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2017-08-20 08:55 pm

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Robert Silverberg: Traveler of Worlds



Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Robert Silverberg, is one of the nominees for the 2017 Hugo awards in the Related Works category. It is a collection of interviews on a variety of subjects conducted by Zinos-Amaro with legendary sf writer Robert Silverberg.

In the Preface, Zinos-Amaro tells us that he became a devoted fan of Silverberg's work when he was still a teenager, an admiration that led to correspondence, then friendship, then a collaboration of sorts, in which Zinos-Amaro completed an unfinished novella by Silverberg, When the Blue Shift Comes. This long association, Zinos-Amaro suggests, was invaluable in helping him frame the interviews, based on his knowledge of Silverberg the writer snd Silverberg the man.

"Thus, while it is true in a literal sense that the conversations comprising Traveler of Worlds unfolded over four weekends in 2015, they were informed and shaped by years of deep, abiding curiosity about Silverberg’s art and life, his experiences, his attitudes and beliefs."

Each of the seven interviews is directed around a theme, but conducted with sufficient flexibility to embrace a variety of related thoughts. The first interview, titled "The Vividness of Landscape," explores Silverbergc's experiences as a world traveller, and how these influenced his work.

The next interview, "Aesthetics," which is one of the largest sections of the book, looks at Silverberg's ideas about writing as an artform - influences, theories, approaches to the structure and realisation of story, craft and technique - and art in general, from painting to opera, landscaping to film. The interview also devotes considerable time to Silverberg's assessment of many of the great writers of literature, including a longish discourse on various translations of Verne's works.

"In the Continuum" is a discussion of day-to day life for Silverberg, retired writer. In talking about his daily activities - professional, personal, and those shared with his wife Karen - Silverberg seems very conscious of the differences in his activities and schedules as a younger man, as someone still actively writing fiction as his job, and what he does now. At one point, he says: "Getting yourself to old age involves excusing yourself from a lot of things you once did. Saying, “I don’t need to do this,” or “I can’t do this, so don’t fool yourself into trying.” One by one, you let go of a lot of things that you formerly did. Or if you’re wise you do, instead of frantically running after them." This section also explores Silverberg's political views. He identifies himself as fiscally conservative - in the traditional sense, he accepts the idea that there should be some taxes, some regulation and some social network for the poor and disadvantaged - and socially libertarian, in that he rejects government intervention in non-economic matters. He has tended to support Republican politicians and expressed criticism of both Obama and Hilary Clinton. I wish I knew what he thinks of Trump.

The next section, "Enwonderment" takes its title from a word coined by Silverberg, who explains: "There are words like “empowerment” that are bandied about very freely, especially here in California. Enlightenment is also frequently heard. As well as I can remember this, I thought I would create “enwonderment” as a kind of analogous noun that explains what science fiction is supposed to do." In this section, Zinos-Amaro inquires about what things in his life have given Silverberg a sense of wonder, from his horticultural hobby to new developments in science, to, of course, science fiction and fantasy.

In "Libraries," Zinos-Amaro talks to Silverberg about libraries - the public and school libraries he frequented as a child and adolescent, the Columbia University library, the various international libraries he has visited as an adult, and his own personal library, which he began to seriously cultivate when as a working writer he had less time to spend doing reading and research outside his home. "So all through, from the Schenectady Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to my various school libraries—and I always took advantage of those—to the wonderfully sheltering high school library with the red leather banquettes, where I’d sit near a stained-glass window high above the quadrangle, to Columbia, libraries were always important to me. But when I became a professional writer I needed the time to work. I couldn’t spend my time commuting to libraries, especially as I got more and more remote from the nearest good library. I lived in Upper Manhattan, near Columbia, but I no longer had the stack pass, because I was no longer a student. Then I moved to a suburb where there was no library."

In the section titled "Potpourri," Zinos-Amaro poses Silverberg some questions submitted by fans as beginning points of conversation. A question about whether there is, or ever will be, a complete bibliography of all Silverberg's works in all genres, under all pseudonyms, leads to an anecdote about being investigated by the FBI for writing pornography. Silverberg also talks about what he considers to be good and bad writing, with examples from Thomas Hardy, Hemingway and Graham Green.

The final interview, "After the Myths Went Home," is devoted to Silverberg's responses to a question about "your perspective on age, and on what it’s like to look back on a professional writing career that’s lasted over six decades." The book concludes with a brief essay from Silverberg's wife, Karen Haber, about her life with Silverberg.

I enjoyed reading the interviews, seeing Silverberg's responses to some of Zinos-Amaro's questions, and came out with a sense of the man behind the books, although with a somewhat disjointed idea of the shape of his life. Worth reading for anyone who has enjoyed the works, and is curious about the man.


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2017-08-18 03:56 am

Trevor Noah: Born a Crime



I was pretty sure that I was going to both enjoy and be enlightened by Trevor Noah's Born a Crime from the first few pages, which were fill of witty, pithy, yet accurate and often poignant observations such as these:

"The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all."

"The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man. For a long time neither was particularly successful, and each blamed the other for a problem neither had created. Bitterness festered. For decades those feelings were held in check by a common enemy. Then apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself."

"Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. 'You need to pray to Jesus,' he said. "Jesus will save you.' To which the native replied, 'Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.' "

"For a long time I didn’t understand why so many black people had abandoned their indigenous faith for Christianity. But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense."

Noah's book is part autobiography, part South African history, and part social and political commentary, wrapped up in just enough wit and comedic structure and timing to make it flow smoothly and swiftly, until all of a sudden you're brought up short with a 'wtf?' feeling as you realise the full meaning of what you've just read.

I've had a lot of respect for Noah's presence on TV as a successor to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I now also have a lot of respect for him as an author - and as a man who lived through South Africa's troubled post-apartheid times and saw truths so clearly.

His account of his childhood, growing up as a child of mixed race, is lightly told, but horrifying. Under the segregation laws of South Africa, it was illegal for white people to have sex with non-white people; as a child of such a union, Noah was, as the title of the book says, 'born a crime.' His parents were not married - that would have been impossible - nor did they live together. Though his mother lived - quietly, secretly, illegally - in Johannesburg near his father's apartment, Noah could only spend time with his father in private.

"Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens, a zoo, a giant chessboard with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us. We were in the park, he was walking a good bit away from us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started looking. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him."

But it wasn't just his father who could not acknowledge him publicly. His mother, a dark-skinned Xhosa woman, could not be seen with a 'coloured' - the South African classification for person of mixed race - child without everyone knowing she had committed the crime of sleeping with a white man.

"It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be colored (to have two parents who were both colored). So my mom moved me around the world as a colored child. She found a crèche in a colored area where she could leave me while she was at work. There was a colored woman named Queen who lived in our block of flats. When we wanted to go out to the park, my mom would invite her to go with us. Queen would walk next to me and act like she was my mother, and my mother would walk a few steps behind, like she was the maid working for the colored woman. I’ve got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isn’t my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like she’s photobombing the picture, that’s my mom. When we didn’t have a colored woman to walk with us, my mom would risk walking me on her own. She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers, like I was a bag of weed."

It was just as much a problem when his mother took him to visit his black relatives in Soweto. A coloured child in a black township was just as much a threat to his family as a coloured child in a white city.

"My gran still tells the story of when I was three years old and, fed up with being a prisoner, I dug a hole under the gate in the driveway, wriggled through, and ran off. Everyone panicked. A search party went out and tracked me down. I had no idea how much danger I was putting everyone in. The family could have been deported, my gran could have been arrested, my mom might have gone to prison, and I probably would have been packed off to a home for colored kids. So I was kept inside."

Noah's memories of his childhood make one thing perfectly clear - that he attributes much of his own character to his mother's independence and choices to live as far as she could outside the legal and social limitations imposed by South African apartheid.

"My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will."

Noah completed the book prior to his becoming an American TV host, and the book itself contains very little about his professional life, or how he made the transition from a teenaged boy hustling pirated CDs to get by, to a well-known and admired comedian and TV personality. Perhaps that's for another book.

This one is the narrative of a mixed race child growing up in one of the most oppressive and racist societies in the world, and surviving. And it's well worth reading.

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2017-08-17 04:42 am

Alison Weir: Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession




Alison Weir's latest novel in her series about the wives of Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession, is Weir's interpretation of the story of Anne Boleyn, the woman who triggered the creation of the Church of England through her relationship with King Henry.

There have been many different interpretations of Anne's life and character, from villainous harlot to innocent and loving victim of Henry's overwhelming desire to have a male heir. Weir takes an interesting path between the extremes, giving us an intelligent and ambitious Anne who may not have loved Henry, but consented to her pursuit of her for reasons more charitable than greed and power-madness, an Anne who did not betray the King in deed, but who may well have allowed the game of courtly love to go too far with a man, or men, for whom she felt greater emotional affinity than she did for her husband. Weir's Anne is an early church reformer, who pressed Henry to break with the Church of Rome, not just to facilitate their marriage, but to give Henry the power to correct abuses of the people by church and clergy.

Weir says about her interpretation of Anne: "In writing this novel from Anne’s point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation."

Weir is, as one would expect, painstaking in her research and she fills her novel with explicit detail, paying close attention to where Anne was, at various points in her life, and the people she was likely to have encountered and how they interacted. From that perspective, the book succeeds in giving us a fairly full picture of Anne's comings and goings, and her known and possible dealings with family, friends, and with members of the courts of three countries - Burgundy, France and England.

Unfortunately, I found this portrayal of Anne somewhat flat, as if, despite Weir's telling of the story from Anne's perspective, we are seeing more of the outward than the inner woman - a license the writer of history cannot take, but the writer of fiction must.

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2017-08-14 03:26 am

Craig Timberg: Tinderbox:How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic



Craig ​Timberg's Tinderbox: ​How ​the ​West ​Sparked ​the ​AIDS ​Epidemic was, as far as I can tell from reading a few reviews, somewhat controversial when it was first published. Certainly there's a lot in this book, which looks primarily at how the AIDS epidemic started, and the conditions that both encouraged and hindered its spread in Africa, that makes one stop and think.

Timberg begins with an anti-colonialist narrative of how AIDS finally, after centuries of being confined to the simian population of Central Africa with no significant or recorded crossing of species lines, erupted into the human population. He identifies Western engagement in Africa as the catalyst, from the vast social disruptions caused by European projects intended to steal the resource wealth of the continent by forcing its people to do the work of harvesting and transporting, to the effects of both Christianisation and forced separation of families on traditional patterns of marriage, initiation rituals and sexual activity.

In particular, he points to a history of circumcision as an initiation ritual, and the tendency to have polyamorous but closed circles of sexual relationships as two traditions that might have limited the spread of AIDS throughout Africa had they not been lost in the decades of colonialist exploitation and ' modernisation.'

Timberg presents considerable evidence that the greater resistance of circumcised men to HIV infection was noted on many occasions during early research into risk factors, but never considered as a potential part of prevention education and programming.

He also notes that in those instances where African nations focused on trying to change sexual behaviour, stressing the idea of faithfulness within relationships and partner reduction in general (such as the 'zero grazing' program in Uganda) rates of infection fell significantly.

The narrative he constructs around attempt to slow the rate of infections across Africa contrasts the mostly African-based programs focused on changing sexual behaviour with programs imposed from outside along with Western aid money, which stressed condom use. He also contrasts attempts to introduce multi-faceted prevention programs, such as ABC (abstinence, be faithful, condoms), with programs focusing only on using condoms. Summarising the findings of one epidemiologist who examined the effectiveness of condom-centred prevention programs, Timberg says:

"Hearst found that condoms rarely failed when used properly by individuals, but he couldn’t find any examples of condom promotion campaigns slowing HIV’s spread in African societies with widespread epidemics. He acknowledged their role in reducing infection in epidemics such as Thailand’s, where transmission was concentrated within the sex industry. But while African men often used condoms in casual hookups or with prostitutes, few did so with their wives or girlfriends, despite years of public health campaigns encouraging the practice. He also raised the unsettling possibility, stimulated by some disturbing findings his research team had made in Uganda, that aggressive condom promotion campaigns, often featuring racy images and double entendres, may make casual sex seem more acceptable, potentially helping to spread HIV."

Condoms seemed not the be the answer for Africa, a possibility that few Westerners were willing to accept. Instead, Timberg suggests that the program ultimately championed by his collaborator in this book, David Halperin, focused on circumcision, partner reduction and changes in sexual behaviour, would be more effective in African nations: "What existed in Africa’s AIDS Belt, and in only a couple of other places on earth, was a “lethal cocktail” of extensive heterosexual networks and low circumcision rates. Changing either factor, on a broad enough level, could cause the pace of new infections to slow dramatically."

While Timberg deplores the imposition of Western ideas of how to fight the spread of the disease on African cultures, he does not ignore the mistakes made by African governments - often prompted by a desire to refute Western perceptions of Africans as promiscuous, primitive, and sexually over-active, or by resistance to conditions attached to money intended to help prevent the rising number if new infections and treat those already infected.

It is an interesting book, and one that tries to look at the ways in which Western imperialism and ignorance have affected the path of the disease in Africa. I find myself wishing, though, for a book that covers similar ground written by an African.

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2017-08-12 11:41 am

Some Graphic Novels



Voting for the Hugos means reading graphic novels, something I'm trying to do more of, but.... So many, many books, so very little time.

I continue to enjoy the Ms. Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson. In Vol. 5, Super Famous, the adventure plot has sone things to say about gentrification and the effects of urban redevelopment on communities, but it's the interpersonal material that's pure gold. As usual, the best parts are about Kamala trying to negotiate her day-to-day life while balancing that with being a suoerhero and member of the Avengers. Naturally, this goes terribly wrong as she tries to do what she thinks is expected from her on all sides, but everything ends well with Kamala learning some important lessons about priorities and staying sane and level-headed in the midst of chaos.

I had never really been aware of a superhero named Vision before reading the Hugo-nominated The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta. The IMDB says he was in the recent Avengers films, but I guess my attention slid right over him in favour of the superheroes I did know.

In any case, this is an excellently written and deeply frightening graphic story - I want to know how it ends, but I'm not sure I want to read any more of it. Vision, apparently, is an artificial life form created with the use of the brainwaves of a real human being. At one point he had a human wife and children, but they died, so he has made himself a synthetic family to replace them, and moved them into a nice middle-class suburban neighbourhood. And just as sure as if this were a Steven King novel about death and hubris, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Small mistakes and misunderstandings, misjudgements, errors and then attempts to cover up the errors to make everything seem perfect on the surface, it all piles up.

The story is told in a very objective, almost mechanical fashion, almost in the style of a casebook or police report, a contrast to the increasingly violent and horror-filled events of the narrative. Not going to forget this soon.

Unfortunately, I was not nearly as enthused by Volume 1 of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls. It's the story of four young teens - all girls who have early morning paper routes in the same typical American town in the '80s - who get caught up in something called The Ablution involving horribly disfigured teens from the future battling armoured warriors riding mutated pterodactyls and the disappearance of most of the people in their town. When one of the girls is shot by accident, the future teens offer help, and the girls team up with them temporarily and reluctantly. Various twists and turns later - all of which happen very suddenly and serve only to further confuse the reader (or at least, this reader) - the paper girls find themselves thrown forward in time, only to meet with the future self of one of them on a dark and lonely road. End Volume 1.

Alas, despite my confusion, I am not tempted to find out what's going on. The somewhat frantic pace, and the deliberate 'let's confuse everyone' tone of the work, left me cold, and not even the prospect of a story about four girls was enough to warm me up.

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2017-08-12 11:39 am

Interlude


As readers of my other Dreamwidth journal may recall, I recently experienced a serious health crisis - which I am not yet recovered from - which cut short my writing about what I've read. I have a number if partially written pieces, sone of which are about Hugo reading, which I will finish and post as I am able to, even though the Hugo-related pieces are rather dated at this point.

I'm doing much more sleeping than reading or writing these days, so entries here may be sparse and sporadic for some time to come.
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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.