Category Archives: Books

The SF Bluestocking Summer 2017 Reading List Wrap-Up

So, 2017 is a year that just keeps happening, whether we want it to or not, and it’s now the end of summer. I didn’t read nearly as much as I’d have liked, and I certainly fell very short of all my writing goals, but it hasn’t been a total disaster, either. The things I did manage to read were mostly good, and there were some real standouts in basically every category. Here are my favorites.

Best Fantasy Novel – The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

To say N.K. Jemisin stuck the landing on this series is really an understatement; though, like the previous book, it doesn’t quite match the sheer sublime brilliance of The Fifth Season, this novel is nonetheless stratospherically fantastic, and if the Broken Earth trilogy doesn’t become a bonafide classic the genre, there really is no justice in the world. It’s a thoughtful, inventive and compulsively readable story, with strong world-building, a powerful message (or, rather, several) and a pair of iconic lead characters in Essun and her daughter Nassun.

Best Science Fiction Novel – Null States by Malka Older

I’m torn between being sad that I waited so long to read Infomocracy and its sequel and being happy that I was able to read them one right after the other (though that brings me back round to sad again that I’ve now got another full year before the next book comes out). As good as Infomocracy was, I think Null States is definitely the stronger book of the pair, and a lot of that is because of its main heroine, Roz, who was a minor character in the first book but moves to the forefront in this one, where she proves herself to be smart, tough, resourceful and empathetic. While these books have been described by some as “dystopian,” I disagree that the word applies to them at all. Personally, I found the series compelling, insightful and, above all, optimistic about the future.

Best Novella – The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

Both installments of JY Yang’s new novella duology from Tor.com are well worth reading, and I can’t wait to read more books set in the Tensorate universe, but The Black Tides of Heaven is a perfectly conceived and executed introduction to an intricately lovely and highly entertaining new fantasy setting. The twins Mokoya and Akeha are well drawn and fully realized characters, the world in which they exist feels real and lived-in, and the conflict between magic and technology is both epic in scale and deeply personal to the characters. Also, just look at that gorgeous book cover. One of the best of the year, full stop.

Best Novelette – “Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live” by Sacha Lamb

This sweet and tenderly charming novelette features a pair of trans boys, their loving families and a just enough magic to scootch the story into the category of fantasy, though one could make the argument that it’s more in magical realism territory. What I loved about i, though, is that it’s a story that is kind to its characters. Avi has troubles, but he’s also surrounded by people who care about him and wish him well. He’s going to be okay, and that’s nice.

35649628Best Magazine – FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 3, “Sundown Towns”

I am still slightly bummed that this issue didn’t have a vampire story in it, but it does have “The Last Exorcist” by Danny Lore, which is one of my favorite stories of 2017 so far. “Cracks” by Xen is another stand-out tale. It’s also got another incredible cover by Geneva Benton, whose vision for the magazine’s first year has gone a long way towards helping to establish the publication’s unique and distinctive identity. FIYAH just keeps getting better and better.

Best Comic – Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda continue to make magic together in this second collection, which includes issues seven through twelve. After the somewhat unrelenting darkness of Volume One, I was pleased that this one at least slightly less brutal. Volume 2 brings us a bunch of new characters and greatly expands upon the world introduced in the first volume over the course of a quest story line that enhances the overall epic feel of the series. Plus, the book itself is a thing of pure beauty; Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork for the series is as marvelously detailed and layered as its ever been, and every page is a joy to look at.

Best Non-SFF Read – What Happened by Hillary Clinton

Listen, I love and admire Hillary Clinton so much, and I don’t think I’ll ever not be incandescently furious that this woman isn’t our President. Her campaign memoir is every bit as erudite, well-researched, and thoughtfully put together as you would expect from Clinton’s public persona, and it’s also wryly funny and full of personal quirks and tics that provide a fuller picture than perhaps ever before of the real woman behind that public persona. I know I’m going to still be angry about the Trump administration and worried for the future of this country and the whole world for a long time, but reading this book is something of a healing experience, if only because it’s reassuring to know, well, what happened.

Best Awesome Super Hero Romance Novel – Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn

I binged this title and its predecessor, Heroine Complex, back to back over like a day and a half, and I loved every single minute of them. They’re whip-smart, funny, fast-paced and slightly sexy, but the real draw, for me, was the strong focus on the friendship relationship between Annie and Aveda. Each of the books is as much coming-of-age story as it is romance, and I loved reading about how these women level up together and learn to have a healthy adult friendship with each other.

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
    It’s got a lot of the same great stuff that its partner book has, but also dinosaurs.
  • Uncanny Magazine #18, Sept/Oct 2017
    This issue has a Catherynne M. Valente-penned Clockwork Orange and Cthulhu Mythos mashup.
  • A Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey
    More hippos, but also better character arcs and a more satisfying ending than River of Teeth.
  • An Oath of Dogs by Wendy N. Wagner
    Great worldbuilding and an interesting main idea.
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
    I love monstrous women. This one fooled me a little with its cover, which looked a bit more literary than its contents turned out to be, but it’s a great read.
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie
    Ann Leckie is one of my favorite authors of space opera right now.
  • Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
    This is a very weird book, and I don’t think it was entirely successful, but I still kind of loved it.

The SF Bluestocking 2017 Fall Reading List

It’s that time again, where I grossly/awesomely overestimate the number of books and other things I’ll be able to read in the next three months, plus include a few things I almost certainly won’t get around to reading but that I still think other folks should read and tell me about.

One thing you may notice right off is that I’m not really reading YA any longer. I’m sure it’s a temporary thing, but I just haven’t gotten into any of the YA releases that were on my radar this year, so in the interest of not stressing myself out when I fail to get around to them, I’m just not even including them. It’s just been so long since I’ve really wanted to read anything YA, and there’s so much other great stuff coming out over the next three months (well, the next couple months, since December is an especially sparse time for SFF releases this year) that I just haven’t even been paying much attention to what’s coming out for teens.

The rest of 2017 is pretty heavily front-loaded with new releases. with eight titles I’m excited about coming out just on October 3 and several more Tuesdays in October and November with two to five releases. However, there’s nothing on my calendar past December 5, so I expect to be doing a lot of catching up on things that month, since on average I’m reading just a couple books a week and there’s a lot of stuff I’m excited about this fall.

Tor.com Publishing

I’ve, kind of necessarily, relaxed my stance on reading every single Tor.com release over the last few months, skipping a couple of titles that didn’t appeal to me or that were part of series that I haven’t begun yet, but the next couple months are full of books that I’m looking forward to.

  • The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson – 10/3
  • A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell – 10/10
    I’ve loved both of Paul Cornell’s previous Lychford novellas. The first, in particular, was a great seasonally appropriate read around this time a couple years ago, and I’m making sure to save this one for a crisp evening with a blanket a nice hot cup of tea or several.
  • Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders – 10/17
    I’ve read All the Birds in the Sky and enjoyed some of Anders’ other short fiction (her story in the John Joseph Adams anthology, Cosmic Powers, was fantastic), so I’m pretty hyped for this collection, each story of which is totally new to me.
  • Weaver’s Lament by Emma Newman – 10/17
    The sequel to Brother’s Ruin, which was a charming gaslamp fantasy.
  • Switchback by Melissa F. Olson – 10/24
  • The Sisters of the Crescent Empress by Leena Likitalo – 11/7
    I already read an advance copy this book right after I read The Five Daughters of the Moon, and it’s a beautiful conclusion the the duology.
  • Gluttony Bay by Matt Wallace – 11/7
    I’m certain that this penultimate Sin du Jour novella is going to be delicious.
  • Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska – 11/14
    I haven’t been lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of this title, but it’s probably the Tor.com release I’m most looking forward to this fall aside from Gluttony Bay. Certainly, it’s the most ambitious and unique sounding thing on their schedule in the next three months.
  • Starfire: Shadow Sun Seven by Spencer Ellsworth – 11/28
    Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire trilogy is exactly the sort of high energy retro space opera adventures I want to be reading these days. Highly recommend.
Magazines
Anthologies and Collections
  • Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak – 10/8
    I will have a review of this anthology and possibly an interview with the editors coming out prior to its release date, but I’ll say here that you definitely want to read this book. Plus, a portion of the proceeds from its sales benefits Kids Help Phone, a Canadian counselling hotline for children.
  • The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen
    A collection of retold classics and fairy tales from a great author.
  • Mad Hatters & March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow
    An anthology of stories inspired by Wonderland.
Non-Fiction

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty – 10/3
I’ve been watching Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel (Ask a Mortician) for years, and I loved her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory. I’ve also been following her work with the death acceptance organization The Order of the Good Death for years, so I am super excited to read this new book about death traditions from cultures around the world.

Fiction
  • The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera – 10/3
  • Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor – 10/3
    The long-awaited sequel to Okorafor’s 2011 YA novel, Akata Witch.
  • The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehenat Khan – 10/3
  • Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng – 10/3
    Early reviews of this gothic fantasy seem promising.
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon – 10/3
  • Star Wars From a Certain Point of View – 10/3
    40 popular authors (seriously, all my current faves are in here) telling 40 stories from the points of view of 40 different minor characters in the Star Wars Universe. It’s gonna be awesome.
  • The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear – 10/10
    The start of a new epic fantasy series in the same world as her Eternal Sky trilogy.
  • La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman – 10/19
    The first in a new prequel/sequel trilogy set in the world of His Dark Materials.
  • The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 10/24
  • The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso – 10/24
  • Magic of Wind and Mist by Cassandra Rose Clarke – 10/24
    An omnibus reprint of a duology.
  • Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns – 10/31
    This book had me at “lesbian space pirates.”
  • Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines – 11/7
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee – 11/7
  • Artemis by Andy Weir – 11/14
  • The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty – 11/14
  • Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer – 11/14
  • Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers – 11/14
  • Winter of Ice and Iron by Rachel Neumeier – 11/21
  • Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew – 12/5
    Benjanun Sriduangkaew still needs to put out a collection of her short fiction, but I guess a queer take on the Snow Queen in novella form will have to do. (I’m so excited.)
  • The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer – 12/5
    The Terra Ignota series continues.
  • A War in Crimson Embers by Alex Marshall – 12/5
  • Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey – 12/5
    I mean, I still need to finish reading all the previous books, but I’m still looking forward to this one.

Book Review: INFOMOCRACY and NULL STATES by Malka Older

It took me a long time to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy. I couldn’t get into it right away when it came out last summer, and then the 2016 election happened and it was, perhaps understandably, just far too painful, upsetting and infuriating for me to even think about reading a book centered around election shenanigans for a good while. After a couple of false starts earlier this year, I picked up the paperback of Infomocracy and couldn’t put it down. Luckily, I had an ARC of Null States waiting for me when I finished it. The downside, of course, is that I have to wait another full year for the next installment of the series. The Centenal Cycle so far is a brilliantly clever, deeply entertaining, and extremely timely series full of great characters and smart insights into the back-end business of politics and governance.

Though it’s not hard to see how some readers may interpret the series as dystopian, perhaps my favorite thing about the Centenal Cycle is that it’s decidedly optimistic about the power of systems and public servants to achieve positive change in the world. Older recognizes the flaws in institutions and the people administering them, but in a profoundly (and refreshingly) humanist move she also recognizes the power of individuals to enact change, for good or ill. The micro-democracy depicted in the books isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement on our current system of government, and Older does an excellent job of exploring both the possibilities and pitfalls of such a system. The global organization of Information is key to both the successes and challenges of micro-democracy, and Older’s nuanced look at the ways in which media affects elections and the ways in which information can be manipulated and controlled to achieve desired outcomes is as timely as it is erudite and insightful.

In a SFF landscape that reveres meticulously detailed worldbuilding, the world of the Centenal books stands out as an example of a setting that isn’t so much built as it is just perfectly realized. Every inch of it feels real and lived-in. They say one ought to write what one knows, and Malka Older knows a good deal about a lot of things (or at least did a lot of research to make it seem like she does), which makes for a pair of novels that work on every level. The technological advances she describes feel plausible, and the ways in which technology is used—for travel, surveillance, security, media consumption, and so on—make sense and are entirely natural-seeming extrapolations from current trends. A particularly nice touch is the names of political parties in micro-democracy. Groups like Heritage, Liberty, PhilipMorris and others are clear references to current political factions and business interests, and it’s easy to imagine how those power players would survive and thrive in the kind of political environment created by micro-democracy.

The greatest thing about these books, however, isn’t the political wonkery (though that is a quality I deeply appreciated); it’s the characters. Mishima is a consummate badass, and Ken is a perfect complement for her. They’re both easy to root for, and their intertwining stories as they work both apart and together to foil a massive conspiracy in Infomocracy are highly entertaining. The main protagonist of Null States, Roz, is something else, however. Like Mishima and Ken, she’s tough and smart and resourceful and principled, but Roz’s work in Darfur is very different than either Mishima’s or Ken’s. The stakes in Null States are, at least on the surface, less global in scale, and they’re certainly much more personal as Roz gets to know the people of the area. What’s most lovable about Roz isn’t her capability or strength but her capacity for empathy, and this quality is a driving force in her narrative. Much of Roz’s story is about the ways in which empathy, caring for others and openness to new ideas and different points of view is integral to public service, and I love that Malka Older imagined Roz to embody so many of those qualities, even if she does have to grow into them a little over the course of her book. Also, Suleyman is a babe.

The optimism of the Centenal Cycle isn’t obvious, judging by the number of people who call the books dystopia, but it’s my kind of optimism. It’s not the optimism that there’s some perfect system of government that’s the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems or that aliens are going to show up on the eve of a technological revolution and save us all. It’s the optimism that hard work and decency never go entirely out of fashion, that they pay off and that individuals can and do make a difference. It’s the reminder that the arc of history bends towards progress and that we don’t have to have all the answers in order to do some good. And all that optimism is conveyed not with speeches or platitudes, but through the actions of Mishima, Ken, Roz and others. I cannot wait to find out what these characters do next.

Recent Reads: Summer Magazines and Short Fiction

One of the few New Year’s resolutions I’ve kept this year was to read more short fiction, and I’ve been doing that largely through magazines. It’s a great way of discovering new-to-me authors and catching on early to new trends in genre publishing, and after many years of not reading much short fiction I’ve been having a great time rediscovering  all the things I loved so much about short fiction in the first place. Here’s what I’ve been reading and loving lately:

Apex Magazine #99:
A Celebration of Indigenous American Fantasists

I’m generally not a cover-to-cover reader of Apex Magazine, instead reading whatever sounds good when their content shows up online for free, but I recently subscribed to it,. It turned out to be the perfect time to do so. #99 was the first issue I got, and it’s one that’s definitely worth reading cover-to-cover. Guest-edited by Amy H. Sturgis, it’s got non-fiction by Daniel Heath Justice and Daniel José Older and four wonderful short stories by indigenous women. The highlights, however, are “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, an absolutely gutting near-ish future sci-fi story about Native identity and the harm caused by cultural appropriation, and “Skinny Charlie’s Orbiting Teepee” by Pamela Rentz, which tackles some similar themes with a lighter, more humorous touch in a very different sci-fi setting.

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 3: Sundown Towns

FIYAH continues to do exactly what it promised when the project was announced, delivering a solid collection of black speculative fiction in a gorgeously packaged quarterly publication. In fact, though it may just be the bright, warm colors on this one, but I think Geneva Benton has delivered the best cover art to date on this issue. I was hoping for a vampire story, which the issue did not deliver, but Sundown Towns nonetheless offers a great selection of takes on its theme. If you only have time for one story from the issue, though, be sure to make it Danny Lore’s “The Last Exorcist.” “Toward the Sun” by Sydnee Thompson and “Cracks” by Xen are also excellent, but “The Last Exorcist” is the story I continue to find myself thinking about weeks later. Also, I don’t know of another publication that’s sharing issue playlists with each issue, and if there is I know it can’t be as good as the ones from FIYAH. Check this out.

Uncanny Magazine, Issue 17: July/Aug 2017

Issue 17 of Uncanny is, for Uncanny, pretty middle-of-the-road, but Uncanny is an unusually and consistently excellent publication. There’s a good interview with Maurice Broaddus, whose fictional contribution to the issue, “The Ache of Home,” is also well worth reading. I loved “A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds” by Kat Howard and “Packing” by T. Kingfisher (I always love a T. Kingfisher story). Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Worshipful Society of Glovers” is an interesting and surprisingly dark fairy tale in the mode of “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” while Seanan McGuire offers a charming origin story for Maine Coon cats in “How the Maine Coon Cat Learned to Love the Sea.” Sarah Gailey’s essay, “Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School,” fell a little flat with me, likely because I’m just old enough to not really identify with it, like, at all, but I saw it floating around Twitter enough to know that it hit its mark with those less crotchety than me. If you like poetry, I thought “Domovoi” by Rose Lemberg and “Questions We Asked for the Girls Turned to Limbs” by Chloe N. Clark were the standouts this issue.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #232

I’m an infrequent reader of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, but I always read issues that feature work by authors I like. The major draw for me in #232 was a new story by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. “No Pearls as Blue as These” is a gorgeously clever queer romance with a great setting, a fascinating protagonist and a nicely hopeful message that makes it pretty much exactly the sort of thing I want to read these days. “Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall turned out to be a nice bonus, a well-conceived and fresh take on a story of a lady poisoner that works well as a thematic complement to Sriduangkaew’s story. At the website, though it’s not in the ebook version of the issue, BCS recommends the courtly romance/quest story “Y Brenin” by Cae Hawksmoor, which is always worth a reread (or a first read, if you haven’t read it yet, you barbarian).

Fireside Fiction

The most important thing I’ve read recently in Fireside is actually non-fiction. Their second annual #BlackSpecFic Report came out last month, and it’s a must-read for anyone working in publishing or with more than a passing interest in the genre. Don’t miss the extra articles and interviews that go along with it.

I’ve still been slowly making my way through Infomocracy by Malka Older, but I loved her short story in that same universe, “Narrative Disorder,” and her follow-up essay about it.

“The Witch in the Tower” by Mari Ness is a short, smart reimagining of “Rapunzel.”

Finally, Fireside is publishing a new serial story by Sarah Gailey, The Fisher of Bones, and the first two chapters (“Naming” and “Cycle”) are available now.

Tor.com

I’m about to start never shutting up about J.Y. Yang’s Tor.com novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, now that we’re getting closer to the publication date (9/26) but in the meantime you should read Yang’s Tor.com short story, “Waiting on a Bright Moon.”

Cassandra Khaw recently released the perfectly delightful urban fantasy novella Bearly a Lady at The Book Smugglers, and she’s got another Lovecraftian novella, A Song for Quiet, coming out this coming Tuesday (8/29) from Tor.com, but if you’re getting antsy for another Cassandra Khaw story, “These Deathless Bones” just came out a couple weeks ago.

A new Kai Ashante Wilson story just came out yesterday. You should go read “The Lamentation of Their Women” as soon as possible, and, while you’re at it, read (or re-read) his 2014 story, “The Devil in America.” It’s only getting more and more timely and important.

Recent Reads: Comics and Graphic Novels

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer
Issues 2 and 3
by Victor LaValle and
Dietrich Smith

The first issue of Destroyer was all promise, with it’s compelling and timely premise and gorgeous artwork. Issues 2 and 3 deliver on a lot of that promise. There’s a lot more action in these issues as well as a lot more depth of feeling as we delve into the real meat of the story. The literary allusions are a little on the nose, especially in a work that’s a little too serious to fall under the category of pastiche, but as the story gets darker I find these humorous nods to the book’s inspirations to be a welcome bit of lightheartedness. Also, and probably because I’m not a great reader of comic books, my favorite thing about this series so far is Victor LaValle’s essay at the end of Issue 3 where he writes about how the two different endings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein led him to write this comic.

Kim & Kim Vol. 1
by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam, and Katy Rex

Full disclosure: Kim & Kim was an impulse buy because I happened to see someone mention it on Twitter right when I was looking for something to put me over the $25 threshold for free shipping. It sounded cute, but it turned out to be even more fun than expected, a nice balance of sci-fi bounty hunting adventures and character-driven drama with a bright, punk rock aesthetic. The only downside of the book is that Issue 4 ends on a little bit of a sad note, and it’s not clear if/when there’s going to be an Issue 5. In the meantime, however, Kim & Kim creator Magdalene Visaggio is currently offering free pdf copies of Volume 1 to anyone who donates at least $20 to The Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline through Friday, August 4, 2017:

Monstress Volume 2: The Blood
by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

The second trade paper installment of Monstress is, like the first, a true thing of beauty. Every page is filled with Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork, which is in turn full of gorgeous details, erudite flourishes that reference numerous artistic inspirations, and subtly lovely colors that marvelously convey setting and mood. With a title like “The Blood” I was rather expecting more of the same unflinching brutality as in the first book, but that’s not so much the case. Instead, this volume combines Maika’s continued search for answers about her identity, the increasing danger posed by the Monstrum that lives inside her, and a seafaring journey with a fascinating and visually distinctive new cast of minor characters.

Angel Catbird, Vol. 3:
The Catbird Roars
by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain

Angel Catbird has never been more than a light, fun likely-vanity project of Margaret Atwood’s, and it didn’t suddenly transform to something more profound in its final volume. The Catbird Roars has the same deliciously silly verbal puns and visual gags that characterized the first two volumes, the same occasional side-barred cat facts encouraging readers to keep their pets indoors, and the same fast-paced absurdist plot that has our heroes dealing with the evil rat army once and for all. The biggest thing that sets this volume apart from the rest is the excellent foreword by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which tells us more of the inspirations and thought process behind Angel Catbird and to put it into a historical context that explains some of its quirks. As someone who is only lately getting into reading comics and doesn’t have a wide knowledge of the longer and broader history of the form, this information really helped me to understand and enjoy the book more fully.

Recent Reads: Some Tor.com Novellas You Should Be Reading and/or Pre-ordering

While I’m still working out how I want to do book reviews at SF Bluestocking going forward, I’ve managed to accumulate a pretty sizable backlog of stuff that I’ve been reading while too depressed to do much else. The good news, of course, is that I’ve read some great stuff, and I’ll be talking about it over the next week or two as a work to get back to the level of productivity I’d like to be maintaining here.

I’ve been reading almost all the novellas released by Tor.com Publishing since they first started doing novellas, and they continue to deliver consistently compelling and entertaining books two-to-five times a month. While I’m by no means caught up on everything coming out over the next couple of months, I’m caught up on recent releases and I’ve made some inroads on some of the upcoming releases I’m most excited about.

35664957The Ghost Line
by Andrew Neil Gray and
J.S. Herbison

Tor.com has had a whole series of excellent space opera stories coming out this summer, which came at a perfect time for me, as I’ve been in the mood for science fiction more than fantasy these last few months. The Ghost Line finds a small group of salvagers exploring a vast abandoned luxury cruise ship and discovering more than any of them bargained for. The book’s best quality is its lovely, thoughtful descriptions of the abandoned ship and the way in which it allows the reader to become immersed in the exploration of the haunted ship. It’s not the strongest of Tor.com’s 2017 lineup, and it feels slight and a little uninspired (while at the same time owing perhaps a little too much of what inspiration it has to The Expanse) in comparison to gems like All Systems Red or even Killing Gravity, but The Ghost Line is nevertheless a solidly entertaining read worthy of a lazy afternoon.

The Ghost Line is available now.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion
by Margaret Killjoy

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is the first book in the queer anarchist punk demon hunter series you didn’t know you needed. Danielle Cain is a smart, resourceful heroine, and I am looking forward to the further adventures of her and the friends she makes in this book. However, the real star of The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is its unique setting–a utopian squatters’ community in the imaginary Freedom, Iowa–and the magic with which Margaret Killjoy has infused it. The three-antlered deer spirit summoned by some of the town’s residents to assert order in a crisis has begun to turn on its summoners, and the debate over what to do about it has created deep divides in the community. Killjoy’s cast of characters must wrestle with ideas at the core of their beliefs and deal with a situation that threatens the very foundations of the home and families they’ve built for themselves, and the setting of Freedom is a cleverly crafted heightened reality in which to do so.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion will be available August 15.

The Five Daughters of the Moon and
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress
by Leena Likitalo

Jacqueline Carey’s cover blurb for The Five Daughters of the Moon calls the book “a lyrical elegy to the fall of an empire,” and the book description is clear that this duology is inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution and the final days of the Romanov sisters, so you must know going in that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. In alternating chapters told in first person from the perspective of each of the titular five daughters–ranging in age from six to twenty-two–Leena Likitalo brings each girl to vivid life and lets them tell their own stories. Fifteen-year-old Sibilia (whose chapters are excerpts from her diary) and sixteen-year-old Elise have the strongest voices of the five, and Sibilia’s journey and coming of age is perhaps the most profound and deeply-felt story of any of the girls. However, Likitalo also does a lovely job of portraying the little girls, Alina and Merile, though the author’s vocabulary is far better than any six- or eleven-year-old’s would be. Eldest sister Celestia is a more difficult character to get to know and love; she’s often distant from her sisters, focused on her own trauma and still trying to bear up under the weight of her responsibilities in a situation that is far different and more dangerous than anything she was ever prepared for.

The best part of this duology, however, is the way that Likitalo manages to capture the ambivalence of revolution. There’s tragedy here, for sure, and there’s a definite villain, but there’s also a recognition of the hope the revolution offered to many people and some meditation on the idea that there’s always a human cost in any system; the question is just who has to pay it and who benefits from it. The Waning Moon duology is a gorgeously written and deeply humane meditation on this question and its answers.

The Five Daughters of the Moon is available now, and The Sisters of the Crescent Empress will be out November 7.

Acadie
by Dave Hutchinson

Acadie describes a future in which a colony of genetically modified and enhanced humans has been on the lam for several hundred years after fleeing restrictive regulations on Earth. It’s a smart, snappy and often very funny space opera with some neat ideas, an entertaining POV character, a load of crowd-pleasing pop culture references and a genuinely unexpected ending. I’m a huge fan of shorter, rather than longer, novellas, and Acadie clocks in at under a hundred pages, which combines with Hutchinson’s engaging, conversational prose style to make for a fast read, but it’s also a book that will keep you thinking well after you close it. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading Hutchinson’s longer Fractured Europe Sequence, but I can say with certainty that I’ll be snatching up any more shorter work he puts out as soon as I see it.

Acadie will be out September 5.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune
by J.Y. Yang

Listen. There’s basically a 100% chance that anything Kate Elliott calls “effortlessly fascinating” is going to be wonderful, so it’s no surprise that this pair of novellas by J.Y. Yang are pretty close to perfect. Yang has crafted a meticulously beautiful fantasy world that cleverly melds science and magic together with a central sibling relationship that sustains the heart of both books. Much will surely be made of Yang’s treatment of gender and sexuality, and any accolades on that score are well-deserved; in Yang’s Protectorate, sexuality is fluid and gender is self-chosen, confirmed or not as the individual decides, and gender-neutral pronouns are commonplace. That said, Yang’s worldbuilding in general is marvelously executed, and they do a great job of managing the expansion of the world readers are exposed to between The Black Tides of Heaven, which really ought to be read first even if the books are being sold as standalone companions, and The Red Threads of Fortune, which takes place several years later and has an emotional arc that provides a resolution to a major subplot in Tides, albeit from a different perspective. That said, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy such a marvelously balanced mix of magic, romance, revolution and dinosaurs.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune will both be out September 26.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 27-31

In a book full of strangeness, perhaps the weirdest part of today’s reading is how disparate its chapters are. Previous sections have had unifying themes or dealt with the same characters throughout or with a short period of time, but these chapters each stand apart from the others. They also each advance the story in the most linear fashion that has occurred so far in Titus Groan. There’s still a lot of worldbuilding exposition, but in this section that is accompanied by copious character work and not just one but several actual events. It’s the most normative section of the book so far, in terms of construction, but it’s a weird turn that I’m curious to see is sustained. After waiting all this time for a proper plot to develop and finally giving up on that ever happening, I’m obviously leery of getting my hopes up.

The section begins with a chapter that feels somewhat out of place and is something of a speedbump. Chapter 27, “While the Old Nurse Dozes,” is primarily devoted to Keda’s story, and we learn something about her life before coming to Gormenghast. A forced marriage according to the customs of the people of the Mud Dwellings, a dead husband and child, and two men in love with her at the same time are the stuff of high drama, but the tale is told quietly and calmly by Keda herself to Nannie Slagg, who falls asleep during the story. It’s an interesting background for Keda and some fascinating exposition on the lives of those who live in the Mud Dwellings and the culture built around the veneration of the Bright Carvers, though it’s also a very generously favorable portrayal of forced marriage and rape. Keda seems more affected by the anxiety of being involved in a love triangle than by being treated like chattel and married off to a much older man.

To be honest, there’s very little about Keda’s characterization in this chapter that feels true. Though Keda makes a somewhat impassioned speech to Nannie Slagg—“I feared my future, and my past was sorrow, and in my present you had need of me and I had need of refuge so I came”—even that is delivered “quietly,” a word used both at the beginning and end of the paragraph that contains this speech. In fact, words like “still” and “quiet” are used many times in Chapter 27 to describe Keda, and she even describes herself in such terms, which is at odds with her more general passion and the impulsiveness of her decision to come to the castle as Titus’s nurse. It’s possible that in the seventy years since its original publication, the book has become dated; perhaps women like Keda were more numerous in the 1940s. However, I’m more inclined to think that an eccentric and often isolated male author just didn’t have enough interactions with real women to convincingly write an adult woman’s pathos.

Keda’s stoicism rings false, and her final, definitive (albeit whispered) statement, “I must have love,” feels hollow in a book that consistently depicts love as anything but desirable. Love in Gormenghast, to the degree that it exists at all, can be fierce and obsessive and often violent, but the only particularly positive example of love that we’ve seen so far is Keda’s own tenderness for the infant Titus. Nannie Slagg’s love for Fuchsia and Titus may be seen as positive, but it’s also self-serving; she loves their nobility and the position that grants her (such as it is) in Gormenghast, which she uses her inflated sense of self-importance to lord over Keda and to imagine herself as superior to the other servants, with whom she rarely interacts. Fuchsia has been shown to love things fiercely, but inconstantly; she’s young and strange and self-absorbed enough that she doesn’t know what love even is, as evidenced by her own fantasies in the previous chapters. This is certainly explicable in light of Fuchsia’s parents’ cold marriage, which is no kind of example for a young girl, but there’s an altogether cynical and unromantic tone that suffuses the whole book and all Mervyn Peake’s depictions of its characters. Keda isn’t treated with quite the same satirical eye as the rest of Peake’s cast, but the earnestness of her portrayal only serves to highlight the ways in which Peake doesn’t really understand her.

Chapter 28, “Flay Brings a Message,” begins with the advent of autumn in Gormenghast. Autumn—or just the change of seasons more generally—is often symbolically significant, and that is the case here as well. Fuchsia is, at least ostensibly, on the verge of running away. Keda has gone. Nannie Slagg is worried. Flay is anxious. Sepulchrave, at long last, wants to see his son. The real star of this chapter, though, is Gormenghast itself and Peake’s superbly beautiful prose as he describes it:

“Autumn returned to Gormenghast like a dark spirit reentering its stronghold. Its breath could be felt in forgotten corridors—Gormenghast had itself become autumn. Even the denizens of this fastness were its shadows.”

And:

“The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out. The tortured trees by the dark lake burned and dripped, and their leaves snatched by the wind were whirled in wild circles through the towers. The clouds moldered as they lay coiled, or shifted themselves uneasily upon the stone sky-field, sending up wreaths that drifted through the turrets and swarmed up the hidden walls.”

And:

“From high in the Tower of Flints the owls inviolate in their stone galleries cried inhumanly, or falling into the windy darkness set sail on muffled courses for their hunting grounds.”

I am a total sucker for alliteration, and I’m further enamored of anthropomorphic metaphors, so I adore these descriptive passages. But in addition to being lovely in isolation, these passages also reiterate some of the earliest motifs I identified when I first embarked on my reading and further develop some more recently introduced ideas about Gormenghast the place. The emptiness and the sense of haunting and unholiness are palpable, and early motifs are evident in Peake’s word choices. The profane is succinctly contained in terms like “dark spirit” and images like those of the “tortured trees” that “[burn] and [drip]” and in the inhuman voices of Gormenghast’s owls. The whole place comes alive with words like “become” and “exhaled” and “breathed,” while the pathological weirdness of the castle is shown in word choices like “moldered” and “swarmed” that suggest illness and infestation.

In Chapter 29, “The Library,” we get even more description of Gormenghast—further expanding upon the off-kilter feel of the place and with sumptuous paragraphs about the castle’s Gothic architecture. The main focus of the chapter, however, is Sepulchrave. In a slightly surprisingly modern turn, it’s made clear that Sepulchrave’s malaise is in fact a “native depression” with a history that stretches back to his youth. We learn something about Sepulchrave’s unhappy (albeit fruitful) marriage to Gertrude, which certainly doesn’t improve the earl’s state of mind, but ultimately Peake writes that “…compared with the dull forest of his inherent melancholy it was but a tree from a foreign region that had been transplanted and absorbed.” In today’s terms, of course, it seems obvious that what Peake is describing about Sepulchrave is a clinical depression, with no cause and no easy cure, but what feels most surprising about the portrayal of Sepulchrave’s depression is how sensitively-crafted it is. Sepulchrave’s depression is certainly extreme, and it’s his defining trait, but it’s treated seriously and humanely, without the satirical gaze Peake turns on so many of the book’s other characters. That said, Sepulchrave’s depression is still pathologized in the text: “His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side.” Throughout the book there has been a sense of sickness about Gormenghast, and it would be easy to interpret Sepulchrave—Lord of Gormenghast and the theoretical head of the Groan family and their household—as the source of that sickness based upon passages like this if there weren’t so many other competing potential sources of rot in the place. The next couple chapters explore several of these possibilities.

At the end of Chapter 29, Flay takes a short detour on his journey to request Titus’s presence in the library, and he’s appalled to observe Swelter doing, well, something. Chapter 30, “In a Lime-Green Light,” elaborates a bit upon what Mr. Flay finds so horrifying about the cook. There’s something almost Lovecraftian about the nameless, inarticulable fear and antipathy Flay has for Swelter, the scenes of Flay spying on Swelter as Swelter seemingly plots Flay’s murder see Gormenghast at its worst and most hellish. The green light of Swelter’s underground room and the descriptions of his honing the cleaver and practicing stealth are positively demonic in tone, and Flays utter terror by the end of the chapter feels entirely earned.

Finally, Chapter 30, “Reintroducing the Twins,” returns to Steerpike and the Prunesquallors, who have sat down to a dinner of—perhaps significantly, given the ongoing bird motifs in the novel—chicken. Steerpike’s social climbing has been as successful so far as he could have hoped, and he seems to have made himself quite indispensable to the Prunesquallor siblings, especially Irma, whose vanity has only increased in light of Steerpike’s solicitousness of her. After this dinner, the Prunesquallors are visited by Cora and Clarice Groan, who take an immediate interest in Steerpike, who, for his part, jumps at the opportunity to advance himself still more. He listens to the twins’ grievances (mainly that “[Gertrude] steals our birds”), strokes their egos, and escorts them home with the suggestion that he may be able to serve them and return them to their former glory. The chapter ends with a monologue-ish account of Steerpike’s scheming and a hopeful and powerfully symbolic image of the sky clearing: “…the sky had emptied itself of cloud and was glittering fiercely with a hundred thousand stars.”

Miscellany:

  • Fuchsia’s eccentricity has taken an interestingly almost-scientific turn. I love the idea of her as a collector and cataloguer of the natural world, though I also think this may be verging on an almost Hardy-esque ideal of the girl as a sort of pure nature or earth spirit, untouched by the corruption of the world around her, especially in the way Fuchsia’s innocence and wildness is set in opposition to the strictures of life within the castle. She seems ripe for corruption or tragedy, and I don’t know if I can bear it if anything terrible happens to her. Still, she remains a fascinatingly trope-defying character. There could be something manic pixie-ish about her in other circumstances, but Fuchsia’s narrative so far is in service to nothing and no one but herself.
  • I’m going to riot if I don’t get to read at least one chapter about Gertrude that’s as informative about her as Chapter 29 is about Sepulchrave.
  • So far, though at least some of Peake’s influences are obvious (Shakespeare, Gothic romances, Dickens, Carroll, Poe), he’s steered clear of any direct literary allusions, but he alludes to Washington Irving in Chapter 29 when he writes of the east wing past the Tower of Flints as “an Ichabod of masonry that filed silently along an avenue of dreary pine whose needles hid the sky.” I was so surprised I had to Google it just to make certain it wasn’t a more obscure Biblical allusion instead. The Irving allusion makes me wonder how much American literature Peake was familiar with. There are definite shades of Poe, but perhaps Peake also read Hawthorne. And Peake’s fixation on the pathology of place and the quiet horror of ancient spaces suggests he might even have read some Lovecraft, but the book is so far free of any of Lovecraft’s virulent prejudices. Indeed, Peake’s interest seems to be particularly in the foibles and failings of the antiquated system of English nobility, a peculiarly English sort of introspection that doesn’t have much in common with the oeuvres of popular early American writers.
  • I guess Steerpike is going to wear black after all.