Review of Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

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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

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This novella was released in 2017 by Tor.com/McMillan 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 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

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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?

2017 Hugo Winners

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Congratulations to all the winners!

Best Novel (2078 ballots)

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Books / Titan Books)
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager US)
Death’s End by Cixin Liu (Tor Books / Head of Zeus)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris Books)
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Tor Books)

Best Novella (1410 ballots)

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)
This Census-Taker by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

Best Novelette (1097 ballots)

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)
“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan (Tor.com, July 2016)
“The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing, May 2016)
“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)
“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

Best Short Story (1275 ballots)

“The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
“An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)

Best Series (1393 votes)

The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone (Tor Books)
The Expanse by James S.A. Corey (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
The October Daye Books by Seanan McGuire (DAW / Corsair)
The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz / Del Rey / DAW / Subterranean)
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Harper Voyager UK)
The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (937 ballots)

Sarah Gailey (1st year of eligibility)
J. Mulrooney (1st year of eligibility)
Malka Older (2nd year of eligibility)
Ada Palmer (1st year of eligibility)
Laurie Penny (2nd year of eligibility)
Kelly Robson (2nd year of eligibility)

Dragon Award Ballot

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I’m running a little behind on this, but here are the fiction finalists for the Dragon Award 2017, announced last week. Clearly this award runs on a different system than the usual SFF literary awards. For example, only Chambers, Liu and Jemisin also appear on the Hugo ballot, and only Jemisin appeared on the Nebula ballot.

Vox Day’s recommendations are marked in boldface. There’s already been a bit of a squabble, as Scalzi and Littlewood tried to withdraw but were refused by the awards committee.

Quick analysis: Gender diversity took a clear hit, with 46 of 58 being men (~80%). However, 5 of the works were co-authored by two men, which pushes up the count a little. Apparently 17 of 58 are racial minorities (~30%), and Hispanic/Portuguese/Native American scored much better here than on the Hugo or Nebula ballot with 7 of 58 (~10%). Apologies if I missed anyone.

BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (1 woman, 7 men, 1 Asian)
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey
Death’s End by Cixin Liu
Escaping Infinity by Richard Paolinelli
Rise by Brian Guthrie
Space Tripping by Patrick Edwards
The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
The Secret Kings by Brian Niemeier

BEST FANTASY NOVEL (INCLUDING PARANORMAL) (2 women, 6 men, 1 Asian, 1 Native American, 3 Hispanic/Portuguese, 1 Jewish)
A Sea of Skulls by Vox Day
Beast Master by Shayne Silvers
Blood of the Earth by Faith Hunter
Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi
Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Larry Correia and John Ringo
The Hearthstone Thief by Pippa DaCosta
Wings of Justice by Michael-Scott Earle

BEST YOUNG ADULT / MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL (3 women, 4 men)
A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas
Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
Firebrand by A.J. Hartley
It’s All Fun and Games by Dave Barrett
Rachel and the Many Splendored Dreamland by L. Jagi Lamplighter
Swan Knight’s Son by John C Wright
The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan

BEST MILITARY SCIENCE FICTION OR FANTASY NOVEL (1 woman, 9 men, 2 Hispanic/Portuguese)
Allies and Enemies: Exiles by Amy J. Murphy
Caine’s Mutiny by Charles E. Gannon
Cartwright’s Cavaliers by Mark Wandrey
Invasion: Resistance by J.F. Holmes
Iron Dragoons by Richard Fox
Star Realms: Rescue Run by Jon Del Arroz
Starship Liberator by B.V. Larson and David Van Dyke
The Span of Empire by Eric Flint and David Carrico

BEST ALTERNATE HISTORY NOVEL (2 women, 6 men, 1 Asian)
1636: The Ottoman Onslaught by Eric Flint
A Change in Crime by D.R. Perry
Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli
Breath of Earth by Beth Cato
Fallout: The Hot War by Harry Turtledove
No Gods, Only Daimons by Kai Wai Cheah
The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
Witchy Eye by D.J. Butler

BEST APOCALYPTIC NOVEL (1 woman, 7 men, 1 black, 1 Arab, 3 Jewish)
A Place Outside the Wild by Daniel Humphreys
American War by Omar El Akkad
Codename: Unsub by Declan Finn and Allan Yoskowitz
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The Seventh Age: Dawn by Rick Heinz
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
ZK: Falling by J.F. Holmes

BEST HORROR NOVEL (2 women, 7 men, 1 black, 1 Hispanic/Portuguese)
A God in the Shed by J.F. Dubeau
Blood of Invidia by Tom Tinney and Morgen Batten
Donn’s Hill by Caryn Larrinaga
Live and Let Bite by Declan Finn
Nothing Left to Lose by Dan Wells
The Bleak December by Kevin G. Summers
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

Review of Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This isn’t part of my project to review under-represented minorities—it’s one just for fun. This novella is another in the continuing series of Penric and his resident demon Desdemona. It was released in 2017, which makes it eligible for next year’s awards. It runs about 90 pages and looks to be released independently. It picks up where Penric’s Mission leaves off.

Penric, Arisaydia and Nikys are limping across Cedonia toward the border and safety in the Duchy of Orbas. Penric was injured in his recent battle with the sorcerer Kyrato; General Arisaydia is recuperating from blindness and his widowed sister Nikys is just plain tired. When they get to the town of Sosie, the temple is occupied by a funeral, so Penric can’t get money by robbing the collection boxes as he normally does. They find refuge in a brothel instead, as Penric contracts to rid the premises of pests. He heals the madam, as well, and borrows her expertise to disguise himself as a woman for the rest of the trip to the border. Unfortunately he catches the eye of one of the house’s clientele. Will they make it to the safety of Orbas? Will Penric and Nikys hook up?

Bujold is an accomplished writer, so her characterization, imagery, plot, etc. are all neatly in place. These novellas have been on the awards ballots fairly regularly, and I suspect the reason is that Penric is a boy and his demon is a girl. This leaves the option to investigate questions of gender identity and how this is received by others. I hadn’t noticed it so much in the other novellas, but here Penric assumes the identity of the courtesan Mira, navigating the minefields of cross-dressing and indeterminate sexuality while attempting to pursue the elusive Nikys. It’s a light, quick read, just the thing to brighten up a rainy night.

On the negative side, I wish these novellas were a little touch darker. They’re light on conflict, as there’s never much in the way of a real threat. Penric seems light-minded, as well, and never dark—just confusing to the people he meets. I hope there’s some supporting reason for this escapade in the upcoming tales.

Three and a half stars.

Review of American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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This novel is first up in my effort at more inclusion. I’m planning to review some different works that might be award-worthy for the next awards cycle. The novel was published in 2017 by Balzer+Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. Zoboi is Haitian and the novel could probably be classified as dark fantasy. It runs about 300 pages.

Fabiola Toussaint is emigrating from Haiti to America, where she expects to find the good life. Because Fabiola is an American citizen, she clears Immigration, but her mother is detained for the visa violation that made Fabiola a citizen. Lost and alone, Fabiola arrives at the Detroit airport with all their luggage and no idea what to do. She is met by her cousins, Chantel, Donna and Princess, daughters of her Matant Jo. They take her home to their house on the West Side, but there is no celebration, no big welcome. She has to hunt in the refrigerator for something to eat and borrow a uniform to go to their expensive, private school the next day. Fabiola tries to get her footing in the strange culture while praying to the lwas for her mother’s release. Soon she finds she has arrived at Papa Legba’s Crossroads, and that a Sacrifice will be necessary in order for her magic to work.

This book is a solidly written coming-of-age tale with great characters and a strong grasp of the different cultures in both Haiti and Detroit. The truth of what her life has been built on dawns slowly, as Fabiola tries to help Matant Jo with her illness and Donna with her dysfunctional love life. Zoboi also writes asides that give the background on each character, the house and the street, placing them solidly in Detroit’s history. It’s gripping and a quick read; I finished it in one day.

On the negative side, the theme is a little murky here. The story is memorable but unsettling, and I’m not sure if there’s a lesson. Everything has a cost, maybe?

Four and a half stars.

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