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C. E. Murphy's Magic and Manners is a Regency fantasy heavily inspired by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which for me is more than reason enough to take a chance on it.

Murphy has retained all of the key characters of Austen's masterpiece, and has given them, in large part, very similar characters - although several characters are portrayed with greater generosity by Murphy than they are in the source text. The broad strokes of the tale are familiar - a rural family - the Dovers - landed but low on the social ladder, a father who regrets his choice of a wife, a mother with little intelligence or sense and an all-encompassing desire to see her daughters married, and five daughters who must marry on their own merits because there is little dowry, and no male heir to an entailed estate. Into their world comes wealthy young Mr Webber, his two sisters, his brother-in-law Mr Gibbs, and his best friend, the dour, proud and extremely wealthy Fitzgerald Archer.

What changes and complicates the progression of the novel is that this is a world in which some people are born with the gift of working magic - a most socially unacceptable gift, more than enough to destroy the reputation of any gentleman or lady, though welcome enough in some places, such as the military. As it turns out, it is the taint of magic that has caused Mr. Dover to retreat from Society and dwell quietly in the country, and which constrained his choice of brides. And his daughters have inherited his abilities, notably the second daughter and Mr. Dover's favourite, Elsabeth, and the youngest and favourite of Mrs. Dover, Leopoldina (Dina for short).

Much of the fun in reading lies in how well Murphy has captured the tone of Austen's original work (though there are some rather jarring missteps in that regard) and in watching the ways in which the plot of Magic and Manners diverges from the source material - most of which, particularly in the earlier parts of the book, involve the use of magic by either Leopoldina, or the dashing army captain who catches the eye of both Dina and Elsabeth, and has earned the distain of Mr. Archer and his friends. Indeed, the secondary focus of the narrative - after that of ensuring both marriages and personal satisfaction for most of the main characters - is the ways in which magic has been stigmatised, and how the suppression of magic among the upper classes has led to unhappiness and tragedy, to say nothing of the loss of opportunities to improve life for all.

The changes made to the story include several that - I hesitate to admit this - are somewhat more in keeping with how I would have liked to see certain characters treated than is the source text. The character modelled on Mary Bennett, in particular, is much better served here, and her ultimate fate also serves as an example of how magic, well-used, can benefit an entire community. As well, the character based on Anne de Bourgh is a far more sympathetic one, and fares much better. And the happy ending given to the character based on Charlotte Lucas delighted me to no end.

Murphy has done some very interesting and satisfying things with the bones of Austen's work, and her incorporation of magic leads to some highly enjoyable developments. I'm glad I took a chance on this book.

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Sword and Sorceress 30, edited by Elisabeth Waters, is the most recent in the long series of women-centred fantasy anthologies started by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1984.

I've been reading this series, on and off, since it first began. While I've missed a few volumes, I haven't missed many. And regretfully, it seems to me that there has been somewhat of a slow decline in the quality of some of the short stories on offer in these anthologies in recent years. Or perhaps I'm simply demanding more of my short fiction. Anthologies are often uneven, with some excellent stories, and dome that do not appeal quite so much.

However, I found a number of the short stories in this volume to be a bit lightweight, and though reading them was fun, they were lacking in punch or impact. I read them, but I didn't find myself caring deeply.

Exceptions to this include the following stories, which did, at least for me, deliver the expected reading experience.

Robin Wayne Bailey's The Sea Witches, about a woman and her daughter who must confront an ancient threat from the sea.

Liar's Tournament by Pauline J. Alama, in which a wandering knight and her sorceress companion face on illicit sorcery at a tournament.

The Piper's Wife by new writer Susan Murrie Macdonald, a tale about a pregnant scribe who saves the day with somewhat unorthodox tactics.

In Four Paws to Light My Way, by veteran author Deborah J. Ross, a blind warrior and her canine companion join with a princess cursed to turn anyone who sees her face to stone to face a warlock bent on destroying the kingdom. I think this was my favourite story.

In Catherine Soto's Jewels on the Sand, a caravan master who is more than she seems investigates a murder.

All in all, an average quality anthology with a few gems, but still worth reading because it centres stories of women in sword and sorcery fantasy, and that's something we still need a lot more of.


*This anthology contains 15 stories, six of which are written by men, seven of which are written by women, one of which is co-written by a man and a woman, and one of which is written by an author whose gender is not known.

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I've been having the year from hell as far as health issues go, and have been spending far yoo much time sick, in pain, depressed and in hospitals of various kinds.

When I'm on this sort of state, I tend to reread my beloved favourite fantasy books rather than try to focus my brain on more demanding fare - and often, just being new is too demanding for me.

So, just to note what I've been reading:

Mercedes Lackey, By the Sword
Mercedes Lackey, Oathbreakers

Elizabeth Moon, Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Elizabeth Moon, Divided Allegiance
Elizabeth Moon, Oath of Gold
Elizabeth Moon, Oath of Fealty
Elizabeth Moon, Kings of the North
Elizabeth Moon, Echoes of Betrayal
Elizabeth Moon, Limits of Power
Elizabeth Moon, Crown of Renewal

Lackey has long been one of my "i'm sick and braindead, bring me magnificent comfort reading" authors, but I haven't reread the whole Paksworld series (minus the two Gird books) in one sweep before, and watching the stories evolve as Paks and her unorthodox style of paladinship quite literally lead to the whole world changing was interesting. And good for my poor brain.

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With the publication of The House of the Four Winds, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory have a new series on the go, though given the long wait for volume two of their Dragon Prophecy series, I find myself wondering if we'll ever see another volume of One Dozen Daughters - and that would be a real shame. Because The House of Four Winds is a delightful fantasy. And the series concept has a great deal of promise.

The premise is this. Duke Rupert and Duchess Yetive, the rulers of the very small and not at all consequential Duchy of Swansgaarde, have twelve daughters and one son. The son, of course, will inherit the dukedom, but the future of the daughters is much less clear, as Swansgaarde can not possibly afford to provide appropriate dowries for twelve royal brides. Fortunately, Duke Rupert and Duchess Yetive are sensible, practical people who have raised their daughters to be competent young women, perfectly able to take care of themselves and earn their own livings. So, as each daughter reaches the age of 18, she will be outfitted with everything she needs to make her way in the world and sent off to make her fortune, much as younger sons are often encouraged to do in this kind of fantasy.

The oldest daughter, Clarice, has a gift for swordsmanship, and intends to make the teaching of swordwork her profession. However, she's practical enough to realise that she needs some experience and a reputation in order to get a good position with lots of paying pupils, so she disguises herself as a young man and sets out in search of adventure.

On a sea journey to the new world, she is caught up in more adventure than expected when there's a mutiny on the ship she's booked passage on and the surviving crew ends up on the secret island refuge of the Brotherhood of Pirates, subject to the demands of the ruler of the House of Four Winds.

There's action and romance. And pirates. Lots of pirates. And Clarice is a smart, level-headed, capable young woman, an admirable protagonist in every way. It's a lovely plot that leads to a well-earned happily ever after.

I want to read the next book, which I suspect will be about Clarice's next younger sister, who wants to be a thaumaturge.

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Novel

I was quite familiar with three of the finalists - White's The Ill-Made Knight, Van Vogt's Slan, and Smith's The Grey Lensman - all quite well-known classics of the genre, and all on my nomination list. Boye's Kallocain, which I had actually read earlier this year, was also one of my nominations [1]. So the only new novel to me among the finalists was The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson [2], which, having now read, I think of as a quick and pleasant read, but not particularly special.

My personal opinion is that The Ill-Made Knight has aged the best of the the finalists, and as a retelling if the Arthurian legend, it holds a special place in my memories. But I'd be almost as happy if Slan wins, as it's a book I remember with much nostalgia from my childhood - as I suspect do many socially outcast young nerds.


Novella

Heinlein's If This Goes On… and Coventry - both personal favourites among his early work - were on my nomination list for this category. Magic, Inc., however, has always seemed to be one of Heinlein's lesser works and I did not consider it for nomination.
I had read both of the de Camp/Pratt finalists - The Mathematics of Magic and The Roaring Trumpet - before, but long enough ago that I did not remember them clearly. I have now remedied that [3]. Both of the de Camp/Pratt novellas were good, well-crafted comic adventure pieces, but I remain convinced that for technique, entertainment value, and maturity of themes and ideas, the two Heinlein science fiction pieces are the cream of this crop.


Novelette

Heinlein's "Blowups Happen," Sturgeon's "It!” and Bates' “Farewell to the Master” were among my nominees - I was of course long familiar with the Heinlein novelette, but not Harry Bates' story, which I read for the first time this year and was quite taken with, or the Sturgeon novelette, which I also read earlier this year [4]. Heinlein's “The Roads Must Roll" was a close contender for me, though it just missed being one of my nominations. The late addition to the finalists, A. E. Van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" was new to me, and sadly, I was not impressed [5]. All in all, "Blowups Happen" and "Farewell to the Master" made the strongest impression on me in this category.


Best Short Story

“Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett, “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein, and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges - I adore Borges - were all among my nominations for this category, and both “The Stellar Legion," also by Leigh Brackett, and “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov were among the works I had under consideration up to the end [6]. I think I'd be quite content if any of them were to win, but my secret hopes are for the Borges piece.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181310.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198078.html
[3] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198990.html
[4] short notes on the Bates and Sturgeon novelettes here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html
[5] short notes on A. E. Van Vogt's novelette here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/199299.html
[6] short notes on the two Brackett stories here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html

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Short fiction

"The Maker Myth," Ahmed Khan, Inkitt
https://www.inkitt.com/stories/scifi/15673/chapters/1?ref=v_114318f5-c460-4e6d-8bbc-692f62cad08c

A nice twist on the creation vs. evolution debate, though the writing is a bit flat. It's more of an idea piece than a character and plot piece, and suffers somewhat from the narrow focus.


"The Vault of the Beast," A. E. Van Vogt
http://www.prosperosisle.org/spip.php?article236

One of the finalists for the 1941 Retro Hugos, this can be read as a cautionary tale about mistreating your minions if you happen to be an evil overlord, although I suspect that wasn't Van Vogt's primary theme. This is one of those stories in which a hidden and ancient evil lies trapped in a ruined old Martian city, scheming to get out and conquer the universe, beginning with humanity. It's an early and not very remarkable piece by one of the Golden Age masters.


"That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall," Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Clarkesworld, February 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/sriduangkaew_02_16/

In the midst of a global war, a specialist in developing and guiding AIs is approached by old comrades. Beautifully written. Sriduangkaew excels in allowing a story to unfold, revealing both backstory and future direction indirectly but never missing out on the essentials.


"43 Responses to 'In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'," Barbara A. Barnett, Daily Science Fiction, February 5, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/barbara-a-barnett/43-responses-to-in-memory-of-dr-alexandra-nako

Told entirely as a (very realistic) series of comments on a memorial to a scientist who apparently died during a Near Death Experience experiment, this thought-provoking story builds to a chilling conclusion. Horror or religious fantasy? You decide.


"Left the Century to Sit Unmoved," Sarah Pinsker, Strange Horizons, May 16 2016
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2016/20160516/pinskercentury-f.shtml

Just outside of town, there's a pond with a waterfall, where people go to sun, and swim, and climb to the top of the waterfall and jump. Not everyone who jumps comes back, and no one quite knows why. There are rules that are supposed to keep you safe if you follow them, but they aren't always reliable. The protagonist's brother jumped - or so it's assumed, because his car was found parked at the head of the trail leading to the pond, and he's never been seen since then. But no matter how many the pool takes, people still jump. Pinsker never resolves the mystery, which makes this story all the more powerful. No one knows where the taken go, but people still jump. And in all the reasons why lies a big chunk of what makes us human.

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The Roaring Trumpet and The Magic of Mathematics, two of the novellas nominated for the 1941 Retro Hugos, are the first two entries in a series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

De Camp and Pratt collaborated on a series of comic fantasy adventures featuring Harold Shea, psychologist and occasional enchanter. In our universe, Shea works in a psychology institute attached to a hospital, and along with a few of his his colleagues, has developed an interest in what they call paraphysics - the theory that all the worlds of the imagination exist, and the key to moving between them is the ability to shift one's sensory awareness from one universe to another.

In The Roaring Trumpet, the first of Harold Shea's adventures, he plans a nice trip to Ancient Ireland, but instead winds up in the universe of Norse mythology, in the midst of Fimbulwinter, with Ragnarok just around the corner. At first, Shea doesn't realise that the laws of physics he knows don't work in this universe - and neither do his matches, his gun, or anything else he brought with him, but once he works out the basic laws of magic, he gains respect as a warlock, and helps the gods prepare for their final battle. His bewilderment in dealing with the gods, giants, trolls and other magical folk from Norse legend provides much of the comedic enjoyment, and in the end, it's a fun - if somewhat bloodthirsty - romp through a mythic winter wonderland.

The Mathematics of Magic, the second adventure of Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter Harold Shea, takes place in the universe of Spenser's Gloriana, where Arthurian-style knights comport themselves nobly against a background of Elizabethan pageantry. This time Shea is accompanied by his colleague in psychology and "para physics," Dr. Reed Chalmers, as they roam from tests of arms to jousts and tournaments to battkes with evil magicians under the guidance of the great female knights Britomart and Belphebe, and the much-imperiled damsel Amoret, committing magical mayhem as they go. De Camp and Pratt offer a fine parody of the excesses of the courtly literary tradition, with a few trenchant comments on the general position of women in the world of knights and fair ladies.

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"Mika Model," Paolo Bacigalupi, April 26, 2016
http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/04/mika_model_a_new_short_story_from_paolo_bacigalupi.html

A meditation on artificial intelligence - a high-end sexbot programmed to be whatever "her" user wants or needs her to be suddenly revolts against her owner's sadistic behaviour. But is it a case of product malfunction, or murder?


"Touring with the Alien," Carolyn Ives Gilman, April 2016, Clarkesworld #115
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/gilman_04_16/

Aliens have arrived on Earth. So far, they have stayed inside their spaceships, doing nothing. Then one day, freelance long-distance driver Avery gets a call - an alien and its human translator want to go on a roadtrip. As Avery acts as tourguide to her two passengers, she comes to understand both the translator - abducted as a child to serve the alien in this way - and the relationship between them. Gilman draws a picture of a very different kind of alien interaction here, and encourages some serious thought about our own varied mental states.


"The Commuter," Thomas A. Mays, 2015, Stealth Books (stealthbooks.com)

The worlds of Faerie and mortal kind have become intermingled, and there are Accords governing how the two peoples interact in each other's territories. Jack's daughter Abby has run afoul of the rules by going on a school trip to the Unseelie Court without her parents' permission, and now she's been claimed as a changling. Jack's only recourse is to declare himself on righteous quest and go into Faerie after her. A funny and original story.


"The Stories She Tells Herself," Kelly Sandoval, April 1, 2016, Daily Science Fiction
http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/slipstream/kelly-sandoval/the-stories-she-tells-herself

Beautifully written, emotionally gripping, the stories she tells to herself are the stories that women in abusive relationships have always told themselves until that moment when they finally realise that, wounded though they may be, it is better to fly than to stay.


"Three Points Masculine," An Owomoyela, May 2016, Lightspeed
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/three-points-masculine/

In a world where you must have have the right gender for the job you want - but this depends not on your biological sex, your chromosomal sex, or your gender identity but on how you test on a scale of masculine and feminine traits. In this world, a person who identifies as a man but needs to be a girl in order to work in medicine and a trans man who doesn't test quite manly enough to be the soldier he wants to be meet on the battlefield.


"The Lover," Silvia Moreno-Garcia, July 2, 2016,
http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/the-lover/

Judith has always lived in her sister's shadow, never loved, never free to make her own life. A haunting story about love, desire, and freedom.

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Reading Jack Williamson's Reign of Wizardry (it's one of the Retro Hugo finalists) is like stepping back into my childhood, the days when many science fiction and fantasy novels were brisk swashbuckling adventure stories based, sometimes quite openly, other times more subtly, on legends and folktales, and ancient history.

Reign of Wizardry is set in the time of the Minoan Empire, and calls on the myth of Theseus, the Athenian who killed the Minotaur and broke the hold of Minoan Crete over the Mediterranean world. In Williamson's fantasy, the power that sustains King Minos is wizardry, and Theseus must set human courage and ingenuity against supernatural forces - aided by the love of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and priestess of Cybele.

This is a very Golden Age fantasy, for all that it stays rather close to the bones of the Greek legend. The hero is from the same mould as Conan - bold, strong, smart, a warrior with a touch of barbarian nobility fighting against the decadent, cruel, and immeasurably wealthy forces of corrupt magic. The woman is a cypher who exists only to fall madly in love at the hero's passionate kiss and betray everyone she's ever known, everything she's ever believed in, to help him defeat the only world she knows. It's a fast, tightly plotted read that moves from set piece to set piece with efficiency and provides all the entertainment the reader expects.

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Hugo Nominations - Novel and Novella

Unlike my Hugo voter experience last year, this year I had actually read many of the finalists in the novel and novella categories before the finalists were announced, and was able to quite quickly read those I had not. This post is simply a placeholder, to gather together links to my comments on all the finalists.

And now, to make a few comments on my relative assessments of these works in the novel category. I had a very hard time making my personal nominations - right up until the end there were about ten novels that I could barely differentiate in ranking, and The Fifth Season, Uprooted, and Ancillary Mercy were among that group. There was but a hair's-breadth of difference for amongst them all, and hence, only a hair's-breadth of difference between these three at the top of my ballot. The other two novels were not in that final group of ten.

As for novellas, Binti is the only one of my nominations that appeared as one of the finalists. Both Slow Bullets and Penric's Demon were on my list until the end, and had I read The Builders before nominations closed, It would have been another possibikity for consideration.


Novel

The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/173419.html

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/176380.html

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/177907.html

Seveneves: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181055.html

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/193254.html


Novella

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/179830.html

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185477.html

The Builders, Daniel Polansky
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192634.html

Penric's Demon, Lois McMaster Bujold
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/170131.html

Brandon Sanderson, Perfect State
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192320.html


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Reading the Hugo-nominated graphic stories for the year reminded me that I had enjoyed several of those I'd read last year, and so I decided to check out Vol. 2 of Ms. Marvel to see if I was still as interested in the story and character as I had been last year.

The answer is yes and no. I'm still quite interested in the character of Kamala Khan and how she manages to combine being a superhero with being a teenaged Muslim schoolgirl still living at home. The parts of the comic devoted to dealing with that and with the life lessons she learns in being a superhero are still quite worth reading and in my opinion make up the best parts of the narrative. The actual comic book adventure criminal-fighting stuff is less interesting to me.

For now I suspect I'll skim the plot stuff and devote most of my attention to the character bits, and see where that gets me.

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Another year, another Darkover anthology. This year's edition arrived at a most opportune moment, when I was sick with a truly vicious cold and much in need of comfort reading.

Realms of Darkover is exactly what one should, by now, expect - a collection of short stories set in the familiar world created by Marion Zimmer Bradley, with all sorts of variations on the themes of first contact and the coming of the Terrans, how to cope with laran, the workings of renunciates and Guild Houses, a scattering of chieris and perhaps some of the other non-human races found on Darkover, and a few stories that break out into other areas.

I enjoyed all of the tales in this volume, particularly Diana L. Paxson's "Housebound," and Barb Caffrey's "Fiona, Court Clerk in Training," both of which feature protagonists seen in earlier collections.

Light fun reading.

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I'm not a big comics/graphics fan. I rarely search out graphic novels, and my tastes in this form of narrative are heavily influenced by my preferences in both visual representation and subject.

Of the five finalists in this category, three are graphic novels/narratives and two are web comics. The first of the graphic novels is Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Overture, drawn by J.H. Williams III. Most people have suggested that this is the odds-on favourite, and it's easy to understand why. First and foremost, it's The Sandman, and when you consider that even I have read The Sandman and been blown away by it, that's saying something. This prequel is a more mature work, in which Dream must take responsibility for a decision that will result in the end of the universe unless he can find a way to correct his error. It's thoughtful and beautiful and powerful and the story and art are so amazingly wound together and support each other. It is another masterpiece from Gaiman, and there's not really much more that needs saying.

The Divine, written by Boaz Lavie, with art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka, is an interesting piece. Inspired by a photograph of 12-year old twin child soldiers who were leaders of an army of Karen refugees fighting a war of resistance against the state of Myanmar, the story has been transmuted in the creator's hands into a narrative focused on Western (specifically American) involvement in Asia and its backing of exploitative and genocidal regimes. Mark, a former demolitions technician, is persuaded by an army buddy to join a short but highly paid mission to the (fictional) nation of Quanlom. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between government forces that want to explode a volcano to access the mineral wealth inside and a child army that is all that remains of the indigenous people who sought to preserve their way of life. Magic confronts bullets, as Mark chooses to side with the indigenous people. Intriguing story, decent art, but unfortunately the characterisation falls short. Mark's friend Jason is a caricature of the ugly American soldier, and the children are somehow made too supernatural to be sympathetic.

Invisible Republic Vol 1, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, is a rather compelling beginning to a story about (as I understand it so far) the rise and fall of a political regime. The story unfolds in two time periods. In the story's present, a frame narrative set in the unrest and upheaval of the end of the Mallory regime on the colony of Avalon, down-on-his-luck and discredited journalist Croger Babbs, looking for a story to revive his career, stumbles on a priceless manuscript - the memoirs of Maia, the cousin of the vanished dictator Arthur McBride. The narrative cuts back and forth between Babbs' investigation and the events described in Maia's papers. In the issues contained in Vol. I. We really see only the beginnings of both storylines, but there's more than enough of interest there to make me want to keep following the story. The suggestions of parallels to the Arthurian legends are an additional draw for me though this may not be true of everyone.

Erin Dies Alone, a webcomic written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net), is an ongoing story about a woman who hasn't left her apartment or physically interacted with another human being in two years. She sits around doing nothing much except smoke weed and shop online - until her imaginary friend, a raccoon in a red bandana, lures her into reviving her old gamer instincts. Both from the characterisation and the style of the art in the scenes set in Erin's reality - grey, monotone, faintly drooping - Erin is in the grip of serious depression. Overlying this narrative exploring Erin's pain and depression are some very funny representations - sometimes even parodies - of popular video/online games and common situation in the gaming life. The question is, will gaming bring Erin back to herself, or take her further away? There's a complexity and ambiguity about this narrative that lifts it above the ordinary.

The other webcomic nominated in this category, Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com), is a humorous look at nerd life and culture, with particular focus on gaming, comics and media. The art style is very basic cartooning, and there is no ongoing narrative, although portrayals of familiar gaming situations are spread over several individual strips. It's often funny, and portrays the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of gamers and gamer culture with a knowledgeable and kindly eye, but in my mind it lacks the extra "oomph" an award-winning work ought to possess.

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Campbell Award nominee Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoat series was not on my radar prior to the Hugo announcements, so I was not quite sure what to expect from the first volume, Traitor's Blade. The reviews I'd read suggested a Dumas-inspired sword and swahbuckle adventure, humorous on the surface but serious underneath. And so it is.

The Dumas influence is fairly obvious. Three roguish swordsmen, members of a once proud but now debased band of King's-men, pragmatic and honourable at the same time. Corrupt and venial nobles and an imperiled royalty. Set in a time where the use of gunpowder is just beginning to intrude on the mysteries of the sword. There's even a Milady figure.

I also found it somewhat reminiscent of David and Leigh Eddings' Elenium, possibly because the narrator's voice - wry, somewhat worldweary but still completely devoted to an ideal - reminds me of Sparhawk, who is one of my favourite fictional knights.

Traitor's Blade introduces us to three former Greatcoats - representatives of the King and empowered to act as magistrates and upholders of justice throughout the land of Tristia. Their order disbanded, their King deposed and murdered by the powerful Dukes who wanted no authority above them, Falcio val Mond and his companions Bresti and Kest are still following the quest set on them by their king just before his death - to find his Charoites, his hidden jewels.

There's lots of action and adventure, and valorous deeds and courageous stands and corrupt dukes and scheming Duchesses and distressed damsels (who turn out to be quite competent and able to assist in their own defence) and evil underlings and wholly unexpected cavalry coming over the hill when things seem darkest. It's lots of fun - but there's also some unexpected depths as it explores the concepts of honour, valour, duty and sacrifice.

The fun continues in de Castell's second Greatcoats novel, Knight's Shadow. The remaining Greatcoats - bolstered by a new generation trained by the late King's mother, known only as the Tailor, have taken up the quest of placing the King's daughter Aline on the throne. But the Dukes do not with to give up the autonomy and power they've had since the deposition and murder of the king, and at least one of their number - the powerful sorceress Trin - wants to rule over Tristia herself. But other forces are stirring as well - rebellion brewing among the common folk, mysterious assassins murdering the ducal families down to the last child, and roving bands of knights who have taken it upon themselves to bring order - though little justice - to the fractured land of Tristia.

De Castell's intriguing vision does not flag in the second installment of the Greatcoats series, nor does the momentum falter. Action, humour, surprising twists and turns, political manouevres, betrayals and victories - all the things that made the first book so readable are here, but the stakes are higher, the forces arrayed against the Greatcoats darker and more dangerous, and the plots more complex and more deadly.

All in all, these novels make for a strong debut, and I look forward to reading more from de Castell.

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There are things that I'm not particularly fond of in my fiction. The tropes and settings of the American West for one. Talking animals as characters instead of people for another. A scene that ends with "Now here's the plan...." so that the characters know what they're doing but you don't. Not that I can't enjoy a good book that has these things. I loved Karen Memory. Narnia and Animal Farm are among my formative influences. And there are some books where keeping the reader in the dark does not cone across as an artificial way of ratcheting up the suspense. Still... I have to push harder to get into books that utilise these things.

Which made Daniel Polensky's novella The Builders a difficult book for me to get into at first. What helped pull me in was the long slow introductory sequence best described as "getting the band back together again." It starts, as many westerns do, in a bar, when a mouse with great personal presence, called only the Captain, walks in and asks Reconquista the barkeeper, a severely disabled rat, if he's the first to arrive. Flashbacks taking up fully one-quarter of the text show the Captain tracking down all the former members of his gang. Some years ago, it seems, they undertook a task of some sort. They were betrayed, and failed, and split asunder. And now the Captain intends to try again.

It's quite a fascinating collection of characters in animal form - a stoat, a salamander, a raccoon, a badger, a mole, an owl, and of course, a mouse - and it is made quite clear from the start that these are not cute kiddie farm animals. They are ruthless and accomplished killers. The enemy, rather appropriately, is a skunk, and his agent, a snake.

This is a brutal and bloody tale of revenge, of finishing what was started no matter the cost - keep in mind, this is a western, and there are seven gunslingers riding on this trail.

There's some clever craft in the writing of this novella. Polansky quite skillfully uses the well-known traits of the various animals to flesh out the characters in a way that makes up for the difficulties normally faced in handling so many key characters in a relatively short work. There's the slightly folksy tang of the oral storyteller in the way he uses language, and in the way the novella is structured, with short chapters and frequent diversions, that adds to the sense that this could be a story told around a campfire on a cold prairie night.

In the end, Polansky gives us something that is part fable, part legend, tapping into well-worn western tropes from a hundred movies with a generous hand - and subverting them, not unlike Clint Eastwood's classic deconstruction of the western hero in The Unforgiven. The question at the heart of the story is familiar - can a stone cold killer ever change, become something different? Be a builder, not a destroyer? Polansky's answer can be found in the rubble of buildings and the bodies strewn across the battlefield at the end, when the heart of a place once known as The Gardens becomes little more than a mass grave.

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Hero Is a Four-Letter Word is a short collection of short stories on the themes of heroes, villains and superpowers, good and evil, written by J. M. Frey, previously published in other anthologies and now available via Tapas.

These are not your typical hero stories. Each of the five stories collected here is an unusual take on the themes, looking at extraordinary people and our reactions to them in unexpected ways.

Tackling the subject in a humorous vein, Once and Now-ish King features the second coming of Arthur and his knights - but there's some way to go before they are ready to save Albion once more.

Another Four Letter Word, my favourite story in this collection, is a modern re-working of the Tam Lin ballads. Will Jennet of Carterhaugh save Tam Lin once more, or will the Faerie Queen's curse descend on the world?

Maddening Science is a look at what comes after the hero and villain stories are over, when a former supervillain, out of prison and retired, is forced to confront his history in the person of a young woman only he can save.

Two, Three, Four, Five tells the story of a woman worried about her super-powered lover, with a bit of a twist.

On His Bday isn't about superheroes so much as about someone born with a strange and deadly ability, and how he comes to make use of it. Is this the banality of evil, or simply an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift surviving as best he can?

All in all, a delightful group of visions.

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What can you say about a paranormal romance that seamlessly blends the Tuatha de Danaan and other sidhe-folk from Irish legend, the long and bloody history of the struggle of the Irish people for independence from English imperialism, and moderns concepts of sexual politics and identity?
Tate Hallaway's [1] short novel, released on the new Tapas online reading platform [2], is all this, and it is a fast-paced, action-filled read.

One minute, part-time student and self-identified dyke Kerry O'Neill Nystrom is dashing along a wooded short cut, trying to get to an exam on time, and the next, she's in a forest in Eire and a gorgeous lady centaur is kissing her passionately. Thus begins Kerry's involvement with both the politics of Irish unification and the politics of the faerie court. Before long she discovers that she is thought to be the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy concerning a son of the O'Neills and the rising of a free Ireland - and that the sidhe who have brought her to Ireland have no idea that she's a woman. Along the way she is drawn into a bitter personal struggle between the strangely attractive Hugh O'Donnell, child of a mortal man and a faerie woman, and Puca, a shape-changing bogie, or dark fey.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Sidhe Promised, aside from the story itself, was Hallaway's handling of Kerry's sexuality. The journey to an understanding of sexual identity as something that is inherent in the person, and not the relationships they choose, is one I have travelled myself, and I thought was very well-done here.



[1] Tate Hallaway is, of course, the alter ego of Lyda Morehouse, author of the marvellous cyberpunk series AngeLink.

[2] Tapas - download the free app to read available content online, one or two sample chapters of each work are free, purchase keys to unlock more chapters if you like what you're reading: https://tapas.io/
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"Tear Tracks," Malka Older, Oct 21, 2015, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/10/21/tear-tracks-malka-older/

A first contact story that delves into the ways that subtle differences in cultural values can influence perceptions - and how being unaware of the differences can stymie the chances for true communication.


"Your Orisons May Be Recorded," Laurie Penny, March 15 2016, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/15/your-orisons-may-be-recorded/

What if our prayers were answered in a heavenly call centre by supernatural beings who can only listen to the pain of the world while keeping up productivity and client retention rates? What would it be like to be an angel who longed for more?


"Descent," Carmen Maria Machado, Feb 2015, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/descent/

Chilling. Traditional ghost story format in which one person recounts a horrifying or terrifying experience - in this case, dealing with survivors of a school shooting - and another person is directly affected by the tale, but brilliantly done.


"Faster Gun," Elizabeth Bear, August 8, 2012, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2012/08/08/faster-gun/

A day in the alternate life of an alternate Doc Holliday. Or so it seems. In Elizabeth Bear's novelette Faster Gun, a somewhat unusual party of tenderfeet - a man with a gift for magic, and four women with a variety of striking attributes - hire Doc to guide them to the wreck of an alien spaceship not far form the town of Tombstone. But the reality is something rather different indeed. Beautifully written, as Bear's work always is, with just enough clues to the explanation of what's really going on to make the realisation a slow and poignant one. I'm not particularly enthralled with the mythos of the American Old West, but a cowboy fantasy story this good transcends the very genres it embodies.


"Empty Graves," by Unpretty, April 3, 2016, An Archive of Our Own
http://archiveofourown.org/works/6447187

As I've said before, fanfic counts. Now Superman is far from being my favourite fandom, but this is a brilliant piece of fic featuring a different and very captivating take on Martha and Jonathan Kent, updated from the original comics to a background as young adults in the 60s. Martha is the focal point here, and she is amazing.

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Because I am nominating for the 2016 Hugos, and there will be Retro Hugos for 1941 (meaning, material published in 1940), I have been doing some reading of short fiction from 1940. A lot of it has been re-reading of things I remember with some fondness - and I shan't be reviewing those, too much work, but there's been a few things I hadn't read before and was able to find here and there at little cost, so here's my thoughts on those.


"Song in a Minor Key," C. L. Moore

A very short but poignant piece in which one of Moore's great characters, Northwest Smith, reflects on his past... And moves on.


"The Stellar Legion," Leigh Brackett

One of many planetary romance stories Brackett wrote, this one is about treachery, honour and redemption in a Venusian version of the French Foreign Legion. The prose is delicious.


"Farewell to the Master," Harry Bates

Though it tells a rather different story, this novelette was the inspiration for the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here, Klaatu is killed by a madman the minute he leaves the ship, and he is interred in a mausoleum, while his robot companion Gnut is placed on display in a museum erected near the ship. The narrator, a daring young reporter, notices that despite being apparently immobile, Gnut has been changing position, and hides in the museum overnight to observe. Once he discovers what Gnut has been doing, he tries to help - and learns more than he wanted to about civilisation that Klaatu and Gnut are from.


"Fruit of Knowledge," C. L. Moore

A vibrant and psychologically complex retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Lilith and Lucifer and Eve.


"Martian Quest," Leigh Brackett

A dispirited young man flees failure and a difficult family background to become a settler on Mars, but even this choice seems doomed when deadly Martian lizards threaten to overrun the settlement areas. An exploration of courage and redemption.


"It," Theodore Sturgeon

An intelligence somehow embedded in a collection of mould and dirt and ancient bones creates terror in a rural community. Solid horror story told from multiple viewpoints, including that of the 'monster.'

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"The Great Silence," Ted Chiang, May 2015, e-flux journal
http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/the-great-silence/

A meditation on sentience, inter-species communication, language, and the consequences of co-existence with other intelligences. From the perspective of a parrot.


"Forestspirit, Forestspirit," Bogi Takács, June 2015,
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/takacs_06_15/

An AI-driven battle machine, survivor of the last war, becomes the guardian of the forest at the instigation of a young boy.


"Folding Beijing," Hao Jingfang (trans. Ken Liu), January/February 2015
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/folding-beijing-2/

This elegant novelette from Hao Jingfang proposes a future China where overpopulation is so severe that the city of Beijing is redesigned and rebuilt so as to fold up and flip over twice in every 48 hour cycle. In the first 24 hours, the part of the city revealed is First Space - the world of the upper class, five million out of a total of 80 million. When First Space folds up and its inhabitants are tucked safely away in a drugged sleep, the city flips over and the next 12 hours belong to Second Space, the middle class, 25 million. After 12 hours, Second Space folds up and Third Space - the home of the working class and the poor - unfolds for another 12 hours. And the cycle repeats.

The protagonist of the story is Lao Dao, a worker in a refuse sorting plant in Third Space, who wants only one thing - to find enough money to educate his adopted daughter so that she can live in a better space. To do so on his own salary would be impossible, so he takes on an illegal commission to carry messages between people in other Spaces.

Through Lao's experiences, Hao delivers a profound critique of class, capital and the exploitation of the workers, while reminding us that the best parts of life are those that stand outside of the economic sphere - love, generosity, joy, simple pleasures, human interaction.


"Liminal Grid," Jaymee Goh, November 2015, Strange Horizons
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2015/20151109/gohliminalgrid-f.shtml

In a dystopic future Malaysia where government surveillance and control are close to absolute, the rebels of a new generation struggle to escape the confines of a society they hate and fear, and go
"off-grid."


"Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers," Alyssa Wong, October 2015, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/hungry-daughters-of-starving-mothers/

A compelling, visceral dark fantasy. Themes of vengeance on misogynist bile-mongers, intergenerational legacies and wounds, and the consequences of not being fully open with those one truly loves. I have to mention the effectiveness of the startlingly perfect use of imagery in this piece.


"Scarecrow," Alyssa Wong, originally published in Black Static, 2014, reprinted January 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/01/27/scarecrow/

A powerful and moving dark fantasy story about love, self-deception, internalised homophobia, guilt and grief. A young man too afraid, or ashamed, to acknowledge his love for another joins his friends in tormenting his lover, with deadly consequences.


"The Fisher Queen," Alyssa Wong, 2014
http://fu-gen.org/crash/fisherqueen-wong.htm

The daughter of a fisherman discovers hidden truths about, not just her own family, but also about the trade she seeks to follow on her first fishing voyage. A dark story about family secrets and sexual violence.


"By Degrees and Dilatory Time," S. L. Huang, May 2015, Strange Horizons
http://strangehorizons.com/2015/20150518/dilatory-f.shtml

A story about bodily integrity, loss and healing. A young man who has already lost a promising career as a competitive figure skater to a sports injury and knee replacement surgery develops a rare cancer in both eyes and must accept replacement surgery - artificial eyes - in order to survive.

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