Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Nanoreviews: Tsalmoth, The Entropy of Loss, High Times in the Low Parliament

Tsalmoth, by Steven Brust [Tor 2023]

Tsalmoth is the sixteenth (of a purported nineteen) novel in the Vlad Taltos and returns the reader back to a happier time when Vlad is soon to marry his love, Cawti - who long time readers will remember as Vlad’s wife and ex-wife in term. Spoilers, I suppose, but this is the sort of series where we don’t really know when a particular book is going to be set in the chronology until we get there and put the pieces together. This one is earlier, from what I can sort out.

I wonder, is this the first time we really get to learn who Vlad is telling these stories to? I’m not sure if that’s been a point of contention or not, but it’s been at least a point of curiosity. Every book has a narrator but Vlad is actively telling these stories and he is telling them to *someone*. Now we know who. We perhaps still don’t know why.

Right. The book. Tsalmoth starts with the idea that someone owes Vlad money (he’s a low level crime boss and assassin, you see) and his attempt to collect gets Vlad more and more involved in something really big and beyond the scope of where Vlad should be operating - except it’s not unusual for Vlad to operate above his station in life. It’s part of his charm, and the charm of the series.

Listen, you can probably start with Tsalmoth just fine. So many of the events of the series haven’t happened yet so new readers aren’t going to miss anything - and I’ve already told you that Vlad and Cawti do get married (the wedding planning is an interstitial for this book) and then get unmarried of sorts, so the main thing that would be missed is the heart of the emotional resonance - which is a loss, to be sure. The series has a lot of ups and downs and the relationship is perhaps never the main story of a particular book but it is one of the most important developments that runs through the whole thing.

Steven Brust is generally firing on all cylinders with his Vlad Taltos series and we are inching our way towards a conclusion that we can’t see - because this isn’t that sort of series - but each step of the way, whether backwards or forwards, is absolutely worth taking. That happier time (minus a gut punch late in the book) is refreshing for the long time reader.
-Reviewed by Joe  

The Entropy of Loss by Stewart Hotston [NewCon Press, 2022]

The Entropy of Loss follows scientist Sarah Shannon as she navigates both the impending loss of her terminally ill wife Rhona, her feelings about her affair with a colleague, and the possibility that her work modelling black holes might have triggered a first contact situation. It's a novella sectioned up into the stages of grief, and one very concerned with Shannon's own emotional responses to all these events that each alone would be immense, but together feel nearly insurmountable.

The novella's strength is, for the most part, in its prose, and in how it diverts from typical narratives around a first contact situation. Sarah is not an action movie scientist-protagonist, deferred to and given all the facts of the situation, allowed to dominate the agency of the encounter. Instead, she - and thus we - are kept in the dark about a lot of the logistics of the situation, in a way that feels extremely realistic.

It also benefits from how closely it attends to Sarah's emotions. She's a complex woman, dealing with complex problems, who manages the tricky contradiction of loving her wife deeply and painfully, while also having an affair with a younger woman at work. There's a lot of pain and sadness in the book, and Hotston has managed it relatively well, dwelling in the grief from the perspective of the griever. What it falls down on a little in this is that Rhona is... incredibly forgiving. Saintly, almost. And it somewhat undermines the complexity of Sarah's perspective to have that external validation so freely given.

There's also quite a high volume of maths/programming for the shortness of the novella, and so there are moments in the early part of the story where things feel a little bogged down, dwelling on those necessary details of exposition rather than letting us move along at any sort of pace.

That early part also struggles a little under the weight of some rather clunky similes that audibly clang out of the rest of the - otherwise really much better than the average SF story - prose.

All in all, it's an SF story that tackles a well known trope - first contact - through a much less well-worn lens of grief, and while it has its flaws, and that deep, inescapable sadness may not be for everyone, it is doing something interesting with its ideas and its form, and is a worthwhile read for that.
-Reviewed by Roseanna

High Times in the Low Parliament, by Kelly Robson [Tordotcom Publishing, 2022]

Somehow, I missed the marketing of this book as "lesbian stoner fantasy" until after reading it, but as cutesy one-liners go this is a great description of the strange yet delightful vibes that Robson brings to this novella. At its heart is Lana, a scribe from Aldgate whose life revolves around alcohol and pretty women - until one of her paramours tricks her into delivering a message that gets her out of parliamentary scribe duties, and the fairy responsible ends up sending her instead. As if enforced labour wasn't bad enough, said parliament (which is sort of like if the European Parliament stooped to Westminster standards of behaviour and decided not to use interpreters and speak past each other all the time) is about to be flooded by the fairies who steward it, as punishment for failing to agree on anything.

The political setting is fun, and it builds on some impeccable vibes - badly behaved parliaments are an underexplored institution in fantasy, and putting one in an all-female setting is particularly entertaining - but they very much play second fiddle to the relationships between Lana, her fairy friend Bugbite, and Eloquentia the parliamentarian she develops an infatuation with. Lana and Bugbite's relationship mostly grows over their use of various substances, and Lana's interest in the proceedings around her is mostly driven by self-preservation rather than a genuine interest in the political agenda, but there's something genuinely endearing about the pair of them that's hard not to root for. That goes double as Lana's interest in Eloquentia morphs from "pathetically horny" into a more well-rounded admiration and respect. On the whole, High Times in the Low Parliament didn't blow my mind, but it did have me going "you're doing great, sweetie" at its protagonist as she wandered around her world's various messes, and sometimes that's just the kind of story you need.
-Reviewed by Adri

Joe Sherry, Senior Editor at Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him

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

Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather senior editor, dog owner, aspiring mermaid, having an increasingly weird time about her own biography