Tim Powers Makes
Stolen Skies Sweet

By John Hertz (reprinted from Vanamonde 1506): We’re big on defiance these days in the speculative-fiction community.

Indeed my saying that may provoke a response “What! We are not! I’ll show you —”

Tim Powers in person may not seem particularly defiant. He sports no tattoos, long hair, piercings, sloganized clothing. His manner is mild.

Once we had a lot of science fiction, little fantasy; lately we’ve had a lot of fantasy; so Powers’ writing fantasy does not seem particularly defiant.

His fantasy has generally been — to use a word which may provoke defiance — rigorous. Supernatural phenomena occur, may be predicted, aroused, avoided, as meticulously — a word whose root means fear — as we in our world start an automobile engine or put up an umbrella. Some say this has made his writing distinctive.

His latest, Stolen Skies (January 2022), contains fantasy and science fiction both. This may be defiant. At least when we begin with one we do not expect to find the other. Stories like The Flying Sorcerers (Gerrold & Niven, 1971) where characters think they’re in fantasy but are in science fiction, or Rainbow Mars (Niven, 1999) where characters think they’re in science fiction but are in fantasy, are few.

Any SF authors have to invent their science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction has things not yet made or done but seemingly possible — at the time of writing. From the Earth to the Moon (Verne, 1865) did not retroactively become fantasy when we found the gun barrel would be too short and the acceleration too high. Fantasy has things seemingly impossible — at the time of writing. “Waldo” (Heinlein, 1942) will not retroactively become science fiction if we ever find we too can draw power from an Other World.

How may authors tell us of what we have never known? One way is by tying to what we do know — or at least consider we know. The fantasy in Stolen Skies congrues — there must be a verb for congruent — with recognizable notions in the universe of discourse. The science congrues with astronomy and physics. Astronomy? Physics? I told you there was science fiction.

What about aliens? Outside SF we’re so far not sure we’ve met any. Dolphins, maybe. Ghosts. Or the remark attributed to Leo Szilard (1898-1964), We ARE among you. We call ourselves Hungarians. In SF we’ve met some strange aliens. I’ve mentioned Niven’s stories. What if we met really strange aliens? Humpty Dumpty says to Alice, “Your face is the same as everybody has — the two eyes, so’ (marking their places in the air with his thumb) `nose in the middle, mouth under”‘ (Through the Looking-Glass ch. 6; Carroll, 1865). Never mind the text and the Tenniel illustrations’ showing that’s his face. Or maybe we should mind. Maybe this illustrates how even superb imaginers feel they’d better set limits. Or how Powers is defiant.

I’m not here to compare Powers with Carroll, Tenniel, Verne, or Niven. But in Stolen Skies there just might be —well, no spoilers.

I’ve called Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances the One-Strange Rule. It’s been attributed to C S. Lewis. I’ve said Powers does both. See Stolen Skies.

Its two main characters we’ve met before: a man and a woman, Sebastian Vickery — not his real name — and Ingrid Castine. This is our third adventure with them, after Alternate Routes (2018) and Forced Perspectives (2020); neither he nor she is particularly happy about that. There’s no sign they’ve ever been, or will be, romantically involved. Powers is defiant again.

George Orwell said of C.S. Lewis “When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side will win” (Manchester Evening News 16 Aug 45; P. Davison ed., Compl. Wks. of GO v. 17 p. 250, 1998). Optimism from Orwell! Though some say there are sneaky signs of it in his Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). Perhaps he should have noted Grantland Rice’s saying “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game” (“Alumnus Football”, 1908).

I’m not here to say Stolen Skies tells us God and the Devil are in conflict. It doesn’t — like the Book of Esther. There are people hard to sympathize with. Among Powers’ masterly touches, he shows of them too how they think they’re right. And then there are — well, I said no spoilers.

Jordan: 2022 Hugo Finalists for Best Novella

[Introduction: In Michaele Jordan’s overview, she comments on the novellas by Aliette de Bodard, Becky Chambers, Alix E. Harrow, Seanan McGuire, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Catherynne M. Valente that are up for the 2022 Hugo.]

By Michaele Jordan:

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom) is a high fantasy. You’ve probably noticed that fantasy has become such a broad field that it can be broken down into subtypes, such as urban fantasy, Tolkienesque fantasy, dragon stories or fairy tales. High fantasy, in particular, has a specific format. It’s always set in a low-tech world – often here on earth, within a particular historical era. It always focuses on the adventures of the ruling class, usually royalty. The magic is often minimal compared to other types of fantasy, as it must be woven into the political or military struggles, and the court intrigues, with which the high-born characters are preoccupied.

High fantasy tends to further subdivide into two types: costume romances (usually of the forbidden kind) overlaid with magic, or political thrillers, also overlaid with magic, but with a great deal of plotting, backstabbing, and poison. In both cases, the characters are hugely constrained by their class obligations, and a lot of attention is paid to their expensive clothing, their plush living conditions, and the loyalty (or lack thereof) of servants.

If you are a fan of high fantasy – and many of us are – then you will love Fireheart Tiger. The protagonist is a young princess, caught up in a turbulent, and possibly treasonous, affair with another princess, even as their two countries circle each other, looking for attack points. The setting is highly original –an analog of pre-Colonial Viet Nam, (around 18th century). The magic is also well handled. There are no spells or amulets. But one of the three major characters is a fire elemental – and a VERY interesting character.

Next we come to A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers (Tordotcom), I loved it! First and foremost: I was struck by the tale’s charm. The characters are charming. Their culture is charming. Their tea monks are charming. Even the opening, where Sibling Dex notices the absence of crickets is charming. Most of all, the voice in which the story is told charming, full of love and attention to captivating details.

The story seems to take place on earth, in a way-past-the-apocalypse future. Not that the author ever said as much! It may not even be intentional. She may only have wanted it to be earthlike enough to make us feel at home. In which case, she succeeded.

They have a lush ecology, with plants that are not just generic but species that seem familiar to us (especially herbs). The animals seem familiar, too (especially the insects, and not just crickets). There is a complex history of over-industrialization leading to collapse, followed by recovery.

But the place where all those charming things live is actually Pangan (named after one of the local gods). It’s a moon orbiting Motan (also named after a god) which appears to be a gas giant. (For me, the discovery that this is not Earth was genuinely startling. The place feels so homelike it’s almost deja vu.)

Naturally, this means that the inhabitants are not human, per se, but they, too, are so vividly evoked that it’s hard to believe. Sibling Dex does not merely seem to be someone we might know. They feel like . . . well, a sibling. Even Splendid Speckled Mosscap – who could not be mistaken for a human , no matter how quickly the reader is skimming – feels friendly and comfortable.

The story is soft and simple. (If you’re looking for epic battles, go elsewhere.) There is a quest, which involves some very hard travelling into the wilderness. Some of the creatures in the wilderness are more dangerous than charming.

While on the road, Dex and Speckled Mosscap have a lot of time to talk. Speckled Mosscap wants to know why Dex is engaging in their strange and whimsical quest. Dex wants to know where Speckled Mosscap has come from, and why nobody has seen any of their people before. Both are wondering if it is time for Speckled Mosscap and their people to re-emerge into Pangan life.

Their conversation – along with the ending – is philosophical, revolving around such eternal questions as “life, the universe and everything.” The conclusion does not offer any answers, but leaves us very content, just the same.

A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow (Tordotcom) starts with an excellent concept. We’ve all seen tales – many, many tales – of young women entering Fairyland, by a variety of means and with a variety of motives. This time, the traveler is propelled by soul-crushing need. She was born with a genetic disorder that invariably kills its victim before the age of twenty-two, at the very latest, and usually much younger. The story opens on the protagonist’s twenty-first birthday.

All her life, Zinnia has been obsessed by the story of Sleeping Beauty. She knows that it’s a terrible story in many ways – most notably in that it makes its heroine a virtual walk-on (or should I say a sleep-on?) in her own story. She knows there are versions of the story much darker and crueler than Disney’s. But nonetheless, she identifies desperately with Sleeping Beauty, who has spent her entire short life watching and waiting for the inevitable curse to strike her down.

Zinnia’s best friend wants her twenty-first birthday to be special, and arranges a Sleeping Beauty birthday party smothered in roses, and complete with a haunted tower and an antique spinning wheel. In a moment of dark whimsy and drunken bravado, Zinnia deliberately presses her finger to the spindle.

In an ineffable moment of spinning within the multiverse, she sees a thousand cursed princesses reaching for the spindle. But only one protests, softly whispering, “Help.” So Zinnia reaches out towards her. The universe goes dark, and she wakes in a fairy tale castle, in the plush royal bed of Princess Primrose of Perceforest.

If this tale has a flaw it starts now. After a truly compelling opening, Ms. Harrow has no place left to go. She has a point that she cares about, and wants very much to make. She has already intervened in the original story before the end, which she wants to change – that being her whole purpose in writing this novella. But fairy tales are not strong on complex plot lines, and now she has no guideposts as to where to go next, or how to get there.

In this place and time, the only alternative to the spindle is a political marriage. So if there is to be any story at all, it must now decry its new ending and find a way to avert it.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that loveless political marriages are a good thing. But I do not think that was Ms. Harrow’s original point. And they are a far cry from a terrible curse. They were normal in the Middle Ages, where large households were as close as woman could get to a safe refuge in a dangerous world. The only reasonably acceptable alternative was the nunnery, (which apparently was not an option in fairy tale worlds.)

I fully acknowledge that Primrose’s position is not a happy one. But she has been dropped into a much weaker story than the one she started out in, which is disappointing to the reader. And it is still a story that can only be resolved by magic.

Lastly, I am sorry to say, I found the ending even weaker. Primrose is (magically) rescued. Zinnia emerges from her adventure with a few years added to her potential lifeline, and some personal lessons learned. But lessons learned are not the same thing as skills acquired, and she would need some serious skills when embarking on her next life choice – which mostly looks like a bid for a sequel.

Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom), is also a tale of a young girl entering Fairyland. The similarities end there. Regan is only ten. Unlike a number of her classmates, she’s still definitely pre-teen. (Allow me to interject that Ms. McGuire’s portraiture of young girls is uncanny in its accuracy.) But as long Regan’s best friend is Laurel, the class queen bee, she is sheltered from social consequences, and no matter that Laurel is a rigid, domineering bully.

That is, until Regan’s parents have to warn her that there is a genetic reason why she is not maturing as fast as her classmates. That discovery was the end of her world. The end of her friendship with Laurel—and the end of the social safety Laurel provided. She runs away from home. And in a nearby wooded plot she finds . . . a door.

It doesn’t lead to a fairyland of castles and princesses. Rather, it’s simply a place where the residents are all mythological beings, and there are no humans. She stumbles almost immediately upon a unicorn, (which is not a person, it’s a dumb beast) and shortly afterwards, the centaurs who herd the unicorns. The centaurs are all astonished and thrilled to meet a genuine human. They know the legends. Humans only show up when the serious trouble is coming and they’re needed to save the world, after which they disappear. Which may bode ill, but it’s still thrilling to meet a creature out of legend.

The centaurs offer to take Regan to see the queen, right away, since she will have to be presented to Her SunLit Majesty sooner or later anyway. But Regan would rather stay with the centaurs, at least until the Fair. She becomes best friends (true best friends!) with Chicory, a centaur child, and studies herbal medicine with Daisy, the herd’s healer. She learns centaur customs, and how to herd unicorns and, weave grass beds. She grows tall and strong, and doesn’t bother to worry about the absence of puberty. She does worry how her parents are coping, but there’s nothing she can do about that. This continues for years.

The story here is deceptively simple. Regan runs away and arrives in another world.  She learns many lessons about herself – most importantly, how to be happy insider her own skin – and in the end, she must go to the Fair to meet the queen. The Fair is not as safe and kindly a place as a centaur longhouse. And the queen is not what Regan has been told. I am struggling here to avoid spoilers while warning you that the ending is startling unique: smaller and subtler – and sharper – than you’d expect, but quite wonderful.

In Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom), Mr. Tchaikovsky applies well known trope: an abandoned colony reduced of millennia to pre-industrial barbarism, but with one lingering outpost, inhabited by one lone anthropologist named Nyrgoth, who long since abandoned hope of his people ever coming back.

The last time Nyr ventured out of his tower, he was persuaded to accompany a warrior princess named Astresse in her pursuit of a monster/sorcerer/warlord Ulmoth. Ulmoth was defeated and Nyr has filled the centuries since with long naps. Our story opens with Lynesse, the great-granddaughter of Astresse, deciding that it is time to solicit more ‘sorcerous’ assistance against an apparently magical menace.

The story shifts focus back and forth between Nyr and Lyn. I found this format a little troubling, largely because the two parties didn’t balance. The Nyr passages are a deeply intimate first-person memoir.

He cannot look at Lyn without remembering Astresse, and grieving that she is so long gone. He agonizes over the endless struggle to communicate with her, since she interprets all technical terms as magical ones. (He must have had the same problem with Astresse, but apparently never got used to it.)

He flagellates himself over his failure as an anthropologist, in that he has intervened (twice now!) in the culture he is supposed to be studying, while simultaneously denouncing the pointlessness of anthropological study. Psychologically, he is a clinically depressed mess.

But  Lynn, on the other hand, is presented in a brisk third person. She is a fairly standard heroic fantasy protagonist, an unappreciated younger heir, raised on tales of her heroic ancestress, questing in the hope of proving herself to her family, and gaining renown. Her emotions and responses are plain, and undetailed.

The monster is interesting  –  although not much attention is paid to it. No one who has not seen it believes in it, largely because it is truly weird, well beyond the normal bounds of either SF or fantasy. The pair painfully but successfully defeat it, seeming at great cost. But of course, a happy ending is tacked on, and all is joy in Mudville.

The Past Is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom), is complicated. In fact, it’s so complicated that I had a lot of trouble following it. And, therefore, I can’t really say I enjoyed it. It breaks my heart to say that. Ms. Valente is one of my favorite authors. Radiance (Tom Doherty Associates, 2015) and Deathless (Tordotcom, 2011) are two of the best books I have ever, EVER read.

But . . .  for starters, she uses a very convoluted sequence of events. She jumps around in her story line so vigorously that I spent a good half of my reading time going back to reread previous passages in a frequently unsuccessful attempt to find out where I was in the story. On top of that, she used what may have been the most unreliable ‘unreliable narrator’ I have ever encountered.

Usually I don’t mind an unreliable narrator. It adds verisimilitude. Mind you I’m quite comfortable with the impersonal third person narrator, but using one of the characters as the narrator can bring warmth into a story. In real life, a lot of people don’t know much, and usually don’t want to admit that. Why should a well-drawn character be any different?

But . . . on three separate occasions, the protagonist announced, “None of that is true. I just made it all up because I like it better than what really happened.” There was no knowing how much was covered under “that” and “it all.” Maybe everything? I’m still not sure what (if anything) happened in The Past is Red.

Maybe I was just feverish or sleep deprived. Maybe you’ll do better with it. I hope so. I do so love her.

Review of The Cats of Tanglewood Forest

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (Newford #18), by Charles de Lint (author), Charles Vess (illustrator). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2013

Review by Lis Carey: Lillian Kindred is an orphan girl living with her Aunt on a farm in the hills, surrounded by a very tangled forest. When she is not doing chores, she wanders the forest, looking for fairies and spirits and spirits and magical things. Aunt warns her spirits don’t necessarily want rambunctious little red-haired girls bothering them, Lillian says she’s not bothering anyone. She just wants to say, “Hello hello.”

One day, Lillian is out wandering, and lays down under a tree to rest. She falls asleep, and is awakened by a snake biting her. It’s poisonous, very poisonous, and Lillian realizes she is dying. 

Many of the local cats gather around her, though, and realize that they can’t save the little girl’s life, but they can use cat magic to change her into something that isn’t dying–a kitten. Lillian agrees, and when she wakes again, she’s a kitten, and very healthy. This is when Lillian starts to get her first tough lesson in not thinking things through. She heads off for home, knowing Aunt will be worried about her.

Aunt is worried. And remains worried, not realizing that the kitten is Lillian, because of course, why would she? As the day gets late, Aunt gets very worried indeed, and starts organizing the neighbors, the few neighbors they have, to search for Lillian.

Lillian goes looking for her next excellent magical solution. She can’t find the cats; she doesn’t realize they weren’t supposed to use cat magic that way, and they’re keeping scarce for fear of the anger of the Father of Cats. She meets a fox, with whom she forms a tentative friendship, and visits Old Mother Possum, who is a witch. Old Mother Possum rolls time back for her, so that the snake bite never happened.

She goes home, and discovers the snake has bitten Aunt, instead, and Aunt is already dead. This is her second lesson in not thinking things through, and what major effects small changes can make.

But Lillian doesn’t give up. She has a lot to learn, and that includes staying for a while with the nearest neighbors, the Welches, and learning about the harder tasks of running a farm. She’s Aunt’s only heir, and while Mrs. Welch wants to make her a proper, respectable girl, Lillian is determined to run her aunt’s farm, not sell it.

Eventually, though, not accepting Mrs. Welch’s plan for her means setting off to find another solution, hopefully one that doesn’t involve Aunt dying. Along the way, she meets Jack Crow, the terrifying Bear people, the Father of Cats, and other magical creatures. None of the lessons are easy ones, and before she gets home again, she’s learned to speak to the animals, to think things through a bit better, to take responsibility–and taken on an obligation to the Father of Cats, which may not come due for many, many years. It’s a wonderful, magical story, and at the same time, one that makes clear that even magic can’t make things perfect, that happy endings are provisional and the result of hard work and careful choices.

And Charles Vess’s illustrations are wonderful and magical in themselves, making the story even better.

Recommended.

I received this book as a gift, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

Jordan: Hugo Finalists for Best Novel, Part 2

By Michaele Jordan: You may remember that a couple of weeks ago, I posted (or rather I started to post) my personal take on the Hugo nominees for Best Novel, but I only got through the first three. So here I am, back with the remaining three candidates.

The next book in the line-up was She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (Tor / Mantle). I loved it. Just loved it. This book is glorious. Ms. Parker-Chan says that, having despaired of finding a decent translation of the Chinese historical sagas that she loved, she decided to write her own. And that is what this is.

The story is sprawling and complex, driven by characters who are all simply trying to get what they want. Sometimes what they want may seem unreasonable to us, but to them, that’s not a meaningful objection. They don’t have to justify what they want, they just want it. If they can, they will even fling armies around and slaughter thousands to get it.

Although the bulk of the characters are either women or damaged men, it is well over a hundred pages before anyone happens to notice that the inferior status and cruel treatment of women (and others) is perhaps unfair. The insight is shrugged off. In the medieval Chinese world, justice is not a meaningful concept. It’s simply non-existent. Parents are not just. Kings are not just. Life is not just. Even heaven is not just. Most women are far too busy trying to survive to concern themselves with the fairness, or lack thereof, of their situation. It is what it is.

For example (and this is not a spoiler, it’s chapter one) the protagonist, a little girl, is practically the only girl-child in her village. The land has been trapped in drought and famine for her entire life. Food is always short. When a family doesn’t have enough food for all the children, it is not shared. It is given to the son. The daughter just doesn’t get any. So she starves.

It is a testament to her family’s prosperity that they still have a surviving daughter. She helps the little boys dig up crickets to supplement the family diet. (She’s actually much better at it than her brother.) When she gets home, her parents take the crickets away and give them to her brother. This was horrible, of course. But it was horribly truthful. Justice is not an essential, or even a commonplace. It’s a luxury, and a very rare one, at that.

I also loved the magic. It is nothing like the magic you see in any western novel, where magic is simply a non-material technology. This Chinese magic is strange, subtle and otherworldly. Nobody blasts power around. (Thank you, Ms. Parker-Chan!) Frequently, it’s not even useful. At most, some people see ghosts, but the ghosts don’t seem to see them. (That’s a good thing.) Neither the reader, nor, I suspect, the characters, really knew how it is wielded or what the effects of it would turn out to be. This is what I’ve always known in my heart magic is like. Inscrutable and more dangerous than practical.

The only fault I found in this book is that the ending is bit abrupt and not entirely satisfactory. I got the feeling she just cut it off at the closest thing she could find to a stopping place, because she had to wrap it up. So I looked it up, and it is, indeed, Volume One of a duology. I do not doubt that she needs another 500 pages to finish it properly. I eagerly await Volume Two.

The fifth Hugo candidate was Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir (Ballantine / Del Rey). If you read Mr. Weir’s The Martian, (or even just saw the movie) then you already have a pretty good idea of his approach to story-telling. Romance is not a story. (Actually, I agree with him on that.) Pompous speeches are not a story. Fight-scenes are not a story—not unless their outcome significantly changes what comes next. (Think about it. Barring that half-hour all-or-nothing battle at the end of the movie, where the entire cast has to band together to stop one world-destroying bad guy, how often does a fight scene really change the story line? And does that last battle really have to go on for so long? Yes, the specials are impressive, but there are fans in the audience who have to go to the bathroom.)

Mr. Weir knows what he wants in a story. He wants to see one really smart scientist come up against a serious problem, and solve it like a detective, by thinking his way out. (I’ll bet he’s very fond of mysteries.) So that’s what he writes. Writing the book you want to read is what writers do.

In The Martian the problem the scientist had to solve was simple and basic. He needed to figure out how to stay alive in utterly hostile territory. His team had inadvertently left him behind when they evacuated, leaving him alone on a planet only barely habitable, with insufficient supplies of the basic necessities of life. It would be four years before rescue arrived.

So he ‘works the problem,’ as he expresses it. He faces each life-threatening issue as it arises. He declines to panic, and thinks each one through carefully. Some of his attempted solutions don’t work as hoped. Again, he declines to panic, and rethinks them even more carefully.

This low-key, thoughtful problem-solving caught the public eye partly because it was so hugely original. When was the last time you saw a film – with no fight scenes! – in which the hero solves the problem by being smart? The acclaim was well deserved, but it presented Mr. Weir with his own next problem: how to top it.

He remained true to himself. He wrote The Martian because that was the kind of book he wanted to read. Project Hail Mary is also the kind of book he likes to read, a book where one really smart scientist comes up against a serious problem, and solves it like a detective, by thinking his way out. But this time, he made the problem much bigger than personal survival – the extinction of the human race.

Because the problem was so much bigger, his smart protagonist needed international support to build the necessary space ship. (I found the story got a little weak here. Surely international support and cooperation for the draconian means by which Project Hail Mary was assembled is unlikely. Yes, the end of the world was at stake. But it’s at stake, right here and now with climate change, and that hasn’t persuaded the world to unite under one banner.)

But that isn’t really very important. The answer to the problem is at Tau Ceti, thirteen light years away, so the brilliant scientist has to go there, all alone. (He was supposed to have companions, but they came to a sad end.) And when he gets there he finds a friend. Not a human friend, of course, but an alien whose people are suffering a similar problem to the one facing earth. Our hero is delighted. First contact! Alien life! He does not say anything about, ‘oh thank goodness (he’s a teacher, his language is squeaky clean) I’m not alone anymore!’ He doesn’t seem to suffer from loneliness, despite the loss of his travelling companions.

There’s somewhat more action in this book than there was in The Martian, because there are so many terrible accidents possible in outer space, but the book remains primarily about the problem-solving. The explanation for the peril facing Earth, is detailed and carefully thought out. The data he acquires at Tau Ceti is also detailed and carefully thought out. The solution he works toward is painstakingly reasoned. I will tell you nothing about these things, as that would be serious spoilage. They are what Mr. Weir wrote this book to say. The science geeks among us – and we have many – will be in seventh heaven. I am pleased to report that the ending (or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as the coda) was simultaneously unexpected yet inevitable.

As for me, I guess I’m a little too susceptible to stories with action and emotion. I liked this book – really, I did! – but there were times when reading it was like being locked in a closet with Mr. Wizard.

This year’s final offering is A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine (Tor). It took me longer to get through this than I originally expected. The truth is (and I blush to confess it) I had not realized it was a sequel, let alone the sequel to a previous Hugo winner. (How did I miss that? What was I doing in 2020 that I didn’t read the Hugo nominees like I [almost] always do?) But settling down in my comfy chair, with my cup of tea and a fat new book, I was shocked to see: eagerly awaited to sequel to hugo winner a memory called empire emblazoned across the cover.

I just don’t read sequels out of order. I can’t make myself do it. (Borderline autism, perhaps?) I set the book down, jumped up and rushed over to the computer to order A Memory Called Empire from the library. When I got back, I picked up Project Hail Mary, instead, although I had previously intended to let my husband read it first.

Perhaps I should have broken my rule, just this once. Because – and I need to get this down up front, before misunderstandings arise – I thought A Desolation Called Peace was an excellent book. That said, I have to admit I didn’t think it was as good as A Memory Called Empire, which was just too good to top. There’s a reason it took the Hugo in 2020.

For starters, naturally everything in A Memory Called Empire was new. While we’ve all seen interstellar empires before, the whole complicated Teixcalaanli society, with its overwhelming conviction of its own rightness, contrasted with frequent hints of decadence, was fabulous.

The elegance of the poetry contests and the gilded architecture, the repeated floral imagery always used to represent empire, the constant literary and historical references that every citizen seemed to know, even the golden police: all invoked the insidious beauty of empires in our own past. I frequently caught myself reflecting on the oh-so-sophisticated charms and conceits of 18th century France. We humans know all too well how beautiful empire can look, even though we also know how badly it generally ends.

Of course, all of this is still there in A Desolation Called Peace, but by then we’re into the endgame. The emphasis is more on Stationer society, and too many reminders of the beauties of Teixcalaan would just have made the poverty and cramped quarters of Lsel look worse – and it already looked bad enough, what with its processed food and its corrupt politicians.

Much the same is true of the imago, the central concept of the first book. Here, Ms. Martine set out and explored a genuinely new, original and exciting SF concept, and we shared her fascination. I was particularly struck by her portrayal of how difficult it was for the imperial society to grasp the concept, while it was second nature to the Stationer society, forcing the reader to pick it up from the cross clues. The technique worked beautifully. But in the second book, we already knew about the imagoes, and their main story function was to put the protagonist in danger.

The story line of A Desolation Called Peace revolves around the appearance of an alien species of monsters. Ms. Martine does a superb job with the monsters – they are creepy, gooey, scary (very, very scary) and utterly mysterious. It really does take an entire book to resolve what they are, how they function, and how to communicate with them. That done, I admit, I found the ending a little pat. “And a little child shall lead them.” But I’m guessing that others will find it wonderfully touching.

Also – there’s always an also, isn’t there? – I was troubled by the fact that the ending did not include the resolution of the protagonist’s two very pressing personal problems. (But there was time for adolescent romantic gushing?) So, I’m guessing that there will be a third book. The empire may have to collapse completely in that one.

Jordan: Comments on the 2022 Best Novel Hugo Finalists: Part 1

[Introduction: In Part 1 of her overview, Michaele Jordan reviews half of the Best Novel Hugo finalists: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, and A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark.]

By Michaele Jordan: Like many of you, I’ve been immersed in my Hugo reading. (I don’t always manage to get to Worldcon – I am hugely excited about being able to vote!) Last week I was discussing my readings with a friend and they suggested I share my views here. They said, “You’ve been thinking so hard about the books you read. You really should write it all down, and post it!” And they’re right – do think hard about what I read. Why else would I read it?

You may be wondering why I am working so hard to justify writing a post about the Hugo nominees. Truth to tell, I’m a little afraid of how you’ll all take it.  

When I was a kid, everybody in my family was an addicted reader. And since we all lived together, we couldn’t afford to get angry whenever we didn’t agree on a book, i.e., all the time. Instead we debated – explaining our views, dissecting the points of opposition, and searching for common ground got to be more entertaining than TV (except on Twilight Zone or Star Trek nights).

But fandom isn’t like that. It shocked me to my soul the first time I said at a con that I didn’t care for a book and a supposedly fellow fan snarled, “Well, that’s just stupid,” and stalked off. Sometimes flame wars even erupt just because two fans disagree, not on a book, but on their favorite character in the book.

So I hereby state, firmly and unequivocally, that I know I am just one fan, that I have no authority to tell others what to read or think, and that I am merely expressing my personal opinions. I bear no ill will to, and pass no judgement on, those who disagree with me.

That said, I’ll start with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager / Hodder & Stoughton) because that’s the first one I read.

I found this to be a high-end mid-grade novel. I admit I tend to expect award nominees to be better than mid-grade, even high-end mid-grade. But I am not saying that this was a bad book, just more formulaic than I care for.

We’ve all seen the formula many times. A group of travelers collects at some common point – a bus stop, a hotel lobby or a police station, – where for some reason they are temporarily detained. Each detainee has their own story, which includes a personal issue in need of a resolution. In the privacy of their mutual anonymity, they reveal their secrets and face—or conclusively decline to face – their demons, and they make decisions. Then they are released to go their separate ways, with most of them changed, for better or for worse.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within does not deviate from this outline by a hair. Three space travelling aliens are gathered at stopover facility between wormholes, which is owned and operated by a fourth alien. They become temporarily trapped by a technical difficulty in the transport system. They are all in a hurry (except the host, who has a terminally cute youngling) with plans that cannot withstand extended delay, not to mention uncomfortable political divisions.

One alien has a frail companion waiting for them on their ship, another is racing to a forbidden lover, and a third is in hiding from dangerous enemies. The host frets that they cannot make everybody happy, and the youngling is terribly injured in a foolish mishap resulting from misguided curiosity. But not to worry – it all comes right in the end.

The book’s greatest strength is its detailed visual depiction of its aliens, who may have perfectly comprehensible human-like emotions but are extremely peculiar to look at. The description of the youngling lumbering across a room with a tray is laugh-out-loud funny, and the giant caterpillar was so convincing it set off my insect phobia. The complete absence of humans (barring one off-stage) was a nice touch.

From there, I moved on to read Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki (Tor / St Martin’s Press). This book was more intriguing. Things happened that I had not seen coming. (Some people always want to know what’s going to happen next, may even want it so much that they’ll skip ahead and read the last chapter first. I’m not one of them.)

For starters, Light From Uncommon Stars offers an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy. (The only time I have ever seen these two so inextricably intertwined was in Charley Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.)There are aliens from another galaxy, and there are demons negotiating for human souls. And it all circulates around a Southern California donut shop with a giant donut mounted on the roof.

On the one hand, we have Shuzuki Satomi, a brilliant and beautiful violinist who has not performed in many years. Instead she teaches. Her last six students have gone on to the highest pinnacles of international acclaim. And unhappy ends. Very unhappy ends. Hellish, in fact. Now she is searching for a seventh student. But she is hard to please, and has turned down numerous ambitious and gifted young musicians. Instead she inexplicably takes in Katrina, a troubled transgender teen with no formal training, on the run from an abusive father.

On the other hand, we have Lan Tran and her family of refugees, who run the above-mentioned donut shop. It used to be very popular, but since Lan Tran acquired it, its customers are drifting away. It’s not that the donuts aren’t good. Just the opposite, they are just as good as they used to be. Just exactly as good. Down to the last molecule. Because she copies it, molecule by molecule in her replicator.  So it lacks that tiny sparkle of home-made originality.

The hand shake between these two scenes occurs by accident. Lan Tran’s family is secretly building a space portal inside the giant donut – but not so they can return home. Just the opposite. It’s so they can persuade the forces of the empire to stay away. And when the engines are being tested, they make beautiful music, which Shuzuki happens to overhear. Beautiful music is the only thing that really matters to Shuzuki. It is her only refuge from the demon she made a deal with, and from the memories of the six students she fed to that demon to keep it away.

Katrina does not need galactic empires or hungry demons to require a refuge from pain. Her ordinary human life has given her all the punishment this world has to offer. She pours her misery into her clunky old pawn-shop violin, playing tunes from video games, and finds more strength than she ever dreamed of possessing.

Light From Uncommon Stars is not a flawless book. There are a few little problems: Katrina’s gender issues are so overwhelming they tend to belittle the pain of a drunken, abusive father; her ability to master Bartok without any classical training, or even familiarity, whatsoever, is a bit too much of a stretch. But those are nits. It is a fine book. It shows us that, superhero fiction to the contrary, the victory of the human spirit is neither easy nor cheap, and certainly not inevitable. But it is possible. The weight of the world is overwhelming, but it can be endured – and that, in itself – is a great victory.

And then I turned to A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom / Orbit UK). Heavy sigh. This is the book that made me worry if I dared be honest with you. For me it was a DNF. I tried. Really, I did. After all, it was a Hugo nominee. Maybe I didn’t have to love it, but I certainly had to give it serious consideration. I don’t usually give a book more than thirty pages to capture my interest. I may even toss it down the basement steps after ten pages if the opening is stupid enough. But for the sake of my responsibility to the Hugos, I gave A Master of Djinn a hundred pages, before I gave up.

I can almost hear you protesting, “But it won the Nebula.” I know. It won the Nebula. And while I am trying desperately to remember that everybody is entitled to their opinion, I still can’t help but feel that’s a gross miscarriage of justice.

So what was so wrong with it? I promise to keep this civil. To give P. Djèlí Clark full credit where it’s due, the setting – modern Cairo in an alternate history world – is excellent. His choice of the turning point in the alternate history, and its consequences were intriguing. He describes a colorful combination of historic streets and architecture (which, I presume, is reasonably accurate since he went to so much trouble with it), and a modern (sometimes bizarrely so) infra-structure.

I am also confident that his presentation of the hierarchy of magical beings and the Egyptian pantheon is accurate; certainly he knows more of them than I, after only a little dabbling, do. I understand he has written a number of short stories set in this world, and he knows it well.

The story is a magical mystery which, I regret to say, I found pedestrian. In the opening scene, the original murder was impressive and mysterious, but he revealed the magical methodology – by far the most interesting element of the crime – very early on, leaving the reader to slog through all the usual whodunit clues. But this, in and of itself, would not have caused me to give up on the book. After all, there might be a last-minute clever twist.

An author friend of mine once told me, “If you just give one character a limp, another character an accent, and make the third use a lot of big words, everybody will say you’re a genius at characterization.” That appears to be Mr. Clark’s approach. Characters are portrayed primarily by the outfits they wear. One woman is strident and mannishly but stylishly dressed. Another is very feminine, and gushes and blushes. I cared nothing for either of them. But this did not cause me to give up either. Perhaps they would develop later.

In the end, it was Mr. Clark’s inadequate English skills that did me in. There were awkward phrasings on every page. Actual grammatical errors were almost as frequent. He mixed up ‘who’ and ‘which’. Occasionally his syntax and vocabulary were so tortured that I simply could not figure out what he meant. His attempt to describe a hexagon, without calling it a hexagon, was mind boggling. (At least I think he meant a hexagon.)

But in the end, that didn’t matter. Reading is (or should be) a pleasure, a matter of surrendering to the rhythm of the words. But if you have to stop every couple of paragraphs to reconstruct incomprehensible phraseology, reading becomes a chore, even a burden. So I gave up. My apologies if you loved it.

This post has gone on longer than I expected, so I’ll draw to a close. I’ll be back soon, if you’ll have me, with my thoughts on the rest of the nominees for Best Novel. So please keep an eye out for Part 2!

Review: Babel

By Paul Weimer: ​R F Kuang’s Babel is an audacious and unrelenting look at colonialism, seen through the lens of an alternate 19th century Britain where translation is the key to magic. Kuang’s novel is as sharp and perceptive as it is well written, deep, and bears reflection upon, after reading, for today’s world.

The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, “to try” or “to attempt”.

The word review is also ultimately French. Middle English reveue, from Middle French, from feminine past participle of revoir to see again, reexamine.

This is a review, and essay, where I try to attempt to talk about BABEL: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R F Kuang.

The time and place is a very slightly alternate 19th century Britain. In this world, there is one form of magic. It turns out that silver engraved with two words in different languages that have the same meaning can derive a magical effect because no two words have the same exact meaning and that difference can be exploited. 

Take the English word speak, and take the Latin word iacto. Iacto means speak, but it also means to cast, to hurl. One could use a silver bar with those two words engraved, by its magic, be able to speak more loudly, to cast one’s words out further.

The English Empire has the premier translation facility in the world and is always looking for more translators, especially in more far-flung languages. As languages blend and meld, the difference between words in different languages gets smaller, and so the magical effect becomes less efficacious. Also, people need to be able to think and be immersed in both languages to make the magical silver bars that function. Those silver bars do everything from improving fighting vessels to giving additional stability and robustness to carriages and railroads to providing magical healing and aid. 

And so we are thus introduced to our main protagonist, Robin Swift.  Rescued from poverty in Canton after his mother’s sickness and death, by his new guardian, Professor Lovell.  He is trained in Latin and Greek, but it is his knowledge of Chinese and English where his talents lie. The differences in translation between the two languages, in someone who has those languages so firmly in their thinking mind, provides a potential wealth of new translation pairs that the British Empire wants…and needs. And so Robin is set and polished and readied to attend the Royal Institute of Translation, the titular Babel.  As Robin bonds with other members of his class at the fictional University in the city of Oxford, he soon begins to learn the cost of Empire…and what Babel will do to maintain that power…and what he is asked to do to maintain that power. 

Especially as what our world calls the Opium War is brewing.

And so a story is born.¹

Story.  Middle English storie, from Medieval Latin historia narrative, illustration, story of a building, from Latin, history, tale; probably from narrative friezes on the window level of medieval buildings. 

Having a Chinese would-be translator brought to the heart of the British Empire, and he and his friends’ talents aimed toward maintaining the Imperial Project, swings for the fences in terms of themes, and this novel’s strength is in the themes it ruthlessly interrogates. Colonialism? Empire? Oppression? Racism (in fact, three out of the four in Team Babel are POC)? All of these. Two of Robin’s comrades are women, and so we get a (man’s) view to Sexism as well. Kuang makes a really good point on how these toxic -isms are all interconnected, intertwined and feed off of each other to produce truly terrible results. Readers of The Poppy War trilogy know that she doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the costs of War and oppression. If anything, her words are even sharper here. 

The novel is grim, dealing with some very dark subjects, and it is in the end very much not a happy story. Again, readers who have read her previous trilogy know to expect this from Kuang, but readers who are coming to her here, fresh, should learn to expect it. Are there moments of fun, of levity? Sure. Is there an absolutely bonkers level of geekery and joy in the idea and nature of translation? Does the novel take absolute pleasure in how things are translated, and what that means (above and beyond even the magic of the silver bars?) Certainly.

In point of fact, if you want to go back to the theme, and this novel does hammer then, so you might as well, then for the three POC of the four main characters², their very lives and natures are an exercise in translation. Robin is “translated” from Canton. Ramy is a translation from India. And finally, Victoire is a translation from Haiti. Those translations from their previous lives to their current ones have all gone differently, and not perfectly, either, because the whole point of the novel and the idea of translation and its magic is that while these cognate words might ostensibly mean the same thing, in reality, they do not. There is difference, divergence, and change. 

And the novel understands the nuances involved. Robin gets into an argument with Professor Lovell, who is appalled when Robin seems “ungrateful” for having been rescued by him from destitution, poverty and death to a life working for Babel. Robin’s reply, aghast, is that he could have saved his mother from death–and chose not to. Colonialism and the colonial project, imperialism all degrade both the oppressors and the oppressed. And Kuang follows the logic of that, and responding to that, all the way to rebellion and revolution. 

Consider the subtitle “Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of The Oxford Translators Revolution”.  This points to where the novel is going, which, like The Poppy War, starts off as a story of Robin escaping his previous existence, learning, and growing, and then by degrees both large and small, being thrust into taking violent, dangerous action. And, again, given that this is a Kuang book, there are costs, personal as well as societal, to taking such large scale, drastic action.  In this summer of 2022 when the book is being published, given the political moment here in the United States, you bet that this novel resonates like a bell.

One thing that does disappoint me in Babel, though, and it may be an idiosyncratic affectation on my part, and it is what I call the “Temeraire Problem.” Temeraire, if you will recall, is the series of Naomi Novik novels that can be high concept pitched quite accurately as “The Napoleonic Wars with Dragons”3. And while the events of the Napoleonic Wars do diverge from our own history in the writing of the novels, all the millennia of history previously, somehow, was all the same as our own. With such a major change to the world as having Dragons, for World history to have gone the exact same way without discernible change seems like a failure of imagination, or a reluctance to go down the rabbit hole of what changes could and would possibly happen to the timeline. And so, really, nothing has changed. 

While I can see the value of doing this for the reader, as well as it reduces the ask for the reader in accepting changes beyond the high concept and its immediate consequences, it makes the worldbuilding feel more like a copypasta of history, but with an additional added element.  In Babel, we have magic, verifiable magic that has been around as long as there have been multiple languages. And yet for all that, in early 19th century Britain, everything has gone, as far as I can tell, as a carbon copy of our own world. I suppose it is possible that unseen corners of the world that our protagonist has not seen or read about, but the impression that the novel gives is that this is a Britain (and China) on the verge of the Opium Wars, and there are no complicating and entangling factors to distract from looking at that narrative as effectively as it does as outlined above.  But a world where engraving silver with translated worlds is magic, there are potentially huge changes to history at a number of points that could set the entire course of history differently.⁴ And even if you didn’t want to play in super major keys with that, acknowledging how silver and translation’s magic has affected history in the past would help set up what happens in the “present” of this novel even better. 

With that disappointment in mind, and again, your mileage may vary in what you expect from alternate historical fantasy, Babel is a fantastic and engaging read. Kuang interrogates colonialism, language, resistance and revolution, culture, and an underused portion of history (in genre) to sharply make her points and tell an engaging and complete story in one (relatively thick) volume. The book is, to use an overworn phrase, a leveling up of Kuang’s already honed talents from the Poppy War trilogy. Kuang is a rising talent within genre and Babel is an excellent place to discover her work.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, Harper Voyager, 2022


¹It should be noted, that as befits a work that is set at an academic bastion of translation and knowledge, that the book has plenty of footnotes. 

²The fourth of the students, Letty, is a young woman from England. Kuang makes good use of the difference between her and her three compatriots. The rich character possibilities are not squandered, but to say more would be highly spoilery.

3Or perhaps a little more accurately and narrowly still, It’s Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander) with Dragons

⁴Off the top of my head, societies with a lot of silver and the potential to use its magic that could have changed history in significant ways: The Athenian Empire, the Carthaginian Empire, the New World and the Spanish Empire (Kuang kind of thinks of going there but doesn’t quite manage it). Also historically, Japan traded (often indirectly) with China using silver.

Review: A Star Named Vega

By Mike Glyer: The social media of the 30th century doesn’t seem so different: teenagers anonymously perform acts of civil disobedience and vandalism to score points and raise their ranking in an internet app. That’s where Aster Vale leads a secret life as the Wildflower, a street artist and tagger, in A Star Named Vega by Benjamin J. Roberts, a Self-Published Science Fiction competition finalist.

However, much else is different a thousand years from now. Humanity lives in a post-scarcity space society that has settled planets around the Thirteen Suns, each under the protective maternal guidance of its own artificial intelligence. The colonization plan worked almost perfectly, with one exception, sent to a world that changed disastrously for the worse by the time humans arrived. Rel Akepri is a young soldier from that broken planet, a Skaird genetically engineered for war. And if the small team of experienced fighters he belongs to don’t complete their mission, then genocide will be their people’s fate.

Aster’s father joins a mysterious research project, requiring them to travel from Sol to the Vega System. He also has to bring along 13-year-old genius hacker Isaac who has been spared from a jail term so he can apply his skills to the research.

Aster sees their luxury starcruiser as just another canvas to explore. Isaac is willing to run interference with ship’s security. But the ship is the Skaird team’s first stop because they need the briefing information that was shared with members of the research project.

How can a couple of sheltered teenagers possibly make a difference? The first time around the answer is – they can’t. But the question will crop up repeatedly as the story progresses, and as time goes by the answer changes to – they can make a great deal of difference, indeed.

A Star Named Vega hooks the reader with characters to care about and complex worldbuilding that inspires deeper thinking. What’s more, it seemed that every time I found myself asking why a cultural or technological element didn’t quite seem to fit, the next scene would reconcile everything. I began to wonder if it was really a case that the author had subtly orchestrated my curiosity, rather than me spotting a deficiency that needed correction.

For example, when we’re first introduced to Rel Akepri and his people they look radically alien in appearance but their psychology seems entirely human. I skeptically wondered if this was one more example of the trend where aliens are nothing more than humans with extra bumps on their heads – despite the Skairds’ physical appearance differing much more from humans than does your average Star Trek race. 

But then we get a whole info dump to explain they’re fully human though they also have a bunch of genetic modifications that let them live in extreme environments – their home planet, or in space for that matter. In the end I was willing to handwave the biology, yet I still wondered where the energy came from that let these bodies perform all the operations they can do.  

There’s also a rich discussion to be had about the interaction in the 30th century of human and artificial intelligence. In another info dump – also structured as a lecture delivered in a course Aster is taking – we find out what the culture of the 30th century thinks about it.

“There are three classes of artificial intelligence we use for basic understanding…. The first class describes entities that have been programmed to exhibit intelligent behavior, such as sprites, servobots, and Enforcement units. While they may seem lifelike, entities of the first class are not self-aware. The second class of AI describes neural emulations – computer models of real-world organic nervous systems, including those of humans. As human emulations do possess self-awareness, and thus human rights, their creation is carefully regulated by the Matron Seed of any given planetary system. We know human emulations as Seed Units, and often they choose to inhabit android bodyshells for interacting with the physical world. The third class of AI describes the Seed Mothers. Not programmed. Not emulated. Their minds emerge from the chains of quantum networks like patterns in the swirling of leaves, fractals in the complex plane.”

This hierarchy also dictates what become the rules of engagement for violent acts. Pranksters and criminals alike can trash Enforcement units like insurrectionists did the Capitol Police but without thinking of it as murder. In contrast, harming human beings would be a serious crime. And yet there is a troubling loose end to this rule which is meant to keep the entire second class from being treated the same as mere ‘bots. When an android who’s also a family friend is destroyed during the raid on the ‘cruiser, his body is torn apart so his physical memory can be taken. But the ethos of android bodies having uploaded and backed up records of their consciousness makes it possible for the character to reappear shortly after in a new physical shell — and strangely exhibiting no mental wear and tear. How would a sapient being not be traumatized by that experience? Well, perhaps if he is not being backed up in realtime he would have no recollection of being killed. As a reader I certainly found it disconcerting how little everyone who knew him was affected by what appeared a violent death.

The raid on the cruiser does not keep Aster’s father from reaching his destination and going to work on the mysterious project. Meanwhile Rel Akepri’s commander pieces together the stolen information so they can intercept the discovery they fear will be used to kill all Skairds. And Aster keeps up her lecture attendance so we readers can eavesdrop on those good long info dumps. What’s more, one of the students in Aster’s class is conveniently a jock who’s stridently in favor of killing all the Skairds, creating another source of insight on the racial justice / genocide conflict that is one of the book’s main themes.

This conflict, like Aster’s tagging and Isaac’s hacking, show that living without scarcity under the watchful eye of a powerful AI has not bred out humanity’s rebellious impulses. Why not? The reason, says one wise soul, is that humans spent thousands of years evolving to survive in a dangerous environment; for only a fraction of the time in the past few centuries have they lived in safety with plentiful resources. They’re simply unable to stop taking risks.

And when it comes to Aster’s teenage rebellion, nothing really interferes with it because Dr. Vale is like one of those 40s radio comedy fathers whose reputation as a serious disciplinarian is belied by the fact that everyone can get around him and bend him to accept their latest predicament. However, if she’d actually been shut down and obeyed all her father’s cautions she’d never have made the friends she needs to rally around when crisis arrives and the people she knows are the only ones who can avert the genocidal doom about to be meted out to the Skairds.

As I read this book I would think about what was holding me back from enjoying the story more — then whoosh! I’d be emotionally caught up in an action scene and really caring about the characters. Even though something would eventually pump the brakes and partly throw me out of the story, I thought those really good stretches were priceless. A riveting action sequence draws the story to a climax. Sometimes an author is able to suspend disbelief until the book ends, then looking back I find myself asking did the denoument make sense? I will say there’s no doubt that the way the story was tied up is faithful to the characters. It was emotionally strong. It was right for Aster, Rel, Isaac, her father, everyone. It stuck the landing.

SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Review: Captain Wu: Starship Nameless #1

By Rogers Cadenhead: In a universe controlled by a central government indifferent to the needs of its inhabitants, a crew of interstellar vagabonds uses their jury-rigged spaceship to take whatever work they can get — legal or otherwise — barely scraping by while showing an exceptional knack for finding trouble. A charismatic battle-scarred captain leads a fiercely loyal crew of close-knit misfits.

What sounds like Firefly also describes the SPSFC finalist novel Captain Wu: Starship Nameless #1, a space opera by authors Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster. I love Firefly so it wasn’t a big leap to climb aboard this vessel.

Captain Leanne Wu is a Asian woman in her sixties at the helm of “an old converted garbage scow called the Nameless. It was an odd boxy little thing but with powerful engines.” Wu is small of frame but literally pugnacious, getting into pit match fights both for money and stress relief.

The novel has barely begun when a smuggling job lands Wu and her crew neck-deep in distress. While trying to deliver an unknown package to a client that was planning to kill them in lieu of payment, a squad of tentacle-mouthed aliens arrives firing their weapons at both sides of the transaction.

This begins a tale that is full of chase sequences where the reason the aliens are attempting to kill them is not known. A lot of ingenuity and technological prowess are required for the protagonists to survive long enough to see book 2. The crew also acquires a stowaway with a familial tie to a crew member.

I found the novel was carried mostly by character, feeling less pull from the plot except as a vehicle to create interesting problems to solve.

Wu’s bisexual and her pilot Rev is transgender, representation that’s handled matter of fact. Wu gets most of the focus as a character but her back story is revealed only in dribs and drabs, which is understandable because did I mention aliens keep trying to kill them? In the final third we meet someone who might be the biological father of Wu’s daughter but has never been told this fact. It’s my favorite revelatory relationship in the book because you can tell the guy’s so foul his evil will take center-of-the-Tootsie Pop time to reveal. However, when he’s first met I was all “Leanne, what the hell is the problem? He seems nice.” (I give my heart to the wrong people in fiction.)

Captain Wu reminded me of Reverdy Jian, another LGBT space pilot who leads Melissa Scott’s excellent but overlooked 1992 novel Dreamships. Space pilots in that book navigated abstract “dreamspace.” In this one, space travel is amusingly humdrum. There are huge lines of ships at interstellar gates where Rev has to dodge miles-long vessels full of shipping containers. It has all the romance of a traffic jam on Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge.

Like Firefly, the Nameless has a crew whose stories I’d love to see fully told. My favorite is Six, a member of a collective race whose reason for no longer being among them is not explained. The authors pull off a sly trick in dialogue — the word “alone” is hard for Six to express. Six takes Wu aside at one point for private counsel and says, “This is why I wished to speak with you when you were as you are now.”

If this was a normal review I would stick the landing and say I enjoyed this jaunty series starter, which left me eager to continue to Smugglers Crew: Starship Nameless #2.

But this is a review for SPSFC, a contest to award the best self-published novel in science fiction. One of the things I consider is whether an entrant succeeds as a standalone even when it leaves readers wanting more from the series. I needed more information about the MacGuffin that Wu had the misfortune to schlep across the galaxy, but the first Starship Nameless novel leaves huge questions unanswered when a cliffhanger ends book one.

SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Review: Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire

By Mike Glyer: G.M. Nair begins Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by making a surprising choice. His introductory scene explicitly reveals to readers the true nature of the mysterious events that the protagonists themselves uncover only very slowly throughout the first half of the book. The introduction might even be the penultimate scene in the book — which would make sense in a story that is partly about time travel loops. Good idea or bad idea?

Good idea, I think. The introduction serves as a kind of I.O.U. to keep readers’ hopes alive while Nair’s protagonists Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer fight a delaying action against becoming involved in the story Nair wants to tell. My Kindle showed I was 38% through the book before the duo decided to engage the problem that the story has been shoving in their faces since the beginning.

The time is spent developing the title characters, and setting a burnt-out noir style police detective on a parallel track. And delivering some laughs, because this Self-Published Science Fiction Competition finalist is also a humorous sf novel.

Michael Duckett works for an ominous corporation in a petty job. His roommate and best friend since childhood, Stephanie Dyer, is a jobless slacker as well as a free spirit — always ready to jump first and look where she’s landing second.

And Detective Rex Calhoun’s failing career takes a further turn for the worst when a suspect he’s about to grab vanishes in a blast of lightning and a clap of thunder.

Their paths will soon cross. Just when Duckett and Dyer are desperate to pay the rent they start getting a rash of calls to find missing people and do other P.I. work – because an unknown someone has been advertising their Detective Agency all over the city. Which is quite a surprise for Duckett and Dyer, who didn’t have an agency…before Stephanie impulsively decides, why not seize the chance to do some business?

As for Calhoun, when his suspect vanished one item was left behind — a taunting note that suggests an unknown someone orchestrated that event, too.

Following their respective leads, Duckett, Dyer, and Calhoun discover a web of missing people whose fates seem linked by a local theoretical physicist and his experiments with the fabric of space-time. And bungling their encounter with him, our faux private investigators precipitate their own disappearance. They’ll have to peel away some of the layers of the multiverse and visit some bizarre destinations if they ever hope to find the guiding hand behind these events and get home. (A Heinlein fan might even like to think of this book as the Wrong Number of the Beast.)

It’s hard to do sf humor and even harder to sustain it the length of a book. But all through the author got unexpected laughs out of me and deserves credit for that.

This whirl through the multiverse with a side order of time travel is entertaining. And the introduction is not quite the end of the story – the real ending averts a tragic outcome and returns Duckett and Dyer safely back where they belong. A revelation that can’t be too much of a spoiler — after all, this is the first in a three-book series.  

Review: Monster of the Dark

By Mike Glyer: On the morning of Carmen Grey’s sixth birthday an armed team arrives to take her from her parents and remove her to the underground facility where Clairvoyants — like her — are held captive and trained for years to access their abilities. So begins Monster of the Dark by K. T. Belt, a finalist in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.

Both the potential for human Clairvoyants and the need for them was realized when aliens tried to conquer humanity in a war that occurred before the present day of this story.

The Clairvoyant “assets” of Monster of the Dark are recognized as being so important to humanity’s ability to fend off threats of alien domination that they are completely deprived of human rights until their eighteenth birthday so their abilities can be maximized. In that way, their fate contrasts with Marvel’s X-Men. The X-Men are mutants with an extensive palette of different superpowers who are often denied civil liberties or actively persecuted even while they sacrifice to protect an unappreciative public. The contrast is that unlike the empathetic X-Men, the Clairvoyants don’t relate to ordinary people, therefore they not only train for combat, they must rehearse having social abilities to which they are actually indifferent.   

David Gerrold once advised me that a reviewer should determine what the writer of a novel is trying to accomplish and judge the book by how successful the writer is in achieving that purpose.

From that vantage, Monster of the Dark is well-written. It’s not a hard read. The author keeps you curious about what the next round of training will be and why that choice makes sense.

However valuable that advice is, I consider it just as important to review my experience as a reader of the book.

My experience was that the book revolved around cruelty to children. Even to pets. Clairvoyants learn to fight with a high degree of proficiency by killing an endless supply of live opponents – some kind of low-mentality clone; that doesn’t require any moral qualms, right? Am I not entertained?

I rapidly reached a point in this book comparable to my reading of Pablo Baciagulpi’s The Windup Girl, which I quit in the middle because I wasn’t willing to read about the protagonist’s abuse as entertainment. Apparently that’s just me – the book went on to win the 2010 Best Novel Hugo.  

I wouldn’t ordinarily have finished Monster of the Dark. Your mileage may vary, as they say – the book is an SPSFC finalist after all; other judges liked it.

Nor can I fully explain what may be a contradiction in my response to other novels. For example, in Robert Crais’ detective novel series, Elvis Cole’s partner Joe Pike is an abuse survivor and a couple of those books have flashback scenes to his childhood. I think those are incredible books. Go figure.

Setting that discussion aside, I have one other major concern about how little foundation has been laid for this book’s ending. At the very end someone who’s been a determined antagonist of Carmen’s finally decides oh we’re pals now for no reason at all. If it was going to happen it should have been after one of their earlier confrontations. And a deus ex machina boyfriend Carmen barely spent time with long before drops back in from nowhere. World events begin to unravel in ways that are meant to hook our curiosity about the next book in the series. Maybe Carmen’s twelve years of training will be put to its intended use in combat. But not in this book!