Tag Archives: S.B. Divya

Book Review – Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction & Fantasy

Where the Stars Rise is a wonderfully diverse collection of Asian science fiction and fantasy that deserves to be on the shelves of anyone serious about being well-read in the genre. Like all good anthologies, there’s something here for almost anyone, while at the same time the collection has a distinctive character that’s all its own. A running theme of the collection is identity, with story after story examining ideas about racial, cultural and personal identity. Experiences of racist oppression figure largely in these stories, but so do experiences of parenthood, disability, trauma, loss and grieving, aging, and displacement or immigration. With a near-even split between science fiction and fantasy and a wide range of subgenres included, this is a remarkably well-rounded anthology that I found had a good mix of well-known and new-to-me short fiction writers. That a portion of the proceeds from its sales goes to benefit Kids Help Phone, Canada’s only 24/7 free and anonymous counseling and information service for young people, is an extra enticement to support the title (and Laksa Media more generally—all of their titles support charity).

The book starts with “Spirit of Wine” by Tony Pi, a cleverly droll fable set in Song Dynasty China. It’s the first of several historical (or historical-ish, anyway) stories with a sort of folkloric sensibility, though the rest appear later in the collection. Pamela Q. Fernandes’s “Joseon Fringe,” Minsoo Kang’s “Wintry Hearts of Those Who Rise,” Deepak Bharathan’s poetically lovely “Udātta Śloka,” and Anne Carry Abad’s trickster myth “Moon Halves” round out the stories in this group. As a huge fan of folk-inspired fantasy of all kinds, I was thrilled to see a nice assortment of stories of this type in the anthology.

Other stories struggle with the weight of history and work on processing some of the ugliness of diasporic experiences. “Rose’s Arm” by Calvin D. Jim deals with, among other things, anti-Japanese racism in a steampunk-ish alternate 1928 Vancouver. In Miki Dare’s “A Star is Born,” an elderly Japanese woman recalls her experiences in an internment camp in the 1940s. “Vanilla Rice” by Angela Yuriko Smith examines the existential threat that white supremacy poses to individuals. In “Meridian,” Karin Lowachee offers a futuristic take on the trauma of failed adoptions, an issue that is unfortunately timely. E.C. Myers’ “The Observer Effect” is a superhero story that discusses whitewashing and the importance of representation.

I adored Fonda Lee’s story, “Old Souls,” an acerbically intelligent story involving reincarnation and an ancient grudge. It’s probably the most commercial and polished story in the collection, and it’s got me hyped for Fonda Lee’s upcoming book, Jade City, which is her first novel for adults. “Weaving Silk” by Amanda Sun is probably my favorite story in Where the Stars Rise; I loved the way Sun turned her central conceit over and over, working it throughout her post-apocalyptic story like a bright thread. S.B. Divya’s “Looking Up” was another favorite. I’d read Divya’s novella, Runtime, and enjoyed it last year, and “Looking Up” is another showcase for her understanding of complex familial relationships but in a very different setting from Runtime’s.

The final story of the collection is “The Orphans of Nilaveli” by Naru Dames Sundar, and it’s as sharp and incisive a piece of flash fiction as I’ve seen this year. The story of a future Sri Lanka where people use programmable technology to blind themselves to others that they don’t want to see is both deeply specific and broadly applicable to the ways in which so many people already pretend that inconvenient Others don’t exist. It’s a short but powerful story that is the one I would choose if asked to name a single story from this anthology that everyone ought to read.

Book Review: Runtime by S.B. Divya

I read all of Tor.com’s novellas, which is a good thing because I otherwise might have missed out on this gem by S.B. Divya. I would never have picked up a story about a cyborg endurance race on my own, but I’m glad I read this one. Runtime is a marvel of world building and character portraiture wrapped around a perfectly executed straightforward plot and just the right amount of smart-but-not-overbearing social commentary. It’s a near-perfect use of the novella length, and I cannot wait to see what S.B. Divya does next.

Marmeg Guinto is as prepared as she’ll ever be for the grueling Minerva Sierra Challenge, but she’s nonetheless not nearly as prepared as some of the other racers, with their support teams and wealthy sponsors. In a race where people compete and win on the strength of extreme body modifications, Marmeg has cobbled together her cyborg enhancements from cheap parts, black market materials, and sometimes literal garbage. Still, she’s determined to race well enough to win a better future for herself and her family. When she actually gets out on the trail, however, things don’t go entirely as planned, and Marmeg soon has to make some hard choices that put her future plans in jeopardy. The surface narrative here is simple enough and fits neatly into the popular genre of stories about young people who participate in extreme sports or contests in order to help their families in dystopia-ish futures. It could have been banal, but S.B. Divya does several things in Runtime that elevate it above the usual stories of its type.

Partly, this is accomplished by cleverly adding layers of meaning and nuance to a simple story. Within the simple framework of the race/survival story lies a cleverly integrated fable with something to say about cheating and good turns. Wrapped all around the story and built into the fabric of Divya’s excellent world building is some insightful social commentary about capitalism, gender, immigration, and community. It sounds like a lot, but it never feels like too much for the reader to take in. There’s never any obvious lecturing or moralizing, which is often a mistake made in these kind of stories, and the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate without feeling pat.

The heroine, Marmeg, also accounts for a great part of Runtime’s appeal. She’s a nicely complex character but without falling into either any of the common Strong Female Character tropes or the common Morally Grey Character tropes. Instead, she’s highly distinctive, with a backstory and personality that are both well-considered and well-constructed. The key here is the specificity of this character and her background. Marmeg isn’t a Generic Dystopian Heroine, and the reader’s understanding of her situation, her family, and what she’s willing to sacrifice for them is absolutely necessary for the story to work. Fortunately, Divya communicates all of this information clearly and concisely with sparely elegant prose that is perfectly styled for the story she’s telling.

Where S.B. Divya excels most notably, however, is in simply balancing all the many moving parts of this novella. The race itself necessarily takes center stage, but Marmeg is a strong enough personality to really carry the story by getting the reader invested in it. There’s a nicely cinematic quality to the action, enough to earn this little book a place on my ever-growing list of things I’d like to see adapted for film or television. Marmeg’s peril feels like a very real threat, and there are a couple of small subplots that nicely augment the main story and could provide fodder for more stories or even a full-length novel in this same universe. Every piece of Runtime is meticulously crafted and fitted together with every other piece in order to make a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 2

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

D.K. Cassidy

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

Zach Chapman

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

Curtis C. Chen

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

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

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

Z.Z. Claybourne

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

Liz Colter

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

Nik Constantine

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

Daniel J. Davis

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

S.B. Divya

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

Margaret Dunlap

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

S.K. Dunstall

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

Final Verdict:

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