Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Nanoreviews: The Coral Bones, The Devil You Know

The Coral Bones by E.J. Swift (Unsung Stories, 2022)

The Coral Bones has made a pretty big splash within UK-based awards, picking up nominations for the Kitschies, BSFAs, Clarke Award and, of course, the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards (a very and not-at-all serious blogger award which I continue to drag Nerds of a Feather into, and which I absolutely think you should consider reading from the lists of). That splash is well-deserved, and it's also a fitting metaphor for a book which looks at three women's love of the Great Barrier Reef across time, through the destructive forces of colonialism and climate catastrophe and (we hope) beyond. To me, it also continues the trend of small presses (Stelliform, Android Press, Luna Press) doing the best work on climate fiction, and that's one of several reasons I'm going to miss this book's publisher, Unsung, now that they are shutting their doors for good.

Enough about the state of the genre, though: what about the state of this book? Well, The Coral Bones splits its narrative between Hana, a modern day naturalist bearing witness to the death of the reef while trying to hide the fact that she has abandoned her pregnant partner; Judith, a 19th century naval captain's daughter who escapes the boredom of a British colonial lifestyle in Sydney to pursue her naturalist passions aboard her father's ship; and Telma, an older 22nd century naturalist whose job takes her across Australia, enforcing rules around animal ownership, and seeking out extinct species including her latest assignment: the leafy seadragon. All three narratives use a distinct literary style, from the florid Victorian prose of Judith's diary to Hana's introspective letters home to Telma's sparsely told third person narrative, and all three women end up connected both geographically and through the passing on of Judith and Hana's documented stories to Telma at the end of the timeline. 

Each of the stories here stands up enjoyably on its own, but it's only through their interplay that the strength of The Coral Bones comes through, with each woman's personal struggles tying effectively into the wider story about environmental collapse and what might come after. Judith, a plucky young woman fighting patriarchy every step of the way, is hard not to root for even as we bear witness to the destructiveness of her era's "naturalism" (breaking coral! fishing up sharks and killing them on deck and then deciding they are actually too gross to document properly!), and watching her aspire to greatness through destruction of something she loves feels like a direct challenge to... well, the whole human condition. At the other end of the timeline, Telma grieves both the natural world and her adult daughter, a firefighter who died in a bushfire, and ponders the loneliness of a life spent travelling away from her remaining family, but her story is also characterised by action, and by the belief that a better world is both hoping and working for. It's Hana, in the middle, whose grief appears to freeze her in fear and inaction, and we spend most of our time with her pondering the self-destructive decision she took to separate herself from family. It's impressive that this action doesn't make Hana automatically unsympathetic (though I'm sure plenty of readers will rightly not feel that sympathy for her), but her combination of self-destructiveness and passiveness feels like a perfect encapsulation of 21st century attitudes towards the climate, and later discoveries only serve to reinforce that fact.

With its three diverging styles and a relatively thin, mostly thematic connecting thread between them, The Coral Bones demands quite a bit from its reader, but it's worth doing so. And since Unsung will not be around to sell books for much longer, the time to get this one is now. 

The Devil You Know by Kit Rocha (Tor, 2021)

This is the second book in Kit Rocha's Mercenary Librarians trilogy, which blends dystopian hyper-corporate-post-post-apocalypse thriller with sexy romance between attractive, quippy, traumatised super-soldiers. And what a fun genre blend this turns out to be, especially in the hands of an author duo who know how to work the angles of dystopia to bring out very hot tropes around hurt/comfort, negotiated boundaries and selective vulnerability, while also taking the dangers of the world seriously and building a solution that is primarily about community, not the individual actions of very sexy people. That overall arc isn't designed to be encapsulated in this middle book, so while The Devil You Know will be intelligible to a reader who hasn't read the first book in the series (Deal With the Devil), it won't have its whole impact; nor are all the chickens coming home to roost until we finish Dance With the Devil, which is gazing at me as sexily as a paperback can from my TBR shelf.

The catalyst for romance across the trilogy is the meeting of a trio of genetically enhanced women (the titular Mercenary Librarians) and a group of male mercenaries implanted with supersoldier tech chips (The Silver Devils), both of whom have escaped from the TechCorps, the corporation which controls power in Atlanta, Georgia after a tech apocalypse led to the collapse of former society. In Deal With the Devil, an exciting journey of double crossing shenanigans led to the pairing off of Mercenary Librarian leader Nina and her Silver Devil counterpart Knox; in this book, we turn to the story of Grey, the menacing but secretly-quite-soft sniper of the Silver Devils, and Maya, whose genetic engineering means she is incapable of forgetting anything and whose past as a data courier means that she is a walking repository of incriminating facts about TechCorps leadership, and that they will stop at nothing to kill her. Maya lives with technicolour memories of past trauma and is convinced that her mind will, at some point, stop working on her entirely; Grey has just been handed a death sentence as his brain chip is malfunctioning and the only means to repair it lies with the evil corporation he's defected from. The two are immediately and obviously drawn to each other, but there's just so much baggage, so it's time for a slow burn to see if these crazy kids can come together before time runs out on either of them (except it's romance, so there's a HEA, so time isn't running out on anyone we care about in this circumstance).

Unlike its predecessor, whose action side was heavily connected to Nina and Knox's relationship, The Devil You Know doesn't integrate the non-romance angle of the plot (the gang attempting to intercept the smuggling of a group of the next generation of genetically enhanced kids) as effectively, but it does create reasons for Maya in particular to use her strengths, and develop new ones, with Grey's guidance and support. TechCorps, and the main antagonist in particular, come across as cartoonishly villainous at points, but this is probably because we all exist in a state of denial about the ethics of corporations and how they might behave in a post-apocalyptic world, and it also just works for the kind of story that this is. The Devil You Know can be slow, but it knows where its going and while it gives us the promised HEA for its main couple, there are a few knife twists to set up for the final book (featuring Dani and Rafe, the commitment-averse ones who have been radiating sexual tension for two books now and are going to be fake dating in Dance with the Devil) and I'm very intrigued to see whether it sticks the landing.

Posted by: Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather senior co-editor, @adrijjy