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Bao Shu's novella Everybody Loves Charles, translated by Ken Liu, is an exploration of identity, celebrity and corporate greed and power. Bao uses the by-now familiar trope of being "wired" into the feeling and sensations of a celebrity to present a world in which millions of people would rather spend hours of every day being someone else - someone glamorous, who does exciting things and has sex with the 'beautiful people' - rather that live their own lives.

Charles Mann is the world's most chosen 'livecaster' - a daring race pilot who has love affairs with the world's most famous women and who, unlike many other celebrities, is online for his subscribers 24 hour a day. He thrives on the knowledge that millions love him so much they want to know his every feeling and sensation, to see the world through his eyes. Takume Naoto is one of his subscribers, a programmer who works just enough to support a spartan life, and spends all of his remaining time vicariously experiencing Charles' life.

When Charles meets a woman who is outside of his world of fame and constant livecasting, he is persuaded by her to limit his livecasting - she refuses to allow his time with her to be a part of the experiences of anyone who cares to subscribe to Charles' livecasts. But when he contemplates stopping his casts altogether, he discovers the world of corporate brandmaking that lies behind the livecasts.

An ultimately pessimistic, even dystopic view of a culture where personal identity and experience are felt to be inadequate beside the hyped-up lives of the rich and famous, and where even the cults of celebrity are ultimately nothing more than ways to make profits, Everyone Loves Charles delivers a serious critique of the virtual and vicarious lives we are increasing drawn to.

Bao Shu's novella can be found online at Clarkesworld. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/bao_01_16/

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.


[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2016/02/11/lovecraft-country-unearths-monsters-both-real-and-imagined/

Alex Brown, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books
http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/caught-after-dark-in-lovecraft-country/

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Andrea Hairston's novel Will Do Magic for Small Change is a celebration of the power of storytelling, the connection between past, present and future, and magic - the everyday magic that comes from such acts as taking a step into the unknown, opening your heart or trusting your sense of yourself - and how these things can heal, can make something that was broken, scattered, whole again.

Hairston gives us two narratives interwoven by magic, imagination and love. The first, set in 1980s Chicago, centres on a young black girl, Cinnamon Jones, child of poverty, myth and art. Her father is in a coma, shot while trying to help two lesbians. Her brother has died of a drug overdose that may have been suicide. Her mother, a city bus driver, is increasingly unable to cope. But in her blood is the magic and mystery of her grandparents, a hoodoo woman and a medicine man. What pulls Cinnamon forward is a love of theatre, the friends she meets at an audition - Klaus and Marie - and the gift from her brother of a mysterious book that writes itself, the story of an alien wanderer come to earth.

The second narrative is the story of this Wanderer. Starting in the late 1890s, the alien is caught up in the flight of a Dahomey ahosi, or warrior woman, after her defection from the Dahomeyan women's army. The warrior, Kahinde, names the alien after her dead twin brother Taiwo, for whom she left the king's army. Joined by Kahinde's sister-in-law Samso and her infant daughter, they travel to the new world of America seeking a place where they can write new stories of their lives.

Intersections of past and present, love and fear, the deep truth of storytelling, theatre, art - the tale of the wanderer becomes the tale of Cinnamon's life and as it finds completion, the path to Cinnamon's future is woven together and unfolds before her.

A magical book, with layers of meaning I'll be contemplating for some time to come.

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The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by author and social critic Kameron Hurley on being/becoming an sff writer and being a woman in that profession, on sff and geek culture and being a woman in that culture, and on the ways that sexism and geekdom play out in the broader 'mundane' world. In her Introduction to the collection, Hurley says:

"At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together."

The essays in this collection range widely: from the important of persistence in becoming a writer to a discussion of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. They are painful, inspiring, rage-honing, insightful, and even funny at times, and include the Hugo Award winning "We Have Always Fought." They are definitely worth reading.

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An interest in eugenics is one of the dirty little secrets that many otherwise progressive figures of the past share with the kind of folks they would never join forces with under other circumstances. Progressive eugenicists talk about improving the species, conservative eugenicists talk about keeping the race (usually the white race) strong and pure, and free of the taint of lesser races, "weak genes" and deviance - notably sexual deviance. Both have used poor science and questionable rhetoric to advance their cause, and relied on such strategies as immigration barriers and forced sterilisation to carry it out. As Nancy Ordover notes in American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism,

"Early eugenics proponents, drawn from the ranks of scientists, politicians, doctors, sexologists, policymakers, reactionaries, and reformers, held that through selective breeding humans could and should direct their own evolution. ... The legislation they drafted, the interventions they backed, the medical regimens they prescribed stemmed from a belief that everything from intellect to sexuality to poverty to crime was attributable to heredity."

Ordover's book is an examination of the arguments and methods of American eugenicists. Writing about the appeal of eugenics in that country, she says,

"The long-lasting appeal of eugenics has rested on its protection of the status quo, on its emphasis on individual and group "failings" over analyses of systemic culprits and on its bedrock insistence on scientific/technological remedies over fundamental social and institutional change. It has thrived in times of mainstream anxiety over genuine or perceived gains of marginalized groups, making it an attractive tool for conservatives. And so decades after litigants and activists, doctors and attorneys proved that African-American, Latino, and Native American women and girls were being singled out for coerced, eugenically informed sterilisation procedures, Norplant began to be forced it on the same communities with the full force of the judiciary and the medical establishment and with the blessing of both conservative politicians and liberal organizations. After generations of queers resisting pathologisation, exactly 25 years after the Stonewall uprising, at the time of increased visibility in the political, social, and cultural realms, The Science of Desire [1] appeared on the scene to cast us as genetically distinct from the rest of humankind. Eugenics is, once again, making a very public ascent."

In the first section of the book, Ordover traces the history, rhetoric and supposed scientific research that was a significant element of race-based eugenics propaganda and legislation. Beginning with early projects intended to keep America free from 'contamination' and 'protected' from the economic pressures of new immigrants, eugenicists sought to prove that Latin American, Asian, eastern and southern European, and North African immigration was a threat to a stable, healthy - and white - population.

"It was Charles Davenport of the American Breeders Association (and later cofounder of the American Eugenics Society) who first suggested ....[using] the Binet test to document the hereditary shortcomings of immigrants to the United States. In 1912 immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island became the first group in the country to whom the IQ tests were administered. ...[this] had a built-in class bias: only those who came steerage were subject to examination. According to his results over 80 percent of all Jewish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, and Russian immigrants were 'feebleminded defectives'."

The 'research' was undertaken to demonstrate the supposed scientific basis for identifying immigrants, and people of colour, as well as other potential dangers to the idea of a 'superior' primarily Anglo-Saxon nation. As Ordover demonstrates, such supposedly scientific evidence was based on "... stereotyping physical and mental characteristics of outsiders and insisting on recognizable, undeniable, immutable differences between "inferior" and "superior" people. American eugenicists armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable."

Eugenicists also used such research to support legislation intended to control 'internal threats' to their ideal nation, such as the poor, the physically and developmentally disabled, the sexual outcasts, African-Americans, prostitutes, alcoholics, addicts, and convicts. Instead of looking at socio-economic reasons for the various inequities they saw, eugenicists sought all their answers in biology, heredity and population statistics. As well, the force of eugenically framed discourses was increasingly aimed at radicals and anarchists, seen primarily as coming from immigrant and other marginalised communities: "These "interlopers," along with American Blacks, were viewed as both contaminated bodies and contaminators of the body politic."

Ordover demonstrates clearly that the current rhetoric aimed at immigrants to America - framing them as intellectually deficient, violent, likely to end up on welfare, a threat to the safety of the state and the jobs of 'real' (that is, white working and middle-class Americans) - is hardly new, nor is the racist construction of American Blacks as lazy, violent, prone to criminal behaviour and lacking in 'white' virtues such as diligence, intelligence, honesty, good decision-making and perseverance. Rather, these stereotypes are the continuation of over a century of eugenicist propaganda.

In the second section of the book, Ordover looks at the ways in which the concept of biological determinism, which has been the basis for eugenicist assaults on the human rights of immigrants and people of colour, has been used both for and against the queer communities in America. She begins by discussing and critiquing research into biological or genetic 'causes' of homosexuality, from hormonal influences on the fetus during pregnancy to differences in brain structures, and noting how this research has been welcomed by segments of the queer community and their allies, as well as those who see 'sexual deviance' as something to be cured.

"The warm reception that greeted these hereditarian hypotheses ... raises two issues: what is it about causation theories that is so appealing to mainstream institutions and heterosexual America?what is it about the research that has so many in the queer community looking to it for deliverance? Mainstream media and its predominantly straight consumers look for a good story; if it holds an unspoken promise of curatives, so much the better. More than that, a focus on what causes queerness eclipses the larger question: who wants to know and why? Significant segments of the gay community, on the other hand, hold that causation theories can be honed into a strategic tool and integrated into a larger legal and political struggle. For many, there may also be personal attachment to biological explanations, a comfort in being able to tell straight family and friends that "we were born that way." The stakes are clearly different but there is a commonality here. Genetic promises have been embraced without interrogation by a community and a larger society eager to accept any quick-fix explanations (and consequent solutions) that modern science had to offer. Whether the hope was for an antidote for homosexuality or homophobia, this embrace typifies the science-as-Savior prism that has created so many determinist enterprises."

As she did in the section of the book dealing with race-focused eugenics, Ordover examines the history of the medicalisation of homosexuality and 'sexual deviance' and the impact of physicians and medical opinions on legislation and mandated treatment of 'deviants.' As it had been with immigrants and American blacks, homosexuality was seen as associated with an inherited tendency to 'degeneracy' and the goal of eugenicists was to eliminate such tendencies from the American gene pool.

"Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, a flood of state sodomy laws were passed or amended to encompass a greater array of sexual practices. Doctors ... provided a legitimizing presence among lobbyists. There was a certain reciprocity involved as castration and like procedures were transformed from court-mandated penalty to medically endorsed treatment. Physicians saw their diagnoses legally sanctioned and thus their esteem and power consolidated. At the same time, the judicial system was able to mete out corporeal punishment while still appearing to have the best interests of the defendant/patient, the public, and the national gene pool at heart.

One of the most sweeping manifestations of this dynamic was the rash of sterilization statutes enacted by thirty states between 1907 and 1932. In almost every state that legislated sterilization, eugenics boards were convened. Essentially these were medical panels established to grant or deny doctors the right to sterilize anyone with a real or imagined physical or developmental disability. Usually these were prisoners or patients at hospitals or asylums and sometimes they were members of the public at large."

As Ordover notes, at the same time that the idea of sexual deviance as a product of heritable degeneracy was being used to establish court-mandated sterilisation of homosexuals, biological determinism was being adopted by early apologists as a defense of homosexuality.

"Lesbian and gay history is replete with champions who relied on evolutionary or biological arguments to agitate for our civil and human rights. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, for example, pursued this line in the mid 19th century. If homosexuality was recognized as inborn, he reasoned, gays could not be criminally prosecuted. Perhaps choice implied guilt, but the undeniable force of nature should not."

Unfortunately, as Ordover demonstrates, the history of homophobia suggests that focus on physical 'causes' of queerness, whether it be the search for the 'gay gene' or the idea that homosexuality (and by extension, transgender or genderfluid identities) is due to misfiring hormones or congenital abnormalities of the sexual organs, leads to more strategies on how to 'cure' sexual minorities of their 'deviance. Physical and chemical castration, sterilisation, surgical procedures on the brain, hormone 'therapy,' even fetal screening and selected abortion have been recommended, if not always carried out widely.

After examining the history of eugenist discourses and the effect these have had on legislative and other means of 'controlling' the health, purity and safety of the body politic, Ordover turns in the third section of the book to a closer exploration of the allure of the 'technological fix' - the widespread advocation of 'solutions' such as birth control and sterilisation - for eugenicists on both the right and the left. The goals, actions and politics of Margaret Sanger and her associates serve as a casebook study of the ways in which classism and racism influence the policies of the left as well as the right.

"Over the years, Sanger's work and the work of her ideological cohort refashioned eugenics rhetoric into the more palatable language of population control. Early eugenics attestations that society has a vested interest in which children were born of which women solidified in post World War II decades: the continuing investment in the techno fix as remedial to poverty in the United States and abroad, the singling out of entire regions for sterilization campaigns, and the resulting wave of reactionary legislation and welfare policies. Class bias, so central to eugenic policy (and a principal motivator for Sanger) came to the fore. This is not to say that class, in particular reliance on welfare, was a greater determinant than race, but rather that the invocation of economic rationales and the unchallenged vilification of the poor enabled eugenics to go unchecked and unnamed. Class is underscored here in an attempt to counter claims that Sanger and others were not eugenicists because they never publicly uttered racial slurs, and to highlight the vulnerability of low income women who found themselves snagged in various institutional nets (i.e., relief, Medicaid, welfare). An attack on the poor may have seemed more genteel and more viable than an openly racist attack on people of color but ultimately the same women were targeted."

Ordover goes on to document the ways in which poor black, Hispanic and indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities, were targeted by birth control advocates and by both private doctors and state laws which saw sterilisation as a way of reducing the numbers of 'irresponsible' and 'feeble-minded' women bearing children while receiving government assistance. The litany of cases of coerced sterilisation, sterilisation without consent, sterilisation without the knowledge of the victim is chilling, as is the record of forced or uninformed use of potentially dangerous hormonal contraceptives such as Depo-Provera and Norplant and the social and medical pressure in some situations to abort fetuses known to have genetic or other congenital defects. Nor has this latest thrust of eugenicist practice been limited to the United States. As Ordover notes, many foreign aid initiatives and pharmaceutical testing programs have distributed these contraceptives, from Depo-Provera to Quinacrine, to women in developing nations, often without full information on risks, and sometimes without the knowledge or consent of the women.

Ordover has delved deeply into the history of eugenicist theory and its reliance on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) research and technological solutions. In this treatise, she demonstrates the ways in which this continuing assault on the rights and bodies of peoples constructed as not only 'other' but as threats to the social, political, economic and physical health of the nation is manifest in current political, social and legislative action. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia - these are the theories underlying much of the rhetoric from both conservative and liberal camps, and as Ordover definitively shows, eugenics is a significant part of the praxis.

An important book, with much to say about the state of America (and by implication, other nations) today.


[1] The Science of Desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior, Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, 1994.

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The subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly's extensively researched book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tells the reader exactly what she will find within its covers.

Shetterly is well positioned to tell this story, as the daughter of a black engineer who worked at NASA's Langley Research Center during the 60s and 70s. Her father knew some of the women who feature prominently in the book, her childhood was spent in Hampton, in the same neighbourhoods these women had brought their own families to a generation earlier. In her preface, Shetterly talks about her own memories if her father's work, and pinpoints the enormous importance of telling the stories of these women.

"Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine."

So often, the face of science has been presented as that of a white man. To read the stories of these brilliant black women who persevered through the dual sets of assumptions they faced as mathematicians and engineers in a world where people of colour were associated with low or unskilled work and women with limited opportunities when single and even fewer when married is to understand how important it is to challenge that image.

Shetterly anchors her research into the hundreds of women, black and white, who held mathematical and scientific jobs at Langley on a narrative focused on the lives and careers of a handful of women: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and others, all of whom worked in the all-female, all-black West Computing Unit at Langley. These first of these women were originally hired to meet the research needs of what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during World War II, but their role was to continue well into the age of the Moon missions.

While recognising the rare opportunities - and unusual economic security - that the growing airspace industry offered women, Shetterly does not ignore the gender politics involved. While the 'computers' - the women mathematicians who performed all the calculations on which the male scientists and engineers depended on to be able to do their work - were often as well educated and as skilled as the men entering the field of aeronautics, they were still women working in a male field where men were individually valued and encouraged to advance, and women were seen in the perpetual role of anonymous support from which it was hard to emerge.

"Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers. The most promising of the acolytes were tapped to assist their managers in the operations of the laboratory’s valuable tunnels and research facilities, apprenticeships that could open the door to high-profile research assignments and eventual promotion to the head of a section, branch, or division. ...

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. She might spend weeks calculating a pressure distribution without knowing what kind of plane was being tested or whether the analysis that depended on her math had resulted in significant conclusions. The work of most of the women, like that of the Friden, Marchant, or Monroe computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all."

After the war, the anticipated downturn in employment at Langley did not take place. While in so many other industries, the return of men from the war pushed women (particularly white, middle-class women who had not worked before the war) out of the jobs they had taken on and back into the home, such was not the case in the aeronautical industry. Driven by the Cold War, research into aeronautics and space flight, the Langley 'computers' had become an integral part of the research process.

"Black or white, east or west, single or married, mothers or childless, women were now a fundamental part of the aeronautical research process. Not a year after the end of the war, the familiar announcements of vacancies at the laboratory, including openings for computers, began to appear in the newsletter again. As the United States downshifted from a flat-out sprint to victory to a more measured pace of economic activity, and as the laboratory began to forget that it had ever operated without the female computers, Dorothy had time to pause and give consideration to what a long-term career as a mathematician might look like. How could she entertain the idea of returning to Farmville and giving up a job she was good at, that she enjoyed, that paid two or three times more than teaching? Working as a research mathematician at Langley was a very, very good black job—and it was also a very, very good female job. The state of the aeronautics industry was strong, and the engineers were just as interested in retaining the services of the women who did the calculations as the aircraft manufacturers had been in keeping the laundry workers who supported their factory workers on the job."

Along with the potential of stability in a well-paid professional field that allowed them to use their education and abilities, however, the Cold War also brought the chill of the "Red Menace" which was increasingly associated with any progressive political movement, including those advocating civil rights and racial equality. The politics of race that turned the NAACP into a suspect organisation were also a part of life at Langley for the black women and men who had found careers there. While the book's narrative line is primarily focused on the women of the West Computing Unit and the part they played over three decades in the advancement of air and space travel, Shetterly relates events in the lives and career experience at Langley of both black women and the few black male engineers to contemporary developments in the civil rights movement, placing their story within the cultural, political and legal shifts of their times.

This approach makes clear the ways in which the story of how these brilliant women mathematicians became central to the successful development of the space program was deeply entwined with international politics, national pride, cultural change and the push to end segregation in the American workplace. In tracing the shift from NACA to NASA, Shetterly's account also follows the changes experienced by the black women mathematicians who had built careers at Langley.

As engineering projects diversified and became more specialised, the women of the West Computing Unit were moved out of the pool and into the various departments and working groups. Once there, the contributions made by some led to advancement from mathematician to the more respected, more influential and more highly paid rank of engineer. But though few of the 'girls from West Computing' reached such rarefied heights, their work was an essential part of the R&D that led to the first Americans in space.

And this is the real importance of Shetterly's book, that it makes prominent the contributions of black women, that it presents them boldly. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

"For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America."

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry in her long-running Vorkosigan series, is a domestic romance, with nary a hint of military action or undercover missions, and only the barest of political subplots. But that's just fine, because the romance is both sweet and mature, and it allows for many reminiscences that harken back to the earliest volumes of the series and remind us of a lifetime of events.

It also asks us to accept a revisioning of one of the central relationships of the series, that of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. We learn, with very little warning, that for the latter decades of Aral's life, their relationship had been not one between two persons, but one between three - Aral, Cordelia, and Aral's one-time military secretary Oliver Jole. From conversations and recollections, we learn that Aral had been the one to bring Jole into the relationship, and with his death, Cordelia and Jole had not continued the relationship, although they remained friends.

The book opens three years after Aral's death, as Cordelia, Vicereine of the Barrayaran colony of Sergyar - the planet where Aral and Cordelia first met - returns after a voyage to Barrayar. She is met, as befits her rank, by Jole in his capacity as Admiral and commander of the Barrayaran troops in Sergyar space.

Slowly, they discover that time has sufficiently healed the wounds made by Aral's loss that they are both ready to contemplate relationships again - and that they are drawn to each other even without Aral to be the bond between them.

Romance between mature adults is rare in fiction, and thus a delightful thing to read. One aspect of their growing relationship and how they handle multiple issues that could derail it is that being mature and intelligent people, they don't keep secrets or hide things, they talk to each other. They know that communication, not sex, is what keeps a a relationship of the level of intimacy they desire alive year after year. I was so delighted to read a romance that is not riddled with the standard foolishness of lovers who can't be honest with each other.

Family and continuance is also at the core of this gentle romance. Miles, Ekaterin and their children make a significant entrance, and Miles' clone/brother Mark and his partner are clearly part of the family even if not present. Even more, the developing relationship between Cordelia and Jole is woven around Cordelia's plans to use preserved genetic material from Aral and herself and extrauterine reproductive technology to have the daughters that she and Aral never had the time to bring into the world. And she offers Jole the use of some of Aral's genetic material, and several of her own ennucleated ova, so that he can, if he wishes, have sons who will be both his and Aral's.

In this novel, all the action, all the suspense, is driven by decisions surrounding relationship, and yet it captivated me as much as any high-octane thriller.

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To read Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria is to be immersed in glorious prose that ripples and flows as it presents a rich and complex world, itself filled with words and the love of books and an appreciation of the power of words and narrative and language and myth, and their role in creating, preserving and altering culture.

It is into this world of languages and changing cultures that the protagonist, Jevek of Tyom, comes, first through the Olondrian books given to him by his tutor, which make him a stranger in his own country as he absorbs the visions of Olondria he finds in those books, and again through his voyage, as a stranger and a merchant taking over his father's business, to Olondria itself.

And it is as a stranger in Olondria, as one who longs to enter into a culture not his own, even as he learns that his books have not prepared him for Olondria as it is, that he learns through words, through hardship, through violence and through mystery to know who he is, to value his own people's ways and words and to bring them a written language of their own, to preserve their own stories.

Reviewer Nic Clarke has written about this so much better than I can:

"In Stranger, Samatar is keenly interested in the connections between language, culture, knowledge, and the self: how language functions as a marker and shaper of self- and communal identity; how facility with language, both oral and written, confers confidence, status and power; how words turned into text can convey emotion and meaning across time and cultural boundaries; and the possibilities of cultural contact that language opens up, or (when misunderstood or misused) closes down. Whether that contact is constructive or destructive, and for whom, is another matter, of course, and one with which Stranger also deals." [1]

A Stranger in Olondria is a beautiful, thoughtful, magical book, and I cannot praise it highly enough.

[1] http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/a-stranger-in-olondria-by-sofia-samatar/

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"A Trump Christmas Carol," by Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, John Scalzi and Jo Walton; Uncanny, December 25, 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/trump-christmas-carol/

A brilliant piece of political fiction, a solid reworking of the ideas of Dickens' classic as the ghosts of 2016 teach the President-elect the true meaning and proper use of political power.



"The Orangery," Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam; Beneath Ceasless Skies, Issue #214, December 8, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-orangery/

Using the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Apollo and Dryope as central images, Stufflebeam gives us a powerful look at the responses evoked in women when confronted with men's desire and sense of entitlement to women's labour, bodies and love. When confronted with all the women, including Daphne and Dryope, who have chosen transformation into trees, Apollo asks “Why do you women fear men so much that you would rather be tree than give a kiss?” It's a question answered by this novelette, though perhaps not in any way that one who must ask can understand.



"The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt," N. K. Jemisin; Wired, December 13, 2016
https://www.wired.com/2016/12/nk-jemisin-the-evaluators/

A brilliant and truly terrifying cautionary tale told in modern epistolary style (excerpts from emails, reports and other documents) about the dangers of making assumptions and rushing first contact.



"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0," Caroline M. Yoachim; Lightspeed, March 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/welcome-to-the-medical-clinic-at-the-interplanetary-relay-station/

Having spent way too much time dealing with medical personnel and institutions lately, this grim little story about the futility of getting any real healthcare from a bureaucratic and underfunded system hit close to home.



"My Grandmother's Bones," S. L. Huang; Daily Science Fiction, August 22, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/s-l-huang/my-grandmothers-bones

A short and moving story about generational relationships and cultural changes, seen through a series of funerary behaviours.


"17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!," James Beamon; Daily Science Fiction, May 3, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/james-beamon/17-amazing-plot-elements-when-you-see-11-youll-be-astounded

An interesting approach to the retelling of a very old tale. Short, but worth reading for the way it's told.



"The Right Sort of Monsters," Kelly Sandoval; Strange Horizons, April 4, 2016
http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-right-sort-of-monsters/
Powerful story about need, sacrifice and how humans deal with difference. A strange and alien grove - the Godswalk - appears mysteriously beside a village, leaving most of the inhabitants unable to have children of their own. In the forest are the blood trees, whose flowers produce children in return for human blood, children that are not quite human, but human enough. But when Viette enters the forest to seek a child to fill the void left by a series of miscarriages, she learns that the Godswalk hides deeper secrets than she realised.

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Finally, there is a collection of Eleanor Arnason's short fiction set among the alien Hwarhath, appropriately titled Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. What makes the collection even more delightful to read is that Arnason has framed it as an anthropological investigation of Hwarhath culture and the response of the Hwarhath to contact with humans through their stories, and has fleshed out the volume with scholarly analyses of what these tales tell us about the Hwarhath.

As the Introduction, supposedly written by Rosa Haj of the Independent Scholars Union, explains:

"As far as can be determined, the stories in this collection were all written after the hwarhath learned enough about humanity to realize how similar (and different) we are. Our existence has called into question many ideas about life and morality that most hwarhath would have called certain a century ago. With two exceptions, the stories don’t deal with humanity directly. Instead, the authors are looking at their own culture through lenses created by their knowledge of us. Reading this fiction, we can begin to learn about our neighbors in known space. We may even learn something about ourselves."

I had read most of the stories collected here at one tine or another, but it was most enjoyable to read them again, and to savour the ones I had missed until now. And to ponder the ways in which transgressions both change and preserve societies.

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And another year has passed, one in which I started out with the best of intentions to read extensively and widely, but was thwarted by constant serious medical issues and a rather massive and on-going depression.

Most of my reading in the second half of the year was comfort reading, when I could summon the energy and will to read at all. And of course there was the obligatory Hugo reading.

My list of the best books I read this year:

Necessity, by Jo Walton
Elizabeth Bear, Karen Memory
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: Overture
Naomi Novik, League of Dragons
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti
Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell (eds.), Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel Delany
Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce (eds.), Letters to Tiptree





On to the statistics:

In 2016, I read 108 books or novellas - 100 fiction and 8 non-fiction; 13 of these were re-reads. A total of 7 of these were anthologies or edited non-fiction works, and so have been excluded from the demographic analysis of authorship.

By gender:
Works written by women: 68 percent
Works written by men: 32 percent
(One work written by collaborators of different genders)

By author's nationality:
American: 78 percent
British: 7 percent
Canadian: 10 percent
Other: 6 percent

"Other" nationalities included: French, Chinese, Israeli, Moroccan and Swedish.

Works by writers of colour: 11 percent

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There are times when I like reading crime fiction, particularly crime fiction featuring serial killers. Quite some years ago, I read several particularly gruesome novels of this sort - novels so gruesome, in fact, that they border on horror - by the Canadian writing consortium who call themselves Michael Slade. I rather enjoyed them at the time.

Being sick and miserable this holiday season, I decided to revisit this particular author, reading some of the older books, one that I'd read before but didn't remember well (Headhunter) and two I don't remember reading (Ripper and Primal Scream).

They did not age particularly well in some ways, though they definitely satisfied the itch I have to read such books from time to time. The structure of the books, particularly Headhunter, which was the first published, was clunky. The dialogue did not always ring true. Technically, they were at best mediocre.

I very much liked, and continue to like, the fact that these books feature Canadian protagonists, RCMP officers, and that they have a strong procedural focus.

The most difficult thing about them, however, is the way in which the author(s), in attempting to expose sexism and racism in Canadian society and in the RCMP, manage to perpetuate it in their writing. It's very unsettling to see them trying to create a central hero figure in DeClerq who is not overtly sexist or racist and whose internal commentary is intended at times to highlight issues of racism and sexism in history, society, the RCMP, its officers snd policies, and the process of policing, while at the same tine giving us other protagonists who are very much sexist and racist, and relying on tropes from the manhating lesbian feminist to the superstitious black pimp/drug dealer steeped in "voodoo" practices straight from the swamps surrounding New Orleans. Oh, there are admirable female characters and a few admirable indigenous characters when the plot demand it, but the treatment of these issues is disturbingly uneven.

Nonetheless, I plan to read some of Slade's newer novels and see what kind of growth, if any, there has been.

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Tempest: All New Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey, is yet another in what has become a long series of anthologies of stories set in Velgarth, the world of Valdemar and Heralds and mind-speaking spirits who look like white horses and magic-casting gryphons and other marvels.

It's a fairly strong anthology, with contributors from seasoned veterans like Fiona Patton, Brenda Cooper, Rosemary Edghill and Lackey herself, and relative newcomers. Several of the contributors have offered stories which focus on characters they have created and written about before in these anthologies, including Elizabeth Vaughan's stories about widowed ladyHolder Cera, and Patton's tales of the Dann brothers and their adventures as part of Haven's Watch.

Good light reading for anyone looking for a quick Valdemar fix.



*This anthology contains 22 stories, 17 of which were written by women, two of which were written by men, two of which were co-written by both a woman and a man, and one by an author who chose not to be identified by gender.

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I've been quite under the weather for some time, and not reading much. I have been watching a lot of mindless disaster movies, including all four Jurassic Park/World flicks, and they have been entertaining in a suitably mindless way. Nonetheless, holes in the plots so big you could herd an Indomitius Rex through In the films led me to read the two novels from which the series was derived, and it pleases me to report that the holes in the books are much smaller.

I found it interesting how elements from the two books were tossed willy-nilly into the movies. The opening scene from the first book is moved from Costa Rica to Isla Sorna, and opens the second film. The computer hacker girl from the second book becomes the computer hacker girl in the first film. And so on.

Nonetheless, the books were, like other Michael Crichton science thrillers I've read, fast-paced and enjoyable light reading, and they helped pass the time for this increasingly invalid reader.

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"Harvestfruit," J. Y. Yang, july 2014, Crossed Genres
http://crossedgenres.com/magazine/019--harvestfruit/

In this chilling piece of flash fiction, Yang explores the responses of people traumatised by capture and forced integration into a society where they live only to satisfy the needs of others.



"So, You Must Talk to the Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones," Alexandra Petri, August 30, 2016, The Washington Post
https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2016/08/30/so-you-must-talk-to-the-woman-who-is-wearing-headphones/?utm_term=.608e14c2aac8

A powerful and very pertinent piece 'inspired' by the public conversation about the inappropriate demands for attention men make on women who clearly do not want to be disturbed.


"The Lady Astronaut of Mars," Mary Robinette Kowal, electronic publication September 11, 2013, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2013/09/11/the-lady-astronaut-of-mars/

A moving novelette about an aging former astronaut called back in for a final mission that she is uniquely suited to perform, and the emotional costs of deciding between the desire to return to space and the responsibilities that arise from love.


"The Curse of Giants," Jose Pablo Iriarte, March 7, 2016, Daily Science Fiction
http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/magic-realism/jose-pablo-iriarte/the-curse-of-giants

Some stories give you all the clues you need to figure out what's happening, but nevertheless kick you in the gut at the final reveal. This is one of those stories. Some people might debate whether it's really science fiction, or magic realism, or something else, but it's powerful and it's both comment and critique on the world we live in, and the nature of courage.


"Between Dragons and Their Wrath," An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky, February 2016, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/owomoyela_swirsky_02_16/

Domei and hir friend Hano live in a country that lies between two nations at war, a country ravaged and poisoned by dragons used as weapons of destruction. This story focuses on how the terrible aftermath of war and global exploitation affects innocent people trying to live their lives in the midst of destruction they neither caused nor understand. It is a story of despair, resignation, and faint, distorted hope, and it wracks the soul.

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One might not think that a trilogy of science fiction books about the various ways one might go about creating a society based on Plato's Republic, and what the outcomes of those societies might look like, is going to be engaging, at times exciting, and hard to put down. And maybe it isn't, if you have little interest about such ideas as justice, the good life, excellence, the nature of conscious self-awareness and the soul, the origin of the universe and the meaning of time.

But since I have a strong interest in these things, and since Jo Walton has, in her Thessaly trilogy, written an amazing set of characters you can't help caring about who take part in explorations of these ideas through debate, daily living, and various travels and adventures, it was probably inevitable that I would fall in love with these somewhat unusual novels.

I've already talked about the first two novels in the trilogy, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. In the third novel, Necessity, Walton continues her explorations of the deep philosophical questions that have troubled humanity for millennia.

Necessity begins 40 years after Zeus, in order to save Athene's experiment in building a true Platonic society and continue its isolation from human history, has moved all the existing cities to a distant planet and to a time in the 26th century. Survival on Plato, as its new inhabitants have named it, is not as easy as it was on the island of Thera - the climate is colder, and the planet has no indigenous land-based animal life (though it has fish in abundance). But the people of Pluto have prospered, and their cities occupy the planet in peace. Living with them and taking part in Plato's society are two sentient Worker robots that were transported with them, and some members of an alien space-faring race, the Saeli, who find their Platonic ideals appealing.

The narrative that drives the further philosophical explorations Walton engages us in involves the disappearance of the goddess Athene from not only time and space, but the dimensions out of time. When Apollo, returned to his divinity by the death of his human incarnation, Pythias, discovers that he cannot sense Athene anywhere, his decision to search for her becomes a quest to understand the underpinnings of existence and the meaning of life.

This quest is interwoven with the lives of several inhabitants of Plato, key among them: Jason, who operates a fishing boat; Marsilia, one of the consuls of the City - the first Platonic community settled by Athene on Earth - who also works with Jason; Thetis, her sister, who works with the City's children; Hilfa, a young Saeli who is also part of Jason's crew; and Crocus, the first sentient Worker.

The death of Pythias and Apollo's discovery that Athene is lost take place place against the backdrop of an event the Platonians have long anticipated - the arrival of the first spaceship from another planet of humans. The planet's inhabitants must decide whether to follow the advice of Zeus, and present the story of their arrival on Plato as a kind of origin myth, all the while leading the space-faring humans to believe Plato was settled just as any other human colony - or just to tell the truth and let the other humans make of it what they will.

Rounding out this mix of events, Sokrates is returned to the Platonic cities, having been found by Apollo on his quest to find Athene. Not at all changed by having spent time in the Jurassic period, living as the gadfly Athene transformed him into, Sokrates becomes an essential part of the continuing philosophical dialogue that is Plato, and of the lives of the Platonians involved in Apollo's quest.

In Necessity, Walton proposes some possible answers to the questions being asked in these three novels, but also leaves much still to be considered by the reader, just as she gives her characters some degree of closure in their daily lives, while leaving the future open-ended.

The entire trilogy is a kind of experiment, the success of which the reader must judge for themselves. For me, it succeeds gloriously.

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Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

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Deborah J. Ross, authorised by the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Trust, and guided by notes and conversations held when Bradley was still alive, has written a number of books set in the world of Darkover. Thunderlord is the latest of these.

Set during the Ages of Chaos, long before the events surrounding the return of the Terrans to Darkover that have been the subject of many of the Darkover books, Thunderlord is a sequel to Bradley's novel Stormqueen, although there is enough backstory included that the books can be read independently.

While Thunderlord has its share of excitement - bandits, banshees, dangerous journeys through the forbidding mountain passes of the Hellers - it is primarily about family, love, building trust and turning vengeance and suspicion into peace.

The main characters, Rockraven sisters Kyria and Alaya, find themselves in the centre of the long but currently dormant feud between Scathfell and Alderan, and must find a way to keep the cycle of bloodshed from rising again.

I always enjoy going back to Darkover, and I like what Deborah Ross has brought to the stories of Darkover. I enjoy reading about the small domestic details and the developing relationships as much as I do adventures and the great deeds of the laran-gifted. I enjoyed Thunderlord.

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Joanna Hickson is very good at creating romance from the bare bones of history. She did it to good effect in her duology featuring Catherine de Valois, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. She attempts this again in Red Rose, White Rose, a novel based on the life of Cicely Neville, Duchess if York and mother of both Edward IV and Richard III.

The novel deals well with the political issues of the times, the growing antipathy between reigning Lancaster and ambitious York, and the various historical nobles whose actions led to the continuation of the Wars of the Roses that resulted in the reign of the two Yorkist kings and the ultimate triumph of the Tudor line.

It also shows, through the viewpoint of Cicely and the relationships of her sisters, friends and daughters, many of the harsh realities of the lives of the noble women of the times. Often the wives and daughters of the great lords were little more than pawns, their marriages serving as ways of solidifying political alliances, their bodies useful only as the producers of heirs.

However, it is in the realm of personal relationships, that I feel Hickson goes somewhat astray. Hickson invents a story of an abduction and seduction by an estranged kinsman when Cicely was young and not yet married that turned into love unrequited for many years after that. I feel that the relationship between Cicely and her husband Richard of York was complex enough without inventing secret lifelong adulterous desires.

The novel has as one of the two viewpoint characters (Cicely herself being the other) a supposed bastard half-brother, Cuthbert of Middleham. I liked the invented character, and Hickson effectively uses him to allow us to see further than even a politically active woman like Cicely Neville could reasonably take us - into the councils of men, and into battle. But the naming of this character was to my mind inappropriate and potentially confusing. It's certainly true that Cicely's father, having had 20 legitimate children, could easily have had more than a few illegitimate children, and might have brought one into his house to be raised alongside his half-siblings - but Cicely did have an older, legitimate brother named Cuthbert (who died young) so why not call the invented brother something else?

Red Rose, White Rose carries Cicely's story through to the moment when, her husband dead in battle, her eldest son Edward is offered the crown - though not before he has managed to defeat the Lancastrian forces and capture Henry VI. There is a postscript which notes that Cicely outlived all but two of her children, both daughters.

Aside from the quibbles I have with certain invented elements (which Hickson actually addresses in her Afterward), I found the novel both enjoyable and an interesting look at the events surrounding the York rebellion and Edward IV's rise to the throne.

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I don't think I'm going too far when I say that Diane Duane's Young Wizards series has captivated her readers, who have become attached, not only to the central characters Nita, Kit, Dairine and their immediate families, but also to the wizards - and other beings - from planets far and wide who have become a part of their extended family, as well as colleagues they can rely on.

This is why I was so excited to learn that Duane is writing a trio of novellas about some of the secondary characters - if any of them can actually be called secondary - as they deal with the defining moments of their future lives as wizards, their Ordeals. In fact, I immediately bought the two novellas currently available from Duane's website.

The first novella I read was On Ordeal: Roshaun ke Nelaid, which, in addition to showing us that an Ordeal need not be full of physical threat and heroic deeds in order to be a profound test of courage and will to do what is best for all, provided much welcome background information into Roshaun's life, his family and his world.

The second novella of the planned trio, On Ordeal: Mamvish fsh Wimsih, tells of the Doom of the Wimseh at the hands of the Lone One, and the events leading up to Mamvish's rather unorthodoxly concluded Ordeal. The history of Mamvish's people, and Mamvish herself, is a difficult one, but Duane handles it with skill and sensitivity. A beautifully told story.

The third novella, not yet released, features another of the fascinating young wizards who have worked with and become companions to Nita and Kit - Ronan Nolan. I am keeping an eye on Duane's website so I can read it as soon as it's available.

The idea of seeing these familiar characters before their wizardry comes to them, and as they negotiate the trial that confirms them as wizards and agents of the Powers, appeals greatly to me. I rather hope that Duane will continue with these novellas, giving us the Ordeal stories of more of the wizards who are a part of Nita and Kit's lives.

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