Thursday, October 28, 2021

Six Books with Juliet McKenna

 Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief's Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man's Heir was her first modern fantasy rooted in British folklore, followed by The Green Man’s Foe and The Green Man’s Silence. She writes diverse shorter stories enjoying forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and SF. 

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished Monkey Around by Jadie Jang. It’s a debut urban fantasy set in San Francisco and it’s really good! Maya McQueen is a barista, social activist and monkey shape-shifter who needs to find out why other supernaturals are disappearing and/or turning up dead. Jang has drawn on Asian and other myths to create a supernatural world that reflects the Bay Area’s multicultural population so she’s offering something intriguing and refreshing. The pace is fast, the plot is tight and the writing draws you in from page one. Maya and her friends – and enemies – are people you’re really going to care about.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee. I read Jade City when I was one of the World Fantasy Award judges. It’s a modern secondary world fantasy set in the city of Janloon which has echoes of Hong Kong, Tokyo and any number of other places without being a copy of any of them. Janloon is the source of magical jade that confers superhuman powers, and it’s where the rival clans who control the jade live and fight for supremacy. I found the book utterly compelling. So compelling in fact that a tiny part of me wondered what she could possibly do with the second instalment that would have the same impact. Well, Jade War expanded this world in fascinating directions, so I am waiting impatiently to see what happens next.

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

I’ve been meaning to reread Melanie Rawn’s ‘Dragon Prince’ books for ages now. These books had a real impact on me as a reader, what, thirty years ago now, and I’m convinced they helped steer epic fantasy in a new and positive direction at the time, alongside the writing of authors like Katherine Kerr and Elizabeth Moon.

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

Shaman’s Crossing by Robin Hobb. This is the first book of The Soldier Son trilogy, and I had to make a real effort to persevere with it. I’m such a fan of the three ‘Realm of the Elderlings’ trilogies that came before this, that the very different setting, characters and themes really jarred. At the time, I didn’t think I would have stuck with it, if it had been written by any other author. Since then, I’ve wondered if I would have had those problems if some other author had written that story. I don’t think so. I’ve realised I was bringing far too many unfair expectations and preconceptions with me. I’m glad I went on to read the whole trilogy as by the time I had completed the story, I could appreciate Shaman’s Crossing on its own merits.

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

Warrior Scarlet, by Rosemary Sutcliff. She’s better known as the author of The Eagle of the Ninth, and I loved that, as well as her many other books. Warrior Scarlet though, that’s the one I went back to most often. Drem is a boy in Bronze Age Britain whose hopes of becoming a warrior seem doomed by his withered arm. If he can’t kill a wolf, how can he defend his tribe? It’s a story about coming to terms with the fact that life so often isn’t fair, that people can end up excluded through no fault of their own, and about rising above adversity for your own sake, not anyone else’s. That might sound a bit grim but it’s really a very humane and compassionate story about the realities of growing up.

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

The Green Man’s Challenge is published on 28th September 2021, and it’s the fourth story about Daniel Mackmain, a hard-working carpenter who just wants to get on with making a living in modern-day rural Britain. The thing is though, Dan’s mother is a dryad and that means his life gets complicated because he can see supernatural spirits and creatures causing problems that ordinary people can’t explain. Who else is going to stop that sort of trouble before things get a whole lot worse?

This time, Dan’s girlfriend Fin, who comes from a family of swan shapeshifters, thinks she’s seen a giant. Normally, the first thing he would do is look for folklore about something he has to tackle. This time he soon learns that there’s not a lot to go on beyond children’s stories. No one can even explain where those fairy tales came from in the first place. Dan has to look for help elsewhere, from the supernatural inhabitants, and from other humans who have a foot in both worlds. It’s not easy to work out who he can trust. Everyone has secrets, and not everyone’s convinced they can trust him.

Why is this awesome? Because bringing British myths into the modern world offers such intriguing possibilities and some really dramatic clashes.

Thank you, Juliet!

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

Questing in Shorts: October 2021 (not intentionally spooky)

Hello friends and welcome to another edition of Questing in Shorts, where we read some short fiction magazines and talk about good stories and have a jolly old time. This month, we are going to chat mostly about stories that happened in September, because somehow I lost a month, and I have not even downloaded any of the subscription things that landed with me in October. That's OK, this never promised to be a current column anyway and, despite how it feels to this reviewer sometimes, stories do not in fact have an expiration date...

Adri tries to read, October 2021

On the subject of "things that aren't timely but are interesting", I got to be on a jury for this year's British Fantasy Awards, specifically in the Best Magazine category! We had an amazing list of magazines - some of which I was already familiar with, some not - and after a really tough judging period, it ended up being Strange Horizons who took home the award for 2021. I'd recommend anyone who hasn't checked out Black Static, The Dark, Interzone, Ginger Nuts of Horror (waves to fellow review zine, doing amazing work to be competing in a category with a strong short fiction bias!) and FIYAH Literary Magazine. In chatting to my fellow jurists, I also put a couple of other publications on my radar and I'm excited to stick them in my review rotation in the not too distant future.

Apex Magazine 124 + 125

Apex stories don't often come with sweet bits, but I was entranced by E. Catherine Tobler's "Without Wishes to Bind You", which also features leprechaun mythology. In it, Michael is looking for the woman he loves with the help of Pudgy, a leprechaun he managed to catch and is keeping with him by not using all three of his designated wishes. Pudgy, of course, has his own take on the situation, and his own reasons to try to find Heather. This is a story of two folks moving past exploitation and into mutual trust and working towards a goal, and it's a really pleasant surprise. Of course, this being Apex, we go straight back into the dark science fiction with "How to be Good" by R. Gatwood, in which a man apparently without empathy trying to live a good life on his own terms ends up working for a government agency, which effectively uses him as a last resort torturer when they can justify doing so for a "greater good". Renwood is a very creepy character, even as we can see the ways in which he tries to justify what he's doing. Old school science fiction has pretty much exhausted any merit in the "let's set up a scenario in which the only good course of action is to be very, very bad" premise, but Gatwood's story sidesteps that by not making Renwood's actions excusable, regardless of his intent. Also very noteworthy, and very creepy, is Kelly Sandoval's "What Sisters Take", about a group of three girls whose twins are all cuckoo-like parasites feeding off them, and "Osu", by Kingsley Okpii, a story about a child who is taken as an alusi - a human conduit - by an Osu deity. Ike has the potential to wield great power with his deity, but what he really wants is to go home to his mother: a desire which ends up being thwarted as he realises what his selection as an alusi actually means.

Issue 125 brings a pairing of stories dealing with food, beauty, health and body horror: there's Candyland by "Maggie Slater", in which a woman reconnects with an old friend who hasn't seen her since she turned into a candy-person and which brims with the awkwardness of two people confronting the changes they have gone through since they last met. And there's "Next to Cleanliness" by Rose Keating, the episodic story of a woman working with a creepy doctor on various forms of "cleansing". Both stories hum with feelings of fatphobia and body "wrongness", and use their weird elements to great effect in otherwise very mundane scenarios. "Cottonmouth", by Joelle Wellington, brings an almost fairytale like vibe to its deeply unpleasant scenario: protagonist Grant finds a Black girl hidden in the forbidden attic of his grandfather's home, and visits her three times to try and make her his (in a literal sense). However, Innana has her own plans to overcome her captivity, and has been there much longer than Grant realises, ready to capitalise on all of his mistakes to regain her own freedom. There's some interesting science fiction here too, notably Discontinuity, by Jared Millet, which deals with people finding their way into alternate universes during FTL "breaches", and what it means to discover that your past has been rewritten while you've been travelling the galaxy. It might be less "weird" than the other stories here but it's no less creepy, and the whole issue is worth diving into.

Giganotosaurus, August - September 2021

I rarely have anything bad to say about Giganotosaurus' story selection, and "Teaching to the Test" by Sarina Dorie and On Milligan Street by Peter M. Floyd both maintain the streak. "Teaching to the Test" features a woman teaching in a highly unusual classroom: her students are all infected with a zombie virus that only affects children. Sometimes, kids recover from the virus, and the government's "No Infected Left Behind" act means that teachers like Miss Sanders spend their days in artificially cheerful rooms, teaching students who are chained up to only be somewhat dangerous to her, knowing that most of them face no future at all. The only way for her students to prove their recovery is through passing a test, but the one student who shows promise in her classroom has learning difficulties that have nothing to do with his infection, leaving him trapped with no way for Miss Sanders to devote time to really help him. The actual story of "Teaching to the Test" isn't particularly complex (and it involves a rather unexpected reversal for one character), but the way it builds up the setting of a public school classroom whose teacher is being systematically failed, and is struggling in turn to help her own students, is really compelling, as are the discussions of Miss Sanders' past.

"On Milligan Street" is a story about what happens when a deadbeat friend comes back into your life with one last "too good to be true" offer. The offer, in this case, is the discovery of a set of archives which can tell anyone who finds them exactly what the future holds. When Dorothy meets with Manny, he claims to have visited Milligan Street, the site of these archives, and is keen to show Dorothy what he's found. Dorothy, who was close with Manny during wild college years but has since outgrown Manny's substance abuse and inability to get his shit together (not that she's much better), goes along with the plan out of a sense of indebtedness, and discovers that it's not actually a lie, but that Manny has less than altruistic motives in taking her there. Again, "On Milligan Street" isn't a particularly complex or dense story, but it throws interesting characters into a compelling, action packed scenario, and I found Dorothy an easy character to like (fear of heights and all).

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 17

The feeling of awkward, overthinking anxiety leaps off the page in Kel Coleman's "Delete Your First Memory For Free", where a group of friends visit a memory deletion clinic (why? because they're young, and they're looking for something to do. No further reason necessary). Protagonist Devin walks around with a litany of intrusive moments from fucking things up with various acquaintances, including their crush Fatima, and the memory deletion offers an opportunity to figure out what life might be like for them without the weight of those memories. The technology of this near future world - with its slightly evolved social media and of course the memory deletion itself - is well realised, and the process of memory deletion and the way it affects Devin's first person narrative is really well done, introducing the unreliability of their conclusion in a subtle but clear way. I left the story really hoping the best for poor Devin, who definitely deserves nicer things. Also on the "deserves nice things" list is the protagonist of "The Techwork Horse" by M.H. Ayinde, a lowborn woman in a world where only the highborn know the language to control technology, and humans are at war with the (apparently also techwork) feverborn. Bola lives near a "broken" horse, who she visits and spends time with throughout her life despite not being able to ride or communicate with it. Bola's commitment to her horse, despite the lack of understanding from literally everyone else in her life, is hard to read at times, but I was very happy to have stuck with it to get to that end.

Also within this issue are two horror stories, though of quite different types. "All in a Day's Work" by Jade Stewart is a satisfying, pulpy action story about a freelance demon slayer (freelance because they prefer to work alone, obviously!) and their team-up with a member of a coven for a big job. I'd happily spend a whole book with Walker, who is a smart talking nonbinary delight of a protagonist, perfect for this story, and there's a lot of interesting bits of worldbuilding about the slayer world, interspersed with some good solid does-what-it-says-on-the-tin demon slaying. Meanwhile, "Baby Brother" by Kalynn Bayron tells the story of Morgan, whose baby brother changes following an accident that they were both involved in, straining their family's relationships. There's a somewhat predictable twist to this one, but the atmospheric telling makes it worthwhile even if you figure out early on where it's going.

Questing Elsewhere

Fantasy Magazine Issue 71 is another excellent issue: It begins with a weird but heartwarming (and very queer) story of transformation in "Sounds for Crustaceans" by Addison Smith, and ends with a creepy transformation of a different kind in "An Arrangement of Moss and Dirt" by K.P. Kulski. I also really liked Mark S. Balien's catalogue story, "Lost Portals", which is about portals that close or become obsolete, and which combines the catalogue itself with the story of the person creating it in a really engaging and powerful way, delivering a powerful gut punch in the middle of a story that's already all about loss.

In Mermaids Monthly's August Issue, space mers make a welcome reappearance in "Twenty Thousand Last Meals on an Exploding Station" by Ann LeBlanc, where a woman who has been augmented into a mermaid, despite the change inviting discrimination from others on the space station (there are very strong, intentional parallels to the trans experience here), is trapped in a time loop which only she is aware of, and which ends each time with the station exploding. Having done all she can to try and stop the disaster, Riles has given up and is now using her three days to try every restaurant on the space station, when her sister unexpectedly shows up in one of the loops and starts making things more difficult, in the kind of way that only family can.

This column wouldn't be complete without a bit of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and while the selection I read this month included some intriguing historical fantasy reads ("What the Wind Saw" by Evey Brett and "A Bird in the Window" by Kate Francia) the one that I really want to highlight is "In Case You're the One to Devour a Star" by Tamara Jeree, about a woman who is part of the Fire Keepers, people who work with dragons for the knowledge they provide, at huge cost to their health and lifespans. Jeree's protagonist travels away from her home to find a partner, and the story opens with her meeting her wife-to-be and chronicles their relationship from that point. The power of this story comes in how the protagonist's illness is treated: there's no quest, or bargain, or anything her lover can do to change her eventual fate, and the narrative is instead about how the two of them build a life and memories with the time they do have. It's quietly heartbreaking and totally wonderful.

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

'Dune: Part One' is pure visual perfection, but it doesn't stand on its own

The newest adaptation of the science fiction classic makes a high-stakes bet with an uncertain reward

Dune: Part One is a work of beauty. Stunning, captivating, jaw-dropping beauty. You could turn the volume all the way down and just gape for the whole two-and-a-half hours at the impeccable use of lighting and contrast, the narrative meaning added by the camera angles, the precise geometric elegance of every single shot. This film is sure to snatch next year's technical awards. But that's the extent of its achievements. Dune: Part One is a glorious feast for the eyes, and for the eyes only. Storywise, it has several issues, and they stem from the choice to split the novel in two.

The beginning proceeds like your classic political drama: in a far future, in which humankind has apparently learned nothing from history and returned to feudal monarchy, the Emperor grows suspicious of an ascending noble house and schemes to destroy it. He decrees that the Atreides shall take over production of the universe's most expensive substance, which is not only as a metaphor for the role of oil in modern geopolitics, but also brings to mind the literal spice trade, which used to motivate greed and betrayal at a similar scale in older times. This move by the Emperor reeks of obvious duplicity, but the Atreides can't just refuse it without exposing the true positions of the game. So Duke Leto Atreides obeys and moves his household to the hostile planet Arrakis, where he knows for a fact that he'll be targeted, so he sets about making alliances with the local population.

Dune: Part One takes the story up to the usual point where a Greek tragedy would end: the Atreides are betrayed, their patriarch is captured, and his relatives are sent to deadly exile. But that's the point where the weird stuff blows up and Dune reveals the universe-spanning repercussions of its events.

Part Two has just been officially announced, which is welcome but not expected news. The deal between director Dennis Villeneuve and Warner Brothers stipulated that he would only get to make the sequel if the first movie did well enough. So the project was overshadowed with uncertainty from the start. It was not a fatal risk; if you're eager to know how Dune ends, you can always buy the book. However, at the time of release, Part One did not have a solid assurance of continuation. Instead of telling a reasonably complete story, Villeneuve preferred to tempt fate and make a majestic spectacle, rich in cinematic artistry, but made primarily of setup. From conception, Part One wasn't meant to be watched alone.

A movie adapted from a book series full of repeated warnings about the dangers of seeing into the future shouldn't have been so overtly plotted and structured on the assumption that a sequel would happen. Part One shows narrative choices that seem intended to help the story maintain better cohesion, but which clash against the hard fact that Part One is telling an incomplete story. Many of the trailer's suggestive shots of Paul Muad'Dib living and fighting next to the Fremen turn out to be flashforwards, prophetic hints of events that don't happen in this installment. There are so many of these tantalizing visions that at times it feels like we're watching a two-and-a-half-hour trailer for the actual plot of Dune.

By the moment reached at the end of this movie, readers of Dune have already been introduced to the Emperor, and to his scholar-minded daughter Irulan, and to Baron Harkonnen's other nephew Feyd, and to the powerful Spacer Guild. However, since their respective arcs don't go anywhere until the end of the book, they're completely absent from this adaptation. On one hand, removing them frees Part One to focus more on the protagonists it needs us to still remember and root for in Part Two. On the other hand, this silence on events beyond the House of Atreides makes the plot feel dangerously smaller than it actually is. Dune is not supposed to be mainly the story of Paul's family tragedy. It's supposed to be an epic of cosmic proportions. Multiple powerful factions have competing hidden agendas that are only now converging, which means that the story suffers by planting itself on one world and staying stuck there.

Both previous adaptations of Dune began with voiceover narration by the imperial princess and scholar Irulan. Because Villeneuve's version omits all scenes at the imperial court, there is no Irulan in this movie, which leads to a more interesting choice: voiceover narration by the Fremen warrior Chani, accompanied by a montage of Fremen guerrilla attacks on Harkonnen infrastructure. To place these images at the start of the story does much to counter the accusations of white saviorism often thrown at Dune: these Fremen were not sitting on their hands, waiting for Paul to come and save them. They were busy fighting for their own liberation.

This discussion is central to Dune fandom. A story as complex and as loaded with real-world symbolism as Dune is too easy to misread. The classic complaint is that it celebrates hero worship, which is easy to disprove by reading on. To put it bluntly, Paul becomes a murderous monster, and the sequel novels reinforce the original's message that nothing is more dangerous than a hero. What David Lynch failed to understand, and through him, audiences failed to see, is that Paul's arc in Dune is not a canonical hero's journey. If anything, it's a supervillain origin story. Paul is scared now, but in time, he will buy eagerly into his own legend, which will ultimately burn the universe. Even as early as Part One, the recurring visual reminders of his bullfighting grandfather cement the unspoken warning that a trait of the Atreides family is the tendency to court danger.

By focusing on Paul's misadventures in Arrakis, Part One skips most of the novel's philosophical and anthropological themes. That choice needs a serious course correction in the sequel. Dune is not Game of Thrones in space, nor should it ever try to be. One of the tasks that Part Two must fulfill is to present, in their full complexity, the heavy discussions on fate, ego, evangelization, exploitation, environmentalism, fanaticism and generational responsibility that made the original Dune the most acclaimed novel in the entire history of science fiction.

Fans need not worry that a more ponderous and cerebral Part Two will turn people off. Part One works well enough as an explosive adventure, but the whole reason why Dune is so respected and beloved is precisely because it is ponderous and cerebral. A less thrilling, more meditative sequel would do more justice to what makes Dune special. That sounds contrary to the direction Hollywood prefers to go these days, but now that we know for sure that Part Two is coming, Villeneuve can afford to jump deep into the thematic substance that sustains the story.

It sounds risky, but fans should not fear. Remember: fear is the mind-killer.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +3 for flawless cinematography, +2 for Timothée Chalamet's wonderful acting.

Penalties: −1 for overcorrecting the earlier Dune versions by giving too little exposition, −2 because the choice to not include the Emperor in this half of the story severely diminishes its sense of scope and makes the Arrakeen invasion feel like a rushed detour in pace, −3 for erasing the Middle Eastern influence on the source material.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

6 Books with Rudy Rucker

Rudy Rucker is an American mathematician, computer scientist, science fiction author, and one of the founders of the cyberpunk literary movement. The author of both fiction and non-fiction, he is best known for the novels in the Ware Tetralogy, the first two of which (Software and Wetware) both won Philip K. Dick Awards. Today he tells us about his Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

John Updike, the four Rabbit novels. I read them when they came out, nearly fifty years ago, then reread them when Updike died in 1992, and now I got them as ebook, and I’m reading them again.  He’s a master stylist, and his characters are so closely observed.  His main character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom seems a more distressingly sexist this time around, although he was always meant to be a bit of stereotype in that regard.  Why Updike right now?  Well, I need a constant stream of things to read, and I enjoy highly literary work.  Last week, just before going back to Rabbit, I read the new Jonathan Franzen novel, Crossroads. Compulsively readable although. in the end. a letdown for me. I felt the characters were characters were so obsessively religious as to be  unconvincing.  And I got the feeling that even Franzen didn’t like them. I prefer a novel  where the author loves and sympathizes with his characters, even the villainous ones—and this is something Updike does well.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

There’s a young woman named Kate Folk who’s publishing a book of stories called Out There in spring 2022. I learned of her via a story by her in the New Yorker, and I follow her amusing, deadpan Twitter posts. She’s an example of a young contemporary author who is essentially writing science fiction, at least some of the time—but who are not tarred with the SF brush. I call this genre transrealism, a word I’ve been using for a long time, to mean high lit that uses SF&F tropes to intensify the tale.

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

I reread Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow every few years. And recently I’ve been rereading a lot of Robert Sheckley’s work.  He was the first SF writer whom I really and truly and unreservedly admired.  And later I was lucky enough to meet him and spend some time with him. A truly hip guy, a Beat SF author for sure.

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

At different ages, you draw different things from books.  When I was in high-school, I admired Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger, and by now their work strikes me as unreadable.  Conversely, I’m still discovering authors who I didn’t try before. I was on a big Dorothy Sayers kick this winter. And I picked up on Virginia Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts, wonderfully surreal and right on the edge of madness.

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

 I already mentioned Sheckley as an early influence, especially his crystalline  anthology, Untouched by Human Hands. And Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass. And Abbott’s Flatland. William Burroughs was another big influence. In some ways Burroughs was an SF writer.  My big brother had a subscription to Evergreen Review, so I was able to start reading Burroughs at the tender age of fifteen—and I loved his voice. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

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

 My twenty-fourth novel:  Juicy Ghosts.  It’s a wild ride, with an insane, evil President and a pandemic. Hip, dark, funny. Features commercial telepathy, and immortality as a digital soul that is linked to a living body: a juicy ghost! I got started on this book when you-know-who started saying he wanted to be a three-term President.  That pushed me over the edge.  So I wrote a story about assassinating someone like him. And the novel grew out of that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was unable to land a mainstream publisher this time around. I raised money with a Kickstarter and published it via my own Transreal Books. It could be my best book to date—with romance, tragedy, metaphysics, gnarly science, and lots of women point-of-view characters.

Thank you, Rudy!

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

Monday, October 25, 2021

Microreview [book]: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Irrepressible woman takes on structural misogyny: now with GIANT ROBOTS!

Wu Zetian is a woman on a mission. In a Chinese inspired world where humans are at war with the alien Hundun, giant beasts which regularly cross Huaxia's border wall and unleash devastation on the provinces beyond, humanity's only hope lies in the Chrysalises, giant robot fighters with two pilots, one male, one female, who can transform and unleash elemental attacks to keep the invaders at bay. Zetian dreams of becoming a concubine pilot, following in her older sister's path, but not for the reason one might imagine: while it's considered acceptable and normal for women to die while piloting the Chrysalises, as part of the mental strain of the process, Zetian's sister was killed out of battle by a pilot's misogynist violence. This has deprived her family of the payout they would normally receive for her sacrifice in a chrysalis, and also massively pissed Zetian off. In a move that has nothing to do with the finances of a family that doesn't want her anyway, she changes her own life course, and leaves behind Yizhi, a local rich kid who has taken a shine to her but isn't likely to offer her any real security, and signs herself up as a concubine to the same pilot, hoping to murder him before he gets the chance to kill any more women.

The bad news is that this plan doesn't work, and Zetian gets crammed into a Chrysalis cockpit after all. And yet, when the battle is over, it's the male pilot who has died of mental stress, and Zetian gets a brief moment of radiant feral awesomeness before she's thrown into even deeper water, pushed into the heart of the system of Chrysalis pilots and the people who control them. Zetian finds she has allies - importantly they are two hot boys, more about them later - but that being powerful and irrepressible is a tough role when the entire system is set up to control and/or kill you. Zetian also learns that piloting giant robots in battle against supermassive aliens while psychically linked to damaged boys is hard work, no matter how cool it looks to the reader. And hey, it sure does look pretty cool. They even transform and light up! I can only assume the line of action figures is on its way.

At its foundation, Iron Widow is an exploration of an exploitative, restricting misogynist system, one which takes a lot of its methods of control from Chinese history. For example, Zetian has bound feet and is often frustrated by the way they restrict her mobility, even as she gets more resources and options to deal with it. It's considered acceptable for women to die while piloting Chrysalises because they simply don't have the right levels of spirit energy, and families like Zetian's are perfectly happy to throw their love and expectations at male relatives, thinking of daughters only as a possible source of financial gain. There are a few rare female Chrysalis pilots who have formed "perfect matches" with their male counterparts, and these are held up as aspirational for the rest of the girls: sign up to a system that will probably kill you, because it might not! For the first third of the book, the level of restriction and violation and sheer unpleasantness thrown at Zetian made me feel physically ill. That it's a depiction rooted in historical fact - Zetian herself is a manifestation of a real Tang Dynasty empress, and many of her fellow characters are based on real historical figures too - makes that depiction all the more powerful and hard to stomach. It's a rough ride, but it's one that makes the connections Zetian goes on to make all the more powerful.

At the risk of a very obvious spoiler (yes, the YA protagonist survives to end of her own book!), Zetian's turning point is with her second pilot, the notorious convicted criminal Li Shimin. Li only remains alive because he's capable of piloting the Vermillion Bird, an extremely powerful Chrysalis, and the cost of his deployment is that, until Zetian, every girl who has been paired with him has died. Unlike many of his fellow pilots, Shimin is deeply traumatised at being part of this system, and Zetian's ability to match his power and forge a mental bond while they pilot together means the two of them get very close, very quickly. In any other book, the reappearance of Zetian's old flame Yizhi would set up some dramatic love triangle shenanigans, but instead Yizhi becomes another part of their pilot bond and the romance turns polyamorous. This is set up and executed in a way where I couldn't imagine it playing out differently: both are incredibly important to Zetian, who also has far more important things to do than agonise over which boy to pick, and both Shimin and Yizhi thrive on the connections with her and with each other as well. Their relationship provides a tiny anchor of hope and stability, giving Zetian - who started off the book ready to throw her life away on a small revenge quest - something to fight for as she unravels and challenges the assumptions behind the chrysalis system. Importantly, this involves a massive challenge to the gender essentialist aspects of that system, making this that rare book that confronts "gender based magic" as being just as much a social construct as gender itself.

This all makes Iron Widow sound like quite a heavy book, and in many ways it is, but its also about giant robots battling giant aliens and for that to work, there has to be some fun to go along with the desperation. Iron Widow delivers on that too: I'm not a regular consumer of kaiju and mecha content so perhaps I am getting excited about something basic here, but I enjoyed the descriptions and the physicality of the fights, as well as the explanations of the elemental magic system and how it affected the Chrysalises strengths and powers (also, did I mention that they transform and light up?). Beyond the Chrysalis - Hundun conflict, some of Iron Widow's worldbuilding gets a bit sketchier, and there's some big escalations and introductions towards the end of the book which come in very quick succession and could have benefited from having more space to develop. On the whole, though, this is a really entertaining package, one which delivers on some satisfying YA tropes while pushing others in different directions. I'll be awaiting the sequel with excitement!

Rating: 8/10

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

Reference: Zhao, Xiran Jay. Iron Widow (Rock the Boat, 2021)

Friday, October 22, 2021

6 books with Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu)

Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction. She’s had short stories published in award-winning anthologies, and is a Sir Julius Vogel winner, an Australian Shadows, and Hugo award finalist. Her traditional debut, Butcherbird, was published by Huia in August 2021.

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I'm reading a few things at the moment actually. I'm listening to Where the Missing Gather, by Helen Sedgwick on my library app - it's the second book in the series and I'm very curious to see where it goes. The first one led me to believe there was something sinister going on that hadn't come to the fore yet, but it's brewing big time in this one. Rituals and sacrifices, oh my! I'm reading How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop in print because I'm attempting to learn how to be a better speaker. I'm getting more invites to do cool author things and it seemed like a good idea to improve my skills (ie: learn to talk slower). I'm also reading Blood Cruise by Mats Strandberg - my mother-in-law insisted I read it, and I am looking forward to the body count rising steeply in the very near future: a 24hr booze cruise, a wide range of characters, two vampire like people on board, a cover showing a blood-spattered hallway... I mean, what's not to enjoy?

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I'm really looking forward to digging into Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko, the sequel to Raybearer. I loved the first book so much and immediately needed more. I can't wait to see the rest of the story unfold in book two. Ifueko is an amazing author and Raybearer put her on my 'must-read' list.

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

You know, I don't often re-read books, so this is a more challenging question than you might think. I do really want to re-read Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand though. It's dark and creepy, full of mystery, yearning, and conflict. I could easily have been one of the Sawkill Girls as a teen. If, you know, I lived on an even smaller island and there was monstrous stuff happening.

4. A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

This one could be any of a number of books, but at present the top one would be House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig. It has underwater creatures, magic, romance, hauntings, murder. These are a few of my favourite things. It's also a lovely horror twist on the 12 dancing princesses, which is one of my favourite fairy tales to see twisted. I can't put my finger on why that is, but there you have it.

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

I'm going to say The Changeover by Margaret Mahy, it was spooky and sensual and evocative. I definitely like to write those things in my own works, and would credit early reads like this one for my love of fairy-tale-esque stories and writing the supernatural. It was also set in New Zealand, and that wasn't all that common for the books we could get hold of back then. I think that really influenced my decision to write a good chunk of my stories set here on my home turf.

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

This might be the easiest question, at least the first part. My latest release is Butcherbird, a supernatural suspense based in rural Aotearoa New Zealand. It's set on a fictional version of my family farm and contains many pieces of that setting, but reimagined as fiction of course.

There are family secrets, old trauma, folklore, magpies, hope, forgiveness, guilt, swamps, and many other fun things. It's a beautifully written, fast-paced, supernatural suspense with horror themes (and I totally borrowed these words from a few different reviews. I find it so hard to praise my own work!).

Thank you Cassie!

To hear more about Cassie and about New Zealand SFF, check out the What Is Modern Aotearoa New Zealand Speculative Fiction panel from CoNZealand Fringe (Transcript here)

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

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Three valiant bookworms connected by pain, fear and fervent hope, in a breathtaking journey across time

Imagine a book about the love of books. Imagine a story about the saving power of stories. Imagine a cryptic riddle about a hero deciphering a cryptic riddle. Imagine an infinite library containing gateways to every library. Imagine an obsessed reader researching an obsessed reader. Imagine a timeless masterpiece about the discovery of a timeless masterpiece. Imagine a creation so vast that its intertextual references point at itself. Imagine the most splendid city you can imagine, where people tell legends of the most splendid city you can imagine.

Imagine a novel that does all that.

So let's start counting backwards:

  • In a locked vault in a generation spaceship, not so many years from now, a girl hunts down scanned documents and news videos to try and figure out why her father signed up for a lifelong mission away from Earth.
  • Her research leads her to the writings of an amateur classicist who was at the right place to stop a mass shooting by an ecoterrorist at a small town library.
  • This amateur classicist, as a solitary exercise in his years of retirement, made his own translation of a recently rediscovered Greek codex.
  • Said codex had been saved from destruction by an orphan girl who managed to escape unseen during the fall of Constantinople.
  • That book had been written centuries earlier by Antonius Diogenes for the entertainment and comfort of his ill niece, but he claimed to have found the story in wooden tablets inside a tomb in Tyre.
  • What the tablets contain is a first-person memoir by a shepherd who traveled to the ends of the world because he mistakenly believed The Birds by Aristophanes was a true tale about an actual city hidden in the clouds.

If you hold all those rings within rings in your head, what you have is a story (Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr) that is about a story (spaceship) that is about a story (classicist) that is about a story (Constantinople) that is about a story (Diogenes) that is about a story (shepherd) that is about a story (Aristophanes) that is about a story (fabled city). And all through time, all the way to the future of the human species, characters continue to reread and reenact the original tale, surviving the end of worlds and carrying the scars of heartbreak. A poet writing to his ill niece, a farmboy taking care of his two overworked oxen, an apprentice seamstress trying to heal her blind sister, a war veteran grieving a love that could never be, an oversensitive kid on a quest to avenge his favorite patch of forest, a gardener trying to preserve Earthly life beyond Earth, a quarantined survivor afraid that she might be the last human left. All draw from the millenary power of narration to amaze and to sustain hope.

This novel is fearless and boundless in its ambition. It's like Homer meets Borges aboard Noah's Ark. It's like The Name of the Rose meets The Neverending Story at the Foundation's Edge. It's like The Golden Ass meets The Oracle of Stamboul in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It's like The Book Thief meets The Charioteer in the Cloud Atlas.

It feels like reading every book ever written.

It feels like no book ever written.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is aware of the sky-high goals it's set for itself: a key chapter toward the end is titled "The Super Magical Extra Powerful Book of Everything," and it refers to a supposed location in the middle of the cloud city where the visitor can see the whole world at once. The way the text describes this literal bird's eye view of all the beauty and all the horror of the world goes, "On one side is dancing, and the other is death." This becomes a motif across the time periods of the novel. The inhabitants of Constantinople try, until the horrid end, to cling to their normal lives while the enemy shoots cannon balls at the city gates. Centuries later, in the public library, the classicist tries his best to keep a group of children occupied in a theater play while a would-be murderer lurks next door. But in the attacker's eyes, he's the one trying to keep the world safe from the encroaching depredations of humanity. And yet more centuries later, a girl is hidden in a sentient archive with digital files of all human knowledge while an unknown plague spreads outside. In each case, under the gnomic gaze of birds able to peer into the past and future, the liferaft of choice, the only solid refuge in a world that whirls into chaos, is stories. The recitation of the same ancient book serves not only as a distraction from the danger, but as a ritual meant to ward it off, to keep the noise from crushing you, to force death to wait. As long as you keep reading, the world will not end.

However, such a refuge can easily become a tomb. The novel warns repeatedly of the deceptive safety of seclusion. At one point, a character describes himself as "a fish inside a sea inside a bigger fish inside a bigger sea," then another one recalls a legend about a book "locked inside a golden box, which was in turn locked inside a bronze box, then inside an iron box, inside a wooden chest," and later, another one discovers she's trapped "in a circular room at the center of a circular white structure on a mostly circular island." Just like this book contains stories that contain stories, its characters inhabit multilayered structures that somehow maintain both vertical progression and horizontal simultaneity. The plot follows three time periods in parallel, but its characters all read the same book at the same pace (as do we when reading this novel). As the text itself declares, "time folds over itself" and mythic allusions become real locations: a Greek legend about the frozen rim of the world leads to the revelation that an entire section of the book actually took place there; the dream of a city of peace and riches resonates in the brutal conquest of the most magnificent city of Antiquity, and in a personal mission to gain entrance into a secret camp of ecowarriors, and in the eerie quietness of an aseptic self-contained city in the future. And each time, the perennial story can only survive if you leave that city of wonders, because "what really matters [...] is that the story gets passed on."

So pass it on.

Read Cloud Cuckoo Land and read it to each other and invite your audience to read it into the future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to find what will amaze you.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

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

Reference: Doerr, Anthony. Cloud Cuckoo Land [Scribner, 2021].

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

'Venom: Let There Be Carnage' is a turd in the wind

One is reminded of that line that says "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," but it's sacrilege to drag Shakespeare here

What can I say of substance about this thing without substance? What can I say that carries any meaning about this thing that doesn't care about meaning?

In an early scene of Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the titular symbiote attempts to make breakfast for its host. Pots burn, bottles crash, ingredients fly in all directions, dishes overflow with an unrecognizable mixture of whatever was at hand, and everyone involved ends up smeared in messy goo.

That's more or less how this atrocity of a movie was made.

The first Venom was enough of an embarrassment to watch. It didn't work as an antihero origin story, or as a corporate corruption caper, or as a body horror thriller, or as an alien invasion prelude, or as a buddy cop comedy. Part of the morbid pleasure of watching Venom was the unbelieving shock at how it tried on so many hats and failed to look good in any of them.

This second film manages to botch every part it plays too, but without the strange charm of the first one. You would think a movie directed by the actor who played Gollum would take advantage of all the dramatic potential of a classic Jekyll/Hyde duality, but Venom: Let There Be Carnage has no time for introspection. It rushes from the basic plot point of "heroes break up" to the basic plot point of "heroes get back together" without reflecting on what the separation and subsequent reunion say about the characters, other than the gloomy reminder that they would get promptly killed without each other.

There are glimpses of an attempt to develop a theme here, that being one of partnership, first through the random genetic compatibility that allows protagonist Eddie Brock to survive bonding with Venom, then through the contrived mismatch between our villain's biology and his girlfriend's sonic superpowers, and finally with a reference to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a partnership absurdly out of these characters' league. Still, that the final battleground is a wedding scene is no coincidence. The main story follows the beats of a bad breakup, with Venom trying other partners in quick succession and in the end finding it can only live with Eddie. We're not supposed to dwell on the fact that all those other partners had very painful deaths; what demands our attention is the undying bromance between Venom and Eddie, both looking placidly at the sunset, eating brains only occasionally.

This movie should be ashamed that Spider-Man 3 did a better job of presenting its theme of mirroring and double selves. What the character of Carnage brings to the story is not a foil to challenge the protagonist's moral stance, but merely a fleshy target with which to fill an overlong final fight. And its pretense at commentary on the responsibility of the press when reporting on mass murderers (hello, Natural Born Killers) amounts to just a toothy, slimy lip service.

Much like the symbiote, Venom: Let There Be Carnage cannot survive dissection. With a plot that commits the simultaneous crimes of too much spoken exposition and too little actual explanation, and a ridiculous role by Woody Harrelson, evidently hired to reprise his less accomplished Mickey Knox outtakes, the nonsensical hyperviolence that splashes onto the screen in between laughably self-serious dialogues makes you facepalm so many times you leave the theater with a broken nose.

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10.

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

Monday, October 18, 2021

Nanoreviews: In the Watchful City, Flowers for the Sea, The Bone Way

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu [Tor dot com publishing, 2021]

In his review, Sean has already pointed out what a big scope S. Qiouyi Lu's debut novella takes on, with juicy worldbuilding, a stories-within-stories structure and some big ideas for protagonist Anima to get ær head around. Anima lives in Ora, a city controlled by an extensive - and non-dystopian - surveillance network called The Gleaming. Anima is one of eight Nodes within The Gleaming, which means æ spends much of ær time out of ær body, possessing the minds of local animals or floating as light, responding to what is happening in the city and trying to maintain harmony and safety for the people within. The book switches between Anima's work to maintain Ora; Anima's past, conveyed through verse; and the stories æ is told by Vessel, a traveller with a qíjìtáng, or case of curiosities, about artefacts se carries. Through Vessel's stories, we learn more about the relationship between Ora and Skyland, adding extra nuance to our understanding of Ora and how it has developed itself while literally under the gaze of a more powerful, superiority-claiming neighbour. It also gives Lu an opportunity to switch gears and show off an impressive range: the poetry is one example of this, but in-depth description of a game of skycup, a fictional sports game which is introduced to the reader in a way that makes us immediately understand the rules, the stakes and the action within just a few pages? Now that's some serious skill.

In the Watchful City is an intentionally fragmented narrative, and it doesn't guide the reader to a big story-driven climax (there is a big moment towards the end of the novella, involving a completed suicide, but it's not a culmination of what has come before). Nor does it provide clear answers to the questions the novella raises, about identity and belonging both on the individual or collective scale: Anima ends ær time with Vessel with a different outlook on ær role as a Node and ær relationship with ær physical body, but on a broader scale, nothing has changed. Instead, what makes In the Watchful City cohere are its immaculate bio-cyberpunk vibes and its strong sense of place, and the roles of all the characters as part of that place (bonus: we get to read an Asian-inspired cyberpunk city that isn't just New York with some neon Chinese signs thrown in for set dressing!) It adds up to something that's all quite magical: I'm not quite sure how to summarise it, but In the Watchful City definitely left me feeling like I'd read a much longer book, and the world it creates will stick with me for a while to come.

Rating: 8/10

Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn [Tor dot com publishing, 2021]

From one hard-to-capture but accomplished novella to another! Flowers for the Sea is an intensely visceral experience, one which makes us feel every moment of its protagonist's journey in a way that blends dreamlike horrors and psychological weirdness with a constant grounding in physical sensation. That protagonist, Iraxi is one of a group of survivors who have been at sea for years after their Kingdom flooded, an increasingly desperate voyage made even worse by attacks from supernatural creatures both above and below the water. Iraxi is pregnant, and appears to be the only person on the ship able to carry a child to term, but she's also despised for events in their former kingdom, and the combination of valuing her body while shunning her as a person means Iraxi is kept trapped below decks, in the squalor of a dying vessel. And, just to cap things off, it looks like her baby isn't exactly human.

We follow Iraxi through the navigation of her few remaining relationships on the ship - mostly defined by her pregnancy or sexuality - and through the experiences given to her by her supernatural child - and when I say "experiences", these sort of include the expected things like giving birth and nursing, but the line between Iraxi's physical reality and the world that her baby represents quickly becomes impossible to keep track of, and her baby quickly becomes a conduit for Iraxi to develop new perspectives on her situation and the possible ways out of it. When her journey of pain and isolation and frustration comes to a head, Iraxi finally gets the tools she needs to exert agency over the rest of the boat, and it's impossible not to root for the results even as it brings the story to a grim close. But then, its hard to imagine this ending any other type of way.

Ration: 8/10

The Bone Way by Holly J. Underhill [Nyx Publishing, 2021]

I've been interested in The Bone Way since the pitch of "sapphic Orpheus and Eurydice retelling" reached me, and Holly J. Underhill's version puts two intriguing characters into a secondary world katabasis (side note: did you know "descent into the underworld" has a special word?) scenario. So we follow Teagan, a young woman dying from a slow, fatal poisoning, and her wife Cressidae, who insists on trying every avenue to save her. At the outset of the story, it's Cress who is trapped in the underworld, having left without Teagan to see if she can bargain for her wife's life from the Queen down there. Teagan wasn't willing to descend to save herself, but when it's Cress' life on the line, she's got more than enough courage to make the journey, and to try and negotiate the return - with a trick involved, of course.

There's lots of intriguing elements to The Bone Way: its quest, while quite episodic, is a lot of fun to watch, and the concept of this world's underworld being the result of a terrestrial ruler's decision has a lot of interesting implications. The main story is interspersed with flashbacks from earlier in Teagan and Cress' relationship, showing how they meet and grow close as well as the impact of Teagan's illness. The pair are, perhaps, a bit similar in personality, but it's satisfying to read two women who are both willing to be strong for each other, and the section after Teagan arrives in the underworld, when they're both frustrated and trying to communicate their pain to the other over their respective decisions, makes for a particularly interesting dynamic.

Where The Bone Way struggles is in turning the weight of the source myth into a story with equally weighty implications. It shouldn't be a spoiler to say that The Bone Way isn't a tragedy, and while it makes the journey from the underworld tense (I won't spoil how that's done), by midway through there are enough clues in the tone for a reader to know this isn't going to end with the kind of mistake poor Orphy made. With that cat out of the bag, The Bone Way's route to being a satisfying story is to wrap up its relationship story in a strong way, and it does - but Orpheus and Eurydice is such a powerful and heartbreaking tale, and especially if one has both Hadestown and the side story of Supergiant Games' Hades in one's recent cultural consciousness (as I do), the relatively easy emotional ride of The Bone Way suffers from the comparison. That's a shame, because this is a sweet novella that should be able to stand on its own charms - but its own premise makes that more difficult than it should be.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Microreview: The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

The Land Across is a late Gene Wolfe novel about a travel writer’s adventures in a small and very weird Balkan country.

Grafton has a problem. He is a travel writer in the mold of Rick Steves, writing about his adventures, taking photographs, having adventures. He is trying hard to get to the small and isolated country (never named) that is somewhere between Greece and Romania on the Orient Express route. Getting into the country, notoriously difficult is just the beginning, as he winds up in a first Kafkaesque situation, and then a more supernatural one, as he struggles to make sense of the world of Gene Wolfe’s  The Land Across.

Gene Wolfe novels, especially his late novels, have some things in common, elements you expect, tropes and motifs you are hoping for. Unreliable narrator. Check. Mis-identification or confusing identification of characters in various guises. Check. Land with customs that are strange to a stranger in a strange land. Check. A book that you probably have to re-read to really understand what is happening. Check.

There is much here for the reader, as usual. This is Wolfe’s first and only dive into Kafkaesque fiction, and there is a delight in seeing Wolfe try a new subgenre for the first time. He’s done his research, has done the reading, and Grafton’s situation at first does feel like something out of Kafka. Once he actually gets to the borders of the country, he is arrested, his passport taken away. But instead of going to jail, he goes to a weird house arrest setup with a local man named Kleon and his wife Martya. As he strives to extricate himself from a situation where he can’t prove his innocence, Grafton gets himself in ever deeper, including winding up working for the JAKA, the Secret Police (who insist they are not Secret because people know who they are...) As a traveller who has been to a number of countries, I found Grafton’s efforts to understand the country he is in rather resonant. Although to be fair some of this does fall away as the novel progresses and there is a dangling bit that I may have missed or may require a re-read (again, a feature of Wolfe). 

The back half of the novel changes things up entirely and in two directions. First, in an East Germany sort of mode, Grafton himself finds himself recruited into the JAKA himself as an operative. That is odd enough that he embraces this role, but the supernatural elements of the book, which were pretty understated and backgrounded in the first part of the book (there is a “haunted house”) come really strongly into the second half of the novel. While I was expecting vampires, the supernatural threats that Grafton faces are definitely different. There are no vampires in this book. I think, anyway. Remember, this IS a Gene Wolfe novel. So, overall, the second half of the novel feels like it is a very different book. As soon as events take Grafton out of the small town he starts in, the novel’s pacing and feel are very different indeed. I wouldn’t quite say they are two different novels, but the novel’s hinge is clear (and you will know it when it comes) and then it switches gears. 

There are things, though, that are somewhat lacking in this novel. The prose is all right, but it just does not *sing* in the same way as it does in a lot of his other work. Grafton as a travel writer should have a better command of prose than he actually does, and it hurts to read/listen to that in a Gene Wolfe novel that the language fails to sing as well as it should. There is also that lack of deep vocabulary and wordplay that I highlight in a Gene Wolfe novel, although I do note that the word across in latin is “Trans”, and Land of forests is Sylvania, so The Land Across *could* be translated as Transylvania. So there is word play right there in the title.

But Grafton as a character frustrated me in the second half of the novel, to be honest. I think this may be a case of not understanding him completely (first read, remember). He starts off rather understandable as a travel writer thrown into a really Kafkaesque situation. When the gears shift and he becomes part of the JAKA and immersed in the supernatural elements, it feels in some ways like this is not the character we have met before. It doesn’t feel like a revelation or a uncovering, it feels like it comes out of left field.  He's *eager* in his role in the JAKA that didn't seem supported by the earlier portions of the book. Again, this may be me only reading this for the first time, unreliable narrator, and the usual tricks that you find in a Wolfe novel. A good rule of thumb is: If you think you understand a Gene Wolfe book completely on your first read, you probably are deluding yourself.

However, while it is difficult to completely understand a Gene Wolfe novel in its first go, and it takes a second or further read to really understand and get what he is after, this is not a novel that I am entirely excited to revisit. Book of the New Sun? The Wizard Knight? The Soldier novels? I still want to dive back into those again and maybe yet again, to dig for meaning and the richness of the narrative. While I have questions about the beginning, in light of what happens in the denouement, there isn’t enough here in this Wolfe novel to make me want to re-read it and figure it out, and that in the end, is a shame for a Gene Wolfe novel.  

Mind you, an average Gene Wolfe novel is better than many other authors good novels, but in the end, this is only an average Gene Wolfe novel, and if I am going to damn it even further, it is a Gene Wolfe novel that you really won’t be rewarded reading unless you are like me and want to read all of his work. Readers who want to try his work for the first time should probably go with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Readers who want to go with his later work probably are better served with The Wizard Knight or The Sorcerer’s House. (The Borrowed Man is still unread by me, I am curious and hopeful this works better for me than The Land Across does).


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 For an unusual subgenre for Wolfe to put his oar in that he does fairly well, especially in the first half of the book.

Penalties: -1 The two halves of the book really don’t harmonize on a first read

-1 (for new readers) For new readers, not the place to really start with his work. It doesn’t showcase his talents well enough and misses some chances for new readers.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 for previous readers of Wolfe, 6/10 for readers new to his work.

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

Reference: Wolfe, Gene, The Land Across [Tor, 2013]

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Best Novelette

Adri: Time for our fourth category, which is Novelette!

Joe: Let’s do it! 

Should we just start with “Helicopter Story”? It takes up a lot of the oxygen in the category because there’s so much going on with “Helicopter Story” that isn’t really about the story, but is about how the story was published and initial knee-jerk responses to who Isabel Fall might be. Among those were concerns that the story itself was a giant troll job, in part because the original title of the story when Clarkesworld published it back in January 2020 invoked a meme used to attack transgender people (it’s still there as the first line of the story itself). “Helicopter Story” was taken down by Clarkesworld at the request of Fall due to harassment. 

I don’t know how much time we want to spend talking about the background of “Helicopter Story” without talking about the story, but I think the context is pretty important to at least note. I’m also a cisgender heterosexual man and I don’t know what I don’t know about how to frame that particular conversation beyond the barest details of what happened. 

“Helicopter Story” is also a much less provocative title than what it was originally published as, which for the sake of awards conversations may be the best call. But maybe I’m not the right person to say that, either. I did read the story when it was first published. 

Adri: It’s also important to acknowledge that this story, and the reactions to it, caused a lot of pain: to Fall herself, and to trans folk in the community. And it all absolutely sucks, and I’m really sorry. I don’t want to talk further about that, it’s not my place to talk about it, but I do want to talk about the story itself, because it’s on the Hugo ballot and to refuse to engage with Fall’s art would be a massive disservice to her and to everyone who voted for it.

So. This is the story of Barb, a helicopter pilot in a future US army where it is possible to psychologically alter people’s genders into neo-configurations that benefit the military. Barb identifies as an Apache attack helicopter, and her narration switches between her current mission, and how she, as a helicopter-identified person, experiences it; and a lot of musings on how gender can become a weaponised tool and what it means for the military - that hypermasculine institution that seems antithetical to any thought about gender beyond “manliness = good” - to have co-opted it in this way.

Between my first and second readings, I’d forgotten just how confrontational those latter aspects of the story are. Barb’s tone is often accusational, laying charges against the reader (and there are clear internal expecations about who that reader is) about how their experiences form a continuum with hers, no matter how distasteful we might find hers to be. Before she was an attack helicopter, Barb was a woman, and the way her current gender informs her take on femininity is particularly challenging to the reader. In other circumstances, I’d want to call this a surgical strike of a story, because I think it’s very targeted and deliberate in who it is addressed to (not me!) and the experiences it draws on. Obviously, its impact was not that of a surgical strike, and therein lies the rub. But in terms of craft, I think this is an excellent piece of writing and it deserves to be on the ballot on its own merits.

Joe: I agree. “Helicopter Story” is an impressive and notable story and is the sort of thing we should see recognized at the Hugo Awards. There have been a number of stories exploring gender and identity, and I don’t want to make any kind of sweeping statements about the particular uniqueness of “Helicopter Story” because I haven’t read nearly enough to speak with any sense of authority - but “Helicopter Story” is both very good and was significant because of the conversation around the story. 

As you said, some of the reactions of the story (and the story itself because of how it was positioned without context - see Neil Clarke’s editorial after pulling the story) caused a lot of pain and that should not at all be discounted. 

In terms of awards, the notoriety of “Helicopter Story” probably helped it break through - which is not to say that anyone from Fall to Clarkesworld to anyone else wanted the particular whiplash of a reaction that it received. But in the end it probably did help what is also a very good story to be remembered when it came to nominating for awards after a year of pandemic. 

I think that’s all that I’m going to say about or around “Helicopter Story” before I say something incredibly stupid or insensitive without intending to do so. It’s a very good story and it absolutely deserves its place on this ballot. 

Adri: Let’s move on! Funnily enough, there’s another novelette from the same issue of Clarkesworld here, which is “Monster” by Naomi Kritzer. This one is about a woman tracking down an old friend and former research partner in Guizhou, China, interspersed with stories of their earlier relationship. It doesn’t take long for red flags to start appearing over Andrew’s behaviour, and the way the story handles the past and present reveals is great. It was one of the stories on my nomination list and it’s fantastic to see it here.

Joe: I’m not sure I’ve read a story from Naomi Kritzer that I haven’t liked. “Monster” is no exception. Kritzer is just so smooth in her storytelling. You know where it’s going, this isn’t the sort of story that’s a huge surprise, but it’s moving. It’s good. It’s really good. 

Also good, and not at all a surprise to me is Sarah Pinsker’s “Two Truths and a Lie” which features exceptionally good description of cleaning the house of a hoarder (which honestly gives me the shivers to think about) and the mind fuckery of remembering and not remembering a really creepy and disturbing children’s television show that has more than a little tinge of the supernatural to it. 

The “Uncle Bob” show within the story has really strong echoes of something Stephen King would cook up and I mean that in the best possible way. I don’t think of Sarah Pinsker as a horror writer, and she’s not, but damn does she do a fantastic job of introducing a seeping horror with Uncle Bob. It’s not okay. 

Adri: With a title like that, it’s hardly surprising that “Two Truths and a Lie” messes around with the reliability of its narrator, and its story within a story narrator, and, well, the whole fabric of reality. Uncle Bob’s show isn’t the kind of horror I’d usually go for, but I can’t deny how creepy and effective the whole thing is. It perfectly captures that feeling of having an important childhood memory that, upon interrogation, starts to make less and less sense, and combined with all the other stuff going on here… well, it’s a good story.

I said in our short story conversation that - probably by an accident of ballot rather than any difference in the form -  short story and novelette have quite different vibes this year. There’s a lot of lightness and kindness and happy endings in short story, whereas in this category… well, we’re halfway through the ballot  and we haven’t gotten out of the grim horror woods yet, because oh look, Meg Elison’s “The Pill” is here too!

The Pill in “The Pill” is a miracle weight loss drug. People take it, they lose almost all of their fat cells within a matter of weeks (How? Well, the story goes into it so I won’t), and they then get to enjoy life with a body of the perfect size and fat distribution for all of their clothes, chairs and societal perception of health and sex appeal. The catch is that the Pill has a mortality rate: ten percent (double check) of people who take it die in the process of losing all their weight. The protagonist of the story doesn’t see the appeal, but her family all do, and as she deals with their individual decisions and increasing social pressure for fat people to take the pill, she finds her options increasingly restricted.

I have a lot that I could say about this story, and the different themes and conversations around fat that it twists and draws attention to as the story progresses. As a fat person with a lot of fat family members, those elements of the storytelling hit especially hard - in fact, in some ways identifying with a lot of the protagonist’s choices in The Pill was a drawback that threw off my appreciation of the story’s ending, where things took a turn faaar away from the relatable for me. Still, though, what Elison does in this story is make a chilling and utterly believable way in which a huge chunk of humanity might be persuaded to play Russian Roulette, all in the name of health and convenience promises that just don’t add up.

Joe: Novelette is a much harsher category than Short Story, and I do agree that it’s just happenstance that the two categories fell that way. The one in ten chance of death because of the pill is dark as hell and yet, I do think there’s a really good chance if such a pill really did exist that people would end up lining around the block for their chance to take one and some of them would be the same people yelling about how unsafe and untested the vaccinations are for the coronavirus because how else can you prove that you’re a real alpha of society if you don’t have that perfect body? I angrily digress.

The way Elison describes the societal pressure building as taking the pill becomes more and more commonplace felt really, well, real. In a way it reminds me of Sarah Pinsker’s second novel We Are Satellites, which is much more about technology and those get left behind for various reasons. The novel and novelette aren’t focused on the same thing, and “The Pill” is far more condensed, but the idea of damn the consequences because this is how you fit in and feel better about yourself - it makes a lot of sense. 

The ending of the story is a bit out there in relation to the rest of “The Pill” but I could make an argument, if needed, how it would / could fit into that same sort of world where being physically different is only valued as a commodity to the ultra rich and not as an actual person. It’s a stretch of an offshoot, but it definitely gave the ending a different feel from the rest of the story.

Moving on to Aliette de Bodard’s “The Inaccessibility of Heaven”, which is part of the Dominion of the Fallen series of novels and stories featuring the consequences of fallen angels on Earth (and usually Paris, but I’m not sure this one is set there). “The Inaccessibilty of Heaven” is dark and full of murder, which fits in quite nicely in this category. It’s a solid murder mystery where the pain of the Fall echoes through. 

Adri: I don’t think The Inaccessibility of Heaven is actually part of Dominion of the Fallen, but it has a lot of similar worldbuilding elements - both are about fallen angels! - and a lot of the same vibes. And de Bodard does those vibes really well, and the character dynamics in this are excellent. I actually nominated it, but it's fallen off my radar a bit while considering the full ballot compared to the other stories here. But it's a great gothic-y mystery with lots going on, so definitely happy to see it here.

Joe: To be fair, a novelette about fallen angels from a writer who has a series about fallen angels is suggestive of being part of that same series about fallen angels.

Adri: Says the Seanan McGuire fan! (Not a criticism - I just think there’s lots of ways for authors to do the same stuff differently).

Joe: I don’t know, I think Seanan keeps her series pretty distinct. One has faeries, the other has all the other mythical creatures. The others have plagues. Besides, if she writes a short story in a universe she’s featuring known characters from that universe. 

Wait - we’ll talk about Seanan McGuire later when we get to Best Series. Let’s talk about A.T. Greenblatt’s “Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, which is absolutely not a superhero story written by Seanan McGuire though I’d be willing to discuss how McGuire uses the concept of superheroes in her Velveteen series. 

It’s not that “Burn” is a light story because it’s not and there is all sorts of emotional pain to deal with, but it is lighter in comparison to the rest of this category. It’s not my favorite and that’s okay. 

Adri: I feel the same. “Burn” is the story of a character with superpowers in a world where they’re relatively common but frequently looked down upon, learning that it’s hard to find your place in the world when you’re prone to becoming a human torch and trying to fit in with a team of supers who are trying to maintain their own precarious reputations. The episodic format delivers exactly what it promises: snapshots of Sam joining the team (as admin staff), dealing with the ways, big and small, that his powers have changed him, working to become stronger and more in control of his gift, and hanging out in a nice bar. It’s a fun story, one about finding a place in a world where the consequences for mistakes are immense, but it’s further down the list for me.

Now that we’ve been through all that, what’s at the top of your list?

Joe: I don’t know if I have super strong feelings about the top of my Novelette ballot, but I’d say “Two Truths and a Lie”, “The Pill”, and “Monster” in no particular order. “Helicopter Story” is just off that trio, I think, though I make no promises about going back into my ballot and making changes. What about you?

Adri: I think I’m voting “Helicopter Story” first. It took me two readings and a lot of thinking to really understand what it’s trying to do, but the more I consider it, the more I appreciate the artistry in it. The history is hard to decouple from the art - it always is - but I really do think this stands as an excellent piece of work.

The other stories that are up in the top three for me are “The Pill” and “Monster”. I’m really glad that I got to read “The Pill” as part of this category, as its publication in a PM Press volume might have led me to miss it otherwise and it’s exactly the kind of gem I love reading award nominations for. And Naomi Kritzer just knows how to spin a tale, and “Monster” was already one of my favourites for the year.

Joe: I absolutely can’t argue “Helicopter Story” at all, I’m just a sucker for a Sarah Pinsker story. 

Adri: And with that, I think we’re done with our fourth category - see you next time for Best Series!