content by

Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Love, War, and Bodies: Catching Up With Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

While I’m a regular reader of comics, I’ve been tending toward short series or single-volume graphic novels for the past few years. Almost all of them have been queer, the majority of them also coming from small presses, so I’ve been out of the loop on mainstream series.

However, a few months ago a friend of mine was reading Saga and gushing about their appreciation for it. Nonplussed, I asked for some details, teasers perhaps, a bit of information to tempt my palate. Their response was to show me a gorgeously illustrated page in the eighth volume wherein Petrichor says, while performing a magic ritual, “Saints above, I beseech you. In all my years, I’ve asked for nothing. But if you feel I’ve lived a decent life, hear this, my one and only prayer. Please. Send me someone to fuck.”

I have a brand, I guess. And they were right in thinking that this would get my attention.

[No spoilers.]

Folded Spaces: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz is a salvage tug operator with a small crew—Connla the pilot, Singer the shipmind AI, and two cats—who stumbles onto astounding ancient technology and the evidence of a monstrous crime during the recovery of a wrecked ship at the edges of inhabited space. Pirates, corrupt outpost officials, and an ever-tightening web of old secrets lead to a chase across the vast expanse of space where Haimey’s life as well as the current galactic social order hang in the balance.

Ancestral Night is the first of the White Space novels, set amongst the worlds of the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy but much, much further along in the timeline. The Synarche government, which links species, planets, and cultures under the aegis of rightminding and the agreement to function as much as possible toward a communal good, has held strong—though there are holdout pirates and excluded sentient species still acting outside its boundaries.

[[A review, light spoilers.]]

I Must Be Writing for Both of Us: Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Set in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the twentieth century, Wild Life takes the narrative frame of a journal, written across a period of weeks, by Charlotte Bridger Drummond—single mother of five boys, ardent public feminist, professional adventure-romance writer—wherein she has a wilderness experience of her own. Her housekeeper’s granddaughter has gone missing on a trip with her father to the logging camp where he works. Charlotte, repulsed by the company of men but functional within it, takes it upon herself to join the search, as the housekeeper is too old and the mother too frail. At once a work of historical fiction, a speculative romance in the traditional sense, and a broader feminist commentary on genre fiction, Gloss’s novel is a subtle and thorough piece of art.

Originally published in 2000, almost twenty years ago, Wild Life is nonetheless recent enough to have a digital trail of reviews in genre spaces. A brief search reveals a contemporaneous essay at Strange Horizons, one from Jo Walton here at in 2010, and more. For me, though, this was a first read—as I suspect it will be for many others—and I’ll approach it as such. Saga’s new editions of Gloss’s previous novels are a significant boon to an audience unfamiliar, like myself, with her longform work.

[A review.]

A Politics of Synthesis: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Ecological disaster and social collapse loom on the horizon for the inhabitants of January, human descendants of a generation ship whose advanced technologies have long since failed. Political and economic tensions ride high in both of the planet’s most populous cities, separated by a deadly tract of wilderness and segregated by past conflicts, while trouble also brews outside human habitation in the massive section of the planet that exists in total darkness.

Sophie, a Xiosphanti student from the impoverished end of town attending an upper class school, is drawn into a young activist circle by her outgoing wealthy roommate with drastic consequences leading to a brutal near-death experience. However, Sophie’s chance rescue by one of the alien inhabitants of the Night is the catalyst for a series of conflicts both grand and intimate in scale that offer the start of an answer to the crises facing her world.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Holding the Hill: The Wicked King by Holly Black

The Wicked King is the second novel in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, set five months after the close of last year’s much-discussed The Cruel Prince (reviewed here). Jude has placed Cardan on the throne with herself as seneschal in an attempt to preserve her youngest sibling’s freedom from the crown for at least a year and a day. One masterful maneuver at the game of kings has gifted her immense, though secret, control—but now she has to maintain it when beset by danger on all sides, even from those she’s least willing to suspect.

And worse, the upheaval of political alliances and feuds she’s kicked into motion might signal the end of the Court as she knows it if she’s unable to consolidate her power while juggling her own familial and personal problems. Her siblings—soon to be married Taryn and erstwhile Vivi—seem to think it’s all a game, that she’s still the same sister she was, when even Jude isn’t sure who she’s become under the sway of great authority and risk. Jude is a spymaster, an unspoken regent, and a sometimes-murderer; running a kingdom is not her forte, but it’s a requirement for survival nonetheless. The real question is, how long can she keep the balancing act up?

[A review, mild spoilers.]

Queering SFF: The Art of Collecting Short Fiction

Lethe Press has been a consistent source of queer speculative fiction for more than a decade now, with an ever-expanding catalogue of writers from diverse and engaging backgrounds. In fact, some of the earliest Queering SFF posts I wrote for included an interview with the owner of the press, Steve Berman—and a review of Wilde Stories 2010, his annual best-of gay sff collection. I was twenty years old at the time and I’d been reading Wilde Stories since I was a teenager, hungry for openly marked queer content. In the intervening years, Lethe’s reach has expanded to include lesbian and trans years-best collections, multiple Lambda awards for novels and short fiction alike, and so forth.

However, this year’s edition marks the final release of Wilde Stories. In honor of that long run—and to give a sense of the delightful breadth and depth of queer short fiction the press is producing in 2018—I thought I’d do a review roundup of three recent collections, all published in the past six months, including the last volume of the series that brought my attention to Lethe in the first place.


Series: Queering SFF

Blood Relations: My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede has her fair share of concerns in life: a declining familial fortune and social position, a frustrating job as a nurse in a large hospital with an irresponsible staff, a lack of romantic prospects, and a gorgeous but immature younger sister who has an unsavory habit of murdering her boyfriends. However, these problems don’t overlap until the afternoon Ayoola comes to visit Korede’s workplace and picks up the handsome young doctor Korede herself has feelings for—bare weeks after her most recent violent indiscretion and subsequent body disposal.

My Sister, The Serial Killer is a high-tension, hideously comedic work of literary horror fiction, a memorable debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Korede’s role as a terse and smart narrator who also happens to lack self-awareness creates a fascinating dual experience for the reader, one that allows Braithwaite to deliver scathing social commentary in scenes her protagonist coasts past without comment or is herself at fault in. The mundane realism of the text—social media, crooked traffic cops, the dichotomy of being wealthy enough for a house maid but not enough to avoid working—makes the ethical questions of murder, consequences, and justification for protecting a family member that much sharper.

[A review, some spoilers.]

Disaster Management: The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

Mhari Murphy has been stepping delicately through often-capricious, often-brutal matters of state under the New Management until she’s tasked with the creation of an organization resembling the unfettered Laundry of decades past. The United States has, apparently, wholesale forgotten its President; furthermore, their diplomatic channels have gone eerily, threateningly dark. Not for the first time, something rotten is afoot across the pond. Mhari’s clean identity record, no past fieldwork, makes her an ideal candidate to tackle the problem—though she’s not so sure of that.

The ninth book in Stross’s Laundry Files, The Labyrinth Index, follows Mhari and a motley band of agents to America with the intention of undermining a potential coup of the entire US government by the Black Chamber—also known as the Nazgûl—under the aegis of their own ancient horror. It’s grim business from start to finish, as state- and spycraft so often are in Stross’s novels.

[A review, mild spoilers.]

An Important Thing to Learn: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black is the debut collection of Syracuse-based writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, gathering twelve pieces of short fiction spanning from 2014 to now. These stories mingle the mundane and the extraordinary, the exaggerated and the surreal, all for the purpose of commenting on pivotal, often horrible moments in contemporary American culture. The collection is cutting from start to finish, a deep stare into the sociocultural abyss shot through with bleak humor.

From a gruesome timeloop tale whose protagonists are children to a metafictional riff on the danger of creating lives via prose, Adjei-Brenyah prods at tropes and expectations to create affective and moving stories exploring, above all, the “violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day in this country.” It’s a haunting, unforgiving debut that pushes at genre boundaries in the service of art and criticism.

[Read more]

Whatever Walked There, Walked Alone: Revisiting Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps the most-researched, most-written-about of Jackson’s longform works. Published in 1959, the novel follows four people—Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, and our protagonist Eleanor—as they attempt to summer at Hill House for the purpose of doing research on its reported supernatural phenomena. Eleanor is a sheltered but damaged woman; she spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother, recently deceased, while her sister married and started a family of her own. Even as the novel begins, she’s still under the thumb of her sister and her brother-in-law, living off of a cot in their home. The trip offers her an opportunity to escape, to become something—except the house that awaits is a monstrous place.

Stephen King, in the introduction to the edition of the book that sits on my shelf, notes that “it seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” It’s hard to debate the claim that this is a deeply significant text in the field: it’s a certain thing that critics and readers alike have found themselves caught up in Jackson’s novel for decades, anxious in the grip of Hill House’s bad geometry and the complex currents of gender, sexuality, and isolation that run underneath.

[Read more]

40 Years of Women’s SF: The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek

The Future is Female! is a historically-oriented anthology collecting sf written by women that spans from the early pulps to the cusp of the New Wave. All but one of the stories included were originally published in contemporary magazines, an editorial choice emphasizing the fact that women have from the start been major commentators, taste-makers, and artists within genre fiction. These stories also illustrate that the field has contained speculation on the social sciences, on gender and race and culture, from its inception. After all, to speculate is to ask “what next?” and the moment of answer is inherently political. Yaszek’s efforts here fill in a historical gap and offer an argument at the same time.

As she explains in her introduction, she sought to collect pieces from American women writing from “the launch of the first specialist genre magazines in the 1920s” up to “the emergence of self-identified feminist sf in the 1970s.” The table of contents is arranged chronologically, charting out that evolution and the conversation between the stories included. The earliest, Clare Winger Harris’s “Miracle of the Lily,” is from 1928; the latest stories are a set of four from 1967-1969 that offer a stunning and pointed signoff: Kate Wilhem’s “Baby, You Were Great,” Joanna Russ’s “The Barbarian,” James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives.”

[A review.]

Growing Older, Growing Wiser: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

Originally published as a webcomic (2016-2017), Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam is a fantastical queer coming of age tale. The dual narrative follows Mia across two significant portions of her life, first during her freshman year at the boarding school where she meets Grace, and second, five years later, when she begins her first adult job out of school. She joins a crew who reclaim and restore architecture across the reaches of space: Alma and Char, who are married, as well as Jules and Elliot who are closer in age to Mia. There’s more to the friendly ship’s crew than Mia would’ve guessed at first, though, and a surprising shared history leads their new-made family down a risky but important path.

The chapters alternate in time, developing young Mia’s relationship with Grace while simultaneously exploring her relationship with the crew and, in the end, bringing those two threads together. With as much reflection as it has action, On a Sunbeam takes the reader on a quiet, thoughtful journey through all different shades of love as well as the risks worth taking for it. It’s a meditative and domestic project, human above all even while showing people’s rough edges.

(Some spoilers below.)

[A review.]

Life for Death for Life: Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

Strange Grace is a standalone young adult novel from Tessa Gratton (also author of recently-released The Queens of Innis Lear) set in a town that knows no lasting hardship due to a pact with the devil. Illnesses pass in a night; wounds heal without infection; babies are born healthy with safe mothers; crops thrive under perfectly timed rains. However, the pact is upheld by the sacrifice of a young man every seven years to run the devil’s forest and see if he comes out victorious. The sacrifice of one allows all to live peacefully. None are forced—the trial is an honor.

Mairwen Grace is the only daughter of the town’s bloodline of witches, linked to the forest as her ancestors were before her, all the way back to the woman who made the original bargain. The witches form the liminal border between forest and town, life and death. However, when the bargain falls awry only three years after the last sacrifice, Mairwen and her closest companions, Arthur and Rhun, have a duty to determine the cause—whether they agree with the true nature of the bargain or not.

[Read more]

Dig to the Insides: Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis

Abbey Mei Otis’s first long-form collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories, is a powerful debut volume published by the perennially impressive Small Beer Press. The book contains twelve stories with publication dates spanning the past eight years, including “Sweetheart” which appeared on in 2010. Otis’s fiction has a dynamic blend of contemporary and speculative approaches, diamond-edged and furious in her exploration of power, oppression, and grief.

The titular story also serves as a statement of themes: outsider or abject characters; viral, haunting, gruesome physicality; hunger mixed with passion and crooked adoration; cataclysm before-during-and-after. It isn’t a pleasant or simple experience for the audience. The bodies in Otis’s short fiction are subject to a grim though often lyrical brutality, one step too far for comfort at all times, and their suffering does not generally lead to a positive outcome.

[A review.]

The Book as Archive: An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

Collecting the column series that ran from 2010-2013 on, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 contains Jo Walton’s original year-by-year exploration posts, brief essays on select nominee novels, and occasional threaded comments from regular contributors such as Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, and Rich Horton. The result is a hefty, handsome hardcover that physically archives a digital experience. The crossplatform hybridity of the book is in and of itself fascinating and makes for a dragonfly-in-amber effect on reading.

It is not, then, a nonfiction book about the history of the Hugo awards (though of course it also is) but the archive of a conversation that has historical and critical resonances, a “personal look back” that doubles as a valuable reflection on an otherwise insufficiently documented moment in time. Since the original column ran the field has also lost David G. Hartwell (2016) and Gardner Dozois (2018). Their contributions here are preserved from the changeable digital medium, their voices in conversation surviving for future audiences.

[A review.]

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