Tor.com content by

Brit Mandelo

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

Stories to Live Within: The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

A sudden outbreak of tornadoes devastates Ellie Frame’s small Ohio town one spring morning, killing more than ninety people—including her best friends and her boyfriend who were trapped at the high school while she was skipping classes. However, those who were lost in the storm still linger, their ghosts haunting the town and their loved ones, unable to move past the liminal space Newfoundland has become.

The Gone Away Place collects the testaments of Ellie, her parents, and various ghosts as she tries to make sense of her own survival in the face of unfathomable destruction.

[The Gone Away Place is more of a meditation on loss than it is a novel.]

Anybody Could Write a True Story: Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The sea off the coast of New England has gone foul with the poison of a fallen star. Ptolema, an agent of the same sort as the Signalman but employed on a different shore, must unravel the chess game in action around her to resolve a potential apocalypse. The pieces in motion include a pair of psychokinetically gifted twins separated by a sinister doctor at the behest of a rival agency, the devouring filth of the tainted sea, attempted assassinations and misplaced pawns.

These singular figures—the Signalman, Ptolema, the doctor Twisby—and their vast, invisible agencies are a horror equal to those from out of space. However, their interventions might also be the one thing keeping our species afloat on unkind cosmic waves.

[A review.]

Out of Many: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Blackfish City is Sam J. Miller’s second novel, the first for adult readers. In a post-climate-collapse world, the floating city of Qaanaaq is a social and technological marvel marked by vast disparities in wealth amongst its populace, ruled in large part by artificial intelligences and mysterious shareholders. The city is on the cusp of upheaval, though, as a viral disease ravages its population without control and the availability of real estate continues to cramp tighter and tighter. However, when a strange woman comes to the city riding an orca whale with a caged polar bear at her side on a mission of revenge, the results will change the entire structure of Qaanaaq.

The reader experiences the novel through various narrators: Kaev, a journeyman fighter working odd jobs for his crime boss ex-lover; Soq, a slide messenger whose gender is an impossible to categorize project and whose motivation is the potential destruction of Qaanaq; Fill, a rich young gay man who is desperately empty of purpose and drive; and Ankit, a political canvas worker for an Arm manager whose campaign is failing. These disparate voices, strung together across the domains of Qaanaaq, unite against odds when faced with a shared foe.

[Read more]

Glam/Heart: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

With the delightfully garish neon tagline “In space, everyone can hear you sing” emblazoned across its cover, Catherynne M. Valente’s newest 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.

[A review.]

Shift and Stance: Susurrus on Mars by Hal Duncan

Susurrus on Mars, published in late 2017 by Lethe Press, follows the flirtations and observations of Susurrus—the god of small breezes, a child of Zephyros and Ares. In large part the novella revolves around the courtship of Jaq and Puk, two young men who meet in Erehwyna, a terraformed Martian settlement. The novella contains eight sections, each subdivided into various philosophical and narrative segments, that come together at the close to tell a multifaceted tale of grief, attachment, and adoration.

A tapestry of scenes and reflections, Susurrus on Mars requires the reader to settle in for the ride and allow the threads to coalesce into their fantastical, complex whole. For the audience with the patience and interest to do so, it’s intensely rewarding and is, in some sense, an experience almost as much as it is a text.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

And They Found Us: Monster Portraits by Del and Sofia Samatar

Written by Sofia Samatar and illustrated by her brother Del Samatar, Monster Portraits is a short art-object of hybrid fiction/autobiography—about as interstitial as it gets—that “offers the fictional record of a writer in the realms of the fantastic shot through with the memories of a pair of Somali-American children growing up in the 1980s.” The text for this collaborative work was a prior finalist for the 2013 Calvino Prize; Rose Metal Press brings it to readers for the first time, filled with strange and alluring illustrations.

Monster Portraits serves the function of philosophy, or poetry: the text makes offerings, sketches connections, and requires leaps of juxtaposition as well as freefalls into implication. Each line is a treat to be savored and allowed to meld with its companions over a slow, methodical, reverential reading experience. The “happening” of the text is not located in the plot where our protagonist-author collects interviews and sketches of various monsters but in the lyrical, metaphorical weight of those vignettes taken in concert.

[A review.]

Oneness through Time: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is the first North American collection from physicist and writer Vandana Singh, published by Small Beer Press. Of the fourteen stories, all but one are reprints collected from across the past several years; the final piece, “Requiem,” is a novella original to this book.

The effect of this collection is something like a tessellation. The stories are variations on a theme, marrying individual humanist intervention with the sweeping reach of scientifically-based extrapolation. Singh’s worlds are delineated within a rigorous framework that nonetheless leaves edges that either interlock or fade into each other. The titular story, itself originally published on Tor.com in 2015, is a peak example.

[A review.]

An Inkling of the Strange: Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath

Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck’s short fiction collection, Jagannath, is getting a new edition from Vintage. Originally published in English by the tiny press Cheeky Frawg—the passion project of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer—the collection contains thirteen pieces of short fiction that range from whimsical to intensely discomfiting, all having a distinct touch of the surreal or the weird. Many of the pieces in question had never previously been published with English translations—though, of course, some were originally published in magazines like Weird Tales.

Jagannath received a great deal of word-of-mouth support from folks like China Mieville, Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Lord, and Karen Joy Fowler, and was reviewed quite favorably by Stefan Raets here on Tor.com. Tidbeck’s fiction is also acclaimed in her home country. As a fan of international fiction and someone interested in inclusivity in the speculative fiction community, I was particularly pleased to get my hands on this book, and it doesn’t disappoint.

[Read more]

The First Sisters: Naondel by Maria Turtschaninoff

In Maresi, translated and released last winter by Amulet Books, readers came to know the Red Abbey: a separatist women’s island, full to the brim of magic, sisterhood, and strength. Turtschaninoff returns us to that world with Naondel, a powerful, brutal prequel that reveals the origin of the Abbey and the trials of the First Sisters. As the flap copy says, “told in alternating points of view, Naondel is a vivid, riveting exploration of oppression and exploitation—and the possibility of sanctuary.”

Naondel is at times a harsh novel. The frame of the story is that this book forms a recorded history for the archive of Knowledge House, as referenced in Maresi; the women whose stories are recorded here suffer immense cruelty and degradation in their long captivities. While this is balanced for the reader in the obvious knowledge that the protagonists do survive to found the Red Abbey, given that it’s a prequel, it is nonetheless a harrowing experience.

[A review.]

Where Your Own Talents Lie: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince is the first of a fresh trilogy from lauded young adult author Holly Black. Raised in faerie as Gentry by her adoptive father though she herself is mortal, Jude is on the cusp of adulthood and has lost her patience for powerlessness. Her sister Taryn has decided to wed into the Court; Jude, on the other hand, has set out to become a knight. However, these plans fall afoul of the continual and deadly intrigues of the High Court of Faerie—prompting both sisters in different directions and Jude, our protagonist, onto a dangerously ambitious path of connection to the crown.

Magic is a constant in all of Black’s novels, particular the sort of magic that leads to ethical difficulties and hard decisions. Faeries and fey courts also feature frequently. However, this novel marries and then evolves these previous themes in a startling, lush, fast-paced tale of one young woman finding her place on an ever-changing, unpredictable political field. There’s a raw, honest approach to the concept of power—who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it—that is central to the novel and gives it a refreshingly unique perspective.

[A review.]

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 Tor.com 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.]