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Lee Mandelo

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

For That Was What Bodies Wanted: Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer

There shall come three humans across the burning sands… Into the City, hoping to take down the Company, arrive three dead-alive people: Moss, Chen, and Grayson. A triad in all senses of the word, they repeat the same tasks over and over in different timelines or realities toward different outcomes—hoping, eventually, to find the right combination and destroy the Company entirely. However, these three aren’t the only ones involved in constructing potential futures, as there are foxes, and sea-monsters, and other creatures huge and small as well. The human clock has ticked to a near-stop; what comes next?

While Dead Astronauts is a companion novel to Borne—returning to the three titular dead astronauts at the city crossroads—it functions as a standalone text. There are calls to narrative moments in the other book, and images certainly, but it’s entirely possible to read as a cohesive work all on its own (so that’s what I intend to do, here). Themes and questions familiar to other novels by VanderMeer are present in this book as well: animality, technology, destructive human hubris, and an unimaginable but possible future of melding-merging-evolution that connects them all in a sometimes ugly, sometimes breathtaking dance.

[A review, spoilers.]

Frontiers of Gender: Transcendent 4, Edited by Bogi Takács

Speculative fiction allows us to ask why and how and why not about the world surrounding us—in ways that can often be used to tell unique stories about gender and society. The Transcendent series from Lethe Press (a longtime publisher of queer sff of all stripes) collects a yearly roundup of best transgender speculative short fiction in this vein: stories that push on those gendered boundaries in productive and interesting ways to tell stories for and about trans folks.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

On the Edge of Ambition: The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

Jude is the exiled, mortal Queen of Faerie: married to Cardan in exchange for releasing him from his vow to her but betrayed not long after, sent to live with her siblings in the human world outside of the court. She’s left reeling and embarrassed by her own foolishness, unsure of how to regain her throne, when opportunity arrives in the form of her desperate twin sister Taryn. As it turns out, Taryn finally had enough of her awful faerie husband Locke and murdered him, but she can’t lie under glamour like Jude can so she begs her to intercede in secret.

Eager for the chance to slip back into faerie against the terms of her banishment, Jude agrees to help Taryn. However, when she returns to Elfhame it’s clear that war is brewing between her father Madoc and Cardan, resting on uncertain alliances with Undersea and the other Courts. It doesn’t take long for her to become caught up once again in the fight for succession, except this time, she’s not just defending Cardan’s throne. She’s defending her own.

[A review, spoilers.]

Of Cruel Princes and Wicked Kings: Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air Series

The third and final book in Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air series, The Queen of Nothing, is due to land on bookstore shelves later this month—and we’ve all been waiting patiently (or not so patiently!) to read the conclusion to Jude and Cardan’s saga of power, desire, and manipulation. But since it’s been some time since the publications of the last two books, The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King, a little refresher course on the happenings therein seems appropriate to both whet our palates and bring us up to speed again.

After all, Black has a real hand at staging conflict over multiple arenas: personal and political, familial and state, across both the realms of human and faerie. Plus, there’s all the history of lovers and liars, death and desire, children and their parents: who’s on who’s side, and why, and for how long are all complicated questions that keep the reader on the edge of their seat.

[Class is in session, let’s review.]

Portraits and Forgeries: Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater

Call Down the Hawk is the first of the Dreamer Trilogy, a spin-off series from Stiefvater’s critically acclaimed Raven Cycle quartet. Ronan Lynch, the dreamer, returns as one of our protagonists; the other two significant narrators are a thief, Jordan Hennessy, and a hunter, Carmen Farooq-Lane. All three are driven by separate motivations, but the approaching end of the world—and a terrible nightmare that looms large in the dreamers’ worlds, plus the appearance of a dangerous deterioration of their bodies that comes if they pause dreaming—will shove them onto a collision course with each other.

Sins of the father and lies from the past pull Ronan and his brothers into a world of black market art and services, into the underbelly that Declan fought to keep Ronan free of for so long. Hennessy is searching for the solution to a dreaming problem using her own forgeries as an in-road on her quest. And Farooq-Lane, she’s hunting for dreamers themselves and their dreamed creatures, for unpleasant and deadly reasons.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Safe as Life: Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle

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]

Far Apart, Close By: Homesick by Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri’s debut book of fabulist queer stories, Homesick, won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize in 2018—and now the collection has been released, just in time to be an ideal (and mildly haunting) October read. The pieces included are innovative and introspective at turns, often open-ended but evocative in their exploration of liminal spaces in homes, families, and the world at large.

Eight of the nine stories in Homesick are reprints from various publications, including magazines like Tor.com and Nightmare, while the final novella, “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff,” is original to the book. Cipri’s fiction takes on questions of nationality, neurodivergence, and gender in the context of connection and estrangement, and in doing so, approaches the emotions surrounding complicated and complicating problems in contemporary life.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

More of Us Beyond This Room: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

Tess is a geologist who, under the cover of her historical research, seeks to edit the timeline to exert small positive influences against the efforts of “anti-travel activists.” Beth is a teenage punk on the cusp of adulthood in the early ‘90s who witnesses and helps cover up a killing, setting her own life veering onto a different course than she anticipated. Both women are activists at heart, surrounded by other women of all sorts invested in the struggle for justice, and both are inextricably linked to each other across time.

Because “Geologist” means something different in the world of The Future of Another Timeline: scientists and practitioners whose field of study surrounds the Machines, five constructs scattered across the globe that allow restricted travel through time using science so advanced as to seem like magic (depending on the time period). While the Machines are older than the human species itself, the group of men trying to destroy them—and in so doing, lock a terrible future into place—are making disturbing gains, unseen and unnoticed by anyone except Tess’s group of feminist geologists. As a final confrontation approaches, a collective of unlikely allies are all that stand against the creation of one terrible, final timeline.

The Future of Another Timeline is an absolute tour de force that wholeheartedly embraces the radical potential science fiction holds as a political genre. The novel plants its footing in the tradition of feminist sf that stretches from Joanna Russ backwards and forwards, exploring vital questions of power and resistance, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to fight. I savored it, I wept with it, I had to take rage-breaks with it. The book is a good book, in terms of craft and execution, but it’s also a fucking important book—an urgent book, a clear-seeing book, a book with ethics to argue as well as the passion to do so.

[A review, spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

To Elsewhere: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow

January Scaller walks through a Door standing alone in a field and for a single moment enters another world—a chance encounter that will change the course of her life. While her father explores the globe, procuring treasures from far-off lands for his employer (and January’s foster-father of sorts) Mr. Locke, January learns to participate in high society, her willfulness crushed out of her one punishment at a time… until she happens upon a book: The Ten Thousand Doors. As the truth of her childhood experience begins to seem more and more real, she must question the world she lives in and her role within it.

The turn of the 20th century is a fraught, fruitful time to set a novel concerned with social change, gender, and colonialism. The Ten Thousand Doors of January occupies a world in transition, a precarious world, where institutional forces are in open conflict with resistance at all corners. January herself occupies several liminal spaces: she’s the ward of a wealthy white patriarch, and so able to access class privilege. However, she is also mixed-race, and so continually judged as to her fitness for given segregated spaces. All of her experiences are circumscribed by codes of gender and respectability, and a great deal of her struggle is against those codes.

[A review.]

Skeletons All the Way Down: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, kicks off a weird-wild-and-wonderful trilogy full of politics, lesbians, and undead bullshit set in a solar system that has scientific advances like space travel but also necromantic magic pushing the crumbling worlds along. From the first line of the book, Muir makes no bones (ahem) about the style of her protagonist Gideon’s approach: “In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

Gideon Nav is a dedicated swordswoman, a fan of pornographic fiction particularly that featuring other dedicated swordswomen, and an escape artist with almost one hundred failures under her belt trying to get off-planet from the sepulcheral haunts of the House of the Ninth. Her sole same-age companion is the Lady and Heir of the House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Naturally, the pair are also enemies at the extreme; Harrow’s prime entertainment is Gideon’s torment. Which means that when Harrowhark receives the summons to attend trials selecting the next batch of Lyctors, and needs Gideon’s sword at her side, things are going to get—exciting.

[A review, spoilers.]

Where Good Work Would Grow: To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

“If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this,” begins Ariadne O’Neill, the narrator and protagonist of To Be Taught, if Fortunate. At the final planet of her ecological survey, Ariadne is writing home to share her human experience of space travel—and, ultimately, to make a request of her potential listener. As she continues, her message is not necessarily urgent in the most literal sense; communication takes fourteen years to travel one direction between Earth and the habitable system her team is studying, another fourteen to return. But it is, nonetheless, a matter in urgent need of response despite the gap of decades.

Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack are a small team of scientists (and engineers) dedicated to space exploration as funded via a global nonprofit, a grand human network devoted to science for the sake of itself outside the pressures of capital and nation. The team survives through a complex patchwork of technologies: travel slower than light balanced out with a torpor-state that allows humans to exist without advanced aging in a coma-like rest, somaforming to adapt the body to radiation and necessities of life on different habitable biomes, and so forth. At the heart of it all, though, is human ingenuity and drive to learn—to be struck by the incomprehensible open canvas of the universe and to try, even briefly, to know it.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Just Out of Sight: Echoes, Edited by Ellen Datlow

“I don’t believe in ghosts, but I love ghost stories,” opens esteemed editor Ellen Datlow in her introduction to Echoes. The anthology’s central focus is the ‘ghost story’ but within that framework it ranges wide, across the world and through the decades, from familial dramas to wartime haunts and more. Echoes is an absolute behemoth of an anthology, with all pieces minus three reprints original to the book.

That makes for roughly seven hundred pages of never-seen-before spooky stories by writers ranging the gamut from Nathan Ballingrud to A. C. Wise, Stephen Graham Jones to Indrapamit Das, and so on. Stories are set in India, in Britain, in the US. Some are ghost stories with science fictional settings, others purely fantastical, others still realist—but there’s always the creeping dread, a specter at the corner of the story’s vision. The sheer volume of work Datlow has collected in Echoes fills out the nooks and crannies of the theme with gusto.

[A review.]

A Sword-and-Sorcery Romp: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

Djinn king Melek Ahmar, one of the Seven and the titular Lord of Tuesday, awakens from his imprisonment in a stone sarcophagus to find the world has moved on. It’s been somewhere between three and four thousand years since he was hit over the head and stashed up a holy mountain, and in the meantime, humanity has poisoned the globe with fatal nanotech and the requisite counter-nanites. The city of Kathmandu still exists as a cut-rate paradise, run by an AI called Karma, full of content if not happy citizens whose needs are all more or less met.

Except for one: recidivist and mass murderer Bhan Gurung, who is quite on board with Melek Ahmar’s plans to conquer the city (because what else is there for him to do but a little conquest?)—however, Gurung has his own plot running, one that spans forty years back to a time before Karma. As the unlikely pair infiltrate the city, their mission to destabilize the system brings them up against the ruling systems of Karma and—despite the loss of monetary capital—a hierarchy of institutional power that has remained firmly entrenched.

[Read more]

Hugo Spotlight: The Glitz, Glam, and the Heart of Cat Valente’s Space Opera

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

With the delightfully garish neon tagline “In space, everyone can hear you sing” emblazoned across its cover, Catherynne M. Valente’s novel Space Opera is a marked shift from the seriousness of Deathless (2011) or Palimpsest (2009). It is, in fact, nothing less than intergalactic Eurovision in the fine stylistic tradition of Douglas Adams—madcap, bizarre, comedic, and shot through with a certain wholesome kindness.

[Read more]

Fine and Cruel Threads of Fortune: The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang

The Protector is dead. For the prior three Tensorate novellas, her reign was the source of infinite conflict, concession, and intrigue. However, at the start of The Ascent to Godhood, her passing has already dealt its blow to the organization of the Protectorate. Her enemies and her loyalists both exist in uncertain times, now, striving toward a future she does not influence—but in one pub, in rebel territory, a seeker comes to speak to the head of the Machinist rebellion about the past and potential future. Lady Han is the one person left who has stories of Hekate before her ascent to the throne, and is also the one person who misses her most bitterly, despite the Protector’s death cementing her own success as an opposition force.

[A review.]

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