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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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"Trollbooth," Maureen Tanafon, April 2015, Crossed Genres
http://crossedgenres.com/magazine/028-trollbooth/

While the men around her bluster around violently in an attempt to save two children lost to supernatural captors, a courageous young woman takes another path to win their freedom.


"And the Balance in Blood," Elizabeth Bear, November 2015, Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/and-the-balance-in-blood/

Bear's fantasy novelette is a marvellous story about an unusual hero, a grey-haired cloistered religieuse named Sister Scholique who has the gift of the gods' grace; her prayers are often answered by the gods, from small things like a prayer to allow her to overhear a conversation just beyond the range of her hearing, to prayers for the souls of the dead. In fact, it is this latter purpose that takes up most of her time, praying over wax recordings of prayers for the dead as she turns these cylinders in her chantry. When a dream gives her an idea of how to build an automated chantry that will give her more free time, she sets her church on a path that leads to potential abuses. A beautifully written tale that asks questions about the influence of the wealthy in accessing practices meant to be available to all.


"The House of Surrender," Laurie Penny, January 11, 2016, Der Freitag
https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/the-house-of-surrender

In the future, people have learned to live mostly in harmony. Captialism, the belief in hierarchies and the idea that one person can with impunity interfere with the autonomy of another are all distant memories of the past. But sometimes people, being people, offend against others, and if there is no way for them to live among others, they come to the island of the House of Surrender. And there they stay. Until one day a man arrives at the House who claims to be from the past.


"Two to Leave," Yoon Ha Lee, May 28 2015, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/two-to-leave/

Yoon Ha Lee writes in a style all his own, lyrical, elegant, packed with images and delicate allusions. His writing seems to speak to the heart and the unconscious - when I read one of his stories, I often feel that I've just encountered something deeply profound, yet something I cannot quite capture in words, something that partakes of the nature of our dreams. So it is with this story, and deservedly so, for this is a story of a ferryman, and a river that cannot be crossed without sacrifice, a mercenary who kills with a swarm of bees, a messenger raven, and of eyes, and vision, taken and given. Of life and death and the states inbetween and the ways to reach them.


"Vulcanization," Nisi Shawl, January 2016, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/vulcanization/

King Leopold of Belgium seeks to rid himself of the ghosts of the Congo. A steampunk meditation on atrocity, remembrance and guilt. Powerful.


"Our Lady of the Open Road," Sarah Pinsker, June 2015, Asimov's Magazine
http://www.sarahpinsker.com/our_lady_of_the_open_road/

In the future, people's fears of mingling with those they don't know, combined with increasingly sophisticated technology that makes possible holographic displays of concerts and sports events in the safety and security of one's home, have almost destroyed the idea of live performance and the travelling band. But a few artists remain on the road, committed to the belief that performance art involves the immediate relationship between performer and audience, no matter how high the cards are stacked against them.


"The Killing Jar," Laurie Penny, January 2016, Motherboard
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-killing-jar

In the not too distant future, the simulated murders of television and film are no longer sufficient to satisfy the public craving for blood and circuses. Society has recognised and legitimated a new kind of performance, the serial killer - who is free to kill as long as he follows the rules.
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I'd seen Elizabeth Bear's novel Karen Memory referred to as a "lesbian steampunk western," which made me a bit hesitant to read it because while I'm completely down with stories about lesbians, steampunk is something I can take or leave, and western may be one of the few genres I really don't much enjoy. But Bear is one of my favourite authors, and I was promised lesbians, so...

I'm glad did, because Karen Memory is a delightfully wild adventure featuring a diverse cast of outsiders foiling a plot to not only take over the fictional northwestern port town of Rapid City, but destabilise the political balance of the Pacific Rim. Western and steampunk tropes are not overwhelming, but serve as the background to the characters and their exploits.

Karen Memery, the narrator/protagonist, is an employee of Madame Damnable, who owns the Hotel Ma Cherie, a high-class house of prostitution. Madame Damnable runs her house in the fine tradition of Spider Robinson's Lady Sally, or Kage Baker's Nell Gwynne - her employees are, by the standards of the time, well paid, well treated, and happy in their profession, though Karen, like some of her associates, is saving money for a future outside the sex trade.

Madame Damnable may be a good employer, but others in the city are not, particularly Peter Bantle, who owns the dockside cribs where poorly fed, ill-treated sex workers, mostly Indigenous and Asian women, are held in captivity to service the dock trade.

The story starts off slowly, letting us get to know Karen and the other inhabitants of Hotel Ma Cherie, both the working women and the other employees necessary to keep such an enterprise functioning. But things speed up when Madame Damnable and her house give shelter to a wounded Chinese woman named Merry Lee who has rescued Priya, a young South Asian girl, from Peter Bantle's clutches - and Bantle decides to teach the women a lesson. But the women and men of Hotel Ma Cherie are more resourceful and more formidable than Bantle anticipates, and they soon discover that Bantle is up to much more than appears.

Behind the pulp-style adventure, Bear delivers a few subtle lessons in tolerance and understanding. As the plot intensifies, Karen and the other women gain allies in the form of black US Marshall Reeves and his posseman, Tomoatooah, of the Namu nation ("but you would say Comanche"). The interactions of the white characters, including Karen, and the characters of colour illustrate a range of ways to behave that signal respect and a desire to learn without appropriation or race-based assumptions.

I am very glad I decided to take the plunge and read this.

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More short fiction from the vast corners of the Net.


"Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters," by N. K. Jemisen (originally published 2010, The Company He Keeps, reprinted 2015 Uncanny Magazine Issue #6)
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/sinners-saints-dragons-and-haints-in-the-city-beneath-the-still-waters/

A good man and a family of miniature dragons face the evil that grows in the heart of the city drowned by hurricane Katrina. Powerful and painful.


"The Oiran's Song," by Isabel Yap, September 2015, Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-oirans-song/

Akira, a former pageboy in a pleasure house is taken as a soldier, trained to fight but also used with casual brutality as a servant and sex slave. When they buy an unusual oiran (courtesan), Ayame, to serve them as well, a strange bond forms between the two victims of war. The subject matter is painful, but the story is both powerful and beautiful.


"September 1 in Tblisi," by Irakli Kobiashvili, Summer 2015, One Throne Magazine
http://www.onethrone.com/#!september-1-in-tbilisi/ccw8

A strong and discomfiting story about the often violent policing of gender norms, set in post-revolution Tblisi, Georgia. (Not sff.)


"Security Check," by Han Song (translated by Ken Liu), August 2015, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/han_08_15/

At first, this story seems to be a typical dystopia. Louis, the protagonist, lives in New York, in a future America that has given up everything for security. People travel only by subway, and everyone must pass through a thorough security check to get to the subway system. The goal is to make everything - and everyone - completely, constantly safe. But to read further is to see each previous assumption about the country, the world, and ultimately the universe in which this is happening - and what is responsible - rendered an illusion, an experiment in reality. Thought-provoking, but ultimately not quite satisfying.


"City of Ash" by Paolo Bacigalupi, July 27, 2015, A Medium Corporation
https://medium.com/matter/city-of-ash-94255fa5d1a9

In an America devastated by climate change, where only the wealthiest have access to fresh water or greenery, a young girl dreams of a better future for herself and her father. As emotionally devastating to read as the future it describes.


"The Midnight Hour" by Mary Robinette Kowal, Uncanny Magazine Issue #5
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/midnight-hour/

A royal couple agree to pay an almost unbearable price for the wellbeing of their kingdom, and will do anything to keep their promise. The tragic elements - and they are many - are thankfully relieved by the strength of their love for each other and their people.


"In Libres" by Elizabeth Bear, Uncanny Magazine Issue #4
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/in-libres/

This is a wickedly funny story about a student of sorcery who needs just one more source citation to complete her thesis - but to get it, she must face the perils of the Special Collections Branch of the Library. To make clear the nature of the threat, the epigraph is from Borges, and the one essential thing needed to navigate the Library is a ball of twine.

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Range of Ghosts is the first book in Elizabeth Bear's epic fantasy trilogy The Eternal Sky. Drawing on a wide range of Asian cultures as the starting point for her intensive world building, Bear has created a rich tapestry in which to embed the story of two heroes - Re Temur and Sardukar-la - both displaced royals, from very different cultures, who join together to fight a hidden power that seeks to destroy all that they know.

The blurb on Bear's website says of this novel:
Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive the machinations of his ruthless uncle.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.

These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.
Much of this novel is essentially an introduction to this wonderfully detailed and diverse world and the characters that will play a role in the events to come. Bear takes her time in setting up her narrative, and I'm very glad she does this, because this world is well worth getting to know. But there is nothing wasted here - every element is necessary to enable the reader to fully engage with the vastness of the setting - which, were it set on our Earth, would span the entire Asian continent, from the Middle East to Japan - and the depth of the characters - each of whom arrives with a full and complex backstory, unique individuals from the moment we meet them.

In Range of Ghosts, Bear demonstrates her mastery of yet another subgenre of speculative fiction, and further cements her position as one of the best writers operating in that field today. Yeah, I'm a fangirl. Deal.

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i have long felt that Elizabeth Bear is a very good writer in the process of becoming a great writer. It easy to see this progression in her most recent short fiction collection Shoggoths in Bloom - all but one of the pieces are reprints and they show how over the past decade her writing has been evolving, growing ever more incisive and provocative and finely crafted. I'd read some of these before - the thought-provoking title story, the heart-breaking Orm the Beautiful, the multi-layered In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns - but when assembled in one place, the range and depth of this collection was striking.

Bear writes about uncomfortable things, and she wants you to think and feel strongly about those things even as she wraps those things in prose that is often a delight to read. She writes about evil and accident and caprice and entropy and just plain bad luck, and about people who find ways to keep fighting no matter what. She writes about hard choices and missed chances and those times where everything you have just isn't enough, but still you give everything because fighting to the end is better than giving up. And she writes about something that has always resonated with me, the willing sacrifice, the knowledge that there are prices to pay and the only thing you can do to keep your soul is pay the price.

That's some of what you'll find in this collection. The hardest truths of all, woven into the most beautiful of fictions.

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I did a lot of catching up with various series in 2013. The Completed series:

David Anthony Durham, the Acacia series
Acacia: The Other Lands
Acacia: The Sacred Band

N. K. Jemisin, the Inheritance series
The Broken Kingdoms
Kingdom of the Gods

Christopher Paolini, the Inheritance series
Brisingr
Inheritance

Glenda Larke, the Mirage Makers series
The Shadow of Tyr
The Song of the Shiver Barrens

Charles Saunders, the Imaro series
Imaro: The Naama War

C. J. Cherryh, the Chanur Saga
Chanur's Homecoming
Chanur's Legacy

Elizabeth Bear, Jacob's Ladder series
Chill
Grail

Kage Baker, The Company series
Not Less Than Gods
(Probably the last, given Baker's untimely death)

Michael Thomas Ford, Jane Austen, Vampire series
Jane Goes Batty
Jane Vows Vengeance


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It seems that there has been a recent rebirth of the novella. I've been finding all sorts of books that are collections of three or four novella-length pieces - most of them in the urban fantasy and paranormal romance categories. Also, some publishing houses, notably Subterranean Press and Aquaduct Press, have been publishing a number of works in the novella to short novel range. And one finds novella-length pieces on various author and magazine websites all over the net. In the list below of novellas I've devoured this past year, if a novella was not acquired as a standalone publication (paper or edoc), I've tried to indicate the name of the book, or website I found it in/on.

As for the novellas themselves, there's quite a range. Many of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance novellas are much of a muchness. I was delighted to find a novella by Michelle Sagara set in her Cast universe, and found the novellas by Yasmine Galenorn and C. E. Murphy interesting enough that I intend to explore their novels.

On the other hand, I was very excited to read more tales set in Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam - Abigail Irene Garrett is a character I am very fond of. The same is true of the late and much lamented Kage Baker's steampunk sequence of novellas associated with her Company books. And I do like Diana Gabaldon's Lord John sequence of novels and novellas. And my devouring of Margaret Frazer's published oeuvre would not have been complete without the domina Frevisse novella.

Marjorie M. Liu, The Tangleroot Palace (Never After)
Marjorie M. Liu, Armor of Roses (Inked)
Marjorie M. Liu, Hunter Kiss (Wild Thing)

Yasmine Galenorn, The Shadow of Mist (Never After)
Yasmine Galenorn, Etched in Silver (Inked)

Mercedes Lackey, A Tangled Web (Harvest Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Moontide (Winter Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Counting Crows (Charmed Destinies)

Rachel Lee, Drusilla's Dream (Charmed Destinies)
Catherine Asaro, Moonglow (Charmed Destinies)
Michelle Sagara West, Cast in Moonlight (Harvest Moon) 
Cameron Haley, Retribution (Harvest Moon)
Karen Chance, Skin Deep (Inked)
Eileen Wilkes, Human Nature (Inked)
Maggie Shayne, Animal Magnetism (Wild Thing)
Meljean Brook, Paradise (Wild Thing)
Tanith Lee, Heart of the Moon (Winter Moon)
C. E. Murphy, Banshee Cries (Winter Moon)
Sharon Shinn, The Wrong Bridegroom (Never After)

Elizabeth Bear, In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Asimov's)
Elizabeth Bear, Seven For A Secret
Elizabeth Bear, The White City
Elizabeth Bear, Ad Eternum

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Succubus (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Haunted Soldier (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, The Custom of the Army (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Plague of Zombies (via author's website)

Margaret Frazer, Winter Heart (Smashwords)

Kage Baker, Rude Mechanicals
Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea
Kage Baker, Speed, Speed the Cable

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Some interesting anthologies and collections of short stories came my way last year. The anthologies included two nicely edited theme anthologies by John Joseph Adams (dystopias and homages to Barsoom), a vamipre themed antholgy edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, a survey of urban fantasy edited by Peter Beagle and a dragon-themed anthology edited by Jack Dann.

Of particular interest were two volumes edited or co-edited by Connie Wilkins: the second volume in a new annual series of anthologies featuring short stories with lesbian protagonists; and an uneven but engaging selection of alternate history short stories with a focus on queer protagonists as nexi of change.

I was also delighted to be able to obtain a copy of an anthology edited by Nisi Shawl of short stories written by authors of colour who attended Clarion as Octavia E. Butler Scholars. The anthology was offered by the Carl Brandon Society for a limited time as a fund-raising project and is no longer available.

Peter Beagle (ed.), The Urban Fantasy Anthology
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Under the Moons of Mars
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Brave New Worlds
Nancy Kilpatrick (ed.), Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead
Jack Dann (ed.), The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Connie Wilkins & Steve Berman (eds.), Heiresses of Russ 2012
Connie Wilkins (ed.), Time Well-Bent: Queer Alternative Histories


I also read several collections this year, including two more volunes from PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, featuring work by and interviews with Nalo Hopkinson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Other collections of works by SFF writers included: a set of novellas from Mercedes Lackey featuring two familiar characters, Jennifer Talldeer and Diana Tregarde, and a new heroine, techno-shaman Ellen McBride; a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bear featuring forensic sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett; short stories by Maureen McHugh; and forays ibto the fantasy realm of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

In honour of Alice Munro, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, I read a collection of her more recent short stories (and plan on reading several more in the coming months - I've always loved her work and am delighted that she has been so deservedly recognised). Also worthy of note was Drew Hayden Taylor's collection of stories set among the residents of the fictional Otter Lake First Nations reserve, and Margaret Laurence's short stories set in Ghana. In the realm of historical fiction, There were stories by Margaret Frazer featuring medieval nun and master sleuth Dame Frevisse; I discovered and devoured Frazer's novels last year, and will speak of them in a later post.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike 
Nalo Hopkinson, Report from Planet Midnight
Mercedes Lackey, Trio of Sorcery
Elizabeth Bear, Garrett Investigates
Maureen McHugh, After the Apocalypse
Lloyd Alexander, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

Margaret Laurence, The Tomorrow-Tamer
Margaret Frazer, Sins of the Blood
Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

All in all, I found a wide range of short fiction to enjoy this year.

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Elizabeth Bear:
Ink and Steel
Heaven and Earth

Elves in the Elizabethan era. With Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson and Will Shakespeare and Francis Walsingham and the Queen of the Elves and a most strangely imprisoned angel and Lucifer himself.

In the second duology of her Promethean Age series, Bear continues to explore themes of how the creation of narratives influences reality, and issues of servitude and freedom, sacrifice and the desire for redemption.

A more focused story (the title of the duology is The Stratford Man, and Shakespeare is the central figure, although it is Marlowe’s actions – beginning with the historical circumstances of his death, often speculated to have been at the hands of an assassin – that drive much of the plot) it is stronger and more thematically coherent than her previous Promethean Age novels, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water. The Stratford Man duology also focuses more specifically on religion as a source and instrument of oppression/bondage.

While Bear has received criticism for her handling of racial tropes in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, I’ve always appreciated her treatment of queer characters and situations. And in the character of Chris Marlowe, Bear continues her solid and, in my opinion, very welcome tradition of sympathetic representation of queer characters.

I could barely put the books down to sleep and eat and work until I finished them.

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Dust, Elizabeth Bear

Start with a traditional science fictional setting: the multi-generational space ship (The Jacob's Ladder) stalling in its journey whose passengers, long years after the original catastrophe, have forgotten their goal and begin to evolve their own society, feudal/medieval in structure, with strict lines of caste/national identity based on the ship's duties of their ancestors. Add in some nifty new science fiction concepts, like artificial intelligences and bio-engineered nanoorganisms. Now toss in a big dose of Biblical and Arthurian legends and archetypes, from the grail story to the Garden of Eden, and give the recipe to one of the most original minds writing speculative fiction today, Elizabeth Bear.

What you get is not easy to describe, but very rewarding to read. And it’s the first in a trilogy, so there’s much more to come. This makes me happy.

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Elizabeth Bear’s first two novels of the Promethean Age, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, are, in my mind, absolutely brilliant. These books are to what is often called urban fantasy as Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is to a Harlequin romance. Not that there's anything wrong with the standard urban fantasy book (I read several series in this subgenre most avidly) or with Harlequin romances (not my cup of tea, but clearly they offer satisfaction to a great many people). But Bear's books, although unarguably fantasy, and clearly set in a modern urban setting (at least those portions that take place on Earth, and not in Faerie), are something quite special indeed.

As with many of Bear’s novels, there’s almost too much going on to even being to state a simple premise, over-arching plot or singular theme, but one can begin by saying that the universe of The Promethean Age is one where Earth and Faerie, Heaven and Hell, are real… places. Dimensions, overlapping and intertwined worlds, or something like that. The Earth is much as we know it, except that in the places that no one ordinarily looks to closely at, there are Magi, many of them members of the Prometheus Club, an organization which has for centuries waged a war with the realm of Faerie for the control of Earth. But neither the human Magi nor the otherworldly folk of Faerie can be said to be monolithic blocs, and there are power struggles between factions of the Magi and factions and courts of Faerie. And of course, various parties have various allegiances with Heaven and Hell – and not necessarily the ones one might expect.

Some reviewers have suggested that Bear has researched her material a bit too deeply. Certainly the more one is familiar with folk ballads, history (particularly the Elizabethan period), world mythology, other literary interpretations of the realm of Faerie and of the relationship between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, Arthurian myths, and sundry other related fields of interest, the more one are likely to find in these books that delights with a fresh perspective on familiar characters and ideas. But the use of all of these stories, of differing degrees of presumed truth and cultural influence, is absolutely key to what Bear is doing with these books, because one of the underlying themes in the Promethean series is all about the consequences of the act of creation and the role of the imagination in creating and shaping reality.

As for me, I thought these two books were among the best things I read in 2008. I'm currently reading the next duology in the Promethean novels, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, and if anything, these are even better than the first.

Edit: Since I wrote this brief comment on my reaction to Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, the racial tropes Bear uses in exploring another of her themes in these books - issues of bondage,servitude and obligation - have been critiqued by several readers of colour as problematic. Bear herself has not handled the critiques or the discussions that spread out from her responses particularly well. (For context on this debate, which has come to be known as RaceFail 09, please see this post by [personal profile] rydra_wong for a very long list of pertinent links, including links to some timelines and summaries.)

I agree that the tropes are problematical. My reading of the text is that Bear was attempting, among many other things, to deconstruct these racialised tropes as part of her exploration of binding and servitude. Speaking as a person with white privilege, I think that she was successful in this to some degree, certainly enough that I was encouraged by the book alone to think about these issues. But I am not a person of colour, it is not bodies that look like mine that are being used in the text to do this deconstruction, so the text had no power to anger or injure me. It was easy for me to read a text written by a white author that made use of these tropes, and wait for her to show me what she intended in making use of them.

Moreover, the author was working primarily with myths that were drawn from my home culture, one in which concepts of binding spells and geasa and other, similar tropes are common and not racialised, and in my privilege I did not think about how the use of explicitly racialised characters and tropes would affect people of colour.

I am not detracting my statement that these books were among the best that I read in 2008, but I am acknowledging that there are serious issues of cultural appropriation and how to write racialised characters and situations to be considered in approaching this text, and that it should not have been easy for me not to see these issues up front. I need to be a more careful reader where race is concerned.

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Companion to Wolves, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear.

Some fantasy writers love to have humans and animals “bonding” together in some mysterious telepathic or empathic connection of mind, spirit and body – Lackey’s white, equine Companions and Tayledras bond birds, Gayle Greeno’s cat-like Ghatti, McCaffery’s dragons and fire lizards and watchwhers, Andre Norton’s kinkajous, meerkats and the like, to name just a few examples among many. It’s a sub-genre of fantasy unto itself, the companion animal fantasy. It’s certainly an appealing notion when you think about it, at a superficial level – never having to be alone again, but rather being accepted with the unconditional love and devotion we tend to associate with animals, plus all the imagined bonuses that come with having the option of seeing the world through an animal’s keener senses and commanding or at least negotiating access to the special or enhanced abilities the special “bond animals” often have. It surely sounds wonderful when you think of the relationship in terms of what the human wants from his or her companion animal, and how the human would choose to affect the companion animal.

In Companion to Wolves - as is suggested by the title, Monette and Bear have looked long and hard at the other half of the bond – what the animal wants to give to the human, and how the animal’s experiences affect the human. In this subversion of the traditional companion animal fantasy, it is the animal’s nature that determines how the bond works, and the humans must fit into their animal companions’ way of existence in order to make effective use of the animal’s abilities through the bond.

In a novel that draws on Germanic and Nordic myth and culture, it’s not at all surprising that the companion animals are wolves – pack animals with a complex social structure regulated by sex and dominance. The men who bond with the great trellwolves – mortal enemies of the trolls who repeatedly threaten the communities of humans scattered through the forests – must learn to fit into the social patterns of their lupine brothers and sisters, and when a bitch wolf goes into heat and the males fight for the privilege of attempting to cover her, their human companions – the wolfcarls – must follow suit, not just because of the surge of emotions that they feel during the bond, but because to do otherwise risks interfering with the only social organisation the wolves know and function within. Unlike McCaffery, who was never really comfortable dealing with the logical consequences of male riders of green dragons being driven into the sexual frenzy of their dragon’s mating flights, Monette and Bear are almost ruthlessly honest about how the mating and dominance displays of the wolves affect their human brothers.

Companion to Wolves is the story of an adolescent boy, Njall Gunnarson, son of a jarl or chief, who is claimed as a tithe-boy by the werthreat, the separate society of bonded wolves and men whose duty it is to protect the people of the towns and villages from marauding trolls and their war beasts, the wyrvens. Njall’s choice to go with the wolfcarl from the nearby werheall (wolfhall) will mean leaving behind everyting he knows, and facing the general animosity that wolfless men in this society often feel toward the wolfcarls, who are by necessity bisexual if not homosexual. His father is – for reasons that we discover later on in the tale – even more violently opposed to giving up his son to the werheall, but the tithe of young men to the werthreat is part of the agreement, the only way to maintain the fighting force of the werthreat, and so Njall goes with the wolf brothers, where he slowly learns about how this society of two species operates.

Life becomes more complicated – and the challenges of adapting to life as a wolfcarl more personally discomfiting – for young Njall, now called Isolfr, when he bonds with an alpha bitch pup or konigenwolf (queenwolf), and learns that his destiny, once the young female comes to full maturity, is to found, with his sisterwolf Viradechtis, a new werheall where he will necessarily become the partner, both sexually and as co-leader of the heall, the man whose wolfbrother Viradechtis chooses as mate.

But this book is more than just an exploration of how an society of bonded men and wolves might function, or a simple coming of age story. Before Isolfr and his sister wolf Viradechtis come of age, they, along with all the other wolfcarls , are faced with a growing threat from the north that may well spell the end of werheall and village alike. The northern trolls, who for generations have come south to raid the villages of men and then withdraw to their warrens, are on the move, and it will take more than an alliance of werthreat and wolfless men to defeat them.

I can’t say enough about the sense of reality I experienced while reading this book, Monette and Bear offer carefully constructed, well thought out worldbuilding, vital and memorable characters, and the kind of story that any skald would give his shield arm to sing.

More than that, each of the four intelligent species portrayed in the book – humans, trellwolves, trolls and svartalfar – present us with different perspectives on how sex, gender, fertility, reproduction and power can function as interrelated organising principles of societies. And even more than that, there is the way in which the novel tells us how societies and individuals that follow very different patterns can learn to communicate with each other if there is enough will, respect and compassion.

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New Amsterdam, Elizabeth Bear

Someday, I believe, Elizabeth Bear is going to be universally recognised as one of the truly great science fiction and fantasy writers. I am profoundly impressed with each new book of hers that I read. She creates complex, interesting characters, places them in well-constructed settings, and tells engaging stories in finely crafted language that, in addition to entertaining, explore a host of challenging themes and leave the reader with something more to think about.

And range. Has she got range. Her body of work to date runs right across the spectrum from hard sf to high fantasy, and when she gets tired of the standard sub-genres in speculative fiction, well, she just mixes and matches until she comes up with something she likes. And she’s frighteningly prolific. Her first novel, Hammered, was published in 2005. Since then she’s released nine novels, one collection of linked short stories and novellas, a collection of stand alone short stories and a tenth novel co-written with Sarah Monette. At my last count (and I could be wrong), she has three more novels finished and in the pipeline, with at least two or three more in various stages of development.

And I’ve read most of the published books (though I haven’t gotten around to writing about all of them yet), and the ones I haven’t are sitting on my TBR shelf.

Today, I’m going to talk in glowing terms about her alternate history/steampunk/urban fantasy/vampire detective book, New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam is that collections of linked stories I mentioned above. is set in an alternate Earth at the beginning of the 20th century, a world in which the colonial project in the new world unfolded somewhat differently, thanks to the war magic of the indigenous peoples. There was no American revolution, and no unchecked drive across the vast new continent. England has only recently acquired the former Dutch colonies, and remains on the verge of war with France.

It’s also a world where vampires are quite real and function, to varying degrees, openly in society, and sorcery is recognised as a valued skill in a number of situations occupations, including that of forensic investigator. Which brings us to the absolutely unforgettable protagonists of the stories: Lady Abigail Irene Garrett, working in New Amsterdam as a Detective Crown Investigator and forensic sorceress, and Sebastian de Ulloa, ancient and powerful vampire, who travels to the world with his companion Jack Priest. Crime-solving is Abby Irene’s profession, and appears to be a hobby of Sebastian’s (which he approaches in a manner which seems to me somewhat reminiscent of the Great Detective himself, Sherlock Holmes).

Of course, events bring them together, and of course they solve mysteries and crimes together and become entangled in each other's lives and face grave dangers that neither can escape without the other (and of course, don't forget Jack, who is quite involved in all of this as well).

One of the wonderful things about these stories is how cleverly they both follow and subvert the standard tropes of the vampire detective/urban fantasy genre – which I love on its own, but here, where it has been carefully deconstructed and rebuilt in a way that is both comfortably familiar and delightfully different, is much stronger meat, and well worth the careful digestion to bring out its rich and mature flavour. This is a real, complex world, with characters that have complicated histories, needs and desires, multi-layered and conflicting intentions, motivations and loyalties, political considerations, secrets, deceptions, risks and consequences – all the stuff that Bear is so very good at, and which makes her work a true delight to read.

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Undertow, Elizabeth Bear

The more of Elizabeth Bear’s work I read, the more I want to read.

Bear has a gift for taking a handful of ideas – each one potentially the germ of an insightful novel – and weaving them together seamlessly, so that her books are not just “what if…” but “what if… and if… and if… and…”

In Undertow, Bear starts with a hard science approach to the notion that thought or will can influence reality – in the person of several characters who are or want to be professional “co-incidence engineers. Add in a system of interstellar transportation based on quantum uncertainty that can transmit non-living matter anywhere in the galaxy, while people are still required to travel in relativistic spaceships – unless they choose to transmit a copy of themselves across space, which introduces a variety of interesting legal and philosophical wrinkles into the mix – what is the nature of personal identity when one or more “copies” of a person, each branching off from the “original” and thus slowly diverging from each other over time? Establish the scene – Greene’s world, a “company planet” where the supposedly primitive aboriginal inhabitants, an amphibious species known as ranids, or more commonly, “froggies,” are employed – or, depending on how you look at it, enslaved – in the mining of a rare mineral with unusual properties that enable the co-incidence engineers to manipulate probabilities. Introduce the extreme callousness to human and other forms of life and blindness to long-term consequences of cut-throat industrial practices and reliance on non-renewable resources that is common to many a mega-corporation operating in an area where there is minimal oversight.

Against this backdrop, play out the story of André Deschênes, an assassin who wants to get out of his present profession and become a co-incidence engineer, preferably by apprenticing with one of the great practitioners of the art, Jean Gris, who has professional connections with André’s girlfriend, data miner Cricket Murphy. Cricket is also a friend of Gris's lover, Lucienne Spivak – who André has just learned is the target of the contract he’s just accepted from the folks who run the tanglestone mines and the planet. What André doesn’t know is that Jean, Lucienne and Cricket are secretly working with the ranid to bring about a rebellion against the company.

The story is tightly plotted, and as full of suspense and surprises as the latest summer block-buster spy thriller. It is, as I’ve come to expect from Bear, well-written, with solid characters, consistent action, and lots to think about.

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Carnival, by Elizabeth Bear

This was one of the best books I read last year (yes, I’m still writing about last year’s books, even though we are well into this year). Elizabeth Bear has rapidly become one of my “autobuy” authors, which means that I will buy whatever she writes without hesitation of even looking at the blurbs on the cover, let alone reading a review, because I have been so delighted with everything I’ve read from her thus far. And Carnival is the book I read first.

The main characters are Michaelangelo Kusanagi-Jones and Vincent Katherinessen, two ambassadors – who are actually rather more than just ambassadors – from an Earth-dominated and highly patriarchal Coalition managed by cybernetic systems, sent to the independent, matriarchal colony planet of New Amazonia, on a covert mission to investigate and acquire the colony’s new and secret energy technology, while apparently returning priceless art “appropriated” from the colony by the Coalition.

They arrive the day before the New Amazonian festival of Carnival, and in the process of carrying out their own various overt and covert missions, some of which are a secret not only to their own government but also to each other, they run headlong into shifting social undercurrents, political instabilities and power struggles in the colony that will lead them to question old alliances and form new ones.

The idea of Carnival – a time when everyone wears masks and social order is turned upside down – is particularly meaningful within the scope of the novel. Certainly, almost everyone we encounter wears at least one, and often more than one mask – duplicity, secrets within secrets, misunderstandings, deceptions and mistaken perceptions are found everywhere. And questions of social order and the distribution of status and power in both societies – that of Old Earth and the Coalition, and that of New Amazonia, are highlighted both in the conversations between the Coalition ambassadors and their New Amazonian hosts, and in the perceptions and misconceptions they have about each other.

Bear also explores a third major theme of carnivals everywhere, that of the farewell to the flesh, in a crucial encounter between Katherinessen, Kusanagi-Jones (ironically enough, members of a society where vegetarianism is the norm), and an alien society who is the key to the resolution of multiple and overlapping strands of intent and action. In this encounter, Bear provides us with that very welcome sort of alien society, one that does not organise itself or make acceptable decisions according to the same kinds of values and systems that humans do.

Of particular interest to me – in a novel that touches on a great deal that is of particular interest to me – is Bear’s look at the gendering of power in different cultures. More than simply continuing the traditional Battle of the Sexes theme that sets a patriarchal society in conflict with a matriarchal one to uncover the flaws in essentialist ideas of who men and women are and what they can do, Bear looks as well at essentialist ideas of gay and straight. Both Kusanagi-Jones and Katherinessen are gay men – an anathema in their own society. However, the matriarchal culture of New Amazonia envisions gay men as “gentles” – men who lack the aggressive, violent, confrontational urges of “stud” men, which is the only reason that they have permitted these two men as ambassadors, given that the coalition has no women ambassadors to send. It is a remarkable skewering of essentialist ideas about gender to watch the women of New Amazonia being disabused of the idea that gay men, being “gentle,” are somehow constitutionally less dangerous than other men.

Carnival is a rich and complex novel. Behind the strong plot and multi-dimensional characters and fine technique lie sophisticated examinations of three of the great branches of philosophy – politics, ethics and aesthetics – and the ways that various political, ethical and aesthetic systems, when adopted by a society, shape and define what that society choses and values, and sometimes nurture and sometimes damage that society. And above all it is about the very flawed people who variously try to uphold, challenge, subvert, adapt to, change, or use to their own advantage the systems that operate in their own society and the societies of others, with a particular emphasis on how this relates to governance and gender. Ultimately, it asks deep questions about the exercise of power in societies, the importance of the consent of the governed, the responsibility of the governors, and the ethical grounds for revolution – bloody or bloodless. But unlike this paragraph, the book is not at all dry or theoretical, in fact, it is quite the opposite.

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Some brief comments on several collections of short stories I’ve read this year, but some very talents authors – some of whom I’ve been reading for years, and some of whom I have only discovered this year but have come to appreciate greatly.

Dangerous Space, Kelley Eskridge

This was my introduction to Eskridge’s work, and I was very impressed. Her explorations of the fluidity of identity, gender and sexuality are powerful and harken back, for me, to some of the best of Samuel Delany’s work. There has been much mention by reviewers of the three stories that feature the ungendered character Mars, but while Mars is perhaps the flashpoint of discussion about these issues for many, most of the stories in this collection place their characters in the “dangerous space” that lies outside, or perhaps in between, the safe definitions society would force upon us all. In some stories, the use of settings where social roles and personal actions are highly regulated (an asylum, a fascist state) highlight the sense that anyone can find themselves in a dangerous state when we move away from any imposed norm.


Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia Butler

It still seems unreal to me to think that we shall read no more from Octavia Butler. I’ve long been an admirer of her novels, but only this year did I finally read this collection of her few short stories. Most science fiction readers will be acquainted, with the three strongest stories here – “Bloodchild,” “Speech sounds,” and “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” In addition, there are two lesser known stories and two essays on her craft by Butler. It is a good thing to have all of her published stories together in one place on my shelf. It is a sad thing that there are so few. It is a great loss that there will be no more.


The Chains that You Refuse, Elizabeth Bear

It is difficult from me to think that before this year I had never read anything by Elizabeth Bear. In just a few months, she has become one of my (admittedly many) favourite writers, someone whose latest offering I would buy unhesitatingly without even reading a review or a blurb to see what it was about. This collection was the second book I read by her, and the diversity of ideas, combined with her sure sense of the right style for each, made a strong impression. If there was an underlying theme to the collection, it was making choices that challenge boundaries, subvert expectations, resist demands – as the title says, refusing chains.


Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, Kage Baker

I acquired this book specifically because I had run into a great deal of positive comment about Kage Baker, and decided to introduce myself to her work through a collection of her short stories. The title story of this collection, which captured my imagination immediately, is an original novella set in Baker’s Company series, which I am currently devouring with great joy. Several other stories are apparently set in the universe of another of her novels, The Anvil of the World, which I have not yet read, although I intend to remedy that as soon as I may. I also enjoyed the stand-alone stories in the collection. Baker has a gift for telling what seems to be a simple tale, about something not all that earth-shattering, which turns out to be far more significant than one would at first have believed. The delayed punch effect. I like it.


What Ho, Magic! and Relative Magic, Tanya Huff

Why yes, I am trying to acquire every collection of Huff’s stories. How clever of you to notice how many of them have been on this year’s reading list. Why? Because Huff writes stories that run the gamut of styles and emotions, from laugh-out-loud pun-laden comedy to the most serious and heroic of epic fantasy with everything in between. Reading her work makes me feel good. Do I need another reason?

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I have been reading a lot of novels in series lately. I like series. I love plots that go on for volumes and volumes and characters that grow and change and themes that are developed layer upon layer.

Lately, I have begun reading, or completed reading, or read a few more books in the middle of, the following series. All of these series, obviously, are ones that I have or am enjoying highly, because if I weren't, why on earth would I have read more than the first volume?


The Miles Korkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Brothers in Arms
Mirror Dance

What is there not to love about a runty little hero with a brittle bone disability, a brilliant mind and a gift for profound deviousness and intrigue who's trying to face down a birth culture in which physical prowess and manliness is everything, while making a name for himself as a mercenary captain and concealing his mission as an interstellar intelligence agent?

I read the first novels in this series a long time ago, when they first came out, and then a couple of years back, when I happened to notice just how many more of them Bujold had written, I re-read the older ones and am now in the process of reading the neweer ones. Bujold's is smart, and often funny milsf adventure with some very nice exploration of both gender politics and disability issues, and some very nice political intrigue.


The Diana Tregarde Mysteries, by Mercedes Lackey
Children of the Night
Jinx High

Completing my re-read of this urban fantasy series, which alas has only three volumes. Diana Teegarde is a Guardian, a person who is gifted with strong supernatural and/or psychic gifts and the ability to perform magic, and has accepted the responsibility to use these gifts to oppose those - both human and inhuman - who would use such powers for evil.

As with many of Lackey's novels, there's a distinct pagan-friendly and queer-positive vibe, a strong female protagonist, children at risk and some clearly defined heroes and villians.


The Jenny Casey trilogy by Elizabeth Bear
Hammered
Scardown
Worldwired

Ok, if you like hard sf, strong female protagonists, cyberpunk (although Bear has argued that it is actually post-cyberpunk), geopolitical sf, or just plain good writing with great characters and complex, action-filled plots about important human issues, go read Bear's novels about Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey. If you want some details first, you can find them at Elizabeth Bear's website.

I was enthralled by these books - quite literally, I read them one after another over the course of about two days. Compelling, thought-provoking, and exciting reading.


The Dragon Temple Trilogy, by Janine Cross
Touched by Venom
Shadowed by Wings
Forged by Fire

These are not easy books to read. I'll give you that warning right now. Over the course of these three novels, the young female protagonist - who is only a child when the books begin - experiences just about every kind of abuse you can imagine, as a child, as a female, as a slave, as a political prisoner, as a gender rebel, as a racial minority, as a member of an oppressed socio-economic class, as an addict, as an enforced victim/participant of a religious cult, as a recruit in a brutal quasi-military training program, and probably as several more identities that are traditionally targets of institutionalised as well as individual abuse that I hadn't noticed.

Some people have dismissed these works as violent pornography, others have seen them as a deeply disturbing dystopia with a profound feminist and anti-oppression stance. I'm defintely in the latter camp on this - sometimes it's important to remember just how bad things not just can be, but are for people who are not privileged (as I imagine many of the readers of this blog are, at least in some ways).

There is a great review by Liz Henry up at Strange Horizons that not only looks at the first book in the series from a feminist and anti-oppression perspective, but also examines the vastly divergeant opinions people have voiced about the book.


The Company Novels, by Kage Baker
Sky Coyote
Mendoza in Hollywood
The Graveyard Game

I read the first volume in the series, In the Garden of Iden, earlier this year, and was very much intrigued with the set-up - time-travelling for profit, with entreprenuers from the future conscripting orphans throughout history to become immortal collectors of vanished artworks, cultural histories, extinct specimens, and all sort of other things worth saving - if someone is going to profit by it. It was claer from the very first that there were some unanswered questions about the whole enterprise, and as the series has continued, that's proving to be even truer than I'd expected.

The key continuing characters - Mendoza, saved from the Spanish Inquisition as a child, and Joseph, her recruiter, himself rescued from a massacre of his family group in 20,000 BCE by Budu, an even older Immortal of whom much is heard but little is seen in the books I have read so far - find themselves and their associates withing the Company increasing confronted by mysteries about who really runs the Company, the source of the technology that made both time travel and their own immortality possible, the real motives of the increasing large number of factions associated with the Company, its operatives and controllers, the growing number of disapperaing immortals, and most mysterious of all, what happens after 2355 - the year in which all communications from the future to the operatives and immortals stationed all throughout human history (and pre-history) cease.

Political intrigue on a truly grand scale. I'm loving this series.



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