Category Archives: Science Fiction

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 9

So, the good news is that I still have time to finish this project by the end of the day on Wednesday. The bad news, of course, is that I had about a two-day-long funk last week that has put me pretty far behind where I’d intended to be by this point. This was compounded over the weekend by family obligations and the fatigue brought on by my allergies when I’m pretty sure literally every tree in my town bloomed at once. It’s pretty, and the whole town smells like flowers, but it makes me feel like I’m going to die. However, today I’ve got some non-drowsy allergy meds in me and I’m feeling productive, so I expect to get, well, not caught up, quite, but close.

I think my favorite thing about this project so far—though it makes it hard to really compare these authors to each other—has been that Up and Coming showcases an incredible number of ways of being good. There’s really no way that any reader is going to universally enjoy the stories on offer, and every group I’ve written about has been a mixed bag, but it’s always interesting.

Kelly Robson

I only read a page or two of the excerpt from The Waters of Versailles before I switched over to Some of the Best from Tor.com 2015 in order to read all of Kelly Robson’s novella. It didn’t turn out to be as superlatively excellent as I’d hoped, but it is a great read, perhaps enhanced by my having recently watched A Little Chaos, about a totally different project at Versailles, which had the setting fresh in my mind. Kelly Robson does a much better job than that film, though, of utilizing Versailles, and Sylvain de Guilherand is a much more interesting fictional character than Kate Winslet was, even if the stories do both deal with people who feel somewhat unhappy and displaced at the French court.

“The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” is a weird story. It’s beautifully written and powerful, but it also includes an extremely brutal and graphic rape/murder that I wasn’t prepared for and it touches specifically on the sadly still-timely issue of the disappearance of First Nations women in Canada. On the author’s website, she does warn that the story is extremely violent, but it doesn’t seem to have been published with any kind of warning elsewhere, and I think that this is a case where a trigger warning might be necessary to give readers some advance warning.

I don’t think I quite get “Two-Year Man” as it’s a story with some weird messaging. It’s just as nicely written as the other Robson pieces included here, but the main character is very unsettling. While I finished the story, I found it to be a largely unpleasant read that left me with more questions than I like to have at the end of a short story. There’s something to be said, I suppose, for not tying everything up too neatly, but I don’t like it when I have questions about everything from world building issues to thematic concerns to character motivations.

Andy Rogers

Andy Rogers’ “The Doom of Sallee” is, I guess, a time travel story, or maybe some kind of alternate universe? It wasn’t terribly clear, and it wasn’t interesting enough for me to keep reading and rereading it to try and figure it out. I tried to read his novella, Brothers in Arms, but got about three pages into it before I couldn’t take anymore sci-fi soldier talk. That said, I don’t have anything bad to say about Andy Rogers. His work seems fine, just decidedly not for me.

Lauren M. Roy

“The Eleventh Hour” contemplates what one might do if given an hour—a literal, physical hour in this case, which is a moderately cool idea—to save the world. It’s a clever story, but not especially impactful or memorable aside from the idea of a physical representation of an hour that the main character has to decide how to spend.

Steve Ruskin

“Grand Tour” is a nicely structured piece with an interesting speculative element. Steve Ruskin’s story of a widowed artist with a magical camera lucida makes for an entertaining read, and it’s smartly bookended with complementary scenes that have unifying motifs. Séances (really, Spiritualism in general) don’t appear enough in fantasy, to be honest, and it’s good to see an author utilizing some of that history in a compelling way.

K.B. Rylander

“We Fly” by K.B. Rylander is a story with some interesting ideas, and Rylander speculates on an interesting possible dilemma related to the mind-uploading technology that she’s writing about. However, the devil is always in details, and there were some small things that I didn’t like, just casual mentions of unsettlingly authoritarian policies in the world of the story that make it feel dystopian in way that is both frightening and largely unexplored in the narrative. I did like Natasha’s gesture of resistance at the end, but I’m not sure if it matters. Then again, that could be the point. I would love to give this story to a classroom full of eighth graders and ask them what they think; it seems like a perfect story for that kind of analysis.

Hope Erica Schultz

Hope Erica Schultz leads with “Mr. Reilly’s Tattoo,” which I didn’t hate, though it was a bit too saccharine for me to truly like it. “The Princess in the Basement” is similarly sweet, and a little too heavy-handed with its messaging right at the end, but it’s a decent enough modern fairy tale.

Effie Seiberg

I vaguely remember something about the story Effie Seiberg had in Women Destroy Science Fiction! a couple of years ago, but I’m pretty sure that the three newer stories she’s included in Up and Coming are going to stick with me much longer. “Re: Little Miss Apocalypse Playset” is a story about corporate evil (and the apocalypse) told in the form of an internal email chain. It’s smart and funny, but not too precious. “Thundergod in Therapy” tells the story of a retired Zeus, and I liked it well enough that I can forgive it for not really delivering on the “in Therapy” part of its title.

The best of Seiberg’s three stories here, however, is hands down “Rocket Surgery.” Of these selections, it deals with the biggest ideas and has the most ambitious themes. It’s also the timeliest and most insightful as a piece of science fiction that can be read as a commentary on current trends in technology and society. Most importantly, when looking at Seiberg as a contender for a major award, “Rocket Surgery” works to show that the author has more range as a writer and depth as a thinker than is exhibited in her more humorous pieces. I’m not sure where Seiberg will ultimately end up when I make my final decisions on who to nominate for the Campbell Award, but “Rocket Surgery” is an early addition to my longlist for next year’s Best Short Story Hugo.

Tahmeed Shafiq

I’m very sad about the 2014 publication date for “The Djinn Who Sought to Kill the Sun.” If it had been published in 2015, it would definitely be a shoe-in for a Best Novelette Hugo nomination. It works wonderfully as a fairy tale and as a gorgeously imagined story about healing from grief and trauma by finding purpose and a way forward into the future instead of dwelling in the past. I can’t find that Tahmeed Shafiq has published anything else since this story, but if this is the quality of work he was producing at age sixteen(!), I am very excited to see what he might produce in the future.

Iona Sharma

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Iona Sharma, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to find her. “Archana and Chandni” is the sci-fi lesbian wedding family dramedy I never knew I desperately wanted to read. It’s seriously a kind of perfect story. I didn’t love “Alnwick” quite so much, but it’s a well-executed blend of relationship drama and hard sci-fi that manages to do all of its ideas justice, even if it doesn’t have the sheer charm that “Archana and Chandni” possesses in spades.

Anthea Sharp

“Ice in D Minor” is a beautifully melancholy (though ultimately hopeful) piece about a composer tasked with writing music that will help to cool the warming planet. “The Sun Never Sets” is a first contact story set in Victorian England, which I was predisposed to love—especially when it opened with a young woman who is an amateur astronomer. Unfortunately, the story takes a weird, imperialist turn that, in hindsight, is telegraphed by the title, and isn’t as clever or amusing as I think it is intended to be. Sadly, my overall opinion of Anthea Sharp’s work isn’t improved by her final piece, “Fae Horse,” which starts with a young woman trying to escape being burned as a witch and finishes with that young woman sacrificing her identity and humanity in order to rescue a man. It’s finely written, but I would have liked it better if Eileen didn’t get such a raw deal in the end.

Final Verdict:

Iona Sharma and Effie Seiberg are new favorites, for sure, and I was disappointed that Tahmeed Shafiq doesn’t seem to have published anything in the last two years, but the majority of authors in this group were only okay. I’m sure I’ll be happy to read some of them again if I come across them in the future, but I doubt I’ll be seeking them out particularly.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 8

I’m still struggling to get caught up to where I’d like to be with this project, but I’m also still on track to at least finish it when I originally planned. Sadly, today was not a day for stand-out stories, either bad or good, which made this section a bit of a slog to get through.

Samuel Peralta

Both of Samuel Peralta’s stories are highly conventional and rather cloyingly sweet. “Hereafter” is a time travel romance that may lean towards bittersweet, but it’s overall fairly low drama and ultimately low risk, with very little to say about time travel or the human condition. “Humanity” is interestingly put together, interweaving news clippings with the more personal story of a first responder tasked with rescuing a woman and her robot daughter from a serious car accident. It’s not bad, but the ending is expected, and the slight message doesn’t really justify the gravitas of the story’s title.

All that said, it may be that Peralta’s gifts are more focused on editing; many of the authors in this collection are ones who have had their first work published in Peralta’s ongoing series of SFF anthologies—the Future Chronicles, which is up to fourteen titles now, all available for under $6 each for the Kindle.

Andrea Phillips

Andrea Phillips’s “In Loco Parentis” is a compelling take on the future of parenting, though in a definitely “the more things change, the more they stay the same” way. Still, Phillips has imagined some interesting technology and tells a story that is firmly grounded in current trends in parenting and tech. I went ahead and read the included excerpt from Phillips’s novel, Revision, and then immediately wished I hadn’t; it’s gone straight to my to-read list, but there’s no telling at this point when I’ll get around to it, which is a bummer.

Mark Robert Philps

I didn’t expect to like this novella that much in the beginning, but “Dragonfire is Brighter That the Ten Thousand Stars” is much better than its unwieldy and moderately pretentious title lets on. The real accomplishment here, though, is in the world building. Mark Robert Philps has created a really interesting alternate history that could easily carry a whole series of longer works if he’s of a mind to write them. The plot here is relatively simple, with no particularly surprising twists, but it’s well-paced, highly readable, and overall nicely executed enough that I would be happy to read more by this author.

Monica Enderle Pierce

“Judgement” is a somewhat overlong sort of wild west fantasy, which aligns it with current trends in fiction, Monica Enderle Pierce doesn’t quite manage to pull it off here. I rather like her dragon-as-executor-of-frontier-justice idea, which is a concept I haven’t come across before, but none of the human characters were very interesting and the protagonist, Peregrine, is actively unlikeable. Furthermore, everything is tied up far too neatly at the end, with a surprise revelation of Peregrine’s conveniently useful magical abilities and a too-large infodump that tosses in several hackneyed ideas at the last minute.

Ivan Popov

“The Keresztury TVirs” is the first translated piece (from Bulgarian) in Up and Coming, but it’s unfortunately not that impressive. It’s a story about TV viruses told in the form of a review of a book about the history of their creation and usage as tools of propaganda and mind control. I suppose the story has a moderately interesting retro sensibility, but it just didn’t work for me.

Bill Powell

Due to formatting issues, I had a hard time just reading “The Punctuality Machine, or, A Steampunk Libretto.” It’s written as a short, farcical play, but half of the first word of almost every line was cut off in the epub version of the book that I’m reading on my Nook. Still, I was mostly able to muddle through, and I enjoyed Bill Powell’s clever wordplay and sense of comedic timing.

Stephen S. Power

“Stripped to Zero” is a solidly well-written and timely story about the steady creep of technology into our lives and the ways in which we’re always being watched, analyzed, and advertised to. It’s somewhat pessimistic, but not crushingly so. In “Wire Paladin,” Stephen S. Power continues to examine some of these same big ideas, but with a darkly funny twist at the end. I was glad to have read these two stories together, as they complement each other well. I didn’t like “Automatic Sky”—about a pair of somewhat star-crossed lovers—at all, but I expect your mileage may vary with it.

Rhiannon Rasmussen

I vaguely remember reading “The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23” in Women Destroy Science Fiction, but only vaguely, and it didn’t make much more of an impression on me this time around. My love for second person point of view is well-known, but I just didn’t connect with this story the way I feel is intended. On the bright side, Rhiannon Rasmussen makes up for this by offering two more stories that I loved. “Charge! Love Heart!” is a kind of great, somewhat meta teen rom-com, and “How to Survive the Apocalypse” is a definitely great, very meta piece that pokes fun at a lot of zombie apocalypse tropes.

Chris Reher

From Chris Reher comes “The Kasant Objective,” about a crew hired to find a lost research team, only to find out that they are really being asked to aid in an alien invasion. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s frankly more than can be really effectively dealt with in a short story. The basic idea is moderately interesting, but this treatment of it was just too shallow to be good.

Ethan Reid

This excerpt from Ethan Reid’s sequel to his first novel seems fine, but I have basically negative interest in post-apocalyptic horror of this kind. For the right reader, I’m sure this is very good, but for me it’s a hard pass.

Final Verdict

Overall, today’s bunch was just average, but I do look forward to reading more in the future by Andrea Phillips and Rhiannon Rasmussen. I also think I might have to start buying some of the anthologies Samuel Peralta puts out, even if his own writing isn’t really my jam.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 7

So, I’m not behind, exactly, since I’m still well on track to finish this project by March 30th, but the last couple of days have not been particularly productive ones. Bad news always puts me in a bit of a funk, and it hasn’t helped that my partner has been home sick for a couple of days, which is a huge distraction. In any case, by the end of day on Monday, I was about a full day ahead of my reading schedule, and I don’t expect to be fully caught up until probably the end of day tomorrow. That said, I plan to finish the reading part of this project by Sunday evening and have the final few parts up by Wednesday afternoon.

On the bright side, today’s group of writers are some of my favorites yet, and there are several very strong possible nominees for Best Short Story in addition to at least one author that I can already tell you is likely to make my list of Campbell nominees.

Wendy Nikel

“Rain Like Diamonds” is a slightly underwhelming fairy tale, with an ending that is just a little too expected to be truly clever or particularly impactful. However, I adored “The Tea-Space Continuum,” which has a delightfully funny time travel paradox. Unfortunately, “The Book of Futures” was another miss for me. I like short detective stories, and I found the steampunk-ish setting intriguing, but the story just didn’t work. It actually had two endings; one was pedestrian, and both were trite.

George Nikolopoulos

I rather liked “Arise to the Surface” at first, even if it was obvious very early on what the story’s “twist” was, but it lost me when it had an alien woman with sexualized breasts. Randomly mammalian space people, seemingly for the sole purpose of describing sexualized breasts, is a major pet peeve of mine, and the rest of the story wasn’t good enough to overcome my distaste for that uncreative nonsense. “Razor Bill vs. Pistol Anne” is a very short, mildly amusing post-apocalyptic gladiator story, but it’s not particularly memorable.

Megan E. O’Keefe

“Of Blood and Brine” is a superb example of short fiction world building, and Megan E. O’Keefe backs it up by telling a compelling story as well. This one is eligible for the Best Short Story Hugo Award as well, and it’s definitely one to consider. I did skip her novel excerpt, however, as I’d like to read the whole book, though I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it.

Malka Older

“Tear Tracks” is a very good, but not great, first contact story. Malka Older does an amazing job with her world building, and I love the alien culture she’s conceived here, but the actual story is fairly slight and it gets a bit info-dumpy at the end, which makes it slightly insincere feeling. A+ ideas, but C+ execution.

Emma Osborne

“The Box Wife” was hard to read as it features one of my all-time least favorite sci-fi tropes: a sexbot. Even when it’s used in the best possible way, even when it’s done to interrogate or subvert as it is here, I find this trope viscerally upsetting. Still, it was promising enough for me to move on to Emma Osborne’s other stories. I rather liked “Zip” which is reminiscent of good Star Trek, but “Clean Hands, Dirty Hands” was another fairly dark and unpleasant story to read; I liked its Australian gold rush setting, which is pretty unique, but it’s an extremely grim tale, and I increasingly find these days that I’m simply not in the market for that kind of bleak grimness.

Chris Ovenden

“Upgrade” has a moderately interesting premise, but it reminds me far too much of last year’s film Advantageous, which explored similar ideas much more effectively. “Peace for Our Times” has got to be at least the third or fourth “deal with the devil” story in this collection, and it’s one that doesn’t manage to be either very insightful or fun. “Behind Grey Eyes” does manage to be fun, but I’m unfortunately just not a fan of zombies-as-metaphor in general. I’m not super impressed by any of Chris Ovenden’s stories here, but he’s objectively talented and I feel like he’s an author who is going to publish something any day now that I’m going to love. In the meantime, I could easily imagine any of these stories being someone else’s favorite even if they aren’t for me.

Steve Pantazis

Steve Pantazis’s novelette, “Switch,” would make an excellent episode or two for a futuristic cop show that I might enjoy watching, but it’s of a genre that I find unreadably boring. I can tell that it’s well-written and nicely structured and paced, but there’s no more boring protagonist for me to read about than a slightly dirty, but essentially decent policeman.

Carrie Patel

Carrie Patel is an author who has gotten a good amount of buzz in the last year, but this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to read any of her stuff. I don’t know what I was waiting for. “Here Be Monsters” is a shipwrecked story that is fantastic and horrific in turns, with a wonderfully ambiguous ending. I’m not always into unreliable narrators, but I enjoyed this one. Also, the abyssus is a great creepy monster. “The Color of Regret” is a total change of pace, and its speculative elements aren’t as central to the story—in fact, Nasrin’s ability to see auras is almost incidental to the plot—but the tale straddles the worlds of family drama and revolutionary intrigue in a compelling fashion. The Buried Life is a novel that’s been on my to-read list for ages, so I skipped the excerpt from it here.

Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel’s first contact tale, “The Merger,” is one of the funniest stories so far in Up and Coming, and I laughed out loud more than once while reading it. Paresh is lovable, and his wife Sita is a constant delight. Plus, there’s very little that I find funnier than unconventional contract negotiations. Especially with aliens. In contrast, “The Robot Who Couldn’t Lie” had me in tears well before the end. It’s nice to see an author with this sort of range in their writing, and this is further highlighted by Patel’s third story, “The Attic of Memories,” which I didn’t like as well as the first two but which is something entirely different again. The only thing that all of these stories have in common is a professionally polished quality that is often lacking in work by writers at the beginning of their careers. I can’t wait to see what Sunil Patel does next.

Laura Pearlman

From Laura Pearlman, we get a trio of very amusing stories that made me laugh even more than “The Merger.” First up, “I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything” is exactly what it sounds like—an AMA with the leader of an army of radish-loving alien invaders. “A Dozen Frogs, a Bakery, and a Thing That Didn’t Happen” is a fabulous and very clever modern fairy tale. I wasn’t sure at first about “In the End You Get Clarity,” but it’s not like other superhero stories, and by the end I loved it.

Final Verdict

Carrie Patel and Laura Pearlman are both in their final year of eligibility for the Campbell, and either could be a strong choice, but the sheer versatility of Sunil Patel is what I found most exciting in today’s reading. I wouldn’t pick Megan E. O’Keefe and Malka Older for this year’s award, but they’re both writers to watch for, each with a first novel being published this year.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 6

This group of authors is sort of a love it or hate it group for me. The stories I didn’t like, I really disliked, but the ones I liked, I loved. There’s not much here that I have lukewarm feelings about.

S Lynn

S Lynn’s “Ffydd (Faith)” is a strange story to be included in this collection because it doesn’t seem to have any actual speculative elements. Instead, as far as I could tell it’s a fairly straightforward piece of historical fiction, perhaps leaning a little towards magical realism. Which is fine, but I generally expect a little more of the magical than exists here before I consider a story to fall under the speculative fiction umbrella.

Jack Hollis Marr

“into the waters I rode down” is an interestingly experimental stream of consciousness sci-fi story told from the point of view of a deaf, disabled woman who seems to be being used against her will for spying during a war. While the story at times becomes almost incoherent, I think this is by design, and it’s a story that I intend to come back to when I have more time to really spend mulling this one over.

Arkady Martine

From Arkady Martine, we get two lovely stories and a third one that is so arcane as to be incomprehensible. “City of Salt” is a gorgeous piece of what I usually think of as highbrow sword and sorcery, and it has a fantastic amount of mythology crammed into very few words that demonstrates Martine’s facility with language and an almost fairy tale sensibility that reminds me a little of Catherynne Valente. In “When the Fall is All That’s Left” Martine switches gears completely to tell a sci-fi story about a pair of friends who have just flown through a star. While there’s no particularly remarkable elements here, the story pieces that Martine has chosen are well-picked and artfully put together. For contrast, however, she’s included “Adjuva,” a story so arcane as to be incomprehensible and which I could barely make it through at all, much less enjoy.

Kim May

“Blood Moon Carnival” is a punctuation atrocity visited on what might otherwise have been a halfway decent story idea. Unfortunately, the absurd number of exclamation points just destroy any sense of suspension of disbelief or immersion in the story I might have felt. Drama has to come from the events that are unfolding, not from a half dozen paragraphs in a row ending with an exclamation that doesn’t actually convey any shock or surprise or urgency.

I almost didn’t read “The Void Around the Sword’s Edge,” and I wish I had followed that instinct. It’s riddled with copy editing issues, misspellings, and poor word choice, but it’s also a very silly story with an ending that can be seen coming a mile away and that is far too easy to be at all interesting.

Alison McBain

I’m of two minds about Alison McBain’s work. On the one hand, I kind of love that it’s a throwback to the sort of very old fairy tales that don’t always have any positive moral or message. My favorite old fairy tales have always been the ones about amoral tricksters or wicked witches who don’t actually get vanquished or where magical things just happen without necessarily meaning anything at all except maybe something about our collective id or whatever. All three of McBain’s stories here capture something of those qualities. At the same time, however, there’s a certain sense of smug, postmodern nihilism as well that is almost unpleasant to read and makes me feel a little bad about enjoying these stories so much.

Rati Mehrotra

Both “Charaid Dreams” and “Ghosts of Englehart” deal with children who have been changed by exposure to aliens. The first is a sort of frontier story about a family living on a remote planet that is largely inhospitable to human life, while the second is an alien invasion story, but they otherwise have a lot in common. Both are family dramas, both involve aliens who only seem to interact with children, and both have very little to actually say for themselves that isn’t something relatively platitudinous about how children are the future.

Lia Swope Mitchell

“Slow” is a marvelous little horror story about a sculpture that is sucking the life out of its artist. I don’t think Lia Swope Mitchell’s current, very small body of work is quite enough for a Campbell nomination, but she’s only in her first year of eligibility. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her stuff over the rest of 2016.

Allison Mulder

I loved “Decay.” This story about body-snatching tooth fairies was delightfully unexpected. It’s good and creepy, with a surprise ending that is actually legitimately scary. Allison Mulder is another first year author who I hope publishes a few more things in time for me to consider her for next year’s awards.

Ian Muneshwar

Ian Muneshwar’s “Ossuary” is a wonderfully unique take on the AI-searching-for-a-body trope that seems to keep popping up in this collection. It’s also just beautifully written, the kind of story I want to read over and over again to search for all its shades of meaning. Also, to just admire Muneshwar’s consistently excellent word choice and structures. “Ossuary” isn’t a very long story at 2570 words, but Muneshwar makes every one of those words count.

Brian Niemeier

“Strange Matter” is a more science-y, more cynical version of Groundhog Day, but I adored the ending of it, which surprised me by turning out to be something funny and sweet. I would love to have time to actually read all of Brian Niemeier’s novel, Nethereal, but I won’t be getting to it in the next week.

Final Verdict:

None of today’s authors have published enough notable work for me to really get excited for them as Campbell prospects for this year, but Arkady Martine, Lia Swope Mitchell, Allison Mulder, and Ian Muneshwar are all on my list of authors to follow for the rest of 2016 and see if that changes.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 5

This group of stories is a sadly lackluster bunch. There’s nothing particularly awful in this group, but most of it was firmly in the category of “not my kind of thing.”

Kurt Hunt

“Paolo, Friend Paolo” was overlong to the point of being boring, and “Tigerskin” was forgettable. However, though I didn’t like “QSFTmk2.7853 Has a Name” very much on first reading, it’s turned out to be a story that has stuck with me, and I’ve found myself thinking about it off and on for a full twenty-four hours now. The idea of artificially intelligent robots being people isn’t new or fresh, but Kurt Hunt’s take on it has the sort of slow-burning and lasting impact that is a mark of a great story.

L.S. Johnson

From L.S. Johnson come a pair of haunting stories deeply rooted in fairy tale traditions. “Vacui Magia” is an excellent use of second person point of view, which is tricky to work with and which I always appreciate seeing done well. It’s also a remarkable meditation on some of the complex feelings women have about motherhood. “Little Men with Knives” is a fascinating modern version of something very like “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and it’s notable if for no other reason than that’s not a story that gets much attention in the world of fairy tale retellings. That said, it’s also a wonderful story in its own right, and it’s likely to make my final list for Best Novelette this year.

Cameron Johnston

“The Economist & the Dragon” had a title that excited me, but the story was a disappointment, to say the least. The set up goes on too long, and the punchline, when it comes, is nowhere near surprising enough to be really funny, which is too bad. Even just hours after reading it and looking at my notes, I have a hard time recalling anything about “Head Games.” “The Shadow Under Scotland” is an only very vaguely Lovecraftian story that doesn’t really justify its use of Scotland as a setting important enough to name it in the title. Aside from the dialect of the characters, there’s nothing particularly specific to Scotland, and the danger/horror of the story isn’t big enough to feel like it threatens a whole country.

Rachael K. Jones

Rachael K. Jones is by far the best of today’s group of writers, and I loved all three of the stories printed here. It’s too bad “Makeisha in Time” is from 2014; if it had a 2015 pub date, it would definitely be on my Best Short Story list this year. I loved this story of a woman who is unstuck in time and trying to find a way to change the narratives of history. “Who Binds and Looses the World with Her Hands,” the story of two deaf women and the way their relationship is changed by the arrival of a sorcerer on their secluded island is going to be on my list this year. And “Charlotte Incorporated,” about a brain in a jar looking for a body, is a strong early addition to my ongoing list of favorite 2016 stories.

Jason Kimble

“Broken” tries unsuccessfully to squeeze a lot of world building into a short space, and ends up being nearly incoherent and full of proper nouns that are never defined explicitly and whose meanings can only be half figured out from context. I might have enjoyed it if I could understand what the hell was going on. “Hide Behind,” on the other hand, is a moderately creepy monster story with a dark fairy tale sensibility. I didn’t love it, but I can definitely see why someone who more generally likes that sort of thing might.

Paul B. Kohler

“Rememorations” is the second or third time just in this collection that I’ve seen someone write about the idea that the human brain somehow isn’t big enough to handle immortality—basically that the brain’s memory storage gets full and causes problems for the immortal—and I kind of hate this idea. Partly, I dislike it because I half-suspect that everyone is just copying off that one Doctor Who episode, but partly I dislike it because every story based around it seems to think that it’s very clever, in spite of not having anything very insightful to say about either immortality or memory. The smug tone of this story’s heavily telegraphed ending just made me sigh. Meanwhile, “The Soul Collector” has a relatively pedestrian premise, which could nevertheless have been elevated by a more capable writer, but is instead spoiled by poor word choices and some of the worst, faux old-timey, theatrical dialogue I’ve read this year.

Jeanne Kramer-Smyth

Someone is going to love Jeanne Kramer-Smyth’s work, but that someone is not me. Both of her stories here are short, simple ones with little conflict, no real sense of danger, and happy endings all around. There’s some darkness in the post-apocalyptic/dystopian backgrounds of both “Unsealed” and “View from Above,” but Kramer-Smyth doesn’t allow it to touch her characters in any real sense.

Jamie Gilman Kress

“And Now, Fill Her In” puts a psychic of sorts on a doomed plane, but what happens next isn’t actually interesting. Instead, it’s mostly just Kiya looking around and silently judging other passengers.

Jason LaPier

Jason LaPier’s selection is an excerpt from his novel, Unexpected Rain. It seems to be trying to be a space opera hybrid akin to The Expanse, but I couldn’t get into it. The excerpt is from—for some reason—Chapter 9 of the book, which means I have no idea what exactly is going on in it. In any case, it’s some mediocre action stuff peppered with ham-fisted, sophomoric dialogue. I looked up the book on Goodreads, but after reading the book description and glancing through the reviews, I can tell that it’s definitely not for me.

Fonda Lee

I wanted to love the excerpt from Fonda Lee’s novel, Zeroboxer, but it’s much more the sort of thing that I’d like to Netflix if it was a movie—not the sort of thing I have much interest in reading. That said, it’s well-written and a cool idea if you’re at all into sports stories, and the few reviews I read of it sounded promising. Lee’s short story, “Universal Print” wasn’t great, however. It’s interesting to see how common printing technology has gotten in sci-fi, but this story was otherwise forgettable.

Final Verdict:

I unequivocally loved all three of Rachael K. Jones’s stories, and I will probably be picking up L.S. Johnson’s recently published story collection for more of her work, but the rest of today’s crop of stories was just not that good.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 4

Today’s group of authors was refreshingly free of urban fantasy, which was nice. While the actual reading took me longer than I’d hoped, it was definitely more enjoyable than yesterday’s crop of stories. There are definitely a couple of turds in the punch bowl, but overall today’s selections were excellent, with more than the usual number of standout pieces.

Elad Haber

Sadly, things didn’t start off so well. Elad Haber’s “Number One Hit” isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing special, either. The Mad Max-ish, post-apocalyptic aesthetic is overdone, and Haber even highlights some of the more absurd aspects of it; his descriptions of people and places sound just too much like something out of Beyond Thunderdome. Even the idea of scavengers hunting for the detritus of the old world is nothing new, and Haber doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about the matter. Worst of all, Haber casually includes, albeit not in an explicit fashion, a casually brutal rape that happens for no real reason—aside from, perhaps, increasing the grimness of the world Haber is creating—and doesn’t seem to have much effect even on the woman who is raped. That there is some amount of narrative justice in the end doesn’t really make up for this. There’s no real moral complexity here, just a lot of bleakness and cynicism, which is, ultimately, boring.

Auston Habershaw

“Adaptation and Predation” is an excellent piece of world building, something that is often lacking in short fiction but which Auston Habershaw accomplishes here with panache. His cast of alien species is wonderfully imagined and described, and this short exploration of life in their highly stratified society is simply riveting. There are a few copy editing issues that stood out to me, and I usually like for professionally published work to be somewhat more polished, but the story was so good it didn’t signify by the time I finished reading it.

Habershaw follows up his sci-fi tale with a very good piece of fantasy, “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration,” which begins with a teenage boy making a bad bargain for a magic book. It’s an interesting hybrid of high fantasy and post-apocalyptic genres, with an ending that was genuinely surprising and downright hilarious. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the ending was seeded early in the story, which prevents it from feeling like a too-easy solution to Abe’s problems. I feel like I’ve read a lot of stories lately that deal with bad bargains or deals with devils, but this one is a nice, if not groundbreaking, twist on the theme.

Philip Brian Hall

Even though I take notes while read, I have a hard time remembering much about Philip Brian Hall’s three stories. “Spatchcock” is listed as a novella, but is obviously not even close to novelette length. It’s the best of Hall’s selections, but is nonetheless entirely unremarkable. “The Waiting Room” is predictable, with an absolutely groanworthy ending that is aggressively trite. “The Man on the Church Street Omnibus” fares slightly better, but this time travel story is another dully average piece that didn’t make much of an impression on me one way or the other.

John Gregory Hancock

“The Antares Cigar Shop” is another one of many stories in Up and Coming that were originally published in an anthology called The Immortality Chronicles, which seems to have been really superb collection of work. The type of immortality explored here is unusual and compelling enough to make up for the Shyamalan-level “twist” at the ending. Gaston is a fascinating character, and while there’s not any character growth or progression over the course of this story, it’s a wonderful portrait of a unique type of existence.

Nin Harris

I enjoyed both of Nin Harris’s stories, but I didn’t love them. The Malaysian mythology Harris utilizes is interesting, and I like that there’s no handholding to help white folks understand what she’s talking about, but there’s not quite enough information in “Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman” for it to be easily understood without the help of Google. At the same time, the bunian—as they appear in this story—have so much in common with European fairies that they’re nearly indistinguishable, and I’m not certain if this is because of real similarities in the folklore or if it’s due to the author being influenced by Western fairy stories.

All that said, with “Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman” providing some sort of background, “Your Right Arm” works really well. I was a little taken out of the first story by having to pause and google things, but by the time I got to “Your Right Arm,” I felt a little more confident in my basic understanding of the mythological paradigm Harris was writing within. It also helps that “Your Right Arm” is more thematically coherent than “Sang Rimau” and therefore much more emotionally impactful. It reminded me a little bit, and in a positive way, of Kurt Vonnegut’s short play, “Fortitude,” though the similarities are primarily superficial.

C.A. Hawksmoor

“Y Brenin” is a novelette with a particularly fraught and wonderfully compelling almost love triangle, with a gay knight trying to broker a peace between brother kings. There’s not a huge amount of story here, but it’s a great example of a time where less is more. I’m always fond of stories that do something simple and do it really well, and “Y Brenin” definitely falls into that category. Sadly, after deeply enjoying “Y Brenin,” I was pretty disappointed with “Murder on the Laplacian Express.” It’s not awful, but it is deeply unmemorable, and the story, when it unfolds, doesn’t live up to the dramatic promise of its cold open.

Sean Patrick Hazlett

When I read the title of “Boomer Hunter” I didn’t think it could possibly be what it sounds like, but it is exactly what it sounds like, with every bit of cynicism you might expect from a story about a presumably near future (well, it would have to be) in which the government, instead of just paying to feed old people, decides to hire expensive mercenary bands to murder aging Baby Boomers. Because that is definitely a thing that totally makes sense and is even remotely plausible.

“Entropic Order” started off a little better, but it quickly went south. There’s a monk, Benedict, (yes, that Benedict), a Christ figure robot, and an alien that looks like a demon (clearly shamelessly cribbed from Childhood’s End). It’s free of the deep cynicism that characterized “Boomer Hunter,” but that’s about all the good that can be said for it.

“Chandler’s Hollow” is the Hazlett story that really goes for the gold medal of awfulness, though. There’s enough 101-level exploration of class and gender here to at first suggest that Hazlett actually has something useful to say about something, but it’s all heavy-handed, cringeworthy stuff, couched in hilariously bad dialogue and a profoundly silly B-movie aesthetic. The character who seems to be the protagonist—a young, vaguely feminist-y reporter whose career is sunk because of her reporting on the misdeeds of a wealthy man—ends up being an alien bug queen in the end, which is sort of mixed messaging.

Holly Heisey

Holly Heisey isn’t my favorite author of the day, and both “The Monastery of the Parallels” and “An Understanding” are just competently written, though enjoyable. However, “Contents of Care Package to Etsath-Ta-Chri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)” is one of the more interesting stories in this group, a somewhat unique take on a trans narrative.

Michael Patrick Hicks

Both “Revolver” and “Preservation” start with interesting ideas. The first is about a woman participating in a television show in which people commit suicide in order to get money for their families in a the dystopian hellscape that Republicans are trying to bring to America. The second is about a cyborg ex-soldier who is now waging war against poachers of elephants and rhinos. The problem with both of these stories, though, is that they’re about twice as long as they need to be. At least.

“Revolver” just goes on and on and on, until it’s almost a punishment to read, and the violence that Cara is subjected to over the course of the story are a little too on the nose. It’s not that women don’t have to deal with any of these issues, but Cara’s trials in just the few hours described in the story are so extreme as to feel almost mocking of actual women’s complaints about the sometimes daily indignities of womanhood. That Cara does get manage some kind of resistance by the end of the story is gratifying, but the journey to that point is such circuitous and deeply unpleasant reading that I just wanted it to be over with about twenty pages before then.

“Preservation” is slightly less meandering, but Hicks again seems to dwell on the brutalities of the situations he describes, and though it seems a little optimistic to imagine that rhinos will still be around by the time humans come up with the advanced tech that Akagi uses, the story is overall profoundly pessimistic. The sheer bleakness of the story makes it difficult to keep going at times, especially when so many of the story’s details are drawn straight from the real world. I suppose this could be an eye-opening piece if I lived under a rock, but as an informed person I just found it depressing.

S.L. Huang

I didn’t read the excerpt from S.L. Huang’s novel, Zero Sum Game, because I intend to read the whole thing at a later date, but both of the short stories included here are superb. “Hunting Monsters” is a fairy tale retelling of sorts that is too clever and creative for me to spoil by telling you all about it. Suffice it to say that I am something of a connoisseur of retold fairy tales, and this one surprised and delighted me for multiple reasons. “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” sounds like a much stuffier story than it is. In fact, while it’s certainly cerebral enough, it’s also highly readable and its big ideas about disability, identity, and transhumanism should be very accessible even to those who don’t know much about these things. Huang perfectly captures some of the ambiguous feelings that exist surrounding technology, and “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” is a smart examination of the contrasts between our ideals and reality and the intersection of the personal and the political.

Final Verdict:

S.L. Huang is a prolific writer who should be a strong contender for the Campbell this year, but Auston Habershaw and John Gregory Hancock also turned in excellent pieces for Up and Coming. I intend to keep an eye out for Nin Harris, C.A. Hawksmoor, and Holly Heisey going forward, but I wouldn’t say their work so far is quite to the polished standard to win awards. I could see any of those three popping up on best short story or best novelette lists in a year or two, but not just yet.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 3

This was a somewhat light reading day, with several authors who only have one story included in Up and Coming. This is nice, in a way, because I’m exhausted from two straight days of staying up late to finish (the wages of thinking up ambitious, time-sensitive projects at the last minute), but it does make it somewhat more difficult to get a real sense of an author when you’ve only got a single story to go on. Still, some of these stories are excellent enough to make up for the lack of quantity.

Jonathan Edelstein

The first story of the day is Jonathan Edelstein’s novelette, “First Do No Harm.” It’s nice to see a piece set in Africa, and while I’m not an expert, the setting of “First Do No Harm” appears to be meticulously researched and respectfully imagined. Unfortunately, I don’t buy the ideas that underpin the story. While I can imagine there being a dark age of sorts following some apocalyptic event, I find the sustained and enforced stifling of scientific inquiry—in favor of only teaching and practicing medicine that has already been recorded—highly unbelievable. I don’t think this kind of dogmatism was even common in the actual Dark Ages, and I can’t imagine that it would happen in a society capable of producing nanotechnology.

Harlow C. Fallon

“A Long Horizon” is a fascinating story about a pair of unlikely friends. It’s one of several stories in Up and Coming that are drawn from last year’s The Immortality Chronicles, and Harlow C. Fallon offers up an unusual take on immortality. This is a far better story than its lackluster title suggests, though there’s unfortunately very little to say about it that wouldn’t spoil it.

Rafaela F. Ferraz

“The Lady of the House of Mirrors” is a novelette from an anthology about lesbian mad scientists, which I didn’t know existed but now definitely need to read all of. I love this story so much. It owes a great deal to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, obviously, but it’s not too on the nose. Rafaela F. Ferraz has a distinctive flair that is all her own, and “The Lady of the House of Mirrors” has a decidedly steampunk-ish sensibility. My only serious critique is that the characters of Rosie’s assistant and his friend the embalmer could easily have been cut out for a more streamlined story. While they do serve a purpose in the narrative, what little they add to the story could easily have been achieved by other means.

Sam Fleming

“She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow” is a strange, sad little story with some confusing mythology. It’s not bad, but it also doesn’t distinguish itself in any particular way. It’s not sad in any edifying fashion, just gloomy.

Annalee Flower Horne

“Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned from the Trade Summit Incident” is fucking hilarious. DeShawna Blanchard is a delightful smartass, and I would read a thousand pages about her adventures. “Seven Things” is a story told in the form of an essay written by DeShawna as part of the disciplinary action she faces after said incident. It’s a bright, funny change of pace after several darker stories, but it’s also a well-paced and thoroughly charming piece in its own right.

Ron S. Friedman

I won’t say that both of Ron S. Friedman’s selections are objectively bad, since obviously someone liked them well enough to publish, but I will say that I hated them. “Game Not Over” is about video game characters who become self-aware and possess the body of a gamer. While there’s some humorous potential in this basic premise, the story as it’s told here isn’t funny, smart or insightful in any way. In “LUCA,” a husband and wife team of scientists are investigating what lives in the waters of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, when a tragedy occurs. Again, there’s a seed of a decent idea here, but it’s spoiled by a simplistic, almost adolescent writing style and messaging that is so heavy-handed and trite that it’s downright silly.

David Jón Fuller

From David Jón Fuller come a pair of urban fantasy stories and a sci-fi tale set on a generation ship. “The Harsh Light of Morning” is about a racist, weirdly religious vampire who preyed upon children at a residential school in Canada. It feels more like a seed for a longer work than anything else, and I think its themes could definitely use a lot more space to develop in. “Caged” has a gay werewolf being rescued by his gay werebear romantic interest, which is adorable, and the story has an interesting aesthetic that is both distinctly Canadian and very heavy metal. Neither are really my cup of tea. I was more interested in “In Open Air” at first, but just couldn’t get into it. I skimmed to the end, and it was fine, but nothing special. Fuller’s style is the type of workmanlike that seems common in small press and self-pubbed work, but I generally prefer to read stuff that is a little more polished.

Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey is by far my favorite of today’s bunch of authors. “Bargain” is a short, sweet story about a demon, Malachai, summoned by an old woman who wants to save her wife, who is dying from cancer. It’s a very smart, very funny story, and there were happy tears at the end. “Bargain” is Hugo-eligible this year, if you’re still looking to fill out your list for Best Short Story.

“Haunted” is a totally different sort of story, a look at domestic violence from the point of view of a house, dealing with how tragedy marks a place and playing with the idea of what it means for something to be haunted. This one has a February 2016 pub date, so won’t be eligible for this round of Hugos, but I could easily see it making my list next year, it’s so good.

Patricia Gilliam

“The Backup” says it’s a short story, but it feels very long and somewhat aimless. There are some interesting ideas here about family and grief, but the whole story just feels kind of overstuffed, and when the ending came I was just nonplussed, which is not how I ever like to feel at the end of anything.

Jaymee Goh

Jaymee Goh’s “Liminal Grid” has a lot to say, probably about freedom and stuff, but I found it unreadable. Not unreadably bad, however. It’s just that it’s the sort of relatively near-future neo-cyberpunk-ish techno-thriller-ish thing that can just put me to sleep. I’m sure that this is an excellent story for the right audience, but I’m not it.

Final Verdict:

Sarah Gailey is an author to watch, for sure, and I really liked the contributions from Harlow C. Fallon, Rafaela F. Ferraz, and Annalee Flower Horne. However, this was balanced out today by some of the least enjoyable work in Up and Coming so far.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 2

Another day, another ten authors who are totally new to me. I’m a little exhausted with all the reading—I don’t think I’ve crammed like this since high school, but I am loving this project so far. I haven’t discovered this many new writers in years, in spite of making an effort to try new things. I’m actually pretty sure that this collection is all new-to-me writers up until S.L. Huang, who I’ll get to in part four or five, I believe. Today’s reading was a great mix of sci-fi and fantasy, with no horror, which is nice, and it also had the collection’s first funny story. There are still a couple of tear-jerkers in this group, but not nearly so many as yesterday’s selections, which was a nice change.

D.K. Cassidy

I know I said that there were fewer sad stories today, but the first one I read this morning almost killed me. “Room 42” looks at what might happen if everyone just stopped aging and dying and giving birth. What I love about this story is that D.K. Cassidy keeps it relatively small and personal, exploring the issues presented by immortality by examining the lives of Vivian, Vivian’s daughter Jenna, and Vivian’s mother Janice. All three women are trapped in different stages of life, facing different challenges, and they represent a kind of microcosm (albeit an imperfect one) of what the world is going through. “Room 42” explores multiple themes that are common to this subgenre of speculative fiction—suicide, euthanasia, loss of hope and purpose, the ennui that accompanies eternity—and though Cassidy is hardly breaking new ground here, it’s a nicely written story that handles these ideas with intelligence and sensitivity and without becoming too maudlin.

Zach Chapman

“Between Screens” isn’t the worst story I’ve read in this collection so far, but it’s certainly not for me. It’s about a 14-year-old boy who moves with his mother from Earth to what I gather is a series of connected space stations after the death of his father makes it so they can’t afford to live on the planet any longer. He struggles to fit in at first, but he soon makes a friend and meets a manic pixie dream girl (ugh) and before he knows it, he’s fully assimilated into the bleak, vaguely cyberpunk teen culture of the stations. This could have been worse, but I’m a little too much of an adult woman to be anything but bored by the adventures of miscreant teenagers.

Curtis C. Chen

Although space chess is never a terribly original idea for a story, I rather liked Curtis C. Chen’s “Zugwang.” While he definitely dwells a little too much on his heroine’s insecurities about her body, and things are tied up a little too neatly at the end of the tale, it was solid enough to get me to read his other two stories.

“Making Waves” is a Lovecraft-influenced piece that has a lot of potential, but never quite manages to capture the tone of creeping horror that characterizes the best Lovecraftian tales. Its best ideas are actually its characters—Hatcher in particular has a very compelling story—and its WWII naval setting. There’s enough story seeds here to carry a novel, and I think the characters could definitely benefit from more room to grow.

I kind of hate the very boring and undescriptive title of “Laddie Come Home,” but the actual story is the best of Chen’s three in this collection. The thing that I think holds it back from greatness, though, is its almost naively optimistic view of a frankly terrifying picture of a possible future where corporations have access to some pretty frightening technology. I just can’t help but find the limited AI, Laddie’s, manipulation of a child to be kind of sinister, but that doesn’t seem to be Chen’s intention and the story ends on a hopeful note. I also found the messaging—a little Asian girl’s oppressive, patriarchal family won’t let her learn about computers, so she needs to be rescued by a Western corporation so she can be a programmer for them—to be very strange.

Z.Z. Claybourne

“Agents of Change” is about time traveling agents working for an intentionally sinister-seeming machine AI, who sends them back in time to protect Harriet Tubman and change history. I feel as if this story is meant to have some big ideas, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are or why I as a reader am supposed to care about them. It’s a story where very little actually happens, and none of it seems to mean anything.

Liz Colter

The three selections by Liz Colter are all amazing world building exercises that make her hands down my favorite author out of today’s ten. “The Ties That Bind, the Chains That Break” tells the story of Jerusha, a bi-gender messenger in a fantasy world on the cusp of a revolution. It’s another story that almost begs to be given a novel-length treatment. “Echoes” is a near-perfectly written story about a man with a fascinating and unique magic that lets him syphon the echoes of other people’s feelings and distill them into potions. “The Clouds in Her Eyes” is my least favorite of Colter’s group of stories, but mostly just because I would have liked just a little more background so that the conclusion of the story could occur more organically instead of feeling as if it’s just a chunk of exposition that summarizes a much longer story than what appears here.

Nik Constantine

“Last Transaction” is a very clever story about identity theft, told as a series of interactions with a computer. I found it riveting and a very fast read, though a little light on real substance. It was definitely a neat sort of “what if” story, but it didn’t have much to say for itself.

Daniel J. Davis

In “The God Whisperer,” we learn that a tiny war god makes a terrible pet. I laughed out loud more than once.

S.B. Divya

“Strange Attractors,” “The Egg,” and “Ships in the Night” all explore, in different ways, romantic relationships, from a centuries-long love between two people whose desires aren’t always in sync to a young couple dealing with the challenges of cancer to the aborted affair between an immortal and a woman who can see the future. These are very short stories that deal with big ideas about time and change and the resilience of love in compelling fashions. “The Egg” is somewhat forgettable, but “Strange Attractors” and “Ships in the Night” are standout pieces.

Margaret Dunlap

“Jane” and “Broken Glass” are both stories that turn out to not be what they seem at first, and with mixed success. I loved the twist in “Jane,” which is a pretty delightful little zombie story of sorts, but “Broken Glass” left me a little cold with its somewhat cloying and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. I tried to read Dunlap’s “Bookburners” story as well, but found it hard to get into, though it’s interesting enough that I may seek out the rest of the series and come back to it later. I’m not hugely into urban fantasy of any kind, but “Bookburners” reminds me a little bit (in tone, anyway) of Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, which I love, so it could be a fun thing to check out at a later date. No hurry though, to be honest.

S.K. Dunstall

Without knowing anything at all about S.K. Dunstall or her (their, I suppose) novel, Linesman, I found this excerpt to be moderately interesting, although I have no idea what the “lines” are supposed to be. They seem like space magic, which I usually hate unless it’s really well-conceived. Sadly, after reading the book’s description and glancing through some reviews of it on Goodreads and Amazon, I can’t say I am impressed or excited by it.

Final Verdict:

The only authors in this group whose work I’m truly likely to seek out more of are D.K. Cassidy and Liz Colter. The rest range from “mildly interesting but ultimately forgettable” to “probably actually bad.”

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 1

Let’s get this party started, right at the beginning of the alphabet. I thought about trying to read these in a more random order or about starting with the authors I already know and like, but the more I considered my options, the more I realized that the easiest and fairest way to approach this project was just to start at the beginning and read it through in the order the stories are arranged in the book. If nothing else, this will keep me from accidentally missing someone.

All of today’s authors are ones whose work I’ve never read before, which has been interesting. They run the gamut from hard sci-fi to sword and sorcery, which made this first day of reading a pretty wild ride.

Charlotte Ashley

When I first read “La Héron” last night, I liked but didn’t love it, but I think it’s a story that grows on you. The more I’ve thought about it all day, the more I think I love Charlotte Ashley’s tale of an illicit duelist, her unconventional second, and a series of three duels with fantastically escalating stakes. It’s intelligent, well-structured, and entertaining, and I could read whole books about La Héron and her brawling nun companion.

Ashley’s second story, “Sigrid Under the Mountain,” isn’t as good, unfortunately. It’s not bad, either, but it does seem somewhat underbaked. I love the idea of this story, but the execution here is weak and the story has an almost flippant tone towards its subject matter that seems intended to be humorous but that I found unpleasant to read. All of the characters in “Sigrid” are supposed to be Scandinavian, but the dialogue feels very anachronistically English, and the ending is abrupt and lacks any real emotional impact.

John Ayliff

John Ayliff’s offering is an excerpt from his 2015 debut novel, Belt Three. It seems fine, but overall pedestrian. Without knowing anything at all about the novel, I found it difficult to understand at first what was even going on, and when I did start to get it I found it dull.

Lucas Bale

Lucas Bale’s 2015 novelette, “To Sing of Chaos and Eternal Night,” is about as interesting as that pretentious title and its opening quote from Paradise Lost would suggest. Which is to say, not at all. There is a sort of Shyamalan-level twist that is moderately surprising, but it wasn’t compelling enough to make me care that much about the story.

Nicolette Barischoff

“Pirate Songs” almost lost me at space pirates, which are terribly overdone, but I’m glad I stuck it out. While there were some very uncomfortable to read parts early on, with a bunch of gross men sexually harassing a disabled girl, Margo turns out to be a very clever protagonist once the story shifts to her point of view and “Pirate Songs” ends up being a solid bit of space opera. I didn’t love it, but it was good enough to keep me from skipping Barischoff’s second and third stories, which would have been a huge mistake.

“Follow Me Down” starts with a monstrous birth and then picks up seven years later with the story of the child that was just born. Kora is a cambion—the child of an incubus and a human woman—and this is the story of an abandoned child trying to understand where she came from and who she is. “In the Woods Behind My House” is about a boy who has a griffin living practically in his back yard, and it’s another story about a child figuring out how to belong. I don’t want to spoil these stories here by saying too much about them, but I will say this: They’re both wonderful, and together they make Nicolette Barischoff the first new-to-me author in this collection whose work I unequivocally love.

Sofie Bird

“A is for Alacrity, Astronauts, and Grief” is a gorgeous tale about, well, grief, but also family and fresh starts and healing from abuse. When Becca’s sister, Julie, is left in a persistent coma after a car crash, Becca goes back to her abusive mother’s home in order to be able to take care of her nephew, Sam. Becca and Sam work together to decipher the strange messages that appear from an old typewriter that used to belong to Becca’s father, and Becca finds the strength to make some significant decisions for herself and Sam. I definitely cried while reading this, I loved it so much.

Derrick Boden

“Clay Soldiers” is a clever mindfuck of a story, and “The Last Mardi Gras” is exactly what it says it is. Both are beautifully written (though I preferred the second story) and very short—which it turns out is exactly the right length. Some of my favorite short stories are ones that communicate a single idea or concept very succinctly, and Boden shows an aptitude for just that. He’s definitely an author I will be watching for in the future.

Stefan Bolz

“The Traveler” is a somewhat meta story about a girl who works through grief over her father’s death by building a sort of H.G. Wells style time machine. It’s so lovely and so sad and so uplifting, and is my favorite story of the collection so far.

David Bruns

David Bruns’s first offering is “The Water Finder’s Shadow”—about a man struggling to figure out how to survive without his dog in a post-apocalyptic, drought-stricken America. This story is more of an exercise in world-building than anything else, but it stands alone well enough and left me hungry for more stories in this setting if Bruns ever writes any.

“I, Caroline” is a story with a somewhat obvious tell in its title about what it’s about, but it’s much better than the title might indicate. Caroline’s story is nothing terribly unexpected, but it’s solidly good and managed to make me more than a little teary by the end.

Martin Cahill

“It was Never the Fire” is the first story I’ve read today that I really just hated. There’s never a situation where I like reading about terrible things happening to girls. “Vanilla” was short, so I read it even though I didn’t like Martin Cahill’s first story. I don’t exactly wish I hadn’t, but this story about eating ice cream at the end of the world didn’t really connect with me either, possibly because I disliked the previous story so much. I’m not sure if changing the reading order would have changed my opinions on this pair, but it surely couldn’t have hurt.

Aaron Canton

In “Dining Out,” a corrupt food critic runs afoul of an obscure Irish goddess. On the one hand, I always enjoy learning new pieces of old mythology. On the other hand, if I have to google a major story element in order to make sense of it, that’s a problem. Once I learned who Fuamnach was, I got it, but I would have liked it better if I could have understood more about her from context in the story.

“A Most Unusual Patriot” is the first story of Up and Coming that falls properly into the realm of fantasy adventure or sword and sorcery, which is my first genre love. Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of substance here. Jadie is fine, in a very sort of cookie-cutter quirky fantasy thief sort of way, albeit a bit Pollyannaish. There’s also an awful lot of telling-not-showing going on in this story, with long stretches dedicated to just explaining everything instead of having actual events happening. The worst thing about this one, though, is how misleading its title is. In a world where the thieves’ guild is basically owned by the ruler of the land, it means literally nothing to call a thief an “unusual patriot.” It’s explained, at length, that protecting the realm and upholding the current government is part of Jadie’s job as a member of the thieves’ guild.

Final Verdict

Nicolette Barischoff, Sofie Bird and Stefan Bolz are definitely my favorites of this first group of authors, but David Bruns and Charlotte Ashley also stand out.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the next ten authors.

Book Review – Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard is a wonderfully original masterpiece of a novel, and I am so glad that I got to it in time for Hugo Award nominations. Somehow, I’d thought it was a 2016 book because it came out so late in the year (December 29). Fortunately, it showed up on the Nebula shortlist before I missed out on it entirely. You guys, this book is so good. If you are a Hugo voter, I highly recommend reading this book before you finalize your nominations. 2015 was an amazing year for genre fiction in general, but this novel is definitely at the top of the heap of amazingness.

The concept of Barsk is fascinating. Thousands of years in the future, spacefaring anthropomorphic animals of numerous species have colonized the galaxy. A pair of species collectively known as the Fant (descended from Asian and African elephants) inhabit the titular planet, Barsk, where they have been left more or less undisturbed for hundreds of years due to the other (all furred) species’ dislike of them. They might be left alone entirely if the Fant weren’t the only manufacturers of a drug called koph that, in some people, awakens a rare and highly desirable ability to Speak to the dead. Needless to say, after eight centuries of depending solely on the Fant for the drug, not everyone is happy with the current state of affairs.

What makes Barsk such a joy to read is that, while it may technically be a flaw, it has a tendency to meander, and there are all kinds of small flourishes that have little to do with the actual plot but that are nice to see as they really work to make the world of Barsk come alive. Sometimes, as well, Schoen includes material that isn’t strictly necessary in order to lighten up some of the story’s darker moments or simply to add some depth to a minor character. In every case, these detours and seemingly extraneous details are naturally integrated with the main story, whether it’s a solitary chapter from Tolta’s point of view or the brief story of the unexpected reunion of two Fant men who were able to have a few days of joy together at the end of their lives.

The portrayal of the animal cultures is fascinating. Schoen has clearly done a lot of research, and he does an excellent job of balancing an imagination of what the racial cultures and traits of his anthropomorphized animals might be with a wonderful instinct for character that prevents the animal characters from being too stereotypical. Certainly some of the background groups—especially the Badgers and Pandas—are a little too homogenous-seeming, but even that can be more safely attributed to the fact that the Pandas we see are soldiers and the Badgers are torturers, which accounts for their seemingly monolithic natures. The named characters, however, are, by and large, all unique and compelling individuals. Their species certainly informs who they are, but they aren’t defined by it.

The exploration of racism, genocide, and marginalization may seem a little on the nose, and I’m generally not a fan of exploring these themes through fantasy races and cultures, but it works here. The political situation between Barsk and the rest of the colonized worlds is fraught in realistic ways that recall some real-world scenarios but never copy any exactly. This allows Schoen to take a look at some common structures of oppression and exploitation without stepping on the toes of any real people. It’s not the most thorough look at these themes, but it’s well done without being heavy-handed or preachy and the ending of the story is messy and ambiguous enough to keep Barsk from every being called simplistic.

If I have any criticism of Barsk, it’s that there’s just not enough of it. I’m thrilled that it’s a standalone title, but I would love to read more stories set in this world. I want to know how Lirlowil turns out or what Pizlo grows up to be like or whether Jorl ever notices the girl in the bookstore or if Tolta ever finds love again. I’d even take a book about what Bish gets up to now that he’s got a fresh start. Barsk is a story that I never wanted to end, and I can’t wait to see what Lawrence M. Schoen writes next.