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Emily Nordling

Tips for Resistance in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough

The One State Party is on the rise. Corruption and lawlessness have become too much for each of the Federated States of Gedda to handle on their own, and they’re looking for a great unifier in the midst of chaos. The seat of this chaos is Amberlough: a city awash in vice and beauty, where love is free and gender is questionable at best. To Amberlinians like Cordelia Lehane and Aristride Makricosta—performers at the Bumble Bee Cabaret—their world is untouchable by the likes of the One State Party (Ospies, for short). But when Ari’s lover, Cyril DePaul, gets in over his head while spying on the Ospies, they’re forced into a performance that may well cost their lives—or worse, their freedom.

I won’t be the last (and I’m certainly not the first) to call Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough timely. Set amidst the lavish nightlife of a republic decaying into fascism, Amberlough is a piquant fruit of a book, ripening just in time for a year of protest and civil unrest. The novel is rich enough, luckily, for us to read its parallels and twists in a multitude of ways: it’s as much about sex as it is about art as it is about rebellion. It’s as much about our current age as it is the Weimar Republic as it is another world entirely. So you can read Amberlough as a queer Le Carré novel, or as a fantastical Cabaret—both descriptions are readily embraced by the publisher and the author—or you can read it as I read almost every book, regardless of intent: as a handbook for resistance. And Amberlough, with its lush prose and charmingly flawed characters, makes for an assortment of delightful tips.

[Keynotes from Amberlough’s handbook on resisting a Totally Fictional Fascist Regime]

A Matter of Perspective: The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Unreal and the Real is both the companion anthology to this October’s The Found and the Lost, and a re-release of the Small Beer Press 2-part short story anthology originally published in 2012. With an elegant, updated cover, and one new story (“Jar of Water,” 2014), this massive hardback edition would be a stunning addition to any collection, despite some potential repetition. The novelty of the volume is in its placement alongside Le Guin’s novella compendium, and the heaviness (both literal and metaphysical) of a 700-page collection of almost 40 stories, spanning a career of over 50 years.

Some of Le Guin’s most anthologized stories (such as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) are present in the collection, as are some of her more experimental, obscure ones (such as “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”). All are written and presented with the characteristic deftness and beauty that has come to define Le Guin’s career; each word of her prose is economical, and each portrayal of intimacy and power is newly striking. The short story form is the real star of the volume, as so many of the collected works stretch the possibilities of the form, utilizing their short formats and compact themes to the utmost affect. And yet among the collection’s many charms, it is Le Guin’s attempt to embody and categorize her work that I am inevitably drawn to.

[Never-ending ruminations on genre, plus the Table of Contents]

Poor Strangers: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and White is for Witching

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.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle always bears rereading. Its strange, creeping prose, its charming protagonists, and its evocation of outsiderdom stand up to every memory or expectation you might have. Jackson didn’t pull any cheap shots with her horror. Even if the reveal at the end of the novel was a surprise to you, the richness of the mystery isn’t lost in hindsight. If anything, it highlights the cleverness of Jackson’s plotting, and makes the characters that much more pitiful, that much more horrifying.

One thing changed, though, between my first reading of Always Lived and my most recent one. In between, I read Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. I won’t be the first or the last to compare the two novels. They both feature old families in old houses, mysterious deaths and fear of outsiders, and both crawl under your skin with every new scene. But White is for Witching isn’t a straightforward retelling or inspired-work: it’s about racism, it’s about nationalism, and it’s about the genuine horror of social change. And it’s impossible, after reading it, to look at We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the same way again.

[“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”]

The Alchemy of SciFi: John Crowley’s New Telling of The Chemical Wedding

In 1616, a very odd little book was published in what is today Germany. Its narrator, Christian Rosencreutz, told the tale of his bizarre and otherworldly foray into a secret society. It featured angels, automata, and ancient, arcane wisdom. Some readers viewed it as a religious allegory, some as an alchemical one. Some—in light of two manifestos published in the years preceding it—thought this book a revelation of a true secret society: the Rosicrucian order, a group of hermetic, Christian alchemists that were poised to change the world. Not, perhaps, features we’d associate with modern science fiction.

Author John Crowley, however, is reclaiming The Chemical Wedding. Alchemy, he argues in his introduction to Small Beer Press’ new edition, “had the same fascination for readers of the [Renaissance] as the scientific possibilities of classic SF did in its last-century heyday.” No matter its associations today—with the occult, Nicholas Flamel, or Fullmetal Alchemist—alchemy was once a cutting-edge science, one that well-respected men like Isaac Newton and Giordano Bruno thought would heal society’s political and religious rifts. Crowley’s new edition of the alchemical Wedding attempts to resituate it in these terms. Published during the year of the book’s 400th anniversary, with Gorey-like illustrations by Theo Fadel, The Chemical Wedding is living and breathing yet again, reopening a bizarre and understudied chapter in European history.

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Farsickness, Homesickness in The Found and the Lost by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s a good time to be an Ursula K. Le Guin fan, and an excellent time to become a convert. Among the numerous releases and rereleases slated for the next year, Saga Press has collected Le Guin’s short fiction into two stunning hardcover editions, released in October. The first, The Found and the Lost (novellas), I’ll attempt to tackle here. The second, The Unreal and the Real (short stories), I’ll explore later this year. In November the two collections will be released yet again, this time as a boxset (just in time, presumably, for the Holidays). But whether you buy these collections separately or together, you’re in for a treat. A graceful, intrepid, and sometimes devastating treat.

The Found and the Lost captures Le Guin at her most formidable, welcoming readers home to places they’ve never visited, and making the familiar stranger and stranger still. If you caught her Orsinia collection earlier this fall, these stories will feel right at home nestled within her pseudo-historical Europe. Revolution, community, and comings-of-age map as well onto alien planets as they do onto 19th century bildungsroman. And of course, glimpses into both the Earthsea Archipelago and the travels of the Ekumen will round out the collection for any long-time fans.

[More, including the Table of Contents]

Nature Bites Back: The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

Autumn only ever helps me forget the death of the earth. As green withers to brown and wind sharpens into something like winter, it’s easy to think of the dying earth as an annual ritual rather than a looming (and more permanent) scientific reality. And where the turn in scifi towards eco-futurism, solarpunk, and dystopian climate disasters is a constant reminder of humanity’s relationship to that countdown, I tend to consider the high fantasy genre to hold a more romantic perspective, one that invokes the cyclical nature of the seasons. Whether it’s magic growing out of humanity’s connection to earth, or an abomination against it, the genre so often yearns for equilibrium and for a pre-modern relationship to nature.

It’s not an overarching theme, of course, but often the secondary worlds that break that mold are doing it so deliberately that we can’t help but sit up and take notice. Last year, one of those novels was Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. This fall, while trees are dying and the air is quickening, the exception to watch for is The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst. Nature in this world is anything but benevolent. The bond it has formed with humanity is anything but equal. Nature, in Renthia, is honestly a bit terrifying.

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Orsinia: Le Guin’s Imaginary Europe

Last Tuesday, the Library of America released The Complete Orsinia—a gorgeous, special edition hardback that collects Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Orsinia” works. Le Guin is one of a handful of sci-fi authors to be featured in the mostly ‘literary’ collection, taking her place among the usual crowd of male luminaries (Dick, Lovecraft, etc.). And yet the novel Malafrena (begun in the 1950s, but published in 1979) and its accompanying short fiction and songs (originally published 1976 and on) don’t feature the alien worlds or strange technologies that Le Guin’s more acclaimed works do. In fact, the novel’s traditional homage to a European coming-of-age novel will sound nostalgic, maybe even backwards to some readers, compared to the complex, feminist visions of her sci-fi. However, the hallmarks of the Hainish Cycle and Earthsea remain: the strangers in strange lands, the struggles for social change, and the perils of identity-making, all weave their way through the stories of Orsinia. As one of Le Guin’s first worlds, Orsinia is in many ways a precursor to the more fantastical ones that followed. Moreover, its more explicit relationship to classic literature might make you view both genres in a new light.

And, of course, there’s the fact that Orsinia—the European country where each story is set—is imaginary. “I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there,” Le Guin explains in the collection’s introduction. “At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.” Thus with a characteristically deft hand, and an edge of the uncanny, Le Guin explores the boundaries of a place and time at once familiar and foreign.
[“–Europe, stretched like the silent network of liberalism, like the nervous system of a sleeping man–”]

A City of Towering Intrigue: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

Ang is seventeen and just doing her job—her very complicated, very dangerous job—when two things happen that will change her life. First, she sees that the Beacon, Bar-Selehm’s greatest and brightest icon, has been stolen from its place towering above the steam and chimneys of the city. Second, she finds her new apprentice, Berrit, dead. The work of a steeplejack is not for the faint of heart: climbing the tall and twisting buildings of Bar-Selehm is a constant matter of life and death. But Berrit didn’t fall from a building or a ladder; he was stabbed. And Ang’s steeplejack skills are about to come in handy for more than just repairing the crumbling facades of the city.

A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack is equal parts South African-inspired steampunk, detective fiction, coming-of-age saga, and political intrigue; it is as diverse in genre and theme as it is in its characters. Add to all of this Ang—courageous, kind, and out-of-place no matter where she goes—and you’ll find a reading experience both rich and impossible to turn away from. Ang’s quest to solve Berrit’s murder takes her from the toxic maneuvers of high society to the stifling conformity of village life, from surrogate motherhood to violent protests. It is a complex story that only a protagonist like Ang could carry; a story filled with danger and hope alike.

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Explore Good Art: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

In what would quickly become his most viral work to date—the 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts—author Neil Gaiman gave a piece of simple, if sprawling, advice: “Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.” And from an author as prolific, as adventurous, and (as I’ve learned) unabashedly optimistic as Gaiman, this suggestion is as sincere as it is solid. In his new nonfiction collection, The View From the Cheap Seats, readers will find over two decades of Gaiman’s rapt love and encouragement of good art. They’ll find speeches, essays, and introductions that overflow with nerdy fervor, and that use the same graceful, fantastical turns of phrase that define the author’s fiction. They’ll find good art, for sure, and they’ll also find Gaiman’s own explorations of good art.

I’m not sure that Gaiman would want to call his work here cultural criticism, but I’m going to go out on a limb and slap on the label, and I’m also going to say it’s some of the best of its kind. Debates about the role of criticism—who has the right to say what about whom and on what platform, and why it matters that they’ve said it—are almost as old as culture itself. And the line has always been blurry, too, between critic and creator, between fan and creator, and between fan and critic. The View From the Cheap Seats exists along these blurred lines, reveling in a world that is full of art and full of people talking about it, experiencing it, and creating it. We know Gaiman the author, but here is Gaiman the fanboy, Gaiman the journalist, Gaiman the boy that was raised by librarians. The View From the Cheap Seats is a book of conversations. It’s a book of kind words and big ideas, and yes, occasionally, it’s a book of recommended reading.

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To Write Your Own Deliverance: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

When Imogen was a little girl, she told her sister Marin fairy tales. Once upon a time, she’d tell her, there was a way out—a way out of their house, out of their lives, and out of the oppressive clutches of their abusive mother—on the backs of fairies. As an adult, of course, Imogen knows that half her way out had been in the telling of the tales; and so she continues to tell them, as a writer still grappling with the terrors of her childhood. Reunited with her sister at an exclusive artists’ retreat, though, Imogen is forced to confront her past head-on. Fairy tales may be the solution yet again, but this time, it’s not Imogen alone that will shape the story, and her happy ending may be just out of grasp.

Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot is as dark and engrossing as its title suggests, a contemporary fairy tale for artists, survivors, and anyone that has ever sought escape in a story. At Melete, mysterious and prestigious artists’ retreat, Imogen and Marin face a challenge that is familiar to many of us: creating a work of art that will prove to them that their struggles have been worth it. Despite the breathless beauty and small comforts at every corner of the sprawling, idyllic campus, Imogen struggles to live up to the expectations of Melete, feeling as though she’s watched at every moment by judging eyes. It is, as I said, a familiar scenario for the creative audience: imposter syndrome, fear, and pride war in Imogen and her cohort. The friendships they create, though, and the rekindled bond between Imogen and Marin, carry them through. Until, of course, they’re set against one another.

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The Power of Words: Joan Aiken’s The People in the Castle

“Night, now.”

So begins the first of twenty tales of enchantment and lonely fools in a new collection of Joan Aiken’s old stories, The People in the Castle. And what a fitting opening for this haunting and wondrous book—beckoning the reader into its pages with an allure that’s both simple and immediately unsettling. Despite her continued, almost cult following amongst fantasy and children’s literature enthusiasts, I had never picked up an Aiken story before Small Beer Press’ newest compilation. From those first words, though, I became as devoted as the readers that have grown up with her, as immersed in her easy language and glancing strangeness as a little girl enraptured by a fairy tale.

Aiken is perhaps best known for her series of children’s novels beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but she wrote extensively during her lifetime, including her first novel at the age of 16. Her interest in uncanny truths and somber moral lessons might make her works too dark for many of our 21st century standards of children’s lit, but she fits well among contemporaries like Shirley Jackson and harkens back, unsurprisingly, to a still more historic tradition. According to the Telegraph (as quoted in Kelly Link’s introduction to the collection), Aiken’s “prose style drew heavily on fairy tales and oral traditions in which plots are fast-moving and horror is matter-of-fact but never grotesque.” Still more fairy-tale-like than her prose, though, is her absolute reverence for words and language. Aiken wrote stories where words had real power, and her characters sought them like magicians hoping to harness a fairy’s magic.

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The Internet of Brains: Join, by Steve Toutonghi

Steve Toutonghi’s Join is the story of a person named Chance who, on the day they find out they have cancer, meets a man that has discovered the secret to immortality. The catch is this: Chance—and this immortal named Rope, and much of the rest of humanity—is not just one person, but multiple persons combined into a singular self. Forty years ago, Vitalcorp released the revolutionary technology Join, which allows individuals to link to one another and live multiple lives simultaneously. A single consciousness—a union of personalities and memories and skills—can pilot as many bodies (or “drives”) as have linked to the join. Already, Rope tells Chance, they are immortal; just because one body dies, doesn’t mean that their memories or their essential selves will perish too. But when Rope begins to join more and more bodies to experiment with killing them off, Chance is taken beyond mere pondering of moral philosophy; their embroilment with Rope will take them all the way to the inventors of the join technology to the fringes of society, where individuals still wander the ravaged, weather-torn earth.

Join is a conceptual powerhouse, tapping into the core of our contemporary debates about technology. As Chance and their best friend Leap journey, first to cure themselves, and then for answers, Join explores the ways that our obsession with tech reflects a certain kind of self-obsession, one that bypasses social inequality and environmental concerns. It questions the progressively-more-pressing question of connected consciousness, the erasure of the individual, and ultimately what it means to have a “self” at all.

[Warning: Unapologetic Sense8 comparisons ahead]

Don’t Trust the Interns (or the Narrator): The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

The Regional Office is your standard mysterious superhuman organization with no governmental oversight. It uses its powers for good—good that typically includes fantastical and oddly specific vacation destinations, as well as amassing an army of superpowered female assassins. Like I said, standard stuff. But now, despite its gifts to humanity and doubtless excellent benefits package, the Regional Office is under attack. The higher-ups knew it was coming—having a team of oracles on hand has its perks—and they knew that the attack would come from the inside. But no one told middle management, and anyone that’s ever had an entry-level position knows how that particular story plays out.

Manuel Gonzales does not pull any punches in his debut novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack!. Innocent office workers will be killed, revenge will be enacted, and teenagers will learn that they should never pick career paths at such an early age, especially when that career is assassin-hood. With cutting wit and non-stop action, The Regional Office is the funnest book I’ve read in ages, and is one of the most concise portrayals of office bureaucracy I’ve encountered outside of television series like The Office and Parks & Rec.

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Perceived Authenticity: Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

Katya makes a living off of memories. To put it plainly, she sells antiques—items from a bygone era when life accumulated in the form of stains and dust and imperfections. Her own memory is as spotless and certifiable as they come—with her AI to track her every move, she can replay her life as often as she’d like, and know exactly what she said and how she said it. So when a mysterious stranger kidnaps her and forces her off the grid, Katya’s physical well-being is only half of her concern. How can she know what’s real, after all, if she can’t trust her own mind?

Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novella, Forest of Memory, is as much a whispered question as it is a sci-fi adventure story, as subtle as it is fast-paced. If you’re drawn to Victo Ngai’s ethereal, dynamic cover art, the story it represents won’t disappoint you. Told in the form of a typo-ridden, written report, Katya’s story is every bit as fallible and mysterious as human memory.

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Magic in the City of Broken Dreams: Borderline by Mishell Baker

When Millie Roper is recruited to the Arcadia Project, she is finding her way back from rock-bottom. After losing her legs in an attempted suicide, she has spent the past year picking up whatever pieces of herself she finds worth preserving and making peace with her new reality. And now, her recruiter Caryl tells her, that reality will include fairies. Millie accepts the existence of the Seelie and Unseelie courts as graciously as you’d expect of someone whose life has already been upended a dozen times. After all, in Hollywood, it makes perfect sense that writers and actors would do anything to find a mystical muse, a bit of magic that they can use to make themselves immortal on screen. When a noble fey goes missing, though, sparking talks of war between the human and fairy worlds, Millie finds that she might just be in over her head.

Mishell Baker’s new Arcadia Project series is off to a thrilling and glamorous start with Borderline. That’s only fitting of its Hollywood setting, of course; cinematic in its scope and its style, the novel is every bit as engaging and sharp as a top-tier film (and considerably more diverse).

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