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I keep meaning to read more graphic novels, but somehow it's mostly during the Hugo season that I actually do, and that's because of the Best Graphic Story category. I've enjoyed several of the specific volumes I've read for the Hugos, but somehow I rarely follow up on the multi-part stories.

Monstress Volume 1: The Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, is another of those graphic novels that was enjoyable while reading - though also deeply disturbing - but I'm not at all certain I'll be continuing to read it (unless more volumes are nominated for Hugos in future years). Not because it isn't a good story, because it is. But after lots if attempts, I've come to understand that I shy away from reading graphic novels because it is physically difficult fir me, and few stories are compelling enough to override that.

Some of those who read these reviews know that I have severe multiple chemical sensitivities and am bedbound due to multiple disabilities. What this means is that I can't read anything printed on paper - it's too toxic for me, especially paper with lots of ink, like graphic novels. So everything I read must be electronic. But because I spend all my tine lying in bed, everything I read, I read on an iPad. Any other device is too heavy. And I have arthritis and poor eyesight. There's no reader out there that allows me to read graphic novels without a lot of pinching and swiping around each page to get all the important dialogue and visual detail. And by the time I've read a few pages, my fingers and my eyes hurt. So.... I tend to shy away from graphic novels. Nonetheless, I will do my best to read those nominated and not let my circumstances bias me against the medium. So.... On with my thoughts on Monstress.

Visually, Monstress is a stunning piece of work - intricately drawn, dense but never 'busy,' a feast for the eyes. Takeda blends artistic traditions to create marvellous images, though she is at her best with inanimate subjects - architectural designs and atmospheric backgrounds, clothing, machines, furniture, and so on. Her living characters seem curiously unfinished, rather like dolls.

The narrative is complex and disturbing, set in a post-war, almost post-apocalyptic world where two enemy civilisations, still opposed but not actively at war, appear to be recovering from a cataclysmic event. On one side, the human federation in which considerable power lies with the all-female sorcerer-scientist order of the Cumaea; on the other, the non-human Arcanes, rumoured to have access to powers or beings known as the monstrum.

The story focuses on Maika, an Arcanic, a former slave of the Federation, living with other escapees and dispossessed arcanics in a sort of demilitarised zone between the two nations. She possesses powers she cannot use at will or control, though they appear when she is in great distress. She is connected in some way to the catastrophic event that ended open warfare between humans and arcanics. And she is seeking the truth about her mother and herself, a truth that she believes can only be found among the Cumaea.

At the beginning of the story, Maika has allowed herself to be captured and enslaved by humans. She and several other Arcanics, all children, have been claimed by the Cumaea as slaves, but from almost the beginning it is clear that the Cumaea - like other humans - see the Arcanes as animals and so fit subjects both for torture by those who seek pleasure in the children's pain, and scientific experimentation by those who seek to know more about the Arcanes and their power.

The story is hard to read, even harder to look at. Takeda's brilliant artwork is often used to portray scenes of humiliation, torture, vivisection, and violence. In an afterword to the first issue, Liu talks about the genesis of the story in her grandparents' memories of war and xenophobic hatred and violence - based on timing, I'm guessing her grandparents would have been survivors of the invasion of China by Imperial Japan, or both. Malka is a refugee, an orphan, an escaped slave, an amputee, a victim of war and violence and racial hatred, and she carries within her the power to wreak vengeance, or to simply spread violence indiscriminately as survivors of trauma often do. She has the capacity to be a monster, and it stems from her suffering and pain. It's one hell of a story, relevant in all times of violence and war, about what these all too common pursuits of humanity can do to our souls.
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Seanan McGuire's novella Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a difference - it's about what life is like for those who cross into another world after the portal travelling is done, after the strange world beyond the magic door has changed their hearts and souls and then sent them back.

Eleanor West knows what it feels like to find your true home on the other side of the magic mirror, or at the bottom of the rabbit-hole. As a child, she wandered into another world not once but several times. Now a middle-aged woman, she runs a 'home for wayward children' - mostly girls - who have gone through a portal and returned, but can not move on. Most have been sent to Eleanor by their parents, who don't understand what their children have experienced, or why and how they have been changed. They want their children back as they were, and Eleanor tells them she can help them. But her real intention is to help the travellers accept that their portals are closed, that there is little chance of their ever opening again, and how to live in the mundane world with the knowledge of where they have been.

Nancy is one of these wayward girls. She has spent years of subjective time in a world she calls the Halls of the Dead, learning to be silent, motionless, a statue in black and white, until the Lord of the Dead sent her back. Her parents believe her to be the victim of a kidnapping, and send her to Eleanor West, to be healed. At first she is confused by the others she meets, all changed in different ways by the different worlds they have been to. She learns how the portal worlds are classified, of the axes of Logic and Nonsense, Virtue and Wickedness. And she begins to form wary relationships with some of the others. Kade, a trans boy cast out of the world he loved because it, like the mundane world, could not accept his gender. Her roommate Sumi, a noisy, colourful girl who is never still. Jack and Jill (identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian) who have been to a world of mad scientists and vampires.

When murder strikes, Nancy, and some of the other children whose portal worlds dealt with death, attempt to unravel the mystery before the authorities have cause to shut down the school.

Every Heart a Doorway is a strange and compelling tale, balanced between fantasy and horror, about difference and what people will do to find a place they can call home.

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Many readers of speculative fiction have a conflicted relationship with H. P. Lovecraft. I'm certainly one of them. There's a power, an allure, to the Cthulhu mythos that's hard to set aside - yet there's also the pervasive racism that makes so many of the specific works that form that mythos so difficult to read.

Victor LaValle's powerful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is both a retelling of Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and a response to its appalling racism. I'd come across some reviews of LaValle's piece some time ago, and decided to reread Lovecraft's story before reading the novella.

"The Horror at Red Rock" has been called by some one of Lovecraft's most overtly racist works. It is set in a part of Brooklyn that Lovecraft populates with a "hopeless tangle and enigma" of "Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro element," "unclassified slant-eyed folk," and "swarthy, evil-looking strangers." The protagonist is a police detective named Malone, who works the human smuggling beat in Red Hook, investigating "the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island." In the course of his work, he encounters a reclusive scholar named Suydam who seems to be unaccountably involved with the more corrupt and violent elements of Red Hook society.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle inverts the characterisation of Red Hook, painting it as a vibrant multicultural community that suffers under the structural racism of American society and the callous brutality of the police, whose job it is to keep the people of Red Hook away from white New York.

The protagonist here is a young black man named Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler with a minor musical talent who skirts the edges of the occult world. Raised in poverty and always under the threat of race-based discrimination and assault, he accepts an invitation to play at a party being held by the eccentric and mysterious Suydam - and is introduced into the world of Cthulhu.

The general course of events outlined in Lovecraft's story unfold in similar fashion in LaValle's novella, but from the joint perspectives of Tester and Malone. A tragic act of police violence finally drives Tester to Suydam's side snd he becomes his primary lieutenant, Black Tom.

In LaValle's work, it is the promise of revenge for years of oppression by whites that draws members of the Red Hook community, including Tester, to embrace the worship of Cthulhu, and ultimately leads Tester to choose the end of human civilisation over the continuance of white supremacy. As Black Tom tells Malone at the climax of the story, " I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.


[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2016/02/11/lovecraft-country-unearths-monsters-both-real-and-imagined/

Alex Brown, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books
http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/caught-after-dark-in-lovecraft-country/

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"A Trump Christmas Carol," by Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, John Scalzi and Jo Walton; Uncanny, December 25, 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/trump-christmas-carol/

A brilliant piece of political fiction, a solid reworking of the ideas of Dickens' classic as the ghosts of 2016 teach the President-elect the true meaning and proper use of political power.



"The Orangery," Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam; Beneath Ceasless Skies, Issue #214, December 8, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-orangery/

Using the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Apollo and Dryope as central images, Stufflebeam gives us a powerful look at the responses evoked in women when confronted with men's desire and sense of entitlement to women's labour, bodies and love. When confronted with all the women, including Daphne and Dryope, who have chosen transformation into trees, Apollo asks “Why do you women fear men so much that you would rather be tree than give a kiss?” It's a question answered by this novelette, though perhaps not in any way that one who must ask can understand.



"The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt," N. K. Jemisin; Wired, December 13, 2016
https://www.wired.com/2016/12/nk-jemisin-the-evaluators/

A brilliant and truly terrifying cautionary tale told in modern epistolary style (excerpts from emails, reports and other documents) about the dangers of making assumptions and rushing first contact.



"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0," Caroline M. Yoachim; Lightspeed, March 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/welcome-to-the-medical-clinic-at-the-interplanetary-relay-station/

Having spent way too much time dealing with medical personnel and institutions lately, this grim little story about the futility of getting any real healthcare from a bureaucratic and underfunded system hit close to home.



"My Grandmother's Bones," S. L. Huang; Daily Science Fiction, August 22, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/s-l-huang/my-grandmothers-bones

A short and moving story about generational relationships and cultural changes, seen through a series of funerary behaviours.


"17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!," James Beamon; Daily Science Fiction, May 3, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/james-beamon/17-amazing-plot-elements-when-you-see-11-youll-be-astounded

An interesting approach to the retelling of a very old tale. Short, but worth reading for the way it's told.



"The Right Sort of Monsters," Kelly Sandoval; Strange Horizons, April 4, 2016
http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-right-sort-of-monsters/
Powerful story about need, sacrifice and how humans deal with difference. A strange and alien grove - the Godswalk - appears mysteriously beside a village, leaving most of the inhabitants unable to have children of their own. In the forest are the blood trees, whose flowers produce children in return for human blood, children that are not quite human, but human enough. But when Viette enters the forest to seek a child to fill the void left by a series of miscarriages, she learns that the Godswalk hides deeper secrets than she realised.

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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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I read "Darker Than You Think," by Jack Williamson, for the Retro Hugos, thinking to myself all the while that it really did seem too long to be a novelette, and then, lo and behold, it was disqualified because it is in fact a novella, but didn't get enough votes to be a novella finalist.

Novelette or novella, finalist or not, I was quite caught up by the story - part urban fantasy, part secret history - which sought to bring together all the myths of witches, vampires and shapeshifters into a vast and ancient conflict between two branches of humanity, one possessed of the ability to manipulate probability and matter, and the other, our more familiar sort of human. Defeated by normal humans eons ago, the shapeshifter potentials have nonetheless been carried in humanity's gene pool, and after centuries of judicious breeding, a new breed of shapeshifters is ready to rise.

The protagonist is journalist Will Barbee, once a promising archeological student who was dropped from an important project by his mentor Doctor Lamarck Mondrick and, despite remaining friends with his mentor, the other members of the team and their families, carries a certain amount of bitterness.

The story opens at an airport, where Barbee waits to cover the arrival of his mentor and the others of the team, who are returning from a long and hazardous expedition to Mongolia. Waiting with him is April Bell, a beautiful and strangely attractive reporter from a rival newspaper. After the sudden death of Mondrian during a press conference in which he speaks vaguely about a threat to true humans from a secret, ancient foe, and the coming of a Child of Night who will bring about the resurgence of this hidden enemy, Barbee feels compelled to find follow the story.

His quest uncovers things that he finds hard to believe, despite the witness of his own eyes, as he is drawn further into the mysterious world that Mondrian died trying to warn the world about. It is in some ways a fascinating study of the ability of human beings to explain away that which they do not want to believe - and to deny even to themselves the truth of what they truly want. And at the same time, Barbee's slow transformation, facilitated by the femme fatale personified in April Bell, is a compelling description of the subtle, step-by-step temptation and corruption of the soul.

I'm not sure whether the version I read was the original novella from 1940, or the later novelisation from 1948. The concept of a dark taint hidden in the human bloodline is something one associates with the casual racism of early pulp fiction by authors such as Lovecraft and Howard, while the idea of the enemy that could be hidden anywhere is a potent Cold War image. "Darker Than You Think" may well be drawing on both in its suggestion of hidden dangers close at hand, people near and known to us yet darker than we think.

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Alyssa Wong was on my nomination list for the Campbell Award, based on three darkly brilliant short stories: "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers," "Scarecrow" and "The Fisher Queen." [1]

Wong writes dark fantasy and horror, tales of gods and magical creatures, narratives often informed by by South Asian/Filippina tradition and culture, and queer sensibilities and experience. Her work is rich and multi-layered, dealing with complex psychological issues and post-colonial realities.

Such is the case in another of Wong's short stories, "Santos de Sampaguitas," [2] a heart-wrenching story about love and loss, betrayal, sacrifice and revenge. Woven into this emotionally searing narrative are backgrounded but powerful examinations of ableism, and class and race in Filippino society.

These four stories comprised the whole of Wong's published fiction as of the end of 2015 - though she has several stories coming out this year, and I'm looking forward to reading them - but considering that each story so far has been something very special (she has accumulated two Nebula nominations, one World Fantasy nomination and one Bram Stoker nomination with those four stories), I think she's earned the Campbell nom as well.


[1] all three stories reviewed here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185839.html

[2] Strange Horizons http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20141006/sampaguita-f.shtml
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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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Jack the Ripper was not the only serial killer roaming the streets of London in 1888. Between 1887 and 1889, at least three women were killed and dismembered, and parts of their bodies disposed of in the Thames, although in one case, the torso and other parts were discovered on the grounds of the construction site for the new Scotland Yard building. The identity of the Thames Torso killer has never been determined, and there is some question as to whether the three murders he is agreed to have committed are the full extent of his crimes, as similar cases, also unsolved, had occurred in 1873-4 and 1884.

In Mayhem, Sarah Pinbourough infuses the facts of the Thames Torso Murders with a markedly supernatural story of possession by an ancient spirit of evil. The novel is centred on police surgeon Thomas Bond, who was an early practitioner of the science of forensic profiling, having produced a profile of the Ripper. Bond did play a historical role in the investigation of both the Ripper and the Thames Torso killer, performing autopsies on both Mary Jane Kelly and the second of the Torso killer's victims, Elizabeth Jackson. The novel gives him a much greater role, however, in the detection and final resolution of the murders.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pinborough's genre-bending historical crime horror novel on all counts.

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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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"The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, ClarkesWorld, #108, September 2015
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/sriduangkaew_09_15/

Fascinating story on many levels. A young woman compromised by an innocent association with terrorists is forced by her government to help set up a trap for yet another terrorist by entering into an arranged marriage. And yet there is still the possibility of love and hope.


"Fabulous Beasts," Priya Sharma, July 27, 2015, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/07/27/fabulous-beasts-priya-sharma/

This is not a comfortable story. It is, however, a compelling one. Sharma's dark fantasy novelette is about family secrets, especially the ones that can't be told in the clean light of day, about mothers and sisters and daughters caught in those secrets, finding love as best they can. It's about living through the horror and pain, about surviving despite the wounds. Warning: sexual abuse, incest, rape.


"And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead," Brooke Bolander, February 2015, Lightspeed Magazine
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/shall-know-trail-dead/

Rhye is a foul-mouthed demobbed cyborg supersoldier with nothing left to do but cage fighting for spare change when she meets Rack, a cyberhacker and security expert. They make a good team, right up until they are hired to break into a data storage environment protected by a security system Rack himself designed. Then it all goes to hell. Adrenaline charged cyberpunk novelette with more than a few twists. A fast-paced, well-written novelette with strong characterisation, and fun to read.


"Look at Me Now," Sarah Norman, March 5, 2015, Omenana
http://omenana.com/2015/03/05/look-at-me-now/

An undocumented black woman living in London finds that she is able to become invisible, especially when upset or distressed - which is frequent enough in her day to day life in London, but becomes more and more common, as the news of political unrest and violence from her home country grows worse. Strong characterisation and one hell of an ending.


"Discovering Time Travel," Suleiman Agbonkhianmen Buhari, January 15, 2015, Jalada
http://jalada.org/2015/01/15/discovering-time-travel-by-suleiman-agbonkhianmen-buhari/

Interesting experiment in style. Aside from a brief introduction and conclusion, the story is told entirely in dialogue - an interrogation scene, in fact - and the reliability of the main character is in doubt throughout the entire scene. I found the dialogue awkward but the story it unveils interesting. And the end gave me a chill.


"Devil's Village," Dayo Ntwari, WRITIVISM Short Story Competition shortlist
http://munyori.org/writivism-2015-shortlist/devils-village-by-dayo-adewunmi-ntwari/

Tautly written milsf-flavoured story about factional violence and government malfeasance in Nigeria. A mercenary on a mission to deliver a priest to an outlaw village discovers just how great the gap is between reality and political propaganda.

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More short stories and novelettes from around the net.


"The Shape of My Name," Nino Cipri, March 15, 2015, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2015/03/04/the-shape-of-my-name/

This was an amazing story about creating one's own identity. The narrator is part of a multi-generational time-travelling family whose members have access to gene-coded time capsules enabling them to travel into any time between 1905, the year that the mysterious Moses Stone built the machine for the family matriarch, and August 3, 2321 - the significance of that date is unknown to the characters, but my guess is that it's the date from which Moses travelled back in time to build the machine that would allow forward travel. But that's not part of the story, really. The story is about creating identity and finding freedom from ingrained expectations.


"When It Ends, He Catches Her," Eugie Foster, September 26, 2014, Daily Science Fiction
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/fairy-tales/eugie-foster/when-it-ends-he-catches-her

One of the short stories that would have been on the Hugo ballot this year had the Puppies not done their thing, and Foster's last story, published just before she died. A poignant and evocative story of love, art and death, two dancers rekindling the memories of their greatest achievement in the midst of the ruins of civilisation.


"Litany of Earth," Ruthanna Emrys, May 14, 2014, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2014/05/14/the-litany-of-earth-ruthanna-emrys/

Another piece that might have been nominated fir a Hugo if not for the puppies, Emrys' novelette is a majestic and powerful reworking of the Cthulhu mythos, ever mindful of the fact that the winners not only write the history books, they demonise the ones who lose. Emrys presents the people of Innsmouth and other such communities as a race of immortal others among us, with a faith and a knowledge no more evil than any other, persecuted, incarcerated, experimented on and killed for their difference. A must-read for those who once loved Lovecraft but lament his casual racism.


"Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land," by Ruthanna Emrys, August 20, 2014, tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2014/08/20/seven-commentaries-on-an-imperfect-land-ruthanna-emrys/

I was sufficiently blown away by Emrys' "Litany of Earth" to want to read more. And I was not disappointed in doing so. "Seven Commentaries" is a perfect pearl. Told in seven vignettes filled with glorious detail, it is about communities of the heart and soul, the perseverance of imagination and hope, the healing and binding power of story, and seeing the spirit of your sister in a stranger's eyes.


"Kin, Painted," by Penny Stirling, July 29, 2015, Lackington's Magazine
http://lackingtons.com/2015/07/29/kin-painted-by-penny-stirling/

Lackington's specifies that they are specifically interested in publishing stylised speculative prose, and I must admit to enjoying stylised prose (when well-done, of course), but more than just being stylised, this piece by Penny Stirling was a beautiful thing to read. An extended metaphor on growing up and making personal choices, notable for its references to persons of many genders and preferences.

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Horror is not my favourite genre, but every once in a while, I get a craving for a tale of the supernatural - largely, I think, because when done the way I like it, a horror story is above all a story about morality, about right and wrong, good and evil, justice and revenge, sacrifice and redemption. All that good archetypal gut-level stuff that allows us to imagine, for a little while, that there is meaning and balance in the world. And happily, I discovered as I read it that Sarah Pinborough's The Taken is my kind of horror story.

It's a classic haunted house story, on a wider scale - an entire village is being visited by the ghosts of children, one of whom - Melanie Parr - died in the village thirty years ago under circumstances which are, at first, a mystery. There is a massive storm brewing, and the village is cut off, isolated, roads flooded, telephones down, while Melanie seeks her vengeance.

But there is a power even greater than Melanie's in the village, and when that power comes into play, it will set things right - and break your heart.

The story moves along nicely, and while the characters are a touch stereotypical, the plot is strong and the atmosphere of creeping claustrophobia, confusion and buried guilt are quite well developed. I'm looking forward to reading more of Pinborough's work.
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First, the confession. I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels. I read comics when I was a kid in the late 50s and early 60s, and since then, I've read and enjoyed a few graphic novels, from The Dark Knight and The Swamp Thing to Sandman and V for Vendetta to Persepolis and Fun Home. So I'm not what you might call a sophisticated reader of this kind of work.

But I know something about narrative, and something about art - and I know what I like. So here are my impressions of the five nominated works in the Best Graphic Story category.


Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch

Well, holy shit, this was a wild romp. A swordpunk D&D experience featuring four very weird and warped and wonderful women, doing what mercenary adventurers have been doing (at least in fantasy) for generations - getting drunk, stoned and laid, upsetting the mundanes, and being sent off on quests so everyone else can get some peace and quiet.

The characters are well-developed, the action is fast and furious, the artwork is well worth looking at closely, the dialogue is snappy and the plot has twists, turns, and lots of interesting sidestreets that one hopes will be explored in later volumes. I can see myself looking for those later volumes just to see more of these unlikely heroines.



Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal
written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt

I came to this a complete Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel virgin. Oh, I read a lot of comics back in the day - that day, for me, being the late 50s and early 60s - but while I read many of the D.C. Universe hero comics, i'd really only gotten into a few of the Marvel Universe heroes, like Spiderman and Fantastic Four.

So I knew nothing about Ms. Marvel before reading this fortunately, that did not get in the way of my enjoyment. The writing is good. I laughed out loud before even getting off the first page. The main character, Kamala Khan, is a teenager dealing with classic teenager issues like finding out who you are and where you fit in - but a young Muslim woman being raised in a traditional Pakistani family, she's living in between two worlds, facing racism and stereotyping outside the Muslim community, and patriarchal attitudes within her community. This aspect was handled very well, as was the process of learning to be a superhero after suddenly being granted special powers. I rarely read superhero comics any more, so I have no idea if the complexity of character shown in this work is common these days, but it certainly made reading this a pleasure.



Saga, Volume 3
written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Saga seems, ultimately, to be the story of Hazel, the narrator - although in the volume she is a newborn and hence not yet a major character. Her parents, Marko and Alana, are fugitives, being pursued by a dazzling variety of entities, including a robot prince with a television for a head, a bounty hunter and his companions - a truth-detecting cat and a recently rescued six-year-old slave girl - a vengeful ex-girlfriend, and two sweet gay journalists.

The reason Marko and Alana (and Hazel, and Marko's mother Klara, and a rather grisly young ghost girl Izabel) are on the run is because their people - the inhabitants of Landfall and those of one of its moons, Weave - been at war for generations and leaders on both sides fear that news of love for each other might cause a loss of morale.

The narrative follows all the parties - both the fugitives and their pursuers - and the situations they encounter. If this volume is characteristic of the series, every significant character has a backstory, and a development arc, and none of them are exactly heroes or villains, just people trying to make the best of the hands they've been dealt.

I enjoyed this, but somehow it just didn't grab me in a way that made me want to see what had gone before, or what is still to come. Maybe if the story was centred on those sweet gay journalists....



Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick
written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky

While it's true that books and sex are two of my favourite things, the combination of the two in this graphic novel did not exactly send me soaring, if you know what I mean. It might have been the balance - way too much sex, not enough books - or it might have been the somewhat repetitive nature of the narrative.

The narrative begins with an adolescent girl named Suzie who discovers that when she has an orgasm, she is able to enter a jewel-toned euphoric state in which time is frozen, which she calls The Quiet. She ends up masturbating a lot, and when she gets older, having sex a lot. She becomes a librarian, but then her library is threatened when they don;t have enough money to pay the mortgage. At a fund-raising party, she meets a guy named Jon who can quote Lolita and brings him home - where she learns that he can enter the same state, only he calls it Cumworld. I prefer her name for it, maybe because I'm a woman.

Next we are treated to a great many pages in which Jon tells Suzie every detail of his sex life to date, interspersed with what seem to be flashforwards to the two of them stopping time and trying to rob a bank, but being foiled by another woman who can function in The Quiet. This is the overly repetitive part I was talking about.

Then, because they didn't see the flashforwards, they start planning to rob the bank Jon works at so the library will get the money needed to pay the mortgage - which is owed to the same bank. So it turns out that there's such a thing as the Sex Police who monitor the behaviour of people who can do what Suzie and Jon do, and this is how our protagonists become sex criminals. Interesting story, but it still needs more books.


The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
written by Carter Reid

Carter Reid did not submit his nominated work to the Hugo Voters Packet, and I had zero interest in spending twenty dollars on it when I'm not a huge fan of graphic narratives to begin with, so I was not able to evaluate the exact work he was nominated for. I did, however, spend a few hours paging through the strips archived on his website (zombienation.com) and found myself rather underwhelmed, particularly when I compare this to the other nominated works.

When I do read graphic narratives, my preference is for those that are, if not necessarily funny, satirical or insightful, at least telling a good, interesting story. Unfortunately, Zombie Nation appeared to offer none of these things to any significant degree. Some of the one-off strips were mildly amusing, but the story arcs didn't grab me and the artwork was uninspiring.

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In "Let's Play White," a collection of dark fantasy and horror short fiction, Chesya Burke "weaves African and African-American historical legend and standard horror themes into stories that range from gritty subway gore fests to a sympathetic take on zombies.[1]" The stories explore not only issues of race, but also of power, need, loss, and all the other darker elements of human existence to create fiction that is more than simply macabre. These stories grab the reader and demand that she think about where the horror comes from, and why. As the blurb on the publisher's website notes,
White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It's the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection [Walter and the Three-Legged King] asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.
The stories that spoke to me most strongly in this collection were:

"Purse," in which a human tragedy reveals itself in the course of a subway ride;

"I Make People Do Bad Things," based on the life of Harlem gang leader Stephanie "Queenie" St. Clair, which postulates a chilling source for her power;

"The Unremembered," in which a dying girl's transformation and power come from a forgotten past;

"Chocolate Park," a story of life and death in ghettoised urban America, of drug dealing and prostitution, spousal and child abuse, rape and murder, of some who get out and others who stay behind to wreak a terrible revenge;

"The Room Where Ben Disappeared," in which a man returns home to face a memory of childhood; and

"The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason," in which a woman with special gifts pays a terrible price to pass her knowledge and calling on to two young girls.



[1] http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-9370099-9-1#path/978-1-9370099-9-1
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I decided to read this because I thought it might be interesting to see the perspective of a Nigerian author on the whole zombie novel genre. After all, the zombie we can't get enough of is based on traditions associated with Haitian vodoun, which itself has roots in West African voudon.

The book was a curious mix of abysmally amateurish writing combined with decent characterisation and a fast-paced and at times even exciting story. The prose was awkward and filled with cliches - sighs and groans repeatedly burst from people's lips as they tore in this and that direction, for example. Much of the dialogue was stilted. The editing was non-existent - grammatical and punctuation errors littered the pages, footnotes, often unnecessary, were incorporated into the body of the text.... I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Despite this, the main characters were believable and clearly differentiated, and the plot was tight and interesting.

The differences between this and western versions of the classic zombie horror story were subtle, but there was, to the eyes of this western reader, more of a sense that zombies are the servants of ancient evil embedded in the land - in fact, some of the elements of this African-based zombie tale were reminiscent of the European vampire tradition.

The quality of the writing is such that I can't recommend the novel, but.... If you're a zombie fanatic and also the sort of person who can wade through really bad fanfic because it features your One True Pairing, then you might want to give it a chance.

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Jennifer Pelland, Machine

Celia is dying from a disease that current medical science cannot cure. But in Celia's time, she has a choice, albeit a controversial one, with many strictures and controls. While she waits for a cure to be discovered, her failing body of flesh is frozen, while her consciousness is transferred into that of a bioform artificial body. What follows is a thoughtful investigation of identity, the connection between body and mind, gender, otherness, and power-over. Is Celia still Celia, or is there more to us than our thoughts, feelings and memories? And if she is, then who is Celia now that she is in a body of artificial construction that can be modified in appearance, colour, in gender (male, female, both, neither). Is she human, or less, or more - or simply other? And how do others see and understand her existence in this new form? Pelland tells a dark story here, with no easy answers - but I recommend it wholeheartedly.


Johanna Sinisalo, Birdbrain

One might call Birdbrain an ecological horror story. The main narrative follows two people, one an experienced and possibly over-confident cross-country hiker, the other a novice, as they tackle one of the most difficult trails in Australia. The two are lovers, recently met and not fully bonded. The account of their journey is interspersed with brief passages from the thoughts of an increasingly disturbed and violent urban youth and excerpts from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As the book - and the hikers' journey - progresses, so does the sense of a subtle and increasingly intelligent volition running through the natural world the hikers traverse, one that is not kindly disposed toward the humans who have invaded its deepest recesses, leaving behind destruction and debris.



Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

A first novel from a writer to watch out for. As much about storytelling as it is about telling a story, the narrative line of the novel is based on a Senegalese folk tale of a woman chosen by the trickster spirit to carry the magical Chaos Stick, recently taken away from a powerful indigo-skinned spirit who misused its power, but wants it back and will try anything necessary to get it. Both learn important lessons from their interaction. Beautifully written.



Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

It's hard to know exactly what to say about Okorafor's first novel for adults. It's powerful. It's unsettling. It's amazing. It's not easy to understand. It's a magical mystery quest with a strong female protagonist who has a great task to perform, and a terrible destiny to fulfill. It adresses uncomfortable, unconscionable things like genocide, rape as a systematic weapon of war, female genital mutilation. It's about revenge, and renewal. It examines ways of finding strength in female friendships and ways of finding balance between heterosexual lovers. It's about overcoming prejudice and following your path, reconstructing your past and accepting your future.

It's something you really have to read to understand, and something you really ought to read because understanding what it has to say is important.

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Or at least, that's what my choices of anthologies this year would seem to indicate. My beloved Lovecraft mythos and the eternally fascinating Great Detective are part of the mix, as is my perennial interest in seeing alternative sexualities represented in fiction.

As usual, in all four antholgies there were some great stories, many enjoyable stories, and one or two that just didn't grab me. Special mention goes to Brit Mandelo's fine editing, bringing together a solid collection that presents many perspectives and includes some true classics.


Ross E. Lockhart (ed.), The Book of Cthulhu

Joseph R. G. DeMarco, A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes

Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger (eds.), A Study in Sherlock

Brit Mandelo (ed.), Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction

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