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Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, the first volume of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, is a mindfuckingly brilliant piece of work.

It is a story told many times before, of rebellion and war and political intrigue and the battle for hearts and minds, but never told in such a casually alien way. Lee drops us into a universe that does not work the way ours does, a universe built not on physics and facts, but mathematics and belief, into a political environment where a rebellion in which a heretical calendar that has been adopted in one captured fortress changes the way that technology works in the space around it, where the essential skills needed to fight the rebels are not just leadership, tactics, and battle skills, but intuitive mathematics and the ability to think flexibly while maintaining total loyalty to the ruling hexarchate and the consensus reality enforced by the orthodox calendar and the rituals that derive from it and structure every aspect of life.

Kel Cheris - Kel being her designation as one of six personality types recognised by the hexarchy - is that rare person, a battle commander who can function with originality within the rigidity of her society, who can recalculate the equations that shape reality within a hair's breadth of heresy without crossing the line.

But Cheris is young, and has never commanded a large scale operation. To face the calendrical rot spreading out from the rebel base in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Cheris will need the strategic skills and experience of a long dead mad general whose consciousness has been preserved, whose advice can only be accessed by grafting his personality to her own - and whose secret agenda may result in her destruction.

I can not begin to give the alienness of the hexarchate's universe a fair description. The book must be read, the universe entered wholeheartedly, to experience what Lee has done in his worldbuilding in this novel. Yet at the same time, the humanity and depth of the characters makes the strangeness real, even if it is never quite understood.

A truly astounding first novel.

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Lately, I've been reading with an eye to making Hugo nominations, so this batch of short fiction reads is mostly selected from various lists of recommendations.


"The City Born Great," N. K. Jemisin; Tor.com, September 9, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/

An urban fantasy - though not the kind we're used to - about the gritty birth and life of the great cities, set in New York. Evocative and filled with a sense of urgency that pulls the reader toward its conclusion.


"This Is Not a Wardobe Door," A. Merc Rustad; Fireside Magazine Issue #29, January 2016
http://www.firesidefiction.com/issue29/chapter/this-is-not-a-wardrobe-door/

A story about imagination and hope and holding on to the magic of childhood when you believed you could change the world. At the end, I was crying.


"Checkerboard Planet," Eleanor Arnason; ClarkesWorld, December 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/arnason_12_16/

A new Lydia DuLuth talr from Arnason is always a treat. In this novelette, the AIs who control the interstellar stargates have asked Lydia to investigate conditions on a planet with a most peculiar ecology - the entire land mass and parts of the oceans are organised into giant squares, all of similar size, with all the life forms in each square the same colour. The planet has been colonised by a biogenetics corporation which, the AIs fear, is not acting in the best interests of the planet or humanity. An anti-imperialist first contact story with a gentle and at times even whimsical touch.


"Fifty Shades of Grays," Steven Barnes; Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/fifty-shades-grays/

Carver Kofax is a master at marketing and sales. But when he and his colleague (and romantic interest) Rhonda, land the corporation they work for a lucrative and highly secretive contract, the nature of the campaign demands all their skills - and leads to unexpected and dire consequences for all of humanity. Barnes handles the revelations in the narrative and the protagonist's growing unease with a sure hand. Content warning: this novelette contains sexually explicit kink.


"A Dead Djinn in Cairo," P. Djeli Clark; tor.com, May 18, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/05/18/a-dead-djinn-in-cairo/

In an alternate pre-WWI Cairo, where djinn and angels from other dimensions mingle with humans, Special Inspector Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities investigates the apparent suicide of a djinn, only to discover a mad plot to destroy humanity. Will the dapper young inspector solve the mystery in time? Clark's novelette is a delighful genre-bending fantasy thriller with a touch of steampunk. Cairo comes to life in complex and sensual detail, and Fatma is a character I'd love to see again.


"The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight," E. Lily Yu, Uncanny Magazine, Sept-Oct 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/witch-orion-waste-boy-knight/

A relatively young and inexperienced witch decides to accompany a young knight errant seeking dragons to kill, and learns a few bitter lessons about honor, trust and pride.


"The Green Knight’s Wife," Kat Howard; Uncanny Magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/green-knights-wife/

A compelling riff on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, told from the perspective of the Green Knight's wife, in which one of those women who is always on the sidelines in such hero tales, treated as merely part of the mythic machinery, takes up agency and acts for herself.


"Foxfire, Foxfire," Yoon Ha Lee; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 3, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/foxfire-foxfire/

A novelette blending fantasy and sf, set in a Asian- derived alternate universe where loyalists and rebels do battle with giant powered mechas. A young spirit fox with a great desire to become human - which he can only achieve by killing and eating 100 humans - is faced with difficult choices when captured by a mecha pilot. A story about transformations, and finding one's self.


"Unauthorized Access," An Owomoyela; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/unauthorized-access/

You would think a high profile hacker who's already spent time in prison for releasing government information that there was no reason to hide would be seriously radicalised - but for Aedo Leung, getting out of jail is only the beginning. A cautionary tale about the sequestration of public information that has suddenly become even more timely and appropriate.

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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 seem to be on a bit of a short fiction binge. Trying to read some stories from 2015, recommended in various places, that interest me.



"The Missing Guest," Alice Sola Kim, December 22, 2015, Lenny
http://www.lennyletter.com/culture/a200/the-missing-guest/

An unsettling story about friendship circles and outsiders, about being both participant and observer, with distinct undertones of the weird. I'm still not sure who the missing guest is, nor am I certain that I'm supposed to be.


"Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight," Aliette de Bodard, January 2015, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/debodard_01_15/

A nuanced portrayal of the varied responses to grief, set in de Bodard's Xuya Empire universe. A scientist whose work is vital to the future of the Empire dies, and her children - one of whom is a Mindship - and the woman who must carry on her mentor's work follow different paths in grieving. Moving piece, well written, with strong characterisation.


"Variations on an Apple," Yoon Ha Lee, October 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/10/14/variations-on-an-apple-yoon-ha-lee/

A scintillating sciencefictional symphony of imaginings drawn upon the myths of the apple of discord and the siege of Troy. Lee does things with words and images and multi-layered references to music and mathematics that I can't even begin to describe. An ever-shifting but never-changing meditation on desire, choice and conflict.


"Adult Children of Alien Beings," Dennis Danvers, August 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/08/19/adult-children-of-alien-beings-dennis-danvers/

A somewhat pedestrian novelette that literalises the feelings of difference and - if you'll pardon the pun - alienation that most of us experience. A middle-aged man uncovers evidence suggesting that his parents may not have been who, or what, they seemed to be, and embarks on a search for the truth - but ultimately realises there is a better way to resolve his crisis of self.


"Pockets," Amal el-Mohtar, February 2015, Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/pockets/

Nadia has a peculiar problem. She keeps finding things in her pockets. Things she's never seen before, things that make no sense and have no apparent relevance to her life. Things that could not possibly be in her pocket, that are larger than any pocket she owns. El-Mohtar treats this surreal premise with the greatest seriousness, and brings it to a profound conclusion that speaks both to the mystery of the connections between people and the power of the creative impulse.


"Cassandra," Ken Liu, March 2015, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/liu_03_15/

A meditation on the nature of causality, the meaning of free will, and the morality of interference wrapped up in a super-hero tale, in which the villain is a vigilante acting on pre-cognition in an attempt to save the innocent while the iconic defender of truth and justice focuses on protecting the proper unfolding of time, come what may.


"Eye," Wole Talabi, February, 2015, Liquid Imagination
http://liquidimagination.silverpen.org/article/eye-wole-talabi/

Powerful piece of flash fiction about impossible, abhorrent choices. How far will a mother go, what will she sacrifice, to save the life of one of her children?

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Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee's collection of short stories, is a treat in every way. Lee's voice is a unique one, his rich and evocative prose telling stories synesthetic in their blending of the diverse languages and symbologies of words, music, mathematics and programming.

There is an otherworldliness to his stories, but not the kind of otherworldliness one is accustomed to find in stories of science fiction or fantasy. It is not just the story itself that is in another world, but the very means of perceiving the story. There is something in these tales that reminds me of Borges and Calvino (not just in the one story Lee acknowledges to be a homage to Invisible Cities), something steeped in the history and myth of this world but translated (in both the linguistic and the mathematic sense) into a new dimension.

Richard Lawson, in his review of the collection for Strange Horizons, says:
The stories in Yoon Ha Lee's debut collection, Conservation of Shadows, are fantasies steeped in history—disguised histories, made-up histories, invented histories, however you want to describe them—taking place in worlds strikingly imbued with a rich sense of the past. The present moments of these stories are so rife with narratives of the past that they provide a real sense of a setting as lived-in, fully realized. These aren't historical fantasies, but rather history fantasies: stories that engage with the idea of history by employing the fantastic, creating worlds with pasts as rich as that of our own so as to engage our innate conceptions of history, our often conflicted relationship with our own past. (http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2013/07/conservation_of.shtml)
I'm not sure that it's possible to concisely describe what Lee has done in the crafting of these stories, but It is truly something extraordinary.

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