Tag Archives: 2018 Books

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.

The SF Bluestocking 2018 Winter Reading List

I’m still plugging away at year-end wrap-up stuff from 2017, which I was procrastinating on a little during the end-of-year holidays and which has now been delayed by a very nasty head cold and the unfortunate news that our single-income family here is imminently going to be a zero-income family as my partner is losing his job. It’s not great, obviously, and I fully expect this to continue to affect things here at the blog over the next [hopefully not more than a] couple of months, so I’m not making any promises about how much I’ll be reading or what I’ll be writing about. My guess is “not nearly as much as I’d like” on both counts.

However, before 2018 took such a steep and immediate nosedive into horribleness, there was a ton of stuff I was (and, optimistically, still am) very excited to be digging into over the next three months.

Novels

I’m starting to scale back my reading goals and recommendations with the idea of focusing on quality rather than quantity as well as avoiding overwhelming myself with too-long reading lists. At the same time, I’m branching out again, looking to read more broadly, instead of sticking so strictly to sci-fi and fantasy (though, goodness knows, there’s more great stuff coming out in those genres than I can ever realistically read). This year, you’ll be seeing more literary, romance and horror releases, and I’m even going to experiment with reading some YA again after a lengthy break from it.

  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi – 1/23
    A US edition of a 2013 Iraqi novel. I love Frankenstein retellings of all kinds, and one of my goals for 2018 is to read more translated literature, so this is perfect.
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory – 1/30
    I don’t read much romance, but I’ve been seeing this title talked up quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. It sounds fun, and would be a nice change of pace for me.
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton – 2/6
    I haven’t been reading much YA over the last year or so, but I’m thinking of checking out a few YA titles in 2018. This is the first one on my list.
  • Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce – 2/6
    I’m not entirely sold on this series about Numair, to be honest, but I expect I will check it out anyway.
  • Blood Binds the Pack by Alex Wells – 2/6
  • Semiosis by Sue Burke – 2/6
    I’ve been increasingly into serious sci-fi lately, and this character-driven first contact novel is one that I’m very much looking forward to.
  • Moonshine by Jasmine Gower – 2/6
    Moonshine
    sounds a bit like the 2016 novel A Criminal Magic, and that’s not a bad thing.
  • Echoes of Understorey by Thoraiya Dyer – 2/13
    Crossroads of Canopy was one of my favorite books of 2017, and it features a marvelously original fantasy world that I am extremely excited to dive back into.
  • Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel – 2/13
    Victor Frankenstein meets Mary and Kitty Bennet!
  • The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell – 2/27
    I have never gotten around to reading anything by Paolo Bacigalupi, but I’ve gotten pretty into Tobias Buckell’s short fiction over the last couple of years, so I figure I will give this novel a try.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi – 3/6
    The description of this book hits pretty much all my favorite YA fantasy trope keywords.
  • Impostor Syndrome by Mishell Baker – 3/20
    The third book in the Arcadia Project trilogy. This series has been such a nice surprise, and I am very hyped for this conclusion.

Tor.com Publishing

As I’ve done for the last two years, I’ll continue to read all of Tor.com’s novellas and novels. I still love the novella length best of all for pleasure-reading, and Tor.com still puts out a pretty good selection of material. That said, their line-up for the first quarter of 2018 is fully sixty percent sequels, and with other folks catching on and getting into the novella game, Tor.com is going to need to step things up and start delivering more great standalone novellas in order to keep my full attention. Still, there’s a lot to look forward to this winter.

  • Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire – 1/9
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor – 1/16
    The third and final volume of Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy.
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brook Bolander – 1/23
    Elephants and radium girls!
  • The Armored Saint by Myke Cole – 2/20
  • Starfire: Memory’s Blade by Spencer Ellsworth – 2/27
    The Starfire series is actually short novels, rather than novellas, and this is the last one, which I’m pretty sad about.
  • The Warrior Within by Angus McIntyre – 3/6
  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson – 3/13
  • Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear – 3/20
    A sequel/companion to her 2015 novel, Karen Memory.
  • Void Black Shadow by Corey J. White – 3/27
    I rather liked the first novella in this series, Killing Gravity, so I’m moderately excited for the second.

Magazines

I’ve really gotten into short fiction in the last year or two, especially as a way of finding new-to-me writers and young writers at the beginning of, but I’m slowly coming to terms (more or less, anyway) with the fact that I can’t read everything. Last year, I didn’t come close to reading all the short fiction, especially in magazines, that I intended to at the beginning of the year, so this year my plan is to be less ambitious in my goals but more consistent in sticking to them. To that end, I’m only planning on regularly reading the publications I subscribe to:

  • FIYAH Literary Magazine
    If you are any kind of fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to subscribe to this quarterly publication that celebrates black-written SFF. Just in their first year (2017), they published almost two dozen new writers, an invaluable infusion of new talent to the genre.
  • Uncanny
    Even if you don’t subscribe to Uncanny, be sure to keep an eye out for their special People With Disabilities Destroy SF! Issue later this year.
  • Apex Magazone

Anthologies and Collections

  • Robots vs. Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe – 1/9
    I loved this pair of editors’ first anthology, 2016’s The Starlit Wood, and their second outing from Saga Press has been among my most anticipated 2018 reads since it was first announced.
  • The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg – 3/13
  • Dracula: Rise of the Beast edited by David Thomas Moore
    Five authors imagine Jonathan and Mina Harker’s son piecing together the story of Dracula decades after the events of Bram Stoker’s book.

Comic Books and Graphic Novels

  • Saga Vol. 8
  • Kim & Kim Vol. 2
  • Abbott #1 – 1/24
    A new original comic by Saladin Ahmed!

Nonfiction

In 2017, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read one nonfiction title per month in the year, and I failed at it, pretty miserably. This year, I’m trying again, but I’m already not off to a great start: in the first three months of 2018, there’s only one nonfiction title that I’m already certain I want to read. Probably, a couple more will pop up, or I’ll revisit some of the titles I didn’t get around to reading last year. We’ll see, I guess.

  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – 1/16
    I’m by no means a connoisseur of Ijeoma Oluo’s work, but I remember well her remarkable profile of Rachel Dolezal and I’m interested in this book about race in America.
  • Nonfiction I Have On My Nook and Haven’t Read (But Still Might):
    Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve/Ruin Everything by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith
    Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
    Hunger by Roxane Gay
    Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann