Friday, July 29, 2022

Microreview: The Killing Machine by Jack Vance

Jack Vance’s The Killing Machine is the second in his (audio reissue) of the Demon Princes series.

In The Star King we were introduced to interstellar hero Kirth Gersen. Kirth’s path, his mission in life was defined and set by the raid on his home colony settlement of Mt. Pleasant by five master criminals the titular Demon Princes. In The Star King, Kirth dealt with the first of the five that crossed his path, Malagate the Woe.  In this second novel, The Killing Machine, Kirth turns his attentions to the next Demon Prince on his list, Kokor Hekkus

Something I didn’t appreciate when I first read (and re-read) these novels previously but is now clear to me know is the role of serendipitous luck in how these novels kick off. It is luck and chance in both volumes that puts Gersen in the path of this latest foe, quite by chance and accident, and he spends the rest of the novel trying to force a decisive confrontation with the Demon Prince. Also in both novels, there is a sense of “I want you to know it was me”  Olenna Tyrell: sort of feel to Gersen’s revenge. Shooting the Demon Prince out of the sky is not quite satisfactory enough for Gersen  The Prince must face his avenger. 

So a lot of the lines of The Star King will feel resonant, and familiar, although Gersen’s ultimate tack and methods turn out to be different.. The Star King is a “Who is Malagate?” sort of story, where Gersen narrows down a list of suspects and runs down a series of deductions to come up with who his target is, and deal with him, Here, in The Killing Machine, the identity of Kokor Hekkus is less obscure, although like The Star King, he works through intermediaries and secondary antagonists.  While in the first novel, Gersen accidentally fell into a piece of information that Malagate desperately wanted, in this novel, Gersen is far more deliberate and proactive, working to take possession of a company that was building a war machine for Hekkus until a falling out caused difficulties, and uses that as the hook to try and get at the Demon Prince.

One last thing I do like to note is that while both Malagate and Hekkus are "Demon Princes", and Gersen does go after them equally, they as antagonists are distinctly different. Both are larger than life, Romantic in the opera sense, melodramatic in the Vancian mode, but they are not cookie cutter clones of each other in the slightest.

And then there is the planet Thamber. While the first novel has the garden planet Teehalt’s World as a hook, this novel has the planet Thamber. Hekkus is all too familiar with Thamber but unlike the first novel, it is inhabited by a demi-medieval sort of feudal society of small warring polities of various kinds. When our hero finally finds the way there (with the help of the Girl of the Week, Iphigenia (and isn’t there a nicely mythic and resonant name?)) he finds himself in the middle of a slew of conflicts and situations that Hokkus is long immersed in. Thamber sort of reminds me of a Leigh Brackettish Mars, or any other science fantasy world where there is technology, but also pre-modern social structures and systems. 

Thamber is full of the weird mashup of science fiction and fantasy that Vance likes to use, before and since. Castles and fortified posts, wandering bands, strange creatures and monsters, high technology and low mixed together.  It is clear to me, now, that the Planet of Adventure novels, starting four years after the publication of The Killing Machine, now is a bit of Vance really wanting to mine a planet full of weird polities in a technofeudal and mixture of cultures sort of planet, with the added provisos of aliens. There is a subplot in the Thamber section of the novel where Kirth is separated involuntarily from his ship temporarily. Planet of Adventure takes that as the skeleton of the entire novel, throwing the hero Adam Reith and making it his entire quest to find a way off of a technofeudal planet. 

The other innovation to the Oikoumene verse of Vance that we see in this novel, and we touch on this planet in a couple of set pieces is the planet of Interchange. How do bounty hunters, thieves, brigands, kidnappers, slavers and the like plausibly work in this space opera verse? Enter the planet of Interchange, happy to host hostages/kidnap victims who can be redeemed with just a small fee going to Interchange. The victims in the meantime can get a varying level of comforts from the spartan to the luxurious. It makes a rational business out of kidnapping, and, 50 years on after the novel was made, is a bit of a critique at late stage capitalism that Vance probably did not intend explicitly, but it sure reads like one in 2022, especially given Gersen’s very vocal opinions about the practice. Aside from that, its a wonderful and considered piece of storytelling and worldbuilding.

The strengths and weaknesses of the first book, as detailed in the earlier review, apply here. Vance is great at weird societies, but they are all heteronormative. It may not be fair for me to criticize Vance thusly, but LeGuin was already getting published at this point. Iphigenia, as the “Bond Girl” has more agency than Pallas does in the first book, but even with the setup of her agency, in the end she is far too passive for the novel’s own good.  On the other hand, the audio rendition from Stefan Rudnicki is, again, excellent, and a great way to experience Jack Vance’s work. The novel is short, lean and punchy. 

The Demon Princes novels are necessarily episodic, and while there are references to Gersen’s struggle against Malagate, and his past history,  they are minimal and this story stands on its own. This was written in an age before series were a thing, and so the interconnective material between the first two novels is minimal at best. You could, if you wanted, pick up the Demon Princes series right here and start with Gersen tackling the gadget obsessed and murderous Kokor Hekkus. If you are less interested in a whodunit and more in a howtogetem, this is the better Demon Princes novel for you.

The Math

Baseline Assessment:8/10

Bonuses: +1 for vivid worldbuilding

+1 for an excellent audio experience

Penalties: -2 Some of the social aspects of the novel, especially in regards to female and non heteronormative characters, have not aged quite as well.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Vance, Jack, The Killing Machine  [1964, audio 2022 Spatterlight Press]

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

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Review: The Last Human by P. S. Hoffman

A far-future adventure where the legacy of humankind falls into the unlikeliest hands

Untold millennia after human extinction, new intelligent species populate the universe. Civilizations have risen and fallen and risen again, and developed their own forms of industry, but the relics of the final stages of human technology are still regarded as the ultimate standard of quality. In most worlds, human artifacts are even preserved with sacred reverence. And although humanity is long gone, the memory of our glorious deeds has persisted and morphed and grown to such legendary heights that we are worshiped as gods.

On the planet Gaiam, the native birdlike population is divided in castes, in the same way their capital city, called the Cauldron because of its concave shape, is segregated in horizontal layers of ascending prestige. The nobility lives in the Highcity, the regular folk have the Midcity, and those who have been abandoned by society do their best to get by in the Lowtown. For nineteen years now, Gaiam has been under the cruel occupation of the Cyran Empire, a civilization of reptilians that have conquered dozens more worlds. A short-lived rebellion ended disastrously, and its survivors have joined the unfortunate inhabitants of the Lowtown.

But one day, corvid-shaped Eolh, a jaded spy-for-hire with no personal attachments and no hopes for the future, stumbles upon the greatest discovery in the universe: a gang boss has gotten his hands on a cryonic tank that contains an actual, intact, living human. And there's no telling what the imperial regime will do to seize possession of him. From that point on, Eolh's life becomes a whirlwind of back alley chases, deadly knife fights, underground tunnel forays, clandestine medicine, and personally difficult choices as he crosses paths with a devout robot who has been patiently working to bring about the return of the gods, an imperial magistrate who will happily burn down the city to advance his career ambitions, and a disgraced queen who willingly surrendered the planet to the invaders.

Each of these characters is a complete story in itself, with generous space dedicated to exploring the web of their desires and their hidden depths, but Poire, the rescued human, is on a whole other level of fascinating: his survivor guilt drives a hard journey towards maturity as he slowly gains the strength to resolve the incongruousness between his rather inconsequential position in the vanished human society and the cosmic-scale role that the new society wants to drop onto his shoulders.

One can perceive a similar tension at the core of Eolh's character: each of his choices is a heart-rending balancing act between his post-traumatic urge for self-preservation and his newfound and not entirely welcome sense of responsibility. This is one of the high achievements of this novel: the level of effort that the author invested in portraying the inner struggle behind choices that the reader might not approve of, but will definitely empathize with. These characters are carefully built of emotions that feel authentic, an artistic feat all the more remarkable by the fact that all but one of them behave by alien rules of psychology that in this kind of story often risk coming off as incomprehensible. Here, the alien traditions and assumptions about proper conduct and social norms are organically integrated into the plot so that they don't fall as an infodump, and the reader can easily follow the reasons why this society works the way it does. Poire the human is utterly lost in this world, but the reader never is.

The world itself, lovingly put together, is worthy of more extensive praise. Although the action is mostly limited to one city, the author has taken obvious delight in the creation of each setting, from the shiny towers of the occupation government to the grimy passages between neglected and barely lit neighborhoods. The quarrel between factions to see who will gain control of the last human takes the reader through all the levels of the Cauldron, giving the author a nice excuse to display a vigorous worldbuilding arsenal. It's hard enough to design an entire collective habitat for a species of flight-capable aliens; it's even harder to refine the precise sense of setting that allows the author to carry the action naturally through the places where it needs to happen while ensuring that the physical components of each space reinforce the mood of each scene. This novel invites the reader to feel the vertigo of polished stone balconies and the dread of foul-smelling sewers and the eeriness of sentient climbing vines and the disorientation of abandoned high-tech ruins. Each space is strange and unexpected, but not simply for the sake of wowing the reader (though it more than does). I'm repeating myself, but it's important to highlight the synergy this novel reaches, by which the space supports the action and the action colors the space.

There are unmistakable parallels between the emergence of a long-awaited god in Cyran-occupied Gaiam and the emergence of Christianity in Roman-occupied Judea, but this novel does something far more interesting than a straight retelling of the Gospels. Poire is well aware that he's no savior, he's no divine superman, and he's the least-equipped hero to face the full might of an empire. But it's intensely satisfying to witness his growth from an unskilled, mediocre youth into a reliable, confident man who may not like the circumstances he's been thrown into, but serenely accepts the duty those circumstances put in his hands.

For a debut novel, and a self-published one at that, The Last Human is a consistent work of writing excellence that deserves a place next to any professionally produced book. You can immediately tell how much fun the author had in coming up with the complexities of these characters and in assembling every weird detail of the difficult world they inhabit. Fortunately, it's only the first entry in a planned series, which means we'll get to savor the mysteries of Gaiam for several years to come.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +2 for the construction of richly detailed spaces throughout the city, +2 for gut-punching feats of psychological depth.

Penalties: −2 for the way the sequel hook makes the ending feel truncated, −2 because the language used to describe the ethnic varieties of avians comes too close to validating monarchism and bioessentialism—there's no justification for saying there's anything inherently "regal" about birds of prey that would make them worthier rulers than crows, for instance.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Hoffman, P. S. The Last Human [self-published, 2022].

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Microreview: This All Come Back Now edited by Mykaela Saunders

Mykaela Saunders lovingly curates a mixtape of Australian First Nations speculative fiction in this ground-breaking anthology.

Australia's speculative fiction scene has long been very white. Indigenous speculative fiction has been particularly hard to find... until now. Editor Mykaela Saunders has brought together what may be Australia's first anthology of First Nations speculative fiction. In doing so, she follows in the tradition of such anthologies as So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial science fiction and fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, and Walking the Clouds: An anthology of Indigenous science fiction edited by Grace L. Dillon.

This is a book worth reading simply for the introduction, or the Overture as it is called. Saunders frames the anthology as a mix tape, which I found to be a delightful concept. However, the Overture itself works as a sort of literature review, making it a good place for finding other resources (Australian and otherwise). It perhaps also gestures to the editor's academic background.

Saunders addresses the reasons for the dearth of Indigenous speculative fiction. To begin with, the term speculative fiction is a problematic one in relation to Indigenous writing. This broad category is largely defined as covering things that aren't considered real by Western cultures. However, some tropes popularly considered as speculative fiction are reality in an Indigenous worldview, such as the existence of ghosts, or time travel in a culture that experiences all time simultaneously.

Another reason for the difficulty in finding Indigenous speculative fiction is simply that Australian SFF publishers won't take it on... though I note that Australian SFF publishers have been in decline for a number of years, so any Australian author looking to be published on home turf is facing slim chances to begin with. Where Australian SFF publishers have turned Indigenous authors away, the Australian literary scene have been more welcoming. One does not need to look further than the reception of this anthology to see that playing out; most Australian literary review outlets have devoted space to discussing this book, while there have been crickets from speculative fiction outlets in Australia and beyond.

Awards, too, have tended to favour non-Indigenous writers of Indigenous stories, though there are signs this is starting to shift in the speculative fiction scene. Since the publication of this anthology, Lisa Fuller won two Aurealis Awards (Australia's premier juried speculative fiction award) for her story "Don't Look!". On the international SFF scene, Darcie Little Badger is also becoming a familiar face on the Hugo shortlists.

And again, while the SFF awards scene has not exactly been welcoming, it's quite a different case with literary awards. The contributors to this anthology are a well-decorated bunch, who seem to have won just about every literary award Australia has and a few more besides. They're also a multi-talented mob, with many being known for other forms of writing or art, such as poetry, journalism, music and visual art. Generally speaking, they are not writers at the beginning of their careers. Rather, This All Come Back Now is an anthology that has been carefully curated to show their best, with most of the stories being reprints.

But show to whom? The Overture states that this is an anthology written by and for First Nations people, and certainly the editor didn't make it easy to access by starting with "Muyum, A Transgression" by poet Evelyn Araluen. The story is a surreal trip through time and space, but beautifully evocative. Although I didn't entirely understand what was going on, I enjoyed it enough that I'll be trying Araluen's recent poetry collection Dropbear, once it makes its way through the long queue at the library.

After this evocative but challenging start, the stories settle into something a bit more accessible for a white (or at least Australian) audience. There's a wide variety of stories on offer.

"Closing Time" by Samuel Wagan Watson is a Covid-era story that examines what this time of isolation means to a character who is already feeling isolated.

The anthology also contains a story by Wagan Watson's father, Sam Watson Snr. The Kadaitcha Sung was the first Aboriginal speculative fiction novel, published in 1990, and the anthology has included an extract of this seminal work.

Kalem Murray and Lisa Fuller write horror stories about teaching the new generation the importance of respecting traditions around how and where to travel; there are some places one should never tread.

Alison Whittaker looks at transhumanism from an Indigenous perspective, particularly how it might be used as another form of colonisation or segregation. This sits interestingly with Protocols of Transference by Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker, which looks at the combination of Indigenous worldview and technology through the protagonist’s relationship with the robot they’re building.

Climate concern shows up in more than a few of the stories, including Muyum, A Transgression; Lake Mindi by Krystal Hurst (whose Big Fire is something any Australian and many Americans will find all too easy to picture); Nimeybirra by Laniyuk (which I loved for the solidarity envisioned with the Maori of Aotearoa); Water by Ellen van Neerven; An Invitation by Timmah Ball.

I particularly enjoyed Snake of Light by Loki Liddle. It was intense and a bit violent (as many vigilante stories are), but the surreal aspects were managed well and there was a queer edge I enjoyed.

The extract from Alexis Wright's The Swan Book showed her superb command of language.

As is usual with anthologies, there were a few stories that didn't really do much for me, but none I actively disliked. It doesn't always make for comfortable reading, but nor should it. Rather, it should be appreciated as a ground-breaking work that has been sadly overdue. May it open the gateway for more.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10

Bonuses:  +2 for collecting together a representative sample of Indigenous speculative fiction, +1 for an excellent introduction placing the anthology in context.

Penalties: -1 for the challenging start to the collection.

Nerd co-efficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz


Saunders, Mykaela. This All Come Back Now [University of Queensland Press, 2022]

Araluen, Evelyn. Dropbear [University of Queensland Press, 2021]

Dillon, Grace L. Walking the Clouds: An anthology of Indigenous science fiction [University of Arizona Press, 2012]

Fuller, Lisa. “Don’t Look!”, Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, [Wakefield Press, 2021]

Hopkinson, Nalo, and Mehan, Uppinder. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial science fiction and fantasy [Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004]

Watson, Sam. The Kadaitcha Sung [Penguin, 1990]

Wright, Alexis. The Swan Book [Giramondo, 2013]

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Nanoreviews: Moon Witch, Spider King; The Grief of Stones

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

This is not a book that lends itself well to a quick review: it's got too much going on, and is too accomplished, to really be encapsulated in a few hundred words. Unfortunately, with my review brain struggling to get itself in gear these days, that's all I'm going to be able to give it here, but I recommend that anyone looking for a longer analysis of James' work (and how it fits with the theme of the first book in the trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf) check out these reviews by Gautam Bhatia at Strange Horizons, and Alex Brown at NPR.

In Moon Witch, Spider King, we get the accounts of the Moon Witch Sogolon, who played a mostly antagonistic role in the account of Tracker, narrator of the first book. Sogolon's story partly covers the same events as Tracker's, a literary device I wasn't sure about but which ended up being brilliant: Sogolon's perspective is vastly different, and her own accounts begin hundreds of years earlier, covering her childhood and the period of time she spent in and around the Court of Kongor. There, she came into conflict with the Aesi - a powerful, magic-wielding man who has ingratiated himself as advisor to the King, and is in the process of disrupting the matrilineal line of succession (in which it's the King's nephew by his sister who inherits the throne, rather than his direct progeny) by sidelining Princess Emini, the King's Sister. Sogolon sees these events as a low status maid to the princess, but is caught up in something more when the Aesi realises she is the only person at court whose memory he can't manipulate, and that she alone knows what he has done to get rid of Emini. We barely have time to see the tragic results of the showdown between the two before the narrative catapults us 170 years forward, into the events of Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the hunt for the lost "true" heir of Kongor. Sogolon is able to fill in some gaps from her lost years, which make it clear that for her, this is all still part of the same conflict, one which Tracker and his narrative had little clue about.

Moon Witch, Spider King, like its predecessor, has little interest in giving its readers the satisfaction of a "traditional" fantasy story, even as it borrows much of the same worldbuilding DNA: nevertheless, for anyone who found Tracker particularly grating as a protagonist, Sogolon's story involves a very satisfying takedown of his misogynistic worldview, and I found her a much easier character to root for, even as she has her flaws. For me, there was also something about this book that made it feel more readable than Black Leopard, Red Wolf, although it's written with a consistent dialect voice and requires just as much attention to what's happening on the page, so this may just have been my preference for its narrator coming through. This isn't a trilogy for everyone, but it's a really powerful addition to the fantasy canon and as such, for me it's essential reading - if you can, make the time to check this series out, and look out for volume three at some point in the future.

The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison

I felt somewhat lukewarm on Addison's first story in the Cemeteries of Amalo series, set in the world of The Goblin Emperor - featuring Celehar, a Witness for the Dead who plays a small but important role in the original book - but that didn't stop me from getting excited about the continuation of Celehar's adventures in the provincial city of Amalo. Seeing as my biggest gripe with Witness for the Dead was that it set me up to care about one story, involving an opera murder and a certain handsome singer, only to switch into an episodic structure with a lot less Pel-Thenhior than I had been led to expect. Luckily, Pel-Thenhior is back again in the Grief of Stones, and my expectations about Celehar's very slow acceptance of his feelings (understandable, given the weight of his past trauma and the homophobia of the world he inhabits) were set at just the right level to not get wound up over this again. This is good, because once one's expectations are set, The Grief of Stones becomes a slow but satisfying mystery novel, diving deep into the lives of the people of Amalo and into Celehar's unique position within it.

The central mystery here is around an orphanage for foundling girls, one of whom turns up dead and therefore under Celehar's remit. As Witness, Celehar is able to use magic to speak with the dead and uncover the circumstances of suspicious deaths - or he can be petitioned to settle inheritance disputes, ask after lost objects or crack the secret recipe to a dead relative's delicious scones, if needed. Cases involving the latter, as well as a welcome new character in the widow Tomasarin, who is appointed as Celehar's apprentice somewhat against his will, provide levity that balances against the macabre aspects of his work and Celehar's own tendency towards melancholy. Still, this is a book that spends a lot of time dwelling in sorrow and loss, and, much like Witness for the Dead, it ends with a great deal of unfinished business. I can only hope that the next installment - which may be the last? - brings some much needed peace to Celehar, who deserves a lot more than his world seems willing to give him.

Adri (she/her), 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, July 25, 2022

Brewing Community with Rem Wigmore

Brewing Community is a series of guest posts in which readers, writers, artists and fans are invited to share their experiences of community. Whether online or in person, these groups bring a great deal of support and sometimes stress to their members. The aim of Brewing Community is to share the joy and find ways to brew stronger communities.

The series first ran in 2015. In returning to it after several years, I wanted to focus on how these experiences of community may have changed in recent years, and how people would like to see them change, as well as delving into what books and media have brought comfort in difficult times.

When I put my blog on hiatus, I still had a few outstanding interviews. I'm delighted to be able to share them with you here at Nerds of a Feather. You can find the other interviews back at Earl Grey Editing

Today's guest is Rem Wigmore. Rem is an up-and-coming talent who is fast becoming a regular on the shortlists for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Even in Australia, books from New Zealand authors can be hard to get hold of, so I'd heard of Rem long before I got my hands on their work. Once I did, they didn't disappoint, and I devoured their queer, found-family solarpunk novel Foxhunt from Queen of Swords Press. I'm already counting the days until I can get my hands on the sequel. In the meantime, I'm delighted to share this interview with them.

Since I've never interviewed you before, there's one important question I must ask first: what's your favourite beverage?

Black coffee! I drink plunger coffee at home (French press) and normally an Americano if I’m at a cafe. Filter coffee is also fine. I never used to drink coffee, and then I did a barista course and became an insufferable coffee person nearly overnight. This is fortunate as I live in the nation’s capital city of insufferable coffee people.

Has your experience of community in speculative fiction and fandom changed in recent years?

A little, in a few different directions. I don’t engage in fandom as much as I once did in terms of making my own content for anything, though I still get really into specific things sometimes (Murderbot and What We Do In The Shadows were two big examples in 2021, and now Our Flag Means Death). I tend to have to put my time and energy into original work and my own work more these days, as there’s not much time and energy to go round. So my experience of fandom is more just bonding about stuff with pals who also happen to be into it rather than the wider community.

The good ways my experience of community in speculative fiction has changed is that I have a fair few little pockets of community that I’m very happy with and lucky to have. I feel very fortunate in my friends.

Also, what a WONDERFUL time to be writing and reading spec fic. It really feels like there’s more diversity and variety than ever before! Of course people have always been writing it, but it’s more available now, and tentatively more celebrated. I hope it gets even more celebrated. I want mainstream success for more queer authors, trans and nonbinary authors, authors of colour, disabled authors, neurodiverse authors, authors from all over the world.

What would you like to see changed?

The negative way my experience of community in spec fic has changed is how hostile and outright dangerous this environment can be. I’m talking specifically in terms of social media, and it’s the same story that can be seen with social media in general, but it’s honestly scary. People get dogpiled for imaginary slights as well as real mistakes and there’s no understanding about a person’s capacity for change. It’s all terrifying as a marginalised author. It’s okay to be scared of doing wrong – of course we all want to do things right, and a little uneasiness is a good sign of when to veer back into one’s lane – but I don’t think people should be this scared, not just of doing wrong but of the appearance of it. The people who often get targeted are more often marginalised authors than people in positions of any real power, as well.

So I’d love to see something more like actual justice, a community operating in kindness – obviously not being fine with people going around doing harm, and what each person thinks is acceptable is a deeply personal thing, but what I don’t find helpful is this current attitude where making a mistake can haunt you forever. The way the ownvoices movement went from being an attempt to shine light on marginalised authors to being a cudgel used to prod people out of the closet, to gatekeep people who aren’t ‘enough’ or make them divulge personal information. I’d like none of that. To an extent this is a danger in any online community (and online is mostly what I’m thinking of; I haven’t seen anything really like this in local spaces). I think it’d be nice if we could do better.

What books or media have you found yourself turning to for comfort?

What We Do In The Shadows is a delight. Those are my emotional support vampires ... I love a lot about that show, it’s really goofy and silly and has that Kiwi humour that of course I love, but my favourite thing is Guillermo. It’s rarer than it should be to see fat characters getting to be cool, complex and badass, and I like it very much. I finally started listening to The Magnus Archives, too. I’ve gotten more into horror and dark fantasy these last few years. I’m also big into Dracula Daily!

Sometimes I struggle with reading, but I’ve been able to get back into the habit by reading at least a little bit each day – I still read slowly, but I read! I greatly enjoy local authors like Cassie Hart, Octavia Cade and Andi C. Buchanan (off the top of my head) as well as the current boom in speculative romance – authors like Freya Marske, AJ Lancaster and Everina Maxwell.

And I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. That was the main thing that sustained my creative spirit during lockdown and it’s still pretty vital to me, I think. It’s good to have an outlet for storytelling (with Friends!) that isn’t a Hustle like my writing is. I am extremely invested in my highwayman’s misadventures.

Rem Wigmore is a speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand, author of the queer solarpunk novel Foxhunt, published by Queen of Swords Press, and forthcoming sequel Wolfpack. Their other works include Riverwitch and The Wind City, both shortlisted for Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Rem’s short fiction appears in several places including Capricious Magazine, Baffling Magazine and two of the Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies. Rem’s probably a changeling, but you’re stuck with them now. The coffee here is just too good. Rem can be found at or on twitter as @faewriter.

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz

Friday, July 22, 2022

6 Books with Naseem Jamnia

Photo credit: Jeramie Lu.

Naseem Jamnia (they/them) is a Persian-Chicagoan, former scientist, and fiction MFA graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno. Their work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bitch Media, Cosmopolitan, The Rumpus, The Writer's Chronicle, and other venues. A Lambda Literary, Otherwise, and the inaugural Samuel R. Delany Fellow, Naseem is the managing editor at Sword & Kettle Press, and their debut novella, The Bruising of Qilwa, will be released from Tachyon Publications in 2022. Find out at more at or on Twitter/Instagram @jamsternazzy.

Today they share six books with us!

1. What book are you currently reading?

a white cover with abstract fire behind a decorative medallion.
I made myself a deal: I’m allowed to preorder a bunch of fellow 22 debuts if I read them as they come in. My bookshelf is so full, and it was the only way I could justify it. So I’m just about to start The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah, which I have heard absolutely RAVE things about. I grew up on One Thousand and One Nights, so of course I had to pick this up when I came out! (I just finished The Prince of Nowhere by my agent sibling Rochelle Hassan, and whew, that twist!! This book screams Ghibli and Diana Wynne Jones.) 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

There are so many incredible debuts coming out this year, and I want to scream about all of them!! But I’ll go with two that come out next year instead—my close friend Terry J. Benton-Walker’s Blood Debts and Alex Wise Versus the End of the World. Blood Debts is Terry’s YA debut, and Alex Wise his MG. Both of these books are absolutely incredible. Blood Debts follows two Black teen twins in a magical New Orleans as they unravel the mystery behind their mother’s illness, grandmother’s disappearance, and reigning magic council’s corruption. It’s heart-wrenching and unflinching in its look at grief, interpersonal politics, and racism. I mean, it’s basically American Horror Show: Coven meets Game of Thrones, except a lot more gay, and if that’s not a book you want to read, I don’t know what to tell you. 

And Alex Wise is a book with SO much heart, about an anxious tween whose sister becomes possessed by the spirit of Death, who wants to reign with the Four Horsemen. It’s such a tender look at learning to come into your own power and confidence, with a dash of figuring out who loves you and learning to lean on them, and features complex friend, parent, and adult dynamics. I feel like any divorced kid who feels shoved in the back of the closet and unable to be their truest, most authentic self will feel so absolutely seen in these pages.

As far as I’m aware, both of these are the first YA/MG fantasies that star a gay Black boy written by a gay Black author. Both are incredible, and I’m so excited to read their final forms!! 

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

the title stretches over an abstract, swirling night sky

Since I have SO many books on my TBR, it’s hard to justify rereading books nowadays. But this is a tie between Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star, which is a revelation and a masterpiece, and Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li, which knocked right into my Ivy-plus/Asian diasporic feels. The Actual Star is so layered and complex that multiple reads will open more and more connections. And I need to get my hands on an ARC or a (nonexistent, but maybe one day) paperback of Portrait of a Thief to highlight the million resonant lines that punched me in the throat. (I don’t want to highlight my beautiful hardcover!)

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

The easy answer to this is Queen TERF’s magical school books, which were as formative to me as most millennials, but are somewhat mixed in quality when looked at in the year 2022. Actually, I think a lot of what I read when I was younger just hasn’t aged well—A Series of Unfortunate Events, for example, which I adored as a child but is full of fatphobia and transphobia and probably other problems (and Daniel Handler was Me Too’d, so—yikes). I feel this way about “classic” literature, too—not because it’s necessarily bad, but my values as a human have changed to become social justice oriented, and many classics are deeply colonial—and, therefore, cisheteropatriarchical—in nature. I’m not one who is able to separate art from the artist, even when I can recognize that art as a product of its time, but I also would rather read marginalized authors who don’t perpetuate these views! 

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

A young knife holding a lance and shield while riding a beautiful horse.

I first discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet as a hardback tomb sitting on the library shelf when I was eleven. I immediately fell in love—with Alanna, with Tortall, with the possibility of fantasy worlds. It was not my first fantasy book, but it’s the one that’s absolutely stuck with me over the years (and holds up fairly well, from an author who has grown more rather than less inclusive over the years). Alanna introduced me to some well-loved fantasy tropes (girl disguises herself as a boy to do the thing, female knights, god-chosen, loveable rogues, magic as a Gift vs Curse, bonded talking animals, etc.) and encouraged me to try my hand at the whole fantasy thing. The second book I ever wrote was a fairly robust plagiarism of Alanna: The First Adventure (I was like, thirteen, in my defense), down to the bully and friendship with royalty. I’d like to think my work has become its own since then.

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

My debut, The Bruising of Qilwa, is a standalone novella and the first set in a larger queernormative Persian-inspired secondary world I’m writing lots more projects in. It’s a meaty book without easy answers and lingering questions I hope to address in other stories. If you like found family, grumpy caregivers unwillingly adopting powerful orphans, nonbinary and binary trans characters, all QPOC from SWANA-inspired cultures, scientific blood magic, and refugee doctors fighting against medical racism—or if you’re a fan of Dragon Age 2—then I think you’ll dig the book!


Thanks, Naseem!

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner (she/her) is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and ecology. She tweets as @pheebs_w.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Microreview: City of Dusk by Tara Sim

Tara Sim’s City of Dusk starts a series where four young heirs to power both temporal and magical find themselves thrust into opposition with each other as a magical conjunction threatens to upset an already devolving situation.

Taesia, Angelica, Nik and Risha all are high in their noble houses, and each commands a different sort of magical power derived from the God their House is aspected to.  Risha is a Necromancer, concerned with Death; Nik’s aspects are literally angelic, complete with wings. Angelica, when she can harness her powers, has elemental abilities quite prodigious; Taesia is a skillful manipulator of shadows. 

The realm is in danger, though, with its long needed connections to magical realms (such as the land of the dead) barred and closed for quite some time now. This closure is wearing at the very fabric of society, and magic. There are those summoning demons from the void, Conjurers, and their true purposes are unknown but their destructive practices are clear. The King has no heir, and so one of these four might well be the next monarch. And the four Gods themselves have a plan themselves.

This is the complex story of these four characters, in Tara Sim’s jump up to adult Fantasy, The City of Dusk, first in a series.

The world that Sim creates here is immersive, as are her four main characters. I was thinking recently of inciting incidents in novels (and TTRPGs) and how a novel can use one as the springboard to a plot. Here the four main characters do learn of a forthcoming incident that could upend everything, and we spend the vast majority of the novel in preparation for that event, that conjunction. Sim uses the time and space before that conjunction to develop and reveal her characters, their powers, their weaknesses, their hopes, and to slowly reveal what is “really” going on beneath the surface of a city already under strain and moving toward a big crisis. There are small ones in the meantime that punctuate and deliberate the narrative, but there are long placid stretches where Sim’s focus is on the characters themselves and who they are, what they want to be, and who they think they are. These do not always align, a recipe ripe with drama and character potentials.

There are lots of secrets to uncover and learn in the novel. There is a secret fifth main character who doesn’t quite get the play of the other four, but their revelation and what they are slowly winds into the narrative, and revelations about their role in all of these affairs is important and key. The tapestry that the author weaves here in her worldbuilding and her character development work very well hand in hand in a practiced fashion, drawing the reader along. There is a good set of choices and writing in switching and mixing up points of view.  This works in the  frenetic pacing in the finale, switching between the main characters, especially as the major culminating crisis of the novel hits, but it does mean a slow upramp in the meantime. The novel takes its time in establishing matters with long fuses (too long, I think) before setting things off.  While I was never bored with the characters, when that frenetic pacing in the last chapters hits, it did cause some whiplash. I can see, given the plot and the timing, why that happens as it does but I really think it could have been done in a less jarring fashion.

Although there are four roughly equal protagonists here, to me, the book feels like at its heart it is Taesia’s book. Sure, we get to see a lot from the others perspectives, both external and internal, but since a number of the events in the novel really revolve around House Lastrider, and we see so much into Taesia’s heart, it does feel like this novel is more than a quarter (or twenty percent) of her story by a significant margin. I didn’t mind this, in a cast of characters like this, there is inevitably going to be one that rises above the others, and even if wordcount is identical, in an individual reader (if not the author themselves in their writing), one character is going to stand out a little more. Taesia’s recklessness and fierceness, and being a plot driver really put her head (if not quite head and shoulders) above Angelica, Nik and Risha. And in keeping with the theme of this review, we get her established, and in those frenetic final chapters, Taesia goes through a lot of personal change, quickly. (all the characters do, but in Taesia it  is the most striking and noted).  

It should be noted, though that out of the four main characters, I found Taesia’s relationship with her God the least developed for most of the novel. Characters like Nik get themselves on a footing or lack of one right away, but Taesia’s relationship is one that takes time to come to fruition. Like the plotting, though, the last portion of the book tries to have a disproportionate amount in one gigantic gulp, instead, then. 

As immersive as the character level world is, and perhaps it is a consequence of choice of point of view, I would like to know more about just why the Gods are doing what they are doing. To say more would be highly spoilery, but even given, so, it is not clear as to the motive. What precipitated their actions as actions? The timing of why the Gods do what they do is clear, based on the conjunction--but their actual reasons for moving the way they do remains frustratingly unclear to the reader as well as the characters. It’s possible that is very deliberate on Sim’s part, that our protagonists being pawns on the Gods’ chessboard and being opaque to their purposes is carefully done on her part. ‘

I want to bring up something here, if you will let me bend your ear for a moment. There is a tendency in genre fiction circles to dismiss all SFF books written by women as YA, even when they are plainly NOT. This is a strategy meant to diminish and dismiss women and their work, and it really is infuriating to see play out time and again. Although the author has written books which are definitely YA, and even given the relative youth of the protagonists, this novel is very firmly adult in tone (and subject matter).

The novel is first of a series, ends with a bang, and leaves the characters in a variety of lurches, meaning that there isn’t any semblance of an offramp here. This is the first of a series. As for me, I hope the second novel does improve its overall flow a bit. Otherwise I think this is a successful change from YA to Adult Fantasy for Sim, and I am curious as to see what will be next.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for a strong set of primary characters, particularly Taesia, all of whom get excellent character development and arcs

+1 for an interesting and diverse world setup. 

Penalties: -1 Pacing of the novel, very long build up to the ending, dilutes some of the positives of the novel’s worldbuilding and character development significantly

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference: Sim, Tara, City of Dusk [Orbit, 2022]

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

A magical, musical adventure with a strong dose of chaos

Welcome to New Orleans: well, sort of. The Ballad of Perilous Graves drops us not in the city of our own world, but in Nola, a city full of magic and music (and a lot of musical magic), which at once feels like it must be New Orleans, while also being... something weird and new. This distorted city is home to the titular Perilous Graves - usually referred to as Perry, perhaps because he doesn't seem to quite fit the vibe of a "Perilous" just yet - and his sister Brendy, as well as their friend (and Perry's crush) Peaches and a cast of parental figures, ghosts, musicians, and a combination of the three. But something is going wrong with the rhythm of Nola, something which seems to threaten the city's very existence in ways that don't make sense to our young protagonist. In good old adventure fashion, though, it's up to  Perilous, Brendy, and Peaches to right these mysterious wrongs, bringing back the songs of power which keep the city running. Meanwhile, in a city that really is called New Orleans, a man called Casey returns to his hometown years after leaving (in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) to track down what happened to one of his old friends, and confront the weird, possibly magical, events that led to his departure.

All of this unfolds into a very rich, strange fantasy world, one infused right through with the spirit of New Orleans - which, while not a city I'm familiar with, is one whose reputation and aesthetic is very much recognisable all the way through this book. Nola is also packed full of casual magical elements, most of which exist purely to make the place feel more: trams float in the sky, haints drive taxis, and Peaches, the Graves' best friend, is super strong and lives with a ghost in a strange old house. Jennings doesn't spoonfeed any of this worldbuilding, nor does he concern himself until much later in the narrative with making sense of Perry and Casey's dual cities. Instead, the reader is left to feel out the boundaries of this fantasy and its rules as we go along, in a move that's frequently confusing and demands a lot of attention, but makes for some really magical storytelling as it goes along.

What really makes The Ballad of Perilous Graves different is how that sense of magic shifts and evolves as the book goes on, from something which feels like an adult take on classic kids' adventure fantasy into something more complex and mature, even as it keeps the fun of its early magic in mind. In particular, magic is very linked to the characters who perform it: for example, early on, Peaches tries to explain how to fall without being injured to Perry, by suggesting that he "drop out" of the high fall at the last minute and fall from lower instead. It's a concept that baffles Perry - and which has that delightful "semantically that makes sense but... no" vibe to it that's right at home in children's fantasy (like The Phantom Tollbooth, which gets a couple of shout-outs here) - but it makes sense in Nola because it makes sense for Peaches, this overpowered and undersupervised youth, to be able to do that kind of thing. Similarly, Perry and Brendy both receive personal magical items within the first third of the story, which feels quite early for these types of quests to wrap up, but it means that they have these encounters at a point in the story where their world is just beginning to get more complicated. It's how they use their items in the world they live in, discovering more about that world and their place in it, that becomes the real story here, and it's really interesting how Jennings manages to make that transition from "juvenile" into adult work for his young protagonists. 

It helps also that the characters are great fun, and while it's Perry on the front page, his younger sister Brendy gets plenty of time to shine too. Casey's story is intriguingly separate from the other three for most of the book, and is important for the way it grapples with the realities of New Orleans, and particularly the devastation of Hurricane Katrina - Casey is also a trans man, and that affects his past relationships and his decision to leave the city in the way he did as much as the hurricane and his experiences with magic did. I could happily have read more about Casey, and his eventual tie into the main plot wasn't as satisfying as it could have been for me - but he's still a great character and his older, non-magical presence juxtaposes really nicely with the kids particularly in the first part of the book.

Things do begin to make more sense in Nola eventually, though it's not until we spend more time with older characters in the book's second half that we start to understand how this version of the city fits in with Casey's New Orleans. But even then, The Ballad of Perilous Graves keeps things loose and chaotic as it moves towards its big showdown. Some of this chaos is, frankly, hard to follow: I found myself getting confused often, and sometimes that confusion felt like more than standard for "this is a book that's trying to do a lot, is set in a culture that I'm not personally familiar with, and its not spoonfeeding me anything". I struggle to put my finger on what it is about the style or story that causes this - perhaps if I'd read through in a single sitting instead of spreading it out across a week? Whatever it is, it's always frustrating to come out of a book feeling like you didn't get the full experience out of it, and not even understanding why it caused that reaction, and I honestly can't say whether it's my fault or the book's fault - or both? Who knows.

Despite that frustration, though, The Ballad of Perilous Graves is a book well worth reading, and one which I'm glad I persevered with even when it was confusing the heck out of me. I'm really intrigued as to what Alex Jennings does next.

Adri (she/her), 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, July 19, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Babel by R. F. Kuang

 It's definitely dark, it's definitely set in academia, but this is far more powerful and far less aesthetic than that label implies. 

Cover art by Nico Delort

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, to give it its full title, is not a gentle book. It is not a book inclined to mince words about its topics. It is about a lot of things - colonialism, both physical and cultural, racism and classism, white fragility, love, linguistics and the power of belonging, and of not belonging. To quote the author, it is a "love letter and break up letter to Oxford". It is a story of how a small group of people try to find a way to fight against the seemingly insurmountable force of the British Empire in the early 19th century, in a world where we imagine magic powered by silver and language exacerbates the technology and various societal effects of the industrial revolution. It is unflinchingly critical and honest about history, academic culture, and the untrammeled self-interest of those in charge.

In the world of Babel, languages can make magic - by inscribing words that translate, but with some meaning lost in the process, onto a bar of silver, the linguistic dissonance can cause some thematically similar effects in the real world, when the match pair of words is spoken by someone fluent in the languages. Collecting more words, more translations, more languages, allows the translators of Oxford to find more effects, which in turn are sold for exorbitant profit, or used to fuel the expansion of the British Empire. This in turn brings in more silver to inscribe, more languages to plunder and more speakers of those languages to exploit - because native speakers of the more "foreign" languages, ones who have had less cross-pollination with English, are particularly prized by the Translation Institute, and what better way to get those speakers than when they are young and can be moulded to fit an English lifestyle?

Our protagonist Robin is one such, taken from his home in Canton after the rest of his family died of cholera, himself on the brink of succumbing, healed by the English Professor Lovell, then raised in his house on a diet of languages until he was ready to take a place in Oxford.

By getting Robin's perspective, raised to think of Lovell with gratitude for saving him, to focus on nothing but language, starved of affection and people his own age, Kuang is in a position to give us the authentic feeling of coming up to Oxford as an undergraduate but on overdrive. And at this, she is devastatingly effective. The passages of the first years having their first tutes, discovering their intellectual curiosity, the sparkling feelings of joy talking to other people their age about the things they've all been raised to hold most dear, they feel so palpable, so painfully real. The bond between Robin and his three cohort-mates is immediate and vivid and so earnest, and all of their bond together with Oxford as a place and a feeling is so instantly, intensely passionate, a sense of sudden belonging after a childhood of various hardships.

Which makes the rest of the book all the more bittersweet. Because the thesis of the book is about how that belonging is false, an impossible dream none of them could ever realise. The carrot dangled before them to lure them along, alongside the stick of what would happen, what their lives would be, if they didn't give in to the temptation. And watching them realise this in slow motion, as events unfold that force them to see what was there all along, force them to realise they can't shut their eyes to it all, is devastating. It is a story of the shattering of pleasant illusions by bitter realities, and it is impossible not to grieve with the characters for the lost dreams, even as we and they know those dreams were never going to actually happen. The whole thing builds slowly through the course of the book, but by the end it is entirely gutwrenching.

As an emotional journey, the story is pretty flawless. Robin's slow progression from childhood ignorance to youthful academic zeal to disillusionment is beautifully, poignantly told, as are his relationships to both England and Canton, and China more broadly, and his own sense of nationality and identity. We move from mood to mood in smooth progression, and it is incredibly easy to latch onto his changing feelings, and slip from one to another as events dictate.

On the flip side, some of the early parts are a little repetitive in their world building and exposition. The beginning of the book has a lot of telling us about slavery, oppression and exploitation in the world of the early 1800s. All of what it tells us is true, clear, unambiguous and necessary, but is occasionally undercut by some of the footnotes - where the text will give us a pretty well-drawn picture of the world, the footnote spells it out so basically that it feels almost as if it doesn't trust the reader to have understood what it was telling them, which is occasionally a little grating. However, this mostly clears up once Robin reaches university, so it's possibly some of the tone is meant to be through the lens of his understanding of the world (or lack thereof), and if so, some of that heavy underscoring makes a little more sense. There are also so many delightful bits of historical accuracy, in the details. For instance, Robin once asks the Professor "what do I need Latin and Greek for?" and is met with "to understand English", which is such a 19th century view, and there are enough nuggets like this hidden among the childhood parts that it becomes relatively easy to forgive some of the overemphasis where it crops up.

Once we reach his time at university, there is a definite shift in the way the narrative moves - we speed up, steadily at first, matching the pace of his own growing understanding of the world and his place in it, and this match of prose and tone to content is both subtly and skillfully done. By the time the book reaches full flow, it feels impossible to put down, and utterly immersive in its worldbuilding.

We also go from his limited character interactions as a child - seeing really only Professor Lovell, his tutors and the cook - to a more richly peopled world. The sparseness of the childhood parts again mirror in the reader Robin's experience of his narrow world, and emphasise again the sheer emotional intensity of his coming up to Oxford, and the friends he meets and makes in his cohort.

And what a cohort they are. The four characters, who comprise most of the books main social and emotional interactions (alongside the Professor and one other), have a beautiful web of love and hate and co-dependency, understanding and ignorance, between them. There is the tension between the two boys and the two girls (who have their own struggles in an Oxford that barely accepts women might be capable of study), between white Letty and the other three, and then between Victoire and Ramy, and the sometimes-white-passing Robin. It is a book, encapsulated in these four, that really wants us to see the many, many different ways the world chose to oppress people, and how difficult it could sometimes be for people to see outside of their own struggle to those of others, even those nearest and dearest to us. The progression of the four way relationship in the Babel cohort is one of best written parts of the book (which is saying something), and it is just so, so good. It's "emphatic hand gestures while failing to find the right words to tell people how good it is" good.

It is also to some extent the tension of the main plotline writ small - because when we come to the events of the latter half of the book, Kuang manages to encompass so much of what was going on in the world of the 1830s, and so well, and it is brilliant. She draws in threads of the social and economic harms of industrialisation, the struggle of the working class, sexism, racism, the self-serving nature of apparent philanthropism, the intersections of religion with both liberation and oppression, the sheer hubris of empire, the self-sabotaging nature of colonialism, the blindness of people to the harms around them, and so, so much more, and connects and contextualises them with each other. And she manages to do this without flooding us with extraneous information that the reader might juggle to hold in their head all together. We don't need to know every single piece and part of every struggle that forms a part of the whole - she gives us what we need for the narrative to work, and for it to feel immersive, coherent and natural as a world, and this is absolutely critical for both allowing the story to move along at the speed it does, and for it to balance so well with the arc of the character relationships. This is, of course, to some extent helped by the fact we view the world through the lens of sheltered academics, and so can be presented information as somewhat new that many outside of the Oxford bubble would have been well aware of, but even so, it is extremely well-handled.

As is the magic system, and the necessary smattering of linguistics that gets thrown in as part of it. Because the silverwork relies on translation, and understanding words and how they come to be as they are, it is necessary to explain some various bits and bobs of philology to move the story along. And obviously, these are all factually good and sound, but more critically, what is included, the real and fake scholars' works that are quoted, work together to build such a perfect vibe of linguistics as a discipline in the early 1800s (with some tweaks for the story, of course). The ubiquity of Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as the abundance of German scholarship, the insistence on biblical underpinnings, the inter-country feuding and prides at stake, all builds together to create a great pastiche of the linguistics discipline as it did, or could have, looked.

And then, of course, the brutal honesty of the end thesis - on the necessity of violence. The crux of the novel. It is an inexorable, powerful, sophisticated and sharp conclusion to an argument we've been led along through the book. It is devastating and it is brilliant, and that is all I can really say about it.

As I was reading, several other books came to mind as drawing on similar themes in different ways, but the one I would most pick up is how the portrayal of the poisoned-fruit lure of Oxford in Babel is extremely resonant with Mahit's infatuation with the Teixcalaanli culture in A Memory Called Empire. Both manage to capture exactly the feel, the siren song of that beautiful, cursed and toxic coloniser culture, through the eyes of someone immersed but othered, whose highest possible aspiration in the eyes of that culture will be "one of the good foreigners", as though that were the best compliment that could be paid. And both manage to capture the impossible position it puts those who live between the worlds in, and how, whatever they pick, whatever path they walk, whatever life they lead, they will never win.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 I very nearly cried at the end. God, the ending.

+1 Almost painfully accurate in the portrayal of the allure and awfulness of academic culture

Penalties: -1 some of the early parts feel a little repetitive

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: R. F. Kuang, Babel [Harper Voyager, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea

Monday, July 18, 2022

Microreview: Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie Robson

A mind-bending warning about the double-edged power of language to preserve and withhold truth

In the near future, Earth has established diplomatic relations with aliens known as Logi, sort-of-but-not-quite humanoids who cannot speak in sound and use telepathy instead. To facilitate the daily business of politics, some humans are trained in specialized schools to understand Logi telepathy and translate into human speech. Each Logi visitor is thus paired with a human interpreter who accompanies them at their official appearances and handles their routine communication with Earth governments.

The catch? The Logi language does funny things to the human brain. After a few minutes of hosting alien thoughts in your head, you start feeling drunk. Too much talking in one day, and you might pass out.

So when our protagonist Lydia, the interpreter assigned to the Logi cultural attaché, wakes up from a massive blackout to find her boss murdered on his sofa, she has to quickly decide whom to trust and whom to suspect, because this is a future where impressions are everything, and the wording of a message can have rippling effects on public opinion.

Lydia's quest to solve the murder of her boss requires her to do her own investigation before the police catches up with her, evade an omnipresent surveillance state, learn to compartmentalize multiple telepathic conversations inside her head, and follow a trail of breadcrumbs made of contradictory versions and manufactured narratives. In the world of interplanetary diplomacy, truth is what you make it sound like. On top of that, add algorithmic "truthiness" rankings and a hypertrophied fake news culture, and what you get is a world of illusions, a society built on stories because people's relationship with reality has become impassably mediated by technological filters.

The permanently logged-in characters of this novel have taken to the casual habit of always double-checking each other's statements with private web searches and face recognition and ID tracing and live recordings and curated newsfeeds. Truth is fluid, and trust is conditional. Lydia understands this better than anyone, given that her job is about transforming the presentation of an idea from one medium to another.

Using a translator as a protagonist provides a brilliant opportunity for the novel to satirize internet culture trends. Conspiracy theorists propagate lies that may or may not be grounded on fact, most notably the suspicion that the Logi are altering the official versions of human cultural productions. A mood of collective uncertainty is giving way to mass paranoia because there is never a definitive picture of events, only hyperbolic and partial accounts that confuse more than they inform, and the only people with direct access to the mind of their interlocutors get literally intoxicated by the contact. For most trained interpreters, the experience is an inevitable downside of the job, and they get used to dealing with it. But for some, the high can be addictive.

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words doesn't have galaxy-threatening stakes. It doesn't need to. It's a sharp dissection of the ways online life builds channels that connect us at the same time that they distance us. It's a clever murder mystery with grim revelations. It's an alien contact story that rejects the fear of the other. And it's the rare adventure thriller set mostly inside the mind. It is a truly intoxicating read that may inspire you to build a closer friendship with your inner monologue. You don't have to believe me. Believe the voice in your head that is reading these words.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the seamless integration of wearable technology into the characters' daily lives.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

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

Reference: Robson, Eddie. Drunk on All Your Strange New Words [Tor, 2022].

Friday, July 15, 2022

Microreview: Warlady by Jo Graham

Jo Graham’s Warlady, second in her Calpurnian Wars series, deftly moves the action to the planet of Morrigan, where politics, intrigue and ancient secrets threaten not only the future of Sandrine, bodyguard to the titular Warlady, but the fate of the entire planet as well.

[Jo Graham’s Warlady deftly moves the action in her series to the planet of Morrigan,  where politics, intrigue, the threat of war, and ancient secrets threaten not only the future of Satyrine, bodyguard to the titular Warlady, but the fate of the entire planet as well. Graham expertly weaves the personal with the political, making the fate and stakes of Satyrine’s old relationship with the electromancer Jauffre as important and grounded for the reader as the fate of their entire world.]

The avaricious and expansionist Calpurnians, last seen in Jo Graham’s Sounding Dark, are a looming threat to another of their interstellar neighbors. This time it is the small planet of Morrigan. Like the republic of Eresh, Morrigan has an ace up its sleeve, if it can only turn it to bear--the artificial intelligence based upon,, or perhaps it is the holy spirit of a long ago hero of Morrigan. That entity has guided the war leaders of Morrigan, and such advice would be invaluable for an upcoming conflict.

But when the titular Warlady dies, almost certainly assassinated, the political convulsions and the gap in leadership may yet leave Morrigan dangerously open to the predations of the rapacious Calpurnians. Can Sandrine, bodyguard to the dead Warlady,  help keep her planet free? And what will the costs be? This is the story of Jo Graham’s Warlady, second in her Calpurnian Wars series.

If Sounding Dark, first in the series, relied heavily on Sumerian motifs and legends to weave its story of a mysterious ancient ship as the possible salvation of the planet Eresh, Warlady goes for a different motif entirely. With a planet named Morrigan, and a leader of the people called a Warlord (or in this cycle, a Warlady), I was expecting something more along the lines of Celtic mythology in comparison to the Sumerian. My expectations were not met, as Graham goes in a couple of different directions instead. 

First off, let’s talk about the Electromancers and Dreamers, especially since Jauffre, the former lover of Sandrine, is one of the three main characters of the piece and is an Electronmancer. Just as Sounding Dark blended notes of fantasy and myth into the space opera, the Electronmancers and Dreamers add a science fantasy component to the space opera by positing people who have the bloodlines and abilities to manifest electricity, or to walk and manipulate dreams. Morrigan, though, especially distrusts the power of Electronmancers, and what they can do.

In a real sense, seeing the past, present and the potential future of the Electronmancers through Jaffure’s story,  the property that comes to mind is Dragon Age, and in particular the second game in the series, Dragon Age II. In that game, the bounds and strictures on Mages, while we saw it in the first game, really come to a head and to violent revolt. Mages are a dangerous force, unpredictable, controlled for their own good and the good of society, but valuable resources all the same. The Electronmancers in this book fit a very similar niche, and have similar desires for freedom and autonomy. 

Graham goes for the personal, though. Rather than having a wide ranging revolt and revolution in the midst of what else is going on, Jauffre’s desires for a better life for those of his blood come through in the former lovers reunited strand of the novel with Sandrine. We get the sense right away that the two have a past, but it takes a bit to tell the entire story of how they originally met and just what that entailed, because it does nicely set up the two working together again when the Calpurnians come knocking.

As far as the Dreamers, the other “magic users”, we get a lot less detail and less development. True, the third of our main characters, Leonie, is one, and is also Hierophant, and a possible successor to the Warlady, but her story, her development and her strand of the story frankly felt a little shallow than the attention that Graham lavishes so luxuriously on Sandrine and Jauffre. It is a pity, because Graham plays with the role of the Hierophant and also the election of the Warlady in terms that reminded me a bit of the College of Cardinals and the election of a Pope. There is a lot of potential here, and we do get to see Leonie try and dance on a knife’s edge as she realizes the implications of who might be elected the next Warlady and what that means, but it does feel a little underdone compared to the mainline of the plot. But Leonie’s dreaming power is definitely less engaged with than the electromancers and I would have liked to have learned more. Too, Leonie’s behind the scenes actions, which don’t quite make the page or get attention as much as Sandrine and Jauffre’s actions, turn out to be crucial to solving the original problem, but it feels more than a bit off camera. 

In the end, Leonie is a bit of a third wheel to SAndrine and Jauffre but now let us focus on Sandrine. Given the flashback we get from when she meets Jauffre, Sandrine is an ambitious and determined young woman who grows into the right arm, the aide and bodyguard, to the titular Warlady.  She makes a strong two-handed team with Jauffre both in the past and in the present, and the strength and depth of their former relationship, coming back up again, complete with a deliberate use of tropes, shows how much Graham knows what she is playing with here, and is being deliberately playful in their story.  In the end I found myself reading for their book for their relationship as much as the main plot of who was to be the next Warlady, who assassinated the prior one, and what the perfidious Calpurnians were up to.

Unlike the previous novel and Eresh and its space station, Graham spreads her wings a little bit with Morrigan as a setting. This was previewed in the world guide at the end of Sounding Dark, that Morrigan is a tidally locked planet. The light side is too hot for life, so the terminator line and the dark side are where Morriganians live. I am not sure that planetary geophysics would make the dark side in the end any more viable as a place to live on a tidally locked planet than the light side (see Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night for a different treatment of a tidally locked planet). The impression that Graham gives is as the Morrigans as a relatively small colony (especially compared to the vast Calpurnians) using technology as best they can on a marginal world. 

This gets to the last bit of the book I want to discuss and that is Khreesos the deified eidolon who might be divine, an AI, a memory of the last leader, or all of the above. He was an early Warlord who helped ensure Morrigan independence against an early Calpurnian attempt at conquest, that much everyone agrees on. But what he is beyond that, what the Presence inside of the ancient machinery the Warlord (or Warlady) connects to, is a matter that is not clear--and the richly different interpretations of who and what he is to the people of Morrigan show a nuanced understanding that a people, a culture, can have very different views on what is ostensibly the same founding myth or belief. Even as the answer to that question matters for the plot, Graham is careful with the revelations to leave room for the numinous, for doubt, for belief.   This is Graham at her best, I think, exploring the numinous, the divine, the metaphysical within a future technological world, and finding room for both there. 

Overall, Warlady shows the strengths of the author’s writing, and continues to build and deepen the Calpurnian Wars universe. Graham has a vision for where this is going, as the appendix to this novel is a Morriganian guide to Menaechmi, which is the setting of the projected next book in the series. The culture shifts and differences among the worlds are clear and wide and I look forward to seeing more of Graham’s verse.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a rich exploration of faith, belief and deep culture in Spaaaace.

+1 for a strong two hander of Sandrine and Jauffre as characters

Penalties: -1 Other aspects of the plot and character building to the top two seem a little sketched in and not as fully fleshed out.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Graham, Jo Warlady [Candlemark and Gleam, 2022]

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