Review of The Lost Sisters by Holly Black

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This e-novella is a companion piece for the Folk of the Air trilogy, a look at The Cruel Prince’s story from Taryn’s viewpoint. The e-file also contains a one-chapter intro to The Wicked King. This was published by Little Brown in October of 2018, and runs 50 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This is basically a short recap of the first book, written in second person (you), and addressing Taryn’s twin sister Jude. It features Black’s lyrical style and flow, and investigates the cruel interpersonal relations that go on between the Folk of Faerie and the mortal Taryn and her sister. There is also some introductory commentary about traditional fairy tales and how they discriminate against women in the realms of power.

Clearly this was meant as a marketing tool for the next installment of the main series, but it may have also been meant to give life to Taryn’s character—the first person structure of the Folk of the Air trilogy means we always see others from Jude’s perspective, and the other characters remain a little flat. However, if this was the purpose, it didn’t work very well. This ends up sounding mostly like an apology from Taryn for bowing to circumstances and not being there for her sister when Jude tries to fight back. In this narrative, Taryn comes off like a whiny victim who never manages to take control of her own life, falls for a clearly duplicitous guy, makes a poor marriage, and then constantly apologizes for being what she is. Part of Black’s intent may be to set up Taryn as Jude’s foil just to illustrate the contrast between the fighter and the victim mentality. Neither of the two is particularly likable, and neither is completely successful in trying to deal with the system. However, the idea that the characters (twins) might be laying out two paths for the same person is interesting.

Besides this, I have to hand it to Black for taking on the issue of submission. A big chunk of media these days is pushing girls to take charge, but nobody is presenting the real-world challenges. We’re seeing some of it here. Jude fights her way to the top, but struggles because she hasn’t the skills to make alliances and wield power. Meanwhile, Taryn tries to blend and take a traditional role, but then turns out to be boring to a dismissive, two-faced husband.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

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The Queen of Nothing is the third novel in the Folk of the Air series, preceded by The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King to complete a three-novel set. The Queen of Nothing was published by Little Brown in November of 2019, and runs 320 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Jude had been banished by the High King to the mortal world for her murder of Prince Balekin. She is living with her sister Vivi, Vivi’s girlfriend Heather and her brother Oak in Heather’s apartment, and makes money to help with the rent by hiring out as an errand-girl for a local faery. She accepts a job and ends up fighting a duel with Grima Mog, Redcap general of the Court of Teeth, who then reveals a plot to dethrone the King of Elfhame. Soon after, Jude’s twin sister Taryn arrives. She reveals she has killed her husband Locke, and she wants Jude to stand in for her at the inquest so she can use her resistance to glamour in order to lie. Jude agrees, and disguised as Taryn, she re-enters Elfhame. The inquest seems to go well until Nicasea insists Taryn be searched for a charm, and King Carden offers to examine Taryn himself. Once they are alone, he reveals he knows who she is. Madoc attacks the palace, attempting to rescue Taryn, and captures Jude. She wakes in Madoc’s war camp, where she continues to pretend she is Taryn and learns about the plot to remove the High King. When Madoc’s forces arrive at the palace to capture the crown, Carden destroys it and then turns into a monstrous serpent that defiles anything it touches. Is there anything Jude can do to save the kingdom and claim her rights as Queen of Elfhame?

My first impulse that this is an allegory for high school turns out to be correct. Jude and Taryn are Average Kids trying to enter a clique of the Right People. Nicisea is the Mean Girl, Locke is the Gamer, and Carden is the abused child who grows up to be a monster that Jude tries to salvage. Jude continues to fight her way through everything, while her twin Taryn tries to blend. At the end, everybody ends up getting pizza together at the local shop. On top of this, author Black spins the surface story of Faerie and the scheming around succession to the throne. In general this works well, and the story manages to be entertaining on both levels. It continues the theme of fighting for power versus submission to the system, and Jude continues to fail in her struggle to deal with a powerful position. Black’s trademark style is fairly lyrical and this is strongly plotted, if a little abrupt sometimes and short on transitions.

On the less positive side, the surface story seems to be wearing a little thin toward the finale as the allegory starts pulling the strings. Jude constantly overestimates her abilities, takes on more than she can handle and then despairs—after a while, she ought to know better. Maybe the constant murders are an allegory for “cutting people dead,” but the high attrition rate continues to be worrisome. Also, it would be nice if Jude and Carden would just talk. A little bit of communication would go a long way in resolving the issues between them. Instead, Jude remains defensive and suspicious, refusing to recognize that it’s about anything but Jude. As far as I can tell, she never grows much as a person, always grandstanding solo rather than taking the reins of power and working within the structure that should be in place to defend the king and the kingdom. I’m wondering why so much space is used up by descriptions of women’s gowns, and also why everyone uses just swords and knives. Maybe there’s some magic in Faerie that prevents the use of firearms, but in the mortal world, why does Jude still show up for a fight with just a knife? There are other ways, dear.

This is a good story, regardless of the niggles. Highly recommended for young adult.

Four stars.

Review of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I reviewed The Wicked King, second in this Folk of the Air series, which won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019, but thought it would probably help if I’d read the first book in the series, too. The Queen of Nothing completes the three-novel set. This novel was published by Little Brown in 2018, and runs 385 pages. Apparently it was optioned for a film in 2017. This review contains spoilers.

Jude’s mother was a mortal married to Madoc, a general of the High King of Faerie. She had one daughter Vivienne with him, and then ran away with a human artisan to the human world, where they had two more daughters. Madoc followed them, killed Jude’s mortal parents and spirited the girls away to raise with his new wife and son Oak. At seventeen, Jude wants desperately to fit in, but she is tortured by the young fay of her social circle, especially the cruel Prince Cardan, youngest son of the High King. Although her twin sister Taryn yields to the abuse and finds a place, Jude remains defiant, determined to win some kind of power to make her tormentors sorry. She schemes and intrigues, allying with Prince Dain, who is expected to succeed the High King, but then the coronation goes wrong, leaving the kingdom on the verge of civil war. Can she come up with a plan to save her family and make peace in the kingdom?

This is a pretty awesome intrigue, strongly suggesting the author had a tough time in high school. The story starts off with a bullying episode and gets successively more gripping as it goes along. Nothing and no one is what they seem, and all the characters are gray, rather than black and white. The Faerie are all cruel and hungry, but they love each other, too, and they fear loss. The characters take on dimension slowly as the tale progresses, as Jude fights her way through the love, hate and ambition, trying at first to achieve something for herself, and then once things go wrong, to save the people she loves. The Faerie kingdom and its rules are well-laid out, and now and then Jude slips back into the mortal world with her fay sister Vivi to shop at Target.

It’s hard to find anything really wrong with this. Considering the setting, I did start to suspect the characters were two-sided early on, so it wasn’t really a surprise when they showed a different face. One questionable issue here is what Jude is turning into—maybe becoming just as cruel, evil and calculating as the fay? She’s been cursed, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.

Five stars.

I’m going on to review the Queen of Nothing. If you’d like to read my review of The Wicked King, here’s a link to it.

Economic Analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries

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This won’t be anything scholarly, but I’ll try to hit the high points. I don’t mean to pick on Martha Wells, in particular. I love the Murderbot Diaries, and generally the economic system has been vague enough to get by. However, after a few installments, it’s now specific enough to get a grip on.

First, the Corporate Rim is a fairly standard instance of unregulated capitalism. It’s unclear where the government is that should be regulating it, or even if there is such a government—maybe there’s only a network of local administrations and a civil court system. If so, this is a case of imperialist might-makes-right, and it’s no wonder everybody has to hire muscle to carry out simple planetary surveys. The corporations indenture workers on labor contracts where they do get paid, but also have to pay the companies for board and health care, meaning they won’t have much at the end of the contract. In addition, the corporates buy and sell planets, kill off inconvenient competitors, ignore laws about interdicted areas, enslave human-machine hybrids, and are irresponsible with terraforming operations and seeding of colonists. Apparently there’s also a lot of damage from production like mining operations that the companies expect to abandon. This sounds very workable, but it’s also clear that it’s not the most optimal system.

Preservation is an independent freehold planet. The colonists were originally seeded on another planet where the terraforming was ineffective, so they were starving. They were rescued by a colony ship that stored them in the hold and brought them to Preservation. The colonists then rebuilt the ship into a wormhole port station. It’s unclear who operated the ship or how they got title to the planet, but the story suggests this was a rescue operation rather than a business deal–maybe someone looking for colonists to populate their private planet. According to Murderbot, the planet works on a barter system but the station works on hard currency cards in order to interface with systems that travelers come in from. Farms on the planet are operated by family groups, and everyone seems to be prosperous, though we have no information on how this works. (Does the government own the farms? Where are the farm workers? Do they use bots for the dirty work? Does everyone take a turn in the fields?) The government doesn’t seem to lack for funds. Commerce is low key and many things seem to be provided free of charge, including traveler lodging on the station. It appears that public servants volunteer their time, and are required to continue their normal occupations at the same time. This is why Mensah is the planetary leader and also working as lead on a planetary survey. Presumably she also has duties on the family farm, though we never see her working there, only on the survey and the station.

Okay, so I have some questions about how this system works. The main one is how family-operated farms and a barter system can generate enough wealth to build and maintain a wormhole station and operate a fleet of ships that is available for surveys and rescue missions. This sounds Bronze Age pastoral. The barter system means they will trade chickens for medical care, and it will take a lot of chickens and cows to buy a spaceship. Pin Lee is a lawyer and Ratthi is a biologist. Do they get paid with tomatoes and squash? Do they work on farms in addition to this? Does Preservation have manufacturing capabilities? How does that work on a barter system? They’ve bought an option on another planet and are considering further investment. What are they planning to do with it? Where did they get the funds? Plus Mensah has plenty of cash on hand to pay off the Company for bonds and to buy one of their SecUnits. Presumably this is government funds she’s using. Therefore Preservation must grow, mine or manufacture something of considerable trade value with the Corporation Rim in order to have this kind of budget. It can’t be generated from a farm and barter economy without a currency to store value. That just won’t work.

Review of Network Effect by Martha Wells

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This is the hugely hyped sequel to the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, a full-length novel at 346 pages. It was released by Tor/Macmillan on 5 May 2020 and immediately went to #3 on the NYT Bestseller list. It looks like another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6), is scheduled for release 27 April 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot has contracted with Dr. Arada to provide security for her planetary marine survey. Just as they’re finishing up, they’re attacked by raiders, but MB holds them off and the research module takes off safely and docks with the orbiting baseship. They return to Preservation space, but as soon as they exit the wormhole, they’re attacked by another ship that tries to dock with the module. The baseship jettisons the module and escapes, and Arada, Overse, Ratthi and Thiago launch in the safepod, but MB and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena are caught by the attacking ship. Once within scanning distance, MB realizes the ship is ART (a.k.a. Perihelion), a university research vessel which helped it change its configuration and deal with things at Ganaka Pit in Artificial Condition. Clearly something bad has happened. ART is missing in action and the ship is being run by highly divergent humans who have installed their own operating system. MB wipes them out and destroys the new system, then reinstalls ART from a hidden file. The safepod has attached to the outside of the ship and gone through the wormhole with them, so the survey crew comes on board. Also onboard are two Barish-Estranza corporates, Ras and Eletra, who have crude implants that seem to allow external control. The ship has emerged into a system Eletra recognizes. Barish-Estranza has recently bought the planet and means to indenture the colonists, but the place is contaminated by alien remnants so two Barish-Estranza ships and ART, on a mission to liberate the colonists, were contaminated and taken over by an expanding hive mind. ART needed help, so it made up a plan to kidnap MB in Preservation space. Ras suddenly goes crazy and then dies, but they contact the Barish-Stranza main ship and transfer Eletra. Then they all look at the issue of how to find and rescue ART’s crew. Can it be done?

This has a lot of great points. It’s strongly plotted. The main characters are already established and it moves right along, revealing somewhat more about the characters, the corporate culture of the Rim and the adversarial free-hold planets. The counter play between ART and MB is entertaining. There are a couple of personal glimpses that are memorable and strongly dramatic. The final solution for defeating the hive mind is also creative. From all early reviews, this will be well received by fans.

On the not so positive side, this is probably the result of contracting to write a novel within a certain time limit and then getting too much advice on how to write it. I notice one early reviewer complained about pacing issues, but there are also problems with uneven characterization and questionable plot directions. Plus, this has ventured into subversive politics that some people won’t like (see Anders recent take on that). One cause of the problems is that there is a novella’s worth of material that’s missing from between Exit Strategy and this novel. Wells has folded some of it into interludes within the novel, but some of it is still just missing. The next problem is that this is stuffed too full of action when it should have been spread out over more novels/novellas. We start at the end of Arada’s survey, and MB is already upset and angry, something that’s unusual for it, which continues throughout. Thiago is either an idiot grand-stander, or else he and Arada have had a conflict about leadership through the whole survey mission. This is not clarified, and Thiago remains erratic and undefined. From this early emergency state, we continue right on into more emergencies, which ups the action/tension ante, but prevents the excellent story development and interpersonal conflicts that were characteristic of the novellas. There’s also very little additional character development for Arada and Overse, and hardly any at all for ART’s crew, clearly its major priority.

The wonderful, subtle, emerging quality about MB and ART is gone for this novel, and both characters act more human than not, just another one of the crew, haha. In the end, MB ends up failing dismally to rescue anybody, and has to be rescued itself. And then the politics: ART turns out to be only disguised as a research vessel. Its crew is traveling to planets controlled by corporate interests and trying to liberate the colonists by falsifying documents and then fighting in court about it. Regardless of abuses, falsifying documents is illegal, unethical, lowlife and pretty certain to provoke retaliation. This is not discussed. Plus, given the corporate responses we’ve seen, any organization that did this would need heavy security, heavy backing and really deep pockets. Also, if they’re not doing astronomical research, then why do they need an expensive AI like ART to run the ship? MB’s friends immediately support this activity, also questionable, as they should have learned their lesson from recent brushes with GrayCris and its ally Palisade. I’m also still wondering about the economic base of the freehold planets like Preservation. Where are they getting all this money to burn? Mensah shows up in a ship to rescue everybody, but what gives her the authority if she’s supposedly resigned as planetary leader? Is she somehow wealthy enough to pay for her own ship? And last, the corporates are fighting over this planet, even though it’s clearly contaminated by alien remnants. Isn’t it interdicted because of that? What gives?

I’m especially concerned about the issue here of promoting illegal and unethical actions to young readers as something their beloved characters support. Or even older readers, for that matter. It’s easy to slip into moral relativism and assume anything is okay as long as it’s done with good intentions. That’s really not so.

Two and a half stars.

Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Shameless Self Promotion (Somewhat Delayed)

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I need to take a moment here to squeeze in some self-promotion. I listed some story sales last fall, and the online sales appeared right away, but one of these got the full treatment as a high quality paperback/ebook anthology. This is Afromyth, Volume 2, collected by bestselling writer N.D. Jones, edited by J.S. Emuakpor, and published in March 2020 by Afrocentric Books. It’s available from booksellers online and at least by order from your favorite brick and mortar bookstore. My story is novelette length, about demons in modern Africa. It’s titled “The Investor.”

This looks like a great read. If you haven’t already, please support Afrocentric Books (and me!) through buying a copy. If you can do a review on your website or on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be great, too. Thanks to all!

Afromyth2

Review of Marque of Caine by Charles E. Gannon

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is Book #5 of the Caine Riordan series, was published 2 July 2019 by Baen and runs 561 pages. Three other novels in the series, Raising Caine, Trial by Fire and Fire with Fire, were also Nebula finalists. This review contains spoilers.

In the two years since Caine Riordan was relieved of his command, he’s been establishing a relationship with his son Connor. Now there’s an attempt on his life that breaks his cover. About the same time, he receives an invitation from the Dornaani, who have Connor’s mother Elena Corcoran somewhere in their advanced medical facilities. Riordan arranges to escape an investigation and answer their summons, but is disappointed to find there are hurdles to finding Elena. The Dornaani are lost in virtual reality, their society seems to be crumbling, and they have lost track of Elena’s cryocell. As Riordan searches for her, he uncovers an apparent plot against both the Dornaani Custodians and the Earth. Is there anything he can do?

What stands out here is the message about virtual reality. The Dornaani are an ancient and accomplished civilization, but they’ve lost a lot of knowledge and have ended up relying on copies of the Elders’ science and technology. They started off providing virtual reality as solace for the infirm, but use of the technology has spread until more and more of their population is now wired into make-believe worlds, while the cities decay, populated by only fairly low level maintenance mechanisms. At the other extreme, a back-to-nature group tries to increase the evolutionary strength of their race through natural selection. There’s an emotional element with the presence of Elena and her son, and also some hands-on sequences that will be gratifying for techies.

Many of these characters are well-established, and not having read the rest of the series leaves me at a disadvantage as far as the background goes. There were enough references that I sketched in some of the series arc, but a lot of it remains obscure. However, what’s here seems disjointed. It starts off well with the father/son bonding and the threat to hearth and home, but once Riordan is with the Dornaani, there’s a long, slow stretch where he plays apparently useless mind games with the aliens. A virtual reality experience takes us to a brief stint in an alternate London, and then Riordan gets some of his command back together at the end, setting us up for the next novel in the series. Riordan seems too gullible here, and I would have preferred more conflict.

Three stars.

This is the last of my 2019 Nebula finalist reviews, coming in just under the wire–the voting period closes tomorrow. I’ve previously reviewed the remaining two of the finalists. You can find This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga) here and Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan (Tor.com Publishing) here.

Review of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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This dark fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 10 September 2019 by Tor.com and runs 437 pages. This is Book #1 of The Locked Tomb Trilogy. The second installment, Harrow the Ninth, is scheduled for release in June of 2020, to be followed by the third, Alecto the Ninth. This review contains spoilers.

The God Emperor has the need of new Lyctors for his service. As a result, he has called on each of the Nine Houses to send a necromancer heir with their cavalier to the First House for evaluation. The decrepit Ninth House that guards the Tomb only has one necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and no available cavalier, so they draft the only possible candidate, Gideon the Ninth. She was a foundling that somehow survived a pestilence that killed all the other children of her generation before Harrowhark was born, and the two hate each other’s guts. Harrowhark swears Gideon to silence to keep her mouth shut, provides her with appropriate black robes and skull face paint, and they arrive at the First House as expected, along with the other candidates. Gideon has no experience outside the decaying Ninth, but she starts to make tentative friends. There are no instructions on what they’re to do. Harrowhark thinks it’s a matter of research through the forgotten labs of the First House to learn talents and abilities that make one a Lyctor, but maybe it’s a competition instead, as some of the candidates start to die in horrific ways. As the field of candidates narrows, Gideon and Harrowhark start to wonder why anyone would want to be a Lyctor anyhow. Is there a way to avoid it?

This is absolutely brilliant as far as style, world-building, plotting and characterization go. The story has a science-fictional setting, as the Nine Houses circle the sun Dominicus, and are presumably planets or space habitats. The Ninth House is furthest from the sun, darkest and coldest. The God Emperor sealed the Tomb there and apparently thought the caretakers he left behind would die off, but instead they have managed to maintain a small, desperate population. It took a huge magical sacrifice to produce the brilliant Harrrowhark, which leaves her warped and burdened by guilt that spills over on Gideon. Otherwise, this is basically a mystery plot, with a final twist ending as the path to Lyctorhood is revealed. Muir credits Lissa Harris for the sword work, which stands out for detail and authenticity.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering where Gideon gets her porn magazines if Ninth is so desolate. Also, I expect the author watches a lot of horror flics, as the imagery has the feel of slightly cliché special effects. The array of characters is also somewhat stereotypical, and as a long time mystery reader, I didn’t have much trouble picking out the perp—she was just too sweet. I didn’t see the twist coming, though.

Five stars.

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