Tag Archives: Malka Older

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.

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.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 7

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

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

Wendy Nikel

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

George Nikolopoulos

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

Megan E. O’Keefe

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

Malka Older

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

Emma Osborne

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

Chris Ovenden

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

Steve Pantazis

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

Carrie Patel

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

Sunil Patel

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

Laura Pearlman

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

Final Verdict

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