2019 Hugo Nominations Post – Impressions, Surprises, Disappointments

First of all – Congrats to all the nominees! Fandom is a diverse bunch with a wide range of tastes, and as usual the variety and quality of the nominated works is exemplary.

Some quick thoughts before we move on to the categories – one of the things I like about Worldcon’s itinerant ways is that local heroes sometimes find their way onto the ballot. In this case, Irish author Peadar O’Guilin was nominated for his YA novel The Invasion. I expected a larger contingent of UK folks to make the ballot, considering the proximity to Dublin and the likelihood of more attending and supporting members from England and Scotland. Zen Cho, Jeanette Ng and Rivers Solomon are there, though all three authors have a strong fan base on both sides of the pond. Gollancz editor Gillian Redfearn likely received a boost from UK voters, as non-American editors rarely make the cut.

I’m not going to labor through every category on the ballot. Fiction is the main thrust of this blog, so I will stick to the fiction categories.

The opinions expressed below are not intended to divide the nominees up into things that “deserve” to be there and things that don’t. Every work/person on the ballot deserves to be there because their fans were passionate enough to make it happen. Fans are an opinionated bunch: we think some things are better than other things and we like to argue about it. That’s what I’m doing here.

Best Novel

Impressions

Rev Gun 2Only one novel from my nominating ballot made the final ballot: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. You can probably guess which work I’m going to rank at the top, and I genuinely hope it wins. The trilogy has now scored a Hugo nom hat trick and the other two recent series to do this – Leckie’s Radch novels and Jemisin’s Broken Earth – have at least one win each to their credit (three in Jemisin’s case). I think the Machineries of Empire deserves to be in such company.

Spinning Silver was on my initial ballot longlist but didn’t quite get my vote. It will place on my final ballot, for sure. Trail of Lightning was a terrific debut novel that has cemented Rebecca Roanhorse’s ascension to the SFF A-list. It will place as well.

The other three novels did not light my fire, but all three authors have very loyal and passionate fan bases and I expected them to be serious contenders. The Calculating Stars is a high quality work: expert plotting, solid characters, good sciencey sci-fi action. But I felt the way I feel when I see one of those “prestige” films that gum up the Oscar nominations every year. Much to admire, but more medicinal than inspiring. Becky Chambers confounds me because if you were to describe her novels to me in precise detail they would sound exactly like everything I could ever want from science fiction, but when I actually read them they just don’t do it for me. Record of a Spaceborn Few did not change my mind. On the other hand, Catherynne Valente is an author I routinely enjoy, but the Douglas Adams-esque Space Opera probably suffered from the fact that I list Douglas Adams as one of the most overrated writers in SF history.

Surprises

head on 3The distinct lack of Scalzi. He had two novels published last year, Head On and The Consuming Fire. Neither made my nominating ballot, but both were very good and considering his Hugo track record the odds were in his favor. Perhaps either or both fell just short, or maybe the Scalzi loyalists split their vote between the two. It will be interesting to see if or where they longlisted on the final report.

Disappointments

I really wanted The Poppy War and/or Witchmark to get a nod, and I thought at least one of them stood a good chance. Both novels were powerful and thrilling and turned genre tropes upside down in unique ways. It’s great to see R.F. Kuang get shortlisted for the Campbell, but I was holding out hope for the Big One.

My Ballot

The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang

Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

Noumenon Infinity, Marina J. Lostetter

Witchmark, C.L. Polk

Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar

Best Novella

Impressions

tea master 2None of this year’s novella nominees was on my nominating ballot, but all of them were works I enjoyed immensely. I expected Tor.com to run the table like they did last year. Their novella game is strong and their marketing machine is without equal.

Sequels and series entries were popular this year. Artificial Condition was my favorite of the Murderbot sequels so I’m happy it’s the one that got the nod. I think I may have liked Beneath the Sugar Sky even more than Every Heart a DoorwayBinti: The Night Masquerade was a satisfying conclusion to an outstanding trilogy.

As far as my favorite among the six nominees, I’m torn between Bodard’s elegant Xuya tale The Tea Master and the Detective and the two remaining works. The Black God’s Drums and Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach are singular and challenging stories that I may have to re-read before I make a final decision.

Surprises

I fully expected Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “Umbernight” to break through the Tor.com blockade. Gilman has a strong base of Hugo voters, most recently scoring a nod in 2017 for her novelette “Touring with the Alien”. And it was a phenomenal story.

Disappointments

FFR2One in particular. Umbernight Umbernight Umbernight. It was my favorite thing made by a human last year. I really wanted it to shortlist and win and now my heart is crushed and broken. Literally nothing else I picked could have made the ballot and I would have been overjoyed by this one thing.

The lack of Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a mild disappointment. It was probably a long shot. Watts most recent nomination was in 2011 for the short story “The Things”, so it’s possible he’s not as favored with the current crop of voters as he used to be. Also, it was in the word count fuzzy zone where the administrators could have moved its votes to either the novel or novella category at their discretion, and that may have affected its final tally.

My Ballot

“Umbernight”, Carolyn Ives Gilman

“We Ragged Few”, Kate Alice Marshall

“The Emotionless, In Love”, Jason Sanford

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Peter Watts

Best Novelette

Impressions

nine last 2Score! Daryl Gregory’s “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” was one of my Desert Island Picks in my Epic Three Part Recommended Reading List. I was disappointed when it missed out on the Nebula, but for some reason I still had faith in its Hugo chances and yay! This almost-but-doesn’t-quite make up for the Umbernight snub.

The other five nominees are a solid bunch, though Gregory’s story is the only one of the six I nominated. “The Thing About Ghost Stories” may only be my third favorite Naomi Kritzer story published last year, but it’s still excellent in all the ways that make her writing special: it’s probing and whip-smart, wickedly funny and deeply felt. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” and “When We Were Starless” are both good works. I love Brooke Bolander’s prose. I wasn’t as excited about The Only Harmless Great Thing as many others were, but her writing can rip through you like a serrated knife so she always gets my attention.

It’s been a few years since there was a nominated work I hadn’t already read, but that’s true of “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”. I’m a huge fan of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal novels so I’m thrilled to have it on my plate.

Surprises

I was surprised when “When We Were Starless” grabbed a Sturgeon nod earlier this year, and surprised again now that it listed for the Hugo. Looks like I may be the only person surprised by this. I appreciated it on my first read but it didn’t strike me as award-caliber stuff. Now it’s number one on my “must re-read” list. It’s possible I missed out on its greatness the first time and a revisit will yield a different response.

Disappointments

Several, though Will McIntosh’s “What Is Eve?” was one I was holding out hope for. It’s so damn smart and hilarious and incisive about the triumphs and drawbacks of being one of the smart kids. Again, it was probably a longshot, and it may be one of those things that spoke to my sensibilities more than anyone else’s.

My Ballot

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory

“Fleeing Oslyge”, Sally Gwylan

“The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, Kij Johnson

“What Is Eve?” Will McIntosh

“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad

Best Short Story

Impressions

fireside 52-2Of all the fiction categories this might be the hardest one to handicap. The vote tends to spread thin among a wide number of works and the results are often a complete surprise to everyone.

When I started working on my nominating ballot I had twenty-four stories to narrow down to five. None of my final five made the shortlist, and only one of the initial twenty-four did: P. Djèlí Clark’s “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”. That and Sarah Bailey’s “STET” are great examples of the boundary pushing, formally innovative fiction that Fireside publishes. I’m really glad to see both stories there. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) and “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander are fun stories from two Hugo fan favorites. Alex E. Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” has been one of the most talked about stories of the year since its publication so I’m not surprised to see it here. I’m a huge Sarah Pinsker fan, but “The Court Magician” didn’t make much of an impression on me when it first appeared last January. Now that it has both Hugo and Nebula nods under its belt it may be another story ripe for revisiting.

My favorite here is “Secret Lives”. It’s a shoe-in for the top slot on my final ballot, and I will have to ponder where to place the other five.

Surprises

With a category this hard to predict, there’s not much room for surprise. There were a lot of quality short stories this year, with the favorites maybe being Clark’s and Harrow’s stories and possibly Pinsker’s. The rest were a craps shoot.

Disappointments

Twenty-three of them, to be exact. My two favorite short stories – Nibedita Sen’s “Leviathan Sings to Me In the Deep” and James Beamon’s “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” – both failed to make the cut. “Leviathan” is a horror story, and for one of those to score a Hugo nod is the exception not the rule. Beamon’s military steampunk adventure seems to be more in the Hugo wheelhouse – I thought it had a lot of the same appeal as Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Carnival Nine”, but I guess it just wasn’t as popular as I hoped it would be.

Vanessa Fogg’s “Traces of Us” was another longshot I was really rooting for. I fell in love with it right away and that never changed after multiple re-reads. Hugo voters aren’t all that familiar with Fogg, possibly because she publishes in venues – GigaNotoSaurus, Kaleidotrope, The Future Fire – that are off the beaten path. Her most recent story, “The Message“, is my reigning favorite of 2019 so far, so I hope next year’s voters have a chance to read it.

My Ballot

“A Song of Home, The Organ Grinds”, James Beamon

“Traces of Us”, Vanessa Fogg

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer

“Sour Milk Girls”, Erin Roberts

“Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep”, Nibedita Sen

My Stats

Not good. I did not have my finger on the pulse this year. Only two of my picks – one novel and one novelette – were nominated. This is a far cry from last year, when I had two novels, two novellas, three novelettes, and two short stories on the final ballot.

The Locus finalists are a few weeks away from being announced, and since they do ten per category I like my odds a little more. I’ll check back in then.

 

Finder by Suzanne Palmer

Cover Art by Kekai Kotaki; Design by Adam Auerbach

FinderRecommended – One advantage of being an accomplished short story writer is knowing how to get the ball rolling. It doesn’t take Suzanne Palmer long to ingratiate readers to Fergus Ferguson, the hero of her debut novel Finder: he has an appreciation for ironic self-deprecation and for little old ladies who can survive out in “The Gap”, a sparsely populated region of space near the outskirts of the galaxy. Being nice to old ladies may be a cheap ploy for sympathy by the author, but it works, and it’s undeniably efficient. No sooner are Fergus’ profession (a kind of interstellar repo man called a “finder”) and goal (to retrieve a stolen ship called Venetia’s Sword) and prospective enemy (small-pond robber-baron Arum Gilger, who stole the ship) established through his salty banter with tough-as-nails native Mattie “Mother” Vahn, than an escalating sequence of obstacles come cascading down in front of Fergus, and the novel picks up the breathless pace it sustains through the end. This narrative formula serves Palmer’s celebrated shorter works well, as her Hugo-winning novelette “The Secret Lives of Bots” can attest. Palmer’s writing doesn’t sacrifice subtlety or nuance, she just knows how to use such tools without disrupting the tempo. The pace she sustains in Finder mostly benefits it, and it’s so entertaining that the ways it falls short are easy to forgive.
Fergus is a Scotsman, Earth-born but allied to the generations of Martian émigrés living under harsh earther occupation. He’d rather avoid bringing up his past: people know him as a hero of the Mars resistance even as far out as anarchic Cernee, a rock ruled by a loose confederation of chieftains and the loyalists in their employ. He doesn’t see himself the way others do, but he has a penchant for executing outrageous schemes to achieve his ends. The heist he must pull off to retrieve Venetia’s Sword is akin to jacking a smart car with a keyless entry, though getting past the ruthless Gilger and his enforcer Borr Graf prove to be the most harrowing part of his task: Gilger has chosen the day of Fergus’ arrival to make a play for total domination of Cernee. Now Fergus and his allies—Mother Vahn’s family of identical offspring who swear they’re not clones and Gilger’s longtime rival Harcourt—find their plan to put the squeeze on Gilger turned into a brutal fight for survival. Further complicating matters are the Asiig, a mysterious and terrifying alien race who mostly carry out ominous flybys over Cernee in their black triangle-shaped ships, abducting random citizens then returning them days later in, shall we say, a different state from how they found them. And the Asiig have taken an interest in Fergus and the conflict on Cernee.
It would be an understatement to say Palmer has a gift for piling on the plot factors. That she can sustain such an approach over the course of a story that is something like a dozen-fold longer than the stories she usually writes is impressive. She takes a block-by-block approach to building her world and her characters’ back stories, distributing little bits of context clues and expository statements to brace up the larger context. This combination of depth and efficiency elevates Finder above the rabble of space operas that crowd the current SF marketplace.
The story stretches out like a rubber band from Cernee back to Sol System and Mars, then snaps back to Cernee for the grand finale. This is the only element of the novel that didn’t sit well with me. I understand the author’s need to reconnect Fergus emotionally with his past on Mars, and while the reason she contrives to get him there is integrated into the plot early on it still came across as forced. There was perhaps also a sensible desire to liberate the action from the confines of a single location. I felt that the mcguffin Palmer uses to lure him back to his roots isn’t developed well enough beyond its functional purpose and is a non-factor once Palmer returns us to the main storyline.
None of that changes the fact that Finder is a thrilling space adventure from an expert hand who loves the art of genre storytelling. There is so much happening with this setting and so much potential for growing it even more. It’s also a welcome slice of madcap fun, full of rich, fully realized characters and delightful far future odds and ends.

The Best Short SFF – March 2019

Featured Image from the cover for Lightspeed Issue 106 by Grandfailure

Must Read

tram car 015
Cover by Stephan Martiniere

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (excerpt only), by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) Novella

Set in 1912 in the same alt-history story universe as the author’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 excels on multiple fronts: as a [magical] detective yarn, as a chilling, classically structured haunted house story, and as a vehicle for historian Clark’s speculative re-imagining of modern Egyptian civilization. The story follows Hamed Nasr, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his eager but inexperienced new partner Onsi and they investigate the titular event. The intricate detail imbued in the story’s setting is the star of the show—I would be happy to get lost wandering the streets of Clark’s Cairo—but that takes nothing away from the wonderful cast of characters and sublime plot execution. The climax is a true nail-biter, with a resolution that resonates. Extra points for a protagonist who can wax anthropological about folklore.

“A Mate Not a Meal”, by Sarina Dorie (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2019) Novelette

At first, Sarina Dorie’s alien spider love novelette “A Mate Not a Meal” seems like it would be a better fit for Analog’s more character-driven sister magazine Asimov’s. Taking place on a tech-free giant spider planet with a tight 1st person POV of its giant spider protagonist, it’s hard not to wonder for a time how it fits in with Analog’s stated goal to publish “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” It does find its way into Analog’s wheelhouse, though explaining how is too much of a spoiler to reveal here. The spider hero of the story is Malatina, whose mother and sister are murdered and eaten by a male spider who tricked mother into believing he wanted to mate with her. This is a not infrequent occurrence on giant spider world, and Malatina must figure out on her won how to tell the difference between a man who truly loves her and one who just wants to devour her liquified insides. Her dilemma is human-relatable, but also convincingly spidery. The narrative is riveting and suspenseful and harrowing and action-packed and romantic and yes, also full of science that the story couldn’t live without.

Highly Regarded

Nightmare 78
Cover by Yupachingping

All the Hidden Places“, by Cadwell Turnbull (Nightmare Magazine Issue 78, March 2019) Short Story

The savviest genre authors use conventional story elements to manipulate readers’ expectations. “All the Hidden Places” is the story of Sherman and Nikki, a father and daughter journeying from the Virgin Islands to Sherman’s family home in Michigan through a plague-ravaged America where the infected turn into violent raving lunatics. Sherman is hiding something from his daughter, and if only she can figure out what that is, she would have a better understanding of their circumstances. Skillful tone-setting, subtle atmospherics, and the easy relatability of Sherman’s overprotective father and Nikki’s bright but confused teenager, elevate the familiar setup. What really sets it apart, though, is the interplay of foreshadowing and misdirection, which guides the story to a chilling and inevitable conclusion.

Also Recommended

FSF 3-4-2019
Cover by Kent Bash

“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets”, by Gregor Hartmann (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Short Story

A police detective investigates a finance-related murder with broader social implications. Another of Hartmann’s wonderful stories set on the far-future frontier world of Zephyr; like the others, it stands on its own while rewarding fans of the previous stories. There is a nice little undercurrent of tension between the philosophically minded Inspector Song and her faith-oriented partner that lends the story extra weight.

Self-Storage Starts with the Heart“, by Maria Romasco-Moore (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 106, March 2019) Short Story

James can’t deal when his best and only friend Christopher moves away. Storing your loneliness can get expensive, so he builds his own discount loneliness storage apparatus and his equally lonely neighbor Emil convinces him they can start a business together. Author Moore makes building a world around a casual absurdity look easy, not to mention building a story around a protagonist with entirely selfish motives.

Curse Like a Savior“, by Russell Nichols (Apex Magazine Issue 118, March 2019) Short Story

Junior is a tech who repairs malfunctioning “Halograms”—religious-themed hologram devices—but there’s something different about Mrs. Fisher’s potty-mouthed Jesus. Nichols transforms what could have been a one-joke premise into a devilish surprise.

Hands Made for Weaving, With Nails Sharp as Claws“, by Eden Royce (Fireside Magazine Issue 65, March 2019) Short Story

This beautifully written story follows the efforts of the world weaver, who rescues magical creatures when they accidently slip through the veil between worlds. Full of wonderful imagery and memorable characters.

“How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers”, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Novelette

This long-gestating, standalone sequel to Watt-Evans’ Hugo-winning classic is the most perfect tribute imaginable to Asimov’s late, legendary former editor Gardner Dozois. A private investigator tracks the source of a mysterious object called a “neural resonator” to the titular diner, which is also a waypoint to the multiverse. A first-rate illustration of the kind of classically structured sci-fi Asimov’s has trafficked in since its inception.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Memory called empireMust Read! – Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of Arkady Martine’s debut space opera A Memory Called Empire, has more than one identity crisis on her hands: she has a deep affinity for the empire that wants to annex her home and she also literally has someone else’s personality nested in her brain. Dzmare’s internal conflicts correlate with the external ones that drive the novel’s plot. Living within the Teixcalaan Empire has been her heart’s desire since childhood, yet her primary aim as ambassador is to keep Teixcalaan from assuming control of her home, Lsel Station. This same conflict between personal desire and professional duty may have gotten her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn killed. It is Yskandr whose “imago” (an impression of the man built from his recorded memories) is implanted in her head. Imago technology is a Lsel state secret, yet the Teixcalaanlitzlim find it during Yskandr’s autopsy, and this discovery could embolden those who wish for Teixcalaan to consume Lsel.
To the author’s credit, her plotting is far less complicated than her world-building. Martine is a Byzantinist, and her Teixcalaan society is as relentlessly sophisticated as her discipline implies. At one point Mahit even refers to her passion for Teixcalaan ciphers as “byzantine”, and one can presume that when Teixcalaan survives but in memory and in the pages of history books will also invoke its name adjectively. The Teixcalaanlitzlim are a people in love with the idea of itself, where individual identity ties to a variety of cultural meanings and referents and even simple acts of communication come with layers of contextual baggage. The story, however, has a straightforward goal for its hero to achieve, muddied as it is by reactionary obstructions and elusive secrets. Mahit and her long-outdated, malfunctioning imago must find out how and why Yskandr was killed before forces inside and out overtake Teixcalaan and Lsel.
While the plot may be clear and linear, the novel’s architecture leaves room for more elaborate readings. Except for a few structured divergences, the tight third-person POV almost exclusively follows Mahit Dzmare from her arrival at the Teixcalaanli capital city-planet through the end. Those divergences—a prologue, epilogue, three interludes, and multiple historical excerpts and quotes heading each chapter—refer the reader to the broader political and historical circumstances at play. Together with Dzmare’s immersion in her beloved Teixcalaanli culture, Martine’s project offers a snapshot of a future history at least as rich and variegated as found in Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, with almost limitless potential for return visits.
A Memory Called Empire does an exceptional job of balancing precise, consequential storytelling with layered world-building. Explicating a culture as multifaceted as Teixcalaan has the potential to overwhelm readers with exegetic digressions and overstuffed lexicons but Martine keeps the exposition plot-centered without painting her presumably copious notes and research all over the page. The novel is also rife with the kinds of amenities that inspire fannish devotion, such as the delightful (and precious) Teixcalaanli naming system. What really makes the novel work, though, are the fundamentals: Dzmare and her confidants Three Seagrass and Twelve Azealia make for excellent company, and the suspenseful, well-paced mystery plot keeps the pages turning with escalating tension and perfectly measured revelations.

Novel Reviews – March 2019

Ancestral Night (White Space Book 1), by Elizabeth Bear (Saga, March 2019)

Ancestral NightRecommended – An early moment in Elizabeth Bear’s expansive new space opera Ancestral Night has narrator Haimey Dz offer a meta-commentary on the ancient, 19th century novels she reads during the long hours spent drifting through space: “They’re great for space travel because they were designed for people with time on their hands. Middlemarch. Gorgeous, but it just goes on and on.” Ancestral Night is a busy and boisterous novel, complex and beautifully composed, but also with a tendency to labor its points.
Haimey and her team of salvagers spend their time searching for derelict ships and abandoned tech in “white space”, ripples in space-time that enable faster than light travel. On their latest job, a nano-parasite created by a mysterious, long vanished race called the Koregoi infects Haimey, guiding her mind to an advanced Korogoi ship hidden inside a black hole. They aren’t the only salvagers who know about the ship, and Haimey finds herself on a collision course with some very dangerous revolutionaries willing to use the ship to settle their score with the far-reaching galactic society known as the Synarche.
Recalling the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, Bear depicts a space-faring civilization made up of a multitude of alien cultures and intelligences that uses advanced technology to care for its citizens needs. Differences compound the deeper Bear takes us into her world: unlike the Culture with its artificial Minds, the Synarche chooses its civil servants by draft lottery, doing away with the corruptible governing elites that less enlightened societies create.
Bear also takes technological augmentation to a new level. Haimey, like most of the Synarche’s citizens, has implants that allow her to interface with technology as easily as most of us breathe. These implants also allow her to turn emotions on and off and even alter her personality and psychological makeup at will. The cultish creche that raised her used them to brainwash her and make her complicit in their crimes, and later the Synarche uses them to remove her memories of those crimes. Bear highlights the philosophical conundrums inherent in these technological and social innovations and the complicated notions of consent that attend them.
Ancestral Night is saturated with moral and political ambition. Rich with conflict and action, though often slowed down by explication and discourse, the story sometimes loses its momentum. I look forward to the second volume in this planned duology with the hope that it moves at a more studious pace.

The True Queen (Sorcerer to the Crown Book 2), by Zen Cho (Ace, March 2019)

The True QueenHighly Recommended – When an author is building a sequel, the path of least resistance is to figure out what the reader wants (or thinks they want) and give it to them. The better option, though, is to write the book readers didn’t know they wanted. That’s what Zen Cho delivers in The True Queen, the standalone sequel to her popular and acclaimed Regency-era fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown.
Rather than pick up with the further adventures of Prunella and Zacharias Whyte, The True Queen tells the story of two sisters, Muna and Sakti, who are found by the powerful Malay sorceress Mak Genggang on her home island of Janda Baik. Muna has no magical ability at all while Sakti has an abundance. Both appear to have been cursed, and the suspected culprit carries a surname that readers of Sorcerer to the Crown will be familiar with: Midsomer. Mak Genggang ships the sisters off to England, for Sakti to apprentice under the Sorceress Royal Prunella Whyte, and for Muna to keep her sister company. While taking a shortcut through Fairy to their destination, Sakti disappears, leaving Muna to fend for herself when she reaches England. Pretending at having magic while scheming to find a way back into Fairy, Muna befriends Prunella’s schoolmate Henrietta Stapleton, who has trials of her own to face.
The plotting in The True Queen finds the author weaving together several different threads, including a few left dangling at the end of its predecessor. I am impressed by the author’s ability to fashion a satisfying sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown while relegating that novel’s major players to minor rolls. I also found the structure of the novel strikingly democratic, shuffling through a multitude of perspectives from chapter to chapter while still keeping its focus on Muna and her hero’s journey.
The True Queen is just as enchanting as Sorcerer to the Crown and provides ample evidence that this wonderful setting has many novels worth of material for the author to mine from.

The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency Book 2), by John Scalzi (Tor, October 2018)

consuming fireRecommended – In his second Interdependency novel, John Scalzi picks up the threads he left dangling at the end of The Collapsing Empire: Kiva Lagos settles into her role as custodian of the House of Nohamapetan only to get a front-row seat to its matriarch’s treachery; Marce Claremont makes a stunning discovery (or re-discovery) while studying the collapse of the Flow streams; and Grayland II uses every tool at her disposal to consolidate power and convince the masses that the Flow collapse is real and urgent.
This sequel comes out of the gate swinging, with Scalzi’s crunchy humor and hyper-efficient prose delivering a raucous mini-epic of a prologue that sets up Grayland II’s use of her position as leader of the Interdependency Church to advance her agenda. Scalzi is at his best when he offers a heady but digestible mix of action, humor and philosophical inquiry, and his opening salvo delivers all three in spades. The rest of The Consuming Fire offers plenty of the first two but seems willing to leave us hanging with the questions it poses about mixing church and state and the role both play in civic life. Perhaps the problem is that it spends all its capital on the lives of the governing elite while the lives of the governed are little more than a blurry rabble taking up space in the background.
There are a lot of great action scenes and character moments in The Consuming Fire, and it has a “less talk more rock” edge over its more annotative predecessor. Two books in, the Interdependency is entertaining enough to satisfy Scalzi’s fans; here’s hoping some of its still dormant seeds will germinate in the next book.

A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen, December 2018)

Star Wheeled SkyHumanity once spread throughout the stars in huge, slow generation ships, but one day they discovered a massive alien superhighway called the Waywork. Humanity could use the Waywork to fast travel between habitable systems and a vast galactic human civilization was born. No trace of the alien race that built the Waywork remained. A thousand years later human civilization has splintered into five Starstates, with the two largest—egalitarian Constellar and the merciless, imperialistic Nautilan—mired in bloody territorial conflict. When a brand-new waypoint appears on the map, the race is on for the two warring states to claim the territory as their own. Solving the mystery of why the waypoint appeared and of the strange new world they find there may be bigger than any dispute between the two powers.
Author Torgersen packs his military space opera with the kind of hard sf action detail-obsessed nerds drool over, and the setting is keenly imagined. However, the stock characters—the gruff-but-earnest flyboy, more-than-meets-the-eye space princess, and vicious, snarling antagonist—are one-dimensional. This could work well as a series, assuming the revelations to its riddles live up to the hype.

Ten Thousand Thunders, by Brian Trent (Flame Tree, October 2018)

ten thousand thundersBrian Trent has spent time in the universe of his new novel Ten Thousand Thunders before, with his “War Hero” series of short stories. It’s obvious he’s thought about this setting a lot and packs a ton of detail into it. Set in a post-collapse future where technology and corporate dominance reignite with a vengeance and death is a minor inconvenience for those who can afford to clone a new body to house their consciousness. There’s a little bit of Altered Carbon meets The Expanse in its mix of bloody, hard-boiled action and solar-system spanning political maneuvering.
The plot machinations of Ten Thousand Thunders are so byzantine it’s impossible to encapsulate them, but for better or worse the novel follows InterPlanetary Council investigator Gethin Bryce as he tries to figure out who blew up the shuttle he was riding in, and why. He crosses paths with revolutionary soldier Celeste Segarra, whose organization wants to level the playing field for the haves and have nots, and together they try to keep their heads attached to their necks while uncovering a conspiracy as old as humanity itself.
About two-thirds of the way through I realized the plotting was just going to keep getting denser and denser, and even then, nothing prepared me for how outrageous it was going to get. The action is tough, the pacing perhaps a bit too fiendish, and its final revelations a little hard to swallow.

The Best Short SFF – February 2019

Featured image from the cover of Apex Magazine issue 117, by Julia Griffin

In addition to being the shortest month of the year, I faced some unexpected life changes in February and was unable to produce my zine review column on a weekly basis. While my writing time suffered, my reading time thankfully did not, and I found plenty of quality short fiction to celebrate this month.

Must Read

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Art by Pear Nuallak

The Message” by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire Issue 48, February 2019) Short Story

Science fiction has always assumed that if Earth received a message from deep space, it would have civilization-altering consequences. Here, Vanessa Fogg charts a near-future course for us where scientists find such a message and it is just consumed, rather inelegantly, into our mass-media culture. Sarah is the teenaged daughter of the scientist who discovered the enigmatic, indecipherable Message fifteen years before, but its effect on her life has more to do with everyday concerns like “will my parents ever stop fighting?” and “does my best friend Chloe really love me?”. That second question forms the heart of Fogg’s story. Sarah and Chloe live half a world apart and have never met – and may never meet – in person, yet to Sarah the intimacy of that relationship is as deep and true as anything she can see or touch. Fogg disperses so many thematic and narrative strands and covers so many relevant scientific and sociological issues it is an absolute marvel how she weaves them together into a cohesive whole. Inventive, intricate, incandescent; stories like this are the reason I have a “Must Read” category in this column.

The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” by Izzy Wasserstein (Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019) Short Story

Traverse is a mythical city suspended over a chasm by a massive spider’s web, whose magic users become the thing they specialize in. Danae is headed for spider-dom, but first she must escape the predations of a dangerous fly cult and unravel a conspiracy that threatens to upend everything she holds dear. “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is a jaw-dropping feat of imaginative world-building bolstered by an exciting and suspenseful chase plot.

Reviewed in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Rack.

 

Highly Regarded

Thoughts and Prayers - Sarula Bao
Art by Sarula Bao

Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu (Slate – Future Tense, January 26, 2019) Short Story

When Abigail Fort loses her daughter Hayley in a mass shooting, she decides her daughter’s death needs to mean something and allows a gun control group to use Hayley in a high-tech lobbying campaign. Then, out come the trolls. Abigail’s sister-in-law helps her get fitted with a new digital armor to filter out all the virtual attacks and disturbing, unintended consequences ensue. Liu’s mastery of near-future speculation and his grasp of the core issues is illuminating. An effective use of shifting perspectives, especially when we get a troll’s take on the proceedings.

This Wine-Dark Feeling That Isn’t The Blues” by José Pablo Iriarte (Escape Pod #666, February 7, 2019) Short Story

Abigail can’t accept losing her lover Savannah, but she has suspicions about the true nature of existence that, if true, could help her chart a new course. A moving story with a brilliant twist, stunning in its economy of plot and language (it is only 1600 words long). The less said, the better: just read (or listen to) it. A content warning accompanies the story; be aware that it deals with suicide.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art by Richard Wagner

Counting Days” by Patricia Lundy (Daily Science Fiction, February 1, 2019) Short Story

Another brief and powerful story about a touchy subject; DSF won’t let you see the text without first reading the content warning – kudos.

“The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright” by Alison Wilgus (Interzone #279, January/February 2019) Novelette

Katherine, the sister of the famous Wright brothers, Orville and Wilber, can thread herself backward in time – an ability that comes in handy when one of the boys keeps getting himself killed. The bittersweet ending packs an extra punch if you know how things turned out in real life.

Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang (Tor.com, 1/23/2019) Novelette

It’s not everyday you get to describe a story about a young woman pursued by a serial killer as “easygoing”, but that’s what you get here, and somehow it works.

Reviewed in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Rack.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2019

Featured image by Ashley Mackenzie from “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270, January 31, 2019

BCS 270
Cover Art: “Dreams of Atlantis” by Flavio Bolla

The narrator of Natalia Theodoridou’s short vignette “To Stab with a Rose” reveals an odd custom from her homeland, involving dancers on a frozen lake in spring choosing lovers by offering them a rose or a knife. The rose means you get no play, and the knife means you get cut and the lovemaking lasts for as long as the wound stays open. Unceasing war has since forced her to flee her homeland, and she now works as a servant in a foreign land. She pines after a fellow servant girl, who’s not in to her like that, while frequently being summoned to the bedchamber of her mistress, who is. As an internal monologue about her pain over the loss of her homeland and customs there are some nice passages here. Trying to keep a sense of one’s own culture in a place that doesn’t understand or accept it is a double-edged sword – the very thing that keeps you grounded in your identity can also distance you from others and leave you vulnerable to exploitation. The conflation of love with open wounds is an interesting, if grisly, metaphor.
When we meet the healer Eefa at the beginning of Alix E. Harrow’s “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, she is fleeing the city of Xot and the Emperor’s endless war machine. Eefa’s pregnant wife Talaan, a famed warrior and the Emperor’s Lion of Xot, tracks her down and convinces her to return, promising her that their new daughter will be a healer like her, not a soldier. Eefa relents and returns with her, but soon learns that the Emperor’s will trumps even that of the great Lion of Xot. Harrow builds an interesting culture in this story, one where women are bred to be soldiers and pregnancy isn’t an excuse to keep one from the battlefield. I liked that titles such as “husband” and “emperor” were not gendered when describing a person’s role in society. The choices that Eefa and Talaan make at the end are touching, and the final image is stark and memorable.

Tor.com 1/23/2019 & 1/30/2019

HIs Footsteps
Cover Art by Kashmira Sarode

I love the groundwork Mimi Mondal lays for her story “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”. Binu is a trapeze artist for the Majestic Oriental Circus in India, who also plays the character of Alladin for a real-life jinni’s illusion show. The jinni, Shehzad Marid, trusts only Binu with the care of his lamp. This makes Binu his de facto master, though Binu doesn’t see it that way. While performing at the wedding for the raja’s daughter in Thripuram, a devadasi (holy courtesan), convinces Binu to let her run away with the circus, which has deadly consequences for all of them. There’s so much to savor in story—the warm friendship between Binu and Shehzad, the unconventional daily life of the circus troupe—that the letdown of the story’s ending sank lower than it should have. The climax makes up its own rules, and the resolution comes too easily.
Lynette grew up in the circus. After spurning the advances of the escape artist, he chains her up and throws her in the water tank to drown. She is rescued by a boy in a mirror who becomes her boyfriend/companion, even though he is only present as her reflection. He disappears when she is sixteen, only to reappear years later when someone is hunting down anyone with a connection to him. The title of J.Y. Yang’s new story “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a bit on the nose, don’t you think? I appreciated that all three title characters had a POV section of the story, though in some ways I would have preferred it stay with Lynette, who is the hero and whose section has the longest word count. Magic is an accepted part of daily life so there’s a weird casualness to everything that goes on in the story, even when it seems like the characters should act with a little more urgency. The writing has an unforced charm, like most of Yang’s work; I suppose not every story has to ratchet up the tension to 11, even when the protagonist is being hunted by a serial killer.

Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019

Apex-Magazine-Nook-117
Cover Art by Julia Griffin

The brilliant concept that drives Izzy Wasserstein’s “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is that magic users transform into the thing they specialize in. In Danae’s case, it’s spiders, and she has a complicated relationship with her houseplant of a mother. Danae works as a courier for Pliny (books of course), who sends her on a job to clients who turn out to be fly cultists, who want to sacrifice her in a mysterious ritual. What starts as a straightforward chase story evolves into a meditation on cities and the people and myths and social structures that hold them together. Traverse is a mythical city filled with as much corruption, inequality, and structural decay as any real one, suspended over a chasm called the Drop by a massive spider’s web—an astounding visual metaphor, and one that Wasserstein uses to weave together a variety of thematic strands. Danae muses on the perception gap between rich and poor: the weave is tighter in the rich parts of town, where folks don’t have to worry about gaps in the walkway, while Danae prefers “to get clear of those claustrophobic streets” where she can “dash across open spaces” and “feel the web… beneath her bare feet.” An outstanding tale in a vivid and inventive setting.
Amadis escapes from their abusive Fey lover Kinnear, who doesn’t give up so easy in Hayley Stone’s suspenseful “Cold Iron Comfort”. The story does a good job of depicting the trauma abuse survivors suffer, and the climax contrives a clever solution to Amadis’ plight. I liked the way the author expressed Amadis’ gradual understanding of their gender fluidity.

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

*** “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, by Izzy Wasserstein

* “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy”, by J.Y. Yang

Capsule Reviews – February 2019

Rewrite: Loops in the Timescape, by Gregory Benford (Saga, January 2019)

rewriteDisaffected, middle-aged college professor Charlie Moment suffers what should be a fatal car accident in the year 2000, but instead wakes up as his 16-year-old self in 1968, with all his previous memories intact. So he does what anyone would do with a second chance at his adult life: he steals ideas for yet-to-be-made movies and becomes a rich Hollywood mogul. Along the way he meets other (famous) people who have had the same experience—including Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Albert Einstein, Casanova—and becomes enmeshed in a conflict between competing factions who want to shape history to their liking.
Rewrite gives hard SF stalwart Gregory Benford the opportunity to revisit the premise of his most famous novel, Timescape, where scientists use faster-than-light tachyons to send messages about an impending disaster to the past, while trying to tip-toe around the Grandfather Paradox. At one point, Charlie meets with James Benford, the author’s real-life twin brother (who is the author of Timescape in this rewrite of history), seeking an explanation of how his own mind could transfer to his past self. At one point Charlie suggests that he would prefer to adapt Timescape without all the complicated scientific explanations, to which the physicist replies “Then what would be left?” The irony of this is, that in acknowledging its debt to similar “if I knew then what I know now” time travel stories like Peggy Sue Got Married and Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Rewrite posits that these plots work just fine when they hand wave past the science and focus on character and action.
On the downside, while the action and science in Rewrite work, the main character doesn’t. Charlie’s cynicism in his approach to reinventing his life—and the world—is not unexpected for a middle-aged divorcee, but the novel doesn’t bother offering any critical distance from it. Charlie steals ideas from actual creative minds and produces successful facsimiles without consequence as if the idea divested from its author is interchangeable with the original. This callousness infects every aspect of his life. With a satirical approach, Benford may have been able to get away with having such an unlikeable character as his hero. That’s not how it plays out. While Charlie learns and grows by the end and takes steps to correct his mistakes, I had little sympathy for him by then and no desire to absolve him of them.

Arkad’s World, by James L. Cambias (Baen, January 2019)

Arkad's WorldHighly Recommended – Baen Books often touts itself as a purveyor of old-school sci-fi, but James Cambias’ new novel is the first I’ve read in a long time that could actually pass for something written four or five decades ago. Teenager Arkad is the lone human on a diverse world populated by star-faring races from all over the galaxy. Arkad’s expertise in navigating the planet’s physical and cultural terrain comes in handy when four people from Earth show up looking for the ship Arkad arrived on as a child. They think the ship contains artifacts important to Earth’s resistance to an alien occupation force, and though Arkad’s memory of the ship and its location is fuzzy, he believes he can help them find it.
Cambias’ world-building is breathtaking in its depth and detail, right down to the unique psychological makeup of each alien race. With each passing sentence the scope of this universe expands from a planetary adventure to a galactic epic. The plot is episodic, with cliffhanger-style suspense and heroics, though it’s not as straightforward as it first appears: little inconsistencies and contradictions pop-up throughout, leading to a perception-altering twist. With its memorable characters and setting and lightning-fast pacing, Arkad’s World is the first great sci-fi treat of the new year.

Here and Now and Then, by Mike Chen (MIRA, January 2019)

Here and Now and ThenMike Chen’s debut novel Here and Now and Then begins with a man out of time. Kin Stewart is an agent for the TCB (Temporal Corruption Bureau) who gets stuck in the late 1990s when his retrieval beacon gets damaged. It takes two decades for the Bureau to find him, and by then he’s broken their cardinal rule not to mess with the past by marrying his wife Heather and fathering a daughter, Miranda. Corruption to the timeline is negligible, so the TCB allows him to return to his job and agrees to let Miranda live, as she had little effect on history. Kin longs to know how his daughter’s life turned out, and the actions he takes when he finds out puts both their lives—and the world as he knows it—at grave risk.
Here and Now and Then succeeds at all the fundamentals: strong premise, likeable characters, focused plotting, steady pacing. The novel takes few risks though. It ignores intriguing dramatic possibilities in favor of the standard action movie scenario of a father trying to rescue his daughter from certain peril, and there is minimal pulse-raising in terms of suspense and upping the stakes. It’s a pleasant and emotionally satisfying time-passer, if not very distinctive.

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, by Micah Dean Hicks (John Joseph Adams, February 2019)

break the bodiesIt’s refreshing to run into a genre novel that carves its own path, and that’s what you get with Micah Dean Hicks’ debut Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. The novel’s setting is Swine Hill, a town so saturated with ghosts that literally everyone has at least one haunting them. Jane has a good relationship with her ghost, who feeds her the secrets others hide from the world. Her boyfriend Trigger is haunted by the ghost of his own brother, whom he accidently killed. And her brother Henry’s mad scientist of a ghost helps him create, Doctor Moreau-style, a pig person called Walter Hogboss, who ends up running the local slaughterhouse. When the company that owns the slaughterhouse creates more pig people to staff the place, the townspeople turn on their monstrous new residents, leading Jane to believe they must flee before the town overflows with violence.
Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is a surreal horror story about “economic anxiety”, which has been a buzzy media term the last few years. It doesn’t work as a political allegory but as an exercise in sustained dread, I found much to admire. the story unfolds with a captivating spontaneity, and while it sometimes felt unfocused this mostly works in the novel’s favor. Those looking for an offbeat read may find this rewarding.

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon, October 2018)

UNholy LandMust Read! – Lavie Tidhar’s sci-fantasies swirl around in a nexus of dreams and memories and imagined realities, soaking through pages of pulpy detective potboilers and silver-age sci-fi brain benders. They are also intensely personal, perhaps none more so than his new novel, Unholy Land. The novel’s hero, a writer named Lior Tirosh, bears not only his creator’s initials but seems to have also written all his novels. This is typical of Tidhar’s metaphysics, where the truth of one reality is the daydream of another.

Tirosh travels from Berlin to the Jewish homeland of Palestina in east Africa, where he was born and much of his family still lives. Not long after he arrives, Tirosh finds an old schoolmate murdered in his hotel room. His niece also goes missing while protesting the construction of a wall meant to keep refugees out of the country. Tirosh, confusing himself with the low-rent detectives he often writes about, “takes the case.” His profession isn’t the only thing confusing him: this reality might not even be the only one he occupies.Palestina has real historical precedent: Tidhar’s introduction explains how the Zionist Congress had once surveyed land in British East Africa as a proposed solution to Europe’s “Jewish problem.” They found the land unsuitable, but many years later, one surveyor remarked that if they had established a Jewish Homeland there, the Holocaust may never have happened.

With Unholy Land, Tidhar slips into the role of Leguin’s George Orr, willing one solution to the disaster of history that, hydra-like, sprouts new disasters in its place. All the anxiety, horror, and heartbreak attending the endless cycles of injustice that haunt our world find vivid expression in his works, and Unholy Land may cut the deepest.

 

The Best Short SFF – January 2019

Featured Image from this month’s Fireside Magazine: Illustration by Galen Dara for Mary Soon Lee’s “Lord Serpent”

Must Read

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Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) Short Story

The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.

 

Highly Regarded

Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story

The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.

The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019) Novelette

In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Short Story

11-year-old Amina has a mad scientist for an older sister who insists on using her as a guinea pig to test her “mechanical marvel”. A sweet-natured tale of sibling rivalry and bonding.

“The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January/February 2019) Novella

Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.

On the Origin of Specie” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare Magazine Issue 76, January 2019) Short Story

A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.

“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]

An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.

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Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (Fireside Magazine Issue 63, January 2019) Short Story

Brian is a father with dyslexia who feels left behind when his young son Andre receives an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Very moving.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab (The Dark Issue 44, January 2019) Short Story

A chilling monster story about a London tunneling project that unleashes something terrible.

Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 148, January 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet vignette about life on a colonized Venus, as loved ones remember a recently deceased florist who wanted the planet to remain a “wild untamed” place free from the ravages of terraforming.