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"After We Walked Away," Erica L. Satifka; Apex Magazine, November 21, 2016

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

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;, March 16, 2016

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

"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

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;, July 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Tapas - download the free app to read available content online, one or two sample chapters of each work are free, purchase keys to unlock more chapters if you like what you're reading:
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There's not a great deal to be remarked on about Jim Butcher's Skin Game. It's urban fantasy with lots of action, and a very complicated con/heist/doublecross plot that involves our wizardly hero Harry Dresden, assorted ancient and nasty enemies, his liege lady Mab, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Hades, God of the Underworld, and a plan to steal the Holy Grail from the most secure vault in the Harryverse.

I haven't read any of the previous Dresden Files novels, although I've sort of wanted to check out the series because I watched and enjoyed the short-lived TV show based on the character. So a lot of the backstory that presumably motivated the various good, evil, and ambiguously aligned characters was missing for me. And after 15 novels, there was a lot of history between most of the characters, as this seemed to be one of those novels that brings back all of your favourite guest stars to stir things up between them. I probably missed out on a lot that might have made the book more emotionally gratifying by being a complete stranger to the series, but that's one of the risks of nominating the 16th volume in a series for a major award.

Harry himself seems to be modeled after the classic film noir hard-boiled detective, except that as a first person POV narrator of that particular stripe, he's not really jaded enough, and he rambles on rather a lot.

As a casual read, Skin Game was reasonably enjoyable, and I still might go read a few of the earlier novels when I'm in the mood for frivolous magic and mayhem - but I must say that while reading this, I found myself comparing it with the Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne, another urban fantasy with a male protagonist with which it shares certain types and tropes, and thinking that it did not quite measure up.

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Aydori is a small nation, with big problems. Its neighbour, the technologically advanced Empire, has been annexing small countries left and right, and Aydori, which rekies on the formidiable powers of its mages and ruling werewolf clans, is next on the list. Already many of the ranking members of The Clan have been killed, and now the Empire has kidnapped five of Aydori's mages. It's up to the relatively untrained and unskilled mage Mirian and battle survivor werewolf Tomas to rescue then from the hands of the Emperor, and turn Aydori's impending defeat into a viable defense.

Well, it's Tanya Huff, so of course it is a good book - winner of the Aurora Award for Best Canadian Spec-fic, in fact - and naturally I enjoyed it very much. Despite the fact that I'm not overly excited about books that feature werewolf dominance issues and use the word Alpha a lot.

But Huff's werewolf and mage based society was fascinating, and the main characters were interesting (and mostly female, which was a nice switch for a werewolf story), and the plot had me turning pages avidly. I'd love to see more of this world,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Frazer, Winter Heart (Smashwords)

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

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Patricia Briggs:
Moon Called
Blood Bound

Moon Called and Blood Bound are the first two novels in Patricia Briggs’ urban fantasy series featuring Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson, a not-quite-human auto mechanic raised by werewolves. She herself is a shapeshifter, but of a kind known in indigenous North American traditions, not European ones – a skinwalker. Her animal shape is that of a coyote, she doesn’t have the great strength of the werewolf but she is not bound by the moon, is faster than ordinary humans, is resistant to certain kinds of magic and can see and talk to ghosts.

In Mercy Thompson’s world, the supernatural beings – fae, werewolves, vampires and others – are in the process of revealing themselves to ordinary humankind, because it is becoming harder and harder to keep their existence a secret. At the beginning of the series, only the lesser fae have done this, but other kinds of non-humans are dealing with the question of how to respond to the increasing problems they are having in remaining undetected, and what changes may be necessary to old habits and traditions in either keeping hidden for now, or in revealing themselves without sparking fear and potential retaliation from humans.

There’s a lot of neat things to commend the series, but there’s also one huge thing that is potentially poison – Mercy gets very close to both werewolves and vampires, in a way that I find just a little too reminiscent of the early Anita Blake books, although with much less actual sex. However, there is a fair amount of focus on dominance issues, the Alpha wolf of the local community declaring Mercy to be his mate at least in name, and how that affects her relationship with his pack, the politics of the local vampire community (Briggs uses the nomenclature “seethe” for a group of vampires related by loyalty to one master), the relationships between pack and were, her friendship with one of the more powerful local vampires, all of the things that made Hamilton’s books interesting at first and then made them intolerable once she’d gone too far with it all.

So far, Briggs is avoiding the pitfalls, and I’m enjoying the series quite a lot, but I’m reading with caution.


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