Thursday, September 30, 2021

Microreview [book]: In the Deep by Kelly Jennings

Conflict, intrigue and intergalactic politics embroil the crew of the Susan Calvin in revolution and a possible outright war.

Velocity Wrachant is doing all right working for the Pirians, having come a long way from the near hand to mouth existence seen in at the beginning of the previous novel, Fault Lines. She still has a measure of independence, at least outwardly, something important for someone who ran away from the bounds and strictures of House life, but she does still have responsibilities and duties. Like, for example, visiting the planet Durbin and making contact with a group of workers seeking to overthrow their tyrannical overlords all the while with the true cover of trying to make trade deals. But not is all that it seems.

In the meantime, Bronte, her charge picked up during the events of the prior novel, is now on a Pirian ship, the Sungai as a general cadet. While she did not test well to be placed in a ranked position on the Pirian ship, being a cadet will give her a chance at a variety of roles and duties. But when the Sungai calls on a mining station that might have some of the cohort of genetically engineered Calypsos, once again, Bronte is in a situation that is definitely not everything that it seems, and definitely not to her advantage.

These are the stories of Kelly Jennings' In the Deep.

One thing I did appreciate right from the get go is the synopsis of the previous book, Fault Lines. While I personally had read the book not long before picking up this second volume, it was good to have this here for those readers who want to start with this novel to start here. For readers who have read Fault lines, the key takeaway is that this tells the reader right off that this new novel is set three years later. The glossary at the beginning of the book also helps the reader get grounded in what is definitely a complex and complicated space opera universe.

That complex and complicated space opera universe seen here, with the aid of the Glossary, does not prevent new readers to Jennings' verse from picking it up, because we are in a new and different area than the previous novel. The ground rules are different, both the planet Durbin as well as the Pirian ship Sungai. The novel immerses us quickly into these two worlds. In the case of Velocity, who is definitely not a planet kind of person, it is through fresh eyes and unfamiliarity with an environment she is not used to.  On the other hand, when we start Bronte's story, she has been on the Pirian vessel for quite some time, and this second narrative (which waits a few chapters to get going and then the narratives start trading off) is a little more "Deep end" in its approach with a protagonist clearly at home in her new environment.

But in both, the deep and immersive worldbuilding building into and through the characters, as seen in Fault Lines is in full effect here. Jennings world once again is a diverse one on all axes, and the tactile and sensory details really bring the experience of living on a spaceship, or visiting an alien planet, home for the reader. This is a space opera universe that really comes alive for the reader, but it is a space opera universe that the characters channel rather than a more impersonal approach. How Bronte feels about various stations as she travels the ship, how Velocity is uncomfortable being on a planet.

Meld that aforementioned worldbuilding with a web of plotting and intrigue, and you have a slowly and steadily building set of narratives that lead to the climactic confrontation as the threats and problems that both Velocity and Bronte face come head to head.  The secret sauce of course is the characterization of course. This is a universe where those plot threads, those moving currents that Velocity and Bronte must face, come from human concerns, human problems and human ambitions. While there are organizations and large entities (like the Combines), in the end it's people making those decisions, wielding that power, and ultimately threatening our protagonists and their goals.

While this all makes it sound like a continuation and an extension of the previous novel (no bad thing, mind you), with In the Deep, theme takes a front row seat for a change in the novel. The hardscrabble life Velocity led in the prior novel and the "take anything to survive" gets inverted and highlighted here in full as both Velocity and Bronte come face to face with the politics, sociology and the human costs of labor and the exploitation of labor by others. The novel explores what those seeking profit or advantage will do to those under them to maintain those profits and advantage, up to the use of force. This is all the richer given both Velocity and Bronte's origins with wealth and privilege in the Combines, and that conflict and dichtomy absolutely does get addressed and called out here. In a time and age as I am writing this with the Pandemic, and workers seeking better ways of working and better compensation for same, the message of In the Deep is especially powerful, and relevant.

In sum, Jennings brings all of the talents seen in her previous novel and stories to fruitful flowering:. Intrigue, adventure,  worldbuilding, strong character focus and development, all within a diverse and rich space opera universe. In the Deep as a novel evoked for me notes of space opera doing space opera at its best: C.J. Cherryh, Lois M Bujold, Arkady Martine, and Frank Herbert's Dune.  Jennings offers character development and worldbuilding in spades to make a fractally complicated and lived-in universe that feels real and lived in.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for a continued committment to a diverse and rich set of characters and universe

+1 for excellent use of theme in this novel, a levelling up of the writer's talents and skill

Penalties: -1 Some switching of point of views could have been handled a bit better

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Jennings, Kelly. In the Deep (Candlemark and Gleam, 2021)

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

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Short Story

: Our next Hugo category is short story! Four returning Hugo-favourite authors and two with their first (I think) nominations, stories ranging from heartwarming haunted houses to robot mentorship. How are you feeling about this year’s ballot?

Joe: I hate to admit it, but I’m just not up on my short fiction this year. If I’m being frank (and I’m not frank, I’m Joe), I haven’t been up on my short fiction for a couple of years now. I read a small handful of select anthologies and then the Nebula and Hugo Award finalists.

I mention this because I don’t have quite the breadth of knowledge of comparison to the rest of the field as I do with novels. Here, I’m coming in relatively cold and can only really talk about the stories in relation with each other and not also with the field. That’s the point, I suppose, but for a change I’m not internally bemoaning that story X was my favorite and didn’t make the ballot.

ANYWAY, I ramble because I care.

As a whole, I really like this year’s ballot. There’s one story that doesn’t quite work for me (and that story is just fine), but the other five are quite good.

Adri: I’m on the other side of things, where I did read a lot of short fiction again last year (although not as much as 2019) and that means that inevitably I have feelings about favourite stories that didn’t make it. Nothing from my nomination ballot is here; I’m not going to share those specific five stories, but they all make an appearance in our recommended reading list so I’ll let you extrapolate from there, dear reader.

But, objectively, this ballot is just as good as my favourite stories. There are such a wealth of good short stories that come out every year and if one spends a significant amount of time reading short fiction, then by definition one reads a lot of good individual stories. I read a couple of hundred stories a year and that barely dents the surface of what’s being published!

The other thing I want to note is how different the tone is between the novelette and short story ballots this year, which is not something I’ve ever noticed before! This short story list isn’t exactly fluffy, but it’s overall got more lightness and hope than the six stories in Best Novelette, many of which are… well, we’ll get to that. I don’t think it’s anything more than coincidence, but it’s an interesting one.

Joe: I think I’d like to start with “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” because it’s a kick in the gut and it’s great and it is tonally unlike most of the stories on this ballot, which are otherwise quite charming.

Adri: Yes! Rae Carson’s story of childbirth and survival, set ten years into a zombie apocalypse (clue’s in the title) is excellent for how it turns the hypermasculine-hero survival narrative on its head, focusing on a fundamental aspect of human survival - childbirth - that becomes a nearly insurmountable task in the circumstances, and then putting a group of women at the centre of the story and (again, clue’s in the title) letting them be badasses, and mutually supportive badasses at that, even in the most dire of situations. Most importantly, it’s narrated from the perspective of Brit, the woman giving birth, making her the active centre of the experience, rather than a passive presence whose need for protection reduces her to immobilised, screaming victimhood. I like it.

Joe: Spoilers for the zombie apocalypse!

But - yeah, it’s a super cool story and it’s the sort of story I don’t see all that often and it’s absolutely fantastic.

Fantastic in a completely different way is John Wiswell’s “Open House on Haunted Hill”, a story which is, for lack of a better word, absolutely charming. That’s a word I want to use quite a bit in this category because that hint of lightness is all over the Short Story ballot and it’s frankly refreshing right now.

This is the story of a house that is on the market to be sold and doesn’t want to be alone. It wants a family. It wonders if it could haunt the glue on its own wallpaper to make itself more appealing to a potential buyer. “Open House on Haunted Hill” is just lovely and reads like a quiet exhale that blows the stress out of your body.

Adri: It’s definitely a story that brings a new meaning to the term “found family”! I love how it builds a sympathetic story around a set of people who don’t often get sympathetic portrayals, especially in this kind of genre: the sceptical podcaster trying to raise a boisterous kid, the estate agent (sorry, “realtor”), and of course the house itself would all be two dimensional villains or joke punchlines in another story, but here they’re people all trying to do their best.

The other story that made my cold heart melt is “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, which continues Prasad’s track record of telling robot self-actualisation stories with wonderful wit and heart. It’s also told through a really great - if simple - text device, where the story is within a chat log between a newly freed robot and its automatically assigned mentor, so there’s lots of light-touch things going on in the “meta” text (e.g. screen names) that really adds to our understanding of the characters. I actually missed the anthology this was in, so I’m glad enough other readers saw it (the reprint can’t have hurt) and put it on their ballots so I could enjoy it.

Joe: Made to Order was a good anthology, but I tend do well with Jonathan Strahan’s anthologies even if I’m usually a couple of years behind when they are published (sorry, Book of Dragons).

We’ve definitely seen the story format for “A Guide for Working Breeds Before” and in some ways it reminds me of Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please”, though Prasad is doing something different here, but it’s another really pleasant story despite presence of a killer robot.

Speaking of Naomi Kritzer, I also enjoyed her story “Little Free Library” which is partially told through notes left in, well, little free libraries. I think we have all the story that we actually need in “Little Free Library” but I wanted just a bit more from it. There’s something so much bigger lurking around the outside and I have questions, but I suspect we have as much as we need for the story to work. But I have questions!

Adri: I really like “Little Free Library” but its the story that “sparks” the least for me out of these six, if that makes sense. It’s cute, watching a fae(?) revolution through scraps of documentation left for a girl in her Little Free Library box, but I don’t have much to say about it beyond “that was cute”. Cute is good, but cute plus thought provoking is my bar for Hugo cuteness.

The two stories we haven’t discussed yet are both spacefaring riffs on fairytales: The Little Mermaid for "The Mermaid Astronaut", and Hansel and Gretel for "Metal Like Blood in the Dark". Both end up pretty far from their sources in different ways: “The Mermaid Astronaut” removes the need for the mermaid to specifically yearn over a love interest (good), and in place of either the Disney or Andersen endings, creates a story where growth and change can involve coming full circle. Metal Like Blood in the Dark sticks in some ways to its original plot, but it shifts the moral weight of the story, making it about the sacrifices that Sister makes to keep her Brother safe in the outside world. By the way, they’re both robots.

: I have a lot less to say about either of those stories. I liked “The Mermaid Astronaut” and appreciated what Yoon Ha Lee was doing in telling that story and the arc of the mermaid in question. The T. Kingfisher story didn’t work as well for me as the rest of the ballot did - which is unusual for me with a story from Kingfisher or Ursula Vernon, especially with how much I loved Kingfisher’s novel A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking - which we’ll talk about when we discuss the Lodestar finalists.

Adri: I feel similarly. For fairytale retellings particularly, I’m learning that what makes the overall Hugo audience excited for a new version of a story is… kinda different to what I want? Like, we will never run out of space for retellings, especially ones that come from the margins and re-examine our dominant tropes through that lens. But I want an outstanding retelling to smack me over the head with something - whether that’s bringing in a radical kindness or another perspective or something that makes it obvious what the original story was missing, or pushes a big contradiction to the fore, or whatever. “The Mermaid Astronaut” gets close to that, “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” goes off more in its own direction (and doesn’t do anything terribly interesting with that direction), and it’s all objectively good - and two authors that I love - but they don’t get to that magical nebulous “best story of 2020” point.

Anyway. Now that we’ve covered it all, what’s at the top of your list?

Joe: This would be a really good time to actually put together my ballot and vote, but I’d say I have a very solid top three of “Open House on Haunted Hill”, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” and “A Guide for Working Breeds”. I *think* that would be my ballot order but I could also change the order a dozen times between now and when I actually submit the ballot.

What does your ballot look like?

Adri: I’m still sad about Fandom for Robots not winning a couple of years ago, and “A Guide for Working Breeds” did similar mushy things to my heart, so it’s going to take top spot for me. We have the same top three overall, but I don’t know how I’ll go between Open House on Haunted Hill and Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse. Coin flip, maybe? I’ll work something out.

Joe: Well, that’s a category and it’s another strong one. It’s been fun reading through the ballot this year.

Next up: Novelette!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Novella Files: Crossroads by Laurel Hightower

Laurel Hightower. Crossroads [Off Limits Press, 2020]

Accolades: Ladies of Horror Fiction Nominee for Best Novella (2020)

Genre: Horror

Executive Summary: How far would you go to bring back someone you love?

When Chris's son dies in a tragic car crash, her world is devastated. The walls of grief close in on Chris's life until, one day, a small cut on her finger changes everything.

A drop of blood falls from Chris's hand onto her son's roadside memorial and, later that night, Chris thinks she sees his ghost outside her window. Only, is it really her son's ghost, or is it something else—something evil?

Soon Chris is playing a dangerous game with forces beyond her control in a bid to see her son, Trey, alive once again. (From Goodreads)

Assessment: In Crossroads, multiple characters have a sort of wounded opening in them. But it's not an empty void--it's filled with agonizing grief. Its grief for the death of a loved one and all the memories of them that paradoxically inspire both joy and mournful wistfulness. Sometimes its mourning what someone never had--it's grief of the realization that their fantasies will never come to be. Family forms connectors that when cut by death leave scars, but so can never having any connectors from the beginning.

Crossroads moves at a pace that favors character development over gory shocks. It mainly finds horror through Chris' interiority. The growing relationship between her and her neighbor Dan is a sweetness amid an ocean of tart. Her love for Trey is palpable. I found her blind devotion to undo her hurt both rational from her tortured perspective yet unwise from an objective reader's point of view. I wanted her to stop going down a road that intensified in horror and pain yet I still understood why she powered through.

When the gore does come, it's with purpose--every drop of blood is employed to support the themes and characterization. And every description of visually harrowing scenes is done with a skillful balance of sophistication and jarring unease. Sage observations are also offered aplenty. It's a horror story that feels suitably horrific, while edifying the reader along the way, making the grimy feeling that comes with it strangely rewarding.

The great characterization, observations, and thematic exploration are done in a way that offers new perspectives of grief. For those that have experienced the death of a loved one, the novella's themes should strike a chord if you're willing to go into the depths with it. For those without a close familial connection, Crossroad's exploration of love, loss, and isolation might be meaningful and relatable enough to ring true for them. It shows that a familial connection can be formed despite your current predicament. Sometimes you might have to leave the one you have and make a new one in which you'll find both love and heartbreak. Crossroads offers many instances of pain, but through it all you can at least feel the overpowering affection that literally bleeds out.

Score: 8/10

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Nanoreviews: The Annual Migration of Clouds, Advanced Triggernometry, Black Water Sister

The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed

This is Premee Mohamed's third (!) published novella of the year, and what's more it's the second, after These Lifeless Things, to feature universities after an apocalyptic event. But other than featuring fallen-apart worlds and characters who value higher learning, these are very distinct novellas, and the individual character voice of Reid (except... well) in The Annual Migration of Clouds gives it a clear identity of its own.

The apocalypse here isn't a single event - at least, not as its been told to Reid, who was born long after it happened - but a slow collapse of society through a combination of infrastructure loss and environmental catastrophe. To make things worse, a parasite known as Cad has become endemic in humans, manifesting as strange patterns on their skin and, in its early stages, as behaviour alterations which aim to preserve both the human and the parasite, overriding free will and risk-taking behaviour in the process. (Its advanced stages are much worse). Reid and her mother both have Cad, and both live in a small, declining self-sufficient community. When Reid receives an acceptance letter from a university, it represents an utterly improbable escape from her life, but it also means leaving behind her mother, who is increasingly unable to cope alone, and a community that won't understand the selfishness of her decision. And it means grappling with her relationship with Cad, and the way it does and doesn't exert control over her and the choices she makes for survival.

The Annual Migration of Clouds is a portrayal of someone trying to think big in a world that has shrunk to the point where that's barely possible: Reid's narration is full of half-remembered facts and stories that we recognise but she has no way of seeking more information on, or even retaining the knowledge she has. Reid's closest allies - other than her childhood friend Henryk, with whom she has an almost-romance that feels all too real - are an aging couple who still remember life before the collapse, but whose mortality is all-too-evident in all their scenes. And, as the book's first few chapters progress without any movement to the university (Reid has a deadline to make if she's going to get there on time, adding some urgency to her decision) it becomes clear that its nature is also going to be left uncertain. We, like the community Reid leaves behind, are left to decide for ourselves just how impossible it is that a chronically ill young woman from a hand-to-mouth existence could be called to a better life for altruistic reasons. A gorgeously crafted, thoughtful and layered story, well worth being one of the three Premee Mohamed novellas you read this year.

Rating: 9/10

Advanced Triggernometry by Stark Holborn

Like its predecessor, Advanced Triggernometry delivers a novella-sized dose of somewhat-alt-historical Western fun, in a world where all forms of advanced mathematics are illegal and mathematicians are outlaws, living on the edge of society. We once again follow Malago Browne and a cast of new and returning friends (including Pierre de Fermat), after the events of her last job (i.e. the first novella) convinced Malago to try going straight. Of course, the quiet life doesn't last, and when three women from a nearby town pull her in for One Last Job, Malago brings together a team of protractor-slinging mathematicians to train up and protect the town from a corrupt sheriff, in the process setting herself up for much higher political stakes than expected.

Once again, this is a story that really leans into its action tropes. We get a team of ragtag misfits (seven of them, of course), including mathematicians of colour like 19th Century Black professor Charles L. Reason, and Chinese astronomer Wang Zhenyi - welcome additions given that both the Western genre and the history of science are notoriously whitewashed. We also get Archimedes as a weird old man propping up a bar, which is an absolute delight. There's the book equivalent of a training montage, as our intrepid antiheroes teach the townsfolk which way to hold a gun, and it all builds up to a climactic battle that delivers  "our underdog heroes have run out of time to prepare and we're not sure how exactly they'll pull this off, but it'll probably be fine" tension to excellent effect. And, of course, there's plenty more action which turns mathematics from a theoretical science into a dangerous combat art. Impossible angles, careful probabilities and feats of engineering are all par for the course when you're a Mathmo in this world. It all adds up to an immensely readable action novella that absolutely delivers what it promises.

Rating: 7/10

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Jess is in a challenging situation. After a family illness and its financial impact, she's joined her parents their move from the USA - where she's lived most of her life - to their native Malaysia, to stay with her father's extended family while they get back on their feet and she, hopefully, figures out what she's going to do now that she's graduated and how she's going to continue her relationship with her long term girlfriend when her parents don't yet know she's a lesbian. To top it all off, her dead grandmother has adopted her as a spirit medium, and her ability to take over Jess' body and pilot it without her consent means that she can threaten Jess if she doesn't go along with her scheme to halt a development that threatens the temple of a very particular Goddess.

Sean has already covered much of what makes Black Water Sister excellent, especially when it comes to characterisation. There's a mix of dryness, candour and absurdity to a lot of the characters' dialogue that makes their interactions highly entertaining, even when we can feel Jess cringe (especially at some of the things her mother and Ah Ma come out with). What makes the characterisation even better is the way that Jess' relationships evolve over the course of the book. Ah Ma's initial tactic is to isolate Jess, and as an American-raised twenty-something she takes a long time to process this supernatural presence in her life and even longer worrying about her family's potential reactions. But this is a Malaysian story, not an American one, and once Jess is ready to seek out allies, they need no convincing that the supernatural is real. The way Jess' haunting changes her understanding of her family and brings her into the orbit of new connections transforms Black Water Sister from an uncomfortably claustrophobic story to one that matches spooky, god-battling adventure with a family-driven coming of age story (and oh, how I love a twenty-something coming of age story. You're never too old to come of age, nor can you come of age too many times!). If you've only experienced Zen Cho's regency fantasy, the same wit and warmth will carry you through into this new setting. Highly recommended.

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

Monday, September 27, 2021

The October Daye Reread: Rosemary and Rue

Over the last three years I have read Seanan McGuire novels much like I eat a bag of Doritos, which seems like it might be a weird comparison except that I have very little self control when it comes to Doritos. I can only imagine it looks like my hands are a blur and I’m throwing chips into my face as quickly as is humanly possible. Likewise, once I got hooked on both the October Daye and Incryptid series, I also threw the books at my face as quickly as I could. The main difference is that the books are far healthier than the Doritos. Both are delicious.

I stumbled back into October Daye after a 5-year break when Rosemary and Rue didn’t quite do it for me, at a time when McGuire’s Newsflesh novellas written as Mira Grant were absolutely my thing. But I won a Seanan McGuire prize pack containing 14 novels in all, and I love books! Even the ones I don’t love! I got distracted when the Incryptid series was on the Hugo ballot in 2018 but when I came back to October Daye the following year (when it was up for the Best Series Hugo a second time), I hit a stretch where I read at least one novel from Seanan McGuire each month for almost two years. Like I said, Doritos in my face.

US Cover

Since I’m caught up with just about everything Seanan McGuire has published (I have Indexing Reflections, Boneyards, and her uncollected short stories left to read) and I’m between reread projects for Nerds of a Feather after finishing Reading Deryni and The Dragon Prince Reread AND we’re coming up on a major event in the just-published-this-month When Sorrows Come AND we’re still reeling from a world changing event in the previous novel in the series, A Killing Frost (something I’ll touch on when it becomes appropriate in the reread), I had an itch to restart the October Daye series.

Let’s do this.

Spoilers, ho!

First, I am absolutely amazed by how much Seanan McGuire jammed into Rosemary and Rue, though I don’t know how much of that is apparent unless you are familiar enough with the series to know just how important certain things are. I’ve also forgotten, in the eight years since I last read Rosemary and Rue, that the WHOLE THING with Devin and Home is all in this book. I really thought that it was a storyline threaded through multiple novels - though, again, it’s been eight years and for reasons that will make sense later, Devin does sort of appear in subsequent novels and the consequences of what Toby does in Rosemary and Rue echo throughout the series.

The prologue to Rosemary and Rue sets up the villainy of Simon Torquill and Oleander de Merelands, and has Toby being turned into a fish for fourteen years. One of several bits of heartbreak this book contains is that Rayseline is a decent and normal child before she and Luna are abducted. By the time Toby is de-fished, Raysel is broken.

Right now these are just names, but I’m assuming that if you’re following me on this journey that you’re familiar with October Daye and Rosemary and Rue. In many ways, this was the inciting incident not just for the novel but for the series. So much that happens later is directly tied to this event as well as what led up to this event.

French Cover

Here’s what happens, quickly sketched.

Rosemary and Rue is an urban fantasy novel where the world of faerie intersects and overlaps with our own. Much and most of faerie keeps to itself and those that live among us does not do so openly. Faerie knows humanity. Humans have forgotten faerie, thinking the fae to be little more than, well, fairy tales. Folklore. Myth.

After fourteen years as a fish, Toby is trying to put her life back together as best she can and she’d rather do it without the obligations and expectations of faerie. Toby is half fae. Her mother, Amandine, is mentioned but we don’t know anything more than that she is fae. Her father was human. This matters because it impacts Toby’s position within faerie as well as the relative strength of her magic. Blood matters. We’ll want to pay attention to that bit about blood and magic because it has everything to do with Toby’s journey over this series.

Evening Winterrose, a powerful full blooded faerie, knew she was about to be killed and was able to contact Toby and magically compel Toby to find the murderer. Toby’s background is that of a private investigator.

What follows is a crash introduction to faerie, the power of alliances and loyalty, and a dive into Toby’s background. Rosemary and Rue introduces what we need to know - the knowes, the fae, the relationships, and Seanan McGuire smacks it all together and gives us what feels like the full story of Toby’s previous life as a street kid before she was able to get out and get clean. But you’re never fully out and that’s where much of the investigation goes - to her former mentor / pimp / gang leader Devin and his Home. Capitalization is important here.

Spoilers in a spoiler essay, but Toby figures it all out and solves the case. In retrospect, it would have been far better if Evening was able to stay dead. All this for Evening, whose actual death would alleviate so much suffering later even though she is mostly an ally to Toby and others as far as we (and they know). Everyone’s life would have been improved. I just don’t remember the how and the context for Evening’s return.

German Cover

As I mentioned earlier, so much is introduced here: the Roane, the Ludaieg - who is indeed a terrifying monster and we forget that throughout the series because of too much familiarity - hope chests, a part-Roane fae who dies in this novel, which is far more heartbreak than we need even without the context of the rest of the series. Dianda Lorden. The Bridge Troll and his assumption of dead, and acknowledgment that the kingdom would be so much better off if there were more people like Toby. Multiple mentions of Blind Michael. Tybalt’s introduction is that of a raging asshole. It’s amazing how he changes.

Seanan McGuire is seeding the ground and we have no idea how much from Rosemary and Rue. So, so much that is introduced here, even in passing, becomes critical later.

I think that’s why whatever did not work for me the first time I read Rosemary and Rue worked for me just fine the second time. Even though Rosemary and Rue is the first novel of the October Daye series it is a chance to come home and revisit old friends. Despite the fact that Seanan McGuire also introduced the idea that Toby will bleed a LOT in this series (so much blood, all of the blood), October Daye has been a comfort read for me.

October Daye hooked me as a series from the next novel, A Local Habitation, but coming back to Rosemary and Rue is like coming home. These are my friends and it’s almost like seeing them earlier in life before they are fully formed. This isn’t my Tybalt yet. This Tybalt is a complete ass and I don’t like him. Toby hasn’t yet begun to build her own found family. That comes later. It’s a little weird to see her as isolated as she is in Rosemary and Rue. One of Toby’s strengths is how she inspires such loyalty in those around here, at least in those who don’t also end up hating her. But that’s part of a larger point about fae society that runs through the October Daye series - the classism, the racism (of sorts), the hidebound mentality. That’s all examined and attacked through the existence of Toby.

I also wonder how much of the sea witch lore was planned in regards to her relationships with Toby and Amandine. We learn so much more in later novels and some of the short stories about what the Ludaieg has been working towards for centuries (if not longer, I don’t remember the timeline) and none of that comes through here. Here there’s a threat to kill Toby to ask her last question (this makes sense in the context of the novel), but as per their deal the witch is now in Toby’s debt. She owes Toby, and that’s a significant thing. Debts are important in this series.

So - that’s it for Rosemary and Rue. I hope you enjoyed revisiting it as much as I did. I look forward to talking about A Local Habitation in the next two months, but first I have When Sorrows Come just WAITING for me and there are big to dos and promises of actual happiness to occur, and probably Toby bleeding all over something, but that’s just to be expected.

Open roads and kind fires, my friends.

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

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Novella Initiative: The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold

Subject:  Lois McMaster Bujold, The Flowers of Vashnoi, [Spectrum Literary Agency, 2018]

Genre: Science Fiction

Executive Summary:

Still new to her duties as Lady Vorkosigan, Ekaterin is working together with expatriate scientist Enrique Borgos on a radical scheme to recover the lands of the Vashnoi exclusion zone, a lingering radioactive legacy of the Cetagandan invasion of the planet Barrayar. When Enrique’s experimental bioengineered creatures go missing, the pair discover that the zone still conceals deadly old secrets.


The latterly novels and stories in the Miles Vorkosigan sequence have been moving away from Miles as primary narrator or even primary character, and The Flowers of Vashnoi continues that trend. Here, Miles’ wife Ekaterin takes the primary point of view and takes lead and point of view of the narrative as she and her  team work on a project on the edge of a still radioactive zone, while Miles is mostly wrapped up in city politics.

As this is a relatively late story in the sequence, a big part of this novella is all about the resonances with other stories, and other themes in the whole Vorkosigan sequence. The most direct resonance is with A Civil Campaign, where we first met Enrique, and we also meet the original iteration of the “butter bugs” which are the aforementioned bioengineered creatures being used experimentally to hasten the decontamination of the land. 

The second resonance is with another non-Miles story, and that is Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. (The novella takes place just after that novel for those trying to fix it in time)  That novel, while initially focusing on Ivan and some offworld adventures, does in the end bring him home, and he does wind up confronting legacies of the invasion of the Cetagandans. The entirety of the Exclusion Zone IS a legacy of that invasion both for Barrayar in general and for the Vorkosigan family in particular. We get a little more, too, about Miles and his Grandfather’s Piotr’s relationship here, which enriches the narrative, again, for readers of the entire sequence.

The last resonance for this novella, and I think it is absolutely deliberate on the author’s part to mirror the story in terms of plot elements, is to a story very early written in the Vorkosigan sequence, “The Mountains of Mourning” . In that novella, a young Miles goes into similar terrain and country and faces a problem that if not exactly the same as Ekaterin faces here mainly on her own, certainly resonates and rhymes with it. I think this is a deliberate strategy, and this novella then works on the level of showing how much Barrayar, especially outside of the booming cities, has changed in a couple of decades.  And, of course, how much it is certainly not changed as well. 

Given those resonances being much of what makes this novella work, and given that the depiction and portrayal of Ekaterin very much depends on having read Komarr and A Civil Campaign, this is a novella that I think is very strictly for the fans, but the fans will be delighted by it.

Score: 8/10

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

MicroReview [book]: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin


While you won't find Tom Lin on the SFF shelf, fans of the weird west will enjoy this lyrical read.

I love the genre of westerns in theory, but I've always found them hard to engage with due to their focus on the white male protagonist with plenty of racism and sexism thrown in, including a total lack of interest in engaging with the genocide of Indigenous people. It's hard to flip off all those switches when I sit down to read Cormac McCarthy. I knew I was in a different book when one of the main characters promised not to alter the memories of his friends, but when asked whether one of the white main characters was his friend, he said no white man was a friend of his. 

Set in the desert between Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada, this novel has a straightforward premise introduced in the first pages: Ming Tsu has a list of people to kill, and he's very good at ticking names off that list. As the story unfolds, the reason for his revenge spree comes out. Tsu and a white woman had fallen in love and married against her father's wishes. In order to annul the marriage, the father charges Tsu with miscegenation and has him sent to prison. Now, years later, Tsu hunts down those that were involved in sending him to prison in hopes of returning to his wife.

While such a plot is certainly enough to fill the pages of this novel, Tom Lin adds a cast of characters to weird his interpretation of the West. First, Ming Tsu brings a character called the Prophet to ride with him. The Prophet has no memory but a powerful ability: he knows when beings will die, men as well as nonhumans. Freed from linear memory, the Prophet can lyrically describe the past of the landscape as well as how it will all eventually return to a shallow sea. 

The theme of time and memory is consistent throughout the novel. The Prophet informs Tsu he is a "man out of time," who has no clear hour of death. Similarly, the other people of the weird West revolve around time as well. On his way to check names off his list, Tsu and the Prophet join a traveling show of "miracles." The ringmaster, a white man, at first appears ordinary and has collected a traveling group of people with certain tendencies. There's Notah, a Navajo man, who can remove memories. Proteus, a "pagan," who can shape-shift into others. Gomez, a magical gambler. Hazel cannot be burned by fire. Finally, Hunter, a boy who can only speak through telepathy. They make their money traveling the West, demonstrating their miracles for an audience too drunk to realize they are, indeed, real. 

The ringmaster hires Tsu to escort them to Reno, Nevada. Where this novel really shines is the lyrical descriptions Tom Lin includes along their route. Whether it's the Prophet providing history lessons of deep time, or encounters such as a huge sea creature skeleton buried near Pyramid Lake, the desert is hard and spare, but beautiful. Tom Lin's prose truly captures this beauty.  

Additionally, Lin’s choice of protagonist repositions the genre. At its heart, the novel is a lyrical, if not fun, revenge story. That being said, it questions whiteness, what it means to be partnered with whiteness, and the power of whiteness. Throughout the novel, Tsu is juxtaposed to his white counterparts and experiences racism still prominent today: claims that he looks like everyone else, surprise that he can speak English, surprise that he can’t speak Mandarin, racist caricatures, in addition to the motivation for his revenge spree, being charged with miscegenation. In this novel, white people are in power and that isn’t ever a good thing.

Ultimately, this novel questions what has been erased in the West, from the previous inhabitants of the landscape to whole swathes of history. This novel recontextualizes the genre by centering the importance of Chinese immigration and labor in creating the “West,” particularly the railroads that are the center of so many western films and novels. In response, Tom Lin offers Ming Tsu, an epic gunslinger on a quest.   

While Tom Lin addresses the suppressed history of Chinese immigration and labor in the West, other injustices are passed over or used for flavor, such as an attack from an unnamed Native American tribe. Ultimately, this is where the novel falls flat for me. It’s difficult to celebrate the inclusion of other suppressed histories while the Indigenous history of the era is passed over, as is the history Latinx people and Black people. Obviously, Lin couldn’t address all the injustices of the western genre—nor should he—but it’s also troubling when a Native American attack is not contextualized and the only speaking Indigenous characters are “magical.”

Tom Lin's The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a lyrical yet fast-paced read, telling the story of revenge against white supremacy. While this book includes much needed commentary on silenced history of Chinese immigration and labor in the West, it does so at the cost of other passed over histories. Too many of the diverse characters are quick sketches that can misstep into stereotype even as they question the systemic white supremacy that forces them together. While this book is an enjoyable read, I wish the story hadn't focused on one often glossed-over history at the cost of others.

The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 lyrical prose

Penalties: -3 Examining white supremacy at the cost of silencing/passing over other histories in the western genre, particularly Indigenous people, Latinx people, disabled people, and women.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Lin, Tom. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu [Little Brown 2021]

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.

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Novel


Adri: Time for the second installment in our Hugo chats: and this time we’re moving on to novel. This year we’ve got books from a very all-star author list - five out of six already have at least one Hugo in the silverware cupboard - and an even split of sequels and new adventures. What are your thoughts?

Joe: And the one writer who doesn’t have a Hugo (Tamsyn Muir) was a Best Novel finalist last year for her debut novel, which isn’t too shabby either.

Similar to how I feel about Novella, this year’s Novel ballot is a fairly strong one and a reasonably varied list in terms of what sort of novel is nominated.

I listen to too many Academy Award focused podcasts (Oscar Season is almost as eternal as Hugo Season), so let’s blame that for what’s coming next, but I kind of want to talk about the narratives around the Best Novel Hugo Award finalists.

The City We Became
is N.K. Jemisin’s first novel after winning three Hugo Awards in as many years for her Broken Earth trilogy. One more win ties her with Robert A. Heinlein and Lois McMaster Bujold, and breaks her tie with Connie Willis and Vernor Vinge. That’s heady company to be in. Network Effect brings Murderbot to the Best Novel ballot for the first time and it’s really difficult to overlook the power of Murderbot (two wins for Novella, a finalist for Series this year). We also have Susanna Clarke’s first novel since winning a Hugo for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and that’s not something we can discount. Then again, don’t discount Mary Robinette Kowal for her follow up Lady Astronaut novel. The first book in that series won two years ago. That’s not to dismiss Tamsyn Muir and Rebecca Roanhorse because you absolutely cannot and should not dismiss Tamsyn Muir and Rebecca Roanhorse.

I know we don’t talk about books and the Hugos like we do movies, but given how good of a ballot we have this year and you noted that five of the six finalists are previous Hugo Winners and three of them have won this category before - a little Oscar talk is kind of fun.

Adri: It’s fun to mix up the punditry sometimes! As long as nobody thinks we’re taking ourselves TOO seriously. Also, compared to last year, which was quite a debut heavy ballot, it’s fun to see a field of returning champions and consistent favourites. I’m making a big effort to keep this sort of year-by-year fluctuation in mind, because I’m sure I said something melodramatic and overblown last year about debuts dominating the Hugo awards forever. I should not say things like that if I want people to believe I am in touch with reality.

: Hey, we all like the new and shiny books but I’m with you in wanting a solid mix depending on the makeup of a given year’s publishing.

Okay. I’d like to kick this off by talking about Network Effect, the first novel from Martha Wells to make the Hugo ballot. It’s Murderbot, and Murderbot seems to be everywhere these days, having twice won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and is now on the ballot for Best Series where I’m a little afraid it’ll steamroll the rest of the finalists there, though that’s a conversation for another day.

Adri: Murderbot! As a series, it’s lovely to see how it’s captured the hearts of the SFF community, and I think those novella wins were both well deserved. But Network Effect occupies an odd place in my heart right now: I loved it, I gave it 8/10 in review (Paul gave it a 9), I’m really excited for the way it changes Murderbot’s terms of engagement with humans and potentially takes the series into new territory (not that Fugitive Telemetry, the latest novella, does anything with that...) but when it came to pinning down my favourites for the year, it didn’t really come into the equation for me. As you say, we’ll have the series conversation later, but I’m more comfortable discussing Murderbot as an outstanding ongoing series than holding up any individual volume as a pinnacle of achievement at this point.

Joe: I’m notoriously inconsistent with my goodreads ratings, especially since it doesn’t let us give half stars. We both gave it 5 stars, but I’d say my star rating probably would come out to around 85% and then I rounded up. Not that it matters or you can gleam anything about how I use goodreads to do anything more than incessantly log everything I read.

The point is that I thought Network Effect was really good. It’s Murderbot. It’s fun, it’s delightful, and like you I didn’t have it on my nominating ballot. Network Effect is among the best of the year, it’s just not among the best of the best of my year. I think we’re talking about the same thing - despite the Nebula win and the potential Hugo steamroll that it may well do in this category, it’s just not as individually special as some of the other novels here.

Another novel I thought was excellent but not as much of a standout in this category is The Relentless Moon. I reviewed it last year, gave it an 8/10 (and a meaningless 5 stars on Goodreads). I noted, and please excuse me for quoting myself, that “this novel, like the two Lady Astronaut novels before it, is about striving towards excellence and truly building a better tomorrow even in the face of a devastating future. The Relentless Moon is hopeful science fiction, and that's something worth celebrating - especially when it's this good.”

Because we’ve talked around this for a while, I know you don’t agree.

Adri: Yeah, sadly I didn’t get on with The Relentless Moon at all (after actually liking The Calculating Stars quite a lot! And then The Fated Sky... much less), and I stopped reading halfway through. Like its predecessors, this book revolves around a nice white lady who battles sexism and is totally Aware of Systemic Injustice but still prone to using her extensive privilege to put herself over the top wherever she can. I know that’s certainly not the intended takeaway, and other people get very different things out of these books and I don’t want to diminish that, but they just don’t deliver what I want from a science fiction story like this. Even as a white woman reader, I can get wish fulfilment competence porn that works better for me elsewhere. Sorry, Nicole and Elma!

Joe: That’s a fair criticism which I can absolutely see, though that’s obviously not the way I read The Relentless Moon. It’s not my favorite of the three Lady Astronaut novels, but I thought it was delightful.

How I’m reading the novel (and granting my position of a relatively privileged white man) is that, given the timeframe in which it is set, a generally nice while lady who battles sexism but is aware of systemic injustice is a good thing. Yes, Elma and now Nicole, are relatively privileged to get into the American space program. It’s one of the foundational what ifs of the Lady Astronaut series. On the one hand the recognition of the systemic injustice can be a little heavy handed. On the other hand, there *is* a recognition of systemic injustice. That’s not something we get in every novel even one with the basic what ifs of Lady Astronaut and The Relentless Moon.

I’ll absolutely grant that the three Lady Astronaut series would fall more into the category of entry level science fiction - something which John Scalzi has made no bones about writing himself and being proud of. I’m not at all being dismissive - I think Mary Robinette Kowal is writing excellent science fiction and while The Relentless Moon doesn’t quite live up to The Calculating Stars and all of the wonder of that novel, I still find it generally delightful.

Adri: And, you know, here’s the other thing I need to recognise: I’m being very hard on The Relentless Moon, a book which tries to incorporate racial injustice but (for me) falls short. But two of my favourite books here don’t even try, and yet I still consider them favourites for what they DO focus on. So… I don’t know what I’m trying to say here, but I think it is that “opinions are hard”.

Joe: Moving on, I really don’t have anything to say about Piranesi. It’s not a book for me. I’m just happy it wasn’t 1000 pages long.

Adri: Funnily enough, Piranesi is one of my favourites (and, at the time of writing, it’s just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction). It’s so delightfully bizarre, with a really strong character voice, and I really appreciated both what it ended up explaining and what remained a weird mystery. I know other readers who didn’t enjoy the extent to which it pulled back the curtain on its own premise - there’s quite an extended epilogue - but I just thought it was really cool. Also, a very different book from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and definitely not one that could sustain 1,000 pages - which is fine!

The other book I have less to say on for now - although I really, really enjoyed it and am anticipating the sequel with delight - is Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. Epic fantasy doesn’t often make the ballot and I’m glad this one has, but at the same time it feels like we’ve only just started to scratch the surface of Roanhorse’s world - not to mention that ending cliffhanger! - and I hope I’m going to be more equipped to talk about this in a couple of years time when, hopefully, we get to see it on a Best Series ballot

Joe: I’m with you on Black Sun. It was quite good, gave us something new in epic fantasy. I love new perspectives, especially as well written as Black Sun was. But, perhaps moreso than some other first novels in a series, Black Sun feels less complete on its own - which would be a weird thing to say, except, as you noted, the cliffhanger ending.

But - if I contrast Black Sun with The City We Became, another novel that is setting up a series to come, Jemisin’s novel feels more complete while opening up the wider conflict than Black Sun does. The City We Became is more a “now what?” than a “oh shit what the hell?” - both are valid ways to end a novel and build anticipation but, for me, the way The City We Became ended is more satisfying.

It’s also solidly at the top of my ballot. I’ve read N.K. Jemisin’s short fiction since before she published her first novel, but The Fifth Season was the first novel length work I had read of hers. I do plan to go back and read her Dreamblood Duology and Inheritance Trilogy, just to get that out of the way. I have the omnibus editions taunting me. But, with that said, her Broken Earth novels were truly special and exceptional, which makes The City We Became all the more impressive because it’s something very different from that triple Hugo Award winning trilogy and there is no let down.

Adri: I love The Inheritance Cycle and really enjoyed the Dreamblood Duology as well, but Broken Earth was undoubtedly a level up for Jemisin and I think The City We Became maintains that level of quality. At the same time, it’s a book that gives me a bit of trouble, rankings-wise, because while I think it’s objectively an amazing concept and I loved the take on cosmic horror and urban fantasy (in the most literal possible sense), some of the core elements didn’t “click” with me as much, and I was left feeling more out of the loop on some of the worldbuilding elements than I wanted. I know Paul, as a New Yorker, had quite a different reading experience to me, so I think it's my Britishness (and my whiteness) standing in the way here. Anyway, objectively I think The City We Became is the start of another amazing series for Jemisin and it’d be a more than worthy winner. Plus, as you say, it feels much more like a whole thing in itself, even as there certainly is set-up for more books.

Joe: I wonder if that’s part of it for me as well. Pour one out for me with this admission in light of the novel, but I grew up on Staten Island until 8th Grade so there is a certain amount of familiarity with New York that doesn’t quite go away while still granting that I didn’t know the city as an adult or even as a teenager so my experience is necessarily different. But those elements that didn’t click for you? They very much worked for me.

We’ll get into discussing the top of our ballots in a moment, I think, but since I’ve already noted The City We Became as at the top of mine, we should probably move on to my number two - which is the final novel on the ballot and it’s an absolute stunner: Harrow the Ninth.

For all that Gideon the Ninth was filled with spit and elbows to the face and a seething sarcastic anger - Harrow the Ninth was an adjustment of a second novel. Tamsyn Muir flipped every expectation we might have had, subverted a few of them, and then continued to deliver a beautifully told story that was unlike anything we would have expected from her debut novel (as happens when expectations are flipped). It was brave as hell and it worked so, so well.

: I couldn’t agree more. Harrow the Ninth quite literally rewrites the rules that Gideon the Ninth established, and the fact that Muir pulls it off so well while also managing to put full-on Dad jokes in some of the tensest moments of the story is just so impressive. It also manages to be an outstanding book while largely doing without the biggest selling point of Gideon the Ninth: Gideon herself. I know that it’s quite a divisive book (if you didn’t like Gideon, you won’t like Harrow, and even if you did like Gideon it might not be what you want), but for me it was exactly my jam.

Joe: That is an excellent way to describe Harrow. I loved Gideon, but I was expecting Harrow to be Gideon x 2 and, well, spoilers, but Harrow was mostly Gideon x 0. The first few pages / chapters I was wondering what the heck was going on. I am amazed Tamsyn Muir pulled it off, but she absolutely did. Harrow the Ninth is the only novel that could conceivably overtake The City We Became at the top of my ballot.

Since I refuse to not talk about the top of my ballot, should we move on to talking about the tops of our ballots?

Adri: Totally. My top three this year are very hard to pick between: Harrow the Ninth, Piranesi and The City We Became all did very different things to me as a reader, and they're all right up there as the best of this year. The dilemma I have is, I think, a common one: do I go for the book I objectively think is the best, or do I go for the book I enjoyed the most (and I use the word "enjoy" very broadly here)? Most of the time, it's the thing that hit me hardest personally that goes on top of my ballot, and then everything else goes in what I feel is the best "objective" order. If I do that this year, Harrow the Ninth is the immediate winner. It's my first and so far only 10/10 rated book on Nerds of a Feather, it's a book of my heart, it's full of exactly the kind of nonsense shenanigans that I am a sucker for, and it has some great fanart on Twitter.

This year, though, I'm feeling more strongly than usual about my runners-up. Piranesi is just such a cool book, and I'd love to see Susanna Clarke come in after her long hiatus and walk off with another Hugo. And The City We Became... well, it's not a book that spoke to me as much personally, but it's N.K. Jemisin continuing at the top of her game after Broken Earth, and that needs to be recognised. With that in mind, I think I’m going to be switching up my voting criteria this year and going for an actual “best novel” rather than an “Adri’s favourite novel”. Which I’m sure people will tell me I should have been doing all along, but objectivity is a silly concept anyway.

Joe: I’m somewhere between “fuck objectivity” and “what is the best, anyway?”, but it’s a little bit more nuanced in my head than that might come across in an explanation so let’s see if I can work with that a bit.

There are novels that I dearly love (and I’m not going to name names) that I can comfortably say are among my favorites of the year but aren’t among the best. But once we get to the point that we’re thinking about the best of the year and we can recognize some sort of excellence beyond the pure joy a book brought us, I’m not sure there is such a thing as objectivity.

When I’m looking at the top of an awards ballot, or my completely subjective “best of the year” list, I’m trying to find the intersection of what I loved with what I think is best. I can admire the technical skill of Piranesi all I want and I recognize that you thought it was great, but I can’t say it’s “best” because, for me, it’s not.

The Hugo Awards are about celebrating the “best”, right? But it’s the best as voted on by a group of people pooling their opinions, ranking their choices, and coming up with what is closer to a consensus best. There is no consensus best. In my mind, The Fifth Season is the closest thing we have to what *I* think is a consensus best novel. The Fifth Season is an all time great novel and I think will hold up to the history of science fiction and fantasy. Even for that book, there’s not enough of a consensus that it is best. There are folks who ranked it 5 or 6 in 2016.

I’m sorry. I’m monologuing. The larger point I had is that there’s no wrong way to do this and if you shoot for the best + your favorite you’ll find a really nice balance between the two.

Adri: Agreed! And on that note, let’s salute this novel ballot one more time and then move on to our next category. Join us next time for a look at the Short Story finalists.

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Review: Stories of Survival

This new collection is a great opportunity for you to get acquainted with the fiction being written halfway around the world

To honor the memory of beloved fantasy writer Aiki Flinthart, the Aussie Speculative Fiction Group has launched the charity anthology Stories of Survival, where various Australian authors have contributed their explorations of characters who stay strong against heavy circumstances.

The Storyteller by Kylie Fennell, a tale told by a tree so that others may keep telling it, makes an understated defense of the urgency of preserving and sustaining stories so that in turn they preserve and sustain us.

The Forgotten Sea by Louise Zedda-Sampson boasts an abundance of sensory detail and effective imagery. It begins as your standard haunted house story—but it turns out it's the visitor who carries her own ghosts.

Of Slaves and Lions by Pamela Jeffs follows an exile as they return to their childhood home, meditate on the survival of places and of the meanings they once carried, and wrestle with the ways the past can be a captivity.

Faltering by Monique McLellan is set in a resort town reduced to an artificial simulation of itself, where a returning tourist yearns to find something, even if it's just a shadow, that remains from the time of his first visit.

Maki by Nikky Lee tells the rescue of a beached orca in parallel with a married couple's struggle to rescue their relationship.

Tox Hunt by Tim Borella has as its protagonists the few remaining descendants of a vanity genetics fad that went horribly wrong, now on the run as fugitives in the Australian wilderness.

Three Tasks for the Sidhe by Leanbh Pearson is an exquisite fairy tale, composed with a fine ear for precise verse, about the steadfastness of a love capable of rising above the limitations of human mortality.

Alice's Hope by Jade Wildy is the adventure of a spy and treasure hunter on a desperate quest to deliver into the proper hands a mysterious painting that contains ancient secrets that could save her world.

Divine Engineer by Claire Fitzpatrick is the bad exception in an otherwise fine anthology. Its protagonist is flat and uninteresting, its succession of events does not reach the status of actual plot, and at its core is either an inscrutable metaphor or an appalling incomprehension of basic astronomy.

Spirit of the Koi by Lisa Rodrigues manages to contain a universe of bittersweet emotion in its short dialogue on grief, consolation, and the ancestry of space wolves.

Valuer of Souls by Kaybee Pearson turns the theme of heroic survival on its head and asks which extreme forms of human defiance would make us worthier of scorn than the forces of decay we claim to be fighting.

You Better Not Be Couriering Coriander by Brianna Bullen takes our COVID anxieties and gives them sparkling fairy wings in a fun, fast-paced trip from a land of ghosts to a city of mythic people just trying to get through their day.

Way-Bread Rising by Tansy Rayner-Roberts, another pandemic allegory, draws the reader back to early 2020, when we were all learning to bake our own bread, and adds to the mix a pinch of grandmotherly magic.

Bitter Brews by Kirstie Nicholson shifts the focus just a bit away from the iconic figure of the survivor and toward the set of adversities that force people to become survivors in the first place. This time, the protagonist finds a rescuer, but eventually learns to rescue themself from their rescuer.

Chocolate Cake and Carnage by Aiki Flinthart is a hilarious prison escape adventure where nothing goes according to plan.

Reading these stories is an eye-opening experience. They are in general very short, much more than what we usually call short fiction in American speculative magazines. However, their brief extension does not translate into Hemingwayian dryness: they are highly poetic, rich with lyric virtuosism. Curiously, they all have an open ending, which I don't know whether I should attribute to a feature of the Australian short story tradition or to the theme of this collection, as a way of signaling the possibilities that remain open even in moments of dread. Be that as it may, Stories of Survival is more than deserving of your attention. It can be finished in one afternoon, but it will stay with you for much longer.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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

Reference: Sheehan, Austin P., Rodrigues, Lisa, and Isaac, S. M. [editors]. Stories of Survival: a Charity Anthology by Australian Speculative Fiction [Deadset Press, 2021].

All proceeds from this book go to Melanoma Institute Australia.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Interview: The Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog

Congratulations to the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog on their Hugo nomination for best fanzine!  As the title of their blog suggests,  the Hugo Book Club Blog focuses on discussions of past and current Hugo  nominees and winners (with a multitude of other scifi-fantasy discussions and guest posts as well), and they are in truth, a functioning book club!  Based in Edmonton, the book club discusses hugo nominated novels, novellas, dramatic presentations, and everything else, focusing on one or two items per month. As the book club discusses the item, notes are taken and edited down into a blog post. In a way, the club's in depth blog posts are a journal of their meetings and discussions.   

The blog's editors, Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne took the same approach the interview they kindly organized for Nerds of a Feather.  As they do with all their blog posts, Wakaruk and Rokne invited input from the members book club to answer the questions I posed to them.  I am especially impressed by Wakaruk and Rokne's ability to ensure all members of the group are heard while ensuring the club keeps it's local and intimate feel and maintaining a blog with widespread and international readership.

NOAF: Welcome to Nerds of a Feather, can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog: Thank you for inviting us to be interviewed. Amanda is an academic librarian whose career has focused on access to government information and, more recently, copyright. Olav is a former journalist who now works in the public service as a media relations professional. We are the founding members of the book club that the blog is named after.

The book club is based in Canada’s most northerly city (Edmonton, Alberta) and we do our best to travel to Worldcon each year.

NOAF: How did the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog get started?

UHBCB: If there is a start date, it’s probably Apr. 4, 2015, when the Hugo shortlist was announced. Our existing book club had decided to read the shortlist that year, as some of us were voting.

Of course, that was the year that the final ballot was largely made up of niche works that had been promoted by a politically motivated slate campaign. Several of those works were sub-par, in our opinions.

This prompted us to try to become more involved in the nominations process the subsequent year, and later to engage more in positive, iconoclastic, and proudly progressive discussion of Hugo Awards. Which led us to start posting blog posts.

It’s been a process of evolution.

NOAF: How does your book club work, and how long has your book club been going?

UHBCB: It works like a lot of book clubs do; we gather every month or so to discuss a book. Usually, one of us takes notes and turns the discussion into a blog post.

During Hugo voting season, we try to read all the Hugo-finalist novels and discuss them as a group. When it’s not Hugo voting season, we try to pick books that seem likely to be in contention, or books that someone in the book club thinks are worth talking about.

In its current form, the book club has been going for a little more than five years.

NOAF: On the blog, you talk about more than just Hugo winners, Hugo nominees, and books that should have been nominated. How do you decide what else to review, and other related topics to blog about?

UHBCB: The process is somewhat chaotic, and governed by who is willing to write something up.

Anyone in the book club can write up a draft post. Then it gets edited by Amanda and Olav, and then goes back out to everyone else for comment, review, feedback, etc. Lately, most of the posts have been generated by conversations amongst book club attendees, with Olav actually putting pen to paper for (or, more accurately, typing out) the first draft.

Occasionally, there’s a disagreement over a particular point or approach, at which point we try to build consensus through discussions… or, in rare circumstances even nix a piece if someone has a strenuous objection to it.

Reaching consensus can be a time-consuming process, so blog posts sometimes sit on the shelf (or, more accurately, the shared drive) for months before being posted.

NOAF: What is your favorite blog post that you published in 2020? Why is it your favorite?

UHBCB: If we have to pick one, it would be “The Movement of Goods in Science Fiction”, which was based around Marshall Boyd’s observation that SFF tends to place a priority on trading and transportation industries, with an emphasis on resource extraction industries, but largely neglects primary manufacturing.

So what does this say about the underlying assumptions of the genre? That’s a question that Boyd, Olav, Amanda, Ken, and a few others argued about for more than a year. The draft of that blog was probably one of the longest-incubating pieces we’ve ever posted. But we’re quite pleased with the finished version, because we think it does a pretty good job of asking questions about some of the under-examined economic assumptions that underpin a lot of science fiction.

NOAF: In 2020, you did a series of posts where some club members watched Hugo nominated Dramatic Presentations (movies). Well? How did they hold up? Any surprise favorites?

UHBCB: Well, we started that series in August of last year, and we’ve only gotten through the first eight years of movies . . . so there’s 55 years of movies left to view. That series is going to take us a while. Also, the viewers that contribute to those blog posts are different from the book club membership, with Olav and Christy joined by a couple of other friends who are interested in film studies and reviewing but never attended a book club meeting.

There’s been a lot of surprises; often it’s the less-well-known films that have held up best. The big blockbusters directed by George Pal haven’t held up as well (7 Faces of Dr. Lau is the possibly most egregiously terrible Hugo nominee of all time).

Everyone in the group watching Hugo-finalist movies was impressed with The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Harry Bellafonte is terrific in a weird post-apocalyptic love triangle movie. We also really got a lot out of the 1961 disaster movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire which is scarily prescient about the threat of global warming.

We’ve also been checking out movies that were omitted from the shortlist, and the one we think every fan of SF cinema should check out is the Chech space opera Ikarie-XB1; it’s basically a forerunner to Star Trek and its visual grammar has echoed throughout almost all space-based science fiction. It’s remarkably influential.

NOAF: What are some of your favorite novels, novellas, and short stories so far in 2021?

UHBCB: "Crazy Beautiful" by Cat Rambo, which was in the March edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It seems completely bizarre to us that Cat has yet to be shortlisted for a Hugo Award. She’s been writing so many delightful stories for so many years and is so active in the community, that you’d think that the Hugo-voting public would have rewarded her by now. (As an aside, Sheree Renée Thomas’ editorship at F&SF is off to a great start!)

These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed is an excellent little novella about a weird alien invasion, and the historicity of events. It was the first in Rebellion’s Solaris Satellites series of novellas, which we really dug. Hope that they continue doing these, since the 2021 titles have been stellar, and Mohamed’s entry was a real highlight of the year so far. (Funny to think that Mohamed and Olav worked for the same organization for two years, but have only actually met once — at her book signing.)

NOAF: What will winning a Hugo award mean to you?

UHBCB: There are so many deserving fanzines on this shortlist — several that have yet to win — that we’re honestly uncomfortable with even speculating about winning. We’re really grateful to everyone who included us on their nominating ballots alongside these other superb fanzines.

Getting shortlisted for this quirky little project has meant a lot to us, in that it does make us feel like we’re recognized within the community of science fiction fandom. Between the blog’s heterodox hot-takes on some aspects of SFF media, and our unabashedly pro-working-class politics, it sometimes feels like we’re out-of-step with the majority of science fiction fans. The fact that enough fans decided to put us on their nominating ballots to get us this nomination does make it feel like we’re welcome and accepted at Worldcons.

NOAF: Thank you so much, and good luck!

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.