Wednesday, June 30, 2021

2021 Hugo Award Voter's Packet

The Voter's Packet for the Hugo Awards has been released and made available to all members of DisCon III and Nerds of a Feather has put together a compilation of what we feel represents the best and the breadth of our collective work published in 2020. While the purpose of the Voter's Packet is to help eligible voters make an informed decision when casting their ballots, we wanted to also make this available to all of our readers who may want to take a look back at what we did last year. As such, below is The G's introduction to the Voter's Packet followed by the Table of Contents with links to each of the essays, reviews, and features we included in the packet.

If you'd like, you can also download the files we included in the Voter's Packet and take Nerds of a Feather on the go.


We hope you enjoy!


If ever there was a year when genre mattered, it was 2020. What we just lived through – what we continue to live through – was once the stuff of science fiction. Think about it. A zoonotic, aero-
solized virus. Global pandemic. State-enforced lockdowns. Mask mandates. Contact tracing via digital apps on your mobile devices. The spread of misinformation, echoing the spread of the virus itself. And video conferencing – so much video-conferencing – taking the place of person-to-per son interaction.

Meanwhile, so many of us found ourselves cut off from our usual support networks and activities, isolated at home or working essential jobs in challenging circumstances; starved for entertainment; in need of an escape. Genre offered us distant worlds and far-off lands, magical creatures and the endless wonder of space. Genre could help us momentarily escape from what was going on around us. And it could help us work through the pain, fear and stress of what was going on around us – what is still going on around us.

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together exists in a virtual space. It is powered by a group of editors and writers scattered across the world. Our purpose is to share, review and critique works of science fiction and fantasy that we feel are worthy of discussion. We have never sought to be comprehensive in our coverage, but rather well curated.

And we neither charge nor seek advertising to underwrite this endeavor. We do it out of love for the subject matter, and because we all, individually and collectively, want to cast our opinions and viewpoints out into the ether, where they become part of the digital community – and conversation - that is fandom.

We are not alone. There are many others, including our fellow nominees in the Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer and Best Fancast categories, who ride alongside us. We all share this same passion for genre and for fandom, that same need to express ourselves through critical exegesis. I feel fortunate to ride alongside them. Still, I think there is something special about Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together. Nine years ago, almost to this day, it began with a phone call to my co-founder Vance Kotrla. We had long been neighbors and friends, brought together by a shared love for science fiction and cult cinema.

I knew that he, like me, had a lot to say about it too. Would he want to put that to page? As it happens, he did. Fast-forward nine years and we have just received our 5th Hugo Award nomination. We have one
writer (Paul Weimer) nominated in the Best Fan Writer Category, and an editor (Adri Joy) co-nominated in the Best Related Work Category. What’s more, an alumnus (Charles Payseur) is nominated both in the Best Fan Writer and Best Fanzine categories. We have a wonderful group of editors and writers, led by our Managing Editors Adri Joy and Joe Sherry, who produce thoughtful, engaging and sometimes provocative material five-days-a-week. (Vance and I still write for the site too!) And while books are our bread and butter, we also cover comics, games, film and television. Quite the value, right? A broad selection of what genre has to offer in one convenient place. With that in mind, I’d like to present you with a curated sample of the work we produced in 2020. I am immensely proud of the work our team has produced - particularly in this year of years, when we needed genre more than ever. I am grateful for the opportunity to share it with you, and for your consideration in the Best Fanzine category.

Section I. Fiction Reviews

1. The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin
2. Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott
3. Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
4. My Best Friend's Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix
5. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest
6. In the Black, by Patrick Tomlinson
7. Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
8. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, by Nghi Vo
9. A Pale Light in the Black, by K.B. Wagers

Section II. Nerds on Tour
1. Introducing Nerds on Tour
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Film)
3. The Route of Ice and Salt, by Jose Luis Zarate (1996, Novella)
4. Black Orpheus (1959, Film)

Section III. Conversations
1. Adri and Joe Talk About Books: 2019 Locus Recommended Reading List
2. The Modern Nostalgia of Dragon Quest XI: A Conversation
3. The Hugo Initiative: Blogtable (1983, Novelette)
4. Interview: S.L. Huang
5. Interview: Andrea Hairston

Section IV. Essays
1. Beauty, Dragons, and Isometric Horror: Revisiting Breath of Fire IV
2. Major and Minor: On Speculative Fiction as Canonical Literature
3. Publishing, Fire Become Ashes, and the pretty pastel packaging of abuse
4. Imagining Beyond the Climate Crisis

Section V. Features
1. Westworld Wednesdays: Other People's Gods
2. Tuesday Morning Superhero: Comic Con at Home
3. The Dragon Prince Re-Read: Skybowl
4. We Rank 'Em: New (Retro) Adventure Games!

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Microreview [book]: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

 A slow, complex reimagining of the founding of the Ming dynasty, with a nameless daughter taking on an identity and destiny that takes her far beyond her origin.

She Who Became the Sun is a historical retelling about a fascinating moment in history: the fall of the Yuan dynasty and the founding of the Ming dynasty in China, and the corresponding rise of Zhu Chongba, a peasant boy from an impoverished family wiped out by famine, to becoming the dynasty's first Emperor. Except, in this reimagining, Zhu Chongba was not born with that identity. Instead, when the real Zhu Chongba dies of famine, it's his nameless sister who takes on his name and everything about his identity, including the prophecy that Zhu Chongba - whoever takes up that mantle - is destined for greatness. By taking on her brother's identity and finding her way into a nearby monastery for the next decade, Zhu survives, but eventually the conflict catches up with her and she ends up joining the Red Turban rebel forces, securing her place in the army through a smart initial victory and rising through the ranks.

Zhu's rise to power - and the way it ties in with a fantasy world that takes prophecies and mandates very seriously - would be a great adventure even without the complexities of her gender - but with it, the story becomes much more compelling. While Zhu lives in a time where men and masculinities are highly constrained, it is also a patriarchal structure where women have almost no agency or power except through making a lucky enough marriage. Zhu is convinced that she can only achieve the destiny attached to her name if she acts entirely in accordance with the way the "real" Zhu Chongba would have done - which means trying to push away any manifestation of her own female identity, and refuse any empathy with the women around them despite understanding their challenges far better than other men can. And yet, as readers, we can see that much of Zhu's brilliance comes from her ability to think beyond the constraints of martial masculinity that most of her comrades are embroiled in, and when she begins to build a relationship with Ma Xiuying (daughter of a dead General and betrothed of another), it's all we can do not to shout at her to stop being dense and go for it. But Zhu's gender journey is nowhere near as basic as "woman in patriarchy doesn't want to be oppressed", and her kindling a connection with Ma is not, in the end, about a shared gender - although it is based on a promise of being able to break with convention. Zhu never stops referring to herself with she/her pronouns (hence why I'm using them here - though the book switches depending on the point of view character) but her path to establishing her own identity involves embracing her "otherness" even as she evolves past the need to perform the best version of her brother that she can.

She Who Became the Sun is one of this year's much-feted golden-covered sapphic fantasies, but compared to The Jasmine Throne and The Unbroken, the chemistry between Ma and Zhu plays less of an active role in the narrative. It's still very much there, particularly in the book's heartbreaking climax, but it's nevertheless a quieter relationship than The Unbroken's Touraine and Luca or The Jasmine Throne's Priya and Malini. Instead, the more tumultous and tragic journey is given to the book's other great relationship: that between Ouyang, a eunuch general in the service of the Mongolian Prince of Henan, and the Prince's son Esen. Ouyang was brought into the service of the Mongols after they massacred his family and mutilated him, so one can imagine he's not particularly happy with the situation. But as a man dealing with plenty of Gender Bullshit of his own, Ouyang is desperate to prove himself as a martial leader, and his actions immediately put him at odds with Zhu as the latter begins to rise. Ouyang's complex, heated relationship with Esen, and Esen's own struggles with both Ouyang and with his adoptive brother Wang, make the politics of the Mongol side just as intriguing as that of the Red Turbans, and Ouyang's own difficult, conflicted role makes it hard not to sympathise even as we hate his actions in opposition to Zhu. Both Ouyang and Zhu end with very morally challenging resolutions in this book (the first of a duology), yet I find myself rooting for and sympathising with both of them, and hoping for at least a shred of mutual understanding to be possible in the concluding part.

She Who Became the Sun is, in short, an impressive book. On a personal level, it didn't work as well for me as it seems to have done for other reviewers - perhaps because it's so slow, I found myself appreciating it in a distant way rather than being as emotionally drawn in to Zhu's journey as I had hoped. The relatively low magic also took some adjustment after spending a lot of time in more fantastic worlds more recently: as noted, the Mandate of Heaven has a very physical manifestation in this world, and there are ghosts and other supernatural elements, but the war being fought is very much one of the historical time. Those are not criticisms of the book itself, though, and as historical fantasy that stays (I think!) relatively true to the historical record, She Who Became the Sun is a brilliant example of how the genre can turn those events on their head and bring readers a narrative that is both instructive of the period while imagining complexity and challenge in places that the historical record inevitably flattens (or overlooks altogether).

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

Monday, June 28, 2021

Nanoreviews: The Factory Witches of Lowell, Quantum Shadows, Rhythm of War

Malerich, C.S. The Factory Witches of Lowell [Tordotcom Publishing]

It's somewhat not fair to read The Factory Witches of Lowell less than two months after finishing The Once and Future Witches. They're not the same story, except they both involve historical witchcraft and fighting for one's rights. There is enough similarity that taking The Factory Witches of Lowell on its own merits is functionally impossible because it comes across as part of a genre conversation and reexamination of witchcraft. The problem, such as it is, is that this novella has more to live up to and it doesn't get all the way there.

All of which to say that The Factory Witches of Lowell is a story about women, witchcraft, and labor unions. The magic is a means to an end, a means to claim power in the face of injustice. The story is smoothly and easily told - the novella is a quick read with real heart. There's plenty to appreciate here.
Score: 6/10

Modesitt, Jr, L.E. Quantum Shadows [Tor]

I've written a number of capsule reviews of L.E. Modesitt, Jr's fantasy novels, primarily in the Recluce and Imager settings. I frequently note how reading Modesitt is pure comfort and that while I generally know almost exactly what I'm going to get, it is that perfectly set expectation meeting execution that brings me coming back again and again for more. By now I've read thirty of his fantasy novels, but none of his science fiction work. Having read his fantasy across three series, I was confident I knew what I was getting into and was prepared for the science fiction version of his fantasy work. Readers, for perhaps the first time in thirty novels, my expectations were not met.

Quantum Shadows read like an unpolished draft of one of Modesitt's fantasy novels, though within a science fiction setting. I could not have been more disappointed. Perhaps it was that my expectations were misaligned with the story Modesitt intended to tell, but I simply bounced hard off of Quantum Shadows. Perhaps readers more familiar with his science fiction would find something to love here, but the writing was far more awkward and stiff than Modesitt tends to deliver with his fantasy. Quantum Shadows doesn't stand up to Modesitt's fantasy and it certainly doesn't stand up to the best of science fiction being written today.
Score: 4/10

Sanderson, Brandon. Rhythm of War [Tor]

If Rhythm of War isn't the longest novel I've read, topping in at over 1200 pages it is certainly one of the longest. Talking about page count when it comes to epic fantasy is a bit passe at this point given that the genre is sometimes affectionately known as "big fat fantasy". Not since his earliest novels (Elantris and Mistborn) has Sanderson been sparing with his word count, but Rhythm of War takes it to another level.

To a point, Brandon Sanderson has earned that trust and he doesn't abuse it - though I'm not sure if readers would have really noticed the difference had he turned in a 950 page novel instead.

Listen - Rhythm of War is the fourth novel in Sanderson's Stormlight Archive (a proposed ten volume series made up of two 5 book story arcs) and under no circumstances can it be said to stand alone. So, if you're even considering reading this book you've read the approximately 3000 combined pages of The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer. You already know if you want to read this book. At most you want to know if it pays off the big ideas of the series and it absolutely does.

Much of the novel is the small steps towards (and during) the wider conflict the series has been building towards. It's not exactly "more of the same", but it is gradual narrative progression (or it feels like). Where Rhythm of War truly shines, though, is those moments where Sanderson gives something new and something big. We've known for years that all of his epic fantasy is part of a wider universe (truly) called the Cosmere and there have been easter eggs planted throughout all of his novels where they connect even though it doesn't matter to the individual novel. You still don't need to know anything about the Cosmere or the other novels (besides this series) - but Rhythm of War is the novel that actually introduces the concept of the Cosmere. There's been talk about traveling from other worlds but every time it is pushed to the forefront it becomes something cooler an something substantial in the series. Beyond that, there are a handful of other significant events that rise above the ordinary conflict of the novel and series that make the whole thing just a bit more interesting than it might have been.

As noted, this is for fans of Brandon Sanderson and specifically for readers of The Stormlight Archive. Rhythm of War is not the entry point, but it is a satisfying (if overly long) ride.
Score: 7/10

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 5x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him

Thursday, June 24, 2021

(Deconstructed) 6 Books with K B Wagers

 K.B. Wagers is the author of the Indranan and Farian War trilogies from Orbit Books and the NeoG Adventures from Harper Voyager. They are a fan of whiskey and cats, Jupiter Ascending and the Muppets. You can find them on Twitter @kbwagers and Instagram @midwaybrawler for political commentary, plant photos, and video game playthroughs

Today, K.B does a deconstructed Six Books Format. 

Hello all, thanks for joining me here at Six Books while I break all the rules of this challenge and get kicked out on my ear! I am K.B. Wagers, science fiction author of the upcoming HOLD FAST THROUGH THE FIRE (7/27 Harper Voyager). 

I’m currently reading ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong which is a breathtaking autofiction both because of its beautiful prose and its heartbreaking story of an immigrant boy dealing with the memories of his mother, his coming out journey, and trying to survive in America. I am really loving it and glad that I followed my curiosity to look for it when I heard about it. And I’m almost finished with Kate Elliott’s UNCONQUERABLE SUN, a book that stole my heart from the moment I heard “queer, gender-bent, Alexander the Great in space.” It is everything I hoped for and more.

I could sit here all day and talk about the books that are coming out which make me clap my hands in glee. But since I’m only supposed to pick one, let me tell you about SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan (7/20) and how excited I am for this “lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.” I have been all in on historical reimaginings lately as you may have guessed.

New books being written all the time means I can barely keep up with my TBR list, let alone go back to reread books I’ve loved, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to revisit Nghi Vo’s THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE because I am such a sucker for the story within a story and she does it so brilliantly. (By the way, Vo has a novel coming out June 1st that is inspired by the Great Gatsby and I have heard it’s amazing so if that’s your jam go check out THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL.)

I love reading beautiful books because I don’t feel like that’s necessarily my strong suit, however, if you love found family, queer relationship dynamics, and explorations of trust, betrayal, and forgiveness all wrapped up in a space adventure with some of the most competent folx you’ll ever meet then joining the NeoG might be for you. You can come meet the crew in July with HOLD FAST THROUGH THE FIRE, or get a sneak peek at them with A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK which is my beautiful pandemic book. Thanks for joining me today and I hope you found something in here that excites you!

Thank you, katy!


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


Questing in Shorts June 2021: The Triumphant Return!

 Yes that's right, Questing in Shorts is BACK, bay-bee!

Put on your dancing shorts and boogie with me

It's been six months, during which time the subscription folder on my e-reader has been relentlessly filling itself up with enticing things. Sadly, since the start of the year my mind has mostly been elsewhere (and by elsewhere I mean "taking on the general capacity and aura of a mossy pond"). I had a few exceptions, mostly to catch up on 2020 stories from Omenana and FIYAH before Hugo nominations ended in March, but on the whole it's not been a good time for me and short fiction.

But! as of the start of this month, I've been feeling the short fiction itch again, and I've spent some time trying to come up with a system that will help me keep track of all the short fiction I read in a way that actually reflects the way I read short fiction (so, not sitting in front of a spreadsheet trying to type things in every ten minutes). After some thought, I decided to give in to the instinct that this was a problem that could only be solved with new stationery.

For once, though, new stationery really has been a gamechanger! Behold, Adri's first 2021 short fiction review notebook, courtesy of Whirling World on Etsy:

I decided to pick up a few pre-formatted review notebooks, but as they're set up for books I quickly realised that I'd need to change a lot of things to make this work for short stories. I printed out a set of form stickers to go in the middle of the page so I could quickly write in double the number of reviews, and wrote in the publication instead of a "finished date". I completely ignored the formatting of the TBR pages at the front to just put in a big ol' list of magazines (limited to things I have ebooks of, with apologies to Baffling Magazine and Omenana, both of which I read online - I needed to fix the folder backlog first!)

An incomplete list of things

I also gamified things for myself: after finishing a magazine, I rolled an eight-sided dice (because my e-reader shows eight documents per page) and read the corresponding magazine from the first page of the folder. This meant I mostly read things that I'd added more recently, but it kept me interested, and picking things randomly confirmed that I'm really happy with my current subscriptions: nothing ever came up that I was disappointed to have to read next.

And I filled this whole notebook! With 61 stories, from Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Mermaids Monthly, The Future Fire and Anathema. The whims of the dice I didn't read any Uncanny or FIYAH despite having a couple of issues of each, nor did I get to the first issue of Constelacíon, so those are on the list for next time. but needless to say there's still plenty of stuff within these 61 stories to talk about...

Mermaids Monthly

A new publication to this column, Mermaids Monthly was set up by Julia Rios and Meg Frank with a simple, one-year mission: to publish content about mermaids. This month, I read their March, April and May issues, and I did indeed get a lot of delightful mermaid art, comics ("Fat Mermaid In: Wardrobe Malfunction" is a great piece from the May issue), poetry and of course short fiction, covering everything from surrealist slipstream to survivalist horror and everything in between.

A lot of Mermaids Monthly's content is flash fiction, which combines with the art and poetry to create a big, slippery mash-up blend of mermaid and siren myth where individual pieces feel subsumed into the whole experience. That's not to say that each piece doesn't stand on its own merits, of course - everything is really good! - but that Mermaids Monthly really benefits from being read as a single publication from start to finish, leaning into the thematic coherence and letting the different interpretations work together.

That said, there are some stand-outs, and as a longer-short fan it was longer stories that really caught my attention. In April, "A Minnow, Or Perhaps a Colossal Squid" by C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez is a story about a magical world where debtors are transformed into fish while their debts are being repaid, and it alternates between Estrella, a caseworker charged with doing this magic, and a naturalist studying deep-sea sirens whose debts allow her to pursue her research in unexpected ways. The split perspective between Estrella's present on Mariposa, and the research notes of Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, provides a great mix of worldbuilding and the sirens themselves are excellent (you'd expect no less from Mermaids Monthly, of course). In May, "The Incident at Veniaminov" is the story of an indigenous community visited by a cruise ship with a sinister agenda, in which Mathilda Zeller weaves together questions about identity with an action packed story (involving cannibalism) with excellent results.

Apex Magazine

Also new to my subscription folder is Apex Magazine, back off hiatus this year and publishing some magnificent things. I read issue 122 (March-April), which is full of stories that riff off of themes of survival, vengeance and memorialisation in one way or another. "Black Box of the Terraworms" was a weird highlight for me: the story of a strange terraforming intelligence as it battles the "gods" of a planet it is trying to make habitable to humans. The way the terraformer's objectives change as it takes on the perspective of the gods makes this a really interesting ride, combining a science fictional concept with a creation-myth story structure to brilliant effect. Elsewhere, I am a sucker for a documentary-style story and Sam Miller's "A Love that Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes from a Documentary" hit all my buttons in that regard, giving a range of testimonials about the life of Ti, a singer with the ability to channel magic through her songs. Ti's story - which, we know from the start, has a tragic ending - is offered up alongside the story of one of her fans, Brent, a closeted soldier who goes to one of her military concerts and is caught up in her magic. Brent's life, we learn, is changed for the better by being able to come out and build a life with his boyfriend as a result of their concert experiences; but Ti's magic can't alter the challenges of her own life and her own inability to follow her desires.

Finally, this issue of Apex includes an interactive piece by Sabrina Vourvoulias which is highly worth checking out. "Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating" is set in a magical version of Philadelphia, and offers up a fictional culinary tour of the city where food is not just a guide to the history and diversity of the city, but a way for migrants and activists to offer each other the magic they need to survive, be that through mushroom-based cuisine that can heal ailments, tamales woven with spells for keeping ICE away and paperwork rolling smoothly, or gardens which encourage younger generations to engage with the heritage of their ancestor's homelands. The formatting is fun, and the break-up of text between different pages means it doesn't feel hard on the eyes, and while the technology doesn't quite hit full intuitiveness every time (the lack of "back" buttons at the bottom of each food stop makes scrolling back up a bit of a faff) it's still a great vehicle for a powerful, engaging piece of urban fantasy.

Art by Sunmi for "The Chicken House"

Strange Horizons

Right as I started clearing my backlog, Strange Horizons dropped four months of ebooks on Patreon collecting their editions from February to May, and I ended up reading the entire set, including April's Samovar, the Palestinian special issue and the trans/nonbinary special issue. This is, quite simply, too much Strange Horizons to summarise in a couple of paragraphs, but if you're diving in on the recommendation of this column in particular, those special issues are where I'd start: the Palestine special issue brings 3 stories and 6 pieces of poetry as well as an excellent roundtable. "PALESTINE IS A FUTURISM: THE DREAM" is a brilliant piece of all-caps fury/joy riffing off capitalist exploitation and extractive industries and imagining something still strange and affected by their presence, but somehow newer and more pure. "Queer Arab Dictionary" is also an amazing piece, its stanzas looking at current and future language and envisioning how a gendered language might be reenvisioned or pushed beyond the binary. When it comes to short stories, I loved the deeply wry, satirical "A Day in the Life of Anmar 20X1" by Abdulla Moaswes, in which the future President of Palestine attempts to curate his dream palace, and his tenure's success, as his land literally constricts around him.

May's Trans special issue also has lots of good poetry (I liked "Luna" by Alexander Te Pohe), as well as some fun stories. "Women Want Me, Fish Fear Me" by Paris Green is the story of a sex worker in a world where many people have animal genes transferred into them to increase their potential for particular careers. Green's protagonist has had fish genes transferred, but remains multiply marginalised with no other options available. The story unfolds in snatches of perspective, centring on an interaction with one particular client, and while the nuances are beyond my critical capacity as a cis reader, the detail and atmosphere is extraordinary and makes this well worth the experience. "A Welling Up" by Natalia Theodoridou and "The Chicken House" by Jenny Fried are also excellent - I enjoyed the latter, in particular, for its trans take on the Baba Yaga myth.

Other highlights:

After a year off from subscribing, I'm rediscovering exactly why enjoy Beneath Ceaseless Skies' brand of "adventure fantasy". The story that took my breath away this time was "Concerto for Winds and Resistance" by Cara Masten DiGirolamo, which tells the story of a city under repressive rule from the perspective of four members of a wind orchestra and the curious, magical piece their new conductor puts in front of them. On the subject of favourite city stories, "The City, My Love" by Alexandra Seidel (The Future Fire 57) covers centuries or development and migration from the perspective of a city and the humans it loves within it

"Just Enough Rain", by P.H. Lee, is available on Giganotosaurus (it's their May story) and I loved its matter-of-fact religious exploration and its hilarious romance, and the mother-daughter relationship at its heart. I also want to mention "A Remembered Kind of Dream" by Rei Rosenquist, one of very few short stories from 2021 I read at the start of this year: it's a post-apocalyptic queer found family story that's got that perfect combination of biopunk and hopelessness and human grit and I'm glad it's stuck with me to make it into this column.

Finally, Anathema brings its usual blend of heartbreak and hope to Issue 12 after an issue off (though their December showcase is, of course, very much worth your time). This time, there's more of the latter than the former: "Cirque Mécanique" broke my heart most successfully, but "Lady Fortune" and "To Rise, Blown Open" put it together again.

From the Bookshelves:

My lack of short fiction reading has stretched to anthologies and collections, but I did finally get through Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap, which is a showcase from an outstanding short fiction writer. The stories that draw on modern Filipino events and culture are my favourites: Asphalt, River, Mother, Child, the story of an afterlife where innocent victims of Duterte's war on drugs have found themselves stuck, is powerful and brilliant in its characters and the way it presents their journey, and "Have you heard the one about Anamaria Marquez" is a creepy take on schoolyard rumour. There's also a new novella in this collection: "A Spell for Foolish Hearts" is about a mostly-closeted witch who starts to fall in love with a beautiful man at his workplace, with adorable and very supernaturally satisfying results. I had high expectations for this collection and it certainly didn't disappoint, and I feel like I've left this collection with even more love for Isabel Yap's storytelling than I had before.

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, June 23, 2021

The Novella Files: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Subject: Okorafor, Nnedi. Binti [ Publishing, 2015]

Accolades: Winner - Hugo Award (2016), Nebula Award (2016); Nominee - Locus Award (2016) 

Genre: science fiction

Executive SummaryHer name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself -- but first she has to make it there, alive.
(From Goodreads).

Assessment: Binti embodies the promise of the novella as a narrative form. It is a compressed novel, featuring all the plot, character and thematic development you look for in a novel, but hyper-economical in its delivery. We are thrust into a world where few of our current assumptions hold. It is afro-centric, in the sense that both Binti herself and the two named human peoples come from Africa and are rooted in African cultures, though only the Himba correspond to a named human people on our Earth. It is futuristic, in the sense that there are technologies far more advanced than our own, including star travel and mysterious devices like the ubiquitous astrolabe (which made Binti's people, and in particular her family, famous throughout the galaxy) and an ancient relic whose properties only Binti can unlock. But we are given no lengthy exposition on how these technologies work - or even, in some cases, what they are used for. The alien Meduse, for that matter, are suitably alien - in physical terms, they are nothing at all like humans. 

Readers used to the techno-fetishism of "hard" SF will likely recoil at this approach, but as far as I'm concerned it's exciting. The air of mystery is enveloping and engrossing. We are treated like adults in this world, hearing a story delivered with all the assumptions someone would make if they were telling a mimetic story in our world. The focus is squarely on the characters and dramatic events, and Okorafor's prose is elegant yet unobtrusive. Binti is truly a standout among novellas, and worthy of all the accolades it has received. 

Score: 10/10. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Nanoreviews: The Witness for the Dead, The Worst of All Possible Worlds, The Liar of Red Valley

Addison, Katherine. The Witness for the Dead [Tor Books (US)/Solaris (UK), 2021]

The long awaited continuation of The Goblin Emperor takes place far away from Maia's court and almost all of the characters of the first book, taking place mostly in the distant small city of Amalo where Thara Celahar - the witness for the dead who uncovered the truth of the previous Emperor's death in the first book - has ended up working. Thara's situation, already challenging during the events of The Goblin Emperor, got even worse over the course of the book, but he has maintained his attitude towards upholding his profession. It's his Witnessing that leads him to take on a series of tasks in Amalo and its surrounding areas - most prominently, the death of an opera singer in mysterious circumstances - and through that, take us on an adventure as an audience through more of this intricate, fascinating world.

The Witness for the Dead is a very different book to its predecessor, although much of the DNA carries over. While Amalo is a significantly more provincial setting, the fundamental worldbuilding quirks - this is a world full of elves and goblins (who are apparently different races of the same species rather than completely different species) who express emotions through their ear position, have "good hair" if it's white and accepts intricate braids, and in the parts where the series has been set, look down on goblins as less than elves in a much closer corollary to human racism than most fantasy worlds create. Thara, too, is a similarity, as a protagonist fundamentally interested in doing the right thing, although his professional calling and the way it is portrayed, particularly when it comes to making difficult decisions, feels different to Maia. There are small details in the development Amalo, too, which make it feel convincingly like a provincial capital whose political elites are far enough from the centre for it to affect the way their political ambitions play out, without being fully disconnected from the emperor's reach.

With intricate worldbuilding and cinnamon roll protagonist in place, The Witness for the Dead has an easy recipe for success, and it uses those elements to solid effect. My favourite parts of the book by far are those involving the mystery at the opera company, as Thara uncovers the mystery behind the death of Arvenean Shelsin, a mid-soprano whose behaviour quickly turns up plenty of reasons for someone to dislike her. Thara's scenes at the opera, and particularly his dynamic with Pel-Thenhior, its composer, feel tight and engaging. So too do the other cases Thara takes on - a disputed inheritance, a ghoul sighting in a neighbouring town, a marital poisoning that threatens to be the latest in a series - although none bring the vibrancy of supporting characters that the opera does. Where Witness for the Dead struggles is in interweaving all of these strands together into something that maintains tension and engagement throughout. The mid section, in particular, I found it harder to stay engaged (because there's no opera bits, are you seeing a theme here). In a book that didn't have such a high bar to live up to, this might not have been worthy of note, but it is worth setting expectations that Witness for the Dead doesn't quite hit the same magic as its predecessor, nor did it leave me with quite the same feeling of warm, fuzzy, heartwarming hope as I got from the end of The Goblin Emperor. For what it does do, though, this is a really enjoyable book, in a world that I'd read more from in a heartbeat.

Rating: 7/10

White, Alex. The Worst of All Possible Worlds [Orbit, 2021]

One of the best parts of long-haul storytelling, something that book series and TV shows have the opportunity to do that their more self-contained counterparts often don't, is the ability to play out character relationships over the long haul. Sometimes that's a relatively static process, trying to maintain a roughly consistent dynamic within a set of characters while balancing the stories on top of it. Sometimes, it makes space for lots of big reversals and redemptions and splinter arcs which keep the drama levels high while enabling the characters to react to events as they happen. And sometimes, you get a crew or a found family that just gets cosier and more enjoyable to spend time with the longer a series goes on. That's how I feel about Alex White's trilogy-ending The Worst of All Possible Worlds, which brings the adventures of Nilah, Boots, Orna and the crew of the Capricious to a close in an adventure that's fast paced, high stakes and full of character moments that I really enjoyed (the wedding being a particular highlight, because who doesn't enjoy a good spaceship wedding?)

The other great thing about this series - covered in my longer reviews of its two predecessors - is how seamlessly it blends magic into a fighty shooty space opera. Almost everyone in the Salvagers universe has some kind of magic power (and not having magic is a significant disability in a world where a lot of technology is built around it, as Boots can attest) but the way these range from small abilities like being able to keep things clean, right up to control over space and time, makes the things involving people who can do the latter legitimately terrifying and unpleasant for everyone whose powers are more modest. Even more than its predecessors, The Worst of All Possible Worlds seems to lean in to an "age of arcanum gone to space" feel, particularly given the quest objective in this one (which I won't spoil if you haven't picked up the series yet).

The Salvagers series might not be as flashily extraordinary as some of its peers on the space opera shelf, but it more than holds its own as an adventure that blends space opera with fantasy tropes. The Worst of All Possible Worlds really sticks the landing for these characters too, and I'm very glad I stuck it out for the full trilogy.

Rating: 7/10

Goodwater, Walter. The Liar of Red Valley [Solaris, 2021]

Is the American Gothic genre supposed to be this much fun to read? I feel weird saying it, and yet that's the first thing I think about Walter Goodwater's fast-paced small-town novel, in which the residents of Red Valley apparently maintain the most petty, small-town mindset in the face of bizarre rules and events which govern their home. After the sudden death of her mother, Sadie inherits the title of the Liar of Red Valley, a woman responsible for keeping people's darkest secrets so that they don't have to live with their reality (for a price, of course). The only problem is that Sadie's mother never really prepared her for her role, or taught her what it means to be part of the magical fabric that keeps Red Valley - and its mysterious King - in balance.

The Liar of Red Valley is effective in its creepiness - the recurring presence of the Laughing Boys, young men who invite demons to live in their skulls for the high it brings, is a particular highlight - but because Sadie is such a resourceful protagonist (albeit one with an isolated, complicated past), it never feels like it wallows in that creepiness. Instead, the story is pacey and fast-moving, introducing us to a range of weird and wonderful characters on the fringes of Red Valley's society and putting her on a path to figure out, you know, the town's whole deal, and whether the folk who don't fit in to the population's narrow view of respectability can do anything to build a community there. The result is - oh no, I'm going to say it again - a great deal of fun, which seems odd for a "chilling" Gothic but I enjoyed the hell out of reading this book and that's what's important here.

Rating: 8/10

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

Interview: Neil Sharpson, author of When the Sparrow Falls

Photo credit: Ste Murray
If you love cold war thrillers, if you're intrigued by AIs, if you're looking for your next favorite read, this is the interview for you!  In the world of When the Sparrow Falls, there is an entire planet where AIs are everywhere. They sounds like us, they look like us, but they are smarter and stronger. And there is the Caspian Republic, the last place on earth where AIs are not allowed.  That's not to say that AIs have never snuck into the Caspian Republic and passed for human . . . 

Sharpson's impressive debut novel was born out of a few real life disasters, a love for Le Carre, and a stage play that grew too large for the stage. The play was The Caspian Sea, and it became When the Sparrow Falls, a Kafka-esque novel that's funny in that Vonnegut sort of way, available on June 29th from TOR.  Click here for information about the virtual book lauch.  

Sharpson lives in Dublin and enjoys watching and ranking as many Disney and Marvel movies as he can get his hands on, watching all the cartoons, and writing of course!  You can learn more about him at his website and blog,,   and follow him on twitter at @UnshavedMouse.

We chatted over email about his process to convert a stage play into a novel, what it must be like to live in the Caspian Republic, and how the story came together.  And of course we found time for some fun stuff too!  Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: Congratulations on your novel, When the Sparrow Falls! Where did the idea for this book come from, and what is the significance of the book's title?

Neil Sharpson: Thank you kindly! The first germ of the idea that would become Sparrow came about when I saw the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is still one of my favourite films. It was my first exposure to Le Carré and I was instantly hooked on the whole aesthetic. I wanted to write something set in a world like this; foggy streets, foggier morals, enemies behind every rain-slick wall and very quiet, very meticulous men very quietly and very meticulously destroying each other. But I’ve always been terrified of getting details wrong so I decided to set my story in a country of my own creation rather than a real Eastern Bloc nation. That’s where the Caspian Republic came from. I had the idea knocking around in my head for a while and then an actor friend of mine asked me to write her a dialogue for an audition. That became the scene where Augusta Niemann calls Nikolai South into her office and gives him the Xirau detail and with that I was away. Writing the play was actually a very difficult process and I ended up putting it down and picking it up again over the course of six years. 

A lot of stuff happened in those six years; Trump, Brexit, a global surge of nationalism and toxic nostalgia and all that ended up getting baked into the play as I wrote it. As for the significance of the title, well, that would be a spoiler so I’ll just say that it’s a reference to Matthew 10:31 where Jesus tells his followers that God knows when a sparrow falls so not to worry, because they are worth more than “many” sparrows. It’s one of my favorite passages because it’s at once very comforting but also really hard not to read as Jesus throwing ridiculously petty shade.

NOAF: In the story, the Caspian Republic is the last bastion of humanity. No AI's (except a few special visitors) are allowed into the country, and the Republic is in a permanent cold war with the rest of the world. How does that affect the populace of the Caspian Republic, to know that their cold war will never end? What kind of society do they live in? 

NS: It’s pretty damn awful. It’s not quite as hellish as, say, Oceania, but definitely on the level of present day states like North Korea. In the beginning (around 56 years prior to the start of the novel) the Caspian Republic had a somewhat bohemian spirit and a commitment to artistic expression and equality between human beings. But that became eroded steadily over the decades and now it’s a decayed, intellectually exhausted, brutally repressive state sustaining itself through sheer, bloody-minded refusal to die. 

That said, life is by no means equally bad for all of its citizens. A high-ranking party member living in an affluent neighborhood in Ellulgrad (the capital) for instance, will have a life a million miles removed from one of the native Azerbaijani, who were dispossessed from their lands when Caspian was formed. One thing I wanted to show in the book was how plenty of people in Caspian are free to voice dissent and criticize the ruling party and the security services, as long as they are the “right” people. However, by the time the novel begins there have been harsh trade embargoes placed on Caspian and even the “right” people are starting to go hungry. Which is why Lily Xirau is invited into Caspian, and how our story begins.


NOAF: When the Sparrow Falls was adapted from your stage play The Caspian Sea. What was that process like, to take a stage play that is all movement and dialog, and adapt it into a novel? 

NS: It was an absolute joy. I’ve always struggled with structure but when I set out to write Sparrow I already had the structure laid out for me as well as most of the major characters, themes, etc. The first draft only took me three months because all the hard work had been done by that idiot patsy, Past Neil.

NOAF: While you were adapting the play into a novel, where there any scenes that had to cut entirely? Were there any scenes that aren't in the play and were created exclusively for the novel?

NS: The novel is to all intents and purposes the play with some extra characters and sub-plots, a lot of extra world-building, backstories for most of the main players and resolution to several mysteries that were left ambiguous in the stage version. The biggest change, without a doubt, is that my favorite character, Sally Coe, is entirely absent from the play.

There is one scene in the play that is not in the book and that is because it’s the only scene in the play where Nikolai South is not present and so, since the book is told first person from his perspective, there was no elegant way to include it. It’s a scene where Lily wakes up in her cloned human body and a nurse helps her learn how to walk and navigate in the physical world for the first time. It’s a scene I really like, and shows a slightly snarkier side to Lily while also showing how other natural born humans such as the nurse view the Caspian Republic (they’re not fans).

NOAF: What was your favorite scene in When the Sparrow Falls to write?

NS: The scene in the Morrison Hotel where Grier and South get to enjoy a good meal and actually start to bond as they go over the death of Paulo Xirau. Just a scene I felt really came together nicely.

NOAF: Now for some fun stuff! Which Marvel movie is your favorite?

NS: MCU? Thor: Ragnarok. Any Marvel movie? Into the Spider-Verse. Any comic book movie? Into the Spider-Verse. Any animated movie? Into the Spider-Verse. Any movie? Into the Spider-…

NOAF: Who is your favorite character from Futurama?

NS: Oh come on, how is that even a question? It’s obviously Doctor John Zoi…ALL HAIL THE HYPNOTOAD.


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. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Microreview [Book]: The Ruby's Curse by Alex Kingston

What starts as a playful, commonplace whodunit becomes a labyrinthine exhibition of metafictional brilliance

This is more than a Doctor Who tie-in novel. This is worlds, galaxies, and entire dimensions more than a "related work."

This is genius.

The actress who plays River Song has written a novel about River Song, where the character River Song writes a novel about a character based on River Song. Then the (already) fictional River Song pays a visit to the (newly) fictional River Song, and together they solve a murder, rewrite history, save the universe, and leave us with the testimony of their adventures, which coincides with the text of the deliciously complex, self-referential and experimental novel The Ruby's Curse.

The true nature of this book is disguised for over half of it, but it is announced incredibly early, when River's inner monologue remarks "that words had power, that words could be arranged in more combinations than there were stars in the sky, made into patterns that created whole worlds." This statement's deeper meaning takes a while to be revealed, but the wait is a rewarding one. As River herself says later, "the discovery is wonderful, but only as the climax of the journey."

If you believed Steven Moffat had stretched the possibilities of messy timey-wimey plots to the limit of their artistic potential, you haven't seen anything yet. In The Ruby's Curse, Alex Kingston takes the signature narrative devices of the Moffat era (self-sustaining paradoxes, life in conversation with media, plots that progress between different levels of reality, riddles with multiple true solutions, the notion of people as entities made of stories) and dials them up to eleven. The plot intersects with itself and winds up around itself and branches into and out of the land of fiction until it lands majestically in our reality (yes, really).

On one level, there's the character we know, the River Song who killed the Doctor and then married the Doctor, now a successful mystery writer struggling to meet a deadline ("Yes, deadlines are technically irrelevant to a time traveller. But you try telling that to my agent"). She's no longer an inmate at galactic prison, but she still comes back from time to time when she needs a quiet place to finish her book. But before long, she overhears talk of a mysterious machine that can rearrange the universe... or break it, more likely, and she jumps into adventure to outrun the bounty hunters who want the machine and are willing to kill for it.

On a second level, there's the doubly fictional character of Melody Malone, which River based on herself. In 1930s New York, the theft of a gem dug out from Cleopatra's grave lets River play with all the classical tropes of detective fiction: deadly romance, treasure maps, shady mob bosses, obvious disguises, poisoned drinks, and ancient Egyptian curses.

All that is fun enough. But the true fun starts when these two narrative levels start to blur into each other. River's new prison mate, Ventrian, is a fugitive in a mission to destroy the universe-shattering machine, and starts hiding clues in River's book while she's still writing it. The process messes with her mind (and the reader's) in a way that takes advantage of the rules of fiction just before breaking them. And this is where the novel becomes a reflection on its own craft, because, in a way, every writer already possesses such a machine. Writers have the power to create and erase universes by merely saying so. To the characters who live inside a book, that power looks like a boon from the gods. Conversely, to a writer striving to create, the loss of a story feels like the death of a universe. As River puts it, "acquaintances have told me of painful things they've experienced—gallstones, childbirth, decapitation—but I'm practically certain none of those is anywhere near as painful as a writer losing a nearly completed work in progress."

Kingston masterfully keeps the plot in contact with the fiction inside itself while making it steal bold glances at the reader. For example, in a visit to the 1930s (but not Melody's 1930s—yet), River mentions that "there's nothing good on the telly until 1963." Comments made in passing allude to the future we know for this character: it turns out she's not particularly fond of libraries, and would like for there to be a happy afterlife with all her friends. This is not just a wink at the fans; it is part of the whole game of having fiction invade the realm of reality. Doctor Who's time (and space)-tested trick of making a character have a conversation with a piece of media becomes in The Ruby's Curse an essential part of the reading experience. In a key scene, River talks to a book, and the text that is already written, printed and published talks back at her; once she enters the land of fiction, she notices that the other characters only perform interesting actions when they're within her focus of attention, and appear essentially motionless the rest of the time (like some sort of reverse Weeping Angel, or more accurately, like every literary character in every story ever).

In typical River Song fashion, this novel is full of spoiler warnings. You could, of course, read the ending and discover the trick of the story, but the journey is more interesting if you follow River as she experiences it along with the rest of the cast. Once she becomes a piece of fiction (not that she wasn't already, but now it's for real, which is still fictional, I know, but now it's, like, really fictional this time), the conventions of storytelling are explicitly made into worldbuilding principles, and your reading process is likewise transformed. One particularly striking instance happened to me during one chapter narrated by Melody, but not written by River, because River had already entered the book, so I asked myself in panic, Who is even writing this chapter? and the answer is, obviously, Alex Kingston. That she made me forget that is part of the magic of her craft.

As a Melody Malone mystery, this novel obviously draws elements from the episode The Angels Take Manhattan, where Moffat showcased his unique tricks as a plot weaver. The Ruby's Curse is an answer and a sequel and an expansion of the themes presented in the episode. It's unfortunate that previous Doctor Who knowledge is required to enjoy this marvelous book, because it's a stellar example of experimental writing and of the myriad ways a performer can channel her character's voice.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +3 for pushing the boundaries of metafiction into uncharted universes.

Penalties: −2 for a steep entry barrier for people not already acquainted with Doctor Who, −2 because Melody's banter can get very tiresome at times.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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

Reference: Kingston, Alex. The Ruby's Curse [BBC Books, 2021].

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Microreview: [Microreview] The Godstone by Violette Malan

A single volume epic fantasy novel about the fate of a world and a particular artifact that could alter it forever, diving deeply into personal questions of identity, power, and mental health. 

Arlyn  has a problem. Living a quiet life, far away from the center of power. He works in wood, has a pretty good and peaceful life. But this is all upset by a letter from the magical Practitioners of the White Court. His distant cousin Xandra, long since missing, has now been declared dead and lost, and there is his estate, his legacy to deal with. As the closest relative, Arlyn has to travel to see to his cousins’ legacy.. Arlyn can see right away its a power play by someone in the White Court to get access to Xandra’s magical heritage and artifacts, a very dangerous heritage and legacy at that. But there is an additional problem.

For, you see, Arlyn is really Xandra who long ago made an artifact that could alter, or even destroy the fabric of the world. And worse, Arlyn is not sure just how he did it or what to precisely do if the titular Godstone should once again come to light and to the hand of a practitioner seeking power, and unaware of the danger that it represents.

The idea of a character who one could shake the world, but now has retired to an obscure corner of it and is roused when their quiet life is shaken by an external agitator is not unknown in fantasy. However, in our literary landscape, such stories are uncommon, given the genre’s general preference for protagonists on an earlier spectrum of their careers. Origin stories, even in fantasy novels, rule the day.  Characters who have established themselves are a less common mode of fantasy novel, because backstory and backfill are not as easily or smoothly done than showing off the power and ability of a character coming into their own, and the latter is a story that our society values more. As I have gotten older, though, I’ve been drawn to protagonists who have had a history to them. Veteran Characters, for lack of a better term.

In terms of this idea of veteran character drawn back into the flow of matters, Corvis Rebaine from Ari Marmell's The Conqueror's Legacy comes to mind. A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall also comes to mind. The interesting thing those two touchstones have with Arlyn in The Godstone is in the not entirely benevolent nature of the protagonists. The quiet “Retirement”  of those characters is a good thing, for they shook the world, and not in benevolent ways. Violette Malan’s own Mirror Prince also features a character who is (against their will) living a very quiet life on our own Earth, but when awakened to his true ability, has enormous power, but doesn’t even know the full extent of that power, or remembers what they did with it.

So, too, Arlyn, or Xandra, depending on how you look at it. We slowly get a sense as the novel progresses as to how and why and what the Godstone was and what it means, in a number of senses to Arlyn/Xandra. Arlyn may now be a worker of wood, living far from the center of power, but the aforementioned  inciting incident of being named as executor of the will of his “cousin” Xandra draws him back into his old life, even if a lot of it he simply doesn’t have memory or access to same. The novel has a mystery element, but it is a mystery where we know that Xandra did things, but not precisely what he did, why he did them, or the consequences of meddling with those forces. All the while, we get to know Arlyn as a character, and the Xandra that he was as well. These are very distinct personalities and characters, and seeing them against each other is a masterpiece of characterization.

But the novel is also about expectations of younger characters as well, that is to say, Fenra Lowens.  At first, she seems little more than a plot device to take Arlyn to the center of power, and is framed very carefully and deliberately as someone of only minor talent. But Fenra”s story is nuanced and complex and is NOT the classic story of someone who “didn’t know” they had a secret power and destiny within them all along. That’s a well worn path, and Malan knows it, and eschews it for a less used and more interesting one. The main “institutions”' in the novel, The Red Court and The White Court are not the focus of this novel per se, but the tension between them, and the problems of the world they have created filter down into Fenra’s story. This novel could also be seen as the consequences of institutional blindness and ossification. Fenra’s abilities are not hidden and waiting to be revealed so much as being belittled and minimized. 

The novel also explores the legacy of Xandra’s former actions, not only in creating an artifact capable of changing the world, but the personal as well, in the personage of Elvanyn.It emerges that long ago, Xandra had done Elvanyn very very wrong and both are surprised to find themselves in each other’s company. Elvanyn’s story and how it develops is a rich strain of character in a book where Xandra and Fenra’s stories dominate. There is a slight bit of genre mixing in his personal story as well, when and how he appears in the narrative, which was a not entirely unexpected treat given Malan’s previous novels and willingness to blur some subgenre and genre boundaries. 

Even in the end, the antagonist is interestingly shaded and nuanced as well. Their motivations and actions and movements seem really straightforward at first, a classic antagonist for this trio of protagonists (and with a few key passages as exception, our viewpoint characters), as matters progress, events can and do cause us to see how that antagonist changes, themselves, and things are far from what they appear. I look forward to a re-read of this novel to really see the shadings of work here across all the characters. 

For all of this, the fate of a world, someone powered to shape it, those whose lives intersect with his in that process and the dangers revealed, is not uncommon in epic fantasy. What I found rather different, interesting, intriguing, and perhaps a bit discomforting is the novel’s interest, to the point of theme, in mental illness, specifically depression. In this secondary world called lowness, Xandra definitely suffers from it, and how it influences and overshadows the plot might be a bit of a spoiler, but I can speak to here how Malan talks about it as a theme, and a way to look at Xandra’s character in a way that I had not expected. Given that Fenra is a practitioner of healing, it is not surprising that wounds of the mind come in for exploration and explication as well as more physical ailments. No surprise given her experience and nuance, however, there are no easy answers, no wand waving, to deal with deep seated issues of lowness and it affects Xandra. It was a surprise to see it in the novel, and again, it made me as a reader personally a bit uncomfortable, but it is done carefully and with care. 

And let me put in a world about the worldbuilding here, since I’ve focused so much on the characters in talking about the story. Interesting magic systems, the nature of the world, how the world has changed and developed and more come in for exploration in this novel. The most recent books that this world kind of feels like is Howard Andrew Jones Ring-Sworn series (starting with For the Killing of Kings). Or, to an extent, Elizabeth Bear’s Celadon Highway novels. There is a partitioning of worlds within the world here as in those novels, here called Modes. The nature of Modes is strongly tied to some of the plot twists (which Malan is awfully good at) as well as revelations about what is going on, and why. There are some very interesting ideas at work here about how magic intersects with the fabric of the world, how those systems can work with and against each other, and how practitioners deal with each other, and with the rest of the world. 

The novel is advertised as first in a series, and there are a couple of ways a sequel might take the novel, but this story here is extremely self contained and you can read this without fears of being sucked into a story which is not complete. I am very intrigued by how things stand at the end of this novel, and do want to know more about some of the questions raised in the story and would like to see the answers and issues raised in worldbuilding to get more exploration. So, if this is the first of a series, I am looking forward to those, and if this is truly a standalone, I am very well satisfied with the complete arc told in this story. Come for the characters and themes, stay for the plotting and worldbuilding, or the reverse. I loved it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for an interesting set of three protagonists with a lot of character development and exploration

+1 for a good exploration of themes of legacy, depression, and atonement for past actions.

Penalties: -1 A little lack of clarity of whether this is a series or a standalone leads to a bit of muddle

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10  Very high quality/standout in its category

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

Reference: Malan, Violette. The Godstone [Daw, 2021]

The Novella Files: Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker

Subject: Parker, K.J. Prosper's Demon [ Publishing, 2019]

Accolades: N/A

Genre: Fantasy

Executive Summary: The unnamed and morally questionable narrator is an exorcist with great follow-through and few doubts. His methods aren’t delicate but they’re undeniably effective: he’ll get the demon out — he just doesn’t particularly care what happens to the person.

Prosper of Schanz is a man of science, determined to raise the world’s first philosopher-king, reared according to the purest principles. Too bad he’s demonically possessed. (From Goodreads).

Assessment: Prosper's Demon is both electrifying and harrowing, juggling witticisms and gut-punches with finesse. It asks its readers a question if it's possible to create nuggets of gold within a degrading world. It's poetic that the book answers this question not only from its themes but through its impeccable craft. Prosper's Demon takes place in a world of horror, in which insidious creatures takes root in a person. But every so often, we see a beautiful character moment or a charming turn of phrase. It's a wellspring of fun amidst a story that could easily be overbearingly dreary. It's a nugget within a setting that should shun it but doesn't.

The narrator might be unnamed, but he certainly doesn't evoke the aura of a faceless character. He's snarky, cunning, and perseverant. His voice buoys what is already an enticing concept into a singularly compelling one. He doesn't give the reader all the information of him and his world at once, instead methodically laying it out as the novella goes along, saving the bigger surprises until the end. It's done in a skillful way that doesn't seem deceptive but natural to the narrative's progression.

Prosper's Demon is a delightful read. My interest never wavered. It's a story with a scale that works perfectly for the size of a novella, telling a compact tale, while its economically explained but expansively scaled worldbuilding leaves room for further tales in its setting. When our own world completely degrades from chaos and carnage, we can take some respite that much art - including Prosper's Demon - came out of this pandemonium. Art is golden nuggets amidst detritus, and this novella is a testament to it.

Score: 8/10

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Short Fiction Round Up: May 2021

May was a pivotal month for German seasons; our days stretched long, our cold spring gave way to warmer moments, the swifts returned. I don't think it's a coincedence, then, that all my favorite stories of the month deal with our environments. These stories ask important questions: how we affect our environment, and how does our environment affect us. I loved the thoughtful, nuanced, and messy answers this selection provided. Please, enjoy!

To Hear Them Sing by Rebecca Burton (Fireside)
This story about a young magical practitioner taking her final exam to graduate into magic scholarship is tender, beautiful and well-crafted. The epic world-building on a small scale gives this story an excellent hook, and the language and pacing are excellent. Stories that tackle not how much we affect our environment, but how much our environment affects us always have a special place in my heart, and I highly recommend this one! 

Not all environments are natural; Chan’s tiny little flash story is told from the perspective of an automated house whose owner was taken away by the authorities in a technocratic dystopia. Again, Chan manages to render a whole world in the observations of a house; the third line of the story simply states “Most of the coffee sloshes over the jagged edges of the half-shattered mug.” The tone of the house -- factual, but revealing just enough cruel and unnecessary damage to establish an anti-Government façade – is the thing that makes the story. 

CL Clark writes the best contemporary military fantasy. This short story takes place in the middle of a revolution; the captain and the quartermaster of an army fall in, and out, of love over the course of a campaign. As always, this short story is precise, with elegantly complex characters and an emotional arc that makes sense, even as it feels tragic. 

Clocking in at about 450 words, this flash piece still manages to balance three separate levels: it details five rules of magic, it details the second person narrator’s first interaction with magic, and it details the second person’s narrator’s biggest interaction with magic. I was fascinated at the apparent-ease with which all three elements braided together. 

T Kingfisher’s newest short story, which is also featured in EscapePod’s Anthology, is about pregnancy, animals, feminism, and space. Like many Kingfisher stories, this story is hilarious, in large part because of how well Kingfisher can juggle a dozen character voices so well. The drama is high-stakes, the ending is happy: this story felt like an amazing episode of All Creatures, Great and Small but in spaaaaaace.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Microreview [book]: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Epic fantasy! Core sapphic relationship! Giant middle finger to empire! This is the good stuff. 

Last time I reviewed a Tasha Suri book - the outstanding Realm of Ash, second in the Books of Ambha - I wrapped it up by saying I was very excited for more Books of Ambha. Awesome women, at the intersection of cultures, finding love and self-actualisation in ways that overcome the misogyny in their elite positions, while still exploring the ways that women hold and wield power in South Asian-inspired fantasy societies! Well, I did not get my wish for more Books of Ambha (that series is now listed as complete after its two excellent novels, seriously, read those books), but luckily Tasha Suri has me covered with all the above in The Jasmine Throne, kicking off The Burning Kingdoms series. All the above, plus it's sapphic now. We're off to a promising start indeed.

Like its predecessor series, The Jasmine Throne has the politics and cultural oppressiveness of empire at its heart. In this case, it's the empire of Parijatdvipa, ruled by an emperor who has brought back increasingly repressive and horrific religoius traditions in order to maintain his rule - culminating in the decision to burn his sister and her two handmaids alive for going against his rule. When his sister, Malini, refuses to go meekly to her death, he instead imprisons her in a ruined temple (the Hirana) in the city of Hiranapratha, capital of Ahiranya, keeping her in seclusion with only an abusive minder to watch over her. The Hirana, of course, has a long history of its own, and its downfall is inextricably linked to Parijatdvipa's rise. Once a place where children were raised and baptised in its holy (and dangerous) waters and given magical powers from its blessing, the Hirana has been empty for almost a generation, its last group of devouts and children burned to death under mysterious circumstances, and Ahiranya as a whole is suffering from a "rot" which transforms its people into living trees. However, not everyone with a connection to the old temple is gone, and one of them still climbs to its top on a regular basis: the maidservant Priya, who is one of a group of expendable servants making the Hirana liveable for Malini while keeping entirely out of sight.

This being an epic fantasy, of course, Priya and Malini are fated to meet and have their fates intertwine; this being a sapphic fantasy, they are of course also going to develop some high quality capital-F Feelings while doing so. But The Jasmine Throne is far from done with intertwining fates after just two characters and an evil emperor-brother. No, what brings The Jasmine Throne to life - and makes its opening chapters far more of a whirlwind of different perspectives and scenarios - is that Hiranapratha is full of relationships and movements that link to both Priya and Malini in different ways. Thus, we meet Priya's employer Bhumika, the Ahiranyi wife of the regent who rules the city on the emperor's behalf: a woman who has her own connections to the Hirana and to Priya's past, and who leverages her position and her husband's lack of respect for her abilities into helping the people of the city. We meet Rao, member of the royal family of Alor, who keeps his real name as a closely guarded prophecy and is seeking to release Malini so she can rejoin her other brother (the one that isn't a despotic emperor) and incite a revolution. And then there's Ashok, member of an Ahiranyi revolutionary movement whose aims, methods and past also intersect with the Hirana and Priya in various ways. 

The Jasmine Throne requires the reader to follow along as it establishes the players in Parijatdvipa and Ahiranya, but it rewards that patience with immense depth, constantly adding more shared history and context for its characters that complements their present adventures very well. There's a risk, when relationships or bits of information are universally known by the characters but withheld from the audience until it can be unveiled at the juiciest possible moment, that these reveals can feel artificial or cheap. However, The Jasmine Throne largely avoids any such moments, slotting revelations from the past, and the complications they bring, neatly alongside what we already know or suspect about particular characters and events in a way that makes it feel like the past and the present are both unfolding naturally before the reader. It helps a lot that the main narrative is so enjoyable to follow. Priya's magical self-discovery, and Malini's political one, intersect with the other characters and with each other in ways that produce plenty of set pieces and reversals and adventures (and things on fire, this is a book where things that should not be on fire are often on fire) and it's all very enjoyable, in a "relatively high fantasy bodycount and no right answers to the intersecting political problems" sort of way. You know what I mean.

Of course, without Priya and Malini's chemistry, that adventure wouldn't get off the ground, and its here where The Jasmine Throne really excels. Unlike fellow recent sapphic fantasy The Unbroken, The Jasmine Throne doesn't really trade in on the enemies-to-lovers" trope despite making the difference between Malini's goals and Priya's abundantly clear from the start. Malini and Priya are immediately drawn to each other and while each is constantly looking for ways to use the other to their advantage, there's also a core of trust that builds up between the two of them that their inevitably diverging paths, and the sacrifices that each is willing to make to follow them, never really manages to touch While it's no fault of books which keep their enemies-to-lovers more openly at odds, I personally enjoy this set-up immensely, and I found the slow build of feelings and the way Priya and Malini's think about each other to be very satisfying indeed. This being the start of a series, things between the two are left open ended, and there's plenty of time for things to get a lot worse (and, don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of ways in which they are kind of terrible to and for each other), but... in short, I ship it.

And so we reach the "pithy closing paragraph" point of this review. Do I have anything mo to say? Not really. The Jasmine Throne is really good secondary world fantasy, and it's adding to a 2021 shelf that (thanks in no small part to Orbit, the publisher of this, The Unbroken, Son of the Storm and other excellence) is filling up with really good fantasy. You know, ones that centres queer relationships, worlds that aren't "medieval Europe with dragons", raise giant middle fingers to empire and hereditary rulership in all its forms, and not coincidentally offer immensely satisfying, readable, intricate mixtures of political intrigue and character-driven adventure and self-actualisation that pushes all the right trope buttons. What's exciting about The Jasmine Throne is that it's kind of amazing, and yet it doesn't immediately stand out above other fantasy books I've read this year, because oh wow, they were all amazing too. Which is to say, read this book and also read everything else on every "best of 2021 book list" it's on. It's all good.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Intricate political history and character relationships woven into the fabric of the narrative; +1 Just the right flavour of lovers-at-odds

Penalties: -1 Requires a bit of patience with the original set-up and proliferation of point-of-view characters before said intricacy pays off.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Suri, Tasha. The Jasmine Throne (Orbit, 2021)

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