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Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Self-Conscious Stories: Tender by Sofia Samatar

Tender is a book-length collection of short fiction from Sofia Samatar, a brilliant Somali-American writer whose work has been nominated for several genre awards over the past few years. Samatar is also the winner of both the John W. Campbell and Crawford Awards—so, suffice to say she is doing consistently fantastic work, and Tender gathers much of that work together in one place for the first time.

Divided into two sections, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” this collection includes two original stories as well as eighteen reprints. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Fallow” are the two fresh publications here, both in the landscapes section of the book. The reprints range from 2012 to now in terms of their initial appearances, and also span a wide range of publications.

[A review.]

A Collaborative, Global, Intersectional Art Project: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar, and Anita Roy) is a collection of collaborative works between Australian and Indian creators—artists and writers both—inspired by feminist principles and the global struggle of girls in patriarchy. As the introduction notes, brutal crimes against young women in late 2012 in both countries sparked protest and activism; the world took notice, too. The anthology was born out of these conversations about “the fate of all young women,” and as the title emphasizes, it is about “impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone.”

The notable thing about this collection for young readers isn’t just that it came out of feminist principles, but also that it’s doing something I don’t see often at all: pairing up creators from different fields and cultures to create collaborative stories based on the theme. It creates a unique tone in the anthology, wherein it seems clear that everyone is experimenting and playing off of one another. In a sense, it reads more like an art project than a short story collection.

[A review.]

On the Cosmic Scale: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

There are pieces on the board: the Signalman, an agent for a blackbudget American service; a cult ranch-house at the Salton Sea that houses horrors from another world; a lost film about an alien princess; a timeless and frightening agent from another service with her own motivations; the New Horizons probe skating past the orbit of Pluto and encountering something alien. These singular events and people all feed into the start—or end—of something immense and devastating for the human species.

I have been continually impressed with the novella imprint, as it offers a unique and necessary venue for quality long-form fiction that doesn’t exist elsewhere—and Agents of Dreamland is no exception to that rule. The novella form allows Kiernan to construct a discomfiting narrative that skips like a stone across water, sketching out a brief but provocative landscape of fright and inevitability for our planet up against Lovecraftian cosmic horrors. It’s long enough to develop intense investment but short enough to leave unanswered and unanswerable questions about the future it implies.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Birth, Death, Rebirth: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars are Legion, recently released from Saga Press, is a stand-alone novel from the same woman who brought us The Bel Dame Apocrypha and The Geek Feminist Revolution. Set in a scattered belt of dying world-ships referred to as the Legion by the people who have access to the surfaces of the world, the novel mixes the trappings of quest narratives and space opera. Zan, our protagonist, awakes injured and with no memories—finding herself in the control of a group of women who claim to be her family, but seem to treat her more like a conscript.

She is told she must gain control of the Mokshi, a travelling world-ship that repels all invaders, to save the world of her so-called family. However, other ruling families in the Legion are also seeking to gain control of it and therefore bring salvage and life to their own decaying homes. Through a sprawling set of intrigues, Zan must discover her own past and determine the path to a future that she can survive.

[Read more]

Queer/Historical Magic: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

In contemporary San Francisco, an elderly woman spends her final afternoon alive retrieving an old and fragile piece of art from storage and selling it to an unscrupulous rare books dealer for mysterious reasons. Then, cut back to the nightlife of 1940s San Francisco, the same woman is party to the introduction of Emily—a young woman who has escaped from family censure—and Haskel, a bisexual artist who paints for the pulps. Emily and Haskel hit it off, as part of a small circle of likeminded women, and their romance takes them to the corners of the Magic City of the World’s Fair, but also to the edge of real magic.

Passing Strange is a queer historical novella with a healthy dose of magical realism—a combination sure to enrapture a specific audience, of which I am certainly one. Klages renders the reality of life for queer women in the ’40s with a matter of fact and honest level of detail. While the novella doesn’t flinch from the difficulties of oppression and abuse, as a whole it has a remarkably uplifting tone: these are women who have made lives together and will continue on into the future, in whatever ways they can.

[A review.]

Feminist Fiction in Translation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff is a first-person young adult novel, presented as a record written by the titular character. When Jai, a young woman fleeing her father, arrives at the Red Abbey for shelter, she brings on her heels the danger of the outside world. The abbey is a female-only space filled with learning, home and hearth; it exists to protect and preserve women’s rights and rites. Maresi must discover, through trial and danger, who she is and what path she is called to serve—and protect her home in the process.

The novel (which is first in a series) won the highest honor for young adult fiction in Finland, the Finlandia Junior Award, in 2014. Since then, the Red Abbey Chronicles have been translated across the globe—in Chinese, German, French, and more. Amulet Press has picked them up for publication in the US beginning in early 2017.

[A review.]

Comes in Twelves: Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson—best known for her award winning queer books including Written on the Body and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—has collected a set of twelve stories, paired with twelve anecdotes and recipes, inspired by the Christmas season. Christmas Days is attractive and color-printed, a blue and silver treat, and reflects the holiday spirit quite admirably.

It isn’t often one sees a Christmas book of this sort from someone other than, for example, a cooking television celebrity. It’s somehow immensely weird and pleasant to pick up one that is about queer families, aging, and making home from the exact same sort of genre but obviously quite different—given our narrator.

[A review.]

Whatever Walked There, Walked Alone: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

December 14, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s birth. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of her most memorable novels and short fiction.

The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps the most-researched, most-written-about of Jackson’s longform works. Published in 1959, the novel follows four people—Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, and our protagonist Eleanor—as they attempt to summer at Hill House for the purpose of doing research on its reported supernatural phenomena. Eleanor is a sheltered but damaged woman; she spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother, recently deceased, while her sister married and started a family of her own. Even as the novel begins, she’s still under the thumb of her sister and her brother-in-law, living off of a cot in their home. The trip offers her an opportunity to escape, to become something—except the house that awaits is a monstrous place.

Stephen King, in the introduction to the edition of the book that sits on my shelf, notes that “it seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” It’s hard to debate the claim that this is a deeply significant text in the field: it’s a certain thing that critics and readers alike have found themselves caught up in Jackson’s novel for decades, anxious in the grip of Hill House’s bad geometry and the complex currents of gender, sexuality, and isolation that run underneath.

[Read more]

Space Sublime: Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The latest original anthology from Jonathan Strahan, Bridging Infinity revolves around “engineering problems” with grandiose solutions: it’s quite literally the science fiction of ideas, envisioned by some of our contemporary short fiction writers. As Strahan notes, early pulp science fiction “was founded on a belief that problems are solvable,” and this anthology seeks to explore the “engineering sublime,” the sense of wonder, that the genre offers in terms of envisioning huge solutions to equally huge problems.

With this introduction, one might expect the stories—all from writers whose names are quite familiar; not a one of these contributors is anything less than well-known—to be entirely thought experiments. Some are, to be sure, but still others take sideways approaches to the concept of the sublime in the technical: the engineering solutions are awesome in the traditional sense of the word, but the stories are often about the people creating those solutions and their human lives as well.

[A review.]

Nights in Mexico City: Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexico City does not allow vampires within its borders—but that doesn’t necessarily keep them out. Atl, a vampire whose lineage traces back to the Aztecs, finds her way into the city while on the run from the rival gang of European vampires who executed her family. Domingo, a young man who makes his living sifting garbage for a rag-and-bone man, meets her and her genetically modified Doberman on a train. She’s desperate enough to make him an offer: payment for blood. She has no intention of drawing him in to her life, but they prove to be better matched than either initially suspected.

Certain Dark Things is Moreno-Garcia’s second novel, following the well-received Signal to Noise (2015). An urban fantasy set in a lovingly crafted Mexico City, the novel is a refreshing take on the tropes of the genre: the female protagonist is supported by a tender, fairly innocent, dedicated man, and the romantic tension is complicated significantly by their being from different species. Furthermore, it isn’t anglocentric in its approach to mythology and the supernatural.

[A review.]

Alt-History Queer Memoir: Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea is a prolific writer in fields ranging from keenly-observed memoir (Valencia, Rent Girl) to young adult fantasy (Mermaid in Chelsea Creek); she’s got toes dipped into several pools. One uniting thread in her stories is queerness, and another is the bittersweet sharpness of her prose. The most recent book—Black Wave—straddles those genres and tones, though: a startling, engaging, and incisive novel, it explores a metafictional alternate past with a protagonist also named Michelle. As the brief flap copy says, “It’s 1999. The world is ending.”

The experience of reading Black Wave is immersive and eerie, a version of our own world that feels abruptly and dangerously close to home in its coast toward oblivion. It’s a fantastic mélange of tropes and techniques: the observation and intuition of queer fiction, the cutting praxis of science fiction or alternate history, the intimacy of memoir, and the experimentation of metafiction. In short, it swept a hand down the keyboard that is my emotional range.

[This was a satisfying occurrence, to say the least.]

Series: Queering SFF

Balancing Act: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s novel, Range of Ghosts, begins the Eternal Sky trilogy, set in a world inspired by 12-13th century Central Asia (also featured in her 2010 novella Bone and Jewel Creatures). The book follows a set of exiles and outcasts from different kingdoms who come together as war and strife throw their previously settled societies into chaos. As civil war flames across the steppes, political intrigues unsettle royal dynasties elsewhere, and at the center of it all a murder-cult, an offshoot of the Uthman religion of the Scholar-God disavowed by its own society, sows discontent and infighting along the Celadon Highway with the intent to snap up all of the weakened kingdoms at the culmination of a great war.

Temur, a grandson of the Great Khagan, and Samarkar, once-princess of the Rasa dynasty and now a wizard, are the focal characters of the novel, which revolves around the developing political situation as much as it does their personal growth, relationships, and journeys. This is a complex fantasy, a tapestry woven of characters, intrigues, action, and epic—in the real sense of the word—conflicts that are only just beginning in Range of Ghosts. Those epic conflicts of religion and empire are reflected in the skies themselves; overhead, the heavenly bodies reflect the primacy of a ruler and a given faith. In the steppes, under the Qersnyk sky, there are moons for every one of the Great Khagan’s sons and grandsons. The skies of Rasan are different from the skies of the Rahazeen; what floats overhead—and what doesn’t—is immensely significant, and foregrounds the grand scale of the battles being waged.

[Read more]

An Echo in the Mind: The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan, an artist whose oeuvre spans a variety of mediums but who primarily works in the fantastic genre, has just published a collection of photographs of sculptures based on the Grimm’s Fairytales. The handsome collection, small enough to carry and big enough to appreciate at length, is called The Singing Bones. Tan is not the first artist to tackle these stories, not by generations and continual fistfuls of illustration and reenactment, but sculpture isn’t the traditional medium.

With introductory material written by Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes, the reader had a good sense of the project before delving into it. Gaiman addresses the emotional resonance of the pieces in his foreword—how it makes him want to put the stories in his mouth, like a child does. Zipes addresses the history—the Grimm brothers, their publications, and the traditional of illustration that made those publications as popular as they are today.

[A review.]

Haunting Grounds: As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended is Robin Talley’s third novel, following Lies We Tell Ourselves and What We Left Behind, and it’s her first in a speculative vein. As in her previous work, As I Descended is a young adult book with queer girl protagonists; in this case, Maria and Lily are a couple at an exclusive boarding school, but aren’t public about their relationship. This is, however, just one of the conflicts in the book—which is perhaps best described as “lesbian boarding school Macbeth,” complete with ghosts, predictions, and the twists of a traditional revenge-tragedy.

Maria is in need of the coveted Kinglsey Prize, a full scholarship ride to a university of her choice, to be able to attend college with Lily after their graduation from Acheron. However, Delilah—the most popular girl in their class—is at the top of the prize list, even though she doesn’t need the financial support at all. Maria and Lily, with the help of spirits that Maria can communicate with, hatch a plan to knock her down a peg. The problem is that the ghosts might not be as neutral or helpful as our protagonists would like to believe.

[A review.]

Transformative SFF: Transcendent, edited by K.M. Szpara

For the first time, joining their annual “best of” collections of lesbian and gay sf, Lethe Press will be publishing Transcendent, an annual collection of the best transgender sf: stories centering on trans characters as well as stories that occupy a trans subjectivity. K.M. Szpara is the editor for this first volume, which collects stories from a variety of writers and initial publications—including folks like Nino Cipri, A. Merc Rustad, Benjanun Sriduangkew, and Bogi Takács.

As a critic, there are occasional moments where it’s difficult to sort one’s response to a text out from objective considerations of skill, style, and merit and subjective intense pleasure at the fact that it exists. The metaphor I tend to use is: the book slammed down on all the buttons of things I need and here we are. So, I read this one twice to give it a fairer shake.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF