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"After We Walked Away," Erica L. Satifka; Apex Magazine, November 21, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/after-we-walked-away/

A literalised response to Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," this story follows two young people, man and woman, who left "The Solved City" - clearly based on Omelas - because they could not accept the violent magic on which the city is founded, that the deliberately caused unending suffering of just one child could produce a utopia for everyone else. They find our society, where almost everyone suffers, from systematic oppression and cruelty, and in different ways regret their decision. It's a strongly written and emotionally disturbing story, but it misses one very important thing. Le Guin's story is not about rejecting a utopia based on horror for some other existing world; Omelas is our society, or at least an an allegorical reference to it. Those who walk away are the rebels who reject our acquiescence in the very real cruelty and oppression in our world, the comforting lie that the poor will always be with us, with its corollary that therefore we need do nothing for them. They are the ones who would change the paradigm, who would give up their privilege to end the horror others experience.

It's a well-crafted and moving story, but at its heart it is dishonest in setting up a straw man to refute, and disingenuous in using that straw man to argue that the suffering of one is easier to accept than the suffering of many. I would rather remain with the vision given form by Le Guin, that there are those among us who realise that as long as one of us is chained, none of us is free.


"Crocodile Tears," Jaymee Goh; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/crocodile-tears/

Goh here reworks a traditional folk tale of revenge. In Goh's version, a crocodile brings brings news to a successful man who has abandoned his family, telling him of the fates of his mother, his lover and the unborn child he left behind.


"That Game We Played During the War," Carrie Vaughn; tor.com, March 16, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/

A sparsely written but deeply moving story about war and what happens when war is over and two sides try to make a peace, summed up in the interactions between two veterans, one from each side. Calla is a military nurse; during the was it was her duty to keep Valk - a member of a telepathic race - and other prisoners of war under sedation to dull their abilities. Later in the war, fortunes have shifted and Calla is the prisoner, Valk her keeper. Remembering the games of chess he watched her play with he other staff, he asks her to teach him, and together they find a way to enjoy playing a game of strategy between one who reads minds and one who does not. When a peace finally comes, Valk, recovering from wounds in hospital, asks Cala to visit him and bring 'the game they played during the war.'

Working together on the game creates a bond that can become a bridge, a way of understanding and building a trust that may support the fragile peace. A story of hope, a microcosm of good will between people tired of war.


"Bargain," Sarah Gailey; Mothership Zeta, December 27, 2015
http://mothershipzeta.org/2015/12/27/bargain-by-sarah-gailey/#more-289

"Bargain" is 2017 Campbell Award finalist Sarah Gailey's first professional sale, and it is a fine story indeed, in which old woman offers her soul and her life to a demon in return for health and youth for her dying wife - with such will and love that even the demon looks for a way to subvert the nature of the deal. Told with a surprisingly appropriate light, even humorous touch, it left me with tears brimming in my eyes, and a goofy smile on my face.


"Of Blood and Bronze," Sarah Gailey; Devilfish Review, Issue 17
https://devilfishreview.com/issues/issue-seventeen/of-blood-and-bronze-by-sarah-gailey/

Framed as a steampunk fairy tale, this is haunting and horrifying story of the mechanisms of corruption, and the truth that the ends cannot justify the means because they are changed and tainted by them. An alchemist works a terrible magic to save the life of the innocent and good young bride of a mad old king, so that she may rule the kingdom until the heir comes of age, with the best of intentions, and the unhappiest of consequences.


"The Art of Space Travel," Nina Allen; Tor.com, July 27, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/07/27/the-art-of-space-travel/

Thirty years ago, the first mission to Mars ended in tragedy. The second mission is about to be launched, and two of the astronauts are scheduled to spend a night at the Edison Star hotel, where Emily Starr is head of housekeeping. Emily's mother Moolie, formerly a physicist, is mentally impaired and slowly dying as the result of forensic work she did on a plane downed by a dirty bomb. Sometimes she hints that Emily's father had some connection with space, perhaps even with the doomed Mars mission. The only physical link Emily has to her unknown father is a book, The Art of Space Travel, that Moolie says once belonged to him.

While this novelette has a sciencefictional setting, the real story is about daughters watching mothers age and become infirm, about children seeking, finding, and losing parents, about family and secrets and love, and about aspirations followed and aspirations left fallow. The Mars mission stands as a symbol of hope and persistence, but truly there are a hundred things that could have taken its place. Still, the implications of venturing into the unknown add to the poignancy of Moolie's terminal condition. A strong story about families and finding one's place and purpose, well written, but somewhat lacking in the 'what if' one looks for in science fiction.


"Jackalope Wives," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 7, 2014
http://www.apex-magazine.com/jackalope-wives/

I read this because I knew I was going to read Vernon's "The Tomato Thief," which takes place in the same setting and shares a key character, and I wanted to know the backstory for that character.

Vernon's writing in this story is poetic and realistic by turns, which is appropriate considering it is a story about those who cross the boundaries of the magical and the mundane. There's wonderful sense of place - the southwestern American desert becomes a fairytale landscape where all sorts of magic are possible, and creatures out of myth are as real as the sun and the dry earth and the animals and plants that make a home there.

One one level, this is a story about making choices, and accepting consequences and shouldering responsibilities, and setting things right. But it's also a commentary on the way that men see women and assume that what they want, they can take - and how the consequences of that fall only on the women.

The key character, Grandma Harken, is a woman who has suffered a great loss at the hands and through the choices of a man, but has learned to accept what came from it, and make the best of her circumstances, and to come to terms with a changed life, making it her own. When given the choice between regaining what was lost, or saving another from the fate she accepted - a loss caused by another man, one she is kin to - she takes on the responsibility for setting right her grandson's wrongs. She is willing to make whatever sacrifice must be made - but though this is presented as a kind of pragmatic heroism, at the root of it, what she is doing is choosing once more to accept the consequences of a man and his unchecked desires.

The story bothers me. Its beautifully crafted, and the characters live and breathe just as the desert cones alive in the mind. It's a really good story. But It leaves me wondering how to respond to what it's saying. In a sense, it's about women who choose to live with the things men do, to clean up their messes and live with the consequences of them, because someone has to do the right thing, and the men in their lives certainly aren't going to do it. Are we to admire Grandma Harken, or pity her, or just to hope that someday men will stop taking from women - and the world around them - without thought for the consequences?


"The Tomato Thief," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 5, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-tomato-thief/

This novelette is a return to the magical fairytale desert Vernon created in "Jackalope Wives" and to its central character, the shapeshifter-become-human Grandma Harken, with her sense of responsibility and duty. There's a certain similarity of theme here as well, in that Grandma Harken finds herself - grumbling about her age and mortality but still shouldering responsibility for making things right - setting out to save a woman caught in a powerful spell by a man of power.

There are some marvelous touches to the story that show the desert magic as a growing, evolving thing, adapting to the changes forced on it by the encroachment of man. The building of trains to cross and divide the desert has brought about the existence of the train-gods, and fittingly, their priests are found among the descendants of those forced to work on the railroads for the benefit of men of power living in the industrial east, the children of Asian labourers and indentured European workers.

Grandma Harken needs the intervention of the train-gods to find the hiding place of the sorcerer, who has folded the land around himself - and when she enters his domain, she will need all her wisdom and cunning, and the allies she makes along the way, to set things right again, defeat the sorcerer, and undo the damage done to people, animals and land.

Again, I find myself loving the story, the words, the imagery, the worldbuilding, the characters, the skill that went into its creation, while being unsettled by the story's implications. The underlying politics - in the sense of power relations - are clear, as they were in Vernon's earlier story. It's a reflection of the politics of our own world. Men of power, rich men, white men, men who think they can take and use and make everything they want their own, do as they will, which mostly causes distortion and harm to the land, to the creatures of nature and to the people without power. And because someone has to do it, it's the ones who have suffered who do what they can to ameliorate the damage. It's accurate, but I think what bothers me is that as Vernon writes these tales, it's just the way it is. There's no sense that it's not just the actions of the powerful, but the basic underlying dynamic that makes the powerless responsible for the work of mitigating the wrongs of other, is in itself wrong. There's just Grandma Harken, and the train-god priests, and the little girl who will be Grandma Harken's apprentice, who heroically shoulder the burdens that belong to others.

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I wasn't sure what to expect from Paul Cornell's Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? - I knew it was the third in a series, and I don't usually like to jump into a series midstream, but it had received several recommendations as a potential Hugo nominee, and I do have a thing for Holmesiana, so I gave it a shot.

And discovered that this was definitely one of those situations where not reading the previous books affected my appreciation of the story and my understanding of the characters and their motivations.

The premise of the series, as I understand it from this text, is that there is an "occult London," a layer of London society where people with powers and/or access to magical items go about doing all sorts of occult things, including committing crimes, and solving them. The protagonists are members of the branch of the London police who investigate occult crimes.

Several of these people have been involved in traumatic and in some cases still on-going events that influence their actions and create sub-plots as they go about solving the current crime. And overshadowing everything are the reverberations of a catastrophic event, the memory of which has been erased from the minds of everyone connected, that has thrown the hidden London into disarray.

The current crime, unfolding on both mundane and occult levels, is indeed the murder of Sherlock Holmes. In the mundane world, someone is killing people who have, at some point in their lives, portrayed Holmes - and more, they are being killed in locations and manners very similar to murder cases from the canon set in London. At the same time, the detectives from the occult branch gifted with Sight have witnessed the apparent murder of a "ghost" of Holmes, and all their evidence suggests that these crimes are not only linked, but are part of a ritual that may result in massive consequences for London on all levels. And so, the game is afoot.

I enjoyed the Sherlockian aspects of the story, but at least initially, did not identify with the characters or their overall situations. Perhaps if I'd read the other volumes first my reaction would have been different.

The characters did grow on me as I read further, and I was happy to see what degree of resolution was achieved, but I've little inclination to go back and read the previous books, or to continue with the series.

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"The Great Detective," Delia Sherman; tor.com, February 17, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/17/the-great-detective-delia-sherman/

Steampunk and spiritualism, in an alternate literary universe where noted mechanical inventor Sir Arthur Cwmlech and his apprentice Miss Tacy Gof turn to colleague Mycroft Holmes and his masterwork the Reasoning Machine to solve a mysterious theft. A young Doctor Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan, seeks a new life as an inventor. All that is missing from the tale is the Great Detective himself - and if he does not yet exist, then surely someone will have to invent him. A light and witty tale that should appeal to fans of Holmes and the steampunk genre alike.

"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," Brooke Bolander; Uncanny magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

This was a short piece, essentially flash fiction, a stunning gut-punch. Hard to read, hard to breathe afterward. Searing and powerful indictment of male entitlement and rape culture.


"Seasons of Glass and Iron," Amal El-Motar; first published in The Starlit World (2016), reprinted online at Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/seasons-glass-iron/

There are many fairy tales about women. Women who must do impossible things, or accept impossible circumstances, because of men. Men who say they love them, men who want to test them, men who want to woo and win them. Sometimes, though, these women walk out of those tales and live their own lives instead, creating new kinds of tales.


"Lullaby for a Lost World," Aliette de Bodard; Tor.com, June 8, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/06/08/lullaby-for-a-lost-world/

De Bodard has said that of this story that it is "a sort of answer to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (one of my absolute favourite short stories)." It is very much a story about the prices paid for security, stability, and the like - and who makes the decisions on what prices are acceptable, and who pays those prices. A worthy counterpart to the story that inspired it.


"Things with Beards," Sam J. Miller; Clarkesworld, June 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/miller_06_16/

A meditation on monsters and how they walk undetected in the world, both the monsters and evil aliens of speculative fiction (the backstory of the protagonist evokes the classic sf/horror film The Thing), and the monsters that have always been a part of the human race, the callous, the cruel, the killers of those who are labeled less than human.


"You'll Surely Drown Here if You Stay," Alyssa Wong;
Uncanny Magazine, May 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/youll-surely-drown-stay/

A young boy with an uncanny heritage to communicate with, and control, the dead is forced to use his powers for the greed of others. A supernatural Western with a deep friendship that survives dead and retribution at its heart.


"An Ocean the Color of Bruises," Isabel Yap; Uncanny Magazine, July 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/ocean-color-bruises/

Five young people, former college friends, take a vacation together to a second-class resort with a tragic past. When that past awakens, the quality of their own lives is called into question.


"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflower," Alyssa Wong; Tor.com, March 2, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/02/a-fist-of-permutations-in-lightning-and-wildflowers-alyssa-wong/

A story about two sisters with unimaginable power, the depth of grief and guilt, and the futility of trying to change the past. Deep truths about grieving, accepting and moving on - and the tragedy of refusing to do so.


"Red in Tooth and Cog," Cat Rambo; originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2016, republished online February 21, 2017
http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/2017/02/21/story-red-in-tooth-and-cog/

A young woman frequenting a park has her phone stolen by an unlikely culprit, leading her to discover a new ecosystem in development. An interesting perspective on the definitions of life.


“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 17, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/blood-grains-speak-through-memories/

Sanford's novelette is set in what seems to be a far distant future, long after the ecological disasters of pollution and the exploitation of natural resources have resulted in massive social change and, one infers, biological engineering on a vast scale. The land is infused with "grains" - semi-sentient beings, possibly organic, possibly cybernetic, it's never made clear - that infect people thereafter known as anchors - who are responsible for protecting the land and its ecosystems. Anyone not part of an anchor's family is doomed to a nomadic existence, destroyed by the anchors and other beings created/controlled by the grains if they tarry to long in one place, or injure the land in any way. Frere-Jones is an anchor dissatisfied with the way the grains control the anchors and limit the lives of the nomadic day-fellows. Her husband, who shared her opinions, was killed by the grains, and if they could replace her, Frere-Jones suspects the grains would kill her too.

I was both intrigued and dissatisfied with this novelette. I enjoyed the themes of rebellion and of sacrifice, but I was frustrated at knowing so little about the grains, the biomorphing of the anchors, and how it all came to be that way. Perhaps a longer format might have allowed more worldbuilding.

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Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.

In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.

Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.

What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.

What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.

Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.

Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.

Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.

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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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Sustenance, the latest of the Saint Germain novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, is in many ways a typical Saint Germain novel - we have the Count, now calling himself Ragoczy Ferenz, Grof Szent-Germain, his manservant and companion, the immortal ghoul known as Roger, an intelligent woman in some degree of distress who forms an attachment with Saint Germain, and a historical place and period of considerable conflict and sociopolitical upheaval which can present a believable threat to the wealthy and powerful but always precariously placed immortal exile.

The style is familiar too, to any fan of Yarbro's invincible vampire - narrative interspersed with letters and documents which often give the reader insights that the main characters may never be aware of.

The time and place, while historical for many readers, are just barely in the past for many of Yarbro's older readers - Paris and the Northeastern US in the late 40s and early 50s, at the beginning of the Cold War and the reign of fear perpetrated by Hoover and McCarthy, among others, in the US.

The story focuses on the activities of a group of American academics forced out of their university positions and into exile due to suspicions of their being Communist sympathisers - however, even the most radical of the bunch seem simply to be left-wings free-thinkers who don't understand why Russia should suddenly be an enemy not an ally.

As academics, most have a powerful need to publish - not only for their livelihood, but also for the love of research. And Grof Szent-Germain owns publishing houses under the Eclipse imprint all around the world, with long list of academic publications under their belt. When Charis Treat, a historian who made the mistake of researching the medieval commune movement, approaches him about looking at her own manuscript - and possibly those of a few of her friends, Szent-Germain is drawn into the duplicitous and dangerous world of American intelligence, the feud between FBI and CIA, and the insanity of the Communist witch hunt. And Szent-Germain has much to hide - though nothing like what the operatives swirling around the ex-pat Americans imagine.

A sobering novel for Yarbro's readers, yet bearing within it the inevitable promise of a new life rising from ashes.
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Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's debut novel, is a rich and complex tale of power, music, magic, and love, told in two times and set in the working class neighbourhoods of Mexico City.

For 15-year-old Mercedes "Meche" Vega, music is the structure of her life, what connects her to her father - an alcoholic dreamer who never manages to carry through with his dreams - and to the magic she discovers within herself. Her family is breaking apart under the weight of her father's fecklessness and her mother's disappointment. The only subject that interests her at school is math. She's an outsider among the other young people in the neighbourhood. So when magic comes her way, and she - and her friends Sebastian and Daniela, outsiders themselves - discover that together they can use music to cast magic spells to make their lives better - and the lives of those who torment them worse - it seems only right that they should.

In her mid-thirties, Meche is a programmer, living in Oslo, when her father's death brings her home to Mexico City for the funeral. When she meets Sebastian and Daniela again, old grudges, mistakes and betrayals rise to the surface that demand resolution.

The narrative weaves between past and present, unraveling the complicated relationships between the three friends, and between Meche and her family. Power - interpersonal, magical, institutional - is used and abused, to ends that become increasingly disruptive and divisive. But in the end this is a love story, where the path not taken - indeed, the path carelessly cast away in youth - is not forever lost.

As a person rather deeply involved with music myself, I loved the way musical references, from jazz greats to Latin music to the Who, were woven into the narrative. I could hear major parts of the soundtrack of Meche's adolescent life and her forays into sorcery, which made reading the novel all the more engaging.

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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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In addition to her Hugo-nominated short story "Totaled," English submitted two short works for the Hugo Voters Packet in support of her Campbell nomination.

"Departure Gate 34B" is a short, bittersweet story about love, memory and letting go. In a story told through dialogue, a married couple meet in an airport lounge and slowly reveal the truth about a catastrophic event that prevented their planned vacation. There's some skill here, and some surprise, and for a very short story it packs an emotional punch.

"Totaled," the story which received a Hugo Nomination, is a somewhat sentimental but reasonably interesting story about a research scientist who ends up as the subject of her own research. As we all know, in the future, either the costs of healthcare or the shortage of organs or some other reason will result in people's bodies being harvested for all sorts of things. English's variation on this has protagonist Maggie's brain shipped off to a research lab when she dies in a car accident. When her brain is hooked up to the plumbing designed to keep her brain functional for various tests, she finds herself conscious - and in her very own lab. She finds a way to convince her former associate that it's really her in that lump of grey goo. In a scene that feels both awkward and cliched, we learn that their boss arranged for her brain to be collected for the express purpose of completing their research before her brain decays. And what a trouper she is, working as hard as she can to finish the job before she dissolves into grey soup. Some genuinely touching moments, such as when her associate, having wired her for sight and sound, takes her jar out to see her children getting awards at a school assembly. Job done, she asks for an end as her consciousness begins to blur in her disintegrating brain - a process that was nicely portrayed in the text. But after the coup de grace, she wakes up again, presumably having had her consciousness transferred into the bionet McGuffin she has been developing. The end.

"Flight of the Kikayon," the third of English's submissions, is like the other two in that it features as a protagonist a woman (of unmarked race) whose identity is strongly (though not exclusively in one case) based on being a wife and mother. One might have wished to see more variety.

This is the most complex of the stories in terms of plot and number of significant characters. In this story, the protagonist (Lydia) is married to an abusive husband (Donnie) and has one child, a daughter who is primarily cared for by one of the genetically engineered humanoid servants developed by the husband's company (Cara, who looks exactly like Lydia and was developed from her DNA). The protagonist sees her chance to escape when her husband insists that the family take a "universe cruise" and leave the nanny behind. Lydia smuggles Cara aboard the starliner and makes plans for them to swap identities, at which point Lydia plans to vanish. But Donnie's insistence on a daytrip to a proscribed planet changes everything. Some unexpected plot twists and an open-ended conclusion helped to make this an interesting piece.

English has some definite writing chops, but I felt that there wasn't a lot of variety in the pieces offered, which weakens my overall assessment of her as a Campbell nominee. I have already noted the similarities in protagonist choice. There are also structural similarities in the pieces, and I was irked in that I wanted to use the word "bittersweet" in describing all three stories. I think English has definite potential and I hope she continues to develop her craft.

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the story that unfolds in Drew Hayden Taylor's The Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel, is on the surface quite simple. Once, long ago, an adventurous young Anishnabe boy ran away from his home and persuded fur traders to take him to Montreal; from there he was taien to France as an amusement for the court of the King. Soon enough he discovered that he longed to be home again, but instead he fell sick with a disease his people had never been exposed to - measles - and as he lay dying, something else his people had never known came to him and gave him a second life as a vampire. Now, some 350 years later, Pierre L'Errant has finally come home to the modern-day reserve of Otter Lake, where his village once stood. And here he changes the future of an unhappy young Anishnabe girl who sees nothing in her life worth living for.

A fascinating blending of an ancient European myth-figure and a contemporary coming-of-age and dealing with trauma YA story, the overriding theme that brings both vampire and human teen together is the need to reconnect to one's roots, one's culture, one's history. For the vampire, the connection is what allows him, at last, to die. For the teenager, a vision of the history and place she shares with her ancestors gives her the desire to live.

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Last year was a year for historical novels of many flavours. I've already discussed the historical mysteries I enjoyed, but there were other multi-genre historical novels to be read kast year.

I finally caught up with Diana Gabaldon's twin historical-tine travel fantasy series, just in time for the upcoming release of the next Outlander novel. I'm looking forward to that, and also, I hope, to more of the Lord John books. 

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade
Diana Gabaldon, The Scottish Prisoner
Diana Gabaldon, An Echo in the Bone


Another multi-genre book I happened across was Paula Brackston's now-and-then historical/paranormal fantasy novel The Witch's Daughter. Told in two different times, it's the story of a woman whose mother was hanged as a witch in 1628 and who survives into modern times by learning witchcraft herself from a powerful but vengeful warlock. Brackston seems to have written several more books in a similar vein, and this one was interesting enough that I anticipate reading more of her books.

Then there was the somewhat unclassifiable Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, by Robin Maxwell, who is known for her historical novels. Jane is a retelling of the Tarzan story from the perspective of the woman who loves and civilises him, but Maxwell makes Jane even more interesting and unconventional than Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to do (and considering his times, and his focus on Tarzan as his hero her actually did rather well at it). A cross between historical fantasy and literary hommage, Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan should delight ERB fans and feminists alike.


And finally, I read two more novels in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's marvellous historical vampire series. As ever, I enjoyed these novels greatly, both for the historical accuracy and for the chance to experience yet more chapters in the endlessly fascinating life of the Count Saint Germain. 

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, A Dangerous Climate
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Commedia della Morte


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Liz Williams, The Shadow Pavilion

The continuing adventures of DI Chen and his ever-growing circle of partners-in-detection have reached new, if somewhat complicated heights.

Mhara, the beneficiary of one of Chen's previous investigations, is formally installed as Emperor of Heaven, and initiates changes which he hopes will bring Heaven and Earth closer together, reversing the course his Father had been set on. but not everyone in Heaven is happy with the idea of change - especially change that involves both greater freedom and greater responsibility for the citizens of Heaven, and Mhara finds himself the target of an assassination attempt. Chen is tasked to find - and foil - the demon assassin; meanwhile, his wife, the demon Inari, is drawn into the dimension "in between" where the assassin lives in the mysterious Shadow Pavilion.

Chen's partner, Inspector Zhu Irzh - a demon on long-term reassignment from Hell has been kidnapped in the course of a police investigation, and finds himself in the hunting lodge of the Indian god Agni, where he and Inari's badger/teakettle familiar are to be hunted by Agni's harem of tiger-demonesses.Is it a co-incidence that Zhu Irzh's fiancee is herself a tiger-demoness? Of course it isn't. Meanwhile, yet another tiger-demoness, summoned up years ago by a Bollywood screenwriter hoping to use her unearthly talents to make it big in the industry, is on the rampage throughout Singapore Three.

While I enjoyed the book, I felt it suffered somewhat by being a bit over-crowded. There were two full storylines here, and I'm not sure the either of them received the treatment they deserved. Particularly in the case of the assassination plotline, which failed, in my opinion, to fully explore a fascinating character, that of the two-spirited assassin Lord Lady Seijin, who is both male and female. I would also have liked to see more about the politics of Heaven. Also, the kidnapping plotline offered the potential to see much more of the Indian heavens and hells - we did see some of how this is set up, but that aspect of the material seemed a bit rushed.

In short, this could, I think, have been two separate novels, which might have made for even more enjoyment, and a more complete experience of both storylines.

This, however, will not stop me from reading the next installment, The Iron Khan - assuming I can get my hands on a copy. Williams has had to switch publishers three times so far in the course of this series, and so far it seems to only be available in hardcover or as an ebook. I have been waiting for a trade or mass market paperbook, but I suspect I will soon have to just go for the ebook.

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The genre of fantasy is rapidly subdividing these days, and I'm not entirely certain what the distinctions are any more. I am sticking with urban fantasy as something that ha
a definition of urban fantasy as something that involves humans interacting with non-humans (vampires, demons, werewolves, elves, whatever) and the use of magic or psychic powers virtually indistinguishable from magic, in an urban setting that is directly based on real world settings (modern-day Toronto or Chicago or whatever). It may involve crimes or mysteries, or it may involve supernatural romance. Or both. I"m not all that fussy.


Jes Battis, Inhuman Resources

Battis' OSI series has held my interest through three volumes to date, and I have the fourth in my TBR pile. The premise is that there is an investigative force, CORE, complete with Occult Special Investigators, that is charged with the responsibility of dealing with all sorts of non-human and occult communities (vampires, necromancers, sorcerers, and so on) secretly co-existing with "normate" human society, investigating crimes involving members of these communities, and keeping the whole business quiet so those ordinary humans can never know. The stories focus on OSI Tess Corday, a woman of mixed heritage (and by that I mean human and demon) and her investigative partner (and roommate) Derrick Siegel. Together they solve crimes! - with the aid of an interesting collection of supporting characters, of course. But behind the episodic nature of the occult crime procedural is a sweeping arc that has to do with Tess' demon heritage.


Katharine Kerr, Licence to Ensorcell

With her lengthy Deverry Cycle epic fantasy series completed, Kerr has decided to explore the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, and in my opinion she quite nails it with this first volume in the new Nola O'Grady series. O'Grady is a an operative with a secret agenct whose mandate you can probably figure out right away, and her new case is to find a serial killer targeting werewolves. It's personal - O'Grady's brother was one of the victims. Her partner on the case is a hard-boiled Isreali operative, assigned to work with her because the serial killer has claimed victims in both Israel and the US. I like this new series, and the next volume is in my infamous TBR pile.


J. A. Pitts, Black Blade Blues

This is a first novel from author J. A. Pitts, and there is some roughness to it, but the premise - a lesbian blacksmith who moonlights as a props manager and is part of a medieval reenactment society - was not the sort of thing I could resist. And there are dragons! To continue the refrain, the next volume is in my TBR pile.


Kevin Hearne, Hounded

Another first novel, and a very fine one too. But how could I resist a novel about the last of the Druids, currently living in Arizona under the unlikely name of Atticus O’Sullivan. The rest of the cast of characters includes his Irish wolfhound, a werewolf and a vampire who happen to be his lawyers, several Celtic deities, the spirit of an ancient Hindu sorceress and a coven of witches. And it's funny too - Hearne has a pleasantly dry wit that is well integrated into the style and storytelling. The next volumes is... oh, you know where it is.


Tate Hallaway, Almost to Die For

You, constant reader, already know that I think very highly of Lyda Morehouse's work, and of course you are aware that Tate Hallaway is the name Morehouse uses for her contemporary supernatural urban romance fantasy work (did I cover all the bases there?). This is the first volume in a new YA series about a teenaged girl whose father happens to be the leader of the vampires in her city, and by vampire tradition, that makes her his heir. I liked it, and... you guessed it, the next volume is in my TBR pile.


Tate Hallaway, Honeymoon of the Dead

And, to balance all these new series, this is the last volume in Morehouse/Hallaway's Garnet Lacey series. Garnet and her vampire lover Sebastian von Traum are finally married - but Garnet's past gets in the way of their planned honeymoon in Transylvania. A good ending to an enjoyable series. No more volumes to put in my TBR file. Sniff.

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I read three anthologies in 2011, all of them theme-based and all quite enjoyable.


Mercedes Lackey (ed.), Under the Vale and Other Tales of Valdemar

What can I say? Lackey's world of Velgarth, and her stories about Valdemar, and its Heralds and their Companions are irresistible to me. I know, telepathic talking horses. But so what?


John Joseph Adams (ed.), The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is another literary creation that I find irresistible. so if you give me an anthology of stories about Sherlock Holmes facing adversaries more fantastical than most of those Arthur Conan Doyle created, who am I to say no? A really excellent collection (to be expected, given Adams' track record as an editor).


John Pelan & Benjamin Adams (eds.), The Children of Cthulhu

And yet another irresistible topic - the Cthulhu mythos created by H. P. Lovecraft. These are stories inspired by the mythos, and not necessarily drawing directly on elements of the canon, but there are some excellent horror stories here, with all the distinctive flavour of the Lovecraft originals.

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Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman

There’s a thread of sorts that runs through a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work, and that thread has a lot to do with the concept of the interaction of dual or multiple realities – dream worlds, parallel worlds, shadow worlds, otherworlds, and afterworlds. It’s the sense that no matter where you are, there is something else going on just over there, or under the hill, or through the mirror, or some other place that you are just barely aware of, that would turn your understanding of your own world upside down or inside out if you ever really noticed it.

Something else that Gaiman pays a lot of attention to is storytelling as an act, as a frame, as a way of providing context or counterpoint. When he writes stories in the first person, they are often the stories of a conscious and self-conscious narrator, who knows he or she is telling a story and is aware of how it sounds, how it is shaped. Sometimes his protagonists are storytellers, or his stories draw on the words of other storytellers for settings or images.

One of the reasons to enjoy Fragile Things is that there are lots of stories that are perfect examples of what Gaiman can do with these two themes in his work – separately or together. Stories about people telling stories about ghosts, stories about writers trying to tell fantastic stories about autocars and bank mortgages in a world where daily life is profoundly gothic in nature, wonderful stories about the art of storytelling while looking through a glass, somewhat obscurely. Many, but not all of these stories have a distinct flavour of the supernatural or of horror, and there are a good many stories that qualify as ghost tales - explicit journeys into the otherworld.

And for the reader who enjoys watching writers play with the issues, ideas, characters, themes and worlds of other writers writing otherworlds, there are some particular pleasures here, as this collection includes such stories as “A Study in Emerald” – Gaiman’s truly magnificent imagining of how certain characters from the Holmesian tales of Arthur Conan Doyle would behave were they to find themselves in a mirror world where the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft held sway – and “The Problem of Susan” – a story that asks the reader to consider the situation of Susan, the young woman that C.S. Lewis barred from the higher, deeper, inner Narnia (which is to say, Heaven) because she found lipstick and boys interesting.

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Romancing the Dead, Tate Hallaway

Yep, Garnet Lacey is back, with another mystery to solve among the undead of otherwise fantastical denizens of Madison Wisconsin. Sebastian, Garnet's vampire fiancé, is missing, his ghouls (human he has a feeding relationship with) are jealous of her, his renegade half-human son Matyas has reappeared in town, there's something terribly off-centre in the new coven she's trying to form, and there's a very strange shape-shifter on the loose.

The first two books in the Garnet Lacey series, written by Lyda Morehouse under the penname of Tate Hallaway, were pleasant supernatural romance romps with solid metaphysical underpinnings, and the third volume continues in that vein - part of what I like about them is that while both Morehouse/Hallaway as the writer and her protagonist Garnet are serious and respectful toward the occult, Garnet as a character is a woman with a keen sense of the ironic, the comic and the ridiculous as well as the serious. The combination of the two perspectives in one character, and one book, creates as if by alchemy a result that seems both satisfyingly real, and patently fantastic all at once.

As supernatural romance mystery "chick-lit" goes, this is definitely some of my favourite stuff.

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The Demon and the City, Liz Williams

The second of Williams’s Detective Investigator Chen mysteries, The Demon and the City, was as usual an intriguing and well-written story, but unfortunately, rather light on Detective Inspector Chen, who does not appear until about half-way through the book. The bulk of the preliminary investigation falls to his newly assigned demon associate Zhu Irzh, whom we met in the first book – and while I do enjoy the character, I’m more interested in Chen, and in the interplay between the two, than I am in the former vice cop from Hell. However, when Chen does appear on the scene – and even more so when his former patron deity Kwan Yin arrives to help them save Heaven and Earth – the full flavour of the first novel is back.

The first novel gave us a quite thorough tour of Hell – this novel shows us much more about Heaven in this unique fantasy based on Chinese religious traditions, and furthermore gives us some hints about how the different religious traditions in this fantasy near-future Earth interact.

It’s a tale of a complex plot involving a Chinese goddess, the patron saint of dowsers and fung shui practitioners who is dissatisfied with her Celestial position, Jhai Tserai, an Indian deva or spirit masquerading as human, who is the head of the very powerful Paugeng corporation, and a large cast of humans, demons, Celestial beings and assorted other creatures.

The story opens with the gruesome death of wealthy heiress Deveth Sardai, whose mutilated corpse disappears from the morgue almost before a bored and sexually frustrated Seneschal Zhu Irzh can begin his investigations. Deveth, it turns out, is the former lover of Robin Yuan, a lab employee at Paugeng whose current assignment is to monitor what she thinks of as “the experiment” – an otherworldly being, believed to be some kind of demon or other Hellspawn, who is being subjected to experimentation and modification under the direct orders of Jhai Tserai.

Williams has more than just action going on here, of course. There are some very interesting perspectives on the nature of good and evil as the story progresses and we see characters from Heaven, Hell and Earth acting and interacting in unexpected ways.

In short, a rollicking good read with some philosophical underpinnings, but I do hope there’s more of Detective Chen as well as Seneschal Irzh in the next volume of the series.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading quite a few anthologies this year. I seem to have developed a new enthusiasm for the short form, and this has led to some very pleasant and often thoughtful reading adventures.


Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, ed. Justine Larbalestier

What makes this anthology special is that, in addition to collecting 11 of the definitive feminist science fiction short stories of the last century (and one from the early part of this century), it also includes critical essays on each of the stories that examine the themes and context of each story. Also, by presenting stories from eight different decades, the anthology enables the reader to follow the development of feminist themes in science fiction writing. The short stories in this anthology are written by, from earliest to most recently published, Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F. Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia Butler, Gwyneth Jones, and Karen Joy Fowler. Some stories are very well-known, such as Tiptree’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side,” Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” and Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.” This is a unique addition to the growing body of feminist scholarship of science fiction – or should that be scholarship of feminist science fiction – and a fine collection of stories with a feminist perspective.

I will also direct you to [profile] calico_reaction’s review of Daughters of Earth. I find some of the differences in our responses to the stories in this volume quite interesting, and in some ways indicative of just why such critical studies are so important. While we have similar opinions about the stories that were published before both of our beginnings as readers, especially readers of science fiction, and as feminists, we respond in some ways very differently to some of the later stories, primarily stories that write about, or reference, themes and ideas that I, as a woman who became both a reader of science fiction and a feminist in the early 60s, lived through first-hand and that I read as they were published in the context of their times. I actually think that it’s more the differences in our historical experiences as feminists than the differences in our pasts as readers of sff that accounts for much of the difference, based on what I’ve found in discussion with other younger women about feminist issues, but both are relevant.

For instance, I think that growing up in the era that produced Betty Friedan’s insights as expounded in The Feminine Mystique makes Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” a much more personal narrative for me, despite its experimental and somewhat distancing style and structure. Fowler’s “What I didn’t See” reads as science fiction to me because of the powerful experience of reading Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” at a time when there really were millions of women that men did not see – the references are too immediate for me to see Fowler’s piece as anything other than a direct response to Tiptree and to a culture in which women in fictional products are repeatedly threatened by aliens, big apes and other monsters (in science fiction, and in its predecessors, the exploration adventure – from King Kong to Allan Quartermain - and the romance as a plot device to give men a reason to be oh so very manly.

In any case, no matter what your background as a reader of sff and as a feminist, I think you will find much to think about in this volume.



Shadows over Baker Street (eds) Michael Reaves, John Palan

The blurb on the back cover says it all:
What would happen if Sir Arther Conan Doyle’s peerless detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his allies were to find themselves faced with Lovecraftian mysteries whose solutions lay not only beyond the grasp of logic but beyond sanity itself?
Holmes vs. Cthulhu! The battle of the aeons! What more can you ask for?

Assuming that you are a fan of both the Great Detective and of the Lovecraftian mythos, that is. I found something to enjoy in every one of these stories, but I do have a few particular favourites, most notably Neil Gainman’s “A Study in Emerald,” Elizabeth Bear’s “Tiger! Tiger!”



The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 1, ed. Jonathan Strahan

This is a new “year’s best” anthology series being published by Night Shade Books, and I bought it primarily because it contains stories by a number of authors that I’ve heard spoken of very highly, but have not read much – or in some cases, anything, of their work before now. And, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, an anthology is a good place to get to know new authors.

I enjoyed many of the stories collected in this volume, with special notice to Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians,” Geoff Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy),” Kelly Link’s “The Wizards of Perfil,” Robert Charles Wilson’s “The Cartesian Theatre,” Peter S. Beagle’s “El Regalo,” and… well, the more I look at the table of contents’ the more I start thinking “you know, that one was really worth a notable mention… and so was that one… and that was a really interesting take on the subject matter… and that one was really powerful…” and so on.

Which tells you that Strahan is a very good editor, and this is a collection worth reading.



DAW 30th Anniversary: Fantasy, eds. Elizabeth R Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert

I had a specific reason for buying this anthology: it includes Michelle Sagara West’s “The Memory Of Stone.” You see, I’ve recently discovered West’s brilliant Sun Sword series and I’m trying to collect all of her short stories placed in the Empire of Essalieyan and the Dominion of Annagar.

But of course, what I got was so much more. New short stories by Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, Jennifer Roberson, Mercedes Lackey, Tanya Huff, Melanie Rawn, Deborah J. Ross, and others.



Sirius the Dog Star, eds. Martin H. Greenberg and Alexander Potter

This is another of the anthologies I acquired because it includes a story by Michelle Sagara West – this time, “Huntbrother” which in many ways completed her Sacred Hunt duology.

I must admit that I’m not a dog person, and had West’s story not been collected here, I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. And that would have been a bad thing, because then I would have missed such deeply moving stories as Tanya Huff’s “Finding Marcus,” Julie E. Czerneda’s “Brothers Bound,” Fiona Patton’s “Heartsease,” Rosemary Edghill’s “Final Exam,” Jane Lindskold’s “Keep the Dog Hence,” Kristine Kathryn Rasch’ “After the Fall” and Mickey Zucker Reichert’s “All the Vitues.”

It might not have turned me into a dog person, but it certainly made me appreciative of dogs as central characters in the hands of a skilful writer.



Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed. John Joseph Adams

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a fascination for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction – a fascination with tales that spring from the notion “This is the way the world ends…” And so I must thank John Joseph Adams for making an anthology just for me (and, I suppose, the many others who share my fascination with the subgenre).

Books with apocalyptic themes are rarely funny, and this volume is no exception to the rule, even though, in some stories, there is hope: hope that some will survive whatever mess we’ve made of the world we live in, hope that we might learn something and go on to do it better. In others, there is only the telling of the downfall, and the rest is silence – possibly a silence that we who have not yet seen an apocalypse on a scale that could end all of our worlds can ponder on and use to look for paths that do not end that way. For every The Postman, there is an On the Beach.

I’m not going to single out any stories, because all of them had something important to say about how and why the world – or a world – might end, and what we might do to nudge it in that direction or away from it, and what we could learn from thinking about the issues now, before it really might be too late. Unless of course, it already is and we don’t know it yet.

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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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Snake Agent, Liz Williams.

There are a lot of supernatural detectives going around these days. On TV, and in print, vampires, witches, warlocks, necromancers, werewolves and all sorts of slightly unusual folks are going about solving crimes of a paranormal nature.

I’ll confess to being a fan of the genre, beginning with some of its earlier incarnations – TV’s Forever Knight and the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker (Darrin McGavin is Kolchak, accept no substitutes), the Victory Nelson mysteries by Tanya Huff, the Diana Tregarde investigations by Mercedes Lackey, and so on.

One thing that’s been common to most of these magical mystery tours, however, has been their shared European heritage and Western setting.

Now Liz Williams gives us another take on the paranormal procedural. Set in Singapore Three (in the near future, cities themselves are commercial franchises), in an alternate fantasy earth that’s somewhat ahead of our own technologically, but where gods and demos are real, Snake Agent is the first in a series of novels (three so far) about Inspector Wei Chen, a detective on the Singapore Three police force who has the patronage of Kuan Yin and the magical knowledge and skills required to cross over into Hell if need be to track down a witness, or a criminal. Chen has a few other advantages in dealing with demons, including the fact that he’s married to one. As this is the first novel in the series, we also meet characters who are clearly going to be a part of Inspector Chen’s further adventures, including his opposite number from the investigative forces of Hell, Seneschal Zhu Irzh.

In a genre that can become a little too repetitive (just how many vampire detectives can one handle, anyway?), this novel strikes a new and interesting chord with its use of Chinese supernatural traditions and settings. The book is somewhat light in tone, and brilliantly skewers a number of recognisable personality types and aspects of the human condition, from devout ideologues to self-absorbed bureaucrats, while never losing the forward momentum required of a detective novel.

I’m certainly hooked.

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