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Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Letters to Tiptree

|| Science fiction and fantasy writers, editors, critics and fans celebrate Alice Sheldon's 100th birthday in a series of letters, recognising her work and trying to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago.

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

The Monster Next Door: I Am Not a Serial Killer

IFC Midnight and director Billy O’Brien have brought Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer to life on the screen, starring Max Records and Christopher Lloyd. Our protagonist, John Wayne Cleaver, is a teenage sociopath attempting to keep his life together and himself in check with the help of his therapist and small-town associates. This is, of course, until a rash of serial murders begin in his town—and there’s something more or less than human behind them.

When the novel was originally published—six years ago—I found it reasonably compelling and entertaining, as evidenced by this review. It had some narrative hiccups but a strong use of voice and an engaging internal conflict for the protagonist; overall, I thought it was decent. So, when I had the chance to scope out an adaptation from IFC, I thought: why not?

[A review.]

Mundane Horrors: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s recent contribution to the Tor.com novella imprint, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, takes the reader into the dreamlands of Lovecraft to tell a very different type of story. Vellitt, our titular protagonist, is an older woman, a scholar—and she is tasked with fetching one of her young charges back from the waking world, where she has gone with a lover, himself a dreamer in their lands. Except, no surprise, it’s hardly that simple.

There are two things that make me appreciate a twist on the eldritch weirdness of Lovecraft in contemporary fiction. First, the text has to address the political and social issues of the source material—get clever with it, subvert it, acknowledge the racism and sexism. Second, the text has to contain the same hair-raising discomfort and cosmic horrors that draw readers like myself to Lovecraft to begin with.

Kij Johnson does both. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a strong novella as Lovecraftian fiction and on its own.

[A review.]

Underwater but Above Water: Drowned Worlds, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The most recent Solaris anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, Drowned Worlds, explores the futures we might encounter given our rising oceans, our collapsing ecosystems, and our unwillingness to stop the precipitous sink into the sea. Containing original fiction from folks like Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders, Nalo Hopkinson, and Sam J. Miller, this anthology is a quick, engaging, immersive read.

With a distinct political message, too, it’s an interesting reading experience: science fiction in its overtly didactic mode (though it is always, by virtue of asking the “what if” question, didactic to some extent). I appreciate dipping my toes into this vein of speculation, and these stories do a solid job of balancing their big ideas with their characters to make good stories.

[A review.]

Sprawling with Stories: The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The editorial duo of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have produced several stellar collections and anthologies in recent years. The pair show a distinct skill in creating themed retrospectives; their feminist science fiction project, Sisters of the Revolution, is one such contribution to the field that jumps to mind. This time around, they’ve taken on a much larger task: a retrospective of the twentieth century in science fiction, defined broadly and with enthusiasm.

There are several compendiums of science fiction out there—the Wesleyan and Norton anthologies, respectively, are oft-cited and regularly used as benchmarks of “the genre” in short fiction. However, The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection is a strong contender to displace those thanks to its broad scope, its international inclusiveness, and its academic eye to context and confluence. Vintage Books is producing the massive but affordable tome—and compared to the high price point of retrospectives from academic presses, that’s a significant bonus.

[A review.]

Back with a Fresh Look: The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks, seventh in Charles Stross’s ongoing Laundry Files series, once again takes us to the urban-science-fantasy-Lovecraftian-potential-apocalypse, this time from the perspective of Alex Schwartz—the young PHANG (read: vampire) who survived the nastiness at the end of the fifth book after having been drafted into the Laundry’s service. Alex has been given the task of checking out a bunker to repurpose for the Laundry up in Leeds, but things take a turn for the worse when he meets Cassie—and when an alien race of hominids who already ushered in their own tentacle-horror-apocalypse decide to come calling to our world instead.

Stross has been tackling a set of tropes for each of the books in this series, to great effect, and this time we’re up against elves. Pointy-eared, feral, terrifying, psychotic elves with a violently hierarchical society given to the enforcement of social rank through brutal magic. In short: they aren’t very nice and they do not play well with others. Turns out the overload of math-driven space-time horrors isn’t the sole threat facing humanity in the dawning days of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

[A review.]

Passions in Dust: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Trade is embargoed in the Victorian England of Dan Vyleta’s Smoke—because the religious aristocracy of the country are invested in keeping their narrative about Smoke, which rises from people on commission of a “sin,” paramount. This narrative keeps the rich on top and the poor on the bottom; in reality, the wealthy use various means to hide their Smoke. Thomas and Charlie meet at a boarding school designed to tutor them in controlling their Smoke as members of the upper class—but there’s far more at work here than just boyhood squabbles.

Times are changing, and various figures on the political and scientific scene are attempting to alter the rulership and social mores of the country. Our protagonists, along with Livia, a young woman whose family is bound up in the very heart of the struggle, must uncover various plots and make their own decisions about the path to righteousness—for themselves, and for their nation. It’s Dickensian in intent and fantastical in scope, but it’s also a novel about young people on the cusp of adulthood.

[A review.]

Safe as Life: A Four-Part Essay on Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle

This essay collects and updates three previously published pieces, along with a new essay on the recently released final novel in The Raven Cycle and thoughts on the completed series as a whole.

Having recently finished reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys for the second time in the course of a month—and if we’re being honest, I think it was less than a month—I feel like it’s high time for me to write about the experience. Because I loved it. I mean, I loved it. I went in suspicious, because the flap copy is truly inadequate to the books these actually are, but within a handful of chapters The Raven Boys had knocked the bottom out of that casual disinterest. As I’ve been saying to everyone whose hands I’ve been able to press these books into for the past few weeks, with a kind of mad joy, “I’m in it now.” There’s a weirdly intense place in my heart that is currently occupied by the complex web of love and devotion and loss that the young folks herein are wrapped up with.

[Read more]

The Closing of the Cycle: Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King

Last week saw the release of the final novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, The Raven King. While I’ll still be writing a final companion installment to the previous three-part essay on the Raven Cycle (found here)—which will be more in-depth—the pressing concern is to discuss immediate impressions.

The Raven King picks up immediately after the events of Blue Lily, Lily Blue. It’s fall, school is back in session after one perfect strange summer, and the fivesome are all facing down imminent changes in their lives. College, and the lack thereof; love, and the consequences thereof; magic, and the cost thereof. The arc has built up through three prior books to a trembling, tense point where it’s all going to come to a shattering conclusion. And with perhaps the most chilling, devastating end-of-prologue lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading, Stiefvater sets off the final book in the cycle:

The hounds of the Aglionby Hunt Club howled it that fall: away, away, away.

He was a king.

This was the year he was going to die.

[A review. Spoilers.]

City Come to Life: Jenna Black’s Nightstruck

Becket is “an ordinary teenage girl walking her dog one evening” who accidentally unleashes a supernatural hellscape on Philadelphia when she falls for a trap set by creatures from the much nastier side of reality. A drop of her blood opens a pathway so that, at night, the city comes to gruesome life: at first a few subtle changes, but soon enough things like statues that commit murder and street grates that swallow the unwary. Her police commissioner father, her attractive neighbor Luke, and her unstable best friend Piper are all going to have to deal with the consequences.

Jenna Black is a regular in the paranormal romance world, but less so in the young adult end of the pool. Nightstruck is the first book in a new series published by Tor Teen, and she’s trying her hand at a different sort of narrative with it. Becket is a plucky protagonist with a really great dog and parents who aren’t quite getting it right, though they’re trying. If it weren’t for the intrusion of murderous horror-show abominations from beyond, her biggest issue would be picking a college, but here we are: the real world has gone strange and she has to help fix it, since she broke it in the first place.

[A review.]

Kin and Kind in Maggie Stiefvater’s Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Continuing from the last installment. Having finished reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle for the second time in the course of a month—and if we’re being honest, I think it was less than a month—I feel like it’s high time for me to write about the experience. Because I loved it. I mean, I loved it.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third novel of The Raven Cycle, is in many ways a book about women—mothers, sisters, cousins, family, kin—and the structures of their lives, including men or not, love or not, each other or not. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the (immensely satisfying and beautifully realized) treatment of masculinity in The Dream Thieves. It also means—buckle up folks—that the thing I’ve been chomping at the bit to talk about but haven’t fit in as much during the past two sections of this essay is about to be the focus: Blue Sargent, mirror and amplifier and linchpin, a ferocious and delightful young woman who’s attempting to give as good as she gets for her raven boys and her family. And then some.

While there’s a strong argument to be made for these novels having four protagonists—Blue, Ronan, Adam, Gansey—and a few more point-of-view characters besides, there’s also little doubt that Blue is the one who ties it all together, the girl at the center of the room (though she often doesn’t feel like it). In a lesser execution of this sort of plot, it would be like a reverse harem-anime: one girl, four dudes, romantic entanglements abound, et cetera.

[But as discussed in the previous sections, this is not that –]

With Me or Against Me: Queer Experience in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves

Continuing from the last installment. Having finished reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle for the second time in the course of a month—and if we’re being honest, I think it was less than a month—I feel like it’s high time for me to write about the experience. Because I loved it. I mean, I loved it.

The significant thing about The Dream Thieves—Ronan’s book, in many ways—is that it’s one of the best actual representations of queer experience and coming to terms with one’s sexuality that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The focus on recovering from trauma and forging a functional self out of the wreckage, too, is powerful—not just for Ronan, but for his companions as well. It works because it isn’t what the book is about; it’s something that happens during and across and spun into the things the book is about. There’s no signposting of “hm, I am gay”—it’s all about feeling, experience, the life that moves around you while you realize who you are one thread at a time, in perhaps not the most healthy or recommended of ways.

I’ve felt the most attachment to Ronan for a variety of reasons—having been one myself, it’s hard not to spot a kindred spirit—but predominant among them is that Stiefvater writes his eccentricities, his hyper-masculine tendencies, his raw broken intensity, with such care and attention. It isn’t enough to tell me that a character drinks; that he has some issues with loss and communication; that he needs to get out of himself with fast cars and faster friends and danger; that he’s running from something in himself as much as the world around him—show me.

[And she does.]

Safe as Life: Complex, Messy Love in The Raven Boys

Having finished reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys for the second time in the course of a month—and if we’re being honest, I think it was less than a month—I feel like it’s high time for me to write about the experience. Because I loved it. I mean, I loved it. I went in suspicious, because the flap copy is truly inadequate to the books these actually are, but within a handful of chapters The Raven Boys had knocked the bottom out of that casual disinterest. As I’ve been saying to everyone whose hands I’ve been able to press these books into for the past few weeks, with a kind of mad joy, “I’m in it now.” There’s a weirdly intense place in my heart that is currently occupied by the complex web of love and devotion and loss that the young folks herein are wrapped up with.

Stiefvater is well-versed in the tropes of young adult fiction and has written a tour de force that illuminates, with careful prose and more careful structure, a set of very real, very damaged, very hopeful characters whose relationships, selves, and world are—fine, they’re utterly fantastic. And it’s not even finished yet. To give a super-brief summation of the reason I am so attached: these five protagonists are all messily in love with each other, and there’s nothing better or more beautiful or sharp, and it’s going to end. From the first, it’s impossible to avoid the knowledge that all of this wonder is finite. It aches to experience. Plus, it’s a meticulously crafted cycle that rewards rereading in heaps; I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. And that’s not to mention the queerness, the attention to women and the development of familial attachments alongside romantic and platonic ones, and the treatment of these young characters as real, whole, intense human beings. The depth and care and detail in their development is absolutely stunning.

But enough gushing; let’s talk books.

[The Raven Boys]