Continuing my theme of reporting late on my news–for the first time, “Monstrous Embrace” is online in print, courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.
The first line came to me in one of those strange, clear moments:
I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.
Listen to me, my prince. Tomorrow, when dawn breaks and you stand in the chapel accepting your late father’s crown, your fate will be set. Do nothing and you will be dead by sundown. Your kingdom will be laid waste, its remnants preserved only in the bellies of carrion birds.
There is another option. Marry me.
The voice on this story was driving. It forced me rapidly through the story. Although I did a lot of revision later, I wrote the whole first draft in a few fluid hours. That’s rare enough for me to savor.
You can also find an audio version at PodCastle.
February is always one of the busiest months for me. This February was so busy that I didn’t remember to click “post” on the entry I’d written about my new story in Clarkesworld Magazine, “Between Dragons and Their Wrath.” I wrote it with my former student, An Owomoyela.
Fourteen-year-old Domei lives in a world jagged with the dangerous, magical scraps from someone else’s war:
In the forest, scales are most common. If they cut you, the cut will never stop bleeding.
If you step in a place where a dragon has defecated, food will stream through your body, and you will always be hungry. If you pass a place where a dragon breathed fire, your skin will forever blister and heal and then blister again. If you touch a dragon’s blood, you’ll go mad.
As for me, I was harvesting scales. With a scale, you can till the land faster than anyone using an iron hoe. You can butcher meat in a tenth the time it takes to use a knife. There are good things about dragon leavings, and for those good things, I usually get paid enough to eat.
Scales are common. Everyone knows about those. It was something else that got me.
This story began with a draft An wrote years ago. Last summer, they handed it to me, and I worked on the plot and characters. It was interesting starting with material that wasn’t mine, trying to understand the inside of the story enough to be able to continue and enhance the work that’s already there. I don’t think of An and myself as particularly similar writers, but I think we may approach structure the same way. It’s easier for me to put myself intuitively into their stories than it has been for other people I’ve tried this exercise with. (I do hope that some of those attempts will lead to other published stories also.)
Another excerpt (almost totally written by An):
During the war, the Andé slaughtered a big dragon the size of a mountain. They dropped its liver and gall on Hizhang. Bile poisoned the earth, poisoned the air, poisoned the people and the children of the people, and is still poisoning them now. People born in Hizhang have probably never seen a dragon, but they don’t need to.
Every dusk, the cows start lowing from Hizhang. But there are no longer cows in Hizhang.
You see, we were lucky.
The story is also available in audio, narrated by Kate Baker.
A few quick notes for this week.
Poetry Planet podcast
Diane Severson puts together the poetry planet podcast that aired recently in this episode of starship sofa. She includes my poem, “Terrible Lizards,” which is about — as you might expect — dinosaurs. She asked me to include an anecdote about it:
1) I love dinosaurs. I never went through a dinosaur phase as a kid, but my husband never got over his, so when I met him in college, I got to have a late dinosaur phase, which we still enjoy together.
2) I was driving cross-country through the midwest (well, my husband was driving and I was passengering) and staring out of the windows at all the flat land, and trying to visualize cool things walking through it, which my husband can do and which I mostly can’t. Then I saw one of those huge irrigation devices and realized it was about dinosaur-sized. I never got the visualization trick down, but I can do the imagining with words thing.
Tiptree Anthology available at 99 cents:
Last year, I was honored to participate in the anthology project Letters to Tiptree.
For nearly a decade, between 1968 and 1976, a middle-aged woman in Virginia (her own words) had much of the science fiction community in thrall. Her short stories were awarded, lauded and extremely well-reviewed. They were also regarded as “ineluctably masculine”, because Alice Sheldon was writing as James Tiptree Jr.
In celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both Tiptree and Sheldon on the field, Twelfth Planet Press has published a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago.
I gave my answer in the form of a poem.
If you’re a Tiptree fan, now is the time to buy the book–until March 31, it’s available at 99 cents.
“Love Is Never Still” just came out in Issue 9 of Uncanny Magazine, a story about Galatea and Aphrodite, and their broken, bittersweet love affairs. The story begins with the sculptor’s perspective:
“I’ve loved other sculptures. Though I’m not yet old, I have worked diligently at my art, and so have loved hundreds. I have loved leaping horses and dour-faced spearmen and exotic animals pieced together from sailors’ descriptions.
Galatea is my culmination. From the beginning, winnowing the ivory to her form has felt more like discovery than invention. Our bodies move together in conversation; mine contorts as I twist and crouch to discover precise angles, and she emerges from my labor.”
This took me about four months of intense concentration to write because it features about fifteen perspectives (the number went up and down while I was drafting) and the writing is very precise. Sometimes it felt like I was writing a really long poem. I actually wrote part of the story in verse (iambic pentameter), but my friend Barry Deutsch rightly convinced me that it slowed the story way down.
I’ll try to tempt you to read with another passage, this time from Galatea’s perspective:
Birth is pain, and I have been twice born. First I was an egg of ivory until he struck away the pieces that were not me and cracked me open. Later, the goddess touched me with her fiery fingertips and melted away the good, solid quiet of my soul. She made me into hot, fragile skin, always beating with blood.
What misery it is to crack at the seams, to be forever bending and reshaping. Once, my body held its place in the world; once, it stood in perfect, unchanging balance. Now I am walking, stumbling, falling, sitting, smiling, resting, startling, kneeling, offering, dressing, approaching, avoiding.
My sculptor is nearby, but turns his face away. I chew a cube of cheese and swallow. Even my insides move.
Today, I’m posting an interview that I was supposed to post a month ago, with Jose Iriarte. (I didn’t save the post correctly, apparently, and it didn’t go into the queue. Oops.)
Jose is a new writer–he’s been publishing short stories since 2013, netting sales to markets like Strange Horizons. He has a section on his website titled More about me than any reasonable person would want to know which includes that “he spends way too much time online.” Don’t we all. Don’t we all.
1. You got your first paying magazine rejection at 13 — me, too! Which magazine and how did that experience go?
My first rejection was from Dragon, which I’m sure you remember was an RPG-focused magazine from TSR. It was actually a revise-and-resubmit from its then-editor, Roger Moore, which I was ridiculously excited about. I did revise and resub, and got back a personal rejection saying it just didn’t work. I think I recall reading that Moore made a point of being encouraging to young writers. I can’t recall if I mentioned my age in my submission, but I’m guessing it had to be obvious! In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing this piece didn’t sell, because I cribbed heavily from stuff I’d read in comic books, not being really well-versed at the time in what was homage, what was paraphrasing, and what was outright plagiarism!
I had no idea, at the time, how magazines worked and how long turnarounds were. I didn’t know if they’d tell me they were buying the piece, send me money, or if it would just show up in the magazine, followed by a check at some later point. (Did I even know they paid? I assume so.) So as the months dragged on with no reply, I’d race to the Waldenbooks in the mall at the beginning of every month to grab the latest issue, and flip through it desperately searching for my name.
Spanish is my first language, but I learned English at a very young age, shortly after I started kindergarten. The vast majority of my reading and other media consumption is in English. So I generally think in English, unless I am specifically speaking or writing in Spanish. I have occasionally deliberately borrowed from Spanish sentence structure as a way to make alien characters speak English and yet sound slightly off. Beyond that, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an influence, but if so it’s subtle enough that I can’t really point to it myself.
On a non-language level, I do make a point of writing Latino characters into a lot of my fiction, usually as protagonists, and of peppering in Spanish. (I could go on and on about that, but that’s really a discussion in and of itself.)
My first love after picture books was Hardy Boys books. I owned all the original blue hardcover books and also the Detective Handbook. (Can you tell I have completionist tendencies?) Maybe fifteen years or so ago I saw that somebody was publishing new books in the series, so I bought the first, and Iola was killed in the very first book! I was like, What the hell?! One of my daughters brought home a Hardy Boys graphic novel from the library once, and I flipped through it, but again it seemed way edgier than I remembered.
The worst shock to my system I ever encountered was in a novel about people fighting against the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, where one of the protagonists was raped and killed by a Ton-Ton Macoute operative. (To provide extra motivation for the male hero, natch.) The scene was graphic and lovingly detailed, nothing left to implication, no ominous scene-break. I’ve never run into anything quite like it again. It did kind of traumatize me, because I was an extremely sensitive kid and also reasons. Unfortunately, my parents and I didn’t really have the kind of relationship where I could come to them to talk about what I’d read or what had disturbed me. I was of an age where I was quick to see flaws in myself (I’m not sure that’s over, to be honest) and I figured if anything it reflected poorly on me for having chosen to read this book. And boy this got dark fast.
I’ll be releasing my full list of short fiction recommendations later, but here’s a quick catch-up on a couple things I liked recently.
I didn’t put Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy on that list because it slipped my mind–repeatedly. I put it in my notes, even, but then not in my entry. That’s because I read the book early and keep forgetting it was published in 2015. I recommend it.
E. J. Fischer’s “The New Mother” is the best riff on “disappearing male” stories I’ve ever seen, a smart story that accomplishes both literary and speculative goals in a sharp, well-characterized, traditionally “what if?” SF way. My point of comparison in Nancy Kress.
Will McIntosh’s “A Thousand Nights Till Morning” is about a psychiatrist with an anxiety disorder who is on a Mars expedition when they receive the news that Earth has been conquered by aliens, possibly with no survivors. An adventure story with traditional SF elements and Will’s smart voice.
Caren Gusoff’s “Three Songs for Roxy” (Aqueduct) is a three-part, beautiful tale, about strange aliens coming to earth. The lives she writes about are delicately, beautifully rendered, and startlingly unusual. In terms of odd character detail, it’s like a tender Pahlaniuk–a really lovely and unique read.
Sarah Pinsker’s “Our Lady of the Open Road” will resonate better with people who have a strong interest in the music scene, but is a meaty science fiction story with very strong characters which has been recognized highly by the Asimovs readership and the Neb recommended reading list.
Charlie Jane Anders’ “Ghost Champagne” is another remarkable piece from this author, combining her humor and warmth of perspective with reflection on important life questions. It tells the story of a struggling young comedian who lives under the shadow of the disapproving, silent ghost of her own dead self.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Midnight Hour” takes standard fantasy set pieces, including a mad king and cursed queen, to render an intimate portrait of two characters struggling together, with significant emotional breadth that it will take me some time to unpack (and which I suspect will vary from reader to reader).
Here’s a link to my recommendation post for 2015 Norton candidates. There are a number of books on this list that I absolutely loved, and it’s simplistic to call out only one or a couple, but I’m going to take the opportunity to link one more time to Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.
I hope people enjoy their reading, from 2015, 2016, or whenever.
I wanted to make a post celebrating Mary Robinette’s Glamourist Histories because it is one of the few more-than-three-book series that I’ve read to the end. Actually, all of those series ended last year, so I was going to do tributes to all of them. I still may, but I wanted to start with Mary Robinette because this is her birthday.
So, in honor of Mary Robinette’s birthday, I present a short post about the book.. and some fan art.
The Glamourist Histories take place in an Austen-inspired world where it’s possible to weave illusions out of the ether. The protagonist, Jane (as a nod to Austen), is quite a skilled glamourist, but women’s dabbling in glamour is considered frivolous. Jane is set up in a similar position to the protagonist of Pride & Prejudice — and sure enough an arrogant nobleman shows up. He is one of the most talented glamourists in England, and while he is initially grumpy toward Jane, they eventually follow the P&P path, fall in love, and get married.
One thing that’s true of all the series that I have continued to the end is that the books often improve over the course of the series. Sometimes the first book is still the strongest, but the second book probably isn’t weak, and the third book might be even better than the first. (For me, the real dealbreaker with a series is if the books go constantly downhill, no matter how high the starting point.)
One of the things I like best about the Glamourist Histories in particular is how much the setting, characters, and voice developed over the course of the series. For me, book one was fun, but so heavily like Austen that she seemed to loom over the story. Book two was a radical departure, taking these Austen-like characters and Austen-like setting and shaping them into new things. It’s not that the series loses the sense of or tribute to Austen. It just gains its own charm.
Over the series of the novels, the theme of pride and prejudice continues to be explored. Jane must face a series of prejudices (beginning with prejudice against the Irish, which seems quaint to us now, but.) until, in the final book, she end up at an Antigua plantation owned by her husband’s family. (Spoilers on the treatment of race in rot13: Fur’f abg n juvgr fnivbe. Fur’f n juvgr nffvfgnag, naq n juvgr trnef-ternfre, ohg fur’f abg gur juvgr ynql jub pnzr va gb fnir gur urycyrff fynirf.) In real life, I respect Mary Robinette for her dedication to making our own world better; Jane, too, is learning about her world so that she can dismantle her prejudices and help people where she can.
In a way, the progression of the books can be read as a criticism of Austen–after all, Austen’s heroines are firmly rooted where they are, when they are–and especially in what class they are. I see criticisms of Austen from time to time essentially asking why the ladies from P&P etc. don’t go work in a hat shop or as ladies’ maids because clearly their concerns are frivolous. (I don’t have the feeling that men’s narratives of wanting to succeed are treated the same way, but maybe I’m wrong.) I don’t read the series that way, however. I think this is one of the ways where Mary Robinette is adding her own perspective to Austen’s, thus making it her own. Austen was writing social commentary on her time, within her time, and within those constraints–both physical and ideological. Mary Robinette’s character Jane gains exceptional freedom to travel and move between social circles which would almost certainly not have been available to Austen’s heroines.
The social commentary in the books is also modern. It should be. The books are modern. Mary Robinette is writing social commentary on our time, set in Austen’s.
I’ve looked forward to getting a new Glamourist History on my kindle every year for a while now, and I’ll be sorry to let them go, although there’s a stipulation at the end of the last book suggesting there might be further adventures from Jane in the future. I hope there are.
I’ll close with one my favorite memories relating to the series: When the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey, was nominated for the Nebula Award, Mary Robinette attended the ceremony in a beautiful, handmade regency gown with period undergarments. How cool is that?
Now, some fan art: Jane Austen enjoys reading Of Noble Family.
(I’m learning what I can do with Paper with my new stylus, so that’s why there are like 8 different techniques in there. Her face is based on the famous portrait. The tea pot and tea cup are shaped like things I found when I google image searched “regency tea pot/cup” and the regency wallpaper was inspired by a similar search.
Not pictured: Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen’s Book Club, waiting by her bedside for a cozy reread.)
This list is not comprehensive. It’s just a dash of things I liked.
This year, there were a number of novels that I found interesting, but also think I was an audience mismatch for. The books carry significant emotional weight through passions that I’ve never been particularly interested in: Silvia Moreno Garcia (vintage vinyl), Elizabeth Bear (westerns), Ken Liu (military strategy), Cat Valente (Hollywood glamour).I still enjoyed the books, though I think some of them faired better in the face of my ignorance than others. But they’re all interesting and I think the right audience will find them particularly compelling.
The Fifth Season* by N. K. Jemisin – I think this is one of my new favorite books. It takes place in the same world as last year’s short story, “Stone Hunger,” a really compelling setting where frequent apocalyptic events have forced humans to operate in a perpetual wary state, with stores of grain and preparations for martial law always at the ready. Among the population, there are magic-workers who can manipulate stone. They are blamed for the apocalypses and persecuted. One thing I really love about this story is the detailed layers of dead civilizations, where some were developed and technological and have left such ruins, while later ones operate on wildly different aesthetics and technological capabilies. The story is divided in three broad timelines/perspectives–one a young girl being enslaved to the empire because of her magic ability, one a magic worker laboring in service of the empire, and one a magic worker fleeing an apocalypse that has ruined her home town. The threads are brought together beautifully and intelligently in a way that makes it clear that each prior move has been deliberate. The book reminds me a bit of some Octavia Butler, like Parable of the Sower, which looks with an unsentimental eye at how humans react to instability and apocalypse. It also reminds me of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet which also has beings that manipulate the elements and resonances in terms of tone and plot development (it’s a sad series, but I recommend it). I see Nora as one of the most important novelists working in contemporary sf/f.
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard – In this setting, gods and magical beings inhabit the world. Around World War I, a magical disaster caused an apocalypse. The city of Paris has been mostly destroyed, overrun by gangs, and under the control of houses run by fallen angels. This is a very delicate novel with lots of intricate descriptions and observation. The world building is an unusual combination of fantasy and historical strains. (I admit the angel houses feel pretty similar to vampire houses, which some readers may not prefer.) It feels to me, in a way, like a very pretty snow globe, a sort of small scene of enclosed beauty. Along with those things, though, it felt like the thematic resonance of the story wasn’t too deep or broad; there was sort of a skimming feeling for me, particularly in regard to the characters. I never wholly felt emotionally immersed by them. I wonder now how the book would fare written if the main voice was from a different character, or if another perspective character had been added.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant* by Seth Dickinson – The daughter of a colonized people joins the empire’s ruling ranks in order to destroy it from within and avenge her people. In pursuit of the power she needs to do so, she must participate in the oppression of other peoples and do things that radically violate her conscience. Additionally, the empire, while in favor of some things our culture considers progressive like gender equality, is perniciously homophobic, killing or maiming those discovered participating in homosexual behavior. The main character, being a lesbian, must constantly work to conceal herself. This is an epic fantasy, largely concerned with politics and war, but anchored in the perspective of a single, dogged character. Baru Cormorant isn’t particularly likeable, but her ambition and determination carry the story. At times, the story did lag for me, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the long time cuts. I was also personally more interested in the empire and its strange world building than I was in the politics of the nation where she ends up, which looked more like things I’d seen before. This is a smart book. (Side note: I referenced Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet in conjunction with N. K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season (my favorite novel this year). Dickinson’s Cormorant doesn’t particularly resonate with the Jemisin directly, but it does resonate with the Long Price Quartet. Maybe I should interview Abraham and/or write about those books sometime soon. I think Baru Cormorant also resonates with Hurley’s God’s War.)
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Meche returns from Oslo to her hometown, Mexico City, for her father’s funeral. While there, she confronts memories of her teenage dabbling with magic which led to her hurting a friend she loved which set them both on lonely paths. Meche is obsessed with vintage vinyl. I was oblivious to the meaning of most of the music referents–which are the conduit for her magic, and the underpinning of her relationship with her father. However, I thought the book bore up well even robbed of those tools. The characterization is detailed over slow, meticulous scenes. Many of the turns were unexpected. Where I broke with the book is that I found Meche an extremely unpleasant character. I think the reader was supposed to see her that way, but perhaps I felt more strongly than I was expected to. Spoilers in rot 13: V sbhaq gur jnl gur bgure punenpgref sbetnir ure gb or ovmneer. Gur obbx frrzf gb or qenjvat gbjneq n gehr ybir pbapyhfvba, ohg V jnf zbfgyl yvxr “ab, guvf vf n onq vqrn, V pnaabg ebbg sbe guvf ng nyy.” Znlor gur obbx vf n pevgvpvfz bs gur vqrn bs sngrq ybir, naq n qrfpevcgvba bs ubj nohfvir crbcyr qenj crbcyr gb gurz? Vs vg jnf, V qvqa’g trg bireg fvtanyf sebz gur grkg gung guvf jnf gur vagragvba. Znlor V jnf ernqvat vg guebhtu na vanccebcevngr traer yraf. Anyway, the novel is interesting.
Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman – A xenoethnologist travels on an expedition to explore a planet that’s at a locus of unstable space where gravity doesn’t work as it should. They discover a lost diasporic group of humans underground, forcing the main character into an unexpected, unprepared-for first contact situation. (A second main character is making a study of consciousness and has some really interesting passages.) This was really interesting in a good traditional science fiction space opera way, lots of shifting from interesting idea to interesting idea. Carolyn’s prose keeps the story moving while knowing when to dwell on a pretty image (such as a disturbing, distorted forest of reflections and knife-like crystal leaves). It’s an effortless read because of Carolyn’s skill. The story lagged a bit for me in places, but overall, I was really into its ideas and explorations. I even wish Carolyn had gone further into the physics which is rare for me. Stipulation: a Muslim-inspired culture is abstracted into a symbol for patriarchy.*
Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal – Mary Robinette’s series the Glamourist Histories takes place in a Jane Austen-inspired world. The heroine, herself name Jane, can work magic by weaving folds in the ether. Her husband, Vince, who once filled the prideful (of pride and prejudice) role, is a magic-worker by profession. Of Noble Family is the fifth book in the series and, I am disappointed to discover, the last planned for now (although the ending is left open to possible future volumes). It takes place on an Antigua plantation. The book and series are worth more unpacking than a thumbnail review. I wouldn’t recommend that readers jump into book 5, but I wanted to mark it as one of the books I most enjoyed reading this year, and also to recognize the series as a whole. If the pitch sounds interesting to you, go start with the first, Shades of Milk and Honey. (Though I will note that this is the rare series that I think improves over the course of the first few books.)
King of Shards by Matthew Kressel – Daniel is one of the Lamed Vav, the righteous people who uphold the world in some mystical versions of Judaism. No one –including the pillars themselves — know who the lamed vav are, until a demon finds a list and begins killing them one by one in order to destroy the earth. Before she can kill Daniel, he’s rescued by an opposing demon, who kidnaps him down into the lower worlds — broken shards from God’s previous creations where there are different physical laws. Daniel himself was a tepid character for me (not in a terrible way, just in a transparent-lens way), but many of the other characters are dramatically interesting. My favorite thing about the book though was the world-building of the shards–Matt does these really interesting, creepy city and landscape things, with unusual imagery that sticks in the mind. There were a couple of typical fantasy tropes which appeared which I wasn’t interested in (I’ve decided I’m sick of harem slavery as a threat), and I also hope that (spoilers in rot13) gur perngbe tbqqrff, jub jnf gur zbfg vagrerfgvat punenpgre, jvyy or oebhtug onpx gb yvsr va gur arkg be yngre obbxf. The book is obviously of interest in the conversation about Jewish science fiction and fantasy, but it’s also a rewarding read with beautiful settings.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik – Our main character has grown up in a small village that exists in the shadow of, and under the protection of, the wizard’s tower. Every ten years, the wizard selects a girl to be his servant. This year, he picks our main character. She doesn’t know what to expect from him, but becomes his apprentice. (Later, she also becomes his lover, which was a little bit sketchy for me, but possibly only because I was reading the book as young adult.) It’s a fun, brightly written book, that is crafted with extreme skill within the territory it stakes out. The structure is well-done; the plotting is well-done; everything’s good. For me, it didn’t reach beyond that to something exciting, which is what I need for a book to be one of my favorites–but good, smart fun is good, smart fun, and I admire the execution. A good, appealing read. (Also, I think it did reach beyond that to something exciting for many readers.)
Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo – Cat Rambo has written about Tabat in numerous short stories. In the beautiful city of Tabat, sentients from non-human races are property, routinely lobotomized and treated as slaves. Beasts of Tabat is told via dual POV: Teo, a child and a non-human shapeshifter finding his way through the city while destitute, and Bella, a famous and wealthy gladiator who fights on behalf of winter every year in their annual games to see if spring can come early (under her tenure, it never has). One of the great virtues of this book is the detail in which Cat has laid out her city. Teo admires it, but Bella is in love with it, and that love is infectious. The city itself is interesting, and I find the plot about rights for non-humans compelling; it’s the sort of thing I’m natively interested in. Many of the interludes are really interesting: I love one where Teo stays with a photographer, and I also love Bella’s politically radical cousin a lot. At a few points, the book did lag a little for me. The ending is disappointing because it’s so abruptly cliffhangery, but it is an effective teaser. (After my mother read it, she wrote me to lament that she’d have to wait for the next installment to find out what happened.)
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – In a steampunk wild west, soiled doves (with the help of a marshal and his backup) fend off an evil sadist who wants to take over the city. I think people frustrated with the portrayal of race (and gender) in typical westerns will like this. I’ve never had a particular interest in westerns which makes me suspect I’m not the ideal reader for the book and that readers who are will like this even more than I did. I enjoyed reading the book: great voice, interesting historical stuff, and characters developed in interesting ways–I just wasn’t personally interested in the plot.
Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. A depressing (well it IS Paolo) story of water rights in the west where California and Las Vegas monopolize the water supply, destroying cities like Phoenix. The prose is sharp with perfect diction, and the ideas are compelling. I had trouble with immersion and emotionally relating to the characters–I had the same problem with Windup Girl. Paolo’s young adult novels feel much more vivid for me for some reason. I don’t think I’m the right audience for this book (though I’m sure I will get interesting things from it), so I set it aside.
Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. Another book that I don’t think I was the right audience for. This book tells a broad scale, epic story of political machinations and war. The setting is derived from Chinese history instead of western European. Some of the descriptions are strikingly gorgeous as one would expect from Ken. His description of the emperor’s pagoda, for instance, is an image that hangs in my mind. The story involves a lot of points of view, and with the volume, I started to get confused. That, combined with my relative lack of interest in military strategy, make me a poor reader for this novel. Readers who like to sink their teeth into those things should definitely pick this up.
Radiance by Cat Valente – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. (Side note: great cover.) Presumably based on a Clarkesworld short story, “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew.” This is the one I really wish I’d finished. I didn’t put it aside on purpose: it was the last book I picked up, and I just ran out of A) time, and B) brainpower for dealing with novels. This novel takes place in an old-fashioned science fictional solar system where there are flowers on Pluto and oceans on Venus. A new Hollywood on the moon makes silent movies with title cards and raccoon-eyed makeup. The language is dense, disjunctive, and often gorgeous–I’m not sure it always works in service of the story, but I think I’d have to finish the book to fully make up my mind on how it functions in context. I do think the book would be enhanced by an interest in old Hollywood which I don’t particularly have. The novel is definitely unusual and ambitious.
*Because I’m sure someone will ask–and because there seems to be this persistent strain of thought from anti-feminists that feminists are a-ok with patriarchy in Islam–my objection to this is not to acknowledging patriarchal oppression in some Islamic cultures. It is that patriarchy includes more than Islam, and Islam includes more than patriarchy. Using one as a symbol to point to the whole of the other results in simplification, rather than deepening understanding. The history of equating these things amplifies the effect that gestures in this direction will have, thus making it even trickier to navigate in fiction.
Footnote one: Occasionally, I get confused about what year something comes out in, and end up reading something from the previous year for consideration. This year, it was Lock In by John Scalzi. This fun murder mystery about robots and revolutionary politics was really cool, and possibly my favorite of Scalzi’s book so far (I’d need to reread a coupe of the earlier ones). I like murder mysteries, but am usually dissatisfied by the way they are rendered in science fiction and fantasy. So that’s a double bonus for me. So, yeah — yay for Lock In, courtesy of 2014.
Footnote two: Spoilers involving the discussion that’s happened around The Fifth Season and The Traitor Baru Cormorant in rot13, particularly for people who are sensitive around queer issues: V haqrefgnaq gung crbcyr ner fvpx bs gentvp dhrrearff, naq obgu gurfr obbxf srngher vg, rfcrpvnyyl Pbezbenag. Vs crbcyr qba’g jnag gb cerff ba gung oehvfr (nf Nzny fnvq vg) naq jbhyq cersre gb nibvq gur obbxf sbe gung ernfba, gung znxrf gbgny frafr gb zr. Ubjrire, V qba’g guvax gung gentvp dhrrearff fubhyq or bss gur gnoyr nf n qrivpr. V whfg guvax gung, yvxr encr, vg fubhyq or eraqrerq qryvorengryl (nf bccbfrq gb whfg vapyhqrq sbe ynmvarff), gubhtugshyyl (jvgu erfrnepu naq pbagrzcyngvba), naq jryy (orpnhfr qryvpngr guvatf arrq gb or qbar jryy). V gubhtug gur obbxf cnffrq gubfr zrgevpf.
(I was reading this year for the Norton Award. For those who don’t know, the Norton Award is given annually by SFWA (alongside the Nebulas, although it is technically not a Nebula award) to a young adult or middle grade novel that has science fiction or fantasy themes. This year, I read about seventy-five young adult and middle grade novels that met the criteria. Some I solicited and some I bought, but most were review copies or ARCs sent by publishers for the jury to consider.)
As always, I didn’t have a chance to read everything I wanted to (although I got a lot closer with this category than I have in previous years). And because of the way I organized my reading, there are some books around the house which are by friends and by people whose writing I’ve enjoyed in the past, which I still haven’t read. Also, as always, there are more wonderful things than I can possibly do justice when writing a single post.
Take My Breath Away
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (young adult) – After seeing his good friend Rosza kidnapped by a mysterious man, Finn is viewed with suspicion by his small rural town which thinks he’s lying about what happened. I can’t do justice to the plots and characters in this book with a short review; they are so intelligent and unusual. Brushing in a few points: Finn’s girlfriend is an exceptional character. I was impressed by the sustained emotional strength of Rosza’s perspective during the chapters in which she is imprisoned, and doubly impressed by the way Ruby writes about sexual abuse and trauma in a pragmatic, realistic, non-romanticized or -eroticized way. (It strikes me that people who liked that about Jessica Jones will likely find interesting parallels here.) Finn himself is an excellent, unusual character, with a very different voice than Rosza’s. Finn is also rendered with an intelligent eye toward avoiding stereotypes of men–for instance, he seeks creative solutions instead of using violence as a first resort. My favorite piece was how deep his friendship was with Rosza, even though it wasn’t romantic. I could write at length about that if I were inclined and willing to include spoilers. Anyway, this is a smart book with absolutely beautiful prose, intelligent storytelling, strong imagery, unusual characters, and an unpredictable, thoughtful plot. It’s not structured perfectly, but it’s excellence on other points drowns that minor objection.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (young adult) – This story is told from the alternating perspectives of two young women, one a prisoner and the other a ballerina. Their lives are tied together by a third young woman–Ori, also called the “bloody ballerina.” Once, Ori and the ballerina main character were friends, but after Ori was convicted for murder, she was plucked from her dancer’s life and put into the prisoner’s cell. Both perspective characters love Ori, but the way they treat people is very different. This ghost story works because of the close, detailed characterization of the two point of view characters. Their similar traits and similar drives are initially masked by differences in their accents and attitudes, but slowly revealed as the tension rises. The two unreliable narrators do their best to obfuscate, forcing the reader to almost fight against them as they read, trying to get a clearer picture of events. Ori is never seen in herself, always pinging back and forth between the idealization of first one main character and then the other, a sort of pixie dream girl concocted by their mutual imaginations. The whole book is a game of secrets–characters lying to themselves, others, history–disposable lies, treasured lies–events that are hidden, or misportrayed, or misunderstood. My mental image of the book is of looking at a beautiful nighttime scene through misted glass, watching as it slowly, mostly clears. The prose is gorgeous. The audio recording is excellent, too.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (young adult) – This was a fragile, dreamlike sort of novel that I have trouble keeping altogether in my head–pieces of it seem to slip away, and other pieces are vivid images, disjointed. That’s pretty apropos given the subject of the book, which is about a fairy changeling inhabiting the body of a constructed doll which has been set in the place of a kidnapped girl. At first, she does not know who or what she is, and the book follows her confused emergence from what she thinks is a “fever.” It soon becomes apparent that her confusion is more than a mild physical ailment, but a magical problem–her first clue is an eerie scene where porcelain dolls try to attack her. The Victorian mood and setting details enhance the story, evoking older children’s stories where adults and children are in different spheres. Despite that barrier, the relationships between the family members were a great element of the book: the doggedly loving (if necessarily clueless) parents, often a rarity in YA, and the strong relationship between sisters. The novel’s mood and characterization are excellent, and the language remarkably lovely.
Wonders of the Invisible World by Chris Barzak (young adult) – When Aidan’s childhood best friend returns to town, Aidan doesn’t recognize him. Then, he does. As a sort of forgetting spell tatters, he learns about pieces of his life he’s forgotten, magic he can do and has seen done, his family history, and secret worlds. The characterization is slow and detailed, drawing each character in a carefully observed way. Language is honed to convey characters’ moods and thoughts through their descriptions, speech, and word choice, giving the book a subtle and layered texture. For me, the book was too bulky in sections, and I think a trimmer version could have retained the intricate characters while eliminating some repetition.
Fallout: Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond (young adult) – I rarely read tie-in novels as an adult, but this is an example of how good the genre can be. In Fallout, Lois Lane–a high school student reporter with a record for being resistant to authority–stakes out her own identity as a character. She’s driven and smart as she sets her sights on injustices and pursues them with vigor, regardless of physical danger. The little descriptions of the classrooms, clothing, and high school life place the reader strongly, and the technology in particular gives the old comic book world a new gloss. Writing that’s good, intelligent fun sometimes gets short shrift–and this is a great example of good, intelligent fun.
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (young adult) – This strongly voiced historical novel tells the story of a young woman who can magically sense gold the way a dowser can magically sense water. Her parents know the talent is dangerous, but they haven’t disguised her abilities as well as they think they have–one day when the main character comes home, she finds her parents murdered. After their deaths, she’s pursued by their killer, who intends to use her talent for his own purposes. Dressing as a man to avoid capture, she travels west by covered wagon to join the gold rush. The characterization is good here, as are the main character’s voice, and the historical language and descriptions. The plot is tense, often on a razor’s edge as anyone who’s ever played Oregon Trail knows–anyone could die, anytime, of so, so many things. It felt a bit overwritten to me; I would have appreciated it more in a somewhat sleeker version. Also, for readers who are interested in such things, the speculative element is very light; the historical content is more dominant than the fantasy.
Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish by Barry Deutsch (middle grade) – I’ll stipulate here that Barry is a very good friend of mine so I’m not objective here at all. That said, I really adore the Hereville series which is about the magical adventures of Mirka, an eleven-year-old Hassidic Jewish girl who wants to wield swords and find monsters. Magic isn’t all the glamor and fun that adventurous Mirka wants it to be; instead, she finds herself in irritating tangles that magic only makes messier. In How Mirka Caught a Fish, she and her five year old sister, Layele, encounter a fish who has both the capacity to grant wishes–and a thirty-year grudge against their family. The book is warm and humorous, and this entry in the series has particular emotional depth as a marker on Mirka’s path to adulthood.
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Gaudin (young adult) – Yael wants to kill Hitler. And yes, it is a good novel anyway. This novel presents an alternate timeline where Hitler won the war. Instead of extrapolating into the present day, Graudin chooses instead to write about the European resistance movement that would have followed Hitler’s rise to power. The book avoids the weird moralizing of most alternate universe and time travel Hitler-killer stories by being set where and when it is. Yael is a Holocaust victim seeking revenge in her immediate life; she isn’t relating to Hitler as an abstract symbol of evil. In the camps, Yael was subject to Nazi experiments which made her a shape-shifter–and the perfect person to assassinate Hitler. For various plot reasons (the novel’s action often stretches the probable, but not in a way that seems inconsistent with genre norms), in order to get close to Hitler she has to disguise herself as a motorcycle rider and win an important national race. Yael’s active, competent, stoic character provides a compelling point of view that keeps the discussion of motorcycle mechanics interesting. One of the most palpable joys of this novel is the sensory and setting descriptions of the cyclists’ journey across the continent. Wolf by Wolf is a great blend of fun and smart.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (middle grade) – The darned thing about graphic novels if you make them is that they take so long to draw. The nice thing about graphic novels if you read them is they take such a light, enjoyable time to peruse. (And are often rewarding on reread.) Nimona has an art style that looks effortless, but no doubt requires hours of intense labor–which I can breeze through in minutes. Nimona, a teenage girl, wants to be evil. Specifically, she wants to be a villain’s sidekick. She doesn’t have the same ethical barriers that he does, though, and he has to train her how to be a moral villain. There’s a strong backbone of story, and the characters are evocative and easy to empathize with. I got a bit teary eyed at the end. In addition to the emotional substance, there are also a lot of sly snickers, like scenes with Nimona and the villain watching a movie together.
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon (middle grade) – This middle grade book is sprinkled with illustrations by the excellent, quirky, and hilarious artist/author. As a great fan of Ursula Vernon’s, I expect they are wonderful. However, I read a version without them, so my experience of the book was incomplete. As I read Castle Hangnail, I couldn’t help picturing an animated version. Perhaps Pixar? Oh, better yet, stop animation like Wallace and Grommit. The novel tells the story of a young girl who has come to take possession of Castle Hangnail, a villainous lair which is on the verge of being shut down if it cannot find a resident evil person to master it. She volunteers, but the staff suspect of her not really being a witch, which she isn’t. Her struggles to conceal her lack of a magical nature, while simultaneously performing feats of “magic,” ensue. The characters are distinct, colorful, and loveable. The humor is downright silly, but also sometimes sly, giving the narrative a hint of Roald Dahl edge. This book didn’t quite make it to “transcendent” for me, but it was pretty darn great.
Nomad by William Alexander (middle grade) – Sequel to Ambassador which I reviewed in last year’s list. It’s still “a contemporary and fanciful science fiction novel about a young American boy with Mexican parents who is chosen by a strange alien creature to become the ambassador for the earth”–only this time, instead of fumbling to learn what’s going on, he’s out in space negotiating with aliens. It’s still whimsical and fun, and still has a smart, caring main character who often solves problems with logic and empathy.
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet (young adult) – Our main character, a young woman, lives in a town recently exhausted by war. Even her brother-in-law was claimed as a soldier, leaving her very pregnant sister alone, and making it difficult for them to manage the farm. Their troubles worsen when the main character discovers a “twisted” creature from some kind of fae-like dimension beyond ours. Where the two worlds touch, they spread contamination and destruction. The main character’s dogged attempts to save her farm in the face of supernatural dangers are interesting, but I was most interested in her relationship with her sister. I found the climax a little strained, and started to lose interest in the adventure plotline, but that’s common for me. Interesting world-building detail tucked in the background: it seems to be a post-apocalyptic setting.
Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly (young adult) – Tina brings her charming brand of humor to young adult novels with this story of a witch’s unwilling apprentice who has to balance life in servitude to an evil witch with A) her conscience, and B) high school. The main character and the voice are charming, and I enjoyed many of the background details about the world. It was a fun reading experience, but looking at it with a more critical eye, there were a number of gags I’d seen before, and the book invoked some stereotypes about high school. So, I have some complaints, but it was good fun.
Death Marked by Leah Cypess (young adult) – I really like Leah’s YA. I think I’ve had one of her books on my list almost every year. (I wrote about the first book in this series last year.) The sequel is about a young woman who is at the center of an anti-imperial resistance movement. (Now I’m starting to sound like Star Wars. Sorry.) Anyway, she’s a sorceress who has been trained in elaborate spellcasting techniques, but has no power of her own–only she can fight the empire with magic. In the previous book, she was learning about her place in the world while she lived among the assassins who, like her, opposed the empire. In this book, she has infiltrated the empire as one of its top students in magic. As she meets the people her revolution wants her to kill, she has to grapple with her conscience, knowing neither choice is clean. I think I liked this one better than the first which is rare for me. The scenes where the main character is learning magic are particularly interesting; I’m a sucker for those kinds of scenes in lots of books. Leah does secondary world, epic fantasy really well.
The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst (middle grade) – Sarah Beth Durst is a delightful writer who tackles different subjects and moods in almost every book. In The Girl Who Could Not Dream, she’s writing humorous urban fantasy for a middle grade audience. The main character can’t dream herself, but she comes from a family of people who collect, distill and sell dreams. Because she can’t dream, she has a special power: She can bring pieces of other people’s dreams to life. Sometimes that’s okay, such as when she brought forth her quirky and useful pet Monster. Other times… The story begins when someone wants to use her as a weapon, to bring those “other times” through into the world. A great, fun, funny adventure read, which I definitely recommend for bringing to kids who like magic and reading and silliness. I suspect it would overlap well with Harry Potter.
Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (young adult) – A dying teenage girl has a rare, undiagnosable disease, which is causing her to drown in the air. She’s in love with a boy, but they both know it’s doomed, the moreso as her symptoms get worse. She’s dreaming of sky cities, and coughing up feathers, and hearing birds talk to her. He finds a description of mythological sky cities populated by bird people. Though they dismiss the possibility, when the main character dies, she finds herself alive again among the city bird people, breathing freely for the first time in her life. The language is clever, with Headley’s skill at choosing the right words to be razors while others are sly and clever. The imagery is beautiful. The main character is melodramatic as hell, but has a right to be as a teenager with a fatal illness. She seemed very true to the kind of artsy, emotional teenagers I knew, although thankfully we weren’t tested by such extremity. I found myself much less interested when she went into the sky. I don’t know if that’s because the language changed (it wasn’t as sly or referential since her experiences were no longer earthbound), because I’m sometimes adventure-averse (I generally find characters more interesting), or because the two pieces just didn’t fit together (I may have impressed on the first part and not been ready to leave). The book didn’t work for me as a whole, but it was interesting.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kohrner-Stace (young adult) – This was among the first young adult novels I read this year,so I don’t remember it very sharply. I remember liking the main character, and also the world. The story moves through two major parts–one is a post-apocalyptic landscape in which the main character is a ghost catcher. (She has some really cool interactions with ghosts.) In the other, she enters the afterlife. The first sections were much more interesting to me; I was compelled by the mix of magic and post-apocalyptic signs. The ghost realm was nicely enough done, but seemed less unusual, and I found it a disappointment after the first, vivid setting.
Razorhurst by Justine Larbelestier (young adult) – The novel follows impoverished teens through a violent neighborhood in 1930s Australia. Great historical stuff, neat language, some really nice character moments. Moved a bit slowly for me, and I wasn’t interested in the main plot. I was much more interested in the speculative element which I hope is featured more strongly in the next book.