Thursday, October 14, 2021

Microreview: The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Best Novelette

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

Joe: Let’s do it! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

6 Books with Monica Byrne

Credit Marion Ettlinger

Monica Byrne grew up in Annville, Pennsylvania, as the youngest child of two theologians. She studied biochemistry at Wellesley, NASA, and MIT before pivoting to fiction and theatre. She is the author of the novel The Girl in the Road, winner of the 2015 Otherwise Award; as well as the plays Nightwork, What Every Girl Should Know, Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, and Ohio!, which have been performed around the world. She also performed the first science fictional TED talk in Vancouver. You can visit her online at and support her work at She is based in Durham, North Carolina, and loves a good thunderstorm.

Today she tells us about her Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I just started Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and I adore it so far. It's very hard to do dream-fiction well--fiction that genuinely puts you in the headspace of, not only another world, but an exquisitely specific one that doesn't obey any of the rules we're used to. I wish more fiction took risks like that.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn. It won't be out for awhile, but it'll be worth the wait. It's the sequel to Legendborn, her brilliant retelling of the Arthurian legend at the University of North Carolina, which was built by enslaved people. You'd think there'd be no connection--but she's an absolute magician. 

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

Legendborn, now that I just finished kvelling about it!

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

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's something I wished I'd written--one of the best things about great books is that they're wholly unique, that they could only have come from that author--but that said, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell comes very close to something I feel I'd have written. A Jesuit priest is traumatized by his first contact with an alien species. I mean come on, I live in that Venn intersection.

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

Mating by Norman Rush. He does such an incredible job of balancing density with clarity, and that's a balance I always aim for--to communicate big ideas in as simple language as possible. 

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

It's called The Actual Star. And as for why it's awesome, you have to read this aloud in the voice of Peter Falk at the beginning of The Princess Bride:

"Has it got any sports in it?"

"Aaaah you kidding? Fencing*, fighting, torture, revenge, human sacrifice, future religions, kings, nomads, climate change, neocolonialism, tourist gaze, radical democracy, ritual bloodletting, reimagination of gender, hallucinogenic enemas, good sex, bad sex, mermaids, refugees, chases, escapes, true love, miracles, whip spiders, captives, betrayals, caves, princes, princesses, seers, heretics...messiahs....jaguars!" 

*Okay, there's no fencing. But there are definitely spears.

Thank you, Monica!

You can find out more about The Actual Star right here at Nerds of a Feather, in a review by Arturo Serrano.

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

Review: Civilizations by Laurent Binet

A fun thought experiment without a clear aim or meaning

If you move past the thousands of stories where the Nazis win and the thousands more where the Confederacy wins, the third most popular alternate history scenario would probably be reverse imperialism. Novels like Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch, Christopher Evans' Aztec Century and Federico Andahazi's The Conqueror play with the suggestive possibility of Native Americans being equipped to fight off the European invaders and maybe even conquer Europe. Because of the nontrivial technological difference between both continents in the 1500s, plotting a believable Montezuma's Revenge requires either inserting an earlier event that delays the development of European warfare and/or boosts Native military capabilities. Unfortunately, this also requires the attribution of European colonial practices to Native populations, which ends up revealing more about Europe's unconfessed anxieties than about real-world justice.

Laurent Binet's alternate history novel Civilizations was originally published in French in 2019 and since then has been translated into a number of languages, with the English version by Sam Taylor just out this year. It describes an Inca invasion of Western Europe, starting with the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake of 1531. Just as the weakened Portuguese are starting to recover, Inca leader Atahualpa marches on and accumulates victory after victory until he becomes a force capable of challenging the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ottoman Sultan.

The book is written in a breakneck pace that does no service to its massive scope. Instead of reading literature (in the artistic sense of the word), it feels like reading a history book. This kills any chance for enjoyment. Civilizations covers centuries' worth of plot across dozens of countries, but it's written in an over-summarized style that is set at too much distance from the events. The reader would like to witness the diplomatic meetings and the battle planning sessions and the oceanic trips, but what the book delivers is the CliffsNotes version of itself. Conversations that should be captivating and impactful are instead reported second-hand, as if by a journalist held to a word count limit. Huge military campaigns breeze by without taking the time to leave an effect on the reader. World-changing decisions are remarked upon with no weight; romantic liaisons and political betrayals proceed matter-of-factly. The plot just occurs by a methodical procession of steps. No event is allowed to breathe.

The substance of the novel is the third section, where Atahualpa marches over Europe. The first two exist only to provide the bare minimum of justification for why Atahualpa is able to do this. They tell how Native Americans learned ironsmithing (from stranded Vikings) and shipbuilding (from a doomed Christopher Columbus), but they hurry past the reader's eyes so soon that their characters don't feel like full people but like ingredients in a recipe, as if the author was irritated with the need to explain the story and couldn't wait to be done with this part. It doesn't fulfill any deeper purpose to have Vikings reach precolonial Cuba and Peru: they're just there under a painfully shoehorned excuse with the sole purpose of delivering horses and antibodies before promptly exiting the stage. Likewise with Columbus, who only seems to be in this novel to leave his ships in Cuba and die.

This use of people as pawns is consistent with the novel's stated position on history as a process that does not follow the direction of human choices but merely unfolds from impersonal forces that take no account of our wants. At one point the narrator says, "if we are honest enough to recognize the truth, rather than imagining that we are masters of our own destiny, circumstances made the decision," and later it refers to "fatal destiny, which directs, arranges and settles everything in its own way." If a destiny beyond the grasp of human comprehension is already a suspect notion in historiography, it's fatal in fiction. Binet does not treat his characters as autonomous moral agents but as pebbles dragged by the river of history.

If the beginning of the novel is about putting the pieces in place, the main, third section tells an even more improbable journey by Atahualpa, the last heir to the Inca throne, all the way from the Peruvian mountains to the Caribbean islands. He has no logical reason to go there, but the plot needs him to stumble upon the ships left by Columbus and refurbish them for a trip to the unknown lands of Europe, which for some reason he finds preferable to the more urgent matter of resolving the civil war in his own kingdom. Binet can't seem to decide whether Atahualpa is a shrewd tactician or a political amateur; the way he somehow never loses a battle yet fails to understand the larger context of European royal rivalries has a just-so quality that makes the whole affair harder to swallow.

Civilizations is a good example of why you need sensitivity readers when writing about oppressed peoples. The first two sections, where Europeans make contact with Native Americans, abound in otherizing clichés like "We are at the mercy of Skrælings more ferocious than trolls" and "It was obvious to me that these were people lacking in everything." Even later, when telling events from Atahualpa's perspective, the text still refers to him as a being possessed of an "animalistic survival instinct," and the Nahua tribes are described as "a fierce, bloodthirsty people." And for a French writer to treat the conquest of Algiers as a historical necessity leaves a lingering bad taste.

Although this was probably not a good story idea for a white writer to undertake, it's curiously fitting that a French writer expends so many lines in singing the praises of Cuban vegetation as a place of mysterious wonders, given that it was precisely Cuban writers steeped in French literature (Lezama, Sarduy, Carpentier) who first spread the tropes of magical realism that so often have reduced the Americas to an exotic stereotype. Unsurprisingly, Binet treats this stereotype as unquestioned fact when he writes about the "dazzling torrent of colors" that assaults Europeans when they land on Cuba.

The alternate world of Civilizations is an experiment that doesn't bother to reach conclusions. Completely ignoring the fact that the Inca Empire was in every way an empire, Binet imagines a utopia of agrarian reform and religious equality that has too much of guilty wish fulfillment. If in the real world the French imposed an emperor on Mexico, in this fictional timeline the Mexicans impose an emperor on France. What does this say? What truth about humanity are we meant to infer? Binet does not seem interested in those questions. The novel comes off as a "Heh, take that" and nothing more.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the fictional letters between historical figures, the only sections where events appeared to be of serious consequence.

Penalties: −1 for being the millionth novel to perpetuate the myth that Medieval Europeans thought the world was flat.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

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

Reference: Binet, Laurent [author], Taylor, Sam [translator]. Civilizations [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021].

Monday, October 11, 2021

Microreview [book]: When Sorrows Come, by Seanan McGuire

A surprisingly and ultimately happy novel, which is not necessarily the norm for for Seanan McGuire and October Daye.

I remember reading Katherine Kurtz’s novel King Kelson’s Bride when I was younger (but not quite as young as I thought I was since the novel was published in 2000) and being disappointed that it was a novel about a wedding. It was, potentially and partly, *gasp* a romance. Other things happened in that novel, but the main thing is the wedding. It was King Kelson’s “Bride” after all. I was younger then.

When Sorrows Come is the fifteenth October Daye novel and this is the wedding novel, the one where Toby and Tybalt get married. Seanan McGuire is really good at exposition and recapping, because you could *almost* jump into When Sorrows Come without having read the preceding 14 novels, and you probably can, but the problem with that (and it is not a problem) is that When Sorrows Come is earned by everything that came before it. Readers care because they’ve been on the journey with Toby from the start - from being turned into a fish and trying to have as little to do with faerie as possible to reclaiming her position as Sylvester’s Knight to becoming a Hero of the realm, from an initial distaste regarding Tybalt to a casual alliance and almost friendship to straight up courtship and romance. The other character arcs are just as notable and it matters that you’ve been on this journey because When Sorrows Come pays off so much.

Toby actually makes a comment relatively early in the novel that her wedding dress will end up covered in blood and readers will nod along because if there is anything this series has taught us is that Toby will end up covered in blood, usually her own, but that it’ll still turn out mostly okay.

The wedding party makes their way to the High King’s Court in Toronto, moving the action away from San Francisco and into the family home of Quentin’s parents (the High King and Queen, naturally) and it’s pretty quickly evident that something is wrong because of course something is wrong and as such, things go wrong pretty quickly and there are dead bodies and Toby is leading the investigation on why there is treason and dead bodies and all the while inching ever closer to her wedding (for which is only a day or so away) and with fears from Tybalt that this is all just a way for Toby to get out of marrying him, thought not going so far as to suggest that this is her fault but more that she always jumps in with everything she has and is.

There’s a larger plot against the High King’s throne and several swords of Damocles hanging over Toby - there’s no way we’re done with Amandine and at some point Oberon has to officially decide he wants to announce himself and return and that’ll change everything - but despite all of the blood and death and not knowing, When Sorrows Come is ultimately a celebration.

It is perhaps a funny thing to say after talking about all the blood and plots and dead bodies, but When Sorrows Come is ultimately a positive novel. On one hand there is a lot packed into a few tight chapters, on the other hand it feels spread out and diffuse as we gradually work our way to the actual wedding ceremony. It would have been such a cop out to delay Toby and Tybalt’s wedding any further and McGuire doesn’t. Spoilers, I suppose, but this is the wedding novel and we do get to that happy event. There is a brief sense of a farce (in the category of a comedic sub genre) when we finally get to the ceremony and oh, it’s one more thing! But we get there and there are some very nice and deeply satisfying moments. There are moments to breathe and there is, ultimately, a happy ending for Toby. This isn’t the final novel in the series, but maybe this is the book we need in the middle of a pandemic that just won’t end.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: + 1 the included bonus novella "And With Reveling" is a really nice postscript that is functionally just the wedding party and all of the formal blessings Toby and Tybalt receive. There are some nice moments and it serves as an epilogue more than a bonus novella.

Penalties: - 1 Some readers will be disappointed by the relatively smaller narrative and (thus far) lack of follow through on the major event from the previous novel.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: McGuire, Seanan. When Sorrows Come (DAW, 2021)

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

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Microreview: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

 When the Goddess Wakes solidly ends Howard Andrew Jones’ Ring-Sworn Trilogy, as the titular threat, building since the beginning of the series, brings danger, adventure, and notes of heroic sacrifice. 

Howard Andrew Jones Ring-Sworn Trilogy has been a recent highlight and hallmark of positivist heroic epic fantasy. In strong contrast to grimdark, morally grey epic fantasy that has long been a dominant note, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy has opted for the path of less ambiguous protagonists and antagonists, and highlighting and emphasizing the importance, and effectiveness of positive action and standing up for one’s beliefs, family, and country.  All of this takes place in a richly created multiverse.

So what about this last volume,  When the Goddess Wakes, about in particular? 

This book follows quickly on the heels of the second novel, Upon the Flight of the Queen. The Dendrassi war with the multiverse spanning invasion of the Naor has ended in peace and a tentative alliance against the greater threat of the aforementioned Queen. Alantris is a wreck, Elenai is being hailed as a Queen, much to her chagrin, but the threat and stakes have been raised, as the Goddess that the Queen wants to raise would and could have the power to unmake the entire multiverse, and has the desire to do so.

The challenge in this final volume is to face off against the Queen, and her Goddess. It is a quest that takes the characters across the realms in a desperate search for the tools to do so. Meantime, of course, their enemies are not idle, and there are those who would take advantage of this conflict for their own ends. And plenty of surprises and revelations about various characters and even the nature of the multiverse. 

Our points of view remain the same from the first (and second) novel, keeping the deep focus on our heroes: Elenai, the young Altererai Corps member whose discovery of a false sword hanging in place of a real one sparked the events of the entire series, is uneasy with people acclaiming her as a Queen. And yet it is her that the Naor (especially in the personage of their leader, Vannek) respect and it is her that is the glue for that alliance and for what of the decimated forces remain to face this last and most greatest threat. When the Goddess Wakes tests Elenai to the greatest extent yet, making her live up to her heroic epithet of Oddsbreaker.

Rylin (Rylin of the Thousand), in the meantime, has had it rough in extricating himself from his infiltration of the enemy councils to manage uneasy relationships with allies of dubious provenance in order to find a way to counter the threat of the Queen and the Goddess she is raising. His is also a slightly lovelorn story, as his attraction to Varama, leader of the resistance against the Naor in the second volume, is obvious, and not reciprocated (Varama, frankly, has Other Things to Do). Readers going back to the first volume and following his story can find some irony in this turn of events for him.

And then there is Vannek. Vannek is the leader of the remnant of the Naor horde which was the big threat in the second book. Now an uneasy ally with their former enemy, Vannek must navigate holding his forces together and facing an even greater threat, and be true to themselves as well. Vannek provides an outsider perspective to the world of the Altererai, Darassus and Alantris in general. One thing that Jones touches on, for readers who might have forgotten, is the filip and twist that the Naor are, in a real sense, the “humans” and the Darassians are, in effect, to the Naor, Elves of Faerie. The Naor “horde” is really humans trying to invade Fairyland.  It makes sense- despite the blood magic of the Naor, and their dragons, they don’t have the magical abilities Elenai, Rylin and company share. They live, relative to the Naor, in the midst of changing, and shifting realms of reality, the shards. Some of them even might be gods from a certain point of view, or to their own mind. This makes me think of Steve Brust’s Dragaera, which is of course a Faerieland to the few humans (like Vlad) who just happen to be living there amongst the native population.

But what this novel has over Amber, and yes, Dragaera is its commitment in word and deed, to inclusivity. This novel, especially of the three novels, makes it clear how welcoming a fantasy this is for all readers of any stripe. The aforementioned Vannek, although the term isn’t used in the series itself, is transgender and Vannek’s struggle with finding themselves is a theme that was touched in the second volume but gets more play here with Vannek’s further importance to the leadership of the remaining Naor horde. Other characters are depicted as gay, bisexual, and polyamorous and while having a character call this all out in dialogue may seem like “virtue signaling” to a certain mindset, it does help hammer home Jones’ point that heroes come in all stripes and types. You, too, can earn a heroic epithet, if 

As in the previous novels, there is a real “second generation of Amberites” feel to Rylin, Elenai, Vannek and their peers. The big wheels of the previous generation are here, sometimes in unusual or not quite hale and complete manners--Kyrkenall and N’alhr in particular, make room for the new generation to step up and take charge. The older generation, in power and influence are important, crucial, even, but in the end this is the story of the new generation rising up and facing challenges and overcoming them, not taking an assistant role to their mentors and higher ups. Throughout the series, Jones has done a great job with this from the beginning, and it is here in the final volume that the “second generation” really steps up. This sort of handoff is a tricky thing to do in any fantasy but it is part of the fabric and the point of Jones’ world.

While the second novel was somewhat darker that the first in terms of plot and events, this third novel, while remaining true to its roots, definitely leans into the third book of the trilogy where the hard choices have to be made, the most noble of stands, and yes the heroic sacrifices. Characters that go back to the beginning of this series are tested, and do die bravely against terrible enemies. 

The characters live up to the Oath of the Altenerai:

"When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I will have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weight all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and sisters, for I am eternal."

Or, from our own world,  to quote Horatius:

Then out spake brave Horatius,

The Captain of the Gate:

"To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods."

I can hope that this series will make more readers, and publishers take notice of Jones’ talents in specific and in general the value, importance, and joy in positivist, heroic, optimistic fantasy, even as terrible things happen and noble heroic sacrifices occur.  There will always be a place for morally grey protagonists, hard and dark situations and themes, and “evils which exist to oppose other evils”. I wouldn’t want grimdark and dark fantasy to ever go away. The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, ending here with When the Goddess Wakes, however, shows that for me, oftentimes, I would like scoop sof the complex and bright Madagascaran Vanilla ice cream of Heroic epic fantasy in my reading diet  to go with the dark chocolate ice cream of Grim and dark epic fantasy in it. 

As always you won't want to start here. Go start with For The Killing of Kings and plunge into this world, characters and ethos of entertaining heroic fantasy.


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent action beats and spirit of adventure that keeps the pages turning.

+1 for a strong, diverse and interesting cast of characters.

Penalties: -1 A couple of the bits of plotting felt a little jangled and rushed

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Jones, Howard Andrew, When the Goddess Wakes (Tor, 2021)

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

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is officially October and horror season has arrived. In addition to some amazing spooky comic adaptations hitting Netflix in the near future (Locke and Key season 2 and Sandman), ComiXology is celebrating with exclusive Scott Snyder books for Scottober! If you are a horror fan, I wanted to share some recent comics that I have really been enjoying that are well worth your time. If you are looking for some older classics you can do no wrong with Locke and Key, The Sixth Gun, Harrow County, Nailbiter, and Baby Teeth.

I can't help myself.  I am far too excited about the second season of Locke and Key and wanted to share the new trailer here before delving into some new books.

We Have Demons - Only available on ComiXology from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

I was introduced to the dynamic duo of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo when the New 52 launched with their incredible Court of Owls run.  Scottober features eight exclusive, creator owned books from Snyder in a partnership with ComiXology.  This book features Lam, a pastor's daughter, discovering that there is more to her father, and the world she lives in, then she previously understood. This includes a secret society that I cannot wait to learn more about and of course it also involves demons given the title.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first book and cannot wait to read more.

Silver Coin - From Michael Walsh and an amazing cast of collaborators

Michael Walsh has teamed up with a variety of a-list creators in this shared universe that revolves around the mysterious silver coin and stories associated with it throughout the ages.  The first book was set in the 70's and focused on the impact the silver coin had as a guitar pick for one of the band members, and others have included tales of summer camp, home invasions, and future scavengers.  The only spoiler is that things don't tend to end well for those who are connected with this cursed item, but I have loved the range and depth of stories that have been featured thus far. They connect, but each can be enjoyed on its own and the trade just dropped this week!

The Lot - from Marguerite Bennet and Renato Guedes and the good folk with Bad Idea 

Centered around a cursed soundstage, Aviva Copeland makes the grave mistake of unlocking the door of this studio asset for the first time in 50 years.  She is unaware of its violent and satanic past and unleashes an unknown horror that grown restless in all of these years locked away.  This book might be a bit tricky to track down, as it is only in print and sold at certain retailers, but you should be able to find it online. The art from Guedes is stunning and this book is horrifying and a lot of fun. 

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.