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Eugene Fischer's novella The New Mother is one of those stories you keep thinking about long after you finish reading it, because it raises questions that are not easily answered.

Fischer begins with a solid what-if premise: how would society react if suddenly women began reproducing asexually - if instead of producing haploid ova designed to merge their DNA with haploid sperm, they began producing diploid ova, with no need for fertilisation, ready to develop into functional clones of their mothers? And what if men also began producing diploid sperm, making them essentially infertile, since a diploid sperm can not fertilise haploid or diploid ova?

Tess Mendoza is a freelance journalist who has followed the story since rumours first began surfacing of some women reporting that something seemed wrong with their pregnancies. Now that scientists are finally researching the reports and have identified what's going on - a new STD that alters the reproductive process in men and women, so that they no longer produce haploid gametes - Tess has been hired by a major national magazine to write a feature on the history, current knowledge and social implications of Gamete Diploidy Syndrome, or GDS.

Tess is also pregnant herself, and a little worried, because she and her partner Judy used a sperm bank, despite the small but present risk that the donor might be an undiagnosed carrier of the disease.

Tess's process in researching her article is at the same time Fischer's process for telling the story and inviting the readers to consider the implications of such a development in human reproduction. The novella is in fact structured as a series of sections: some containing text from the article, some showing interviews with people involved in some way with GDS - scientists, politicians, policy makers, women with the condition, men who have been affected by women bearing cloned daughters - and some portraying Tess as she relates to her lover, her mother, her editor, and herself as a woman with a potentially problematic pregnancy. What is interesting is that almost everything in the novella is said by, or filtered through the awareness of, women. Information Tess has gathered from men comes out in the article text, interview scenes take place only with women. Men rarely speak for themselves. Instead, they are quoted, and discussed by women; the few men who do have voices are subordinate in some way.

Some of the history and issues discussed will be very familiar to anyone who lived through the early years of the AIDS epidemic - from the changes of name as more facts about the disease became known, to the reluctance of some to touch people who might be infected, to debates over long-term quarantine and isolation, blood banks, allocation of research and healthcare funds, the morality of using birth control (in this case, hormonal suppression of ovulation in women) in dealing with the disease.

Added to the5 mix, however, are questions of whether the cloned infants are "really" people, whether GDS women and their children are essentially a new species, whether men might vanish altogether (since all the children of a GDS mother must be female), and whether that should be allowed, or prevented by any means necessary.

A profoundly thoughtful, elegantly written work.

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Carin Gussoff's novella Three Songs for Roxy is a delicately executed exploration of family, gender, love, identity and being an outsider, told in three parts. This is also the first piece of fiction I can remember reading that featured Rom culture, by an author of Rom heritage.

The first section, Free Bird, is the story of sisters - foster sisters but raised together from infancy - Roxane (Roxy) and Kizzy. Roxy's parents, both Rom, found/were given the infant Kizzy shortly before Roxy's birth, in circumstances that strongly suggesting that Kizzy is not human. Sensing that Kizzy's people would return for her some day, they and their extended family have stayed in the place where Kizzy was left. This section is remarkable in its portrayal of a culture which so values its children that Kizzy comes to wholly identify with her human Rom family and culture, despite any number of obvious and not-so-obvious signs that she is different. But at the same time, this traditional and family-oriented culture leaves the free-spirited Roxy feeling like an outsider as she comes to realise she is a lesbian. The climax of this section comes when the aliens do in fact return for Kizzy, only to find that she does not want to go - but Roxy does, despite her realisation that her lover Natalie, like Kizzy, is not human.

The other sections focus on the two other people present at the moment of return - Katrina survivor Scott Miller, who knows Kizzy through her job at the local mall, and Natalie.

The second section, Across the Universe, features Scott. Divorced with one child, he has fallen in love with Kizzy - only to be shocked and profoundly disturbed by the revelation that aliens have visited earth, and that the woman he was attracted to was one of them. Fearing what the aliens might do now that he knows, his response is to flee - taking with him his son Danny, who he fears may be abducted. This section contained several ambiguities, among them Scott's mental state, what happens to Danny at the end, and whether Danny is a transgender child whose sense of self is being disregarded by one of their parents, or is being misgendered by Scott. The core image for the last of these ambiguities is Scott's early job experience as a chicken sexer - young chickens being very difficult to identify by sex, with even experts getting it wrong from time to time. I've read this section twice, and I am still not certain what happened from an objective point of view - though I know what Scott thinks has happened.

The final section, Seven Wonders, features Natalie's story, from her design and training to search for and retrieve Kizzy, up to the point where she arrives at Roxy and Kizzy's home, her initial contact and courtship of Roxy, and her brief but with Steve, a drag queen and Stevie Nicks impersonator who cannot stop mourning his dead sister and move on. In helping Steve to come to terms with his loss, Natalie herself learns what love and relationship mean in human terms.

All three sections tell stories about families, about identity, about gender and sexuality. They feature characters who are outsiders because of these things. The stories are layered, sometimes ambiguous, often sad. And they are beautiful.

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In Kelly Robson's novella The Waters of Versailles, former soldier Sylvain de Guilherand has found a place for himself at the court of the Sun King through his skill in plumbing - providing fresh water and toilets to the court. But his expertise depends on an unequal - and possibly coerced - partnership that is fraying at the seams, as are the pipes that supply water to the toilets of the court.

Sylvain, we discover, has enticed a nixie away from her mountain streams and is using her power over water to ensure that the waters of Versailles flow smoothly and the pipes never leak. But when the old soldier he keeps to entertain and communicate his needs to the nixie dies, the orderly functioning of the palace plumbing begins to fail, and Sylvain must deal with the nixie - a childlike being who is eager to please, but who misses her friend - himself.

At the outset of the story, Sylvain has everything he ever thought he wanted - the favour of kings and nobles, and the favours of many of the ladies of the court. But he is also cynical, and callous toward those on whom his social-climbing success Really depends. Much of the charm of this waterpunk story lies in the depiction of a frivolous and status-obsessed court side by side with Sylvain's slow development of understanding and empathy for the nixie he formerly sought only to use for his own aims.

I was also rather amused at the frank - and quite historically accurate - discussions of toilets and their functions, and the public use of them. This was, we must recall, a time when the real Sun King would take a shit while holding court whenever it pleased him.

The novella can be found on the Tor website:
http://www.tor.com/2015/06/10/waters-of-versailles-kelly-robson/

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Nnedi Okorafor's novella Binti is, like all of Okorafor's writing, a many-layered narrative that centres black peoples and black culture in a future that is much richer for it.

Contact and communication between different people is key in much of Okorafor's work. In Binti, she tells the story of a gifted young woman who breaks the traditions of her reclusive people to accept an invitation to study at a university renowned throughout the galaxy. But to reach Oomza Uni she must first navigate the human society of the Khoush, who are one of the dominant human cultures, and then survive an unexpected and tragic encounter with the Meduse, an alien people who are at war with the other known species in the galaxy.

Binti's cultural traditions and personal gift for bringing things into harmony allows her to become the first non-Meduse to communicate with the war-like species and reach an understanding of the reasons behind their aggression.

Backgrounding Binti's story and all the issues of contact interactions between peoples, traditions, cultures, and species are alluring glimpses of a fascinating future where mathematics and metaphysics overlap, and starships are grown from genetically modified shrimp. I find myself hoping that Okorafor revisits this future.

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Usman Malik's fantasy novella, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, is a wondrous and lyrical tale about finding the balance between history and myth, past and present, the world of scholarship and science and that of artistry and spirit. It is about discovering and owning one's heritage, about family and mystery and memory.

The protagonist is Salman Ali Zaidi, a Pakistani-American university lecturer, "... the archetypal fucking immigrant in the land of opportunities" who has distanced himself from his roots in order to find a place in the new world, only to realise that he is adrift, "... a twenty-eight-year-old brown man living in a shitty apartment, doing a shitty job that doesn’t pay much and has no hope of tenure."

As a young boy, he had listened to his grandfather's romantic tales of dethroned Mughal princesses running tea shops and guardian jinn dwelling in trees, fascinated but disbelieving. But on his grandfather's death, he begins reading the old man's books, papers and journal, and begins a quest for the truth of his grandfather's past that will take him into the heart of Islamic mysticism and unveil his grandfather's startling legacy - and give him both his roots, and his future.

A complex, beautifully crafted story that swept me up and would not let me go.

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Lois McMaster Bujold's novella Penric's Demon is set in her World of the Five Gods, and like the three novels she has written in that secondary universe, it deals with a relatively unsuspecting person who finds themselves caught up in the doings of the Gods and and other supernatural beings.

Penric is the youngest son of a somewhat impoverished and not particularly important noble house. A naive young man without any discernible gifts or talents, he has no real future other than marriage to a local girl of good family and a life of helping out his brother the baron around the estate.

But then, while he's on his way to his betrothal, everything changes. Stopping to perform a small act of charity for a dying woman, he finds himself possessed of, or by, a powerful demon, a creature of sorcery and of the Bastard God. And it is in this act, and in coming to terms with the old and powerful demon he has inherited, that we realise that Penric indeed has a powerful gift, and one that is sadly lacking in both his world and our own - a greatness and generosity of spirit.

Penric's Demon is a well-crafted - and at times very funny - tale of an engaging young man and a powerful demon, who through their connection become much more than either would have become without it.

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Jane Austen created many memorable characters, painting rich and detailed portraits not only of her remarkable heroines, but of all the people around them. Sherwood Smith, in her novella Fair Winds and Homeward Sail: Sophy Croft's Story, has given us a fresh new look at one of Austen's more intriguing secondary characters, the sister of Persuasion's hero Frederick Wentworth.

Sophy Croft is a navy wife, who would rather be on board with her husband, even in the midst of war, than be left behind on safer shores. Sensible, practical, warm, friendly - she is a rock of comfort in the sea of excitable, haughty, frivolous, status-conscious, and otherwise flawed women that people Persuasion, and an example of the kind of woman that the heroine Anne Elliot can become, if fortune favours her.

How did Sophy come to be thus? What is her background - and by extension, the background of her brother Frederick, the man who captures Anne's heart?

Smith answers these questions in a fashion that is both true the the character Austen created, and satisfying to the Austen reader who always longs for just one more peek into the worlds that Austen crafted.
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Diane Duane's Young Wizards novella Lifeboats is a look at a somewhat different side of errantry - the kind that may still be high-stakes, but isn't full of adventure and derring-do.

A planet is about to die. Tevaral's massive moon Thesba is breaking apart and when it does, the planet will at best become uninhabitable, and at worst will slowly break up itself. Hundreds of thousands of wizards from species all over the universe - including Kit and Nita and most of thrir wizardly friends - are called to aid in a massive refugee action: to hold open worldgates to new planets where as much of the biosphere, the cultural artefacts and the beings that inhabit Tevaral can be relocated before the end comes. It's a hard job - worldgates are difficult to manage at the best of times, but when you have so many thousands of them operating non-stop in one place, and so many different stresses on them, the gates need constant support and surveillance. It's work that's tedious and nerve-wracking by turns.

And there's another problem. Not all of the Tevaralti are willing to be rescued, and they have not been able to explain why. The wizards responsible for the relocation efforts know they must respect this decision - but still hope that if they can discover why some of the Tevaralti feel this way, they can find a way to change their minds.

What makes the story really work is that, given the nature of shift work, the wizards involved in the rescue effort have time to visit and socialise, to keep their spirits up in the midst of such a vast dislocation. With Kit as the focal point, the reader meets his new wizardly colleagues Djam and Cheleb, follows his developing relationship with Nita, and enjoys getting to know the rest of the gang a little better - including some insight into how one species might make use of low-carb ketchup.

But ultimately, like all of Duane's Young Wizard works, there is a deep and deeply satisfying philosophical message, and one that spoke very strongly to me: "life is better."

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Bones on Ice is set in the world of extreme mountain climbing, with its main crime scene being the death zone on Mount Everest - or Sagarmatha, as it is officially known in Nepal. Kathy Reichs had almost finished work on the novella when two devastating earthquakes hit Nepal, on April 25 and May 12, 2015. She writes in her Afterword of her decision to finish and publish the novella:
I stopped writing, uncertain. I didn’t want to exploit such a tragedy. At the same time, I more than ever wanted to share the stories of Everest. I’d been touched by the heartbreaking losses and the triumphant victories. I decided to complete this work to honor those lost, and to direct attention to organizations providing disaster relief, and to groups dedicated to improving long-term conditions for the indigenous communities of Everest.
I'm glad she finished it, because it's one of her better works in recent years. She does well at conveying the ways in which the community of high-altitude mountaineers are different from us low-risktaking folks, and the experience of trying to complete an intensely athletic undertaking in severe cold while starved for oxygen. Her characteristic info-dumps were well-woven into the fabric of the narrative.

And the plot unfolded nicely, such that I didn't figure out the key plot turns until just before she unveiled them. She's even noticed how silly it is that Tempe always puts herself in danger - and while she does it again, this time there's a voice in her head telling her she's going to far, and she consciously ignores it.

Another enjoyable forensic mystery from Reichs.

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In Arlen Andrew Sr.'s Hugo-nominated novella Flow, a young man named Risk from a place where the sun never shines and the sky is always overcast travels far enough to see blue skies - among many other differences from the northern land he is from - and is totally freaked out by the theological implications.

Risk's family are iceberg-sellers. They live near a glacier at the head of a river. When the glacier calves, they send word to the iceberg-deliverers, who take the icebergs downstream to a big city that needs lots of ice - why, I have no idea, since after all, it's built on a freaking river and should have lots of water.

Risk is a curious young man, so one day he decides to go travelling with the iceberg deliverers to the big city in the south. Once there, he learn about many things, like the sun and the moon and women (here called wen) who unlike females of his own people have big breasts, and strange technologies that have been dug up and used by the big city people, like monofiber filaments, and reading with one's eyes instead of one's fingers.

I'm not sure if all of Risk's people are far-sighted, or if the lack of sunlight just makes visual reading difficult, or if it's just cultural, but Risk's people store information by carving intricate patterns on a wooden "totem" of some kind and read it by touch. In the big city, he discovers, people do things differently.

Risk decides to steal some of this cool filament stuff and take it home, but he gets caught and has to run for his life - going further south along the river to a massive waterfall. Lucky he has this coil of filament wrapped around his torso, because he's just that curious about what lies beyond...

But the so-called novella ends there, so we don't get to find out what risks Risk will face on the next step downriver.

Since this is clearly not a novella, but a section of a serialised novel, it should never have been nominated in this category and hence I plan to pretend it doesn't exist when I fill out my ballot.

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There is so much that is right about what Kayla Bashe is trying to do in her fantasy novella My Lady King that I wish I could give the book a better recommendation.

The good stuff: strong female heroes, prominent presence of people of colour, a society that is totally accepting of genderqueer folk (the novella refers to them as nonbinaries) and of sexual and loving relationships between people of all genders. The world Bashe creates is nothing if not wildly and wonderfully inclusive, and that is something good to see - a beginning novelist who starts out writing projects that embody the diversity we desperately need in the speculative fiction genre.

But though I have much admiration for Bashe's intentions, this novella lacks in the execution. The writing is at times awkward, even clumsy. The characters are inconsistently drawn. I never felt that either of the protagonists developed a consistent voice, and the antagonist was overblown and lacked true motivation - she seemed to exist solely to be evil.

These flaws noted, I will say that it was by no means unreadable. I enjoyed the story, and I believe the author has the ability to improve her writing - perhaps with the help of some beta readers capable of making honest and detailed critiques, and a good editor.

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Marie Brennan returns to the world of the Onyx Court in this novella, Deeds of Men. Set between the events of Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie, it tells the story of how Michael Deven, human ally, lover, and eventually consort of Lune, the Elven Queen of the Onyx Court of London, comes to select his successor as Prince of the Stone and advisor to the Elven Queen.

Weaving the politics of the Elven Court into the real history of England is one of the most interesting and enjoyable things that Brennan does with this series, and the various Princes of the Stone play a crucial part in this, as the bridges between human and elven worlds. Deeds of Men is at once a character study of two of the humans to hold the title and an exciting adventure story with one murder to solve and another to prevent.

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A delightful and wildly funny Christmas-themed novella set in Duane's Young Wizards universe. The young wizards we've come to know and love are having a Christmas party at the Rodrigeuz home, and friends from across the galazy are invited. The special aspect of this party lies in the decoration of the tree - a role played by Filif, the young Demisiv wizard who closely resembles the traditional Christmas evergreen, and who has been dreaming of being gloriously decorated ever since he heard of the human tradition. While the story is mostly the wizards having fun with their friends, there are a few serious notes concerning the healing of grief, the wrongness of bullying and the dynamics of being an individual and and being a part of a close-knit community. A treat for Young Wizards fans.

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Intisar Khanani has a gift for creating strong and interesting female protagonists - as it was with the main character of her novel Thorn, I was immediately captivated by the young, courageous and resourceful heroine of her novella Sunbolt, which is the opening chapter in a series.

Hitomi, an orphan struggling to survive as a thief and as a jack-of-all-trades (often passing as a young boy), lives in Karolene - a city with a strong Asian feel to it, from the tropical fruits in the market and the fishing dhows in the harbour to the occasional mentions of a sultan who seems removed from his people and possibly under the thumb of a powerful and cruel mage named Blackflame. Hitomi is also part of a revolutionary cadre known as the Shadow League, led by a charismatic young man known as Ghost.

Hitomi is also, unknown to anyone, a mostly untrained mage, in a land where anyone with the Promise, as such gifts are called, who is not formally trained as a child is doomed to consent to being a "source" for other trained mages, or have her magic taken from her. What training she has was given secretly by her parents, both mages themselves, before they died.

The novella is somewhat of an "origin story" - a fast-paced and absorbing introduction to Hitomi, the world she lives in, and the people - friends, comrades, foes, and others with more ambiguous roles - who will presumably play significant parts in her story as it unfolds in future chapters. Conspiracies, secrets and mysteries are revealed, or at least suggested, as the events of this first installment point toward exciting developments to come. I'm quite eager to read more of Hitomi's story.

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N. K. Jemisin returns to the universe if her amazingly wonderful Inheritance trilogy with a novella set 300 years after the events in the trilogy's final volume. The Awakened Kingdom is a delightful and powerful story of the first god born from the union of Yeine, Itempas and Nahadoth, the new triumvirate of gods that maintain the universe. This very young god (who chooses the name Shill for herself in the course of the story) knows that she is somehow to be a successor to the dead god Sieh, but her attempts to figure out how to do this - to understand her role and purpose in the whole of creation - are not going well at all.

So she decides to manifest in the world, hoping that interactions with mortals will help her find herself. As is the wont of clueless child gods, she ends up making some very large mistakes, and some very major interventions in the lives of the mortals she encounters, but she also learns some very important lessons and grows in some very surprising and powerful ways. This is also the story of a young man who challenges the restrictive roles and limits placed on men in his culture, whose future is changed by his relationship with the questioning child god.

Jemisin has said of this novella:
Shill is a true child god — unlike Sieh, who just played at childhood — and frankly I’m loving her; writing her basically means contemplating how a being with an adult-level intellect, Phenomenal Cosmic Power, and no freaking clue about anything blunders through complicated events. But as the marketing text notes, a good chunk of the story will take place in Darr and focus on a young Darren man, in a society in which men have few rights and forced male circumcision is a thing — so still some Serious Stuff therein.
I must say, I loved reading Shill's voice - and seeing the changes she undergoes and brings about - at least as much as Jemisin loved writing her. In this case, good things definitely come in small packages.

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As Constant Reader already is aware, I do enjoy mystery thrillers, and I tend to like them fairly dark and a tad gruesome. This is part of what makes Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan books so much fun - a forensic anthropologist is always going to have a touch of grue about her. Hard to identify human remains are like that. Also, Reichs' novels tend to be entertaining, fast-paced, suspenceful but not too challenging, and it's often fairly easy to figure out the plot twist.

Her latest, Bones Never Lie, was exactly what I've come to expect from a Temperance Brennan book, and that's a good thing. I must say that this time I found the ending very easy to see from a long ways off, the clues were so out in the open, but watching Brennan work out the obvious is fun. I could do with a few less info-dumps and "as you know, Bobs" - but this time everything that is sometimes a bit annoying was offset by the fact that Andrew Ryan is back in Tempe's life, and at last it looks like he's here to stay.

I also gobbled up two novellas, one of which - Bones in her Pocket - was a pleasant surprise because I did not figure out the real killer until shortly before Brennan stumbled over them. The other, Swamp Bones, was a bit easier to figure out, but as usual, watching Brennan do her thing is fun.

And now I am up-to-date with the series, and will just have to wait for the next one to come along.

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The Space Between, Diana Gabaldon

Interesting novella, set in France and featuring Joan MacKimmie, Jamie Fraser's step-daughter (daughter of his second wife, Laoghaire MacKenzie), and Michael Murray, his nephew. Michael is taking Joan to join a French nunnery as a postulant, and in the process they encounter the Compte Saint Germain - who has his own plans for the young woman he believes to be the daughter of Claire Fraser. What intrigued me the most about the novella was its portrayal of Le Compte (a character whose historical and literary appearances I have some interest in) as not just a magician and alchemist (or a con man of some notoriety) but a time traveller much like Claire and the others so far encountered in the Outlander saga.'



After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress

It's very easy to see why this won the Nebula for Best Novella. The story is intense and compelling, the prose lean and yet visceral, and the characters - after, before and during the fall - are so very human in their fears and choices.

The story unfolds in three time - 2035 (after the fall), 2013 (before the fall) and 2014 (during the fall), but characters from after and before connect in various ways, and all three merge at the climax of the fall - a convergence of natural disasters on a massive scale that sparks nuclear devastation and the end of almost all life on earth. But in that climax, the message that one woman from before the fall manages to pass on to the handful of humans surviving after the fall is one that may save the future.


In the House of the Seven Librarians, Ellen Klages

A simple fantasy about a closed and forgotten library, seven librarians who stay there after it closes, keeping order and eating tea and biscuits (the new library that has replaced their beloved home is too modern and soulless for these librarians) and the baby left in the book return chute. I suppose it's technically a children's book, but I loved it. Beautifully illustrated and published by Aqueduct Press.

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