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Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Swan and Girl Souls: The Sisters of the Crescent Empress by Leena Likitalo

The second half of Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon Duology, The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, picks up directly from the close of the prior book (reviewed here). The five sisters have been sent to Angefort, confined to an isolated estate where exiled royals often find their ends in the Empire—and the house is as haunted as its new charges are. In the capitol the usurper, Gagargi Prataslav, feeds souls to his Great Thinking Machine to run the calculations of a truly equal division of empire while a civil war rages on.

Celestia is weakened from the loss of a portion of her soul; Elise’s combination of guilt and moral righteousness weigh her down; Sibilia is neither girl nor woman, trapped in age between the two pairs of her sisters; Merile is old enough to know that something is terribly wrong but not old enough to understand it; Alina’s grasp on her physical self instead of the world of ghosts and shadows is tenuous at best. The girls must attempt to work among themselves to design an escape and a return—if it’s even possible.

[A review.]

The Real Absurd: Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is a collection of short fiction from Charlie Jane Anders, whose first sf novel All the Birds in the Sky recently won the 2017 Nebula Award. The six stories contained in this slim, charming volume were all originally published on from 2010 to 2016, including the titular Hugo Award winning piece “Six Months, Three Days.”

The “five others” referred to in the title are “The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model,” “As Good As New,” “Interstate,” “The Cartography of Sudden Death,” and “Clover.” All six stories share a certain ethos—a surreal approach to the mundane is one way of describing it—though little else connects them in specific, ranging as they do over various generic domains.

[A review.]

Radio Waves and Miracles: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

The Colorado desert is a place for miracles and for science. The Soria cousins—Daniel, Beatriz, and Joaquin—are all aware of this in their own separate ways. Miracles are a family tradition, a trade practiced for generations in Mexico and then moved across the border during the Revolution, but in All the Crooked Saints the youngest generation must decide for themselves how to carry that tradition properly. Fear and need, speech and silence: Stiefvater’s lyrical foray into magical realism offers a unique perspective on the dualities of meaningful connection.

Stiefvater is a writer more than capable of constructing both long and short narratives. Her recently concluded series The Raven Cycle, as discussed at length here, is a massive tale spanning four novels—but The Scorpio Races (2011) is a well-regarded standalone novel. All the Crooked Saints falls into the second category.

[A review.]

Lotus Petals: The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear

With The Stone in the Skull Elizabeth Bear returns to the world of the Eternal Sky for another grand tale. The previous novels set in this universe—Range of Ghosts (reviewed here), Shattered Pillars (reviewed here), and Steles of the Sky (reviewed here)—followed a band of royal and not-so-royal individuals through their efforts to consolidate kingdoms and prevent a vast evil from overtaking their world.  The same general formula returns in The Stone in the Skull but the setting and the cast are quite different: our protagonists are a Gage, a Dead Man, one young rajni and another middle-aged.

The Gage and the Dead Man are traveling through contested territories in the Lotus Kingdoms—once a grand empire, now a set of smaller sometimes-warring states—with a message from the Eyeless One, a great wizard in Messaline. Arriving lands them in the middle of a war between four branches of the family. Sayeh and Mrithuri are rajni seeking to defend their lands against their avaricious relatives Anuraja and Himadra, and there is also something greater and more terrible lurking beneath the political maneuvering.

[A review.]

The Second Sibling: The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

A companion novella to The Black Tides of Heaven, previously discussed here, The Red Threads of Fortune begins four years later with a different twin as the focal point of the narrative. Mokoya, survivor of a terrible accident that killed her daughter and left her scarred physically and emotionally, has left the Grand Monastery and her husband to hunt monsters at the far reaches of the Protectorate. However, there’s something different about this particular naga hunt—and it will change the course of her future.

While The Black Tides of Heaven flitted through thirty-five years of political and social change, The Red Threads of Fortune takes place over the course of a handful of days. Instead of a slow-building accretion of plot, this novella is fast and direct, an abrupt punch of action and revelation. Given the twins’ skillsets—Akeha as a political revolutionary, Mokoya as a prophet and then beast hunter—the structure of their respective novellas also makes a great deal of thematic sense.

[A review.]

The First Sibling: The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

The Black Tides of Heaven is the first of a pair of simultaneous-release novellas by JY Yang, marking the start of their Tensorate series. Mokoya and Akeha are twins, the youngest children of the ruthless Protector of the Kingdom. Their mother is engaged in a complex power struggle with the Grand Monastery and as a result both children are raised there as charges—until Mokoya begins receiving prophetic visions and the children are recalled to the palaces. Akeha, however, is the “spare” child of the pair according to their mother.

The novella is constructed from a series of vignettes that take place over the course of thirty-five years. The Black Tides of Heaven shifts sole focus to Akeha at the middle point when the twins’ lives do, ultimately, separate; the paired novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, will pick up with Mokoya after the events of this book.

[A review.]

Degrees of Ownership: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Autonomous is a stand-alone novel set in a near-future world rearranged into economic zones, controlled at large by property law and a dystopic evolution of late-stage capitalism. The points of view alternate between two sides of a skirmish over a patent drug that has catastrophic side-effects: one of our protagonists is a pirate who funds humanitarian drug releases with “fun” drug sales and another is an indentured bot who works for the IPC to crush piracy. As their missions collide, other people are caught up in the blast radius.

While many sf readers are familiar with Newitz, either in her capacity as editor of io9 or as a writer of compelling nonfiction and short stories, this is her first foray into the world of novels and it’s a powerful debut. Wrapped up in a quick, action-oriented plot are a set of sometimes-unresolved and provocative arguments about property law, autonomy, and ownership. Issues of gender and sexuality are also a through-line, considering one of our main characters is a bot whose approach to gender is by necessity quite different than that of their human counterparts.

[A review.]

A Return, A Revision: The River Bank by Kij Johnson

A sequel and response to Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book The Wind in the Willows, Kij Johnson’s The River Bank returns to the titular neighborhood of charming animals and their troubles. The bachelors of the River Bank—Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad—are thrown into confusion when two young female animals, Beryl the Mole and a Rabbit, rent a cottage up the lane and join their community. There are misunderstandings, adventures, kidnappings and ransoms; The River Bank is a jaunty story.

Johnson, best known for her award-winning short fiction directed toward an adult audience, has gone for something rather different than her usual with this novel. When I saw the title announced, several months prior to this, I was not expecting it to be a follow-up to a world famous children’s book—especially given that the last piece I read by Johnson was The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (reviewed here), a mature and thoughtful novella using cosmic horror tropes to intriguing effect.

[A review.]

Approaches to the Fantastic: The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

Jacob Weisman notes in his introduction to The New Voices of Fantasy that it is, in some sense, a successor to Peter S. Beagle’s previous anthology The Secret History of Fantasy (2010)—a follow up on the idea of an exploding field of literary fantastic stories appearing over a wide range of publications. This collection focuses specifically on writers who are in the early stages of their careers, with all stories included “published after 2010.” Considering the seven-year range that encompasses, it’s a bit broader than a new-writers collection focusing on folks in their first few years of publication.

However, this also gives Weisman and Beagle a wealth of stories to choose from to represent the tone and caliber of the movement they’re pointing to in fantastic fiction. These are charming stories, often focused on the personal experience of a character, and all are fantastical in scope rather than scientific, though their approaches do have some variation. The New Voices of Fantasy includes stories in modes from the mythic to the horrific, with some traditional approaches mixed in as well.

[Read more]

I Never Fight: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a stand-alone portal fantasy in which the reader follows Elliot Schafer—a redheaded bisexual boy with a fantastically bad attitude and sharp tongue—through his adolescence, primarily spent in a magical land on the other side of a mostly-invisible border wall located in rural England. Elliot, at age thirteen, is thoroughly acquainted with the tropes of portal fantasies; this is, in large part, the reason he decides to abandon his damaging home life for the unknown.

However, it turns out that “the unknown” isn’t a world that needs a magical protagonist to save it. Instead, he finds himself in a militant and conflict-ravaged country where alliances are falling apart as councilors are funneled out of war-rooms and bad treaties spring up like mushrooms after a rain. So, naturally, our young protagonist—himself a pacifist—decides to turn his considerable abilities in study and manipulation to improving the world he finds himself in. He also, at the same time, begins forging the relationships that will save his life and the political future of his new country.

[A review.]

For a Revolution: The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo

First in a duet from Leena Likitalo, The Five Daughters of the Moon is a second-world fantasy inspired by the Russian Revolution. The narrative follows the five sisters of the royal family as their empire collapses around them, driven in part by youthful idealism and in part by cruel magic and manipulation. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different sister, from the youngest Alina who sees the world of shadows to the oldest Celestia who has become involved with the scientist-sorcerer Gagargi Prataslav.

Representing the revolution from the interior of the royal family, Likitalo is able to explore a range of reactions and levels of awareness; Elise and Celestia are aware of the suffering in their empire and wish to support a revolution that will address it, while the younger three are more aware of the horrible magic and undercurrents of betrayal surrounding Prataslav, but no one will listen to their concerns. This mismatch leads to the beginning of the collapse of the empire itself.

[A review, with spoilers.]

The Laundry Files Pits Computational Demonologists Against Nihilism

In a previous post on Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, I noted that one of the strengths of the books is that they are “aggressively contemporary treatises that stand against nihilism and in support of communal resistance, support, and human will.” By this I mean that the series is grounded in our political and cultural moment—for example, smartphones and CCTV and the rise of right-wing extremism across the globe—but also ups the ante exponentially in its addition of cosmic, incomprehensible threats that cross dimensions and realities to devour us all.

In the face of this scale of destruction, with an unwitting populace on one hand and a gridlocked government on the other, the protagonists must reject defeatist beliefs and band together to steal their victories, Pyrrhic though they might sometimes be. Because, in truth, nihilism is the creeping force that underlies the horror of the stars coming aligned in the Laundry Files universe. While the various color-coded case plans for different potential apocalypses are monstrous enough on their lonesome, the rejection of principle and ethics on the basis that it’s all meaningless anyway is the true danger.


Already Home: Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe

Telling the Map, the first full collection from multiple award nominee Christopher Rowe, features nine previously published stories spanning from 2003 to 2015 as well as an original novella, “The Border State.” These stories are, for the most part, all set in the near- or near-enough-future, exploring a post-Scarcity collapse and restructure of our recognizable social order through a variety of lenses.

However, there is one other consistent thread running through the entirety of the collection, and that is setting. In Telling the Map, Rowe has rendered Kentucky over and over again with a lush, loving, bone-deep accuracy—one that startled and thrilled me so thoroughly, as a fellow native son, that I had to read the book through twice to begin to form a critical opinion.

It’s an objectively good collection of pieces, but it’s also a collection that sang to me in particular.

[A review.]

An Exercise in Governmental Restructuring: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Another eagerly-awaited installment in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, The Delirium Brief returns us to Bob Howard’s point of view in a direct continuation of the events of The Nightmare Stacks. With the previously-clandestine Laundry, the British occult secret services, made public due to the invasion of a nasty species of elves, Bob and our familiar cast of characters must take on a unique threat: governmental interference and restructuring.

Faced with the lethal consequences of poor government intervention on their institution, the agents of the Laundry must make a drastic decision—to go rogue and consider “the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself,” as the flap copy says. Other pieces on the board are also moving, including a servant of the Sleeper in the Pyramid previously presumed dead and the American equivalent agency going off the reservation. Howard also has his personal life to contend with, given that he’s become the Eater of Souls and his estranged wife Mo has suffered a great deal of field trauma of her own.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Green Sky at Night, Hacker’s Delight: The Function of Tropes in The Laundry Files

The Atrocity Archives was initially published in 2004, meaning Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series has been going strong for thirteen years. Currently consisting of eight novels and a handful of spinoff novellas and short stories, the series has maintained a freshness that is often lacking in long-running properties—and that is largely due to Stross’s tongue-in-cheek critical appropriation of common genre tropes as fodder for the novels.

Speculative fiction is without fail a referential genre: concerned with the past and future, of course, but also with the sly nudge and wink of one “insider” to another. That tendency is regularly uncritical or self-involved, but with his deliberate, sometimes-savage usage of tropes in the Laundry Files, Stross manipulates and expands the function of the intertextual reference for an action oriented series. The result is a delightful medley of clever commentary and engaging plot that never fails to keep me interested on all fronts.