Friday, April 30, 2021

6 More Books With Gareth Hanrahan

Gareth Hanrahan’s three-month break from computer programming to concentrate on writing has now lasted fifteen years and counting. He’s written more gaming books than he can readily recall, by virtue of the alchemical transformation of tea and guilt into words. He lives in Ireland with his wife and children. Follow him on Twitter @mytholder.

Today he returns and shares Six (more) Books with Us...

1. What book are you currently reading? 

The collected Sherlock Holmes. I had an idea for a Holmes-inspired story, and want to see if it’s feasible. 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

John Higgs’ William Blake vs the World. I’ve loved his other books on the KFL and Watling Street, and Blake’s a fascinating figure.

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

Not so much reread as reattempt, but as soon as I have the brainspace, I must attempt Alan Moore’s Jerusalem again. The start of the pandemic really disrupted my reading – I must try Jerusalem again, and also reattack Jeremy Szal’s Stormblood.

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

I did a really long, in-depth dive into the writing of The Lord of the Rings last year, going through all the History of Middle-earth books with an eye to examining Tolkien’s approach to the actual craft. What struck me was how ramshackle a lot of the worldbuilding is – Tolkien gives the impression of having this brilliant, cohesive history, but it’s all built ad hoc and filled in afterwards. At the same time, that close reading gave me a much greater appreciation for Tolkien’s skill at prose – he could throw off a really lovely line without effort. 

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

I suspect that Dave Morris’ Knightmare tie-in novels form a deep stratum of my aesthetic. I loved Knightmare as a kid – for those unfamiliar with the Greatest TV Show Ever, it was this fantasy game show where one kid was sent into a dungeon wearing the blind Helm of Justice (so they couldn’t see the green-screen) and had to be guided by their advisors via a magic CCTV monitor. The novels took that game setup and treated it with way more gravitas and grandeur than it probably deserved, but definitely, “taking absurd fantasy and treating it very, very solemnly” is one of my things.

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

The Broken God (Book 3 (of 5) of The Black Iron Legacy) explores the aftermath of the peace treaty – and the deicide of the war goddess – that ended The Shadow Saint. Carillon Thay’s off looking for a way to help her friend Spar, whose mind is fragmenting after he was transformed into a living city. On her quest, she runs into – and from – figures from her past, and if there’s one thing that’s defined Cari so far, it’s running away from her history.

Meanwhile, back in Guerdon, the focus is on the Ghierdana – think organised crime, if the Godfather was a dragon – taking advantage of the divided city. Intrigue, mad gods, and a desperate mission of mercy.

Thank you, Gareth!

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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Marvel isn't doing anyone any favors by dancing around the ugliness of America

A Black Captain America shouldn't have needed an entire season of justification

By the end of Avengers: Endgame, Sam Wilson has Captain America's shield and blessing, and there's no question that he's the right choice.

By the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson has Captain America's shield and blessing, and there's no question that he's the right choice.

Why did we need six episodes to get to a plot development we'd seen already?

Sometimes the inner journey is the one that counts, but even that kind of story needs a good justification to end exactly where it started. The Falcon Captain America and the Winter Soldier does not deliver. It presents immensely relevant questions it can't admit it's terrified to answer. It opens the door to letting superheroes deal with refugee camps, American hypermilitarism, historic and present racism, xenophobia, rogue states, and the rebuilding of society after mass catastrophe. As a superhero story, it was an ideal setting for a serious treatment of the abuses of power, yet this show managed to artfully waste the impressive hand it was dealt, because God forbid the children watching hear one bad word about the US military. Instead, it paints activism in the most unfavorable light possible, it refuses to seriously question America's right to patrol the world, and it tries to fix racism with a museum display and toxic nationalism with a speech.

Let's start with the designated bad guys. In the comics, the original Flag Smasher was the type of joke villain that often arose from a simplistic reversal of the hero's ideology. Doing away with national borders and creating a single human community is actually a worthy goal, and it can only conceivably define a supervillain if your hero is the most annoying tool of patriotic propaganda—which is why the Flag Smasher was designed as an enemy of Captain America and not of, say, the Hulk. In the process of adapting the Flag Smasher to the MCU as a loose organization of clueless anarchist teenagers, the same ideological confusion was kept. The slogan "One World, One People" is the farthest thing from a sinister evil master plan, so the writers had to make Karli Morgenthau randomly bomb relief workers, because otherwise our heroes wouldn't have a compelling reason to fight her. What she's trying to do is fix what politicians are admittedly incapable of fixing: after the Reverse Snap, it turns out the world's resources can't cope with that many people, which is... exactly what Thanos was trying to prove. The one thing you should never do in the MCU is accidentally concede a point to Thanos.

The true villain of the show is negligence and status-quo bias, not activism. If the writers had given the Flag Smashers more than the briefest thought, we wouldn't have ended up with a stereotypical terrorist group that also had the moral high ground. Karli is right to be shocked that Sam has adopted the title of Captain America, because right now the country he represents in a comically bulky suit has no business posing as one of the good guys.

If the character of Captain America functions as an incarnation of the country's values and choices, one could expand that exercise and read every major character in the show as one possible way for America to be. Sam is, of course, the part of America that feels disappointed and frustrated, that is only now unearthing the ugly truth about cases like Isaiah's, and that nonetheless wants to bring to reality the principles that the country claims to live by. Maybe it's not entirely unintentional that the costume doesn't quite fit.

John Walker is a more honest representation of who America is these days: at the same time insecure and entitled, traumatized by his own choices but criminally lacking in self-awareness, drunk with power, and somehow immune to consequences. As the public face of the country, John Walker is quintessentially Captain America. This is most noticeable during his disciplinary hearing: the proverbial slap on the wrist he gets for the brutal murder of a surrendered enemy brings to mind the many times the US has shrugged off international condemnation for, oh, let me count the ways: Canicatti, Biscari, No Gun Ri, My Lai, Son Thang, Dasht-i-Leili, Operation Condor, Grdelica, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Amiriyah, Guantánamo, Haditha, Damadola, Haska Meyna, Wech Baghtu, Azizabad, Granai, Uruzgan, Tarok Kolache, Khosrow Sofla, Mahmudiyah, Panjwai, Khataba, Tokhar, Sangin... we could be here all day. John Walker is just one soldier, guilty of (as far as we're shown on screen) just one victim, but his character encapsulates the true face of America as seen from the outside. This character did not deserve a redemption scene in the final episode, but it's perversely fitting that he gets one.

Through the same lens, Bucky represents what America could be if it were more honest with itself: he can't deny his bloody past, he can't simply choose to live like it didn't happen, but he's making an effort to be good now. He's just going about it in a less than productive way. He's more interested in calming his own feelings, and he doesn't realize the inefficacy of his approach until the part of America that has endured lifelong trauma patiently explains to him that what he needs to do is be fully open and vulnerable. Repairing the harm he's caused is not about him.

Of course, the characters-as-sides-of-America metaphor is not completely applicable to Bucky. He spent years as a brainwashed killer zombie; he is a victim too. But this angle lets us speak of the damage that military training inflicts on its own members. Every country that keeps and trains a standing army is guilty of a serious moral crime against its own young people, but the case of America is off-the-charts worrying. As a society, it is alarmingly comfortable with the use of violence. This puts the character of Bucky in an interesting parallel with that of John Walker: both have committed atrocities, but Walker refuses to admit he acted purposefully wrong, and the plot rewards him for it, while Bucky is taking responsibility for things he was forced to do, and therefore has to go down a harder road. America (and every country with an army) has an ancient debt with itself regarding the lasting damage that military training inherently causes. For the purposes of this point, it doesn't matter one bit that Bucky's years as a mindless assassin were in the service of an anti-US organization; see above about Marvel's reluctance to criticize the US military. On any side of any conflict, to learn to kill is a dehumanizing experience.

(The response to this point is so predictable that it can be replied to in advance: if it doesn't bother you that your government teaches immature young adults with an incompletely developed psyche the art of killing, the corruption of militarism has gotten to you too.)

Sharon is the America with a pretty public face and a shady list of contacts, the America that poses for inspiring photos while signing deals with human rights abusers, the America that cries on camera but doesn't believe in its own ideals anymore. Sharon was obviously inserted here to pave the way for future installments; the plot of the show could have flowed better without the whole Madripoor detour, but since it's there, let's address it. In the comics, Madripoor was created as a pirate kingdom that somehow survived outside of international law until the present day. Its adaptation into a show that aims for realism brings another ideological mismatch, because its defining features are no longer shocking. If you search for a prime example of a country that refuses to follow international law, funds mercenary armies, and has an obvious demarcation between the very rich and the very poor, it's America itself. Madripoor is the America that has renounced the dream, where it's impossible for people to trust each other, where a bullet is the only language that gets things done. When Sam receives a call from his sister in a country that shouldn't even give his phone a signal, it feels like he never really left home.

Finally, Isaiah is the America that is just tired of trying. He literally gave his life for an institution that saw Black people as tools. He wasn't given power with the expectation that he would use it, but only to learn how to give power to the blond poster boy. This is a character that should have had a larger impact on the plot, but he's here just to talk to Sam and tell him not to do what we all know he will do. With such a fascinating character on its hands, the show chose to keep him inconsequential. No, the scene at the museum doesn't repair anything. Oppressed minorities shouldn't be treated as relics; they're a living part of the world that should be acknowledged and integrated, not placed on a shelf for visitors to gape at. We can understand Isaiah's choice to remain officially dead as a strategy of self-preservation, but then we have to fault Sam for doing nothing to correct the institutional forces that keep pushing Isaiah to stay hidden in the first place.

"Sam does nothing" is, in fact, the core problem with Captain Black Falcon America and the Winter Soldier. His painfully cheesy speech in the final episode is supposed to be the solution to the world's problems, but instead it puts blinking neon lights on the show's unwillingness to explore sincerely the Reverse Snap's consequences or to say anything about its plot's parallels with real life. We're not here to follow our convoluted metaphors to their logical implications; we're here to advertise a new action figure.

As said before, Sam begins the story with the shield and ends it with the shield; that he would continue the legacy of Captain America was always a given. To justify six whole episodes of roundabout angst, the show tried to convince us that the shield acquired an uncomfortable meaning on the arm of a Black man, but Sam's choice to donate the shield is made before he learns of Isaiah, so it couldn't have been about the army's mistreatment of Black soldiers. If anything, Sam is a spectacularly successful Black soldier.

Do you want to know what would have been a truly radical statement about the place Black heroes deserve? To have treated a Black Captain America as the most normal thing in the world. To have showed Sam carry that shield without reservations since the instant he was handed it. In Avengers: Endgame, his reluctance is normal, because he's sad to see a friend go, but that argument doesn't work in the show. His misgivings about being Captain America come off as contrived, and undermine the message that he deserved the shield. He should've had no doubts. And then we could have learned of Isaiah's story, and Sam could have used his position to do something about it. What we got amounts to much drama with no tangible effect.

And that means that this is a show that didn't need to exist. Fans have already seen Sam be Captain America in the comics, and Marvel shouldn't have felt the need to spend an entire season arguing the merits of the case for the viewers who objected. Marvel's fear of upsetting people has prevented it from telling a good story.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +3 for Carl Lumbly's acting skills, +1 for Wyatt Russell's casting as the perfect punchable face, +2 for turning Sam Wilson into an interesting character for the first time in the MCU, +1 for giving Bucky's character enough time to explore the aftermath of his trauma, +0.001 for paying the slightest amount of lip service to acknowledging the worldwide consequences of US military policy, which is light-years beyond what the MCU had been willing to risk pointing at in all its previous productions.

Penalties: −0.001 for pretending that the Power Broker's identity was ever a mystery, −3 for not addressing its topics in any meaningful way, −2 for the bad design of the new Captain America suit, −3 for a horrendously unprofessional portrayal of mental healthcare, −1 for an unnecessarily meandering plot, −1 for going out of its way to scream "no homo!" every time Sam and Bucky have a moment of closeness.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Microreview [TV Series]: Shadow and Bone

What could have been a fun fantasy heist is mired by unnecessary racism. 

A poster of Shadow and Bone TV series featuring the main characters Alina, Mal, the Darkling, Kaz, Inej, and Jasper.

I've been excited about Shadow and Bone (showrunner Eric Heisserer) since I heard the announcement as I thoroughly enjoyed some of Leigh Bardugo's other grishaverse novels (which I reviewed here). The visuals looked great in the trailer, Ben Barnes as the shadow-manipulator radiated sexual tension, and worldbuilding looked fun.

In a lot of ways, the series delivers on these aspects. The series starts with Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer, and her best friend, Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), stationed at the Fold, a wall of shadow that has split the country of Ravka in half. The Fold was made by a grisha over a century ago. While there are a variety of grisha abilities, most of them revolve around the elements, such as Inferni, who can manipulate fire (so a little bit of X-Men, a little bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender). The grisha and many people in Ravka believe a grisha will come to destroy the fold, a sun-summoner. As you have probably guessed, Alina is the sun-summoner, the chosen one, destined to destroy the Fold and unite Ravka once again. 

The Darkline tests Alina to find her grisha ability and a line of sunlight comes from her skin.


Currently, the First Army of Ravka that Mal and Alina are a part of are at war with the country of Shu Han in the south. Here in lies one of the show's missteps. Throughout the first half of the series, low-key racial slurs are used pretty regularly against Alina, who is Shu but grew up an orphan in Ravka. In the original trilogy, Alina was had no connection to the Shu. While this could have been a thoughtful inclusion that provided a deeper commentary on war, imperialism, etc. it's largely used as a sledge hammer to remind the audience that Alina is different. These insults are also thrown around with very little context other than the idea that "Ravka is at war," thus reproducing a homogenized, Asian evil already prevalent in US media rather than comment on that exact issue. For further perspective on this issue, I encourage you to see threads by Alex Brown (@QueenofRats) and Morgan Al-Moor (@MorganAlMoor).   

Alina quickly moves from different to special when she enters the Fold for the first time. Her fellow soldiers are attacked inside the darkness, and in order to save her best friend Mal, her grisha ability comes forward and destroys the shadows. With this ability comes the chance to destroy the Fold, and if not destroy it, create a safe way across, thus making Alina a very valuable commodity. 

Enter Kaz (Freddy Carter) and his crew. For a million bucks, they take on the job to find and bring Alina to Ketterdam in the small island country of Kerch. First, though, they must settle their debts in Ketterdam, figure out a way across the Fold, and then sneak into the palace where Alina is being kept and trained. 

The heist sections of the series really live up to the fun of Bardugo's other books set in Ketterdam. While the Ravka sections are interesting, the worldbuilding is largely familiar with Russian-influenced landscapes and cityscapes. Ketterdam pulls from a lively AU Victorian era filled with warring clubs, crime bosses, and magic. While we are largely used to the sweeping snowy landscapes à la Game of Thrones, Ketterdam had a fun flare that didn't get too mired in the Victorian muck. The heist sections, even upon leaving Ketterdam, still felt like the sharpest moments of the show because of their heist nature. While the scenes with Alina are very much the traditional "chosen one must learn their powers," the heist sequences had a direct goal, with consequences for failure.  

Perhaps this is one of the largest issues with the show--it often felt aimless. Sure, it's a lot of fun and the visuals are pretty great, but it felt like too much story crammed into too few episodes. I was lost for the first half of the show about why the Darkling (Ben Barnes) is obsessed with Alina (though the sexual tension radiating off Ben Barnes was intense). I wasn't sure why Ravka was at war and why the Fold was such a hinderance. Plus, certain storylines feel entirely unneeded until later in the series, such as multiple episodes with the character Nina, which has no impact on the story until the end and feels like filler unless one is familiar with the books. 

This same issue of too much world and too few episodes speaks to the problems of racism I mentioned earlier. With so much going on, the nuance gets lost. Same for Kaz's disability, which is largely glossed over, unlike in the books. 

There's currently seven books in the grishaverse, and Netflix has already greenlit a second season. Here's to hoping that the show will slow down and provide the necessary nuance and context to get these beloved characters right and not cause frustration and harm to the viewers. 

The Math

Baseline Score: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for some fun heist sequences and criminal characters

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10

Posted By: Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at or on Twitter @pheebs_w.

Reference: Shadow and Bone, season one, Netflix 2020.

Microreview [book]: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

A story of trauma, transformation and healing with a protagonist whose journey is impossible not to root for

Content Warning: Mentions of child marriage and offsceen CSA, body horror

Having brought us a generation ship space opera with US chattel slavery race dynamics, and a story of first contact and alien society with the Black merfolk of Drexciya, I went into Rivers Solomon's third book with expectations of something similarly genre bending and thoughtful, but otherwise with little expectation of whether Sorrowland, with its intriguing, gothic set-up, would twist towards science fiction, fantasy, realism or some other direction entirely. It's a mild spoiler to answer that question in full, but what I can confirm that Sorrowland is full of magic in its most basic sense: events and locations that seem mundane on their surface but are transfused with mythical qualities. At the centre of it is Vern, Sorrowland's protagonist and one of the most engaging, interesting protagonists I've ever spent a book with. From the first few pages of Vern's narration, I was hooked on her character's voice, and in following her journey through its heartbreak and discovery I was desperate for things to work out in some for her.

Sorrowland opens with Vern as a pregnant teenage girl escaping an unknown "fiend" in the forest near Cainland, the commune compound where she grew up. Vern's first act is to give birth in the midst of making her escape, taking her twins Howling and Feral - both referred to with he/him pronouns, though their gender is left ambiguous - to live in the safety of the woods. Vern is able to survive almost exclusively on what the forest provides, her inexplicable survival skills providing the first hint both of extraordinary abilities and her strength of character - but the Fiend continues to pursue her and make its presence known, and eventually it becomes clear that at least some of what Vern needs is outside of the forest. So she leaves, first temporarily, finding comfort with a woman called Ollie; and later, while seeking her closest friend from the compound who left under mysterious circumstances, with a more permanent support network. By the point of her departure, our suspicions that Vern carries supernatural abilities of some form have been confirmed, and Vern herself is grappling with a transformation that she can't fully understand, but which is clearly linked to her former life in Cainland.

As a cult survivor, Vern's experiences in Cainland permeate every facet of Sorrowland's story, from the overt - her past, and the circumstances in which she ran away, are explored throughout the book's first section - to the way she expresses her political and cultural beliefs, to the contrast between Vern's upbringing and the start in life she gives her own children. Cainland is a Black commune built to offer its residents an alternative to white supremacist society, but by Vern's time this mission has been corrupted by authoritarian religious patriarchy which forcibly cuts its members off from outside communication and preaches hate against queer folk while enabling child marriage for its leaders. As an albino intersex girl with an exclusive attraction to women, and strong opinions about the world around her, Vern finds it impossible to mould herself to the expectations of the compound, and its no accident that Howling and Feral are brought up in an environment where curiosity is encouraged and only curbed when it would bring immediate danger. This being Rivers Solomon, of course, Cainland doesn't exist in a political vacuum, and as Vern's personal transformation is explored, the factors that made that compound what it was also come into play.

Running in parallel the physical repercussions of Vern upbringing is her emotional journey, one which involves grappling with the trauma of Cainland and learning to live with (and embrace!) the parts of her which it tried to suppress. A large part of that is Vern's sexuality, and Sorrowland has some great (consensual) queer sex, including a poly encounter towards the end of the book which would be a spoiler to begin to describe but made me go "ohhh???" in a very intrigued and thoughtful way. (Maybe also some other emotions). Finding accommodation for her disability (Vern has nystigmatus due to her albinism, which reduces her vision and stops her being able to read) and gaining access not just to books but to people who support her intellectual curiosity and interests is also a significant - and heartwarming - part of her healing towards the second half of the book. But Vern's greatest emotional challenge, and the part that propels the book to its eventual, unexpected climax is reckoning with the way the cult has negatively affected her relationships. Vern's feelings towards her mother, who took her to live in Cainland in the first place and allowed her to become a child bride; her childhood friend Lucy, who left her abruptly with only an address in a book she couldn't read to track her down; her allies outside the compound, especially Native woman Bridget and her niece Gogo who offer Vern and her children an eventual home; and of course Vern's precociously smart, curious, thoughtful children: all these relationships are complicated and nuanced and come together in a messy but optimistic vision of healing, however imperfectly, from trauma. While its ending was more high-stakes than I anticipated, the work Sorrowland puts into its emotional journey had the biggest payoff for me, and I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Howling and Feral as their own well-rounded human beings even at a young age, with relationships with adults which go beyond a one-way system of care.

Sorrowland covers so much ground, and a lot of it is best experienced without knowing what's to come, making it a difficult book to really sum up in a review. This is a work of thoughtful, passionate brilliance from a writer at the top of faer game, and trying to capture that in a 1,000 word one-sitting review is like trying to describe the ocean to someone who has never experienced water. This isn't an easy book - if you're familiar with Solomon's previous books, you won't be expecting that anyway - but if you have the time to devote to it, Sorrowland's journey is a powerful one and ultimately something that left me with a great deal of hope for its characters. And I simply cannot rate Vern highly enough, in all her prickly, passionate, confused glory - her journey is one that will stay with me long after I put Sorrowland down.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: Packs so many layers of nuance in depicting Vern's struggles and the forces she is up against

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

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: Solomon, Rivers. Sorrowland [MCD Books (US)/Merky Books (UK)]

Monday, April 26, 2021

Interview: Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Author of Son of the Storm

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Nigerian author Suyi Davies Okungbowa, author of the highly anticipated Son of the Storm, to Nerds of a Feather. If you are an avid reader of online short fiction, you've likely come across Okungbowa's short fiction and essays at, Lightspeed, Fireside,Apex,Omenana, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies BreatheFIYAH,  People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction and Year's Best Science Fiction.  His debut novel, David Mogo, Godhunter, came out in 2019. 

I've been intrigued by Son of the Storm since I first heard about it: a West African inspired world, scholars who can't leave well enough alone, secret histories and ancient magics, a woman from a land that doesn't exist, terrifying beasties, political scheming, and the exhausting emotional labor of having to explain and justify yourself. That ticks a lot of my  boxes, how about you?   The plot of the novel follows scholar-jali  Danso, who is supposed to be preparing for his upcoming wedding and a career as a storyteller.  And then Danso meets Lilong, who hails from a place that shouldn't exist.  Son of the Storm features complex characters, sprawling world building, discussions on how history informs our present, and explorations of privilege and power.  

Okungbowa was kind enough to take me behind the scenes of Son of the Storm, we discussed the trilogy's inspirations, my fascination with how people interact with Lilong, what life is like in Bassa, where Okungbowa got to have some fun in the manuscript, and more.  You can learn more about Okungbowa's work at his website, and or by following him on twitters where he is @IamSuyiDavies.  If you're interested in the virtual book tour of Son of the Storm, click here for more information and event registration. 

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: Congratulations on your forthcoming novel, Son of the Storm! What's the premise of this book?

Suyi Davies Okungbowa: Son of the Storm is the first in The Nameless Republic epic fantasy trilogy, and it’s set on the isolated continent of Oon, which is inspired by various West-African empires of the middle ages. It follows Danso, who’s a clever scholar in Bassa, the greatest city on the continent. But he’s too clever for his own good, and gets his nose into things he shouldn’t, two of which spark the events that drive the novel. First, he re-discovers and inadvertently memorizes the long-lost journal of a mad Emperor that speaks of long lost magic and non-existent peoples. And then he also stumbles upon Lilong, a warrior from an island that should be extinct. These discoveries set things in motion that could be the rise of Bassa and the continent, or the fall of both. Especially when Esheme--Danso’s betrothed, but also a fixer’s daughter--gets caught up in these events.

NOAF: What were your inspirations behind Son of the Storm? What were you thinking about while you were writing it?

SDO: This book, and in tandem The Nameless Republic as a series, was born of my desire to tell stories that drew on those I’d heard about the history of Benin City while growing up there. I realised, over time, that there was a shared connectedness between the stories of kingdoms and empires and trade and conquest that orbited my city, my country, my continent, and many of those stories had been cut off after colonial influence. They were already wonderfully fantastic in nature, and it was only a matter of time before they inspired me to write one of mine.

But more importantly, I wanted to tell a nuanced story, one that showed the complexity and messiness that comes with fighting for land, resources, power. I didn’t want a story that just paints over the dominant forms the fantasy novel comes in with an airbrush that says “Generically African.” I wanted a people who were morally grey in their own way, who didn’t separate neatly into a good/bad dichotomy. I wanted to tell a story that could be Oon’s alone. So while there is the strong influence of West-African concepts and cultures and languages and ideas running through the story, this is really a story about the people in this particular world, their many challenges, and how they struggle to survive them.

NOAF: I was so struck by the mention of a character who comes from a set of islands that are thought to not exist. Obviously Lilong came from somewhere! How does that work in a story, where a character says “I'm from this place”, and other people maybe think she's lying because in their worldview, that location doesn't exist? 

SDO: To start, I’m sure Lilong would punch anyone in the face who said that, haha. But really, most of the reactions are less of, “You’re lying,” and more to the tune of confusion or perplexity. “Huh? Are you sure?” Probably followed by, “Tell me what that’s like.” To Lilong, that would probably translate to, “Convince me that where you come from is not as they tell us it is in the stories.” And then she has this burden of trying to correct all these impressions, and after a while, being the spokesperson for a whole people in this way tends to weigh on a person.

I personally could relate to this aspect, having moved around a bit and met many people who, after a bit of a chat with me, discover I’m Nigerian and then go, “Huh.” I watch them try to frame the “Convince me” question in a variety of ways. It’s fascinating, balancing that weight each time: I want to educate you, but I also don’t want to be that spokesperson, you know?

Anyway, in Lilong’s case, they’d mostly just try to murder her, because folks from where she’s from are supposed to be “savage.” But it never ends well for those folks, hehe.

NOAF: What is the culture like in Bassa? Danso is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, but what might have the rest of his life been like in Bassa, if he'd never met Lilong? 

SDO: Danso is a jali, a Mandé word (French-influenced alternative: djéli) for the more commonly known concept of a griot. This means he’s a professional storyteller, and has spent a large part of his life learning to be a sort of scholar-historian. He has a gift for memory, so is poised to become one of the greatest. Most of his life has been spent between the University of Bassa, the jali guild, and meetings at Bassa’s Great Dome. In Bassa, this is quite the elite life, as only the highest castes are allowed to practice the art.

But Danso also simultaneously belongs to the lowest caste, where folks of mixed heritage end up. So he gets to experience the other side of Bassa as well--discrimination, injustice, limited access. His life is uniquely complex in this way. If he’d never met Lilong, he would probably have become married to his betrothed, Esheme, and lived a probably unfulfilling life. But of course, the moon gods had other plans.

NOAF: So, I heard some unreal creatures and terrors show up. Can you tell us a little more about that?

SDO: I’ve probably said this in the promo, so I can say it here: there’s a lightning bat. A fearsome, massive beast with the ability to control lightning and track folks carrying magical stones. So, er, not the kind of beast you want to encounter. Which means, of course, I would be remiss not to have to make my characters encounter said beast, wouldn’t I?

NOAF: What was the most fun part of Son of the Storm to write?

SDO: Building the world, to start. I had such a swell time asking myself of Oon, the kinds of questions every worldbuilder would: why would they do this instead of that?

Mixing and matching fictional and real-life reasons in my answers to these questions, so that the line between both became blurred, was fun. Also, writing those characters who only appear once or twice but spice up the page whenever they do--Danso’s triplet uncles come to mind--is always fun. 

NOAF: What books and short stories have you been enjoying lately? Have you got anything to recommend to our readers? 

SDO: I recently read Djèlí Clark’s new book, Ring Shout, which I found super intriguing. Much of its overtones reminded me of Lovecraft Country, but Ring Shout is its own thing, and I’m unsurprised it was swiftly optioned. I’ve been slow-burn reading Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, and that is a heavy book emotionally, yet robust in ideas and uplifting in other ways. Lastly, I’ve been reading a lot about how boats were used in West Africa, as I work on Nameless Book #2. Expect to see some voyage on the waters, then!

NOAF: Thank you so much Suyi! 

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

Nanoreviews: These Lifeless Things, The Difficult Loves of Maria Makiling, Skyward Inn

These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed [Solaris Satellites]

A post apocalyptic, post invasion novella that keeps its secrets close to its chest in a way which underscores the sheer terror and confusion that might follow a total collapse of society, These Lifeless Things tells the story of two women 50 years apart. One is Eva, a survivor living in a city which has been taken over by mysterious, extradimensional invaders. The Them have wiped out the vast majority of humanity, and Eva and her small band of fellow survivors live constantly on the edge of an enemy which kills and changes their environment in strange, arbitrary and apparently unstoppable ways, as well as dealing with the more mundane aspects of keeping themselves fed, warm and alive in the ruins. Eva's story is discovered in a "diary", long after the catastrophe, by Emerson, a researcher whose interest in the history and anthropology of "the Setback" puts her at odds with her colleagues, who are studying the science of the catastrophe and consider her work at best a waste of time, and at worst a drain on resources. Emerson knows there is unlikely to be a happy ending to Eva's story - people from the cities simply didn't survive - but her research into the locations and actions of Eva's group, fifty years ago, is combined with a feeling of personal connection that can't help but spill over into hope.

The set-up makes for a strange, sad sort of story, as alongside Emerson we hope against hope for answers to Eva's fate, or even something that might help contextualise her story. Making things even more compelling are the very human interpersonal dramas in both Eva and Emerson's groups, although these also defy any sort of neat narrative tie-up in both scenarios. Eva's relationships perfectly underscore the exhausting misery of the trauma she is going through, her personal thoughts full of crushed desires and hopes that she's too traumatised and exhausted and ground down to even consider acting on even as she puts her life on the line for a different plan. Compared to what Eva is going through, the petty cruelties of Emerson's fellow researchers should feel less important, but because her search for knowledge is tied up in our feelings about Eva and our desire to understand her story, the "future" side of the tale ends up just as engaging as the past. I don't always love open-ended stories but this is one I would very much recommend giving time to.

Rating: 9/10

The Difficult Loves of Maria Makiling by Wayne Santos [Solaris Satellites]

Santos' reimagining of one of the Philippines' most notable Diwatas is fast, funny and packs a truly impressive array of cultural references - from colonial legacies to Alastair from Dragon Age to Imelda Marcos' shoe collection - into its short length. Maria Malihan is living what she thinks is a relatively ordinary life as a concept artist for a big game studio, excited as things start getting serious with her barista boyfriend Tate even as she tries to fend off creepy not-quite-legal-harassment advances from both her boss and her personal trainer. What she's not expecting is for her relationship to become the catalyst for said boyfriend to be almost killed in a car accident, then possessed by a strange spirit, and for Maria herself to suddenly remember that she's not simply Maria Malihan, a Canadian artist with limited connection to her Filipina heritage, but a reincarnation of Maria Makiling, the Diwata of Mount Makiling, who has been playing out the same tired tragedy with her repeatedly-murdered lover and the immortal forces trying to get him out of the way for their own purposes, generation after generation. To save Tate, Maria starts out on the same path to conquest as she always does, but this time things don't quite play out as they always have, and with a new ally in tow, she sets out to break the cycle the group have found themselves in and get herself and Tate the happy ending they finally deserve.

This kind of snappy, absurdist speculative fiction always makes me a bit nervous - there's so much that could go wrong when so many jokes and references need to land - but Santos really nails it here, spinning a story that takes us from Toronto to Luzon and back with just the shortest of detours through the mindscape of Margaret Atwood (whose recurring role is small but delightful). Somehow, the silliness manages to sit neatly alongside some light-touch but chewy reflections on colonialism and diaspora identity, and while some of the parallels are a bit on the simplistic side, the overall result is a novella that took me by surprise with the issues it was covering despite the lighthearted tone. Not everything landed for me (one aspect of the ending was a little too quick and convenient, though I didn't dislike the idea behind it), but overall I had great fun with this.

Score: 8/10

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley [Solaris]

Aliya Whiteley is an author I always follow with interest - The Beauty was an excellent novella, and The Loosening Skin took a great premise to some interesting places despite its rather odd structure - so I was intrigued about where this new novel would take things. What I got is a novel that started off with a quiet, unassuming premise, a pair of characters in a deliberately small setting dealing with deliberately small problems, which then proceeded to go in an absolutely wild direction until I wasn't even sure what I was reading any more. Is that bad? Is that good? I don't know! But don't settle into the first chapters of Skyward Inn thinking "this is going to be a fun, gentle slice of life SF" unless you enjoy being very, very wrong.

If it's not slice of life, what is it? Skyward Inn is the story of human war veteran Jem, her alien partner Isley, and her (human) son Fosse, all of whom live in The Western Protectorate, an area of western England that has seceded in order to be a full on microcosm of West Country-style Little Britain, complete with rampant distrust of outsiders and its very own border wall. Jem and Isley run the Skyward Inn, a pub in which the residents of the Protectorate gather to meet, drink and play darts. As a member of the alien Qita, who humanity conquered on their home planet years ago, Isley is just about tolerated within the xenophobia of the protectorate, but from the very beginning even Jem highlights the Other-ness of having an alien within her midst. When Won, another Qita, arrives seeking help, she sets in motion events that destablise the Protectorate from the inside out, at first running alongside what feel like more traditional pastoral conflicts like "which family member is going to inherit the farm", before the alien-ness of the Qita and the lingering questions around their original surrender to humanity engulf everything else. From that point, the story turns into biological horror interspersed with "first" contact documentation, in a way that is intriguing but never quite convinced me that it was a natural continuation of what had gone before. I think I can see what this story was trying to achieve by juxtaposing the small insular community of the Protectorate, grappling with its own version of a first contact history that seems too good to be true, with a present that has implications for the whole of humanity (but still filtered through that community) - it just never came together in the way I was hoping. However, I know that for other readers, this was a home run of a book, so your mileage may vary - regardless, Aliya Whiteley is an author who never fails to give me something weird and magical, and I'll be looking out for whatever comes next with just as much hope.

Score: 6/10

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Microreview [Book]: Defekt by Nino Cipri

 A story that juggles so much, so inventively, with impressive clarity.

Defekt is the most enjoyably bubbly book I’ve read exploring the burden of shackles. Not literal shackles, but ones that can extend to life as a retail worker or a one of self-doubt. Those shackles siphon your time at the expense of empty praise from apathetic bosses, or it hamstrings the growth of your relationships. But Defekt shows that being unshackled and free is a possibility and is only deceptively difficult. With just a prompt and some effort for self-growth, you can see that you are your biggest enemy, and once you understand that, you become your biggest friend. And what makes this novella most impressive is that these themes aren’t explored in hallmark-card-cheesiness, but through an inventive, twisty story full of clones, animated objects, and wormholes, that’s always compelling.

Defekt is the sequel to Nino Cipri's Hugo-nominated novella Finna, but is accessible to those who haven't read its predecessor, as even though it takes place in a familiar setting, it follows completely different characters In Defekt, Derek is an employee at LitenVärld, always following his instructions to the letter, never letting his bosses down. But then Derek starts feeling off, taking his first sick day. As consequence, his boss sends him to work inventory at night. During that shift, he stumbles upon animated objects and four people who appear to be clones of him, tasked with dealing with the animated objects—defective products. Wormholes, romance, and heart-pounding action ensues.

Derek is a terrific character in his own right. His personality, despite its rigidity, doesn’t lend itself to a monotone, uninteresting voice, because his care for others in the story exudes heartwarming, upbeat warmth. Nino Cipri has made a really interesting choice by not making the clones exactly like Derek, but as their own distinct, fully-formed individuals. There are quirks and features that are synonymous amongst all of them, but their personalities are fluid, whether it be their gender identity or chunks of their worldview. This makes later romantic relationships between some of them un-creepy because Defekt makes it clear that these people aren’t the same at all—it’s way less like romancing themselves and more like romancing someone different who possesses certain qualities they enjoy.

Character identities aren’t the only thing that’s fluid—the writing is, too. Defekt struck the right balance of explaining enough to orient me in the world and characters, without overburdening the story in description. It’s on the longer side of a novella length and absolutely earns its word count, moving with pep, surprising reveals, and skillfully conceived weird humor. Even the beginning, which is largely absent of fantastical imagery and heart-pounding action is engaging because the oppressive but strangely amusing setting of LitenVärld is richly drawn and peppered with characters who act in ways that spotlight the stores rigidity and soul-sucking effect on its employees, imbuing the story with internal roiling and strife that still infuses it with energy. The energy always exists in the novella—just in different ways.

Capturing one life in a story is hard enough. But to capture many clones in a fleshed-out manner that highlight facets of the protagonist, while deviating into fully-formed individuals seems impossible, but Defekt does it. It’s a writerly feat that lends itself to the themes of being unshackled both in work and personally. Because not only does it tell its readers to think and act expansively, but its writing is aptly expansive, too, championing a well-trodden theme in a way that’s unique, and most importantly, grand.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 For finding moments of hilarity amidst all the plot threads.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Cipri, Nino. Defekt [Tordotcom, 2021].

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

6 Books with David Bowles

Photo by Paul Chouy

David Bowles is a Mexican American author and translator from south Texas. Among his many award-winning titles are Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico; The Smoking Mirror; and They Call Me Güero. His work has been published in multiple anthologies, plus venues such as The New York Times, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, The Dark, Latin American Literature Today, School Library Journal, Rattle, Translation Review, and the Journal of Children’s Literature. Additionally, David has worked on several TV/film projects, including Victor and Valentino (Cartoon Network), the Moctezuma & Cortés miniseries (Amazon/Amblin) and Monsters and Mysteries in America (Discovery). Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @DavidOBowles

Today he talks to me about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading? 

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, the second in her Teixcalaan series. As a scholar of Nahuatl who has written a lot about pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, I really admired how Martine has done her homework for this series, mining Indigenous Mexican culture in such respectful ways to create a fully realized set of future cultures. 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders, which launches her YA sci-fi series Unstoppable. Everyone is gushing that it’s frothy, fun, frenetic, and queer as can be. I’m ready! We need more YA space opera, especially penned by writers this talented.

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

Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias. It seemed chillingly prescient about near-future dystopic treatment of immigrants back when it first released in 2012. The past few years have often exceeded even what Vourvoulias predicted, but what I want to experience again is her lovely weaving of “magical realism” (i.e., just our regular realism in the Latinx community) with science fiction to depict culturally rooted answers to oppression. 

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

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I once really respected the book, even taught it (the cleaned-up version without Ender calling Alai the n-word, which I didn’t know about until years later) to middle-school students. But as OSC has grown more rabidly queermisic and white nationalist, I’ve come to see the eugenics and white saviorism of the book in a new light and can no longer stand it. The tension is interesting given that my BIPOC space opera The Path was written in dialogue with the original Ender Quartet. 

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

As a teen, I read Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series (now Lilith’s Brood), and it spoke to me viscerally. A light-skinned queer Chicano, I found my feelings of dissociation, cultural betrayal, self-colonization and ambivalence about white privilege stirred up by the trilogy in a way no other literature had to that point. Mexican Americans were hardly represented in US publishing at all, but the Black experience Butler drew upon was close enough to resonate deeply. Ever since, I have wanted to use science fiction to reflect on and comment about my people’s plight in what philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa termed “nepantla,” the liminal cultural space we find ourselves in. The specifics of that exploration lead me to write more broadly about the dangerous paradoxes of human nature, how we might transform ourselves and our institutions in order to move forward.

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

My latest is The Blue-Spangled Blue, the first book of The Path, a series I started writing twenty-five years ago. Set seven centuries from now, the book depicts humanity as having survived the White Doom—a series of cataclysmic events on Earth brought about by racist, capitalist hegemony. But as the global majority has spread into space, it’s found itself still shackled by corporate greed and the colonial mindset. Blue is set on the planet Jitsu, settled by ethnic Aknawajin from our asteroid belt who later won their independence from the world’s corporate owners. It’s here that a pivotal moment in human history begins, the chance to find a new way forward that is rooted in Indigenous past, weaving into existence a future dreamed of by distant ancestors. The spark is the romance between Tenshi Koroma—architect and leader of a religious reform movement—and Brando D’Angelo, a linguist from Earth. The family they start together serves as the fulcrum as it finds its perilous way along what they call The Path.
Full of religious, linguistic, cultural and political speculation that should resonate for fans of Dune, The Hainish Cycle, and The Expanse, this book (and the entire quartet, releasing over the course of a single year) blends military sci-fi action with character-driven plotting, rich world-building, and strong BIPOC/queer representation. I think you’ll come away wanting more. Luckily, there’s more coming. 

Thanks David!

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Review: The Dominion Anthology

Ours is a time of ever-increasing visibility for African SFF—now it has its first anthology

Our editor Adri mentioned this book already last August, but it bears revisiting at greater length. This is, according to the publisher, "the first anthology of speculative fiction and poetry by Africans and the African Diaspora," so it deserves every chance of visibility it can get. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and with a foreword by Tananarive Due, the Dominion anthology collects twelve stories and one poem about imagined futures and reimagined pasts told with deep sincerity and robustness of worldbuilding. This is certainly an exciting time for diversity in speculative fiction.

Trickin' by Nicole Givens Kurtz, from the United States, is an odd choice to open the book with, as it is not a very strong story, with little impact on the reader. In the ruins of a city devastated by biological warfare, a mysterious wanderer wakes up on Halloween and starts terrorizing the survivors, demanding a blood tribute. There are the vaguest indications that the protagonist might be some sort of superhuman, most likely a vampire, but the story itself is scarce in information. One has to flip back to the book's introductory pages to learn from the editorial synopsis that this character is supposed to be a god. Not the most impressive of starts, but don't worry: the rest of the anthology more than makes up.

Red_Bati by Dilman Dila, from Uganda, is the deeply moving rebellion story of a former pet robot now working for an asteroid mining company that finds it cheaper to repurpose discarded pets than to buy actual miner robots. Unbeknownst to its new owners, Red_Bati had a software upgrade with human-like intelligence so it could better serve as a companion to humans, so when it suffers an accident and is put in storage as damaged junk, he devises a risky escape plan.

The most effective artistic choice in this story is its gradual dosing of information: we start in the middle of a conversation with minimal context, then we are pulled back so we can see some of the scenery (we are on a spaceship), and later we learn the protagonist's immediate predicament, and only when it becomes relevant to the plot are we given the rest of the backstory. This technique of withholding crucial facts until they are needed is very hard to do successfully, but this time it's managed with a flawless expertise that never loses hold of the reader's attention. The interaction between the robotic protagonist and its internal simulation of its dead owner is as funny as it is heartbreaking, and it subtly grows in weirdness until the ending comes and devastates the reader.

There are, however, a few missteps, which would not matter in any other kind of story, but are too noticeable in one that presents itself as science fiction grounded in physics. One aside comment mentions a sentient robotic crew on another spaceship that panics and refuses to keep working upon estimating only a 99.9% chance of a safe landing (which is not how any superintelligent being would respond to probabilities), while another part refers to a system of thermal insulation so good it can resist −400 °C (a temperature that is physically impossible in this universe). These details are brief and do not affect in the least the emotional punch of the story, but they do distract enough to prevent full suspension of disbelief.

A Maji Maji Chronicle by Eugen Bacon, from Australia, is a time travel story that revisits the Maji Maji Rebellion, an uprising that erupted against forced labor in the German East Africa colony (today's Tanzania). A wizard and his apprentice jump from the future to 1905 Earth and explore the ramifications of an alternate outcome to the rebellion. In our timeline, villagers used folk charms that were believed to stop bullets, and were brutally suppressed by the German colonial officers. In this version of events, we watch with dread the insidious darkness that could have taken over the human heart if the rebels had had access to real magic.

This tale appears to have a simple structure at first sight, but it contains material for extended discussions on the allure of power, the difficulty of maintaining control, and the didactic usefulness of history. The reader will marvel at how the author managed to speak of a horribly painful episode while having the two viewpoint protagonists banter with Quixotic irony.

The Unclean by Nuzo Onoh, from Nigeria, is a haunting story about the horror of loss worsened by the horror of patriarchy. In the years leading to Nigeria's independence, a young Igbo woman separated from her home by arranged marriage endures first the cruel pressure to conceive and then the despair of her child's death. When she starts receiving nightly visitations from the child's ghost, she tries desperately to help him be born into his next life. We experience in parallel narratives the journey that brought her to her present misfortune and the trial by ordeal she's going through for practicing forbidden sorcery.

This story abounds in cultural specifics that construct a solid image of the setting in the reader's mind. We're presented with an array of malevolent spirits, magical rituals and secret Nsibidi symbols that anchor the story firmly in its corner of the world.

But beyond the care for authenticity, it is amazing that a terrifying tale of horrific events can be so filled, from start to end, with beautiful sentences that jump out at the reader, demanding to be reread for the pure enjoyment of their rhythm, their choice of words, their evocative poetry. A select few are "As I walked through the low metal gate of our compound, my feet grew sudden wings as I raced the last few yards to our front door" and "My reddened eyes remained puffed with unfinished tears, ready to shed my agony at the slightest excuse" and "The unnatural stillness in my room was heavy with a waiting quality that made the darkness a solid malignant mass" and "Gathered in a silent, waiting crowd, hollowed eyes dripping blood as black as tar, each posed in the manner of their demise, they impaled me to the ground by their appalling visage" and "God is thundering, roaring, helpless as He's always been in the face of mankind's tragedy."

This is a powerful piece of horror and one of the highlights of the entire collection.

A Mastery of German by Marian Denise Moore, from the United States, is a short but effective exploration of the anxieties brought by the current genetic ancestry testing fad. In a not very tightly regulated pharmaceutical company, a project to turn generational memory into a product is discussed in the context of larger questions about privacy, identity, heredity, and erased history. If a company can make money from your memories, but you are your memories, is the company selling you? This question would be piercing enough in any story, but in one told from the perspective of African American history, and coinciding with the still-ongoing discussion about who gets to own and tell a people's experience, it carries an extra edge.

The anthology also features Emily, Moore's heartfelt poem about the many characters lost to history and the things we wish we could have told them.

Convergence in Chorus Architecture by Dare Segun Falowo, from Nigeria, is a survival story with the symbolic scope and weight of an epic. In a richly detailed Yoruba setting, sustained by powerful descriptions like "Lightning flashed and for a moment, everything seemed made from white stone," a community of war escapees who founded a secret village have to decipher a vision from the heavens. For a long stretch, the plot is less about material events and more about the effort to decipher the omens. This is a nice way to tell a story about stories: to make it hinge on an act of interpretation. Characters spend whole days in mystical trance and their perception of the waking world is effortlessly blended with the signs of the dream.

The narration relies heavily on the divinatory practices of the Ifa religion, and large portions are devoted to painting intricate dreamscapes that hold the secrets to the story. These sections employ surreal imagery that both detaches the reader from the conventional meanings of words and creates a very concrete, very unique world with its own system of meaning. This is what makes it possible for the author to put so much force into wonderful sentences like "A scream was cut short by a blaze of violet fire, as the screaming body exploded into the air, burning a trail thin as thread from the distant plain into the gut of the boneship" and "Up in the sky where he looked, he saw as in the shared dream, a blackness staining the night, the emergence of a void in the flesh of reality" and "Her motions set off melodies which the air sings to itself."

The author's mastery of description holds together two parallel plots that explore both the depths of the earth and the void of outer space. Thieves from another star system have come to the village, in a stylized metaphor for the arrival of the slave trade, while a man navigates the underworld to seek the divine power that may save his people. Both below the earth and up among the stars, the events have to be read with multiple meanings, with the lasting resonance of myth. This story, my favorite in the book, is absolutely breathtaking, crafted in a tactile language that makes the stuff of dreams feel real.

To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines by Rafeeat Aliyu, from Nigeria, is a fun portal fantasy where a bored half-alien bureaucrat assigned to a boring uneventful town is suddenly ordered to watch over a human wizard searching for a staff he needs to participate in a magical competition. The frustrations of cultural misunderstandings and the absurdities of transdimensional legislation carry the tale in a breeze, but it's worth noting briefly the series of clever allegories inserted here: barriers to immigration, theft of cultural treasures, the discrimination suffered by people of mixed ethnicity, and the power of heritage to literally make a territory.

Sleep Papa, Sleep by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, from Nigeria, is a gritty undead story where an organ trafficker is haunted by his father's corpse after inadvertently selling parts of him. We follow the protagonist in a deadly quest through the criminal underbelly of Lagos to unburden himself from his guilt.

Clanfall: Death of Kings by Odida Nyabundi, from Kenya, is a complex political drama with plenty of throat slashing and gut ripping. In a far future Earth without humans, a territory known only as the Cracked Realm is ruled by feuding cyborg dynasties. The clan of the Fisi has just overthrown the clan of the Simba for control of the country, but a spy drone sent by the reclusive clan of the Chui has discovered a secret that could strengthen their position under the new regime. The plot is slow to reveal itself, and folds back into the past several times to revisit events from another perspective. The multiple alternating viewpoints tax the reader's working memory, and the abrupt ending comes frustratingly soon after the author has spent so much effort on building a fascinating world that cries out to be explored more. It reads as the first chapter of a much longer epic, and one can only hope it is.

The Satellite Charmer by Mame Bougouma Diene, from the United States, zooms the controversy on Chinese acquisition of African raw materials to cosmic proportions: in a future empire spanning the territories between Chad and Senegal, Chinese corporations have acquired a license to shoot gigantic beams of red light from orbit to pull minerals from the ground. A young man with prophetic powers has spent his life captivated by the strange seductive power of the red beam, obsessed with becoming one with it, while his country tries to survive amid massive environmental devastation.

The prose is written efficiently, but has time for strong description when it matters. The reader is regaled with sentences like "He could taste the dampness in the air, his eyes watering with the wind" and "Entire swathes of the continent seared and bleeding with lava, like open arteries on a suicidal forearm" and "The Mandrill's eyes opened onto the universe, folded it into the shape of Ibou's heart and took a bite." Likewise, the protagonist holds on to scarce moments of beauty as an escape from the bleakness of the world. Through slices of his life, we watch him adapt to the pressures of extractive economy until it takes everything from him and more.

This story gradually rises from a mundane plot to metaphysical musings without letting go of its threads of logical continuity. It's one thing for you to repeat the mantra that everything is connected, and another thing to be yourself the pathway through which it happens.

Thresher of Men by Michael Boatman, from the United States, is a quick succesion of shocking episodes about an avenging goddess who has lived for centuries watching over the African people and their descendants, and now has returned to the world in the era of police brutality.

Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, from Nigeria, concludes this anthology with mixed results. In a future Ife, a refuge for the dwindling survivors of a nuclear war, the tribal leader makes unauthorized contact with the outside world, offering his people's supernatural talents in exchange for a dubious promise of rescue, and sets in motion an explosive confrontation and a social revolution in his suffocatingly patriarchal community.

The dialogues are excessive, explaining too much in a theatrical voice that makes the characters sound separated from their own feelings. In the manner of didactic tales, which themselves feature as central elements of the story, the author chooses to tell rather than show, to a degree that strains the reader's investment. The characters come off more as archetypes than as concrete persons. Every time a fact about this society needs to be told to the reader, characters say it to each other, in classic "As you know" manner. Strangely, in a pivotal early scene where two prophets pronounce world-shattering revelations, the dialogue is simple, almost business-like, incongruous with the events it is describing.

The action scenes, in contrast, are written with better skill. This is not entirely to be celebrated, as this is not a story of war, but a story of cultural change told with the trappings of war. When it returns to its central topics, however, it adopts a preachy tone that does its message no favors. Only its mythical ending saves this story, which by that point has grown rather ponderous.

This last part may sound like an indictment of the book, but it's far from that. There is material here for every taste, and you may notice that in Adri's review last August, she enjoyed stories I didn't. This anthology is worth your immediate attention, and the most exciting bit is that it is labeled as "Volume One," so we remain eager for the rest of the series.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +2 for beautiful prose.

Penalties: −2 for numerous typesetting errors that are even more numerous in the Kindle version. It is unfair that an anthology capable of such literary heights should be stained by clumsy paragraph indentation and careless kerning.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Knight, Zelda and Ekpeki, Oghenechovwe Donald [editors]. Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (Volume One) [Aurelia Leo, 2020].

Monday, April 19, 2021

Microreview [book]: The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The final Wayfarers novel is the opposite of a big finale number, and that's more than OK

I'll level with you, dear readers: somehow I haven't written a full length book review in a month, and I forgot how reviews start. So I'm just going to start by going "what IS reviewing?" and then follow up with "why have I had some books on my review pile for over a month without writing about them" and then we'll see where we go from there. One such book is The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, the last in Becky Chambers' Hugo Award winning Wayfarers series of spacefaring novels starring people who, despite the challenges of the world they live in, choose to be fundamentally kind and generous with each other and see where that gets them. In another series, I'd have gone into a final instalment expecting something on a grander scale than the lead-up: a big budget finale episode of a book featuring More! of Everything! with high stakes and happy tied-up plots for everyone involved. This being the Wayfarers, I went in with no such expectations and it's a good thing I didn't, because in scale this is the smallest of the Wayfarers books: a tiny, isolated story in a small part of the galaxy, featuring a few transient characters who intersect for a few days and then go their separate ways once more. It defies all concepts of what a finale should be, and I have had no idea how to write about it, or, really, how I feel about it. 

The book takes place on Gora, a planet whose economy is entirely built around being a rest stop for people passing through its various space gates to other parts of the galaxy. As Gora itself is an airless rock, those rest stops all take the form of various domes on the planet's surface, where travellers come down for the kind of hospitality experience one would expect at a transit hotel: a clean room, a decent meal, some supplies for their ship and maybe a weird souvenir from the gift shop. One such generic rest stop is owned by Laru (think the Mystics from Dark Crystal but fuzzier) Ouloo and her child Tupo, and on what is supposed to be a completely average day they have three guests arrive: Pei, an Aeluon on her way to visit her partner (Ashby of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet),  Roveg, an insect-like Quelin trying to keep a mysterious urgent appointment, and Speaker, an Akarak whose role within her otherwise insular species is to interact and trade with outsiders. Unfortunately for all, this very average day is disrupted by a disaster that takes out much of the satellite network around Gora, leaving everyone stranded in the rest stop with nothing to do but rely on each other and wait for better news.

With the inciting incident set up, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within proceeds to do absolutely nothing to invoke any significant tension for the majority of its remaining length. Nothing bad happens to any of the characters or in their immediate vicinity as a result of the disaster, and the satellites are fixed offscreen with some cheerful official network updates serving as interludes between sections. Instead, the substance of the book revolves around the way these aliens interact with each other: from endless snacks (you will not forget that Ouloo is in the hospitality industry for a single second!) to dance parties to heartfelt conversations with teenagers about following their passions, the book lets these five aliens tell the story of why they have found themselves in this transit point, and where they're going next. The shared strand among the adults is that all are in some way exiled or distant from their species' expectations and communities. Pei, as readers of A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet will know, is from a species which considers inter-species romance a taboo and reproduction a responsibility, but wants to arrange her life in a very different way. Roveg's species are notoriously xenophobic and only those exiled are free to travel, meaning that his existence among the group means that he has been ostracised from his family and home for reasons that are explored through the book. Perhaps the book's most interesting strand is that involving Speaker and her species, the Akarak, methane-breathers whose planet was terraformed out of being habitable and who have never been offered just reparations or acknowledgement by a galaxy which continues to find them too inconvenient to accommodate. Because the Wayfarers books don't deal at the scale of political change, Speaker's story gets the least satisfying resolution of the lot, but it's an interesting wrinkle to add to the other background injustices and legacies which form the backdrop of Chambers' otherwise rather benign galaxy.

So yes, there's a reason for everyone to stay in one place and get to know each other longer than they otherwise would, and they eat some interesting snacks and have a dance party and tell stories, and then a bad accident does happen (as a result of the different forms of life support the different species need to survive) and everyone is kind of sobered and made to consider what they Really Want after this as a result of the accident, and then things are resolved with no lasting consequences and everyone goes off to live a slightly better version of the life they would have lived anyway. Which is to say, there's a way in which reading The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is a rather underwhelming experience. Becky Chambers has written enough books at this point (and I have read them) that it's obnoxious to go into them expecting something to happen in the traditional sense, but even by that metric, there's not much going on here: just a small story in a small corner of the galaxy, where individuals come up against overwhelming cultural dilemmas and encourage each other to solve them through some combination of being true to oneself and making good art. 

And yet, you know what? It works. It works because the idea of solving problems through individual empathy, while not a replacement for science fiction that grapples with wider systemic change, is just as radical an idea to explore, and it's also an extremely enjoyable wish fulfilment fantasy. It's hard to put into words what Chambers pulls off, and I can't shake the feeling that it would be even better in a video game or another interactive medium where gentle, character-driven exploration can feel more natural - but Chambers definitely pulls off the intended effect here, and I greatly enjoyed the experience of reading this book even as the "how" of its engaging me kind of didn't make sense.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within won't win over anyone who doesn't already like what Chambers does, and it's not your average series finale. But, as confused as my poor rusty reviewer brain might be, I can't imagine this series going out any other way.

The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 An entertaining cast of aliens with (mostly) fun interspecies shenanigans; +1 Nails the "transit hotel that is trying really hard to be the best it can be" feeling; +1 balances the conflict of focusing on small scale stories involving intractable-at-that-level political problems 

Penalties: -1 Despite the above bonus, I did want more for Speaker...

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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: Chambers, Becky. The Galaxy and the Ground Within [Hodder & Staughton, 2021]