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Lee Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

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.]

To Encourage Reach Exceeding Grasp: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Two far-flung future societies—called Garden and the Agency, respectively—toe through timelines seeding potential, nudging some lives forward and decimating others, with the ultimate goal of preserving their own existence as the inevitable outcome of human culture. As elite agents for their opposing sides, Red and Blue bite at each other’s heels across time and space through dying worlds, long cons, strange pasts and stranger futures. One chance outreach between them, forbidden but irresistible, forges a connection neither could’ve anticipated. Impossible letters wait through centuries for discovery as the pair of them communicate about their goals, their missions, their shared distastes and pleasures—taboo informational liaisons that lead to far more.

One the one hand, This Is How You Lose the Time War is about that titular war: the protagonists are agents undertaking missions to stabilize (or destroy) certain strands in time to benefit their own potential future. On the other, the novella isn’t about the war at all as more than an object lesson, a conceit, the unending and reason-less conflict that consumes generations, centuries, now and forever. And in place of a story about that bigger-than-big conflict, about winning or losing, El-Mohtar and Gladstone weave a romance through letters.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Now and Forever: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

The Machineries of Empire trilogy wrapped up last June—bringing to a close one of the most engaging, provocative high-concept sf series I’d read in some time. Yoon Ha Lee, however, has not finished with that sprawling universe at large. Hexarchate Stories brings together a set of stories that spans over four-hundred years of worldbuilding and a handful of regime changes, shifting in style and tone from intimate (sometimes sexy!) flash fiction to plot-rich, dramatic tales of intrigue and violence.

Three of the stories in the collection are previously unpublished, including the closing novella “Glass Cannon” (set after Revenant Gun, the third Machineries of Empire novel), while the earliest reprinted piece is from 2012. The scope of initial publications ranges from magazines like Clarkesworld to Lee’s blog, and as such, the length and style of the stories also varies significantly throughout. That level of variation makes for a fast, entertaining reading experience, particularly for a collection of short fiction where all the stories share the same background.

[A review.]

I Made Her From Clay: Broken Places & Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor

Following her compelling talk, “Scifi stories that imagine a future Africa” (2017), the TED Books series now presents Nnedi Okorafor’s Broken Places & Outer Spaces. Part memoir, part craft text, the book is a personal narrative of the route Okorafor took to arrive at her career as a writer of science fiction. In the TED talk, she discusses the roots and influences of her science fiction as an Africanfuturist and reads selections from Binti and Lagoon; in this companion book her approach is more personal, focusing primarily on the life-changing experience of a scoliosis surgery that left her—a college athlete and track star—paralyzed.

Confined to her hospital room and laboring under the emotional and physical pain of her recovery, Okorafor first experiences her creative awakening—a process that comes in fits and starts, as does her rehabilitation. As she reflects on this experience in intense, intimate detail over the course of the book, she also explores what it means to be broken and rebuilt, to be made into something greater than the original form: a cyborg, a futurist, an artist.

[A review.]

All Else We Left Behind: Air Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Just shy of eighteen years since the publication of Marks’ first Elemental Logic novel, the story of Shaftal—of Karis and Zanja and Emil, their spouses and children and loved ones—reaches its conclusion in Air Logic. In the previous volume, an assassination attempt was made on Karis’s government and her person. Though the attempt was foiled, the larger problem of an active resistance in Shaftal to peace with the Sainnites remains unsolved: people in the wind, plotting the overthrow of the G’deon they consider false for her attempt to close out the brutalities of war without seeking vengeance.

As we’ve discussed previously, Marks’s novels argue that progress is only possible if people are able and willing to change—but also to forgive, to allow room for growth and rehabilitation, all at the same time. Finding that third path isn’t a comfortable task. Air logic as it has been represented throughout the series is implacable and the people gifted with it are as well, possessors of rigid internal structures of moral certainty. I’d argue, then, that it makes a great deal of thematic sense for the final book to have a vested interest in exploring the problem of rigid certainties and inflexible beliefs as a stumbling block on the path to peace.

[Onward – essay contains spoilers.]

To Make Ethical Decisions, Be An Ethical Person: Water Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Time and water share characteristics, moving in currents, eddies, flows—and that fluid, continual circulation animates the third novel in Marks’s Elemental Logic series. In a similar vein to its namesake, Water Logic is a subtler book than the crackling Fire Logic, yet more capriciously changeable than Earth Logic. It might seem odd to call this novel subtle, considering that its central conceit is an upheaval in the timeline that drags Zanja two hundred years into Shaftal’s past, but its arguments are by design less concretely executed and more illustrated as a dance of ideas.

With the war finally ended but resentments and conflict still festering, the dilemma facing the new combined governance of Shaftal is no longer political first and cultural second. There’s a political center in place, but its reach to change the social order in far-flung, significant ways relies less on given law and more on the ability to conceptualize and spread a narrative of change. What’s needed are stories for a new society, a path that stretches past the door Medric opened with his A History of My Father’s People. In that sense, Water Logic is as philosophical as the prior books were political, a slight but dynamic reorganization of narrative priorities.


We all have choices, don’t we? Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is an almost-solvent private investigator based out of the gentrifying Bay Area, working from her basement office to resolve insurance disputes and prove marital infidelities. She’s making do, at least, until an unwanted client brings her a case she can’t refuse (or, chooses not to refuse): there has been a violent death among the staff at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages and the headmaster believes it was murder. The sizable paycheck draws Ivy into the world she’s spent her adult life trying to avoid—a subculture of magic and privilege where her twin sister Tabitha has been flourishing since their teen years, now an instructor herself.

The murdered staff member, teenagers with their hierarchies, a chosen-one’s prophecy, and worse all pull Ivy in contradictory directions as she arrives to take on her first homicide investigation. Faced with her estranged sister—the better, more magical, more accomplished sibling—she also has personal problems to juggle alongside her detective work. However, all is not as it seems at Osthorne, and pleasant privileged surfaces often have quite a lot to hide.

[A review.]

Rather Than Defeat the Enemies, You Must Change Them: Earth Logic by Laurie J. Marks

At the close of Fire Logic, Karis has confronted Councilor Mabin and driven a spike into her heart—without killing her—as a symbolic display of authority and earth-elemental magics. In so doing, surrounded by her found family and allies, she declares herself known as the successor to Harald G’deon and the leader of their nation. However, Karis and her councilors-slash-kin aren’t necessarily prepared emotionally or personally to take over the ruling of a country. When to act, and what to do when it’s time, remains a burning question for a people at war—one that none of our protagonist are quite sure how to answer.

Fire Logic’s deeply humanist approach to realism in the political fantastic continues unabated in Earth Logic, a novel concerned first and foremost with ending the war that’s been grinding the Shaftali and Sainnese people to dust for more than a decade. The central question of Earth Logic is, how does a protracted conflict end without either side’s annihilation? Marks’s conclusion, as explored by our protagonists, is that domination must be purposefully exchanged for domesticity and a collective consciousness forged as a result.

[Read more]

Beasts that Feed on War: The Red-Stained Wings by Elizabeth Bear

Second in the Lotus Kingdoms trilogy and fifth novel set in the world of the Eternal Sky, The Red-Stained Wings kicks off immediately following the last scene of The Stone in the Skull (2017). At the opening of the novel, the Gage sets off across a poisoned desert to seek the solution to a Wizard’s riddle and the Dead Man remains behind with the rajni Mrithuri in a kingdom under siege. Meanwhile, Sayeh rajni is captive to one prince while her toddler son is captive to a second. War isn’t the most threatening thing on the horizon, though, as the machinations of gods—or worse—begin to creep through into human affairs under the cover of conflict.

As noted in discussion of the first book in the series, the Lotus Kingdoms trilogy is one large arc spread over three separate novels, which I particularly appreciate in a second-world setting as grand in scope as that of the Eternal Sky. Released from the constraint of wedging in a stand-alone plot for each novel, Bear devotes all of her considerable craft to weaving one dense, affectively powerful story. The result is well worth the gamble. In fact, I’d argue that the tension ratcheting up toward the conclusion of the overarching plot makes this one of the most gripping middle novels I’ve read in a long time.

[A review.]

Living in Hope is a Discipline: Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Seventeen years after Tor’s original publication of the first Elemental Logic novel, Fire Logic, the fourth and final installment in the series is due out from Small Beer Press on June 4th. In the lead-up, the press has also released handsome reprint editions of the prior books, inviting a fresh base of readers to discover them—including me. Fire Logic was released in 2002 and won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel the following year. The sequel, Earth Logic, followed in 2003 and also won the same award. Water Logic, the third installment, signaled the publisher shift to Small Beer in 2007—but then nothing for almost twelve years.

As a result of that gap in publication, Laurie J. Marks’s series has lingered at the fringes of my awareness for a long while. I was barely twelve years old when Fire Logic came out, and seventeen when the third book was released; I hadn’t heard of them until I was twenty and delving more deeply into queer SFF awards lists and recommendations. Since then they’ve been on the “if I spot a used copy in the world, I’ll snag it” list but I hadn’t put special effort into seeking the books out as the series remained unfinished…until now. The release of the final novel presents the perfect incentive for finally diving into this continuing classic of queer fantastic literature. Furthermore, the series is as prescient now as ever in terms of its messages about community and resistance. Thus, I’ll be covering each of the novels here in turn, with a new essay appearing every Thursday for the next month.


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.]]

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