Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland 8.1
From Darkest Skies, by Sam Peters 6.9
Before Mars, by Emma Newman 6.8
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller 7.8
Dystopias are popular settings for YA novels; while most imagine a future where a class of people is oppressed by a system of authoritarian social control, Justina Ireland’s canny new horror western Dread Nation locates its dystopic vision in America’s past. History diverges when the dead start returning en masse, hungry for human flesh, bringing an early end to the Civil War and the institution of slavery – but only in the barest sense. No longer forced to work on plantations, Black Americans are instead conscripted at a young age to train as soldiers to battle the “shamblers” (my new favorite euphemism for the walking dead) that are overrunning the country.
Jane McKeene is one such “attendant”-in-training, lucky enough to be receiving her education at the prestigious Miss Preston’s School for Combat in Baltimore in 1880. Her good fortune runs out when she and her class rival Katherine, along with runaway Red Jack, uncover an illegal scheme by the city’s mayor and are shipped off to Summerland – a frontier enclave in Kansas that promises to restore white Christian supremacy to America and treats its Black and Native American militia little better than chuck for the meat grinder.
Many of the story elements that make dystopian YA fiction popular are also staples of the western genre – love triangles between characters from different classes, lone heroes standing up to injustice, landscapes defined by violence and industrial transformation – so the familiar elements are a comfortable fit in Ireland’s reformulation. The classic western narrative, though, depicts the westward march as an act of heroic advancement, a taming of the “wild” frontier for the benefit of civilization. Dread Nation may offer an alternative history of the west, but its depiction of institutionalized racism and classism – where marginalized peoples are forced into a perpetual fight for survival amidst the stampede of “progress” – is little changed by the disruptive insertion of the shambler hordes.
Dread Nation’s genre-hybrid premise functions seamlessly on every level – as western, horror, YA, and alt-history (a toss-off General Custer joke is my favorite laugh-out-loud moment in the book). Jane is a fantastic protagonist, a trickster-like woman-at-arms who is loyal to her ideals and to the people she cares about above any nation or creed. Her budding friendship with Katherine (herself an excellent subversion of the “tragic mulatto” stereotype) is the most affecting relationship in the story. Of all the praiseworthy facets of Dread Nation, my favorite is how its episodic, cliffhanger structure – full of foot-dangling dangers and feats of boldness and bravado – parallels the classic (and historically, often woman-centered) newspaper serials Jane loves to read. Perhaps it will find a natural home as an adaptation for one of the online streaming services, whichever is gutsy enough to do it justice.
Sam Peters’ From Darkest Skies is a sci-fi crime thriller that follows Keona Rause, an intelligence agent who returns from Earth to the colony world of Magenta to solve the years-old murder of his wife, fellow agent Alysha. The twist is that he has secretly brought with him an artificial (and illegal) reconstruction of his late wife, whose memories and personality are culled from public records in this casually accepted, media saturated surveillance state. “Lys” can help uncover clues based on memories of the real Alysha’s recorded life, but Alysha’s private thoughts are as much a mystery to Lys as they are to the still-suffering Keona – and that hidden element unfortunately holds the key to explaining the choices that led to her death.
The novel’s greatest strength is its worldbuilding and its depiction of the nuanced relationship between advanced technology and the human mind. Lys can literally be housed inside tech that interacts with Keona’s thoughts; she can see what he sees and hold internal conversations with him as the action develops, and this dynamic results in some of the novel’s sharpest moments. Where From Darkest Skies falters is in the overly methodical pacing of its plot, which unfolds rhythmically and never raises the temperature above lukewarm. The lack of a clear-cut antagonist hurts it as well. The premise of the book also relies heavily on the notion that Keona is falling in love with Alysha 2.0, but I never found the supposed romance convincing.
Peters is a talented hard-SF writer, and From Darkest Skies is often a colorful and intriguing novel reminiscent of Alastair Reynolds space opera procedurals. It works better when speculating about a tech-steeped future for humanity than it does as a whodunit or an action thriller.
Before Mars is the third standalone novel set in Emma Newman’s Planetfall universe, though the events of all three are loosely connected and having read the other two is helpful, if not necessary. In this one, geologist and artist Anna Kubrin takes a position at a research station on Mars, but when she arrives, she makes two startling discoveries: that her wedding ring has somehow been replaced with a fake, and among her possessions is a painting she can’t remember painting telling her not to trust the base’s psychologist. Anna is worried she can’t trust her own senses: her father suffered from a mental illness that left Anna with deep emotional scars from childhood, and now she fears she is travelling down the same path.
Newman is an author I like more as a writer than as a storyteller, if that makes any sense. She is an astute observer of the various neuroses and frailties that plague the human condition, and her ability to navigate all the slippery pathways of the mind is often as frightening as it is exhilarating. Anna’s insistence on trusting her own observations as the other characters, and even the base’s AI, contradict the evidence she finds is the spine that makes Before Mars a compelling read. The novel’s structure, however, is maddeningly inducive, repeatedly contriving scenarios that shield the reader from receiving pertinent revelations well past the point at which such coyness can remain believable. Yes, I know that mystery stories are supposed to play their cards close to the vest, but there’s a big difference between keeping us guessing and just repeatedly slapping our wrists when we get too close to the cookie jar; between playing the reader like a piano and being flat out fucking mean.
I had the same issue with Planetfall, and that frustration was still fresh in my mind when the second book, After Atlas, was released. I skipped that one, but as the release date for Before Mars drew closer I remembered all the things I liked about Planetfall and blocked out all the things I didn’t. Given enough time between this and the next book, I’ll probably make the same mistake again.
Sci-fi and fantasy narratives that deal directly with structures of power usually feature a single, goal-oriented protagonist, often consumed with a desire for revenge or seeking to redress a perceived injustice. Even if the intent is to castigate or subvert the social and political norms that reinforce those structures, these stories tend to promote the idea of a lone genius/hero/savior as the essential component for radical change – the “great man” approach to history – who may end up shuffling the deck, but who rarely sets the cards aside altogether. Usually, the new structure that replace the old have same potential to commit future abuses – a truth the author usually avoids by simply ending the story on a high note.
In Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller uses a mosaic narrative structure much the same way Kim Stanley Robinson uses it in New York 2140: to procure a blueprint for radical social change by illuminating both the commonality and the diversity of experiences within a community of peoples. Set in the floating arctic city of Qaanaaq, in a post-climate disaster world ravaged by war and disease and the collapse of the old world order, Blackfish City follows multiple characters with interrelated storylines. Qaanaaq is a marvel of sustainable engineering, and home to refugees from all over the world, but political corruption and economic disparity have made living conditions all but unbearable for most of its citizens.
The various storylines converge around the arrival of Masaaraq, who rides into Qaanaaq on an orca she is “nanobonded” to. In a typical SFF novel, Masaaraq would be the messiah figure, and at first, she is perceived as such by many, and of course is equally perceived as a threat by the wealthy and powerful. But even those who stand to gain from joining Masaaraq’s quest for justice understand that solutions to complex social problems require more than just overturning the applecart and sticking it to the proverbial “man”. Selfish motives, however righteous, are not the answer: the effort requires collective action, and a desire to create and forge lasting solutions. These things are never easy, nor are they instantly accessible, and Miller is too savvy to tie everything up neatly at the end. The future its collection of heroes face is even more uncertain at the end than it was at the beginning, when they at least knew what they had to look forward to at the start of each day.
Blackfish City is laudable for its ambition, its finely imagined and nuanced setting, and captivating cast of characters. Mosaic novels are tough to pull off, and Blackfish City sometimes has to be forgiven for its uneven pacing and frustrating spurts of reticence. The thrill of watching the once powerless find the strength to fight together for their future more than makes up for it.