. Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel is a collection of flash fiction and longer pieces, most of which focus on the radical act of existing as a queer and neurodiverse person under capitalism. The first half of the collection breezed by, with pieces that drew me in through their narrative voice ("Self Care" has the most spectacular use of FRUSTRATED CAPITALISATION outside of an online teen journal), or imagery (The menstrual body horror of "Heavy Flow"). A longer fairytale piece, "Estranged Children of Storybook Houses", is about a changeling in a world where changelings are accepted as fact and theoretically supposed to be loved as part of their adoptive families. When its protagonist realises that her parents and brother will never accept her nature, she goes looking for the "original" human version of herself in fairyland, only to realise that she is not the perfect daughter that they're seeking either. It's a sweet but melancholy story that doesn't really come to any neat conclusions about belonging as a neurodiverse person in a family that fundamentally wishes you were different, but it does at least leave its protagonist in a quietly comfortable place by its end.

Most of the collection's second half is taken up by the original title story, a mosaic of a novella novella that draws together all of the themes of the collection into a quiet but deeply moving science fiction dystopia. Meandering between the lives of Sebastian and his sister Lara, with divergences into chat logs and, at one point, a poetic job application, the story builds up a town and a family which no longer fits into the capitalist dream, as people move underwater or out into space. Sebastian is trying to find a job after graduation, but keeps finding that everything he applies for or tries out doesn't want someone like him; Lara's story centres on her relationship with her mother and her difficult childhood, even as she tries to reconcile the elements of her own personality and needs that seem to mirror the things she likes the least about her parent. It's a strange, drift-y sort of story which I highly enjoyed: "Everyone On The Moon Is Essential Personnel" left me aching to see more of its characters and to perhaps see something in their lives go right.

Strange Horizons, May 2020

I never have an agenda for talking about older stories except that I don't read things on time, but I feel very pleased to be able to bring this May trio of stories from Strange Horizons into the column, as they are all excellent in different ways. "Have your #Hugot harvested at this Diwata-owned cafe" (online) is a story set in Quezon City,  Philippines, and takes the form of a fake long-form magazine feature about a newly opened restaurant by one of the city's magical residents, where human diners can have their heartbreak and emotions (I understand that #hugot, in modern Philippines internet-speak, is used to indicate that something pulls deep emotions out of you) taken out in the service of supernatural cuisine. It's a story that draws together mythology and modern political events, "interviewing" relatives of desaparecidos who disappeared during the Marcos regime or who were casualties of the current drug war. The effect is a narrative that weaves personal and national reckonings with tragedy, the perspective the Diwata herself offering a distancing lens that lets the reader explore what different responses say about humanity's ability to contextualise and move on.

"Martian Cinema" (online) is a delight of a story, one which brings that "undersupervised children discover a hidden world of magic in their own home" vibe to a story set in a Martian colony, where survival is precarious and resources have to be carefully managed. The undersupervised children of this story discover a picture of a unicorn in a cave, and use it to build increasingly elaborate stories using their makeshift "cinema". The antics of the children, and their progressively more fanciful ideas for their cinema and the ways they use the material around them to make it work, have that balance where it's never quite clear what is real, what is imagination and what's magic, and the story ends on a wistful note (involving adults being The Worst) that makes this clear this was a moment that will never be recaptured. May also brings "The DEATH/GRIP Challenge" (online) by Johnny Compton, a horror story revolving around radicalisation and a child trying to care for a parent who is going through psychological trauma well beyond her capacity to deal with.

The Future Fire, Issue 55 (Read Online)

The last issue of the year for The Future Fire has 5 stories, all of which deal in some form with identity and community, particularly family relationships. These range from the creepy, claustrophobic "Mijara's Freedom" by Eleanor Glewwe, in which a young woman recounts one of her childhood summers in her family home, whose strict otherworldly rules stifle her and her cousins and provoke acts of small rebellion. With all the curtains drawn and the threat of summer fires which it is claimed the government doesn't want them to see, Glewwe's story weaves a very tight family horror with a more broadly sinister, patriarchal aura to create a compelling story about escape (or, more specifically, being left behind). "We Will Become as Monsters" by Benjanun Sridaungkaew is also a highly atmospheric story, about a thief who finds a dying soldier on the edge of a mysterious labyrinth. Promised wealth, power and beautiful concubines if she takes the woman's gauntlet, the protagonist instead finds herself subjected to powerful magic and drawn into the heart of a general's quest to seek something at the labyrinth's centre. On the science fiction side, I really enjoyed the premise and execution of Jennifer R. Donohue's ‘Know They Will Die under the Salt of It’, in which people descended from those who survived a generations-ago spaceship crash watch the goings-on of the ship itself, now submerged in the ocean beyond free diving range, in which lights still sometimes appear and signs of life seem to be increasing.

I struggled more with the last two stories in the issue: "The Scaled Soul" by Rhianwen Phillips is a short piece that deals with a survivor of domestic abuse and male violence, who births a snake monster that saves her, then threatens her, then eventually offers to train her to look after herself. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for a story so centred around violence and victimisation, but I struggled to find the element of novelty or perspective shift in the story's closure that made the depictions here worth sitting through. And "The Good Hawks" by Danielle Jorgenson-Murray just didn't bring me on board with its uprooted, shapeshifting young protagonist early enough for me to really get invested in her journey and transformations. It might work better for me on a reread, though, so it's definitely worth checking out if slice-of-life shapeshifter narratives are up your street.

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, October 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

 A story that throws a lot of things at you, almost all of them good.

Architects of Memory
is a good kind of paradox. Its story links a degrading sense of self, the greed and depravity of humanity, and lofty misunderstanding to create a fiery conflict. Things don’t go well for the characters when multiple concepts are intertwined in that world. But on a craft level, the novel intertwines space opera tropes, a few inventive twists, fully-formed characters, and a perfectly paced structure to create a glowing achievement. If only the characters' travails mirrored the writerly utopia that transpires when Karen Osborne’s typing away.

In Architects of Memory, Ash Jackson is indentured to a massive corporation, and she must work to attain freedom. Upon her work, while on a spaceship with a motley crew, she encounters a mysterious object that has to do with her dark past and humanity’s conflict against an alien race. To compound matters, she also has an illness that could cost her freedom and impair her abilities. And to escalate the situation further, she’s in a secret relationship with a member of her crew.  

The beginning of the novel mostly takes its time organically sliding in worldbuilding and pieces of the plot. To those new to sci-fi, it may be jarring with the amount of information it throws at you right away, as well as putting you in the middle of the action with relationships preestablished, expecting the reader to catch on. Things do click into place, and it’s well worth the effort.

Upon the one-quarter mark, the story swivels directions, goes into lightspeed, and propels through twists and action, mostly knowing when to momentarily hit the brakes and give you a breather. Reading the novel is like riding a spaceship piloted by an apt daredevil. Even the times in the ride when the story hits a wall of exposition, I never felt like I was mired in boring, sludgy plotting because the afterglow of the thrilling scenes that preceded it left me at a high. With that said, feelings are subjective, and those averse to any blatant scenes of the expository variety might feel different.

The most singular talent of Architects of Memory is finding a new bent on a space opera story—a genre that’s been well-trodden so thoroughly and covered in footprints that it can seem impossible to find a patch of your own. And while Karen Osborne does steps on patches that have been stepped on by seemingly every sci-fi author, there are idiosyncrasies to characters and twists regarding alien life that more than make it fresh. While characterization isn’t at the top of the novel’s mind, it does do a much-more-than-serviceable job of establishing believable motivations and ample depth to keep you caring.

But the greatest joy of Architects of Memory lies in its plot and the themes they develop. Whether it tackles individuality and collectivity, the belligerent survival instincts of humanity, or relationships in secrecy, it lays the foundation for those themes and builds upon them, never leaving them underdeveloped along the way. The most intriguing theme is how memory is so tied up with our sense of self. We’re a collection of the knowledge we accrue and the relationships we build, but without memory, those things slip through our fingers like sand. Love can change from everlasting to a brief sensation. Familial bonds that we preoccupy ourselves with if the world around us is rotten becomes lost if our memory – our personal storage locker that tethers all our meaning – is gone.  

Space operas can sometimes be so unwilling to take risks and stray from conventions that they’re forgettable. Stories that have edifying substance don’t matter if they immediately leave our memory. The best way to counteract that is to have original characters, and hard-hitting themes despite how well-trodden some story beats are. Architects of Memory does that. Its craft, emotional intelligence, and smooth writing style work to create a gem that will be at the top of my mind for a long time.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 For expert pacing, especially in the wonderfully frenetic latter half.
+1 For a great portrayal of an alien race.

-1 For an ending that could be a little better.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

 Osborne, Karen. Architects of Memory [Tor Books, 2020]

Monday, October 26, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Dossier: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011)

Location: Nigeria

Package Type: Book

Itinerary:  “Harry Potter in Nigeria” is the high concept here, as a Nigerian raised in America living in Nigeria again Sunny, an albino and the titular Akata Witch, finds out that she is a “Free Agent”, someone capable of magic but not raised by magic-using parents. By means of new friends far more versed in the magical world, Sunny learns what it means to have magical ability, and starts to learn about her power and abilities, while at the same time a serial killer is killing children. A serial killer that has ties to the Leopard People magical community that Sunny has herself just become a part of.

Travel Log: I don’t read a lot of YA, and so for the Nerds on Tour, I decided I would challenge myself by going for a YA novel, to further expand my horizons and my reading experience with this part of the Project. And I was very glad that I did. I was absorbed from the beginning, even before Sunny discovers that she has magical powers, by the strength of the writing to bring the reader into the protagonist’s Nigerian world. 

For all of the “Harry Potter in Nigeria” vibe that the novel gives off as mentioned above, especially in the second half of the novel, where the novel really resonated with me, and will likely resonate with other Western readers is the mundane world Nigerian setting. Sunny is a quasi-outsider to this world, having moved to Nigeria in the past, and the character of Sasha provides an even more Western, American character to allow for explanation, explication and exploration of what life is like in this part of West Africa. Okorafor does this in the large and the small, showing the reader a world that is not theirs, right from the first paragraph (where the author explains the unreliability of the power supply). 

Languages, cuisine, culture, family interactions, sports, Sunny brings the reader into her world, and there is just enough explanation and internal monologue to allow a reader to make connections, correlations and understand the world she is in. Okorafor keeps a careful balance between explanation and immersion, allowing readers to come into a world she knows very well and wants to very much introduce her readers to. I could see how things were slightly simplified and focused for a YA audience, but for a novel set in an unfamiliar place, people and culture, that results for me a better experience in getting myself familiar with Sunny’s world. 

The author uses those skills and techniques, in turn, on Sunny and with Sunny as we the reader go on her journey into the magical world of the Leopard People. And what a world. The author provides a culture-centered built from the ground up that resonates with the Harry Potter experience in some of its structure and building elements, (a small group of students drawn together, a magical sub-world hidden from the mundane world, magical competitions, dread secrets and history coming to the fore). And for all of that, this feels like it is a response and a retooling of some parts of Harry Potter that always annoyed me--Sunny and the others are expected to go to regular school, learn mundane subjects as well learn magic from the Leopard People. The pedagogic style of how Sunny and her friends learn magic is vastly different than the boarding school experience we get in Harry Potter. All in all, it feels a lot more plausible as a secret world that could actually work, that feels real and complete. 

This dossier would not be complete without a discussion of Sunny and her friends, our entry into this world. Reflecting the reader’s own disorientation with the world being presented, Okorafor has made Sunny an albino, meaning that she is an outside already, giving readers who are an outsider to the culture, society and world presented someone they can really identify and connect with, and that goes, I think for adult readers as well as the YA reader audience the book is. Add in Orlu, Chichi and the American Sasha, and you have a fast friend quartet of young protagonists who are learning, growing, making mistakes and providing excellent character beats and development in this unfamiliar world. I also appreciate they are messier, more well rounded, and more complicated than more archetypally drawn characters often found in YA fiction. 

Overall, I can strongly recommend Akata Witch not only to readers of YA, but readers of fantasy who want to learn more about West Africa, its world, people and culture.


The Adventure: 4/5

The Scenery:  5/5.

NerdTrip Rating: 9/10 Outstanding in its category, a trip relevant to the interests of many in SFF. Even if YA may not necessarily be your bag, this is a trip that you will likely love.

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

Friday, October 23, 2020

Microreview [book]: 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.