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A Local Habitation is the second of Seanan McGuire's novels featuring October Daye - Toby to those who know her well - changeling, private investigator, and knight of Faerie.

In this installment, she is called upon by her liege lord Count Sylvester to investigate a potential problem in the small faerie realm of Tamed Lightning, a buffer state between her lord's domain and that of a rival, the Countess Riordan. The
Countess of Tamed Lightning is Sylvester's niece, January O'Leary, with whom he is normally in close contact, but he hasn't heard from her in weeks, his messages have gone unanswered, and he's worried.

What Toby finds is a terrible mystery almost beyond her abilities to solve. Something has been disrupting communications between Tamed Lightning and Sylvester's lands - January has heard nothing from him, received no messages, and suspects treachery. Worse, death is stalking Tamed Lightning's grounds. The County is anchored on January's computer programming company, and employees - all either pureblood fae or changelings - are being murdered. Worse, they have been killed in such a way that the night-haunts, fae responsible for removing the bodies of dead fae and replacing them with undetectable imitations that will pass as human to police, medical examiners and other humans who deal with the dead, refuse to take their bodies. And Toby, whose gifts involve the ability to read memories from blood, even the blood of the dead, can see nothing in the blood of these victims.

I'm coming to enjoy these urban fantasies. The complexity of mythologies, the intricacies of fae traditions and politics, and the dogged perseverance of Toby herself, who fights on against all odds, in a world where her changeling nature limits what she can do in either world, human or faerie, but manages, just barely, to do what has to be done.

Her victories often cone too hard, at too great a cost, and too late to be truly called successes, and that's a big part of what I like. She's a flawed hero who tries but fails as much as she succeeds - but still keeps trying.

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"After We Walked Away," Erica L. Satifka; Apex Magazine, November 21, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/after-we-walked-away/

A literalised response to Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," this story follows two young people, man and woman, who left "The Solved City" - clearly based on Omelas - because they could not accept the violent magic on which the city is founded, that the deliberately caused unending suffering of just one child could produce a utopia for everyone else. They find our society, where almost everyone suffers, from systematic oppression and cruelty, and in different ways regret their decision. It's a strongly written and emotionally disturbing story, but it misses one very important thing. Le Guin's story is not about rejecting a utopia based on horror for some other existing world; Omelas is our society, or at least an an allegorical reference to it. Those who walk away are the rebels who reject our acquiescence in the very real cruelty and oppression in our world, the comforting lie that the poor will always be with us, with its corollary that therefore we need do nothing for them. They are the ones who would change the paradigm, who would give up their privilege to end the horror others experience.

It's a well-crafted and moving story, but at its heart it is dishonest in setting up a straw man to refute, and disingenuous in using that straw man to argue that the suffering of one is easier to accept than the suffering of many. I would rather remain with the vision given form by Le Guin, that there are those among us who realise that as long as one of us is chained, none of us is free.


"Crocodile Tears," Jaymee Goh; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/crocodile-tears/

Goh here reworks a traditional folk tale of revenge. In Goh's version, a crocodile brings brings news to a successful man who has abandoned his family, telling him of the fates of his mother, his lover and the unborn child he left behind.


"That Game We Played During the War," Carrie Vaughn; tor.com, March 16, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/

A sparsely written but deeply moving story about war and what happens when war is over and two sides try to make a peace, summed up in the interactions between two veterans, one from each side. Calla is a military nurse; during the was it was her duty to keep Valk - a member of a telepathic race - and other prisoners of war under sedation to dull their abilities. Later in the war, fortunes have shifted and Calla is the prisoner, Valk her keeper. Remembering the games of chess he watched her play with he other staff, he asks her to teach him, and together they find a way to enjoy playing a game of strategy between one who reads minds and one who does not. When a peace finally comes, Valk, recovering from wounds in hospital, asks Cala to visit him and bring 'the game they played during the war.'

Working together on the game creates a bond that can become a bridge, a way of understanding and building a trust that may support the fragile peace. A story of hope, a microcosm of good will between people tired of war.


"Bargain," Sarah Gailey; Mothership Zeta, December 27, 2015
http://mothershipzeta.org/2015/12/27/bargain-by-sarah-gailey/#more-289

"Bargain" is 2017 Campbell Award finalist Sarah Gailey's first professional sale, and it is a fine story indeed, in which old woman offers her soul and her life to a demon in return for health and youth for her dying wife - with such will and love that even the demon looks for a way to subvert the nature of the deal. Told with a surprisingly appropriate light, even humorous touch, it left me with tears brimming in my eyes, and a goofy smile on my face.


"Of Blood and Bronze," Sarah Gailey; Devilfish Review, Issue 17
https://devilfishreview.com/issues/issue-seventeen/of-blood-and-bronze-by-sarah-gailey/

Framed as a steampunk fairy tale, this is haunting and horrifying story of the mechanisms of corruption, and the truth that the ends cannot justify the means because they are changed and tainted by them. An alchemist works a terrible magic to save the life of the innocent and good young bride of a mad old king, so that she may rule the kingdom until the heir comes of age, with the best of intentions, and the unhappiest of consequences.


"The Art of Space Travel," Nina Allen; Tor.com, July 27, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/07/27/the-art-of-space-travel/

Thirty years ago, the first mission to Mars ended in tragedy. The second mission is about to be launched, and two of the astronauts are scheduled to spend a night at the Edison Star hotel, where Emily Starr is head of housekeeping. Emily's mother Moolie, formerly a physicist, is mentally impaired and slowly dying as the result of forensic work she did on a plane downed by a dirty bomb. Sometimes she hints that Emily's father had some connection with space, perhaps even with the doomed Mars mission. The only physical link Emily has to her unknown father is a book, The Art of Space Travel, that Moolie says once belonged to him.

While this novelette has a sciencefictional setting, the real story is about daughters watching mothers age and become infirm, about children seeking, finding, and losing parents, about family and secrets and love, and about aspirations followed and aspirations left fallow. The Mars mission stands as a symbol of hope and persistence, but truly there are a hundred things that could have taken its place. Still, the implications of venturing into the unknown add to the poignancy of Moolie's terminal condition. A strong story about families and finding one's place and purpose, well written, but somewhat lacking in the 'what if' one looks for in science fiction.


"Jackalope Wives," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 7, 2014
http://www.apex-magazine.com/jackalope-wives/

I read this because I knew I was going to read Vernon's "The Tomato Thief," which takes place in the same setting and shares a key character, and I wanted to know the backstory for that character.

Vernon's writing in this story is poetic and realistic by turns, which is appropriate considering it is a story about those who cross the boundaries of the magical and the mundane. There's wonderful sense of place - the southwestern American desert becomes a fairytale landscape where all sorts of magic are possible, and creatures out of myth are as real as the sun and the dry earth and the animals and plants that make a home there.

One one level, this is a story about making choices, and accepting consequences and shouldering responsibilities, and setting things right. But it's also a commentary on the way that men see women and assume that what they want, they can take - and how the consequences of that fall only on the women.

The key character, Grandma Harken, is a woman who has suffered a great loss at the hands and through the choices of a man, but has learned to accept what came from it, and make the best of her circumstances, and to come to terms with a changed life, making it her own. When given the choice between regaining what was lost, or saving another from the fate she accepted - a loss caused by another man, one she is kin to - she takes on the responsibility for setting right her grandson's wrongs. She is willing to make whatever sacrifice must be made - but though this is presented as a kind of pragmatic heroism, at the root of it, what she is doing is choosing once more to accept the consequences of a man and his unchecked desires.

The story bothers me. Its beautifully crafted, and the characters live and breathe just as the desert cones alive in the mind. It's a really good story. But It leaves me wondering how to respond to what it's saying. In a sense, it's about women who choose to live with the things men do, to clean up their messes and live with the consequences of them, because someone has to do the right thing, and the men in their lives certainly aren't going to do it. Are we to admire Grandma Harken, or pity her, or just to hope that someday men will stop taking from women - and the world around them - without thought for the consequences?


"The Tomato Thief," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 5, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-tomato-thief/

This novelette is a return to the magical fairytale desert Vernon created in "Jackalope Wives" and to its central character, the shapeshifter-become-human Grandma Harken, with her sense of responsibility and duty. There's a certain similarity of theme here as well, in that Grandma Harken finds herself - grumbling about her age and mortality but still shouldering responsibility for making things right - setting out to save a woman caught in a powerful spell by a man of power.

There are some marvelous touches to the story that show the desert magic as a growing, evolving thing, adapting to the changes forced on it by the encroachment of man. The building of trains to cross and divide the desert has brought about the existence of the train-gods, and fittingly, their priests are found among the descendants of those forced to work on the railroads for the benefit of men of power living in the industrial east, the children of Asian labourers and indentured European workers.

Grandma Harken needs the intervention of the train-gods to find the hiding place of the sorcerer, who has folded the land around himself - and when she enters his domain, she will need all her wisdom and cunning, and the allies she makes along the way, to set things right again, defeat the sorcerer, and undo the damage done to people, animals and land.

Again, I find myself loving the story, the words, the imagery, the worldbuilding, the characters, the skill that went into its creation, while being unsettled by the story's implications. The underlying politics - in the sense of power relations - are clear, as they were in Vernon's earlier story. It's a reflection of the politics of our own world. Men of power, rich men, white men, men who think they can take and use and make everything they want their own, do as they will, which mostly causes distortion and harm to the land, to the creatures of nature and to the people without power. And because someone has to do it, it's the ones who have suffered who do what they can to ameliorate the damage. It's accurate, but I think what bothers me is that as Vernon writes these tales, it's just the way it is. There's no sense that it's not just the actions of the powerful, but the basic underlying dynamic that makes the powerless responsible for the work of mitigating the wrongs of other, is in itself wrong. There's just Grandma Harken, and the train-god priests, and the little girl who will be Grandma Harken's apprentice, who heroically shoulder the burdens that belong to others.

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China Mièville's novella This Census-Taker is a collection of mysteries, memories half-remembered, truths half-told, stories layered one on the other that may or may not be about the same thing, by the same person.

There was a boy, who lived with his mother and father on the side of a mountain, just above the main part of a town that spread across two hills. The boy learned to read from his mother, and learned to fear his father. A boy who saw something so terrible his mind could not encompass it, his tongue could not communicate it, his fellow townspeople could not believe him when he tried to explain it.

Later there was a man who was either a prisoner or a guest, who had three books to write, one in figures, one in words, one in secret.

There was a census taker, who came to the boy's house, and spoke to his father, and then took the boy away to become a trainee. And before him, there was another trainee, who disappeared leaving only a warning for the boy who came after her, who became the man writing the books.

There are no answers to any if the questions, the mysteries, the disappearances. There is only memory of what was seen and heard, but never known and understood.

It is an unsettling story, full of implied violence and without anything that feels like an end. But it stays with you.

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Kij Johnson's novella, "The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe" is in many ways a response to H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," in which the protagonist, a man named Raymond Carter, first sees a mysterious city in his dreams and then finds a way to transport himself to this dreamworld full of magical places and terrifying creatures, where he undertakes a journey to find the city of his visions.

Johnson has set her story in that dreamworld. Vellitt Boe, a professor at Ulthar Women's College, is awakened one night to learn that one of her finest students, Clarie Jurat, has eloped with a man from 'the waking world,' as the inhabitants of the Six Kingdoms of the dreamworld call our reality. Because she travelled extensively in her youth, and because she knew a man from the waking world once - a man who, it turns out, was Raymond Carter himself - and knows the location of one of the gates that allows people to travel physically between the worlds, Boe undertakes to follow Clarie and bring her back. The stakes are high - Clarie is the daughter of a high official of the College and a socially prominent society; the College, and higher education for women, is not universally supported, and if Clarie is not recovered, there is a good chance that the College will be closed because of its inability to protect its students from scandal and impropriety. But there is more. Boe discovers that Clarie is the granddaughter of a god, and that the petty politics of the gods of the dreamworld may result in the destruction of Ulthar itself, and perhaps other lands of the dreamworlds as well.

This story is both labour of love, and critique, of Lovecraft's novella. As Johnson notes in her brief acknowledgements, "I first read it at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it."

Where Lovecraft has a young male protagonist searching for a vision out of his dreams, Johnson gives us a middle-aged woman fulfilling her responsibilities to an institution that gave her position, place and standing in a world - as created by Lovecraft - without much room for women, and to her student.

In the end, both Boe and the dreamworlds are changed by her dream-quest and its resolution, in ways that subvert Lovecraft's sexist and elitist imaginings but hold onto the wonder.

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Brushwork, by Aliya Whiteley, is a novella set in a dystopic, climate-changed future where real food, grown in biodomes and greenhouses, is a luxury for the rich and a target for agro-terrorism.

Mel - so called because her production area is the melon section - is one of the workers at a BlossomFarms facility. Like many of the workers, she has lived in the domes for years, sleeping in dormitories, eating synthetic food, never tasting the fruits she grows for the conglomerate's wealthy customers. When agro-terrorists break into the biodome, taking the facilities hostage in the name of the people who have never tasted fruit, everything changes - except the fact that workers remain workers, and no matter who is in charge, the hierarchy never changes until the workers themselves decide what is important to them.

One thing in particular that I enjoyed about this was the age of the protagonist and her co-workers, and the acknowledgement of generational issues we see around us in the world today - older people who did everything they were supposed to do, and feel betrayed without knowing who to blame. And the youth, knowing they will not have what they think was the birthright of their parents and grandparents. Both betrayed by the wealthy and powerful, but somehow blaming each other instead.


Note: Brushwork can be found online at Giganotosaurus:
http://giganotosaurus.org/2016/05/01/brushwork/

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Heiresses of Russ 2015, edited by Jean Roberta and Steve Berman, collects some of the best "lesbian-flavoured" speculative short fiction from 2014. I've been reading these anthologies for several years now, and enjoying them for their woman-centred stories and queer imaginings.

While it's often true that there is some unevenness in a collection of short fiction, I found the stories in this year's anthology to be pretty much all of notable quality. But even in such a collection, there were some truly stand-out pieces for me, among them Ruthanna Emrys' "Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land," Ken Liu's "Knotting Grass, Holding Ring," and Susan Jane Bigelow's "Sarah's Child."



*This anthology contains 14 short stories, 10 written by women, 3 written by men and one written by a genderqueer person.

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Penric and the Shaman is the second novella in Lois McMaster Bujold's world of Five Gods subseries about the young demon-ridden divine. Several years have passed since Penric acquired the demon he calls Desdemona, and he has learned to work with both the altered perceptions and powers she gives him, and the personalities and memories of her ten previous hosts. He has come into his own as a sorcerer and a scholar, and has learned much about the nature of being a priest - and a priest of the trickster Bastard god at that.

All three aspects of his vocation are tested in this adventure. He is called on to assist Oswylt, a Locator of the Order of the Father, in his pursuit of a suspected murderer. The complication in this pursuit, which makes the presence of a demon-possessed sorcerer necessary, is that the suspect is a shaman, a practitioner of wild earth magic, who is himself possessed by the spirit of a Great Beast, and this possession gives him powers that can only be countered by a sorcerer's demon.

The pursuit of and eventual confrontation with the shaman Inglis is a test of Penric's abilities as sorcerer, scholar and priest - and it is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of the wild magic first seen in the novel The Hallowed Hunt, and how it relates to the religion of the Five Gods that has been so much a part of the other works set in this world.

The novella offers much - fine storytelling, growth and development of a character with great promise for many more stories, and a large amount of worldbuilding seamlessly integrated onto the story.

I've become quite fond of Penric and Desdemona, and am looking forward to reading about their further adventures.

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Rosemary and Rue, the first of Seanan McGuire's October Daye urban fantasy novels, starts off in a manner most uncharacteristic of the genre. Toby Daye, private investigator and half-fae changling, is tailing a fae lord suspected of kidnapping his brother's wife and daughter when she is caught and transformed into a koi. She spends the next 14 years swimming in a pond, her selfhood submerged in the limited mind of a fish.

Unlike many urban fantasy protagonists, Toby Daye doesn't always get away safely. That was the first thing that caught my attention and made me think this might be a cut above the masses of urban fantasy series on the market these days. Then there was the fact that rather than bouncing back ready to avenge her losses - years of her life, a relationship with a lover and a child who believe she abandoned them and want nothing to do with her, a sidhe mother who was slowly losing her mind when the transformation took place and is beyond reach by the time Toby breaks free of enchantment - she withdraws, repudiates everything of her former life, shows all the signs of PTSD you would expect from such an assault, such losses.

And then one of the Sidhe nobility, Evelyn Winters, also known as Evening Winterrose, Countess of Goldengreen someone Toby has known all her life, is murdered by cold iron, and her last act is to bind Toby with an ancient curse to stop at nothing to find her murderer.

The complexity of October Daye's world, encompassing faerie beings from multiple cultures, changelings, kingdoms anchored to the world but not wholly in it, and the politics of all these levels is fascinating, and watching Toby navigate all these realms - while still living in the world and dealing with jobs and rent and the human relationships severed when she was imprisoned in the body of a fish - is enough to engage the reader's interest. Add in the mystery of Evening's murder and the twists and turns of Toby's investigation, and you have a roaring good read.

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Kai Ashante Wilson's novella A Taste of Honey is a bittersweet story of love and loss, of sacrifices made for love, and the eternal question of what might have been.

Aqib bmg Sidiqi is a member of the minor royalty of
Great Olorum, is in training to follow his father as the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie. His family has great hopes for him, that he will marry well and raise their status, thus improving his warrior brother's chances of promotion and his scholarly sister's chances of making a good marriage herself.

But Aqib places all this at risk when he becomes the lover of Lucrio, a soldier with the diplomatic delegation from Daluça. In Olorum, sexual relationships between men are taboo and the penalty is death. Lucrio and Aqib fall passionately in love, just ten days before the delegation is due to leave.

The story unfolds in two times, the events of each night of their relationship interwoven with scenes from Aqib's future after Lucrio is gone, his marriage with a highborn royal woman, the childhood of their daughter Lucretia, his career with the Menagerie, all the things that he would have lost had he left Olorum to be with Lucrio.

But Wilson is not content with giving us just such a straightforward story, and nothing more, and in the end takes us much deeper into the realm of duty, sacrifice and love to an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. Beautifully and evocatively written.

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Seanan McGuire's novella Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a difference - it's about what life is like for those who cross into another world after the portal travelling is done, after the strange world beyond the magic door has changed their hearts and souls and then sent them back.

Eleanor West knows what it feels like to find your true home on the other side of the magic mirror, or at the bottom of the rabbit-hole. As a child, she wandered into another world not once but several times. Now a middle-aged woman, she runs a 'home for wayward children' - mostly girls - who have gone through a portal and returned, but can not move on. Most have been sent to Eleanor by their parents, who don't understand what their children have experienced, or why and how they have been changed. They want their children back as they were, and Eleanor tells them she can help them. But her real intention is to help the travellers accept that their portals are closed, that there is little chance of their ever opening again, and how to live in the mundane world with the knowledge of where they have been.

Nancy is one of these wayward girls. She has spent years of subjective time in a world she calls the Halls of the Dead, learning to be silent, motionless, a statue in black and white, until the Lord of the Dead sent her back. Her parents believe her to be the victim of a kidnapping, and send her to Eleanor West, to be healed. At first she is confused by the others she meets, all changed in different ways by the different worlds they have been to. She learns how the portal worlds are classified, of the axes of Logic and Nonsense, Virtue and Wickedness. And she begins to form wary relationships with some of the others. Kade, a trans boy cast out of the world he loved because it, like the mundane world, could not accept his gender. Her roommate Sumi, a noisy, colourful girl who is never still. Jack and Jill (identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian) who have been to a world of mad scientists and vampires.

When murder strikes, Nancy, and some of the other children whose portal worlds dealt with death, attempt to unravel the mystery before the authorities have cause to shut down the school.

Every Heart a Doorway is a strange and compelling tale, balanced between fantasy and horror, about difference and what people will do to find a place they can call home.

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Becky Chambers' new novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, is set in the same universe and time period as her break-out first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and shares some of its characters. The main protagonist is Lovelace, now called Sidra, the former AI of the tunnelling ship Wayfarer. In the previous novel, Lovelace decided to download herself into a humanoid artificial body, despite the legal penalty of termination of consciousness, and now, with the assistance of rogue tech Pepper, Lovelace is becoming Sidra.

As part of the acclimatisation process to her new human-shaped bodykit, Sidra has come to stay with Pepper and her partner/lover Blue, and to work as Pepper's shop assistant. As Pepper and Blue introduce Sidra to humaniform living, we feel every moment of Sidra's physical and psychological transition from ship-based AI to body-based consciousness - her discomfort, her feelings of sensory disorientation, her sense of being cut off from the information flow she lived in, her inability to control the sensory perceptions of a mobile body, all the details (as Chambers presents them) of how a ship-based AI perceives and how that maps onto the ways in which a body-based AI must learn to function.

A Closed and Common Orbit is not just the story of Sidra's adaptation to a humanoid body and a human way of being, however. Parallelling Sidra's present experiences as an AI becoming human, is Pepper's childhood as a child raised by AIs. Designated Jane 23, her ealiest memories are those of a cloned child labourer, living in a factory/workhouse under the supervision of robot taskmasters called Mothers, learning to process scrap technology. Jane knows only the Mothers and her fellow workers - her agemates, all named Jane, and those of the other cadres, each agegroup sharing one name, living regimented lives of work, exercise and sleep, never setting foot outside the rooms of the workhouse. When a freak explosion shows Jane the incomprehensible outside of ground and sky and endless piles of scrap tech waiting to be processed, her curiosity draws her out of the factory and into a desolate junkyard world of feral animals. She escapes thanks to Owl, the still-functional AI of a junked spaceship who takes her in and manages to teach her just enough about being a free human to survive off-world.

The concepts here - sentient AIs, artificial consciousness downloaded into bodies, ideas of personhood and family that don't distinguish between fleshed and coded beings - are nothing new in the world of science fiction. What delights is the interlinked stories of two women who don't fit in, don't belong, finding out who they are and making a place where both can be at home.

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Death's End, the conclusion to Liu Cixin's celebrated Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, is a multi-layered and complex tale that moves through both time and space to tell an epic story with a breathtaking scope in a translation by Ken Liu that handles both the nuances of fairy tales and the specifics of mathematical speculation with transparent skill

The core narrative is centred on the brilliantly innovative scientist Cheng Xin, and its beginning unfolds concurrently with the early years of the Wallfacer project, which was the focus of the second novel of the trilogy. While Luo Ji develops his understanding of the sociology of interstellar relations - the Dark Forest theory, that advanced civilisations will both hide their own existence, and destroy any developing civilisations that may become a threat - and its defensive corollory, dark forest deterrence, the threat of revealing to the universe the wherabouts of the Trisolaris system - Cheng Xin's early work is in the outward-looking Staircase Program, an attempt to accelerate a probe to a sufficient fraction of lightspeed that it will meet the Trisolaris Fleet, carrying a unique cargo, the brain of a human volunteer.

Cheng enters hibernation after the probe is launched, and wakes in the era of dark forest deterrence, an uneasy truce period between Earth and Trisolaris brought about by Luo Ji's discovery of the dark forest principle. Luo Ji has become the Swordholder, the person who will bear responsibility of releasing the signal that will transmit to the universe both the Trisolarian location, and Earth's, should the Trisolarians attempt to conquer Earth.

In a way, Cheng Xin's life from this point becomes the story of Earth's struggle with the idea of the dark forest, a contest of love and compassion against fear and destruction. She becomes the Swordholder, but when the Trisolarians act, she proves unable to do what will ultimately destroy both worlds.

As Cheng moves through the centuries, and eventually the millenia, through both hibernation and a series of relativistic incidents, the human race struggles for survival, for a path through and out of the dark forest - and in the process, the reader is presented with a cornucopia of ideas, theories, and concepts about everything from stellar mechanics to relativistic travel to multi-dimensional geometry, and all of it in the service of story.

Ultimately, the utter sterility and inevitable destructiveness of the dark forest is revealed, but Cheng, present even at the end of all things, manages to personify love and hope, sending a 'message in a bottle' that may alter the very nature of the universe to follow.

A stunning conclusion to a work of vast scope and intricate design, a sciencefictional masterpiece.

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Sooner or later, every author with strong opinions seems to find a publisher willing to collect and print a representative sample of those opinions. The View from the Cheap Seats is such a collection of assorted non-fiction writings by Neil Gaiman on a vast range of topics. As Gaiman says in the Introduction.

"This book is not “the complete nonfiction of Neil Gaiman.” It is, instead, a motley bunch of speeches and articles, introductions and essays. Some of them are serious and some of them are frivolous and some of them are earnest and some of them I wrote to try and make people listen. You are under no obligation to read them all, or to read them in any particular order. I put them into an order that felt like it made some kind of sense—mostly speeches and suchlike at the beginning, more personal, heartfelt writing at the end. Lots of miscellaneous writing, articles and explanations, about literature, film, comics and music, cities and life, in the middle."

It is not surprising that one of the themes that runs through much of the collected work is a love of books, of reading, of ideas. (Indeed, I've found this to be a common theme in many similar collections of essays and the like by authors of all genres.) Gaiman writes movingly about the importance of books, of reading, and of his own history with these things, how the books of his childhood and his experiences around the reading of them made him who he is. He writes about himself as reader and as writer, and how these are linked. He writes about genre, and story, and the power of myth.

Between having spent some time as a journalist, finding fandom early in life, and apparently being quite a social sort of chap, Gaiman seems to have met and in some cases had long and significant relationships with a fair few British writers and other industry people - and has been called on to prepare introductions both to their books and to their personal appearances at conventions and such. These collected pieces provide insights not only into the subjects, but in many cases, into Gaiman himself - and they are often funny and wise at the same time.

Gaiman's subjects range from science fiction and fantasy books and authors to film to music (with, quite understandably, several articles on the work of his wife Amanda Palmer) to comics (quite extensively, it's clear that he has a deep and abiding love for the artform). And on all of them, he has interesting things to say. If this is the view from the cheap seats, the show is well worth the price of admission.
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I wasn't sure what to expect from Paul Cornell's Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? - I knew it was the third in a series, and I don't usually like to jump into a series midstream, but it had received several recommendations as a potential Hugo nominee, and I do have a thing for Holmesiana, so I gave it a shot.

And discovered that this was definitely one of those situations where not reading the previous books affected my appreciation of the story and my understanding of the characters and their motivations.

The premise of the series, as I understand it from this text, is that there is an "occult London," a layer of London society where people with powers and/or access to magical items go about doing all sorts of occult things, including committing crimes, and solving them. The protagonists are members of the branch of the London police who investigate occult crimes.

Several of these people have been involved in traumatic and in some cases still on-going events that influence their actions and create sub-plots as they go about solving the current crime. And overshadowing everything are the reverberations of a catastrophic event, the memory of which has been erased from the minds of everyone connected, that has thrown the hidden London into disarray.

The current crime, unfolding on both mundane and occult levels, is indeed the murder of Sherlock Holmes. In the mundane world, someone is killing people who have, at some point in their lives, portrayed Holmes - and more, they are being killed in locations and manners very similar to murder cases from the canon set in London. At the same time, the detectives from the occult branch gifted with Sight have witnessed the apparent murder of a "ghost" of Holmes, and all their evidence suggests that these crimes are not only linked, but are part of a ritual that may result in massive consequences for London on all levels. And so, the game is afoot.

I enjoyed the Sherlockian aspects of the story, but at least initially, did not identify with the characters or their overall situations. Perhaps if I'd read the other volumes first my reaction would have been different.

The characters did grow on me as I read further, and I was happy to see what degree of resolution was achieved, but I've little inclination to go back and read the previous books, or to continue with the series.

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Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, the first volume of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, is a mindfuckingly brilliant piece of work.

It is a story told many times before, of rebellion and war and political intrigue and the battle for hearts and minds, but never told in such a casually alien way. Lee drops us into a universe that does not work the way ours does, a universe built not on physics and facts, but mathematics and belief, into a political environment where a rebellion in which a heretical calendar that has been adopted in one captured fortress changes the way that technology works in the space around it, where the essential skills needed to fight the rebels are not just leadership, tactics, and battle skills, but intuitive mathematics and the ability to think flexibly while maintaining total loyalty to the ruling hexarchate and the consensus reality enforced by the orthodox calendar and the rituals that derive from it and structure every aspect of life.

Kel Cheris - Kel being her designation as one of six personality types recognised by the hexarchy - is that rare person, a battle commander who can function with originality within the rigidity of her society, who can recalculate the equations that shape reality within a hair's breadth of heresy without crossing the line.

But Cheris is young, and has never commanded a large scale operation. To face the calendrical rot spreading out from the rebel base in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Cheris will need the strategic skills and experience of a long dead mad general whose consciousness has been preserved, whose advice can only be accessed by grafting his personality to her own - and whose secret agenda may result in her destruction.

I can not begin to give the alienness of the hexarchate's universe a fair description. The book must be read, the universe entered wholeheartedly, to experience what Lee has done in his worldbuilding in this novel. Yet at the same time, the humanity and depth of the characters makes the strangeness real, even if it is never quite understood.

A truly astounding first novel.

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Sarah Tolmie's latest book, Two Travelers, is a collection, just barely - it contains two separate works, a novelette, "The Dancer on the Stairs," and a novella, "The Burning Furrow." Both are stories of travellers, people caught between worlds, coming to terms with being out of place in the the place they find themselves.

"The Dancer on the Stairs" is about a woman, possibly from a world much like ours, who finds herself transported to a palace so vast and complex it is a world in itself. Confined at first by her lack of knowledge and status to the vast staircase that connects the various levels of the palace - where she finds many others, all exiles without the status or means to influence the doorkeeper stationed at each level to let them return - she slowly learns enough about the intricate and protocol-driven society beyond the stairs to gain entrance and place, though she is never truly one of them.

In "The Burning Furrow", a man called Eyo't finds himself moving between worlds - our own, modern world, and the world of his birth, where his people are oppressed and he is part of a resistance movement. He can bring other people with him, and so he has taken his family - wife, son and daughter - from his world to ours, where they own a restaurant and have access to education and medical care. Yet he continues to cross back and forth, bringing his family home with him at regular intervals for the rite that binds his people together. Events and new relationships formed in both worlds eventually force him, and the members of his family, to make choices about which world is theirs. At the same time, through her connection with Eyo't, the countess Ienne, a member of the ruling class on Eyo't's world, crosses the lines between class and culture.

Both stories are excellent, thoughtful pieces about making the best of changes one cannot control, adapting to new realities, learning to be at home despite being always the outsider.

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What a joy it is to read anything by Ursula Le Guin. In this instance, the "anything" is a collection of non-fiction writing - occasional pieces, book reviews, forewords to other people's books, essays on writing and writers and life. Given the somewhat lengthy title and subtitle of Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 with A Journal of a Writer’s Week, this collection is a smorgasbord of delights from one of the finest writers and clearest thinkers of our time.

The essays presented here are collected into three sections. The first, titled Talks, Essays and Occasional Pieces, offers exactly what it suggests. Most of these essays deal in one way or another with writing, publishing, writers, books. About genre vs. "literature" and the effects of the new media on reading - she is optimistic about the future of the book, in some form or other.

One essay that does not focus on the worlds of words - her account of choosing to terminate a pregnancy during her university years, well before Roe v. Wade, and the importance of being able to make that choice - was difficult to read. In it, she says: "I can hardly imagine what it’s like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe vs. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime." But I could not stop thinking about the very real possibility that American women will face that reality again.

The second section, Book Introductions and Notes on Writers, contains an assortment of mostly commissioned pieces in which she briefly discusses - as is appropriate for an introduction to the text - authors and books she respects and loves. From Huxley's Brave New World to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic to Vonda McIntyre's Dreansnake, Le Guin's insights into these books are both profound and inviting.

The final essay section of the book collects Le Guin's critical reviews, most of which were published in the Manchester Guardian. These reviews cover books both literary and genre, by such authors as Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Doris Lessing, Salmon Rushdie, Jo Walton, Jeannette Winterson and others. Le Guin's critical eye is discerning and unflinching and she delivers both praise and critique with thoughtful analysis.

The last section of the book consists of journal entries made by Le Guin during a week spent at a writers' retreat for women. In her introduction to the journal, she talks about the practice of gender segregated events:

"I hold it self-evident that so long as we live in a man’s world, as we still do, women have a right to create enclaves of learning or work where, instead of obeying or imitating what men do and want, women can shape what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, in their own way and on their own terms. No enclave is the whole reality, no exclusivity is entirely rightful, but when a great injustice prevails, any opportunity of counteracting it, undoing it even temporarily, is justified. Intellect and art have been so wholly owned by men, and that ownership so fiercely maintained, that no woman can assume society will simply grant her a rightful share in them. Many women still find it difficult, even frightening, to name themselves thinkers, makers, to say I am a scholar, a scientist, an artist. A place where such fear has no place, and a period of time given purely to doing one’s own work, is for many men a perfectly reasonable expectation, for many women an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime gift."

In her journal she writes about the environment of the retreat - the natural world around her, the animals she observes - and about the other people in residence during her week's visit. She talks about the writing, the reading, the thinking and the drawing that she does. It is a small window into the creative process of a great artist under 'ideal' conditions - solitude, no distractions, nothing to dilute the flow of ideas and words.

All four sections of the book highlight slightly different aspects of Le Guin the wordsmith - the thinker, the lover of literature, the critic, the artist, while serving to demonstrate the truth of the volume's title - words are her matter, and her opinions and insights are, as always, well worth reading and thinking on.

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"The Great Detective," Delia Sherman; tor.com, February 17, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/17/the-great-detective-delia-sherman/

Steampunk and spiritualism, in an alternate literary universe where noted mechanical inventor Sir Arthur Cwmlech and his apprentice Miss Tacy Gof turn to colleague Mycroft Holmes and his masterwork the Reasoning Machine to solve a mysterious theft. A young Doctor Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan, seeks a new life as an inventor. All that is missing from the tale is the Great Detective himself - and if he does not yet exist, then surely someone will have to invent him. A light and witty tale that should appeal to fans of Holmes and the steampunk genre alike.

"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," Brooke Bolander; Uncanny magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

This was a short piece, essentially flash fiction, a stunning gut-punch. Hard to read, hard to breathe afterward. Searing and powerful indictment of male entitlement and rape culture.


"Seasons of Glass and Iron," Amal El-Motar; first published in The Starlit World (2016), reprinted online at Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/seasons-glass-iron/

There are many fairy tales about women. Women who must do impossible things, or accept impossible circumstances, because of men. Men who say they love them, men who want to test them, men who want to woo and win them. Sometimes, though, these women walk out of those tales and live their own lives instead, creating new kinds of tales.


"Lullaby for a Lost World," Aliette de Bodard; Tor.com, June 8, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/06/08/lullaby-for-a-lost-world/

De Bodard has said that of this story that it is "a sort of answer to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (one of my absolute favourite short stories)." It is very much a story about the prices paid for security, stability, and the like - and who makes the decisions on what prices are acceptable, and who pays those prices. A worthy counterpart to the story that inspired it.


"Things with Beards," Sam J. Miller; Clarkesworld, June 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/miller_06_16/

A meditation on monsters and how they walk undetected in the world, both the monsters and evil aliens of speculative fiction (the backstory of the protagonist evokes the classic sf/horror film The Thing), and the monsters that have always been a part of the human race, the callous, the cruel, the killers of those who are labeled less than human.


"You'll Surely Drown Here if You Stay," Alyssa Wong;
Uncanny Magazine, May 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/youll-surely-drown-stay/

A young boy with an uncanny heritage to communicate with, and control, the dead is forced to use his powers for the greed of others. A supernatural Western with a deep friendship that survives dead and retribution at its heart.


"An Ocean the Color of Bruises," Isabel Yap; Uncanny Magazine, July 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/ocean-color-bruises/

Five young people, former college friends, take a vacation together to a second-class resort with a tragic past. When that past awakens, the quality of their own lives is called into question.


"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflower," Alyssa Wong; Tor.com, March 2, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/02/a-fist-of-permutations-in-lightning-and-wildflowers-alyssa-wong/

A story about two sisters with unimaginable power, the depth of grief and guilt, and the futility of trying to change the past. Deep truths about grieving, accepting and moving on - and the tragedy of refusing to do so.


"Red in Tooth and Cog," Cat Rambo; originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2016, republished online February 21, 2017
http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/2017/02/21/story-red-in-tooth-and-cog/

A young woman frequenting a park has her phone stolen by an unlikely culprit, leading her to discover a new ecosystem in development. An interesting perspective on the definitions of life.


“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 17, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/blood-grains-speak-through-memories/

Sanford's novelette is set in what seems to be a far distant future, long after the ecological disasters of pollution and the exploitation of natural resources have resulted in massive social change and, one infers, biological engineering on a vast scale. The land is infused with "grains" - semi-sentient beings, possibly organic, possibly cybernetic, it's never made clear - that infect people thereafter known as anchors - who are responsible for protecting the land and its ecosystems. Anyone not part of an anchor's family is doomed to a nomadic existence, destroyed by the anchors and other beings created/controlled by the grains if they tarry to long in one place, or injure the land in any way. Frere-Jones is an anchor dissatisfied with the way the grains control the anchors and limit the lives of the nomadic day-fellows. Her husband, who shared her opinions, was killed by the grains, and if they could replace her, Frere-Jones suspects the grains would kill her too.

I was both intrigued and dissatisfied with this novelette. I enjoyed the themes of rebellion and of sacrifice, but I was frustrated at knowing so little about the grains, the biomorphing of the anchors, and how it all came to be that way. Perhaps a longer format might have allowed more worldbuilding.

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N. K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate continues from the point where The Fifth Season left off, but where the first novel told the story of its protagonist Essun at three different points in time, The Obelisk Fate us divided between Essun in the present, and her missing daughter.

Both Essun and Nassun are powerful orogenes - people with the ability to perceive and manipulate various form of energy, often to deadly and devastating effect. For Essun, trained in the limited ways of the Fulcrum - the order of orogenes used and controlled by the former government - and for Nassun, virtually untrained save for the skills Essun was able to teach her before the breaking of the world, the focus is on discovery - of their abilities, of the nature of orogeny, of the task that only they, out of all the surviving orogenes, may be able to fulfil.

As Essun attempts to become part of the underground community of Castrima, and to come to terms with the fact that her former teacher and lover, Alabaster, caused the massive destruction that threatens to end the world as she knows it, the novel moves back a little in time to follow the journey of her daughter Nassun, as her father follows a vague rumour that somewhere there is a place where orogenes can be cured.

In Castrima, Essun learns from the dying Alabaster, from the rogue orogene Ykka, from the stone eater Hoa. In a Fulcrum outpost far to the south, Nassun encounters, not a cure, but a community of Guardians (one of the keepers, trainers, and controllers of Fulcrum orogenes) and orogenes.

In The Obelisk Gate we learn more about the history of the world that Essun and Nassun inhabit, the interrelationships between the three kinds of human - stillminds, orogenes, and stone eaters, and the true purpose of the mysterious obelisks that hover above the surface of the planet. But there is still much to discover, and both Essun and Nassun have much still to learn, and far to journey.

Jemisin continues to be brilliant. I am eager now for the third volume.

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I must confess that I had not, until now, read any of Carrie Fisher's memoirs or novels (at least some if which, I understand, are semi-autobiographical in nature). I am not an avid consumer of biographies or personal narratives of popular entertainment figures unless they have some other element to recommend them - a commitment to political action, say, or an unusual life experience, a career that contains some piece of work that affected me deeply or a particular gift for their craft.

However, the confluence of Fisher's untimely death and the publication of a memoir focused on her experiences filming Star Wars and inhabiting the very public image of Princess Leia impelled me to read Princess Diarist.

Fisher's style is light and easy to read without sacrificing perception or wit, and I thought that sections of the book that were taken from her original diaries, while overwrought in that "young woman on the threshold of everything" way that many of us probably remember all too well, contained flashes of her mature gift and showed some degree of insight and introspection amidst the angst.

I found her general observations on being trapped in an iconic role more interesting than all the business about her affair with Harrison Ford - unfortunately, there is much more of the latter than there is of the former. But then, I read bios of Laurence Olivier for insight into his acting process, not his relationship with Vivien Leigh. I'm odd that way.

It is, despite Fisher's light touch in the sections written by her mature self, a sad book, and one that bears witness to the utter wrongness of the sexual politics of the time (not that it's all that much better now). The early diaries reveal an intelligent, talented and witty young woman who cannot find a way to respect herself. The present day matter that bookends those diaries is a strange mix - wise and a little world-weary in speaking about the nature of celebrity, but oddly lacking in a feminist perspective on her younger self's issues with self-esteem, body image and sexual experiences.

The older Fisher, looking back, tells a disturbing story of the young Fisher and the start of her relationship with Harrison Ford without batting an eye. She recounts being the only woman at a party full of older men, being pressured into drinking far more than she is used to. As she becomes more and more inebriated, the men around her speak about her as a piece of meat, reducing her to an available sexual orifice - a scenario that screams prelude to gang rape. And when Ford intervenes, one breathes relief for only the minute it takes to read on about how he bustles her into a cab and has sex with her in the back seat. And this is the beginning of the affair that generates so much pain for her that it oozes off the pages of her younger self's diaries and poems. One wishes for the older Fisher to present some insight into this dynamic, but the closest she comes to this is to say:

"If Harrison was unable to see that I had feelings for him (at least five, but sometimes as many as seven) then he wasn’t as smart as I thought he was—as I knew he was. So I loved him and he allowed it. That’s as close a reckoning as I can muster four decades later."

I will always treasure the character Fisher created for us, both in the first Star Wars trilogy and in her return to the role some 40 years later, but her recollections and musings on the circumstances surrounding that creation saddened me more than anything else.

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