Tor.com content by

Paul Weimer

The Center Cannot Hold: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth

“Go back where you came from” is a common phrase used by far too many towards immigrants and refugees. It is the fear, hatred and distrust of The Other. This hatred seems to be particularly sharp toward certain groups of refugees, those who have traveled hundreds of miles to escape war or privation, turning up at a distant border, seeking to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

But what if you can’t go where you came from? What if your entire home planet—Earth—and others have been turned from habitable worlds to extremely strange and warped works of “art”? And, after a miracle ends the threat of worlds destroyed, there are precious decades of peace during which people no longer have a “go bag” packed in case the enemy should show up? Peace to the point that you have not forgotten, but you have relaxed somewhat from the existential day to day terrors? A small peace, fragile, but peace nonetheless.

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The Battle of Four Armies: Carrie Vaughn’s Questland

Carrie Vaughn’s Questland is a day-after-tomorrow tale of a fantasy theme park gone very wrong.

Insula Mirabilis (literally, Wonderful Island) off the coast of Washington State is the pet project of billionaire Harris Lang. It’s going to be the ultimately geeky fantasy theme park once it is complete—immersing visitors in an experience that would put Westworld to shame. But when the island puts up a force field from the inside and a coast guard cutter hits it and loses all hands, things get real. Lang needs to get a team in and shut down the field and regain control of the island. 

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Forgetfulness of Things Past: Sarina Dahlan’s Reset

A theme in dystopian/utopian fiction is: How do we manage a society after things have gone so very wrong, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated? What would you do to make a society that will not come to extinguish humanity for good, this time? And what is the dystopian price to pay? Do you engineer society so that everyone takes drugs daily to subdue their passions, as in Equilibrium? Have everyone die at the age of 21, as in Logan’s Run? Stratify society in a distorted and restrictive way, as in Brave New World? Place a sin-eater of a tortured soul at the dark heart of the city, taking the sins of the city and the people, as in Those Who Walk Away From Omelas? There is a common assumption in all of these works that for humanity to have a utopia of any sort, bounds must be put on humanity, severe ones at that.

And so we come to Sarina Dahlan’s novel, Reset.

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Humanizing a Magnificent Bastard: Nick Martell’s The Two Faced Queen

In Kingdom of Liars, we were introduced to Michael Kingsman, he and his family fallen far from power and favor, and the story of a family, a person, on the outs of power and society whilst being an integral fixture in the power structures. Kingdom of Liars told a relatively self contained mobius strip of a story that explained how Michael became accused and marked as the killer of a King.

Following up on such a bottled narrative is difficult even if there are plenty of questions left—what now, with the King dead, both nobles of the family out for his blood, and the revelations of his own life lifted and laid bare? What can Michael do, having been shoved into the position that he has been by the end of Kingdom of Liars? Nick Martell’s The Two-Faced Queen ponders these questions, and continues to explore the story of Michael Kingsman.

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Priestess of a Lesser Goddess: H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke

The basic four archetypes for a D&D-like party are the Fighter, the Rogue, the Wizard and the Cleric. In secondary world fantasy novels, the first three are very well represented, to the point of many variations and subclasses and versions of same. But the Cleric is far rarer. It’s not that there are none, mind you, but they are far, far less common as protagonists. Why is that? That is perhaps beyond the scope of this piece, but I think I know why

Evil priests of dread Gods as antagonists and cannon fodder to kill? That’s common. But a pious holy woman dedicated to her Goddess as a protagonist? Much fewer in number, especially when you are looking at female protagonists. And that is why H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke is welcome, as we get front and center Hessa, a priestess of a Goddess of War.

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Crossing Castes: Juliette Wade’s Transgressions of Power

In Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power we were introduced to the Varin, an alternate world of humans on a planet whose surface is less than pleasant to be on for long periods of time, so high society, a decaying civilization, exists in underground cities. In Transgressions of Power, Wade continues the story of a society struggling with conflict and the potential to change.

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A Battle Beyond the Stars: Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station

In a real way, the western and science fiction are made for each other, and have been for decades. Long before things like Firefly or Outland or Star Wars, the very term “Space Opera” is a derivation from the term for romances of the Wild West, “Horse Opera”. The DNA of westerns is in many SF stories where there are frontiers, conflicts between “civilized” and “rough” areas, the psychology and anthropology of communities very much on their own for good and for ill against the wilderness.

In this day and age though, we can work this connection further. The position of women in westerns, and frankly, a lot of space opera, is not so great. Where are the stories of women doing things on the frontier, riding the star winds, trying to do what’s right? Where are the Wild West Heroines, or even grizzled veterans just trying to make a living and get caught into a greater cause, despite themselves?

And so we come to Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station.

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Bending the Arc of History: Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life

How do we ensure that the rights of all beings are respected and they are given justice and a fair hearing under the law? Who will stand up when a majority treats someone as a thing, rather than a person? Who can stand against the tyranny of a settlement, a society, a species?

These are the questions at the heart of Erin K. Wagner’s novella, An Unnatural Life.

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Who watches the King? Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars

No system of government or society exists without some checks on power. Even the most autocratic autarchy has some checks and influencers on authority, even if informal ones, because the person at the top cannot personally do every single small act of governance. Such checks on power and supports of power can take many forms, including the personal. The relationships between ruler and ruled can get especially interesting when that relationship is frayed and discredited, forcing a society already under tension further into stress. To say nothing of what that relationship does to the actual individuals themselves. 

So it is in Nick Martell’s debut novel, The Kingdom of Liars.

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Fantastic North American Geographies: Emily B Martin’s Sunshield

In discussing Emily B Martin’s Sunshield, I think the best way for me to draw you into what the book is and what is doing is not to discuss the plot or characters, but instead to talk about worldbuilding in the novel, and the worldbuilding of a lot of fantasy worlds in general.

I’ve written about secondary world fantasy that is beyond the “Great Wall of Europe” before, specifically about “Silk Road Fantasy”, mainly focused on Africa and Asia. Instead of being just places for “The Other”, on the margins of a Europhilic fantasy, we’re getting more novels and stories where African and Asian cultures, peoples, and geographies are front and center.

[Sunshield takes us instead to a fantasy version of North America]

Very Alien Human Societies: Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power

Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power is a thought provoking and immersive work of sociological science fiction in the footsteps of genre luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin, Doris Lessig, Jack Vance, and Eleanor Arnason that has coincidental relevance in our world with the news surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak.

The story of  centers on an alternate human world with no connection to our own. It is a world of faded glory, descending from its high peak—similar in spirit to the world of Charlie Jane Anders’ The City In the Middle of the Night. Humans now live almost entirely underground and the surface world is regarded with dread and fear in an almost Asimovian Caves of Steel sort of mode. Society is stratified, split by class and social status. Conflicts that may be present in our own world are reflected here in a much more violent manner, especially when it comes to politics. The Varin, the high caste of this world, are on a precipice of power, and it is the actions of one of their families and its scions that will decide the fate of an entire city and world.

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