Review of Sword & Flower by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella falls on the entertainment side. It appears to be independently published and runs about 106 pages. It’s not quite what I was expecting when I asked for authentic works from underrepresented minorities, but I’m finding this kind of multiculturalism is out there.

Mash grabs his sword and shield and rushes out of his house to defend his Puritan village against a demon attack. The attack is successfully repelled, but Mash is badly injured. Pragmatically, the villagers allow the local witch to heal the wounded before arresting her. Dimity is a J-pop star. She finds her bank account has been hacked, so goes to the bank with her manager to close it and open a new one. Although the manager is suspicious, Dimity fills out the paperwork and accepts an advance of cash from the bank, which is delivered later. When she opens it, the box explodes, smearing her remains on the walls. She awakes in Lesser Heaven, where she finds control of her ki gives her magical powers. This is not much appreciated by the Puritans. Can Dimity join forces with Mash to save Lesser Heaven from the demons?

This is an interesting mash-up of cultures and styles that I suspect might be a symptom of a shrinking world. Well, okay. Anime on Netflix, too. The best thing about Nyanzi’s work is a sort of sly humor. Dimity provides a protagonist from outside Western culture that sees the villagers as white men, gets annoyed at their idiocy and gets evangelized at her witchcraft trial. Nyanzi has an excellent command of Anime culture, and there’s plenty of action.

Because of what this is, it’s hard to come up with negatives. The characters are flat—we don’t get much in the way of insight as to what makes them tick, no internal narrative, no little tics. Here the focus is just on the action. The narrative is slightly clunky, but it suits the style of the book. I’m not sure why the population of Lesser Heaven is so limited, but maybe this is just because it’s purgatory. That would mean the characters are inflicted on each other, right?

The Hugos are probably too stuffy for this kind of work, but I can see it as a finalist for the Dragon Awards next year. It appears to be Nyanzi’s first novel, so I’m looking forward to what else he might come up with.

Four stars and a half stars.

Guest review of Monster Hunter: Siege by Larry Corriea


I can’t personally read all the books released in 2017, so here’s a guest review by The Phantom. Monster Hunter: Siege is published by Baen and runs around 399 pages. It’s sixth in the Monster Hunter series. The review follows below:

If monsters like werewolves, vampires, undead zombies and other, more obscure evils really did exist, if Chthonic demons did exert an influence in the world, and you found out… what would you do?

Monster Hunter International is a group of people that made a business out of killing evil creatures. That notion of ingenuity and sheer attitude, the idea that not only one should fight evil but one should also be well paid for doing so, that’s very appealing to me. These are people who approach a werewolf the same way the exterminator approaches a raccoon in your attic. As a business. All the stories have that mix of the fantastical and the practical, down to the exact mix of silver and lead you want in a shotgun shell, to be sure of taking out the werewolves in a cost-efficient manner.

Monster Hunter: Siege is far enough along in the series that we have seen the main characters develop from know-nothing civilian, to raw recruit, to veteran Hunters. In Siege we see Owen Pitt continue his development from leader of a small unit hunting monsters one at a time, to an officer in charge of taking the battle to the Enemy in a brigade-level operation. This involves ship movements, the practicalities of how to shoot an evil giant with an armored vehicle, logistics for 1000 Hunters in a remote and inhospitable location, and what to do when you’re facing the very personification of Chaos. Pitt makes the kind of personal sacrifices routinely expected of soldiers every day, and the cost is made very apparent. One minor example, he goes forward with planning and executing the operation knowing he won’t be home for the birth of his first child, and knowing he won’t be able to protect his family from the monsters while he is gone. He trusts his comrades to do that for him, and goes ahead because he knows he has to. That’s an inspiring character.

This story and the rest of the series are like a rest for me. I get to live in a world where evil has a physical manifestation that you can fight. There’s none of the usual gray, “everybody does it” dark world where nothing is ever worth doing, and people sit around whinging about their feelings instead of fixing the situation. These people do their whinging while they work, like real people who get things done.

The story moves fast, and there is plenty of action. The thing that distinguishes these books from others for me is that the action is necessary given the plot elements and the construction of the world. There’s no random, pointless scenes where the Good Guys are fighting something for no good reason. Every scene forwards the story, every character is there moving the events forward to the conclusion.

Plus there’s an evil giant getting shot by a tank. Twice. That’s some awesome story-telling, and better yet, a story that’s worth the telling.

Five Phantom thumbs way, way up for this one. ~:D

The Phantom

Review of Escaping Infinity by Richard Paolinelli

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This book is a finalist in the Best SF Novel category of the 2017 Dragon Awards. It’s published by Tuscany Bay Publishing and runs about 325 pages.

Peter Childress and Charlie Womack are driving to an engineering conference in Phoenix where Peter is supposed to do a presentation. They get lost taking a backroad shortcut, and just as they’re about to run out of gas, they find the Infinity Hotel. It’s been a long, tiring day, so they’re happy to find a great place to spend the night. However, once they’re checked in, Peter starts to wonder about the hotel, which is seemingly infinite on the inside. The lobby is luxurious; the rooms are huge, and the entrance they came in seems to have disappeared. Not only that, but the guests seem to be dressed from different places and times. Charlie has located the casino, and Peter can’t seem to get him to focus on the problem. Instead, he finds an ally in the desk clerk Liz. Can the two of them figure out what’s going on? What will they do then?

This story is readable, old-fashioned, upbeat science fiction in the pulp style. It’s pretty much character driven, ending up light on the science part—on the hardness scale, it’s about on the level of the Star Trek series. Peter is the model of the nerdy engineer who finds adventure, along with a beautiful girl, and rises to the occasion when virtue, intelligence and a big heart are required.

On the con side, this requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. It uses standard SF memes like faster than light spaceflight, time travel, terra-forming, life-extension, etc., without delving into the science or adding any new insights. It has a utopian bent that’s very much counter to current trends, and I’d like to have seen some investigation of the consequences of godlike powers.

This is a good read for folks who enjoy positive stories, nerdy engineers and pretty girls. Interestingly, this is the second highly positive SF story I’ve read this year in connection with the awards–Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit read like this, too. I wonder if that means it’s a new direction in SFF taste.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera

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As part of my effort to review more diverse works, here’s a short novel by Mexican writer Yuri Herrera and published by And Other Stories. It’s translated by Lisa Dillman, and it’s a quick read at about 112 pages.

The Artist’s songs find favor with the King, who offers the Artist a position within his court. There he meets the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Witch and the Girl. A beautiful woman catches his eye, the Commoner, who turns out to be daughter of the Witch. The Artist sees the benevolence of the King, but as time goes on, he realizes that all is not well within the kingdom and that there might be a Traitor within the court. Frightened by threats and a sudden vision of the King as only a sad, defeated man, the Artist and the Commoner attempt to flee. Can they avoid the coming war?

I’m thinking this is an example of surreal fiction, as it includes images here and there that are strange and unexplained. I’m sure a lot of the beauty of the language is lost in translation, but the story still flows well. Through the Artist’s eyes, we see the transience of wealth and power, and investigate patronage and integrity.

Although this is billed as a “fairy tale,” I thought the truth of the situation was a little too obvious for this, and that it read more like metaphor instead. Because of this transparency, it may be more literary than SFF. Still, it was an interesting read.

Three stars.

Review of Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones


This novel was published in 2016, so it’s not eligible for awards next year, but I was impressed enough that I’m going to review it anyway and encourage people to pick up a copy. It made the Locus Recommended Reading List but was passed over for SFF award nominations. Jones is a Native American of the Blackfeet tribe. This is published by William Morrow/HarperCollins and would likely be considered dark fantasy.

Grandpa tells fantastic stories about being a werewolf and running under the moon. The boy listens, rapt. He lives with his grandpa, his Aunt Libby and his Uncle Darren. His mother is dead. When grandpa dies half wolf and half man, Darren steals a backhoe to bury him. Then they have to pack up and move again. Darren normally works as a trucker and Libby at low wage night jobs of some kind. They’re always on the move, from Texas to North Carolina to Georgia to Florida, afraid to stay in one place too long, because violence, suspicion and a taste for blood will catch up with them if they do. The boy wants to be a werewolf, to be part of the tradition, but his mother never changed. Will it happen for him?

This is very much a book about the human condition, the underbelly of indigent migrant workers that exists on the fringes of society. Jones builds the picture slowly, and we start to understand how the boy idolizes Darren, with all his faults, as the only father-figure in his life, and Libby as his mother’s twin. He finds a girl he likes, but loses her when they have to move again. It’s all about the characters and the family, very different for a werewolf tale.

On the negative side, there’s not much plot here, but then, it’s not that kind of story. I also thought some of the events and lore were a bit too exaggerated and tongue-in cheek. Still, that gives it a kind of honky-tonk charm.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones


This novella was released in 2017 by and runs about 112 pages. Stephen Graham Jones is a Native American of the Blackfeet tribe. He actually appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List last year with the very interesting novel Mongrels, but was overlooked for the SFF awards nominations. This novella would likely be considered dark fantasy.

Junior is a Native American boy who lives with his mother and little brother Dino off the reservation. His father died under mysterious circumstances several years before, so Junior is startled to see him cross from the kitchen to the utility room in their house one night. This is his father as he might have been, a fancy dancer in full dress costume. At first Junior thinks his father’s ghost has come back to help them, but as bad things begin to happen, he begins to suspect the ghost is sucking the life out of his little brother in order to become more real and solid. Can he save his little brother, or is the sacrifice worth bringing someone back from the dead?

Jones writes great, everyman characters that suck you in gradually until you find you’re totally involved. He does his magic here, as the shape of Junior’s life, his father’s past and his mother’s needs develop gradually into a full picture. When we’re snared, then things start to go wrong.

On the negative side, this novella has slight political messages, in other words, white stereotypes. It makes clear statements about the characters being Native American and there are a couple of references to the Old West that I suspect are the result of being published by Tor. I also suspect Jones meant to write a longer piece, as this seems to cut off a little sharply. I would have liked for him to investigate the question of sacrifice a little more fully.

Three and a half stars.

Update on the Dragon Awards Drama 2017


On August 10, officials at the Dragon Awards reconsidered their policy of not letting authors withdraw their names from the competition, which resulted in Littlewood and Jemisin withdrawing. Scalzi, after consulting with the officials, decided to stay in the competition, but can’t attend because he’s booked somewhere else for Labor Day weekend. Interestingly, Littlewood and Jemisin both released statements that they were withdrawing because they didn’t want to be used as political pawns.

Littlewood’s position is easy to understand, as her novel The Hidden People was on Vox Day’s list of recommendations for the award. (Can you still call it a Rabid Puppy slate when he calls it recommendations?) Appalled at being targeted, Littlewood jumped to make it clear she didn’t want to be tainted by Rabid Puppy support. This pretty much mirrors similar behavior from authors in the last couple of years. But Jemisin’s statement is more interesting. “There’s a nasty tendency on the part of some organizations to try and use tokens,” she says on her blog, “— most often women and people of color — as ornamentation and flak shielding. It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey! Look! We’re diverse. We’re fair. [Person X’s presence] proves it!’ when in fact the fairness may be an unearned veneer and the diversity a reluctant afterthought.”

This suggests even Jemisin is noticing how often her name appears on awards ballots when plenty of other talented and deserving writers-of-color are out there. Evidently she suspected the Dragon Awards committee might have inserted her name, but it turned out to be fans after all (described as “justice warriors” by President of Dragon Con, Pat Henry). Whatever, these withdrawals reduce the gender diversity of the award even further, leaving the ballot at approximately 82% men.

In light of yesterday’s Hugo results where all the fiction awards went to women, there seems to be a growing split between male and female interests during the SFF awards cycle. Is there any chance this might improve in the near future?

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