Category Archives: Books

The SF Bluestocking 2018 Summer Reading List

I am still alive! And still reading, though having a physically challenging day job where I’m often in overtime (hopefully soon to change now that I have just received a promotion) has certainly impacted the amount of time I have for books (and has severely impacted my writing). Still, I’m here. And there is so, so much to look forward to over the rest of the summer.

I’m no longer pretending, even to myself, that I’ll get around to reading everything on this list, but this is what I’ve got my eye on in July, August and September of 2018.

Tor.com Publishing

One look at my list of books I’ve actually read this year will tell you that I have given up trying to read every single novella Tor.com publishes. There’s just too many, and while I have always appreciated that reading them all took me outside my comfort zone and got me to read genres and styles that I don’t normally seek out, less time to actually spend reading in general means that I’m getting a little more selective about where I take risks. After absolutely despising Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint (apparently 2018 is not a year in which I want to read stories where the bodies of women and girls are destroyed in service of taking hackneyed jabs at organized religion), I have to admit the shine wore off of Tor.com for me a little bit. That feeling, combined with an uninspiring publication schedule full of too many sequels to things that I liked-but-didn’t-love has meant a lot less Tor.com novella-reading for me this year.

That said, there’s a lot to look forward to from Tor.com Publishing over the remainder of this summer.

  • Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys – 7/10
    I know someone must just be eating up all the Lovecraftian reimaginings Tor.com has published in the last couple of years, but I am not that someone.
  • The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky – 7/17
    I rather loved Tchaikovsky’s D&D-esque adventure novel, Spiderlight, but this book sounds basically nothing like that at all. I’m not sure I’m down for it, to be honest, but we’ll see how the early reviews of it shape up.
  • The Binti Trilogy hardcovers – 7/24
    I don’t usually buy hardcovers, especially after I’ve already bought and read ebooks, but have you seen how fantastically beautiful these redesigns are?
  • The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang – 7/31
    Hurray for more Tensorate!
  • Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells – 8/7
    Hurray for more Murderbot!
  • The Million by Karl Schroeder – 8/14
  • The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark – 8/21
    Having been informed by P. Djeli Clark’s essays and moved by his short fiction, I’m thrilled to see what he does with this longer format.
  • Warcry by Brian McClellan – 8/28
  • State Tectonics by Malka Older – 9/11
    I’m so excited for this book, but I’m also so sad that it’s the last in its series. I fully expect it to be one of my favorite reads of 2018.
  • The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole – 9/18
    Nope.

Novels

  • Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry – 7/3
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal – 7/3
    It’s a Lady Astronaut novel.
  • Heroine’s Journey by Sarah Kuhn – 7/3
    Book 3! It’s about Bea Tanaka!
  • Lost Gods by Micah Yongo – 7/3
  • European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss – 7/10
    A sequel to last year’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – 7/10
    I haven’t gotten my hands on an ARC of this, but it sounds like an expansion of Novik’s story of the same title in The Starlit Wood. I loved that story, and I have high hopes for this novel.
  • Suicide Club: A Novel About Living by Rachel Heng – 7/10
  • Competence by Gail Carriger – 7/17
    In all likelihood, I’ll hold off on reading this one til its companion comes out in another year or so, but I’m still looking forward to it. In the meantime, I will continue eating up Gail Carriger’s delicious novella-length works as fast as she can churn them out.
  • Apocalypse Nix by Kameron Hurley – 7/17
  • The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvahna Headley – 7/17
    I’m surprisingly hyped for this Beowulf in the suburbs novel.
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – 7/24
    Probably my most-anticipated book of 2018.
  • Kill the Farmboy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne – 7/24
    This seems like it might be cute.
  • A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole – 7/31
    I don’t read much romance these days, but I loved the first book in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series and preordered this one as soon as I finished the first.
  • Temper by Nicky Drayden – 8/7
    I really liked Nicky Drayden’s debut novel, The Prey of Gods, so I’m interested to see what she does next.
  • The Moons of Barsk by Lawrence M. Schoen – 8/14
    2015’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard was a tragically underappreciated gem that was done a great disservice with its 12/28 release date, and it’s been a long wait for this sequel. I’d love to see
  • The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal – 8/21
    It’s another Lady Astronaut novel.
  • Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – 8/28
    Kings of the Wyld
    was a surprising entry on my Best of 2017 list, and I cannot wait to read this sequel/companion to it.
  • The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner – 9/25

Collections and Anthologies

  • Worlds Seen in Passing edited by Irene Gallo – 9/4
    A collection of short fiction from the first ten years of Tor.com. I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing that I’ll read cover to cover, but it should be a great addition to my collection of anthologies that I slowly work through over the course of some years.
  • A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard – 9/25
    I believe this is mostly previously-published work, but there’s quite a lot of it that I haven’t read and I’m very excited to read the Arthurian novella that’s included in the collection.

37491890Comics and Graphic Novels

  • Monstress, Volume 3: Haven by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
    I don’t read many comics, but I’ll never miss a trade paperback of this one. If you are a collector of trade paperbacks, you may also want to check out Barnes & Noble’s exclusive edition of this title, which comes with an alternate cover and a double-sided poster.

Magazines

  • FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 7, “Music”
    FIYAH continues to be one of the most exciting and important SFF markets in publication.
  • Fireside Quarterly
    I’ve already received my copy of this, and it is a stunningly beautiful little book. It’s printed on gorgeous satiny paper, sports top-notch interior design, and has gorgeous artwork–including multiple fold-out pages. It’s a truly impressive piece of work. You can get your own by supporting FIreside at the $10/month level on Drip or on Patreon.
  • Apex Magazine #110, #111, #112I
    I’m still getting the paperback issues of Apex as well, which are getting slightly nicer each issue as they work out some design kinks and get things a little better put together each time.
  • Clarkesworld #142, #143, #144
  • Uncanny #23, #24
    Issue 23 is DINOSAUR-themed.

 

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 32-35

So, it’s been a while, admittedly, but I never forgot about this project, and now is (finally) the time to get back to it. Right now, I’m hoping to finish Titus Groan by the end of the summer, at which point I’ll figure out a workable schedule for the other two books in the trilogy. I’ve also still got G. Peter Winnington’s biography of Mervyn Peake (Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies) to read as well, and I haven’t decided yet if I want to read it after Titus Groan or wait until I’ve finished the entire series on my own. That is a decision for Future Bridget to make, though. Present Bridget is busy focusing on parsing all the shades of irony, melancholy and sly humor in chapters 32 through 35 of Titus Groan.

Chapter 32: ”The Fir Cones”

“The Fir Cones” is a chapter made of two distinct and disparate parts. The first is a character sketch of Steerpike, largely concerned with how he spends his nights while living with the Prunesquallors. This is followed by the story of the meeting between Lord Sepulchrave, Flay, Nannie Slagg and the infant Titus, a story which ends with a sad commentary on the character of Sepulchrave.

Much of what I call character sketch of Steerpike is, in fact, description of how Steerpike sees himself. Like Fuchsia, Ladies Cora and Clarice, and even Sepulchrave, Steerpike has an intense and active imagination that deeply informs the way he moves through his world, no matter how much he may think of himself as a man of logic with a mind “like an efficient machine.” As Steerpike spends his evenings walking the grounds of the castle, inventing poisons, reading books and polishing his [marvelously phallicly-described] “swordstick,” he’s also scheming and planning, imagining the ways in which he may manipulate Gormenghast’s other inhabitants for his own gain. However, perhaps the most compelling thing about the Steerpike passages in this chapter is the way Peake paints Steerpike as a man of deep contradictions: patient but also short-sighted, full of grandiose ideas but also self-absorbed, brilliant yet superstitious. These kinds of contradictory dual natures seem to be common in Gormenghast, but this chapter and the next are heavily focused on exploring the multitudes contained in their individual characters.

The meeting between Sepulchrave, Flay and Slagg—as observed by (read: spied upon by) Steerpike—contains just a kernel of plot: Sepulchrave wants to have a celebratory breakfast for his son. This is literally the only actual event that occurs in this chapter, and it’s really just exposition about a future event. What this section is about, to the degree that it’s about anything at all, is Sepulchrave, his depression, and his failings as a father. Sepulchrave’s idiosyncratic gift of fir cones to his infant son is about as well-received as one could expect. Nannie Slagg is effervescent in her gratitude, but the cones are of little interest to three-month-old Titus, who simply chews on them a little while the adults talk—or, rather, while Slagg and Flay listen to Sepulchrave’s specific-yet-vague instructions for Titus’s breakfast party.

The chapter ends with Sephulchrave sending Slagg, Flay and Titus away when he becomes overwhelmed with his feelings of anger and inadequacy over what he seems to understand as Titus’s rejection of the gift of fir cones. This is explicitly related to Sepulchrave’s depression, even as Sepulchrave lashes out in anger, externalizing his feelings of shame and failure in a violent outburst only to then double down on the very behaviors that caused his feelings.

“He was too proud and melancholy to unbend and be the father of the boy in anything but fact; he would not cease to isolate himself.”

Sepulchrave isn’t able to fully externalize his feelings, however. The final line of the chapter—“He sat back again in the chair, but he could not read.”—suggests that he is deeply effected by his emotions, to the point that his preoccupation is even preventing him from engaging in his most cherished activity. It’s a wonderfully effective note on which to end the chapter.

Chapter 33: “Keda and Rantel”

“When Keda came back to her people, the cacti were dripping with the rain.”

Let it not be said, however, that Mervyn Peake’s best sentences are final ones. Chapter 33 opens as marvelously as the previous chapter closes and then goes on to end as beautifully, as well. “Keda and Rantel” is Peake’s prose at its best, full of gorgeous imagery and evocative turns of phrase. Peake often subordinates story and plot to moody, atmospheric descriptions of setting, but here he balances these concerns. The story of Keda’s love triangle is a compelling exploration of Keda as a character and a thoughtful rumination on what “freedom” means for a young woman whose choices have been as constrained as hers have been.

Darkness and gloom are common features of Gormenghast, and here Peake combines them with vivid nature, seasonal and weather language to convey Keda’s emotional state as she leaves the castle and returns to the Mud Dwellings. “This was the darkness she knew of,” Peake writes, a sentence simple enough by current standards to be cliché. Similarly, Peake’s explicit way of mirroring Keda’s mood in the weather—at one point, clouds literally part as Keda’s feelings shift—feels unfashionably on the nose. Light and darkness and the changing of weather and seasons are classic natural symbols and metaphors, and Peake utilizes them, but it’s easy for any writer to slip into hackneyed phrases. It’s the less obvious ideas and words that stand out on reading this novel in 2018, such as the way Peake describes Keda’s apprehension about her homecoming and how it changes to something less bleak and more hopeful, or at least alive with possibility:

“This, the very moment which she had anticipated would fill her with anxiety—when the problems, to escape which she had taken refuge in the castle, would lower themselves over her like an impenetrable fog and frighten her—was now an evening of leaves and flame, a night of ripples.”

That last line, “and evening of leaves and flame, a night of ripples,” is particularly lovely, evoking warmth, change, and movement. With the chapter opening with an image of water (albeit not still water), this sentence also positions Keda as a metaphorical stone from whom change reverberates when she enters the place of water. She is an actor whose agency affects her surroundings, which is appropriate in a chapter that centers so closely on her and her decisions, both past and present.

This chapter also functions as an exploration of dual natures, and it’s layered with language to that effect. The Mud Dwellings are a place both comforting and frightening. The dwarf dog that Keda encounters is disgusting, yet lovable. The detailed description of the ancient horse and rider statue that is “the pride of the Mud Dwellers” paints a picture both beautiful and horrifying.

Keda’s predicament, as well—a love triangle in which she must choose between two suitors—points to duality, though Rantel and Braigon don’t represent aspects of Keda’s personality or possible paths for her life in the same heavy-handed fashion that characterizes most more modern love triangle stories. Rather, both men seem to be equally appealing options, and Keda’s preference for each of them is dependent more on which one is in front of her than on any particular qualities the men possess. Keda herself recognizes the tragedy of her situation when Rantel and Braigon determine to duel over her, and the bird motif that’s been so persistent throughout the novel reappears in the final paragraph of the chapter:

“Keda,” she said to herself, “Keda, this is a tragedy.” But as her words hung emptily in the morning air, she clenched her hands, for she could feel no anguish and the bright bird that filled her breast was still singing… was still singing.”

Chapter 31: “The Room of Roots”

This is a chapter mostly about Ladies Cora and Clarice Groan and mostly in their POV, which is an interesting perspective that provides ample opportunities for Peake to showcase his sense of slyly humorous irony. The sisters’ misdirected resentment towards Gertrude is expounded upon some more, but perhaps what’s most compelling about this chapter is the way in which it picks up and carries on the sense of uneasy nihilism that the previous chapter ended with. There’s a growing sense throughout Titus Groan that nothing means anything at all, that events in the book simply happen, that characters simply exist and that the setting—suffused as it is with a sort of timeless, dour gloom—could be any time or place or none. There’s a sort of nonsense logic to it all that obviously recalls the work of Lewis Carroll, a writer of similarly surreal landscapes and characters, though Peake seems somewhat more concerned than Carroll ever was with communicating some kind of truth about the human condition.

The theme of duality continues to be explored through the characters of the twins, and the story of the Room of Roots interestingly combines the bird motif that has continuously threaded throughout the novel with the botanical nature imagery that has appeared in the previous few chapters. The titular Room is dug out from the roots of, presumably, an enormous tree, and Cora and Clarice’s resentment of Gertrude is reiterated to be about the birds that the twins think Gertrude has stolen from them.

The showpiece of this chapter, however, is Clarice’s story about how she tried to humiliate Gertrude by throwing ink on her, only to find that Gertrude was wearing a black dress. It combines all the things that are delightful about Peake’s portrayal of Cora and Clarice: dry humor, irony, nonsense logic, and the implicit suggestion that life is meaningless and struggle against fate is futile.

Chapter 32: “Inklings of Glory”

Chapter 32 finds us back in Steerpike’s point of view as he hatches a plot with the twins to destroy Sepulchrave’s books by burning the library, which makes it about as plot-focused a chapter as any in the book. It also contains Steerpike’s realization that Cora and Clarice truly are both stupid and mad, though he still believes that he can manipulate and control them. It remains to be seen if this is true.

Miscellany:

  • One day, I want to write a book on the fantasy trope of things being ancient and unchanging for centuries. It’s one of those tropes that I never thought about as a child and young person but that always reads as absurd to me as I approach middle age. Just the idea that any culture would remain largely in stasis for hundreds of years is patently silly, whether it’s being described by Mervyn Peake or J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.
  • So, I guess the “old dark-skinned lady” that is Cora and Clarice’s servant might be the only person of color in the book so far. It’s not surprising, but there’s also not much to comment on here. This is a pretty run-of-the-mill example of the ways in which people of color are included in a lot of medieval-ish fantasy work, and it’s always unfortunate.

The SF Bluestocking 2018 Spring Reading List

I’ve still got a couple of titles from my Winter Reading List that I’m hoping to squeeze in before moving on entirely to the next season of books, but there is so much that I’m excited about this spring, you guys. With the new day job, I have somewhat more disposable income, which means I’ve been buying more books, and I’m now subscribed to more magazines than I can reasonably read (not that I don’t read them, obv, but there are an unreasonable number of them).

On that note, reading more short fiction continues to be a focus of mine this year. I’m especially on the lookout for novelette length work, which I always feel is in short supply. I’m actually starting to cut back on the number of novellas I read; as much as I love Tor.com’s offerings, they release them at such a pace that I simply cannot keep up with all of them any longer, what with the day job and a couple of recent major disappointments in novella-reading, so I expect that I will be prioritizing the most promising ones from now on rather than basically reading them all. Still, a lot of them are very promising, so we’ll see.

I’m somewhat on the lookout for new and interesting YA novels. After having gone off YA for a couple of years, I’ve now gotten to a point where I feel like I’m actually missing out on things. I’m thinking of reading the Not-A-Hugo YA award finalist list over the next few months if I have time, but I’m also open to suggestions. What’s good in YA SFF these days? What are you most excited about that’s coming out this spring? Let me know in the comments if you have any must-read recs for me.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve got on my actual TBR for April, May and June.

Tor.com Novellas

The only real must-reads on this list for me are Taste of Wrath, which will finish off Matt Wallace’s delightful Sin du Jour series, Artificial Condition, which brings back Murderboy, and C.L. Polk’s debut novel, Witchmark. I liked Margaret Killjoy’s first novella well enough, so I may try to make time for the new one, but I can’t get excited about Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Lovecraftian horror and I’m pretty sure it’s time to give up on Melissa F. Olson’s vaguely noir-ish vampires. The Shipp and McDonald titles don’t sound bad, but my absolute loathing for The Armored Saint has kind of put me off of giving any more chances to books by white dudes for a while.

  • The Barrow Will Send What it May by Margaret Killjoy – 4/3
  • Taste of Wrath by Matt Wallace – 4/10
  • The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp – 4/17
  • Time Was by Ian McDonald – 4/24
  • Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan – 5/1
  • Artificial Condition by Martha Wells – 5/8
  • Outbreak by Melissa F. Olson – 6/5
  • Witchmark by C.L. Polk – 6/19

Magazines

I have so/too many magazines to read. I am already loving getting the print edition of Apex, which I highly recommend; every issue is a little more polished than the one before, and they look nice on a shelf together. FIYAH is always excellent, and they are doing some of the most important work in the industry right now: In their first year alone, FIYAH debuted work by over twenty black writers of speculative fiction. I’ve been subscribing to Uncanny for two years now, and it continues to be one of the most consistently excellent publications available, especially when it comes to their non-fiction selections. Finally, now that I have a little more disposable income, I’ve started subscribing to both Clarkesworld and Fireside via Patreon. I’m still deciding if I want to keep reading both of those–there are only so many hours in a day, after all–but I figure I will give it a good six months or so to see if I can make all this into a manageable amount of reading. I’d like to be reading a good selection of short fiction and supporting a variety of publications, but I also don’t want to be stressing myself out by over-buying content that I don’t have time or energy to properly enjoy.

  • Apex Magazine Issues #107, #108, #109
  • FIYAH Literary Magazine #6, Big Mama Nature
  • Uncanny Magazine #22
  • Clarkesworld #139, #140, #141
  • Fireside #54, #55, #56

Anthologies/Collections

  • The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg – 3/13
    This is actually my current read and a holdover from the Winter Reading List, and it’s delightful.
  • Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore – 4/10
    There is no universe where I’m not going to read a collection of anti-colonialist stories in reaction to Rudyard Kipling’s work, and I have this on pre-order.
  • A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman – 6/26
    Reimagined folklore and mythology from East and South Asia with a fantastic table of contents.

Novels

  • Dread Nation by Justina Ireland – 4/3
    This was a title I pre-ordered, and I’ve already sped through it in just a couple of days, blowing past bedtime a couple of times to finish it. Dread Nation is excellent, and you need to be reading it right now.
  • Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente – 4/10
    Cat Valente is pretty much my favorite author, and Eurovision in space is an A+ concept for a sci-fi novel.
  • Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer – 4/10
    I still have never gotten around to reading Last Song Before Night, but I’m thinking of reading this one, which is apparently another standalone in the same universe.
  • Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller – 4/17
  • Before Mars by Emma Newman – 4/17
    I enjoyed Planetfall but skipped 2016’s After Atlas, so I wasn’t sure about this book, but the closer it gets to its release date, the more in the mood for it I find myself.
  • A Ruin of Shadows by L.D. Lewis – 4/24
    L.D. Lewis’s novelette, “Chesirah,” was on my Hugo nomination ballot this year, so I am very excited to read this short novella set in the same world. It’s currently available for pre-order from the publisher, Dancing Star Press.
  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang – 5/1
    I have a feeling that The Poppy War is going to lean a little more grimdark than I’ve been interested in reading lately, but I can’t bring myself to take it off my TBR just yet.
  • Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope – 5/1
    I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this, and I loved it.
  • Medusa Uploaded by Emily Davenport – 5/1
  • By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis – 5/15
    I adored Robyn Bennis’s debut, The Guns Above, so I’m very much looking forward to this sequel.
  • Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly – 5/15
    The sequel to last year’s remarkable Amberlough.
  • Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro – 5/22
  • 84K by Claire North – 5/22
    I’m not sure I’m up to reading a dystopian novel this year, but if I am it’ll be this one.
  • Free Chocolate by Amber Royer – 6/5
    This is the first of a couple of very fun-sounding releases coming from Angry Robot this year (the other is Space Unicorn Blues), and I’m very much looking forward to it.
  • Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee – 6/12
    So excited for the finale of this trilogy but also sad that it’s soon to be over.
  • Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse – 6/26
    Rebecca Roanhorse’s short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” was among last year’s best (and earned her Hugo and Nebula nominations), so her first novel is rightly among my most-anticipated reads of 2018.

Guest Post: “How Dare We Escape” by R.J. Theodore, Author of FLOTSAM

Lately I have read heated discussions about whether Science Fiction should be political. The comment that it should not – I’m not certain of its origin – drew backlash on an epic scale.

I can understand where the complaint came from. Understanding is not agreement, mind you. Born from the almost pervasive presence of the deep humanities and call for progress which speculative fiction writers weave into our storytelling, the plaintiff recommended authors stick to pure entertainment. You can practically hear writers’ eyes rolling, right?

Political and humanitarian commentary is powerful when well-handled and I have the utmost respect for penmasters, John Scalzi and others, who can write about a near-future Earth condemning – on a shifting gradient of subtlety – the wrongs undermining our present one. I have the utmost respect, a slathering of awe, and a heaping of envy for writers who take a stand and a scalpel to these issues.

I have always felt unworthy of that task, clumsy and half-informed about issues. I have my personal stories, yes, but my personal stories are not the strong bones upon which I can stretch the muscle fibers of speculative fiction. I am far more comfortable to write my secondary world steampunk escapist tales, aware my work is less tectonic than Clarion-bred spec fic masterpieces with their biting wit and wry optimism. Aware that I run from my problems instead of wrestling them to the ground until they submit.

But hold. Avast. Just, stop it.

No, not you.

I’m talking to myself to cease this negative talk.

If this is survival, and you better believe it is, I have two options: fight or flight.

It’s programmed into me, right there along my vagus nerve, controlling the twitches in my muscles and the tattoo of my heart. I’m going to do one of two things. And I’m probably only going to do one of them with aplomb. It sounds, even to me, more noble to be the one that fights. Sounds like it accomplishes more. Society respects those who stand and fight.

Yes, the traditional hero stands their ground, and that’s important. But that others run away is important, too.

Part of the population must run to guarantee survival into the next generation. Some stand and fight to try and make the world – this world, right here, and now – better for those to come. But the rest have to retreat to safety so they can build that future world. We have to nurture the fragile beings coming forth into the sunlight. We have to hold up an ideal of a future and say, “This is what we’re working toward.”

How dare I write escapist fiction? How dare I envision a distant-future world as though disposing callously of this one with so much work yet to be done? Society would call me a dreamer and a coward.

There was a time I tried not to be a coward and didn’t run. Without getting into it, let’s say I should have, and that I learned the lesson painfully. Looking back, I wish I had acted in the most urgent, self-preservative manner and gotten the.fuck.out. The years following the resulting trauma were a blur, but I know there were books. My life was a series of dark moments of reality sprinkled with the many-hued optimism of other planets. Of portal fantasy that promised me a way out. Of improbable rockets that carried me to other places. Stories that imagined me as other people who knew when to run and when finally, to fight (because eventually we must). That escapist fiction saved me. Saved me from myself. Saved me from the alternatives I imagined for myself. The promise of somewhere else to be saved everything about me. I didn’t discover this style of science fiction after the trauma; it was already a familiar friend. But without it, I don’t think I’d be here today.

And now I write it. I create the distant worlds into which other fragile beings can escape.

Meanwhile, I hold my work up for comparison with those writing pieces that put up their dukes and sink their weight into the knees. I know how to fight. I’ve taken my punches. I’ve been bruised and betrayed and knocked down, and I’ve gotten back up. I put in my time. I took my hits, earned the permanent badges of proof across my skin, and I can do it again if I need to. But it’s not in my nature. If I accept myself, I’ve got to accept that. I have my natural talents, my quiet methods. The signals running up and down my spine give me the burst of momentum I need to leave the atmosphere and break orbit. Though I envy the others who comment on current events and political climates in a way that feels to me as though they are shifting the conversation in powerful ways, my own work has power, too.

Deer freeze in headlights. Young girls freeze when assaulted. With pen in hand, I am neither of those. I have broad, graceful wings for flight, the fuel and boost to escape orbit, shields to withstand barrage, and a ship big enough to take all of you with me if you want to come.

Regardless of which survival instinct a writer is influenced by, we pen stories for hope. We know there is work to be done, and the future we dream of may only be founded by us, and come about too late to be experienced by us. We provide stories that offer catharsis or salve to those who need to experience something other than life as it’s given to them now.

There are those writers who will stand and fight. Who will hold the line, and push back. Who will shine a light into the dark corners of society and reveal our villains for who they are. And there are others who construct the warp-drives that get the survivors to safety and the well-guarded towers within which to wait for the day when it will be safe to emerge.

There are writers who will fight for me, I know. Who keep the necessary battles engaged, here and now. And for them, I run. Guide others to safety, nurture their hope, and wait for that brighter future all writers build together.

R J THEODORE is hellbent on keeping herself busy. Seriously folks, if she has two spare minutes to rub together at the end of the day, she invents a new project with which to occupy them. She lives in New England with her family, enjoys design, illustration, podcasting, binging on many forms of visual and written media, napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee.

FLOTSAM, Theodore’s debut novel, releases on March 27, 2018 in print, digital, and audio from Parvus Press.

A fantastical steampunk first contact novel that ties together high magic, high technology, and bold characters to create a story you won’t soon forget.

Captain Talis just wants to keep her airship crew from starving, and maybe scrape up enough cash for some badly needed repairs. When an anonymous client offers a small fortune to root through a pile of atmospheric wreckage, it seems like an easy payday. The job yields an ancient ring, a forbidden secret, and a host of deadly enemies.

Now on the run from cultists with powerful allies, Talis needs to unload the ring as quickly as possible. Her desperate search for a buyer and the fallout from her discovery leads to a planetary battle between a secret society, alien forces, and even the gods themselves.

Talis and her crew have just one desperate chance to make things right before their potential big score destroys them all.

It’s not too late to preorder the book on Amazon or buy from other retailers, but you can also
ENTER HERE to win a copy of the book.

A Rather Belated Best Books of 2017 Post

2017 was a great year for smart, ambitious novels, and for me it was a year about reading broadly within SFF. In hindsight, I didn’t read as broadly as I would have liked (and, but I did read a good number of excellent debut novels and fresh new takes on things in addition to continuing some of the great series fiction I’ve been following over the last couple of years. Here are my favorite novel-length reads of 2017, in no particular order.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’ve been sad for a couple of years now that Fonda Lee (whose short fiction I have enjoyed for some time) was writing YA during a time when I’ve been, for the most part, going off YA, so I was stoked when I saw that she was releasing a novel for adults this year. I got a little skeptical when I read about Jade City’s “The Godfather, but with magic” premise, concerned that the book would be inaccessible to readers who weren’t already familiar with that genre. I shouldn’t have worried. In Jade City, Fonda Lee has crafted a fully immersive, intricately detailed, obviously well-loved and lived-in fantasy world and peopled it with characters who, while they may be inspired by some mobster-fiction tropes, are excellent stand-outs in their own right. Each member of the Kaul family is distinctive and complex, and the book’s antagonists are nicely menacing, worthy adversaries for our heroes as they fight to maintain their family’s power and position in a quickly changing world.

In structure and pacing, Jade City reminds me a bit of Ken Liu’s 2015 epic, The Grace of Kings. Though there’s little overlap in the books’ subjects, there is some similarity in their themes as both feature powerful men with competing philosophies that cause them to struggle to work together for their common goals. Jade City also shares The Grace of Kings’ relative lack of women as well as the latter’s way of capturing a moment of social change which finds women actively moving into the positions of power once held by their fathers and brothers. Like Grace, Jade City ends with its women poised to play a larger role in the series going forward; I cannot wait to read what happens next.

P.S. Fonda Lee writes some of the best martial arts action scenes I’ve ever read, and she’s created a smart and thoroughly thought-out magic system that is described with great attention to visual details. I would kill to see this book get a movie or television adaptation.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

I almost skipped this book entirely because it seemed like just the sort of testosterone-fueled fantasy I largely try to avoid these days. The concept—what if mercenary bands were treated like rock stars?—didn’t immediately appeal, seeming generally unserious and prone to a kind of ironic jokiness that I actively dislike, and the adventure—middle-aged men getting the band back together in order to rescue the daughter of one of the members—had the obvious potential to be both unoriginal and sexist. Still, it was the last week of December after a garbage year, so I thought I’d give Kings of the Wyld a chance. And thank goodness I did, because it ended up being probably the most purely enjoyable title I read in all of 2017.

As for testosterone, while Kings is certainly a novel heavily focused on men and their relationships with each other, Eames has imagined a generally gender-egalitarian world and fills it with women who are interesting and influential in their own rights. There are women of all sorts in numerous roles big and small throughout the book, and while the central quest-plot is Clay Cooper and his band getting back together to go rescue the daughter of one of the bandmembers, there are no damsels in distress here. The protagonist characters all treat the women in their lives with respect and empathy, and even female adversaries are treated with dignity by both the characters and the author. Kings of the Wyld works as a model for how a male-centered book can be inclusive of women as characters and as readers, largely because Nicholas Eames seems so intent on eschewing toxic masculinity. (Sure, toxic masculinity makes an appearance or two, but as a decidedly bad thing.)

I simply couldn’t put this book down, and I devoured it over just a couple of days at the end of December. It’s a fun, fast-paced adventure that also manages to be smart and thoughtful and occasionally poignant in just the right proportions. The somewhat silly-sounding concept works marvelously, and Eames does a great job of exploring the humorous aspects of the idea without letting absurdity run rampant throughout the text. Overall, the book benefits from a slickly contemporary sensibility and a willingness to play with and subvert (and often outright ignore) traditional medieval fantasy tropes. Though I’ve seen it compared to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, it reminds me more, in tone, of things like A Knight’s Tale (a point highlighted by the timely publication of this piece on why that movie is a great medieval film). If you like your fantasy clever and action-packed and highly readable and inclusive, you need to read Kings of the Wyld at your earliest convenience.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

It seems unlikely that N.K. Jemisin (or any modern writer, really, considering the stiff competition) could win a Hugo Award for all three books of a trilogy, but then, The Stone Sky is an almost preternaturally wonderful conclusion to The Broken Earth. There’s not too much to say about it that isn’t spoiler-y, but I can say that this series ends every bit as powerfully as it began. While neither The Obelisk Gate nor The Stone Sky matched the inventiveness of structure that characterized The Fifth Season, with it’s interweaving, time-jumping points of view, there’s something more of that in this third book than in the second. The Stone Sky interweaves the narratives of mother and daughter Essun and Nassun with flashbacks to the distant past of their world as it uncovers some of the mysteries that have haunted the trilogy and reveals a path forward for Essun and Nassun to change their world forever.

The depiction of the difficult relationship between mother and daughter was personally impactful to me, as the mother of a teenage girl myself, and the overarching questions the book asks and answers regarding how to fix a broken and unjust world are always relevant and worthwhile to think about. The contentiousness of Essun and Nassun’s dynamic and the sensitive way in which Jemisin explores the ways in which mothers fail their daughters and daughters exceed their mother’s expectations forms a strong emotional core which ties together the broader themes of community and systemic injustice and environmental devastation and provides the epic story with a deeply personal center through which it can be understood and related to.

I’ve said in the past that The Broken Earth deserves to be as popular and influential as Lord of the Rings, and The Stone Sky only confirms the series’ significance as an exemplar of the kind of post-postmodern fantasy that is reinvigorating the genre in the 21st century.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun is the 2017 book that I’ve fallen in love with in stages and mostly in hindsight after I finished it. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, which made it a little bit not the right book for me to read when I did, but it’s the sort of novel that sticks with one long after you’ve closed the last page. It’s a brilliantly beautiful and highly ambitious novel, with lush, gorgeous prose that’s a joy to read, and the complex theology and mythology of it is fascinating enough that my thoughts have kept coming back to it months and months later.

I suppose one could correctly call Under the Pendulum Sun character-driven; Catherine Helstone is a compelling heroine. However, the novel’s real strength and power is in the Gothic atmosphere that Jeannette Ng has crafted so masterfully. Her prose is dense and descriptive, but never overwrought; the book’s fairy characters are delightfully strange and unsettlingly inhuman; and esoteric metaphysical questions and theological musings (including quotes from in-universe texts at the head of each chapter) work to heighten the psychological drama and tension that drives the novel.

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

So, I have a thing for “unlikable” female characters, and the protagonist of Thoraiya Dyer’s debut novel is an iconic one. Unar perseveres through her adventures by having a bone-deep and instinctual sense of justice along with a doggedly stubborn belief in herself and her own great destiny. She’s prickly, selfish, and ambitious, and her coming-of-age story is a compelling character study wrapped inside a fantastic adventure that takes place in one of the most unusual and original epic fantasy settings in recent years.

Perhaps what I love best about Crossroads is the way in which its form follows its function. Early chapters that depict Unar as an inquisitive child are vividly descriptive and full of details that establish the initial setting. There’s then a time-jump after which we revisit Unar as a teenager and find her self-absorbed and ultimately cut off from the world to which she wants to belong. The remaining three quarters or so of the novel, then, focus on Unar’s journey from disconnection to understanding and self-acceptance as she undergoes many trials, and the way that Dyer’s prose style mirrors that journey and cleverly highlights the plot and themes of the book makes Crossroads one of the most impressive novels of the year, just on a craft level.

31189192Null States by Malka Older

I never managed to get around to reading Infomocracy in 2016. With a contentious US election going on, I just didn’t have it in me that year to read a book that centered on election-related shenanigans, and the results of our election in November didn’t put me into any better frame of mind for reading a political thriller. So it took me until mid-2017 to do it, and then only because I’d been lucky enough to receive and ARC of Null States that gave me the push I needed to make time for it. Reader, I am so glad I finally did. Infomocracy is a great book, and Null States is even better.

Though these books have been described as dystopian, I heartily disagree with that characterization of them. Rather, I found both of them, but especially Null States to be deeply, albeit pragmatically, optimistic, in many of the ways that I aspire to be optimistic, about the future, about humanity, about our political institutions, about the environment, and so on. I don’t always manage to be optimistic—it’s difficult—but the Null States, with its story about dedicated public servants trying their best to make the world a better place in whatever ways they have within their power, is exactly the sort of thing that helps me. As I wrote in my review of the books last year, 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.”

There’s a fantastic essay by Margaret Atwood in which she talks about the ways in which dystopias are always utopian for some people while every utopia is someone else’s dystopia—that utopias hide inside dystopias and vice versa—and the characters in Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle wrestle heavily with that idea. Sure, these stories have dystopian elements, but many of them are the same dystopian elements that we are all literally living with every single day, and it’s heartening to read about characters trying to harness the power of imperfect systems in order to improve the world and the state of humanity, however incrementally.

Book Review: Robots vs. Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Robots vs. Fairies is my first reading disappointment of 2018. I loved Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe’s first anthology, 2016’s The Starlit Wood, so I was very hyped for this one when it was announced. Unfortunately, Robots vs. Fairies is a bit of a sophomore slump for the editing pair, with a theme that feels more questionable the farther one reads into the collection, stories that largely feel a little too written to spec, and not enough that’s new and interesting to recommend it on those scores. It might work as sort of comfort reading for those who find its table of contents—filled with some of the hottest short fiction writers currently working in SFF—appealing, but if you’re looking for exciting, fresh, innovative work, there’s not much of that here.

To be fair, anthologies in general tend to be a mixed bag, and one’s enjoyment of any collection is heavily dependent on the degree to which the reader’s taste’s overlap with the editors.’ However, the concept for Robots vs. Fairies is both too specific to generate a lot of variation in styles and themes between stories in the collection and broad enough (or, rather, bifurcated) to inhibit a true sense of cohesiveness. If it wasn’t for the book’s introduction and the explanations following each story of which “team” (fairies or robots) the authors chose and why, it would be easy to mistake this for a somewhat random collection of mostly-middling stories about robots and fairies. The choice to bookend the collection with stories (by Seanan McGuire and Catherynne M. Valente) that feature both is smart, but it’s not quite enough to tie the whole thing together.

It seems that every story included here was solicited for this anthology, and this has allowed the editors to collect a veritable dream team of most of my favorite writers of short fiction. However, it’s also produced an anthology where many of the stories feel more like begrudgingly-finished assignments for a high school creative writing course than the sort of vibrant and challenging work that many of these authors have built their careers upon. It’s all just on the uninspired side. There’s not much here that’s ambitious or surprising, plots and prose are just workmanlike, and there’s nothing in these pages that surprised or excited me overly much. Perhaps it’s a shift in the reasons and ways I read short fiction these days—I’m often reading short fiction on the search for new authors and ideas—but I don’t think I’m the only one who will be disappointed by the overall lack of novelty here.

Still, none of this is to say that Robots vs. Fairies is entirely devoid of good, or at least enjoyable stories. The opening tale by Seanan McGuire, “Build Me a Wonderland,” is an interesting take on how fair folk might survive and carve out a place for themselves in a changing world. Tim Pratt’s “Murmured Under the Moon” features a heroic librarian and a sentient book, which are both things that are relevant to my interests. “Just Another Love Song” by Kat Howard has a banshee, a brownie and women helping women. In “Work Shadow/Shadow Work,” Madeline Ashby uses fairies and robots in a way that’s more heartwarming than particularly compelling, but is still a pleasant read. It’s a silly story, and admittedly a little trite, but John Scalzi’s “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” was the first story in the collection that truly delighted me; I laughed aloud at it more than once. Alyssa Wong’s bittersweet “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” is the singular really superb story in the collection, but no one writes fairies like Catherynne M. Valente, whose “A Fall Counts Anywhere” may be a bit of a lowpoint for her but would still register as a standout piece of work from almost any other author.

It’s not that Robots vs. Fairies is a terrible anthology. It’s alright, and I’m sure if I did the math and compared it to most other anthologies I read, it’s within a standard deviation of the norm for anthology quality. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect Wolfe and Parisien to knock one out of the park twice in a row, but I still can’t help but feel a little disappointed that they didn’t after I got so excited about the possibility. If you want some easy-ish comfort reading for a cold winter’s night and find that that this volume has all your favorite authors in it, be sure to check it out. If you’re looking for something new and exciting, perhaps think about looking for something from a smaller press or look to see what’s currently crowdfunding, as that’s where you’ll find innovation.

Book Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

So, I’ve finally figured out what it is about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children that prevents me from really loving these books the way so many other people do. I just, on a fundamental level, don’t find the fantasy of this series to be an appealing one. I’m slightly distrustful of anything, in general, that smacks of radical individualism, so I’m just not especially taken with the idea that some people are just too special and different for the world they’re born into and must travel to an entirely different world to achieve self-actualization and fulfillment, with the finding and keeping of that world as their personal happy ending. It’s fine. I get it. I think I would have loved this stuff when I was a teenager. In my mid-thirties, however, I struggle with some of the broader implications of it, which impacts my overall enjoyment of the story. I don’t begrudge anyone else the escapist fantasy of a better world of their very own, but my own fantasies at this point in my life are less escapist and more about making this world a better, kinder and more just place for everyone.

All that said, Beneath the Sugar Sky is by far my favorite installment of the Wayward Children to date. Though the series may not, generally, be my cup of tea, there’s a lot to like about this volume, which both delves a bit deeper into the overall mythology of the series and gives the universe of the Wayward Children a welcome infusion of lightness after two installments that were decidedly darker in tone. Without losing any of the series characteristic gravitas and utilizing a refreshingly straightforward fantasy quest narrative, McGuire uses Beneath the Sugar Sky to explore a Nonsense world, Confection, that’s been built, layer after layer after layer, out of baked goods. It’s an altogether more purposeful-feeling story than either of the previous two books in the series, and that includes a stronger and more satisfying ending than its predecessors as well.

The book starts off by introducing a new point of view character, Cora, who has just recently arrived at Eleanor West’s school after a stint as a mermaid. She’s a likeable and engaging character, but she’s sadly not given much to do once Rini arrives and the quest kicks in to gear. If there’s any major craft problem with this novella it’s simply that there are too many point of view characters and none of them ever quite feel like main characters. At the same time, though, this ensemble quality is one of the things I enjoyed most about Beneath the Sugar Sky, as it works to offset the strong messaging about the importance of individuals and the value of individual identities and personal journeys to self-actualization. I would have liked more of Cora, mostly because I really, really like Cora, but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice a minute of time the book spends with Kade or Rini or Nadya, either.

The quest narrative and Nonsense setting makes this the most purely fantastical of the Wayward Children books yet, and it leaves behind almost entirely the mystery of Every Heart a Doorway and the Gothic-toned family drama of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. While Every Heart primarily dealt with the fallout after children are expelled from their worlds and Sticks and Bones delved into one of the doorway worlds, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers a full-on epic journey as Rini and her new friends search for the pieces of her mother, Sumi, and try to find a way to put her back together again before Rini is erased from existence. Straightforward as this quest may be, there’s still plenty of room for creative flourishes, twists and turns, and a couple of genuine surprises that let us know that McGuire isn’t sticking strictly to any storytelling formula. The worldbuilding is as at least as inventive as in the previous two books of the series, and there’s a delightfully joyous tone in McGuire’s descriptions of Confection that makes the chapters set there (and that’s most of them) great fun to read.

So, Beneath the Sugar Sky is fine. I’m still not sold on the whole premise of this series as a desirable fantasy, but I think that’s just me being curmudgeonly. Certainly, after this book, it’s started to grow on me a bit more. I like that this book is a standalone, albeit to a lesser degree than either of the first two as it deals with events from the first book in particular. Still, I’ll be recommending it to some of my similarly curmudgeonly acquaintances who weren’t enchanted by Every Heart, and I’m somewhat more excited to see what Seanan McGuire does next in this universe, especially if it involves more of Cora.