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Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

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 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 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.