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2017-05-18 01:54 am

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Black Panther Vol. 1


Ta-Nehisi Coates' re-imagining of the black comic hero the Black Panther, is thoughtful, exciting, deeply political, and - sadly - too much for Marvel and its core readers, as the series has been cancelled. But we will have what Coates has already done with the series, as a testament to what hero comics can be.

Vol 1 of Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, delivers us into a country in great turmoil. Previous writers - as I learn from various summaries on the Internet - have left the series a legacy of contradictions and tragedies. The country of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African society largely hidden from the rest of the world, ruled by a long line of absolute monarchs with mystical powers able to become the Black Panther. An orphaned king who left his people to be a superhero to the outside world, bringing the destructive wrath of evil supervillains down on the country he left in the hands of others.

Coates begins with a Wakanda in chaos. Unrest, rebellion, revolution threaten. The king, T'Challa, is here no wise and benevolent king, but a confused and conflicted man, not understanding why his people are at war with each other, and with him. The first novel casts T'Challa as, in fact, the 'bad guy' by default, because of his lack of comprehension, his lack of connection to his people. The various rebels seem on the side of good - especially the two renegade warriors Ayo and Aneka. Formerly members of the king's elite, all-female bodyguard (shades of the Dahomey warrior-wives of the king), they have become vigilantes fighting against a brutal leader in northern Wakanda whose regime is one of enslavement and rape of women. It is in this subplot that we most clearly see that T'Challa - and his advisors and military leaders and others of the royal faction - are completely out of touch with the situation of the people, and trapped in an out-moded mythos in which the king's word is unquestioned law, and tradition outweighs true justice. If T'Challa is to learn to become both leader and hero, he has a long way to go.

The artwork, by Brian Stelfreeze, is strong and powerful, with appropriate touches of a softer and more mystical style when the subject matter demands it.

I will be reading all there is of this Black Panther, and sorrowing when the story comes to its untimely end.

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2017-05-06 04:21 am

Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London


Peter Grant is a probationary constable with the London police. He wants to be a detective one day, but his superiors see his future to lie in the realms of data entry - desk support for the coppers out on the street so they don't drown in paper work. Then, one night as he's standing guard on a crime scene, a witness comes forward with an account of the murder - the only problem is that Grant can't do anything with the information, because his witness is a ghost.

Thus begins Rivers of London, the first volume of Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy detective series. As is the common conceit in this subgenre, there is a secret branch of the police tasked with the investigation of crimes with a supernatural aspect - though the wrinkle here is that, in the belief that science is making the notion of having sorcerers on the police force obsolete, there's only one active member of the supernatural investigations unit, Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and he's not welcomed by other senior investigators when he shows up.

But after he sees the ghost witness, Grant is approached by Nightingale and invited to become his apprentice, and the first new member of the supernatural investigations unit in a vey long time. Rivers of London is the story of Grant's first experiences with the magical and mystical side of police work, and his early days as an apprentice sorcerer.

As using magic seems to do things like short out modern technology, Grant is forced to turn to a colleague and friend, Constable Lesley May, for access to regular sources of information such as surveillance footage and police databases. May seems to take Grant's entry into the world of sorcery in stride, so much so that she's more or less acknowledged by her governor (Britcop speak for senior officer) as a liaison to the sorcery unit.

One thing I liked very much about Rivers of London that I don't always find in detective stories, fantasy or mundane, set in London is an acknowledgement of the multiracial makeup of the city. Grant himself is of mixed racial background, and in a marvellous comment on the ways that generations of immigration from former colonial holdings have changed the city, the current physical vessel of the spirit of Mother Thames is a black woman who understands her metaphysical circumstances within the framework of West African religious tradition.

I also enjoyed the way that Aaronovitch makes use of the history of London, from its early days as a Roman camp to the founding of the Bow Street Runners, weaving small threads from the enormous tapestry that is the two-thousand year story of London into the narrative.

In fact, I enjoyed Rivers of London and am rather intrigued to see where the next volume takes Peter Grant, and us.

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2017-05-02 11:49 pm

Max Gladstone: Two Serpents Rise


Two Serpents Rise, the second volume in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, continues to blend of fantasy and suspense in a world where religion and Craft - faith and magic - are sometimes complementary, and sometimes drastically opposed. In the first volume, we saw religion and Craft co-existing in relative harmony, in a city controlled by a god but depending on Craft to assess the situation when things go terribly wrong. In this installment, a practitioner of Craft fought with and destroyed a god, taking control of the territory it ruled for himself, driving the old priests underground. Where the god of Alt Coloumb was a relatively benign god, asking only the standard tribute of prayer and devotion, the gods in this case were of the sort that demanded ritual sacrifice, living hearts cut from human bodies and offered to the gods. The King in Red, the Craftsman who killed the gods, lost his lover to the altar stone.

The setting is the vast city of Dresediel Lex, built in the desert, dependent on the Craft of Red King Consolidated, its leading Concern - a magical conglomerate of people, energies and legal bindings - to supply the water its people need to survive. In order to expand its power base, RKC is on the midst of negotiations to merge with Heartstone, another Concern that manipulates the energies of two bound and sleeping demi-gods who take the shape of giant serpents.

When one of the the main reservoirs the city relies on is magically infested with tzimet, monsters that could poison the water and kill millions, Caleb Altemoc, one of RKC's risk management team, is called in to deal with the situation and ensure that it does not damage negotiations with Heartstone. He has several suspects to follow up on: the old priests, who have been waging guerilla warfare against the new order, and whose leader, the firmer high priest, is Caleb's father; and a mysterious 'cliff runner' - the ultimate in parkour - named Mal, who turns out to be a senior official with Heartstone. The problem is, both insist they are innocent. As incidents threatening the water supply multiply, it's up to Caleb to discover the truth behind them. And save the city.

It took me a little longer to get into this novel than the previous one in the series, probably because of the father-son conflict - it is such a common trope that I've developed a bit of an allergy to it through overexposure. But as the story developed and other layers were added, I became quite happily engaged with the story and its themes.

And I'm becoming quite intrigued with the ideas that Gladstone is working with in these novels. So far, in addition to the obvious question of the role and importance of faith in human nature, there are definite issues of the nature of good governance and the way that people, governments, financial systems and ecologies are interconnected. The legal language of the Craft and the flows of energy, devotion and 'soulstuff' in the novels are literalisations of the way that multiple systems in societies, and multiple societies, are entwined and affect one another. Very interesting stuff.

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2017-04-30 11:15 pm

G. Willow Wilson: Ms. Marvel volumes 3 and 4



I read Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, written by G. Willow Wilson, two years ago when it was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Graphic Story category. I enjoyed it, and read Vol. 2, and then sort of stopped.

The thing with Ms. Marvel and me is that I find the action parts of the stories kind of boring. What
I enjoy is the inbetween things, the glimpses of her homelife, the depiction of her internal struggles over heritage, culture and religion vs. living in a secular American city, over being a teenager with parents and an older brother and school to deal with vs. being a superhero and trying to fight evil. I enjoy watching her grow up - she is only 16 - and learn the lessons all people must learn, only writ large because her powers have made her larger than life in certain ways.

So I skimmed the comics, paying more attention to her relationships and internal growth than I do to the other stuff. And now it's time to catch up, because Vol. 5 has been nominated for a Hugo, which meant going back to read Vol. 3 and Vol. 4. In these volumes, the personal lessons have been integrated a bit more solidly into the plot, so I enjoyed reading these stories a bit more than the earlier ones.

In Vol. 3, Kamala meets Kamran, the son of old friends of her parents, and at first he seems perfect - they have so much in common, and he too turns out to be an Inhuman. The early warning signs are subtle, but then, abusers are often charming and hide their true natures well. By the time Kamala understands what he really is, he has used his powers to abduct her, imprison her, and try to force her to become a follower of an Inhuman called Lineage. He succeeds for a while in making Kamala feel guilty and at fault for what he's done to her, but when she realises just how much he is on the wrong side, she pulls herself together and kicks butt.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 4 is a bit of a change of pace, almost a sideline to something that is going on in the larger Marvel universe - the Incursion, we learn from Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, and the end of the world, and other huge stuff - but for Ms. Marvel, it's about smaller, more personal things. Meeting and briefly working with her hero Carol Danvers. Saving her brother Aamir from Kamran, who wants to turn him into an inhuman to reinstate himself in Lineage's good graces. Coming out to her mother as Ms. Marvel. Mending bridges with old friends, and classmates. And confronting the emotional bonds between her and Bruno. I enjoyed this the most of all the Ms. Marvel stories so far, precisely because it's about these things, and the superhero action arc is going on somewhere else, with other superheroes taking point.

And now I'm caught up with Ms. Marvel and ready to read Vol. 5 for the Hugos.

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2017-04-30 06:52 pm

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda: Monstress Vol 1 - The Awakening



I keep meaning to read more graphic novels, but somehow it's mostly during the Hugo season that I actually do, and that's because of the Best Graphic Story category. I've enjoyed several of the specific volumes I've read for the Hugos, but somehow I rarely follow up on the multi-part stories.

Monstress Volume 1: The Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, is another of those graphic novels that was enjoyable while reading - though also deeply disturbing - but I'm not at all certain I'll be continuing to read it (unless more volumes are nominated for Hugos in future years). Not because it isn't a good story, because it is. But after lots if attempts, I've come to understand that I shy away from reading graphic novels because it is physically difficult fir me, and few stories are compelling enough to override that.

Some of those who read these reviews know that I have severe multiple chemical sensitivities and am bedbound due to multiple disabilities. What this means is that I can't read anything printed on paper - it's too toxic for me, especially paper with lots of ink, like graphic novels. So everything I read must be electronic. But because I spend all my tine lying in bed, everything I read, I read on an iPad. Any other device is too heavy. And I have arthritis and poor eyesight. There's no reader out there that allows me to read graphic novels without a lot of pinching and swiping around each page to get all the important dialogue and visual detail. And by the time I've read a few pages, my fingers and my eyes hurt. So.... I tend to shy away from graphic novels. Nonetheless, I will do my best to read those nominated and not let my circumstances bias me against the medium. So.... On with my thoughts on Monstress.

Visually, Monstress is a stunning piece of work - intricately drawn, dense but never 'busy,' a feast for the eyes. Takeda blends artistic traditions to create marvellous images, though she is at her best with inanimate subjects - architectural designs and atmospheric backgrounds, clothing, machines, furniture, and so on. Her living characters seem curiously unfinished, rather like dolls.

The narrative is complex and disturbing, set in a post-war, almost post-apocalyptic world where two enemy civilisations, still opposed but not actively at war, appear to be recovering from a cataclysmic event. On one side, the human federation in which considerable power lies with the all-female sorcerer-scientist order of the Cumaea; on the other, the non-human Arcanes, rumoured to have access to powers or beings known as the monstrum.

The story focuses on Maika, an Arcanic, a former slave of the Federation, living with other escapees and dispossessed arcanics in a sort of demilitarised zone between the two nations. She possesses powers she cannot use at will or control, though they appear when she is in great distress. She is connected in some way to the catastrophic event that ended open warfare between humans and arcanics. And she is seeking the truth about her mother and herself, a truth that she believes can only be found among the Cumaea.

At the beginning of the story, Maika has allowed herself to be captured and enslaved by humans. She and several other Arcanics, all children, have been claimed by the Cumaea as slaves, but from almost the beginning it is clear that the Cumaea - like other humans - see the Arcanes as animals and so fit subjects both for torture by those who seek pleasure in the children's pain, and scientific experimentation by those who seek to know more about the Arcanes and their power.

The story is hard to read, even harder to look at. Takeda's brilliant artwork is often used to portray scenes of humiliation, torture, vivisection, and violence. In an afterword to the first issue, Liu talks about the genesis of the story in her grandparents' memories of war and xenophobic hatred and violence - based on timing, I'm guessing her grandparents would have been survivors of the invasion of China by Imperial Japan, or both. Malka is a refugee, an orphan, an escaped slave, an amputee, a victim of war and violence and racial hatred, and she carries within her the power to wreak vengeance, or to simply spread violence indiscriminately as survivors of trauma often do. She has the capacity to be a monster, and it stems from her suffering and pain. It's one hell of a story, relevant in all times of violence and war, about what these all too common pursuits of humanity can do to our souls.
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2017-04-29 08:09 am

Max Gladstone: Three Parts Dead


The world of Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence fantasy novels is a unique one, where black magic, religion and law are intertwined, and the practices of both faith and Craft rely on a structure of legal contracts that bind both human and divine energies. There are real gods (though not so many as there once were, since the God Wars) whose obligations to and receipt of devotion from followers are bound by contracts, contracts to grant power in return for worship. Craftsmen and Craftswomen are magician-lawyers who use their own human energies to work magic, and who are called on to execute, negotiate, record, oversee, and when necessary litigate contract issues involving both humans and gods. Using the language of law, with its complexity and precision, to describe and constrain transactions of magical and divine power reminded me of Diane Duane's Young Wizards books, where a kind of symbolic mathematics is used in much the same way.

Three Parts Dead is the first novel written in the universe of the Craft, but not the first chronologically. However, Gladstone informs his readers that the novels can all stand alone - and the fact that he has built such a following of fans while writing the books out of chronological order supports this - so I'm exploring the series in publication order.

Just as Gladstone's Craft universe is a unique blend of magic and law, Three Parts Dead is a fusion of fantasy and the kind of legal thriller one expects from a John Grisham. Criminal investigation, interrogation of witnesses, following up on clues, and courtroom strategies mingle with magicians, gargoyles, vampires and gods.

Kirkus Reviews summarised the basic premise of the novel more succinctly than I could: "The God Kos has died in the city Alt Coulumb, and the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao has been tasked by the Church to resurrect the god before panic and chaos causes the city to inevitably collapse upon itself. First-year associate Craftswoman Tara Abernathy and her senior-partner boss, Elayne Kevarian, travel to Alt Coulumb to bring the god back to life only to find out that Kos was, in fact, murdered. Tara leads the murder investigation, aided by Abelard, a chain-smoking priest, and his friend Cat, a junkie-cum-policewoman. As the trio navigates the ups and downs of Alt Coulumb, they are immersed in its history, politics and religious system." (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/max-gladstones-delightfully-misleading-three-parts/)

Gladstone's prose sings, carrying the reader deep into his world of gods and Craft. His characters are for the most part strongly realised and well-developed - though the villain of the piece came across as a bit too much of a mustache-twirling megalomanic. The plot is wonderfully twisted, with unexpected turns and sudden reversals and all the trappings of a superior suspense thriller. And the conclusion is quite satisfying. I'm looking forward to further exploration of the Craft Sequence.

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2017-04-28 08:52 pm

James S. A. Corey: Leviathan Wakes


Recently, I've been thinking I was probably the only person in sff fandom who hadn't read The Expanse novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) - particularly following the success of the TV series based on them, which I have been watching and enjoying. But then the series showed up on the Hugo nominee list, and the second season of the series ended with some of my favourite characters in really hard-to-wait-for cliffhanger situations, so, I have two very good reasons to read the series.

The first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes, is an interesting mix of classic space opera, hard-boiled detective noir, and political thriller. Given its beginnings as an MMORPG, it's not surprising that the worldbuilding is complex and detailed. The politics - from the unified Earth government to the rebellious Belter-based OPA - are well developed and realistic, and the places - Earth, a partly terraformed Mars, Lunar settlements, communities of anywhere from thousands to millions of inhabitants wormed into asteroids, and facilities on several of the outer planet moons - are fully realised, distinct entities, with their own characters, cultures, backgrounds and goals.

Navigating all of this is the hardest-luck group of misfit spacers I've seen in a long time. Before we're more than a few chapters in, James Holden, former XO of a belt-based ice-hauler and his faithful companions Naomi, Amos and Alex have had two ships blown to bits around them, inherited a state of the art battleship that's going to make them magnets for risky ventures, and stumbled into a mysterious secret that will tear apart the fragile balance of power of the entire solar system. Later on, they are joined - for a while - by Miller, a cynical cop on the way down obsessed with a missing woman named Julie Mao who just happens to be a key part of the mystery that's haunted - or cursed - Holden and his crew.

That mystery is an alien organic substance capable of manipulating biomass according to its internal programming - whatever that might have been. Seeded inside an icy rock two billion years ago by an unknown civilisation and sent to land on earth for reasons unknown, it ended up instead in orbit around Saturn when its vehicle was captured by gravity and became the satellite that humans would call Phoebe. It is eventually found and exploited by by Protogen Corporation - who named it the protomolecule - who hope to develop it into a salable weapon. Their 'research' ultimately leads to the deaths - or something perhaps worse - of millions of Belter 'test subjects' - among them, Julie Mao - in an attempt to understand and change the protomolecule's programming.

As Holden, his crew, and Miller follow the trail and learn more about the protomolecule and the actions of Protogen, the mission becomes not just keeping all-out war from erupting across the solar system, but protecting humanity from the the alien protomolecule and those who want to use it fir their own purposes.

The plot is tight and full of twists and excitement, the authors take care to seem scientifically plausible, and the action set-pieces are varied and imaginative. Where the book falls down is in characterisation and writing. There are some moments where the essence of the characters shines through, but it's infrequent and inconsistent. And the writing is for the most part pedestrian, at times even a touch clunky.

The story is so far more than enough to keep me reading, and wanting to know where it's all going, but the getting there sometimes feels a bit like slogging. I'm hoping that the later novels will be a bit improved in terms of technique, because I'm hooked on the plot.

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2017-04-26 08:45 pm

Seanan McGuire: A Local Habitation


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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2017-04-26 12:10 pm

Short Fiction: April 26 2017



"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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2017-04-25 08:32 pm

China Mièville: This Census-Taker


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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2017-04-25 06:49 pm

Kij Johnson: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe


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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2017-04-24 08:45 pm

Aliya Whiteley: Brushwork



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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2017-04-24 06:45 pm

Anthology: Heiresses of Russ 2015



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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2017-04-24 11:20 am

Lois McMaster Bujold: Penric and the Shaman



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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2017-04-24 12:20 am

Seanan McGuire: Rosemary and Rue



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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2017-04-23 06:39 pm

Kai Ashante Wilson: A Taste of Honey


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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2017-04-23 11:56 am

Seanan McGuire: Every Heart a Doorway



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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2017-04-23 01:38 am

Becky Chambers: A Closed and Common Orbit


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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2017-04-22 12:21 pm

Liu Cixin: Death's End


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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2017-04-18 01:38 pm

Neil Gaiman: The View from the Cheap Seats


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.